Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’

10 May

The skeptic in me often finds that versatility can be overrated and at its worst, an exercise in mediocrity that masquerades at mastery. However, Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’—named for Christopher Wheeldon’s comedy choreographed to the famous music of the same name by Camille Saint-Saëns and including two different works from the grab bag of Balanchine—proved the company’s genuine skill at handling everything from deviant classicism to abstract modernism, and throwing in many a laugh for good measure. From start to finish the program was thoroughly engaging, informative, and intelligently designed to fan out the possibilities of what ballet can do. Opening night at the Academy of Music, with its plush red interior and ornate décor certainly played out in the company’s favor, displaying the great variety with incredibly strong performances throughout the ranks of Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers as well as the musicians of Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra.

First came Ballo della Regina, a notoriously difficult ballet in which Balanchine famously challenged his then anointed muse Merrill Ashley (now a repetiteur of the piece, along with Sandra Jennings) with steps he didn’t think she could do.  Set to ballet music from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘Don Carlos’—and often cut from the opera itself—Ballo pays homage to the original story of a famous pearl that belonged to the Queen of Spain, but mostly in color via the pastel costumes painted in the icy tones of iridescent luster. Balletomanes may have noted the omission of fouettés en dedans, a series of consecutive pirouettes on one leg that turns in the opposite direction that dancers normally train, but that’s a horrifyingly difficult and unnatural step, the effect of which isn’t lost when Amy Aldridge performed the more intuitive version. Aldridge had sharpness and angularity, sure-footed in the formidable series of jumps and hops that land en pointe, and partnering with the soft landings and long lines of Zachary Hench made for an arresting, breezy flight through the choreography. Especially enjoyable was the vitality Evelyn Kocak, Abigail Mentzer, Rachel Maher, and Gabriella Yudenich brought in featured solos, as well as the immaculate timing and marvelous unity of the entire ensemble with the corps de ballet.

Far different was the austerity of The Four Temperaments, one of Balanchine’s signature “leotard ballets” in which the costumes were pared down to plain black leotards and pink tights for the women, white shirts and black tights for the men. Set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, the choreography is barbed and often peculiar, making references to ancient Greek theories of imbalances of bodily fluids as the catalysts of mood and human behavior. As a ballet, The Four Temperaments is both harsh and quirky in appearance, meaty in content, and grand in scale. Although the entire cast turned in strong performances in the Melancholic, Sanguinic, and Choleric sections, the audience saved the loudest ovation for Jermel Johnson’s spine tingling Phlegmatic solo. Johnson’s movements utilized the whole body with a smoothness rarely seen, his focused gazes of detachment inducing chill after chill. He created a magic both eerie and limpid, which had me feeling like I was having an out of body experience as a spectator. As far as The Four Temperaments is concerned, it was one of the most impressive and astonishing performances I’ve ever seen (full disclosure, I know it’s ballet heresy but I don’t really even like 4T’s that much! Don’t tell anyone?).

Switching gears to end with something light-hearted and playful, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals took to the stage, a stampede led by celebrated actor John Lithgow, also an author of children’s books. Wheeldon and Lithgow devised a clever premise for the famous music by Saint-Saëns, in which a young boy falls asleep in a natural history museum, and his dreams are a mish-mash of people from his reality coming to life as the animals in the exhibits. Nothing could have been a more appropriate visualization of human dreams, where illogical and fantastical things happen without giving them a second thought, which perfectly matched the pastiche of medleys that even cheekily uses orchestral instruments to produce animal-like sounds. The concept for Wheeldon’s Carnival is unique, and Lithgow’s rhyming narration was delightful. The entire creative team behind Carnival, from the costumes to the sets, is to be lauded for telling a fun story that can enchant both children and adults. Though it’s not the type of ballet in which individual dancers stand out because the dancing doesn’t take precedence, it’s a wonderful fusion work of dance theatre in which the company can show its funny bone, and the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers impressed with their aplomb. It’s difficult to do comedy well, and while Lithgow is certainly no stranger to it, it’s wonderful to see Wheeldon put something together that respects the art of humor. I never thought I could like Carnival of the Animals as a ballet, but Wheeldon has definitely changed my mind.

Hats off to artistic director Roy Kaiser, who will lead Pennsylvania Ballet into its 50th anniversary season, having been a part of the company’s history for over thirty years as a dancer rising through the ranks from corps de ballet member to principal, as a teacher in the role of ballet master, and finally directorship. Knowing the company’s history so intimately has obviously helped him to develop a clear image for it, in which they can perform an incredible array of ballets by Balanchine, full scale classics, contemporary work, etc. always to live music and of course, with many talented dancers, who looked strong, vibrant, and well rehearsed. The programming from this season and next are evidence of Kaiser’s great leadership, and I’m really jealous of the Philadelphia residents that get to enjoy the fruits of the entire company’s labor. With a handful of performances of ‘Carnival of the Animals’ to go, there’s also ‘Forsythe & Kylián’ in one month’s time, and Balanchine’s illustrious Jewels to look forward to after the summer, all of which I highly recommend. I can’t praise the company enough for its polish and yes, true versatility, and can only hope to have the opportunity to enjoy seeing them again in the future.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Otherworldly Othello at The Joffrey Ballet

25 Apr

Chicago rocks my world and the Joffrey Ballet is a huge part of the earthshaking. The opening performance of Othello, choreographed by Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch was by far one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this year. I thought I loved the DVD (and I still do) but the opportunity to see it live on a prestigious company like the Joffrey for the first time was something else. And not just the performance itself, but attending the Joffrey Ballet yielded something new—I even received a swanky electronic press kit complete with bios and photos on a CD (a commodity of pure class if you ask me) and I was immediately impressed by how accommodating the Joffrey is to the press (if I could even call myself that!). Like any non-profit arts organization, they want to make themselves known, and I appreciate that they make it easy, so three cheers to the public relations and media team for outstanding operations! To feel respected as a writer was a tremendously generous gift.

Meanwhile, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, a grand hall gleaming with the Midas touch and illuminated by vast arches of incandescent lights, provided a venue more than worthy of a great Shakespearean tragedy. Lubovitch’s Othello loosely follows a distilled summation of Shakespeare’s play, taking necessary plot details and making some alterations in order to make the story compatible with ballet. Though the ballet picks up partway through the play, the meatier elements of Othello the Moor’s marriage to the noblewoman Desdemona, the resentment from his ensign Iago, a sinister plan of betrayal framing Desdemona for infidelity with Othello’s lieutenant Cassio, and subsequent death for pretty much everyone involved are all present (Cassio is executed, Iago murders his wife and Desdemona’s attendant Emilia, Othello kills Desdemona, Othello commits suicide, and the villain outlives them all). There are many times in movies, art, etc. where I find people try too hard to be dark and dramatic but certainly not here—it just is. Lubovitch certainly knows theatre and he succeeded in creating this grisly and macabre world without resorting to any form of antics, which reigned supreme with a refreshing authenticity.

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Lubovitch was definitely aided by the score, composed by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal (I have to geek out for a moment and mention that Interview with the Vampire is one of my FAVORITE film scores). One of the best things about Othello is not the fact that Goldenthal actually wrote a part for alto flute (apologies for geeking out again) but that a contemporary choreographer brought to life an untapped, non-fairy tale libretto and utilized an original score by a contemporary composer. Though the aesthetic of this ballet has modern elements, it still follows the story ballet tradition, and is arguably the most phenomenal ballet to have done so in the past couple of decades. I can’t praise Lubovitch’s storytelling abilities enough and find it interesting that while he did work professionally as a ballet dancer (as well as other forms of dance), he didn’t necessarily have a famed career as a performer. Still, he did study under ballet great Antony Tudor at Juilliard, but diversified his studies with modern dance artists like Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, and Martha Graham, the multi-faceted influences woven into his education very much apparent in his choreography. If Lubovitch was a dancing smorgasbord (er, not literally), Goldenthal was something of a musical equivalent, composing concert works, ballets, film scores, Broadway musicals, and more. They both had lives, work, and perspectives outside of ballet and it made the ballet they fashioned together all the more compelling.

