Master Class with Herman Cornejo

24 Sep

Indianapolis is a city in a rather unique situation—the Indianapolis City Ballet is actually trying to establish a regional classical ballet company, which contradicts certain images we harbor of dance companies struggling, making cuts, or folding altogether. In this world where the arts are constantly under attack there seem to be more forces that destroy rather than create, and yet here in the Midwest, a little seed is trying to take root in a land often depicted as far more agricultural than cultured (P.S. Stop that.). And yet it’s here that people are trying—so much so that even non-dancer friends of mine in Indy have taken notice of ICB’s efforts to make their presence known at arts festivals and such. ICB has founded a school, is now looking to develop an audience and I find the prospects exciting—I mean, how often are ballet companies created? It’s like watching the birth of a volcanic island…an obscure but rarefied phenomenon that really begs us to take notice and appreciate the magnitude of what is happening, and just like how a volcanic island can eventually blossom into a tropical paradise, a newly formed ballet company can proliferate into something incredible.

Part of ICB’s efforts include an annual gala that invites internationally acclaimed ballet stars from all over the world, as well as master classes with some of those dancers and other well known teachers. This year, one of the classes was with Herman Cornejo, Argentine dynamo and principal extraordinaire with American Ballet Theatre. Ever since my first pilgrimage to New York in 2012, I’ve seen Herman dance in many roles—and I was never disappointed. In fact, he’s one of the few dancers who have ever exceeded my expectations. I knew him to be great (duh, you don’t get to be a principal with ABT if you aren’t), but watching him live was an experience that can’t be conveyed within the confines of a YouTube screen (though his performance as Puck in the DVD of Ashton’s The Dream comes pretty close to capturing his spirit and it’s well known to be one of his best roles). When I saw him on the list of guest teachers, I figured it’s only a three-hour drive—I’ve done a lot worse—and I like dancers who can do Ashton justice so I figured why not take his class? Okay, and maaaybe, I wanted to make my friend Robin, who’s obsessed with him a little jealous. Or CRAZY jealous…you’ll have to ask her (even though she’s already taken a master class with him in New York, so…we’re even? I don’t know.).

So I signed up, knowing that I’d be the only adult to participate, and the kiddies didn’t disappoint—there were plenty of younglings half my age and less, stretching like rubberbands while I massaged the hell out of my legs after the morning drive. I took a barre spot near the corner, wearing more layers to get warm in all of my senior citizenship glory, slightly horrified by some of the drastic oversplits some of them were doing. When Herman entered the room, he took a few minutes to mark exercises out, which of course set my intellectual gears into motion because while I didn’t have flexible tendons, my brain has always been my asset as a dancer, and I would of course, evaluate what I thought of him as a teacher. Let’s be real, his physique is beautiful for ballet—great line through the legs and feet, nice broad shoulders with good posture. So the question remained—could he teach? The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches and the best dancers not always the best teachers, and I’ve been wary in the past of great dancers who were unable to prove themselves as great pedagogues, so my critical thinking cap was on.

He began with a short warm up facing the barre and went right to tendus in first—at which point I panicked because I thought “where are the pliés?! I need pliés!!!” but those came right after and everything was okay. Actually, everything was great—aside from the slippery floor, which often causes my right calf to have a mind of its own and instinctively develop a charley horse (which I remedied with Tiger Balm, again showing my age as a dancer), Herman gives a comprehensive barre, with nothing crazy, and really stresses correct alignment with square shoulders and hips. “Nothing changes” he would often say, whether you move from fifth to retiré or do a fondu to relevé a la seconde—nothing changes. It reminded me a bit of the Maggie Black philosophies that were filtered down to me through students of hers, to keep the body in neutral alignment and keep things simple. Furthermore, I really appreciated that he respects individual bodies…it would be easy for someone with his physical attributes to say “turn out more, rotate more, stretch more” etc., but he never asked for “more”; he said things like “find your own balance,” which he later explained as important because we all have different things we need to learn to work with—different turnout, leg length, feet, toes, etc. A prime example would be his own feet, which have a superb arch, but he actually trains a super high relevé that goes past the metatarsals because of a freak accident that completely broke his big toe and never healed properly. So bonus points for emphasizing the idea of working with what you have in a way that can be both correct and pain free (and kudos for overcoming that adversity!)

