At first glance, the 28 members of Tulsa Ballet seemed to vanish, chameleon-like, into their roles when they performed last August at New York City’s Joyce Theater. Had principal Karina Gonzalez, so jaunty in Kenneth MacMillan’s fizzy Elite Syncopations, been swallowed up by her billowing Renaissance costume for Nacho Duato’s somber contemporary ballet Por Vos Muero? She and her colleagues dove into each new role with zeal, clear technique and an uncanny ability to move seamlessly from character to character.
To admirers, these company strengths have long been apparent. Tulsa Ballet has transformed over the last 15 years from a small regional company into one that has earned international acclaim. Its repertoire includes both classical and cutting-edge work. Its dancers hail from 14 countries, creating a mix that mirrors the eclectic career of the company’s artistic director, Italian-born Marcello Angelini. A dancer who studied in Kiev and was a principal with Deutsche Oper Berlin, the UK’s Northern Ballet Theater and Les Grand Ballets Canadiens, Angelini became Tulsa’s artistic director in 1995. “I danced all over the world,” he says. “Being exposed to so many different choreographers and so much choreography gave me a more global vision.”
His company has benefited from it. Recent tours include the Belgrade Festival in 2007 and the Seoul International Dance Expo in 2008. In fact, the company is better known abroad than in the U.S., and Angelini periodically scouts dancers in overseas countries, including Italy and Brazil. While Tulsa dancers need solid technique and good lines, they don’t fit a mold. Instead, Angelini prizes personality. “I fell asleep one night during a performance by a Russian company,” he says. “The dancing was impeccable but the message was lost in technique.” Angelini’s auditions usually demand some risk-taking. If a dancer lacks athletic physicality, he pushes them to be more grounded. If they tend to move small, he encourages them to dance bigger and with more emphasis. “I love dancers who challenge themselves. Dancers who want to be safe in their box I tend not to love,” he says. “Versatility is not only a physical and technical talent but an emotional talent.”
Since he came, Angelini has been instrumental in building an in-house theater and a new wing for the company school and has commissioned 20 new works. He is proud that the company’s annual budget has grown from $1.5 million to $5.5 million. And he’s got impressive projects lined up for the future: 2010 will see a new Edwaard Liang piece, among other working choreographers.
While Angelini also plans to continue forging Tulsa’s international status, he’s looking homeward as well. The Joyce program and the 2010 Ballet Across America Festival at the Kennedy Center are part of his design to step up Tulsa’s domestic presence. “At this point,” Angelini explains, “the main focus for me is going to be trying to take the company more national than international.” And with a troupe that he envisions as small but mighty, always “vibrant on stage, alive and full of different personalities,” that sounds almost like a fait accompli.
Susan Chitwood is a contributor to Pointe.