I would go as far as to say that the non-balletic choreography Lubovitch created were the most fascinating. One of my favorite steps had three Venetian dancers (danced jovially by Erica Lynette Edwards, Amber Neumann, and Kara Zimmerman) perform a simple pencil turn en pointe, a simple pirouette with a straight body but the choreography called for a flexed foot instead of a pointed one, and while I often find that the flexed foot can be overused simply because it’s considered a “modern aesthetic” and therefore automatically makes a piece seem “edgier”, it wasn’t at all trite in that moment and even surprised me. And then there’s the tarantella of Act II, where women and men rapturously celebrate the latter group’s safe return to a seaport in Cyprus…let’s just say there are times in ballet where it can be said that the choreography given to the corps de ballet is actually far more interesting than that given to the dancers in the lead roles. From a purely movement based perspective, the corps work was hands down the pinnacle of excitement. To see a bunch of ballerinas let their hair down and throw themselves into a wild style of movement with reckless abandon was great fun. With undulating spines and dynamic jumps stripped of the virtuosity that we expect of classical ballet, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral urge to join them.

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

The colossal Fabrice Calmels, towering at least a head above the rest of the cast gave a foreboding presence to the title role. It’s not so easy for a 6’5” guy to dance because that’s a lot of musculature and a high center of gravity to throw around but Calmels was very much in control of his performance and psychologically deep into the character. The diminutive April Daly was so tiny in his arms as Desdemona, with the beauty and appearance of fragility like a porcelain doll, but with a great deal of emotional integrity. To show a full range of romance, resolve, and resignation only scratched the surface at what was indeed a masterful performance by her. I also quite enjoyed Aaron Rogers as Cassio, who had a certain elasticity to his arms and hands that finished every movement. My friend I attended with noted how he used his head to look up and out at his surroundings, not presenting only frontally to the audience, but really observing the world around him and really living in that moment. But let’s be real—the entire cast (with Matthew Adamczyk as a sleazy Iago, Valerie Robin as a skittering and pitiable Emilia), was fantastic and showed a marvelous union of ideas and energy. Combined with Lubovitch’s narrative talents, my mind never wandered for a second, and I found myself engaged the entire time.

It’s hard to believe the Joffrey Ballet will retire Othello from the active repertory (although I find the wording of that statement unclear…what is active vs. inactive repertory? Will they never perform it again? Will they simply put it on hold until they activate it again? I’m not sure), but with several performances remaining through the weekend and next, limited opportunities exist. I only wish I could be in Chicago still, to see the Joffrey’s outstanding Othello once (or twice) more, to relive the mighty drums that make your heart explode, and observe other dancers in the company taking flight in various debuts in one of America’s finest achievements in theatrical ballet. To miss out is a tough pill to swallow, but after all is said and done, the optimist in me wonders if maybe a final bow with the Joffrey could mean passage for the Moorish martyr to unmarked territory, and the lurid wonder that is Othello can indulge the fancy of new audiences.

Fabrice Calmels's suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels’s suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Dawn of a Swan: Oklahoma City Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’

22 Apr

It can’t be emphasized enough that Swan Lake is no small undertaking, and for Oklahoma City Ballet to put it on stage for the first time in the company’s forty-one year history was a tremendous accomplishment. With just over twenty-five dancers, OKCB barely eked it out, with most of the performers in multiple roles (and help from clever adjustments by artistic director Robert Mills, balletmaster Jacob Sparso, and répétiteur Lisa Moon) so that the company didn’t appear dwarfed on the stage of Civic Center Music Hall. The company also enjoyed live accompaniment from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, a marvelous (and necessary) feat that really brought Swan Lake to life. It doesn’t matter how big or how small—Swan Lake is always going to be a beast for different reasons, and the OKCB in particular did a wonderful job of keeping their dancers healthy and well rehearsed. Just one injury would have been devastating; whereas a larger company could spare an understudy, OKCB wouldn’t have had any options. They rolled the dice and won the hearts of the audience, not just for putting on a great show of the most iconic classical ballet, but also for showing that OKCB is on track to do more.

I wouldn’t dare say I was an expert on Swan Lake, but I felt OKCB’s production was relatively complete. There’s no such thing as a perfect version—it’s like asking a person what makes for a good wedding cake. Sure, everybody knows what a wedding cake is and most people have a similar image of what one looks like, but ultimately they always taste different. And some people will eat anything but others may try but maintain their preferences. Balletomanes discuss such things ad nauseum and over time develop a checklist; mine includes things like aversions to prologues, jesters, and music edits—all of which OKCB had, but some of which made sense for what they wanted to accomplish. For example, the jester (danced by Io Morita) was one of the highlights, aided by Morita’s soaring jumps and frisky petit allegro, his legs flickering with precision as he ricocheted them in the air. Though the character served no indispensable purpose, he was nonetheless fun to watch. It was a great way to show off the bravura talents of dancers not in the lead roles. However, this skirts a precarious line too—the jester and the role of Benno, Prince Siegfried’s friend both performed jétes en manège, or a series of split leaps that circle around the entire stage, which should be Siegfried’s trademark in the Black Swan pas de deux, but the excitement of the effect was diminished by having seen it before. While virtuosity does captivate the audience, sometimes it’s important to make them wait for it.

Overall, I felt the first act was over-choreographed just a hair, and while Act II, the famous lakeside scene with the bevy of swans in white tutus was pretty typical but had eliminated the mime scene where Odette explains to Siegfried her plight, of being transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Obviously, OKCB reconciled this issue with the prologue in which we see Von Rothbart transform her, but I believe that the mime scene is important in some form or another because—and I feel like a broken record because I’m always saying this—it gives the audience a reprieve from the dancing. We can’t just stare at a constant stream of steps without breaks where something happens to progress the story. I was missing that in the first act as well, where it seemed too easy to get lost in all of the dancing, despite the beauty of it all. The best way to learn how to discern the different choreographic tools would be to watch a lot of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky ballets (Serenade, Theme and Variations, Ballet Imperial, Diamonds, etc.) because the mentality in creation has to be different, thus the devices are different.

Still, there was much to enjoy and my perspective was different from the rest of the audience who had never seen Swan Lake before. Eavesdropping on the conversations around me yielded only complimentary reactions and even with my biases I had to agree. Miki Kawamura delivered an outstanding performance as Odette, and Yui Sato a genteel and sincere Siegfried. Kawamura’s Odette had a hardier flavor, regal as a queen of the swans, opting to portray a magnificent creature rather than timid milquetoast. When Siegfried balances her on one leg, and she delicately quivered the other foot like a trembling wing, I couldn’t recall having seen a dancer reverberate with such speed, her foot practically a vibrating blur. As Odile she commanded the stage with a vivacious presence, as her manipulation of Siegfried turned into a source of amusement, and perhaps it was shades of Kawamura’s own personality shining through as well because she clearly had great fun as the black swan. Sato partnered her well, displaying his own skill for acting as a naïve prince and dancing the role in his uniquely quieted way. It was an exciting and pressure packed night for those two OKCB dancers, as the remaining two performances were claimed by guest artists from Houston Ballet that were sponsored by the Inasmuch Foundation. Odette and Siegfried are the premier dream roles for countless ballet dancers and to have just one opportunity to dance it demands a great deal of mental fortitude—Kawamura and Sato delivered, and were rewarded by a standing ovation, their efforts further recognized when the announcement was made that they would be promoted to principal dancers, in a company that had no previous hierarchy.