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Herman Cornejo (American Ballet Theatre) with his freakish relevé and Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) at the Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado
Photo © 2012 Erin Baiano

After a brief adagio (something I find to be symptomatic amongst male teachers…not that I mind a short adage), he went through the typical assortment of pirouettes and allegro combinations, all of which were phrased well and quite Romantic, borrowing a few steps from the classical repertory. The first of his petit allegroS (yes, more than one, which gets more bonus points in my book), had a bit of Giselle and Albrecht’s first little romp (which one of my teachers once called “the most notorious 6/8 in the history of ballet), and the second had a bit of James’s first variation from La Sylphide (that wicked brisé volé-ballonné battu-jeté battu thing—I swear, some of the kids went cross-eyed trying to figure that one out, but I loved it). I was having such a great time until grand allegro, which started with my favorite step (the cabriole, the double of which is Herman’s favorite step, but I like mine singular), but then went into double tours of imminent death for the boys. Here’s the thing—I started ballet when I was 23, so I never really properly learned tours en l’air; I can count the number of times on one hand that I ever had teachers give them. They’re simple in theory—jump straight up, spin around two times, land with your feet together, but there’s something about it that my body is so terrified of that I can’t commit to it. Even my singles are wonky because I’m so scared I just want to bail every time, so I settled for doing the preparation into a simple passé relevé and closing in fifth. Kids don’t have this fear—the boys all went for it, but when you’re an adult and you’re not comfortable with a step, it’s okay to say “not yet”—which is far better to do than continue having nightmares about breaking your ankles. Although, I do have to say that Herman pointed out that in the preparation I wasn’t assembling onto two legs, so maybe that’s something I can start with. We’ll see…

Anyway, the class overall was great and for the first master class I’ve ever taken, a hell of a lot of fun. I would’ve preferred repeating the center exercises because we only did them once each (and class still went a little over time!), because Herman gives these great concepts and corrections to think about, like making jumps dynamic and negotiating alignment, but there’s no chance to try it again and really focus on something differently (then again, sometimes I forget that not everyone is the machine that I am). All in all, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in Indy; I went in wanting to learn something new, dance cleanly and artistically, and I feel I did just that. Honestly, most of those kids had no épaulement, so in some ways, I think my maturity showed in a good way. I could’ve been embarrassed about being 29 amongst a bunch of youths and adolescents, but I chose to see it as something great, that this art form can bridge across generations and bring different people with different backgrounds together for a common purpose. And really, I was like the poster child of minority affairs—I was one of only two non-white dancers, by far the oldest, definitely the worst feet, and considering that I’ve only been dancing for about six years, among those with less time in ballet. But I was proud to represent a different kind of dancer and I hope that any other adults reading this get the message that anything—even a master class with one of the best dancers in the world—is possible, and if ballet is something you enjoy, just do it. Nobody laughed at me to my face and dancers like Herman are exemplary in generosity because he just wants to share the information and his knowledge without judgment, so there’s really nothing to be afraid of (until you get to double tours—that’s legitimate fear right there).

Meanwhile, Indianapolis City Ballet did an interview with Herman after class and they typically post those videos so I’d keep an eye out on their website (http://indianapoliscityballet.org), where you can also click on ‘Media Gallery’ to see interviews with previous guest teachers. I mean, if you want to know the secret to double cabrioles or find out why he likes dancing with Iana Salenko…darn it, I guess you’ll have to wait and keep checking their site for updates.

cornejo

Proof this actually happened. Photo © Me

New York City Ballet: Bringing Splendor to Tchaikovsky

9 Jun

To see New York City Ballet with my own eyes this week has been immensely gratifying, but it hasn’t been without reminders of its apparent stagnancy. Last night the company presented four ballets, beginning with Barber Violin Concerto and The Infernal Machine by ballet master in chief Peter Martins, and ending with Allegro Brillante and Tschaikovsky Suite No.3 by George Balanchine. The dichotomy of choreographic talent couldn’t have been more obvious, and raises serious questions in regards to City Ballet’s future; which ballets warrant preservation? Which can be dropped from the repertory?

Even those of us who reside outside of New York have heard the rumblings over Martins’s work. Having never seen any of it, I couldn’t pass judgment until recently. At one time, for Martins to experiment with creating ballets and provide the company with a fair amount of new works was a wonderful thing, but the opportunities came with a responsibility to either fulfill a certain level of proficiency or step aside. Even from seeing only two ballets it’s evident that Martins never had the gift—Barber captures none of the finesse of Samuel Barber’s score and Infernal forces musicality uncomfortably to happen. Neither piece presents a coherent concept nor do they display any knowledge of the choreographic tools. There are of course, many paths towards aptitude; some are born with it, others pursue academic studies, or put themselves through a rigorous process of self-criticism. I’d be surprised if Martins has done any of the above due to his feeble use of space and motif in Barber, which juxtaposed two couples dressed in white, one in more classically styled ballet garb, the other plain, barefoot, and modern, with corresponding ideas in movement. Though principal Megan Fairchild provided some comic relief by harassing her partner like a pesky younger sibling, the humor contributed nothing to the piece as a whole.

