Lourdes Lopez, the artistic director of Miami City Ballet, proved that dancers don’t just speak with their bodies. Articulate and insightful, Lopez moderated a tribute evening to the great Jerome Robbins, for whom she once danced at the New York City Ballet, and who, she said, “changed the course of dance and musical theater.” Lordez now follows in her mentor’s footsteps and attempts to do what he did so masterfully: “take the empty volume of a studio or stage and put movement into it and see what happens.”

In offering context and some of the historical and artistic nuance behind three of the choreographer’s master works — “Afternoon of a Faun” (1953); “Other Dances” (1976) and “In the Night” (1970) — Lordez illustrated how Robbins used dance to extract “the human truth out of any situation.”

After her comments, the audience watched archival film clips of Robbins rehearsing the selected pas de deux before getting to the evening’s real nuggets: a performance of each piece, accompanied by live orchestra (Debussey’s score for Faun) and piano (Chopin, a favorite of Robbins’). New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and principal dancer Chase Finlay were a stunning sensual pair in “Afternoon of a Faun,” and Miami City Ballet dancers, whose company will take the stage for the rest of Spoleto’s ballet centerpiece performances, starred in the next deux pas de deux.

The evening was not only a celebration of Robbins’ contributions to the world of dance during his centennial year, but to his long connections with the Spoleto Festival. Part dance appreciation 101 and part sumptuous movement, there was much to learn and much to savor and celebrate. The format generally worked, although it may have lacked some of the razzmatazz more typical for Festival opening night performances.

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