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Ballet Bellevue Breaks New Ground with Messiah

Written by Laurel Dix

Rehearsal photo from Messiah.
Photo by Adam Russell
For those looking for a palate cleanser from the requisite December spate of sugary productions like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, Ballet Bellevue has a show that will do the trick. The company’s world premiere presentation of Handel’s MessiahOpera-Ballet, performed in conjunction with the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra and Master Chorus Eastside, is a delight that will run December 28–30 at the Meydenbauer Center.

The collaborative efforts of the three ensembles, though at times overly ambitious, make for a refreshing, unique production that is full of surprises and suitable for all ages. At the core, the work offers a new perspective on Handel’s eponymous creation and extends the reverent symbolism of Christmas time even after the holiday has passed.

Choreographer Sayoko Knode, a Bellevue native who now performs with Idaho Dance Theater, has created challenging and kaleidoscopic pieces to accompany the sung sacred Christian text. Her style reflects a melange of influences, with patterns that are distinctly Balanchinean in complexity yet feature angular port de bras more reminiscent of a contemporary artist like Jiří Kylián.

As the onstage chorus and four superb vocal soloists recounted the birth, passion, and ascension of the Messiah, Ballet Bellevue’s dancers wove in and out of their midst, sometimes acting out literal representation of the text, and other times conveying an abstract meditation on the words. Handel’s score has plenty to work with, yet almost too much. The orchestra never quite reached the breadth of sound it needed, and the choreography was so wide-ranging in style from section to section that the whole lacked a unified power.

There were still many lovely moments to celebrate in the staging, however. It was a consistent delight to see how the dancers incorporated myriad costumes into the movement, whether in the opening tableaux of soft skirts that became angel wings or the snap of fabric in châiné turns that taunted the sprawled Messiah (a benevolent, mournful Daniel Arteaga). Elizabeth Belyea, as Mary, had fluid delicacy in all of her sections. She and corps de ballet member Hosanna Tolman both radiated joy and ascribed purpose to each step, from frequent sweeping fouettés to grounded, complex footwork and its inverted passésor flexed feet.

Where feet were concerned, Amanda Goodwin’s needlepoint precision particularly captivated in the “How beautiful are the feet” aria, which used a clean strip of light to pull the audience’s focus to all of the dancers’ lower limbs. Her lightness perfectly matched Leslie Marks’ assured voice. “Surely he hath borne our griefs” also stood out in its simple, sculptural layering, where a line of grieving women held deep pliés like slowly melting candles.

Ballet Bellevue dancers
rehearsing for Messiah.
Photo by Adam Russell
Knode has a capable eye for onstage architecture, adeptly positioning singers and dancers so that, in chamber sections, the four vocal soloists nearly seemed to be speaking forth the dancing. Her choreography braided large, circling corps sections into asymmetrical groupings that swiftly reassembled like origami. Intimate pas de deux managed to seem expansive though taking up little stage space, such as in a tender, supple section with Julie Ortiz and Philip Borunda.

With the third act, some of the concepts unraveled slightly. Layers of partnering overwhelmed Handel’s relatively straightforward score, but the final “Worthy is the lamb” pulled the ensemble together nicely in an exuberant, arabesque-filled celebration of the Messiah’s reign.

Highlighted by jewel-toned lighting and a gorgeous cornucopia of costumes, Ballet Bellevue’s dancers visually sustain the familiar choral passages of Messiah and earnestly explore the symbolism of the Christmas season. Much like a tree full of ornaments, the opera-ballet has something for every taste, from solemnity to humor, classical ballet to a hint at breakdancing.

The practical scope of the project falters occasionally, but the performers’ spirit is clear and a warm sense of community pervades the production. Bellevue and Seattle residents looking for more to celebrate this season should find spark in this interpretation of the Messiah, which draws three Eastside arts organizations together for an engaging, wholehearted evening that uses sight and sound to communicate a sacred story.