Infernal, though completely different with its angsty, punctuated movements for two dancers dressed in black with odd, barely visible colored accents, is no better for its overwrought partnering and contrived modernity. Both are dated, forgettable, and vacate responsibility to the skill of the dancers themselves, who tried to make the work look decent, but it was in fact the work that is beneath them. In essence, Martins has written poor poetry with beautiful words and neither of these two needs to be kept in City Ballet’s permanent repertory. Given his inadequacies as a choreographer, it’s long past due that new choreographers—anyone—should be given the same opportunities to experiment as he did, for which there are surely many candidates who would die for the opportunity to work with such a world class company. Although it’s risky indeed, there’s no reason to deny the same chances for success and failure that Martins has been afforded. In the company’s illustrious past, Balanchine created hundreds of ballets and together with Jerome Robbins, made City Ballet the cutting edge, wellspring of new work—a far cry from what it is today. While the company now has a heritage to maintain, there is still plenty of room for growth, provided there is more shrewdness in selection. Certainly, more opportunities could be given to Justin Peck—earlier in the week I caught his In Creases, and very rarely have I seen a choreographer able to communicate something interesting so concisely. The hype about his work is absolute truth.

Meanwhile, if you’re a geek for Balanchine/Tchaikovsky like me, the latter half of the program was the main draw. First came Allegro Brillante, a short but bold ballet to the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No.3’. It was the composer’s last work, a redrafting of an abandoned symphony that was published posthumously. A dance for a principle couple and four additional couples costumed in icy pastels, the opening melodies are mysterious and even a bit perilous, as the curtain rises on a swirling cyclone of eight dancers in pinwheel formation. It’s not all maelstrom though, as shortly after the lead couple enters, they engage in a rhapsodic pas de deux—light, breezy, and with a delicate aroma of romance. Principals Sara Mearns and Andrew Veyette displayed a refreshing vigor throughout, with Mearns a charismatic spirit with an uncanny ability to work ever so slightly off balance, and throw in an extra pirouette here and there. She brought a glinting danger to the role that was both thrilling and audacious, highlighting the adventurous nature of Allegro. Veyette in contrast was steady and sharp, mindful of his partner and quietly valiant. Both were resplendent in this piece where Balanchine was at his most classical. Beautifully laced with his idioms, his eye for patterns, and exceptional musicality, Allegro Brillante is the shooting star of City Ballet’s repertory and masterfully leaves the audience wanting more.

The appropriate closer was none other than Tschaikovsky Suite No.3, a four-movement ballet that incorporates the often independently performed Theme and Variations as the finale. Balanchine first choreographed Theme for American Ballet Theatre in 1947, making the revisions in 1970 with a change in title. The differences between Balanchine over the decades was night and day, made obvious in the first three movements through dreamy impressions, with women dressed in nightgowns, free flowing hair, and mostly barefoot. The movements are mellow and introspective, obscured by a misty screen and gossamer long skirts. While beautifully performed, the choreography is rather modest for Balanchine and grasps at a narrative that doesn’t exist, which renders the piece too long to maintain interest. Theme and Variations is better off on its own, because while the entire suite is of historical interest to balletomanes, thirty years since Balanchine’s death have made the complete suite largely irrelevant. The repetitious look of women in shimmery dresses and loose hair loses its novelty quickly, and the pink, purple, and white they wear are too saccharine. Ironically, the later additions look dated compared to the vibrancy of Theme and Variations (or rather, Tema con Variazioni in the suite), as the ballerinas donned traditional tutus with a rich color palette and detailed embellishments like Fabergé eggs, the men in complementary teal jackets originally designed by Nicolas Benois.

Principals Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz led the charge of radiance with charm and glittering precision, in a ballet that is as beautiful to watch as it is surely brutal to do. The lead woman must be self-assured and alluring, quick on her feet, and uphold a sense of decorum—all things Peck did with incredible ease and grandeur. As her partner, de Luz put on a dazzling display of technical perfection, where his refinement and immaculate technique said so much more than the difficulty of the steps themselves; rare is the danseur who can execute such tidy pirouettes and tours en l’air, in which he must jump into the air in a pencil straight position, turn twice, and land securely on both feet to continue a dizzying series of the aforementioned steps. They were adorable as individuals and together most affable, a remarkable performance of one of Balanchine’s most thunderous and astonishing ballets.

For more on the costumes of Tema con Variazioni, be sure to check out this video from New York City Ballet’s YouTube channel:

The Irony of Byron-y

7 Jun

The first time and only other time I saw Le Corsaire was four years ago when the Bolshoi Ballet brought it to Washington D.C.—and I don’t remember a damn thing. Well, except at one point during the infamous ‘le jardin animé’ scene where a bunch of people are dancing in a garden for no reason, I distinctly remember silently counting the number of bodies on stage in my head—seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eightyCorsaire really is kind of like that morning donut; not good for you, but certainly edible, not something you’d necessarily seek out but you’ll eat it if it’s right in front of you, and sometimes you don’t care if it’s a bad idea at the time even when you know you’ll regret it later. I can’t imagine Corsaire as being on top of any balletomane’s list, but it caters to a different audience and has some importance in the art form’s history, even if the famous pas de deux is the bane of every gala’s existence. Begrudgingly, we deal with it and might even enjoy it a little. I wouldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure ballet because somehow, you don’t even feel bad delighting in its ludicrousness.