Oklahoma City Ballet has referred to their 2012-13 season as “Raising the Barre” and it certainly has been an exciting one for them. From my observations, they’re teetering at the brink, capable of making that jump—to the base of the mountain that is the development into a highly esteemed regional company. It’s no simple matter to hire about ten more dancers and find the funding to diversify their repertory, but seeing how they put together such a competent Swan Lake with nearly the bare minimum of resources is a hopeful sign. Even if they hired the necessary dancers tomorrow and procured the licensing rights for some of the current popular ballets, it would still be some years before the company could really gel together and settle into a groove. Until then, it may not be a bad idea to look into collaboration with the nearby Tulsa Ballet, something that has worked very successfully for BalletMet of Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet in Ohio, which has allowed them to put stage the large-scale productions and perform ballets that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Howling in Houston: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

19 Apr

Several factors make Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo one of the greatest ensembles on Earth—they never fail to win over an audience; they tour all over the planet and bring classical ballet to all kinds of people; their comedy is madly intelligent; the dancers always look like they’re enjoying themselves, and they happen to be the incredibly rarefied “men en pointe”. It made for a jubilant atmosphere at Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 at Jones Hall in the humid city of Houston, where the diversity of the crowd (in addition to their raucous laughter) meant that the Trocks had succeeded in obtaining the elusive, the coveted, and the supremely difficult to engineer—universal appeal. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people I saw, the type of people I never thought I’d see at a ballet, and equally amazed by their assessments: “I didn’t like the first one…” a middle aged man said to his MALE friends (yes, PLURAL) in a thick, sausage-gravy Texan accent “but the second scene and the one after were cool.”

The man first referred to the opening number of Chopeniana (also known as Les Sylphides), originally choreographed by Michel Fokine. Romantic era ballet relies heavily on a specific style and the Trocks had it in spades—and comedic touches in shovels. It’s ironic that men, who tend to have less pliant backs than women, actually achieved the tilted torso so characteristic of Romantic ballet, oddly comparable to ballerinas at the time who had to wear corsets. Not to mention the mannerisms, with delicate hands and limp elbows, and especially the wistful, aloof expression worn on the face of the lead male role of the poet. Various sylphs bickered for his attention, although he remained as vacant as ever, barely attentive as he stared off into the distance when he was supposed to be assisting the lovely faeries in airborne lifts and serene promenades. Still, the luminous spirits of the air forged on, holding their composure as best as they could, even when one particularly buxom one had them falling to their knees and into the splits with every “dynamic” landing from each lofty jump.

Following came the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, which was surprisingly performed unaltered, a masterful display of classical technique that’s difficult even for an accomplished ballerina. The wonderful thing about it was that the performers had great charisma, an area where ballerinas can be relatively quiet in eschewing brassiness, but the audience loved the showmanship, and when the dancer performing Kitri aced the fouettés in the coda, throwing in double pirouettes for good measure, there was a genuine roar of appreciation—no laughter, no sarcasm, just excited recognition of having seen something spectacular.

Go for Barocco, an original piece by the Trocks, is the ultimate Balanchine pastiche. I had seen Go for Barocco on film before, but having just seen Concerto Barocco for the first time this year, I was amazed by how spot on the Trocks version was. Many of the same steps were used to great effect—the Balanchine patterns where dancers link arms and weave in and out of each other, the hops en pointe, the piqué arabesques—choreographer Peter Anastos certainly knew his source material. It’s often underestimated how difficult great comedy is, and easily forgotten how much intelligence it requires to pull it off. Not all imitations are created equal, but not only did Anastos succeed in creating a challenging work that entertained audiences, but the twists he put on it makes it even funnier the more you know about Concerto Barocco. And yet, an audience member who knows nothing about ballet can still find a reason to laugh, especially when in a somber duet, diva attitudes emerge from the ballerinas trying to establish supremacy, by virtue of stacking their hands upon one another, alternating to see who could finish on top at the end of the music.

Next came The Dying Swan, a parody and tribute to Fokine’s solo for the illustrious Anna Pavlova. It’s one of the crucial pieces in ballet history and choreographically, the most amazing piece to use almost exclusively just the bourée, challenging the ballerina to express all of her technique in her port de bras. For the Trocks, the choreography was nearly the same, though the tutu molted a flurry of feathers until the bitter end. At last, when the swan perished to signal the end of her performance, she took an emotional curtain call that lasted almost as long as the piece itself—truly, a la Russe. Even in these transformations, it’s wonderful to see the work of Fokine performed, as the subtleties of his work aren’t always appreciated by modern audiences and Trocks is very much in the image of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, with their constant touring and modified preservation of certain repertory. Even if audience members had never heard of Chopiniana or The Dying Swan, the Trocks provided a starting point from which people could seek out the original works on their own and play the compare/contrast game, learning—and quite effectively—something about watching ballet and becoming an active participant of it as an informed observer.

Closing out the show was Walpurgisnacht, a bacchanal of fauns, nymphs, and Olympians. Choreographed in the spirit of Soviet era choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky, the mythical figures danced with reckless abandon in front of a moonlit temple, toning down (but never losing completely) the humorous touches and taking the performance rather seriously. It was easy to forget that they were men in drag, the technique behind each of the ensemble dances executed to the full extent of sheer beauty. The piece also put on full display the company’s ability to dance as men too—the lead faun a particularly demanding bravura role with countless turns and bounding leaps in the ubiquitous “stag” position, with both legs bent in the air like a deer. It occurred to me that the dancers of Trocks had the talent to dance in conventional ballet companies, as many of the smaller regional ones are often starved for men, but I’m glad they don’t—it’s a beautiful thing that men who seriously invest into training en pointe have a safe space where their interests are treated with respect and nurtured in order to allow them to grow as artists.

Hope for male pointework to make its way into repertory by all ballet companies in non-farcical forms remains small but vigilant, but with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo having got their size-thirteen-pointe-shoed-foot in the door, their achievements as harbingers of change and acceptance is beyond remarkable.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are currently on tour in the US for the remainder of the spring and through the summer. For more information about performance dates and location, check out their website: http://www.trockadero.org/

Ballet Arizona’s ‘Director’s Choice’

29 Mar

My time in Arizona has been a series of exceptions—thanks to Easter weekend, I could only take class at Ballet Arizona School once and apparently, they’ll be moving into a new facility this summer so if I’m ever able to come back to Phoenix, the images I have in my mind will be but distant memories (and how they managed to sustain momentum for that long term project through the recession is a miracle—bravo!). Meanwhile, the opening night performance of ‘Director’s Choice’ I attended took place at the Orpheum Theater, which is not their usual venue, and despite the theater’s beautiful classical styling and capabilities, my rifling through the program became frantic when it began to dawn on me that there would be no live music for the evening. Ballet Arizona does typically perform with the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall—just for this particular repertory program they did not. It could be a budget thing (doubtful) or maybe an installation thing (possible), or maybe they just felt like it (why not?). After all, there is something to be said for different venues drawing different crowds…as in, it happens.

In general, Ballet Arizona seems to do things a bit differently. For one, they don’t have a hierarchy within the company’s dancers. I can’t say that it’s necessarily better or worse for making casting decisions, and it may very well be there’s a sort of unspoken hierarchy, but democratization is an interesting idea here because the audience can pick their favorite dancers without bias solely based on rank. Another neat thing the company did was have the executive director show a preview clip of Topia, a site-specific work to be performed at the Desert Botanical Garden at the end of May. Site-specific work, while a common practice in modern dance, is not seen as often in ballet (Fire Island comes to mind), and the outdoor stage looked breathtaking at night in the video. Before ‘Director’s Choice’ began, I was thoroughly impressed with Ballet Arizona’s initiative.

