Filler Going Out With Style

Sibylle Acatos Performs Her Final Pas De Deux In Ballet Arizona's 'The Masters.'
By Mari Wadsworth 

FROM THE ZURICH Ballet to Phoenix-based Ballet Arizona, dancer Sibylle Acatos' career has taken some unexpected turns. Not only has she danced solo roles in works by George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian and Jerome Robbins, but she's had the pleasure of working side by side with some of the dance world's giants, particularly during her 10-year stint with the Zurich Ballet under the leadership of Patricia Neary and George Balanchine.

Russian-born Balanchine, who came to the United States in 1933 to co-found the American School of Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein, had taken leave from his post as artistic director for the New York City Ballet to serve as artistic supervisor for the Ballet du Grand Thèâtre de Genève. It was during this fortuitous period, in 1976, that Acatos made her professional debut in her native Switzerland.

"When I first did the audition, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't really know who he was. He was 'Mr. B'--that's what everybody called him--it was his little name, like 'James Bond.' (His style) was new, but I learned very fast. Once I knew his work, that was all I really wanted to do."

Having been trained in the conventional Russian style, like Balanchine, Acatos was particularly inspired by her mentor's "exciting new approach."

"Balanchine came from the same school," she explains, "but he took it a step further. Where a hip is to stay completely straight, as in an arabesque, he would extend the line and push the hip out. Little things like this. His movement with timing and space was innovative. You can see music actually moving in his work. The speed was incredible--everything either very fast or very slow. That was new."

Acatos worked under Balanchine and director Patricia Neary for 10 years, moving from Geneva to the Zurich Ballet. It was there she met the legendary Rudolph Nureyev, who'd come to Zurich to freelance. "From 1981 to 1983 he danced with us on and off," Acatos recalls. "We did Don Quixote and Manfred." Just before the company was ready to go on an American tour, the lead dancer in Manfred got pregnant, and Acatos, then 25 years old, was offered the part. "I was starting to get solo work, starting to get promoted, but that definitely made me jump ahead."

Nureyev, who was the first Russian dancer to defect (back in 1960-61), was the "god of dance" at the time. "His leaps and his stage presence were incredible," says Acatos. "At the time, male dancing was mostly behind, holding the lady, nothing too much. Rudolph Nureyev brought the dance back to male dancing.

"I had to audition for him to make sure I was OK. It was very nerve wracking. But he just said (very low-key), 'OK, it's fine.' " It was her first American tour, and she calls the performances in Chicago and New York's Kennedy Center the highlight of her career. "He died recently, while director at the Paris Opera," she adds quietly.

Image Acatos, who will be 39 this month, ends her 20-year performing career at the performance this weekend at the PCC West Campus Proscenium Theatre. "It's always hard to come to this decision," she says, citing a stress-fracture four years ago as her "wake-up call."

"...but I couldn't choose a better program to go out with. You would not see all these ballets together (both modern and classical), not even in New York. It's very rare...and we're proud to present that.

Acatos' final pas de deux is called "Unstill Life," a piece created for her by artistic director Michael Uthoff. It's based on a poem from Pablo Neruda's anthology Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song, called "I can write the saddest verses tonight...." Set to music by Gustav Mahler, the piece is an emotional story about lost love, which Acatos performs with Mariano Albano.

"(The story) is kind of the end of one thing but the start of something else, so it really represents what is happening to me," says Acatos, thinking of her transition to teaching at the School of Ballet Arizona with director Kee-Juan Han.

But the body of the program, aptly titled The Masters, includes three world-class ballets by Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Antony Tudor. Serenade is a hauntingly beautiful ensemble work characterized by sweeping movements and ever-shifting patterns, performed to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade in C for Strings." Choreographed in 1934 as a vehicle for his students, this time-honored Balanchine ballet has since been dubbed "the quintessential classical work of the 20th century" and "a milestone in the history of dance."

It was also one of the first ballets Acatos performed professionally back in Switzerland, a fact she says "is just another element that makes the cycle complete" for her.

Paul Taylor's energetic Esplanade adds contemporary flair, with a modern interpretation of Bach's "Double Violin Concerto" which builds into what The New York Times describes as "heart-stopping cross-stage leaps and catches and fearless, bone-crunching falls, all in one coursing stream of movement." Performed in Tucson earlier this year, this seminal work by America's greatest living choreographer is not to be missed. Rounding out the program is Jardin aux Lilas (The Lilac Garden), a tragedy of manners coupled with a score by Ernest Chausson, choreographed by the late Antony Tudor in 1936. A masterpiece of human drama expressed through movement, The Lilac Garden is arguably Tudor's finest, replete with trademark intensity and his tender portrayal of ill-fated love.

"Ballet Arizona has come a long way," she says of the company's 10th anniversary, "and I feel good to be leaving now...what better way than to go out with a big bang, with such a program, with the company only going up...."

Ballet Arizona's The Masters, a trio of classical and contemporary works, begins at 7:30 p.m. March 8 and 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets range from $16 to $26, available at Dillard's or by calling the Ballet Arizona box office at 882-5022. TW

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