I should’ve known it would come to this–a little over a month ago I was in Fort Worth, Texas, visiting the Kimbell Museum of Art. In it, I was immediately drawn to a work called ‘Selim and Zuleika’, a 19th century oil painting by Eugène Delacroix. As I read the placard, I felt a chill as a shadow I had once cast off made itself known to me once more. Bearing in mind I had actually forgotten everything I learned about Corsaire, but in reading the following, the familiarity was too great not to re-plank old bridges (via the Kimbell’s website):

Like many of his contemporaries, Delacroix took inspiration from the best-selling Romantic poetry of Lord Byron. This painting is the last and most developed of the four canvases that the artist devoted to “The Bride of Abydos,” first published in 1813 and available in French translation by 1821. Set in the Dardanelles of Turkey, Byron’s poem relates the tragic fate of Zuleika, the daughter of the Pasha Giaffir, and her lover, the pirate Selim. In order to avoid a loveless marriage arranged by her father, Zuleika escapes at night from the harem tower in which she has been held. In the scene shown in Delacroix’s painting the lovers await rescue in a grotto by the sea, pursued by Giaffir and his men, armed and bearing torches. When Selim fires his pistol to summon the aid of his comrades, who are waiting offshore, the shot signals their position to Giaffir. Sensing the approach of her pursuers, Zuleika tries to restrain Selim. In the tragic climax of the tale, Selim is shot dead by Giaffir, and his body washed out to sea. Zuleika dies of grief.

'Selim and Zuleika': 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

‘Selim and Zuleika': 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

Wait a minute…I thought to myself, dusting cobwebs off the recesses of my memories—Lord Byron…Mediterranean…pasha…harem…pirate…loveless marriage…grotto by the sea…GAH! Shades of Corsaire had insidiously made its way into my life again, when I least expected it, and I even liked the blasted painting with its rich jewel toned focal points and carefully etched facial expressions. Parley? I didn’t really have much of a choice because I knew in a couple months time, I’d be seeing Corsaire on American Ballet Theatre. Initially I hoped to artfully dodge the whole ordeal, but when I heard Steven McRae from the Royal Ballet would perform as a guest artist, I resigned myself to that rare opportunity. Though McRae’s role was strangely minor, his jumps were fiery and his partnering of Misty Copeland as Gulnare was quite strong—which wasn’t something that occurred to me when I watched videos of McRae in other things, and Copeland, with her extremely hyperextended knees needs an acutely aware partner to be able to help her find her center, and McRae did a phenomenal job.

The story of the ballet Le Corsaire is nearly impossible to describe without laughing or wanting to beat your head against a wall, but to put it crudely, the pirate Conrad falls in love with Medora, a slave girl, and with her fellow slave girl Gulnare, are sold to the Pasha Seyd by the slave trader, Lankendem. Conrad then instructs his slave Ali to kidnap Medora, and they escape to his grotto, where the good stuff happens. Conrad’s pirates have also taken other slave girls, and Medora beseeches Conrad to free them all, much to the annoyance of Conrad’s friend Birbanto, who ignites a mutiny. Conrad quells the uproar, but Birbanto is still bitter about the ruckus and sprays a flower with a sleeping potion (stay with me!) and has it given to Medora, who bestows it on Conrad, who takes a whiff and passes out. Birbanto and the pirates come to take Medora away, but she avoids capture and cuts Birbanto’s arm with a dagger in the process—and is promptly captured by Lankendem, who gives her back to the Pasha. The Pasha, falls asleep and has outrageously pink dreams of his wives (remember the aforementioned inconsequential garden scene?). Meanwhile, Conrad and his pirates manage to sneak into the palace and everything goes bananas. At one point, Birbanto makes a move for Gulnare, and upon seeing him, Medora is finally able to expose him as a traitor. Conrad shoots Birbanto, and then he, Medora, Ali, Gulnare (maybe Lankendem? I forget) escape from the alerted palace guards and flee by ship. A violent storm then sends them—well, most of them—to the bottom of the sea, and only the lovers Conrad and Medora survive, washing upon a rocky shore. And scene.