The program consisted of three pieces, Alexei Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval des Animaux, the world premiere of Second to Last by Alejandro Cerrudo, and artistic director Ib Anderson’s Diversions (Anderson also choreographed Topia). Ratmansky’s ballet opened the show and…well, I didn’t like it. While I’m fully aware that a disinterest in Ratmansky’s work is nothing short of ballet heresy, Ratmansky’s Carnaval lacked clarity to me. He mostly followed the structure of the score, which is divided into several movements, each characterizing an animal, and subsequently abstracted into the choreography. I don’t know if there was an oversight on the casting sheet, but certain movements like ‘Aquarium’ of Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition had no roles listed, although it was definitely used, and in the manner expected (tutu girl = jellyfish). I knew the music well enough on my own, but it was a bit confusing anyway. Some animals were clearly outlined in the choreography, but others had me second-guessing what I knew—like the kangaroos that had me wondering if there was a ‘Rabbits’ movement I was missing. When it came to the ‘Swan,’ the obvious reference to Fokine’s Dying Swan drew some chuckles, but there was no content after the novelty of pastiche wore off. The concept for Ratmansky’s Carnaval was almost at war with itself, finding a middle ground between some bits of amazing choreography but never finding cohesion (‘Personages with Long Ears’, ‘Pianists’, and ‘Fossils’ were mostly ensemble dances with no common thread). Still, Amber Lewis’s ‘Elephant’ solo was clever and danced with charm and I loved the silky smooth movement quality Nayon Iovino had as a cockerel.

Alejandro Cerrudo’s world premiere came as a pleasant surprise—visually simple with six dancers half dressed in black and a hanging installation of squares with speckled designs, Second to Last put on full display Cerrudo’s fluid yet punctual style to music by Phillip Glass and Arvo Pärt. It’s almost as if the choreography finds specific points where energy bounces or is transferred, but never stops, rendering the few moments of stillness in his work some of the most powerful indeed. Like a marble in a never-ending labyrinth, the movements are fluid and steady, avoiding gaps and pauses with calm. The cast of three couples (Tzu Chia Huang & Junxiong Zhao, Raychel Weiner & Myles Lavallee, Amber Lewis & Joseph Cavanaugh) suspended themselves in the piece with subtlety and still produced an exceptionally powerful performance. For the seasoned balletomane, it may be hard to ignore that Cerrudo used the same music Christopher Wheeldon did for his After the Rain pas de deux, but comparing notes on different artists’ perspectives is fun when the mind is open and willing to new possibilities.

Last came Anderson’s Diversions, a neoclassical piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21’. A whimsical ensemble work that seemed to peer into an almost ritualistic dance of twenty-two dryad like beings, two of the immediate impressions left by the piece are the amazing lighting design by Michael Korsch, and Anderson’s arresting musicality. The steps are succinct and derive so strongly from the essence of the music that it’s impossible to imagine anything else to that score, a feeling that as an audience member, I associate with mastership by the choreographer. When you can feel the choreographer’s interest in the music and see the thought process unfold, then you really become a participant of the art and it’s an incredible sensation. Nothing is trite in Diversions, though some of the partnering bordered on excessive manipulation of the female dancers, overall the foundation of intricate patterns, variety of steps, a true journey with highs and lows, not to mention wonderfully clean execution by the dancers makes Anderson’s piece a thoroughly engaging dance to behold. Tzu-Chia Huang and Junxiong Zhao’s poetic duet highlighted Diversions with generous warmth, simplicity, and serenity.

To see Ballet Arizona in top form was a treat, and I only wish I could stay around for their ‘All Balanchine’ program coming up in May. For a ballet company to have maintained a trajectory of growth through the recession is inspiring to say the least, and it’s a testament to the company’s talent that there has been no evidence of artistic qualities falling to the wayside. The new facilities are sure to give Ballet Arizona momentum and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the company improving upon what I had the pleasure of seeing, which was already fantastic indeed.

Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’

24 Mar

Greetings from sunny California!

I thought my last few days in Seattle were crazy, but my travels in California have been insane so far! To recap with some highlights, I spent almost a week in the San Francisco bay area, taking classes but staying in San Jose with my gracious host and frienderina, Jen. She recommended Lee Wei Chao’s class at Alonzo King Lines Ballet, a notion seconded by others in the dance community so I took his class twice (Lines has a nifty deal where your second class is half off, the good ole foot-in-the-door sales pitch), and I also took class at local studios in San Jose (including Marny Trounson, a former soloist with the Royal Ballet, who danced for Ashton! Danced for Ashton I say!!!). Last Thursday began my gauntlet of performances, kicking off with San Francisco Ballet’s opening performance of John Cranko’s Onegin (uh, DRAMA!), on Friday I went to see Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’, which consisted of Les Rendezvous and Méditation from Thaïs by Sir Frederick Ashton, Stanton Welch’s Clear, and concluded with Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. After a six hour drive to Los Angeles the next day, I found myself on UCLA campus, watching Los Angeles Ballet perform ‘Balanchine Gold’, an all Balanchine program with La Sonnambula, Concerto Barocco, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and The Four Temperaments. Did you get all that? Because I’m not even sure I did!

I’m still processing much of this, and much of the material is going into the book, but I would like to take a moment to write a bit about Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’. I was fascinated by the idea that a good size company like BSJ (who also enjoys the luxury of a live orchestra!) was so close to San Francisco and its home company, because I imagined there might be some competition for dancers and audiences alike. I wondered how proximity affected programming as well, and clearly, the fact that BSJ did two Ashton ballets meant the two companies do have some different interests in mind. However, A common thread was that both companies make wonderful efforts to provide extra educational opportunities to inform the audience about the works they’re seeing—SFB had a discussion with Jane Bourne, a choreologist who stages Onegin and other Cranko ballets, while BSJ brought in Hilary Cartwright to talk about staging Les Rendezvous for the company. Cartwright had some wonderful anecdotes and insights into Ashton’s work, how he trained in the Cecchetti method, his famous demand of his dancers to “bend” (which wasn’t simply a bending of the torso, but required bending of the torso with a spiral or a twist), and that Lucia Chase, the co-founder of American Ballet Theatre even asked him once to be resident choreographer for ABT.

Les Rendezvous is a ballet that is not performed often even in the UK so it’s a real treat to have seen it on BSJ. Charming, airy, romantic, it’s simply a meeting between various couples and four little girls, set in a nineteenth century Parisian park. Few ballets could be so utterly delightful as Les Rendezvous—we’re talking white lace, pink ribbons, and sweet kisses on the cheek. Still, some of the choreography is devastatingly wicked, with plenty of Ashton’s trademark speedy and intricate footwork and a never-ending cascade of the little steps that look simple but aren’t. Soloist Amy Marie Briones in particular handled the choreography with ease, and it has to be said that she is a ferocious fireball of a dancer. She is so technically strong that she’s the kind of dancer you can watch and never wonder if she’s going to do complete the steps because she’s always in control of what she’s doing. One part of the solo requires a fast double pirouette to land in plié, then whip around while arching the back, which is heinously difficult and she did it—several times. With bright eyes and exuberance, Briones was an absolute joy to watch.

