Maine State Ballet opened a four-day premiere run of its ballet, “The Poet’s Love” on Friday evening. Artistic director Linda MacArthur Miele choreographed the piece especially to be danced with the singing of baritone Aaron Engebreth, an operatic soloist from Portland.
“The Poet’s Love” (“Dichterliebe” in the original German) is a song cycle composed by Robert Schumann to poetry by Heinrich Heine. The 16 poems, sung in German, tell a story of love and loss, of anguish and anger, of despair and, in the end, the possibility of hope.
The performance was, quite simply, breathtaking. Miele has created one of those rare ballets that seem so integral to the music that they must be illustrating what was in the composer’s mind during composition.
Engebreth’s singing, with Alison d’Amato on piano, was beautiful and heartfelt. His voice has a wonderful purity, and his expressiveness, both vocally and physically, was perfectly suited to the ballet, subtly amplifying the emotional portrayal on stage without distracting from or overwhelming it.
Miele has illustrated the poems in emotional, although not literal, terms. The central character, danced by Glenn Davis, watched couples dancing and reached out for them as if hoping to capture the relationships that they have.
Michael Holden and Nathaniel Dombek wore costumes that echoed Davis’s own, suggesting his vision of himself and his lover in the couples. Their partners, Elizabeth Dragoni and Kate Hamilton, wore romantic dresses suggestive of Schumann’s era.
A third woman, Janet Davis, was dressed in a white version of the other dresses, giving her a dreamlike aura. She and Glenn Davis performed a recurrent duet, but she was taken by Frederick Bernier, in shadowy black.
Glenn Davis carried the ballet with a powerful stage presence and emotional depth. His longings were palpable, portrayed most fluently through the movement of his upper body.
He and Engebreth interacted now and then, looking at one another at pivotal moments from their positions on stage and just off stage. At one point, Davis even gave a slight bow to Engebreth, an acknowledgment that dancer and singer were expressing the same thought.
This interaction created an exquisite thread of meaning extending from Heine’s words to Schumann’s music to Engebreth’s voice and Davis’ body, drawn finely by Miele’s choreography.
That choreography is sophisticated enough to seem effortless. Miele’s creative, in-depth choreographic thinking is exemplified in her portrayal of the conflicted partnering among the two Davises and Bernier.
In one poignant sequence, Janet Davis and Bernier were dancing together with their hands clasped in the air. Glenn Davis came between them and supported Janet Davis in a back-bend. Then, Bernier supported her in a similar movement, which Glenn Davis echoed alone.
Before the ballet began, the audience was asked to hold applause until the conclusion, so as not to interfere with the sustained connection between dancers and musicians.
In fact, it would have been difficult to imagine applause; the ballet held the audience rapt. When the curtain was drawn, there seemed to be a collective intake of breath, followed by a roaring standing ovation.
“The Poet’s Love” was performed with two other Miele ballets from Maine State Ballet’s repertoire.
“Souvenir” is a neoclassical work in four movements to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” violin concerto. Performed by the corps de ballet in pale pink skirted leotards, it has a crystalline quality, with interweaving patterns that form and re-form almost imperceptibly. This performance featured beautiful solo work by Janet Davis, Glenn Davis, Hamilton, Dombek, Katie Farwell and Christina Williams.
“Napoli” is a festive confection first created as a pas de deux to highlight the developing, personality-rich talents of Elizabeth Dragoni and Michael Holden. For this presentation, Miele has framed the pas de deux with an opening piece and closing tarantella for a young corps de ballet, who performed with precision and vivacity.
Dragoni and Holden danced with their usual panache, with bright pointework and turns from Dragoni and impressive feats by Holden including a circle of inventive leap turns. A fun moment came toward the end of the tarantella, when the corps dancers hit their tambourines on the beat of each spin in his multiple pirouette.
The performance will be repeated Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer who lives in Saco.