This Corsaire (for better or worse!) plays out much like a movie rather than a ballet. Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair of which the ballet…is based…er, loosely draws elements from, offers much more rich complexities, especially in the characterization of Conrad. Curiously, Delacroix also painted “Episode from The Corsair”, which depicts a scene in which Gulnare confesses her love for the imprisoned pirate and offers to kill the Pasha, so that he may be freed. Conrad and Gulnare actually have a bit of a fling, and she’s the one Conrad comes to rescue, even though his true love is still Medora. Conrad even betrays Medora with a kiss to Gulnare, and there we have our symbolic gesture of the inner conflict. Still, the Byronic hero is a sort of bad boy with a hidden virtue—a cunning, suave, foolhardy, dashing, and gallant man of questionable morals but not entirely reprehensible. As Conrad, Marcelo Gomes was the epitome of debonair in Wednesday’s matinee. My friend Robin and I were DYING because it’s sort of a screwball role and requires some amount (but not too much) mindfulness not to ham it up to the point of buffoonery, but Gomes was brilliant. Chivalrous but also adorably preposterous, it made sense with the absurdity that is Le Corsaire, and his acting made it infinitely more enjoyable. He makes it so easy to forget about how illogical ballet can be, because regardless of what’s happening on the stage, there’s always something gratifying when you can see someone enjoying what he’s doing to the fullest.

Equally relishable was the epic slave run of James Whiteside as Ali, scampering into the wings with arms outstretched to the sides, head tossed back—it was magnificent. Together with Gomes and Gillian Murphy as Medora, they performed the central pas de trois the best I’ve ever seen—I was actually quite moved. Sometimes performed as a pas de deux for galas, this except is performed way too much for competitions and galas all over the world, so a variety of videos exist on the Internet in overabundance. The standards are high and the tolerance is low (Adolphe Adam’s score will haunt you for the rest of your life), so I don’t say this lightly, but Gomes/Murphy/Whiteside were truly wonderful. Such gracious, steadfast, and tender partnering from both Gomes and Whiteside and good heavens, Murphy’s got moxie. She looked so radiant and yet calm—she does all of the difficult turns and tricky steps without an ounce of trepidation. There are perhaps more refined dancers, but there are a great deal less who can dance the way she can. While so many dancers obsess over the pursuit of perfection, Murphy dances within her own mind and body, which gives her the freedom to play with her technique. She does things differently and it’s wonderful like multiple pirouettes with her arms simultaneously (and slowly) floating  up over her head, which is one of the hardest things to coordinate while your body is turning because it can so easily throw you off balance. She’s a riot in the best possible way and holds her own against the bravado of the men, which is typically what Corsaire is designed to do—show off the men.

Any ballet that can be described as “swashbuckling” is going to make me suppress a downcast gaze accompanied by a disgruntled slump of the shoulders, but if I had to see Le Corsaire every few years it would certainly be at ABT. The current production is on loan from Teatro Colon from Buenos Aires, and the costumes are indeed quite beautiful. Choreographically, there’s not too much one can do to Corsaire, though I think the moment where Ali and Conrad share an exchange and then all of a sudden Conrad bursts into consecutive pirouettes a la seconde is strangely placed behind a “v” of pirates, obscuring a relatively pointless insertion of a bravura step anyway. Also, one of the lifts in the bed…bed-grotto(?) scene was awkward looking, with Medora inverted overhead Conrad and clinging to his shoulders in a push-up position, and then she lifts one arm, which was hidden by her dress and looked like pilates or figure skating (and not even good figure skating!). But, none of that really matters and ABT’s Corsaire is a relatively smooth sailing ship as they say, and I even liked it better than DonQ. I could even love it…if anyone decides to reinvent Le Corsaire in a way that is truly romantic in the manner of Lord Byron, with more anguish for our beloved hero Conrad, and a tragic ending. Just a thought!

‘The Gathering Storm’ – Based on a True Story

2 Jun

Once upon a time, four balletomanes walked into a Mexican restaurant on a hot summer day in New York City. Their spirits were as high as the humidity, each one of them brought to the Big Apple by the lure of one word: Ratmansky. Even the intermittent screeching of tires and squealing brakes of poorly maintained taxis seemed to rasp this singular word—“Rrrat-man-ssssssssssskyyyy!” they cried, grinding metal protesting in fervent agitation. Spirits of the urban landscape whispered the word from all corners, as it rustled through the leaves of the dishearteningly few trees nearby, gurgled forth from the eruptive jets of water of the Lincoln Center fountain, and clung to the smells of pretzels, falafels, and body odor (not necessarily in that order). Somehow, this mystical force managed to assemble four balletomanes in one time and space, and so began the gathering storm.

One globe-trotter traversed the skies from London; another wayfarer arrived by land from Seattle; the remaining two far wiser to be residents of New York City or nearby along the East Coast such that their summoning could be perceived with more sanity. When they sat down for dinner in a sunlit room, the square table became the arena, the tablecloth the battleground, and the homemade medium-spicy guacamole the temporary nourishment. The weapons had been chosen—The Bow and Arrow of Romanticism, the Neoclassical Sword, the Sickle of Modernity, and the Shield of Neutrality, each following suit with the Ashtonian, the Balanchinian, the Ratmanskian, and Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, ‘twas not long before discussions became heated and surreptitiously more barbed.