Les Rendezvous - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘Les Rendezvous’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

It seemed many of BSJ’s ballerinas would shine in Ashton, as soloist Nutnaree Pipit Suksun, danced Méditation from Thaïs with a rare and extraordinary beauty. She is one of those dancers that has it all—the lines, the feet, the artistry, and in a spiritual role like Thaïs, with its certain exotic aroma, Pipit Suksun is a stunning goddess. Even the costume seemed to glue itself to her, glowing like an amber firefly as she floated across the stage in ethereal fashion. Beyond her lyricism, Pipit Suksun has a generous warmth to her dancing that invites the audience into the piece, and the image of her in it is permanently emblazoned into my fondest memories. Curiously, I didn’t know that she is one of few Thai ballerinas, and the only one to be currently employed in the US, and it really pointed to the diverse makeup of BSJ as a whole—not just in ethnicity, but also noticeably in physiques. There are curvier dancers, shorter dancers, and not everyone is a beanpole with high arches. The multi-faceted diversity BSJ makes its flavor unique, and I think sends an important message to audiences that ballet is possible for more people than we think, and that artistry and quality of character in dancing is defined by many things.

Thais - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose dancers Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Jeremy Kovitch in in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘Méditation from Thaïs’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

Still, it’s not bad to have it all—as long as a dancer knows how to use it, and corps dancer Joshua Seibel really stood out to me in Clear. Sure, he has that blonde prince, Greek marble statue, beautiful lines stuff going for him, but it was really his expressivity in Clear that was so beautiful to watch. There was intensity and focus, on top of incredible control, and I can only imagine what else he could bring to more featured roles. Sometimes I’ve seen dancers who are giving everything they have into a performance but for whatever reason I could still see a little reservation—maybe he or she doesn’t like the music or the choreography is somewhat uncomfortable, but watching Seibel in Clear was an exercise in conviction and commitment to a performance, which is exceptionally hard to do because one doesn’t simply attack the choreography of Clear—a dance for seven men and one woman, Clear is the kind of work that has to unfold from origami to a clean sheet of paper or dissipate like clouds to reveal a sunny day. The subtleties and mastery of ballet technique have to increase as the performance goes on, with purity as the final destination.

Clear - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose dancers Zhang Jing and Akira Takahashi in Stanton Welch’s ‘Clear’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

Concluding the program was Clark Tippet’s effervescent Bruch Violin Concerto No.1, a showy piece I described as a “bouquet of mountain wildflowers” when I saw it for the first time (Corella Ballet, circa May, 2011). Bruch is typical of a classic symphonic ballet, choreography to music with tights and tutus, and showed off BSJ’s strengths incredibly well. Divalicious Briones sizzled in the red tutu, but the company also boasts two sprites in Junna Ige and Mirai Noda, who fluttered through their roles with smiles and joy. Akira Takahashi provided dazzling virtuosity, his allegro work precise and flighty (as it also was in Clear) as he sailed through numerous jumps and turns with ease. With technique and aplomb, Bruch was the perfect piece to end a marvelous evening of dance with, and I think represents a lot of what the company is all about—diversity, technique, and truly thrilling performance qualities. As the company works through some transitions in changes of leadership, there is real potential to take the Ballet San Jose to establish itself upon the next tier, as a company with more regular performances and a repertory that attracts more dancers. Though there are difficulties to be expected in doing so, with funding being the ever-pressing concern, there is real potential and that is one hell of an exciting prospect.

Bruch Violin Concerto - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose in Clark Tippet’s ‘Bruch Violin Concerto No.1’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Modern Masterpieces’

17 Mar

As I now embark on this odyssey to see and experience ballet across America, I have to begin the journey with some stories of my final day in Seattle, which was spent entirely with people I love, from breakfast to ballet, and it couldn’t have been any better. The opening night performance of ‘Modern Masterpieces’ proved to be one of the finest shows I have ever seen at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I don’t think it was just because of the occasion, or a certain sentimentality in knowing that I wasn’t sure when I would get to see the company again—I truly thought they were magnificent, and the program ultimately defined what a remarkable identity PNB has for itself as a stronghold of contemporary ballet.

The litmus test was taking my friend Darcy as my date, who hadn’t attended a ballet since seeing a Swan Lake when she was but thirteen, and had never seen PNB despite moving to Seattle shortly after I did (though we met about a year and half ago). I was actually excited to re-introduce ballet to her in a radically different aesthetic, for she is no stranger to the arts, so I was confident she would find something interesting in the experience, or at least enjoy the free wine and chocolates in the press room. Despite being the daughter of a professional cellist and having her own bachelor’s degree in art history, she once told me that for her, dance was her final, unexplored frontier, and it became my mission to help her navigate this strange land. The first baby step was attending a dance festival produced by small, local modern dance companies, due to her preference for contemporary arts. However, I really wanted a chance to share something with her that was on a whole different level, and a PNB mixed repertory with choreography by Balanchine, PNB balletmaster Paul Gibson, Ulysses Dove, and Twyla Tharp was exactly what I needed—it’s impossible for ANYONE to walk away from that kind of program without liking at least one of the four ballets.

After some fawning over the sparkly curtain in McCaw Hall (and she’s not my only friend to have done so), we began our foray into contemporary ballet with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, choreographed to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Double Violin Concerto in D minor’, and headlined by superstar Carla Körbes, and superhero Carrie Imler (the term “dynamic duo” a preposterous understatement). I had never seen Barocco before, though I of course knew of it, and figured the principal roles were cast to suit the dancers’ strengths. I took great pleasure in telling Darcy about how Carla has been regarded as one of, if not, the finest ballerina dancing in America, and that Carrie is a superhuman force of nature that is notorious for being able to do everything, because I wanted Darcy to know that we weren’t just watching pretty good ballet in Seattle—we were watching world class dancers who were highly esteemed even amongst their peers. Neither disappointed, and the corps de ballet delivered an exceptionally clean performance as well. I knew I’d like Barocco and I have to say that it included some of the most interesting patterns I’ve seen of Balanchine, and I especially loved the section where the corps link arms and slither around the principal male dancer, giving the appearance of a Gordian Knot when it turned out to be one of Balanchine’s most intricately woven feats of choreography, the effect of which is later echoed individually in a seemingly never-ending partnered promenade.

As if to have an answer to an opening set of ballerinas in white, Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (to selections by Mozart) is a rare male corps de ballet piece, with dancers dressed in black. Though similar in structure, this piece had more room for individual expression, featuring an assortment of various solos that allowed for some breathability. A dazzling array of allegro work and some of the more rare steps alluded to Gibson’s knowledge of ballet pedagogy, but also left me feeling like the work was a bit academic. I was left wanting for more dynamics and phrasing—even an abstract work can have the shape of a narrative arc to it, and despite a tightly knit ensemble, I didn’t get a sense that certain groups of performers related to each other. Still, it was nicely performed and constructed well, and Benjamin Griffiths in particular was a joy to watch, his smile making it fully evident how much he enjoyed what he was doing on stage.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces, presented by PNB as part of MODERN MASTERPIECES, March 15 – 24, 2013.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (Photo © Angela Sterling)

After the first intermission, we were then treated to the starkness of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Minimal in appearance with an emphasis on contrast (harsh spotlights and white unitards on a black stage), the choreography included some of the most interesting series of bodily pictures I have ever seen. Arvo Pärt’s haunting score (Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten) was barely more than brief, heart-rending string melodies and a single chime, but the effect is mesmerizing. I’d imagine dancing to that music is incredibly difficult because it’s so bare and repetitive, but Dove’s choreography succeeds in transfixing one’s attention the entire time. Six dancers in white engage in a series of vignettes, which Dove himself described as “a poetic monument over people I loved.” Though these pictures repeat and the music doesn’t offer highs and lows, I was shocked when at a certain point, the sextet dispersed into individual spotlights, and I just knew, “this is it—this is the end”, without any signal or build-up. It’s so spellbinding and engrossing you don’t realize how long you’ve spent in this other world until you quietly come to terms with the fact that you’ve seen everything you’re allowed. The opening night cast of Lesley Rausch, Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Seth Orza, Jerome Tisserand, and Andrew Bartee was PERFECT—and I really mean PERFECT. The chemistry of that ensemble was incredible, and had that magical magnetism that you can only feel and never describe.

