His partner here was Melissa Toogood, who danced with Cunningham’s company from 2007 to 2011, its final five years. Mr. Cornejo, bringing exceptional spring to his jumps, seemed to relish its slow falls off balance and upper-body complexities, too. The intricacy of each dance phrase became newly fascinating. Ms. Toogood — luscious, sharp, powerful — displayed all her role’s physical self-contradictions. Best of all, both of them kept everything suspenseful; the duet seemed far too short. Adventures of this kind are what has made Vail legendary in today’s dance world.
These two evenings, presented in the open-air Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, demonstrate an even larger achievement. The festival, running through Saturday, shows every stage of a dancer’s career. Stars are merely one part of it. Friday began, as has often happened in previous years, with dozens of children moving in elaborate formations in a “Celebrate the Beat” number. (This time their ensemble was joined by the master clown Bill Irwin.)
And each year, some of the most remarkable Vail performances come from junior dancers. Roman Mejia, who graduated from the School of American Ballet in June, is still only 17; later this month he starts as an apprentice at New York City Ballet. On Friday night, however, he became a name on many Vail lips as he danced Edward Villella’s exuberant role in Balanchine’s 1964 “Tarantella” pas de deux. On Saturday, creating a role in the world premiere of Matthew Neenan’s “Farewell” (to Leonard Bernstein music), he did an unanticipated multiple pirouette of bewildering velocity before bouncing blithely into brilliant jumps.
Mr. Mejia is already a character — he has sweetness, attack, elevation, courtesy, all to a high degree — as well as a technician. It’s wonderful to see him given these important breaks so soon in his career.
Likewise Unity Phelan, a City Ballet dancer of startling watch-me allure, danced on Friday the pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Agon” with the coolly authoritative Calvin Royal III of Ballet Theater. (Both of them have recently become soloists in their companies.) On Saturday she — febrile, vulnerable, decisive — performed the “Liberty Bell” pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” with Cory Stearns, an established Ballet Theater principal. She delivered its witty eccentricities with glowing elegance; Mr. Stearns, gorgeously understated throughout, wound up one multiple turn with a marvelously slow final revolution that ended as if hovering.
Making Vail debuts were two appealing and bright-eyed young luminaries of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé. On Saturday, while a near-full moon shone above the pine-clad peaks behind the outdoor stage, they brought all the right headlong rapture to the balcony scene from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”; on Friday, they danced a short suite of richly fragrant dances from Frederick Ashton’s pure-dance “Rhapsody.” Mr. Sambé is a lovable little powerhouse; Ms. Hayward has the ballerina’s secret of seeming to take the audience into her heart.
Most music was live. The pianists Cameron Grant and Kurt Crowley, the singer Kate Davis, the Brooklyn Rider string quartet and the guitarist Gabe Schnider made it all sound newly minted. Michelle Dorrance, this year’s artist in residence, makes her own music as she taps, tough and delicious. Throughout “8000 Feet on the Ground,” her solo improvisation on Saturday, she superbly changed meter and dynamics. Whenever the audience applauded one of her feats, she coolly changed tack.
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