One such exchange went as follows:

“How can you not like Bach? Concerto Barocco is the most amazing ballet,” exclaimed the Balanchinian.

“Bach ballets need to die,” said the Ratmanskian, without flinching but paused thoughtfully. “Except for Forsythe’s Artifact Suite.” A motion of agreement from Switzerland quelled the mounting tensions for a moment, but like good tortilla chips, such things never lasted for long.

“To be honest, I don’t like any of the leotard ballets,” the Ashtonian casually remarked.

The Four Temperaments? Symphony in Three Movements? AGON?!?” the Balanchinian listed them all one by one, each time with more vehement disapproval.

“Unless it’s Rubies, don’t get me started on Stravinsky…” warned the Ashtonian.

“I LOVE Stravinsky!” interjected the Ratmanskian, excited to discuss a composer far removed from the blandness of the Baroque. “Give me dark and visceral any day.”

“Give me La fille mal gardée any day!” countered the Ashtonian, and after a recent viewing of it in the swamplands of Florida, even the Balanchinian paid respects to a delightful piece of storytelling.

Fille also needs to die,” added the Ratmanskian, unwavering in disposition even as the Ashtonian nearly fell to the floor with heaving chest pains.

The war waged on for what seemed like hours and the quartet of balletomanes stopped only for tacos (curiously, Switzerland rebelled by ordering an enchilada) and flan. Symphonic Variations? Masterpiece. Christopher Wheeldon? Carousel. Swan Lake? Mariinsky. Serenade? Unanimous approval. Mayerling? A must see. David Hallberg? Demigod.

But when the clock struck seven the witching hour of Ratmansky had drawn close and it was time for the pilgrimage across the plaza to the fortified Metropolitan Opera House. And so they did, crossing asphalt, the great stone steps, and brick on a far from perilous journey—no catfights, no gouging of eyes, and no theatrical slaps in fits of rage. Comrades? Perhaps…but more importantly—just friends.

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’

1 Jun

It’s easy to discuss a work I love or hate because the archetypal opposition of black and white is simple. Far more difficult are the shades of gray in between, and Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography revels in that realm of obscurity. Layered, complex, and rich like a dark red wine, Ratmansky’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’, presented by American Ballet Theatre as a part of their season at the Metropolitan Opera House is an intellectual feast. For Ratmansky, this opportunity has been the realization of a dream (hey, remember this?), as it has always been the music of Dmitri Shostakovich that inspires him most. In tribute to the Soviet era composer, the eccentric trio of ballets receive their titles from the music—Symphony #9Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1, the scores of which not only provide the stimulus for the dance, but also strong musical selections from Shostakovich’s vast catalogue. Ratmansky’s name carries a lot of weight in the world of ballet and Shostakovich even more so in classical music, making for a rarefied occasion in which a famous choreographer has created a dynamic relationship across time, as George Balanchine did with Tchaikovsky, Jerome Robbins with Chopin, and now Ratmansky with Shostakovich. Although such things are indeed prolific, they carry a great onus because each example calls for the choreographer to live up to the standard set by the composer.

Accordingly, Ratmansky treats Shostakovich with great care; I’ve seen only a handful of Ratmansky’s works and most of them not to my liking (to be fair, I think I got the short end of the stick—Le CorsaireDon QuixoteFirebirdLes Carnaval des Animaux…I know, right?), but it was his Concerto DSCH to Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Concerto #2’ that stood out to me. There is love and honesty, riddled with quirks and even some wackiness that makes Ratmansky’s Shostakovich ballets so completely genuine that it serves as a reminder that a belief in magic finds its lifeline in art. In Symphony #9, the flippancy is out in full force, and although it’s not a clever wit Ratmansky employs it is an unambiguous one. I love that Ratmansky is a geek for Shostakovich, because geekiness is sexy and Symphony #9 is quite chic, with its sleek costumes and streamlined choreography. He uses ballet steps with a plebian quality that makes his work fascinating, and it always seems to be the appropriate amount, seamlessly incorporated into swells of intricacy. In a piece that hears echoes of war, Veronika Part was especially intriguing—she captures wisps of melloncholy and fervency with an aura of secrecy, like a glamorous actress from the Golden Era of Hollywood and its incredible to watch when combined with Ratmansky’s equally esoteric style.