Closing out the program was Twyla Tharp’s ‘In the Upper Room’, which could be described as a dance “experience” that includes an eclectic variety of dance styles, striped jumpsuits with red socks, and a smoke filled stage—but makes no sense in writing. Visually, however, it’s like a dream come true, with dancers materializing in and out of the haze, sometimes whimsically and at other times with reckless abandon (corps dancer Elizabeth Murphy in particular was on fire!). Coincidentally, Darcy loves Phillip Glass—like, honest to apple pie goodness, LOVES Phillip Glass, and her excitement over seeing a dance to his music was the bread and butter of the evening for her. It’s the same kind of giddiness I get from a Balanchine ballet to Tchaikovsky, and when she whispered to me “I LOVE PHILLIP GLASS!!!” for the third time as we “experienced” Upper Room, I had to marvel at this fact that two people with entirely different tastes in art, sat next to each other, saw the same thing, enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy—that’s okay too!) different things for different reasons, and most importantly, at the end of the day, were simply good friends. No fighting, no wars, not even callous “agreements to disagree”—we just had a fantastic time.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

A great deal of credit has to be given to Peter Boal for such fine programming in ‘Modern Masterpieces’. Just as the individual works typically contain their own episodic journey, the entire evening must as well, and ‘Masterpieces’ is wonderfully fulfilling artistically and psychologically. So a salute to Peter, because a lot of times artistic directors, like a President of the United States, get all the complaints when people are unhappy, and rarely any of the credit when things go well. It’s thanks to his vision that I’m happy to report Darcy was won over by seeing PNB, and wants to attend the ballet again, and may in fact, go see ‘Masterpieces’ a second time! Though she won’t replace me as a subscriber for season tickets (well, maybe for ‘Masterpieces’ she may quite literally replace me, as I gave my season ticket to her and her husband…who for the record, also loves Phillip Glass), I suppose I’ll be with her in spirit, because I’m sure I’ll tell her which programs to see and which may not be her cup of tea. Regardless, the fact that she even wants to go back is a victory for ballet and as I left Seattle the following morning, for a moment I reveled in a certain feeling that my work there was done.

JeRoméo et JuLesleyette

15 Feb

Much like that scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’, when Treebeard and his fellow Ents took an exceptionally long time to decide that the hobbits Merry and Pippin were not, in fact, orcs, deciding which cast of dancers to see at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette required a serious amount of deliberation. Between newly minted principal dancer James Moore partnered with spritely Kaori Nakamura, the luminous Carla Körbes with princely Seth Orza, not to mention a one-night-only guest performance by former PNB dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite (now dancers with Maillot’s own company in Monte Carlo), the selection was beyond an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I had to go with the underdogs, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, who would only perform the title roles once for a Saturday matinee (and they delivered!). Although it’s unlikely that other audience members mulled over their casting choices as tediously as I did, the house was the most full I’ve ever seen for a matinee performance, an extraordinary feat considering the fact that the Pantastico/Postlewaite performance later that night completely sold out (bravo, Seattle!).

Obviously, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is the perfect ballet to have in Seattle, because it truly satisfies the entire spectrum of dancegoers. The typical model for ballet companies these days is to brandish the war horses in full length, classical story ballets to appease the regular ballet-goers and coax people who generally don’t attend the ballet to do so (thanks to our human need to be told stories), and then leave it to mixed repertory programs to present a greater variety that finds appeal in diversified but niche audiences, namely those with more eclectic tastes in contemporary dance. Historically, modern dance has eschewed the narrative and naturally, the vast majority of contemporary dance are shorter pieces that are easily incorporated into a mixed bill. Still, the question needed to be asked if modern styles of dance could in fact tell a proper story and fortunately, a handful of choreographers have answered the call. Some have taken on original stories or previously unused ones, while others have re-imagined ballet classics and although the results may be hit-or-miss depending so heavily on an individual audience member’s tastes, the exploration is an important part of the evolution of dance. Roméo et Juliette comfortably sits right on the nexus of classical and contemporary here in Seattle, where pretty much everybody loves it. Based on what I’ve heard (“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves, sir, honest!”), it just fits with the energy of the city.

I’ve only recently started warming up to any ballet version of Shakespeare’s tragedy (which, if you’ve followed my blog for some time, or had the displeasure of discussing R&J with me on Twitter, you’ll know that there’s some history behind this, and why things have changed is a long story that I’ll have to tell you another day), but I was quite excited to see Maillot’s take on it, after being inoculated with the balcony pas de deux from PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ mixed bill last year (that time I saw Nakamura/Postlewaite dance the pas de deux). That scene remains my favorite part, for its youthful idealization of love, in the way that it’s sometimes silly, sometimes clumsy and awkward, sometimes carnal in its eroticism, and yet it incorporates these ravishing moves that are just as sensuous and adult as something you’d see in a more conventional production of R&J. In that sense, Maillot’s choreography achieves an honesty that others don’t, because his is not an adult ideal of love that draws on nostalgia. I can almost imagine a teenager choreographing that pas de deux his or herself, because it has the elements of emotional maturity with mimicry as the young couple emulates their elders. There’s a lift in particular that I have to gush about because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, where Romeo tosses Juliet around his waist and catches her as she wraps her arm around his neck, and they spin in circles, which makes your heart just fall into a pit in your stomach. I highly recommend watching the entire following video where PNB dancers talk about the principal roles, but if you’re impatient like me, you can see the lift at 1:29.

Anyway, there were a lot of things I loved about Maillot’s choreography—his use of gesture is a feast for the eyes and his phrasing so naturally picks up on the peculiarities of Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Theatrically speaking, Maillot’s production has a cinematic feel to it, complete with opening credits, a narrator, and slow motion death scenes (oh yes, he went there). Of the three, the narrator was an artistic liberty I took a major issue with—the narrator being Friar Lawrence, who basically replays the tragedy to the audience from his mind’s eye. The reason I felt this way is uninterestingly elementary, but I just felt overwhelmed with different perspectives. So you have this incredible story written by Shakespeare, as imagined by Maillot, but then narrated by Friar Lawrence, on top of dancers’ unique interpretations of the roles, which can even be influenced by the repetiteurs who stage the work. It was strangely overwhelming for a production that finds its beauty in purity, and I felt adding yet another voice convoluted the message (in addition to occasionally being unclear as to whether the Friar was actually present, or taking a stroll down memory lane). It’s sure to be a point of controversy for any traditionalist view on R&J, although in Seattle, there’s not a major dance version to compare it to so I’d imagine New York will have a much more visceral reaction upon its arrival for the company’s touring performances.

Principal Karel Cruz on the role of Friar Lawrence, explaining it way better than I can:

There were a couple of scenes I also felt were on the long side, but overall I appreciate Maillot’s creativity, and its presence in repertories around the world and popularity speaks volumes. I absolutely loved watching Rausch and Tisserand, as I think they have a chic chemistry—in past performances I’ve seen her as that cool-as-a-cucumber type dancer with pristine technique, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see her unleash in something so dramatic. The contrast is so dynamic with the flow of Maillot’s gestural choreography juxtaposed against a perfect ballet arabesque, and it really highlighted Rausch’s full range of ability as a dancer. And Tisserand is an irresistible charmer, boyish at times and yet quite valiant, as gifted an actor as he is a jumper. I do believe it was his first time performing the full ballet, and you never would’ve known it—he’s simply a natural Romeo. A great Romeo needs his wingmen though, and I have to say that Jonathan Poretta as Mercutio, and Benjamin Griffiths as Benvolio were absolutely delightful—I think New York audiences will really get a kick out of their performances. Although Orza will dance Romeo at City Center, it’s a shame they won’t get to see his menacing Tybalt—a thoroughly scary bully (who I think had something going on with Lady Capulet? Her major solo comes upon his death, where she undoes her hair, flinging it wildly about in an anguish that surpasses the grief she later shows for her own daughter, suggesting that her “nephew” was something more to her. I saw Maria Chapman as Lady Capulet and she was wild!).