My only issue with Symphony #9 is that the use of a backdrop, a cloud filled sky with faded imprints of Soviet people, some carrying red flags, perhaps too blatant a reference to militarism and the juxtaposition marred the poetry of Ratmansky’s choreography. You get absorbed in the enigma of it all and then all of a sudden you’re clocked on the head with something overt, which created some inconsistencies between narrative and abstract. Thus, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s something missing in Ratmansky’s editing process that hinders his work from communicating with the audience more efficiently.

The second piece, Chamber Symphony takes the audience on a somber journey, a psychological foray into the mind of a tormented man, presumably, Shostakovich himself. The program notes quoted Ratamansky as saying: “He was a survivor, who wore masks to create and live”, a theme emphasized by a backdrop of several translucent stony faces stratified upon one another, again, bordering on explicit but the monochromatic lineaments, inspired by a painting by Pavel Filonov did less to detract from the choreography itself. Still, there is some conflict with the abstract and narrative again, this time with characterization; I didn’t know Shostakovich had three wives until somebody told me, which would’ve drastically changed my perspective. This is not to say Chamber Symphony is in fact an allegory for Shostakovich’s personal life, but it does give a frame of reference for the motif of the central character and his three female companions. It’s a common practice in contemporary dance to simply title a work and let the audience take away from the experience what they will, but additional program notes aren’t obsolete—like museum placards, even just a hint of information can enhance a viewer’s observations. Whereas the backdrop in the first piece said a hair too much, in this case I know I needed a little help.

The angst-ridden soliloquy belonged to James Whiteside in the matinee, with Sarah Lane, Yuriko Kajiya, and Hee Seo phasing in and out of his haunting memories. Whiteside gave the role gumption and resignation, and a gripping flair for drama without grandstanding. Lane brought a flirtatiousness to her interactions with Whiteside, while Kajiya moments of serenity, and Seo a voice of reason. The choreography for the corps de ballet was as frenetic and jarring as the music, and nightmarish when it needed to be. Like the oppression Shostakovich faced as an artist, Whiteside often found himself at the mercy of others, lifted, manipulated, and swarmed by the unnervingly blank faces of those around him.

The concluding work, Piano Concerto #1 indulged in (and perhaps relied a bit too much) on virtuosity, which had been present but understated more tastefully in the preceding works. Piano Concerto #1 plays out underneath blocky, red, misshapen Soviet symbols—the hammer, sickle, star, and other miscellaneous shapes—suspended in the background like the broken bits of a charm bracelet and giving off the aura of a great Russian circus. While certain aspects of Concerto are indeed exhilarating, there’s a novelty about it that is a bit gimmicky—like the corps de ballet being dressed in unitards that are a steely chrome color in front and a deep scarlet on the back, creating an array of dizzying color changes that become less interesting as the piece continues on. Still, as with all of his Shostakovich work, Ratmansky captures the peculiarities of the score, and  creates engaging choreography that the dancers clearly enjoy doing. Corps member Christine Shevchenko stepped into the principal role due to an injury, steadily partnered by Calvin Royal III, and not only did they nail it, but they really proved how much talent exists in all of the ranks at ABT.

While a certain sense of Soviet propaganda pervaded the evening, I do think Ratmansky wanted to say something about eschewing homogenization in favor of celebrating the individual. He celebrated qualities unique to different dancers in the company and while there are times when his work is symptomatic of a choreographer who still thinks like a dancer—where he throws the kitchen sink at you and there’s too much happening on stage and not enough time to process it all, the strength of ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’ lies not in its potential to move the soul, but instead to move the mind. Anything that convinces the audience to come back for another viewing is a wonderful thing, even if they’re not entirely sure why they want to.

ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

So I helped myself to the buffet of talent that is American Ballet Theatre for a second helping of the mixed repertory program. I wondered if perhaps another viewing might change my mind on Mark Morris’s Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes, and it didn’t. My first impressions are generally stubborn, but not entirely unforgiving—I thought Joseph Gorak’s performance in one of the leading roles was some of the most beautiful dancing I’ve ever seen. Critics don’t like to toss around the word “perfection” but in this alabaster reverie he ascends to something beyond flawless. The unwavering control of his pirouettes, generously presenting his leg forward and then to the side commanded the audience’s attention in a way rarely seen by mere technically impressive dancing—it’s the way his affluent technique serves his artistry that makes it so spellbinding to watch him. New Yorkers have been talking about Gorak for a few years now and he’s also made a name for himself as a winner of the Erik Bruhn Prize, and I generally try to avoid hype but this time everything that’s being said about him is true. I even remember watching ABT in rehearsal for Swan Lake last year and noticing him, upon which I turned to my friend Robin and asked: “Who is that?!” Just stunningly gorgeous and it’s going to be really exciting to see where his career takes him.