I look forward to hearing peer reactions as they trickle in from the East coast in the next couple of days. I think I’ve arrived at the conclusion that for me, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette didn’t fully resonate, as I left the theatre not feeling especially bonded to the work. The ending—well, we all KNOW how R&J ends, but Maillot’s particular enactment of it left me a little confused—it had me thinking rather than feeling, which is generally not how I experience dance when given the opportunity to be in my element. Even if it never really makes its way on my list of favorites, I do think it’s a wonderful ballet and in time, I hope to have the opportunity to see it again…in ten, twenty, who-knows-how-many years, I would hope to be a different person in many ways and experiencing Romeo et Juliette at a later age could teach me a great deal about what changes took place—a truly remarkable gift of a work of art that you may not necessarily understand the first time around.

Here I go…

14 Jan

I’m really not big into New Year’s Resolutions, because quite frankly, any day is an opportunity to start or do whatever it is you keep telling yourself you’re going to change so you may as well cut the crap and get right to it (“my New Year’s Resolution is to stretch every day”—said every dancer ever). However, this year I’d like to start 2013 with a major announcement, concerning my future as a writer. I’ve had this idea in various stages of planning for months now so some readers may already know about it, but I waited to make clear my intentions because I wanted to rid myself of all doubts to ensure that I knew I was ready to make things happen.

Believe me when I say I love to dance and when I’m not dancing, I’m thinking about it or waiting anxiously to get back to class. It’s priority number one, but I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have writing as another creative form of self-expression that allows me to describe how I experience dance as both a participant in the art form and as an audience member. Over the past few years, I’ve refined this craft and had the freedom to strengthen my voice as I’ve wanted to, something that continues to evolve as we speak. Although I’m horrified by the writer I was when I began this process four years ago, I had to explore and stumble—and sometimes fall flat on my face—in order to figure it all out. It’s like straightening crooked teeth with braces or finally going from humongous glasses to getting contacts, and my old writing is an ever-present series of awkward grade school photos. I’ve realized it’s now a matter of looking into the mirror today and knowing you’ve changed and doing your best to get a laugh out of those photos before anyone else does (and really, pictures of kids with goofy glasses and braces are always pretty damn cute anyway).

The point is, I feel ready to take things a step further—or rather, a grand jeté into the unknown. I’m ready to leave Seattle and hit the road for a time, and nothing would excite me more than to visit ballet companies all across the United States, see performances, take classes, and maybe talk to people. It occurred to me that this journey could be turned into a book—or rather, needed to be—because there’s so much I want to say about ballet. There’s so much I have to tell people about how I got started, what motivates me, the synergetic relationship between dance and writing about it, and why transformative experiences in the arts matter. I don’t necessarily withhold anything when I write, but there have been things that have been left unsaid because I couldn’t find the time or the right moment and I hate this feeling of being full to the brim with ideas and never being able to find the time to organize them. Juggling work, dancing, writing, and pretending to have a social life is becoming more and more difficult to do and I’m constantly making sacrifices or settling for mediocrity—which is not something I like.

So this is how it’s going to go down—the writing has been sparse the past few months but it’s because I’ve been working hard and saving money to give myself this opportunity to take time off. I’ll be packing up my car and driving from Seattle to New York during the spring months, visiting friends and former teachers, watching performances, and telling my story (also, not gonna lie—there will be some visiting of National Parks along the way so I can reconnect with nature, get away from my thoughts, because parks are awesome, and because I haven’t taken a proper vacation in like five years. Every time I’ve travelled in the recent past has been to see ballet and write about it, so there was always work to do). I’ll be using this blog perhaps a bit differently, in that I may not be as detailed in performance reviews as I normally would be, but I will post some brief reviews as well as significant chapter excerpts in order to illustrate what happens on this journey. To be honest, I’m not sure this whole project is even a smart idea, but smart and good aren’t synonymous; I’ve often seen stupid ideas turn out to be incredibly good ones. In this case I have to know if I can do it and there’s really only one way to find out.

So! I’ve devised a rough itinerary, though it’s far from exhaustive (I’m also hoping to visit some universities with ballet programs, as they are quite necessary in order to paint a more complete portrait of ballet in America). So far, here’s what the current plan looks like:

  • 3/15 Seattle, WA (Pacific Northwest Ballet – Modern Masterpieces)
  • 3/21 San Francisco, CA (San Francisco Ballet – Onegin)
  • 3/22 San Jose, CA (San Jose Ballet – Program 2)
  • 3/23 Los Angeles, CA (Los Angeles Ballet – Balanchine Festival)
  • 3/28 Phoenix, AZ (Ballet Arizona – Director’s Choice)
  • 4/5 Salt Lake City, UT (Ballet West – Jewels)
  • Albuquerque, NM & Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX (Texas Christian University)
  • 4/19 Oklahoma City, OK (Oklahoma City Ballet – Swan Lake)
  • St. Louis, MO
  • 4/24 Chicago, IL (Joffrey Ballet – Othello)
  • Indianpolis, IN
  • 4/27 Columbus, OH (BalletMet – The Little Mermaid)
  • Richmond, VA (Virginia Commonwealth University)
  • 5/8 Washington D.C. (Washington Ballet – Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises)
  • 5/9 Philadelphia, PA (Pennsylvania Ballet – Carnival of the Animals)
  • 5/11 Boston, MA (Boston Ballet – Chroma)
  • May/June New York, New York (ABT, NYCB, ???…lots)

I don’t know exactly what I’ll be seeing in New York, but I will most definitely see every performance of ‘A Month in the Country’ and at least one of NYCB in ‘Theme and Variations’—why you ask? Well, that’s a part of the story that is yet untold…actually, I may have mentioned their significance in my life at some point in this blog, though not in detail. So even if you’ve followed this blog from the very beginning, for me, putting it into book form is a way to recapitulate the story into something concise and cohesive. I’m excited to be embarking on this quest to see more ballet and define for myself the life of a modern balletomane. Inevitably, my only regret is that there will be a wealth of things I can’t see and places I can’t go, so I hope people will forgive me, and not feel ignored (Sarasota Ballet’s ‘La fille mal gardée’ and Miami City Ballet’s ‘Dances at a Gathering’ were particularly excruciating omissions).

There is however, a great deal of fear too. For all I know, I could be making the biggest mistake of my life! Here in Seattle I have a job—which pays peanuts, but it’s a job that provides me with a roof over my head, food to eat, and just enough left over to take my weekly dosage of ballet class. To top it off, I live within walking distance of Pacific Northwest Ballet—I can get there on foot in ten minutes and open class at PNB boasts beautiful studios with marley floors, live accompaniment, and teachers I like very much. I have cherished friends both dancers and not, and on paper I have everything I need to be happy—and I am! Work is the bane of my existence, but when my class days roll around I bubble with excitement. Plenty of people have to live their lives this way—what makes me think I deserve to be different? If I can be happy like this, shouldn’t I take satisfaction in that?