I suppose what I do take away from watching Drink is that you a dancer’s quality of movement can really catch the eye. Two of my teachers who also attended opening night (and also in town specifically for A Month in the Country—I’m not crazy, THANK you) noticed the same dancer for his beautiful legs and soft landings and by process of elimination we’ve deduced that the dancer in question is Thomas Forster. With a softer, lyrical choreographic tone, it’s the men in particular who really get to shine in Drink because we don’t often get to see these qualities encouraged in male dancing—if only the same could be said for women in stronger, airborne roles but I digress. The point is, it’s quite easy to find Drink intriguing simply by letting the eye wander and fall upon whatever it happens to see, but I maintain that without a more definitive overall concept, it’s just not dissimilar enough from other Morris dances. And call me crazy but I really don’t like arbitrarily titled work. It’s not that a title has to beat you over the head with symbolism or explicit details, but there is a point when a title is so abstruse it doesn’t connect the content to the observer. It’s a pet peeve of mine because I don’t find it clever or deep to alienate an audience before something even begins.

Meanwhile, I thought I loved Julie Kent in Month, but everything changed when I saw Hee Seo in the same role. Her partnership with David Hallberg has been blossoming and they were breathtaking together here. It’s been one of the definite highlights of MET season for me thus far and the pas de deux between Natalia and Belaiev, when they first gave in to indulging their feelings for one other, had me on the verge of tears. We know what to expect with Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet but this was an entirely different heartache and layered with much more complex emotions that are incredibly relatable. This was really my first time seeing Seo (a late starter by the way, at age twelve!) in a true blue principal role, and I had no idea how amazing she is as a dramatic ballerina. She had the facial expression of a spoiled, indulgent aristocrat both flirtatious and austere, but her suffering in the blasé felt so real to me that I couldn’t help but feel sorrow and sympathy for her. Hallberg proved to be a vivacious Belaiev, and it’s no secret that comparisons have often been drawn between him and Sir Anthony Dowell, the role’s originator, famous for seamless transition from one movement to another and ludicrously long lines. Together, they’re magical and I think this will go down—albeit quietly—as one of the most outstanding performances this season. I can’t stress enough that with one performance remaining, it’s not to be missed. It’s a shame because I don’t know that a revival would be in the cards anytime soon because I’m not convinced Month received as much attention as it should have, but ABT boasts other ballerinas that I think would be fascinating in the role of Natalia Petrovna. Initially, I said Vishneva, but one of my teachers mentioned Gillian Murphy—who dances Ashton VERY well—and I concurred that Murphy would be fabulous. Veronika Part would be a compelling choice and even Stella Abrera, who was perhaps the most engaging actress of all in the first night’s cast as the maid Katia could be equally provocative.

Coincidentally, Abrera performed the opening lead in Symphony in C, and she was a radiant beauty who exhibited patience and grace in every step, though never behind the music and nicely partnered by Eric Tamm. Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes descended from the heavens for the second movement, though I actually found myself missing Veronika Part’s soulful rendition of the adagio while Semionova was a little perfunctory; she’s a technical phenom but sometimes appears as though she’s checking off a list of shapes and lines she has to create and it didn’t strike me as poetic as Part, who dances Symphony in C like a ghostly queen, the world around her fading in and out of reality. The third movement starred the jumping wunderkinds Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the male half of the pair being one I especially adore for his unconventional physique, having a stockier build with the most muscular legs known to ballet and he certainly knows how to use them. There’s always been more diversity in body type amongst male dancers than female, but it’s both necessary and exciting to see anyone who breaks the mold and dances within his/her own body. Lastly, the fourth movement was its usual, exciting, grand finale self, led by Sarah Lane and Sascha Radetsky with great vigor and lovely smiles.

Okay, so the fourth movement was still a hair slow to me—but let me explain. Georges Bizet briefly uses a rhythm of two eighth notes, a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, which equals…Answer: a galop, which you may not necessarily know by name but it’s a rhythmic structure used a lot in ballet just like mazurka, polonaise, waltz, tarantella, etc. There are galops in Coppélia, Sylvia, Giselle…so if all the popular girls have them why not Symphony in C? I doubt Bizet used a galop rhythm intentionally, but it does occur during the men’s first entrance when they perform a series of sissonnes and I do think it conjures images of chivalrous knights on the backs of mighty steeds leaping through the air. The thing about galops too is that they are often comically fast, and when the fourth movement is really taken at a blistering speed it drastically changes its temperament to something much more gallant, a quality that dies with a slower tempo. If you want to go nuts, I’d recommend finding a recording with Jean Martinon conducting because musically, he gives it the life I think it deserves. However, realistically, a Martinon tempo isn’t possible, but the closer a company can get to galop-ing, the better. ABT isn’t actually too far off with what I’ve been hearing, and each performance of Symphony in C is looking more and more crystalline. The matinee performance even enjoyed a surprise second curtain call so they’re dancing it well and don’t let my musical preferences ruin it for you. You really should be seeing Seo/Hallberg on Thursday night anyway.

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