Coincidentally, a non-dancer friend of mine happened to share a video a few days ago that clarified the murkiness. It’s a lecture by philosopher Alan Watts, on the topic of what we desire to do with our lives:

After listening to that, I understood that I was so busy asking myself “is this all there is to life?” that I completely overlooked the fact that the simple answer was “no.” The very idea that I even posed the question to myself meant that I have so much to experience and learn because a person who has seen enough never thinks to ask such questions. If money were no object I would dance all day, write about it, and engage a community of people who share the same interests. Hell, I’d even dabble in choreography, something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. I’ve already started even—for almost a year now I’ve been slowly choreographing a ballet in my head, to the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.3, a piece that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember and regard as my musical soul mate. It’s blisteringly fast, intense, romantic, classical—I never tire of it, and studying ballet has been an especially fascinating process for me because now I’m learning a language that allows me to visualize it. So far it’s a scrapbook of mostly Ashton and Balanchine, as I borrowed many, MANY steps from my favorite ballets of theirs. However, in order to complete the work, I just need to see more and I realized that’s another important reason why I have to do this tour. Don’t get me wrong—I’m an amateur and I could easily be terrible, but imagining the music blossoming in my mind’s eye is important to me, regardless of what anybody else thinks because I get immense joy from daydreaming about its phrases and pictures, and that alone makes it worthwhile. There are amateur painters, photographers, songwriters, and artists of all kinds who do what they do for the love of it—why not amateur ballet choreographers? Sure, I could be finger-painting compared to a Mona Lisa like an Ashton/Balanchine ballet, but if society wouldn’t scold a five-year-old’s art, then I’m thinking I don’t have to judge myself so harshly either.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve gone back and forth, weighed pros and cons, awoken gung-ho one day and completely defeated the next. The following couple of months will probably be just as antsy, but I’m going to say it now, that I’m committed to this project. Now that I’ve put it out there, in this powerful medium we call writing, there’s no turning back. I’ve told my roommate that I’m terminating my lease, and a couple of days ago a fortune cookie even presented me with this:

Ok. (Although, I can't decide if it's a relief or a sign of insanity that I find it easier to trust a confection containing a piece of paper than I do to trust myself...don't tell me because I don't really want to know)

Ok. (Although, I can’t decide if it’s a relief or a sign of insanity that I find it easier to trust a confection containing a piece of paper than I do to trust myself)

Newfangled by Nutcracker

30 Dec

The end of the year is a wonderful thing—looking back at the various milestones and kilometerstones I’ve had, I feel nothing but blessed to be alive to have been through it all. Some marked changes rather than a benchmark experience, with the last of 2012 coming from my recent attendance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’. During this unseasonably warm and mild-weathered winter, it dawned on me that I was excited to see ‘The Nutcracker’…because…well…I love it. (There, I said it!) If I was a skilled hiker I’d shout it from the top of Mt. Rainier that I love the Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell Nutcracker, and this is without the onus of decades of family tradition to twist my arm into feeling this way. Nutcrackers generally fall into two camps of a traditional production like that of Balanchine’s or something loosely in the image of Petipa/Ivanov, and then a myriad of ultra modern stagings (e.g., versions by Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne, and Maurice Bejart to name a few). PNB’s Nutcracker is something in between and I love that it’s unique in that way—it’s evidence that we can re-imagine conventional ballets just enough to infuse them with creativity while never straying too far from the original. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who is attending school at Columbia told me that she saw Ratmansky’s Nutcracker this year, and now home to see PNB’s, she realized the artistic fulfillment the latter provides, while others seem to relegate themselves to a certain level of pageantry. Last year I had written about Sendak’s interpretation of Clara’s dream intertwining with a journey along the Silk Road, and even the second time around I still can’t get over how brilliant an idea that was. May Sendak—who passed away this year—rest in peace.

This year I made it a point to see the seraphic Carla Körbes as Clara, and I even splurged a little on an orchestra level ticket. At fifty dollars, it was the most I had ever spent on a ticket to see PNB, but I wanted to have that experience of seeing the company as I had never seen them before. I should mention that I have in fact seen a few programs from orchestra level—but not from the fourth row! Some people spend their fair share of income to be that close to artists at rock concerts and I’m proud to say that it’s ballet that demands of me a certain proximity to the stage. What else to do but oblige? Inevitably, part of me missed my second-tier nosebleed seat that I had become accustomed to because patterns among the corps de ballet are indeed more evident, but up close you really get to hear that magical pitter-patter of pointe shoes, so there’s some give and take. Unfortunately, a far less ambient addition to the soundtrack came from restless children and when the toddler behind me started screeching during the grand pas de deux, among my sighs of pleasure may have been a sigh of despair. I know, I know, “magical experience for kids” and what-have-you but let’s be real—some kids just can’t handle sitting still for two hours (although, given the heated argument the married couple next to me had during intermission, I had some severe doubts about some adults too—awkward! Gah!). I’m of the opinion that rambunctious kids should live true to their nature; there are plenty of wintertime activities like sledding or ice skating that can tire out even the rowdiest of little folk, and really, at that age they’re practically indestructible anyway so it’s the best time to engage in activities that as adults we have to think twice about (or drink enough) to do without fear.

At any rate, the dancing was superb, and despite numerous performances preceding the one I saw, the company still looked fresh as daisies. I quite liked Jerome Tisserand as the Sword-Dancer Doll (one of the gifts from Herr Drosselmeier), and the Masque—a short pas de trois to a duet from Tchaikovsky’s opera Pique Dame—was a picture of elegance with mile-long arabesques from Emma Love, Price Suddarth, and Steven Loch. Though not original to Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker, I love the inclusion of this music and adore the choreography for it, the style of which is reminiscent of courtly dances. In the larger ensemble pieces like ‘Snowflakes,’ corps dancer Angelica Generosa really stood out to me, which is quite the feat in a literal flurry of fake snow, sixteen dancers, and a lot of allegro work, but Generosa has the most marvelous port de bras—crisp but not forceful and finished with beautiful hands. The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ was just as pretty, with Margaret Mullin leading the floral cascade with effervescence and lucidity. The “Silk Road” divertissements were great fun, and I especially loved Benjamin Griffiths in ‘Commedia’ as the lead harlequin. Clement Crisp once wrote that the jester is “a despicable figure in all ballets” but he’d be wrong about this one—it was wonderfully appropriate to the ‘Danse des Mirlitons’ (and Griffiths has a wicked penché—I love it when men get to do that!). With a common thread of splendid performances by Körbes as a halcyon Clara, and Batkhurel Bold as a quiet but majestic prince, I couldn’t help but feel an immense amount of satisfaction in being in the audience that night—it was truly gratifying to be treated to such marvelous performances by so many talented individuals.

All in all, I had a genuinely great time and now have a hard time imagining another Nutcracker living up to this standard and being so enjoyable to me. As I left McCaw Hall for the last time in 2012, I reminisced about how much Pacific Northwest Ballet has made my year so wonderful, and felt a great sense of contentment. Earlier in the year I decreed 2012 as the year of my dreams coming true, as evidenced by the following tweet that a certain favorite celebrity of mine responded to:

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that's who!

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that’s who!

She couldn’t have been more right, as there certainly have been a LOT of “YAYYYYYs” throughout the year! Now, I find myself looking forward to 2013, but with a new perspective on what I want to accomplish. More than ever I feel a need to take decisive action, to do things I’ve never done before, and experience the unknown. It’s exciting and maybe a little scary (actually, a LOT scary), but I think I’m ready—or maybe, I know I’m ready! Regardless, my new Moleskine planner shall provide the inspirational words I need to see every day, with a boldly embossed movie quote that I find accurately describes the outlook I want to have in life:

Immortal words...

Immortal words…

Happy New Year friends! Let’s make 2013 a year of “doing” and not trying, shall we? And thanks ALWAYS, for reading!

-♡-

Steve