ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson

18 May

My time in Boston actually poisoned me with some doubts, as the penultimate leg of this journey was in fact the only time when I questioned whether zigzagging nearly ten thousand miles across the country to see ballet was worth it. My arrival in New York was without fanfare (as if anybody gets that besides the Royal Family anyway) and bedraggled, I crawled into the city relieved to have all the traveling be over with. Regardless of what happens next—not to mention the insurmountable mountain of work left to be done—I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, privileged to call this place home even for a few weeks. Still, traveling comes with its baggage and mine came in the form of Onegin, as the production on loan from the National Ballet of Canada seems to have crossed the US with me. Nearly two months ago I saw Onegin on San Francisco Ballet, and now (probably en route back to Toronto) here it is in New York with American Ballet Theatre, the ballet that has come to define John Cranko’s choreographic legacy. Adapted from Aleksander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko masterfully distilled important plot devices from the novel, selected infinitely danceable music, and created a captivating ballet. The only real problem with it is that it rides quite heavily on the acting abilities of the lead dancers, a quality that has become regrettably rarefied in this age of extremely technical ballet. However, Onegin reminds us of the power of subtleties and the dramatic impact of theatre. Also crucial is chemistry, which Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes have in spades, a virtually legendary partnership that I had even heard about through the grapevine long before I ever set foot on New York soil/concrete/asphalt—whatever.

This was my first time to see the sensational Vishneva, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre. I had some reservations because I’ve experienced a disillusionment to the current Russian style of ballet, which in my opinion has become a grossly distorted version of what Vaganova training intended to be and raises several questions about what makes for good training and good teaching. However, artists do emerge, and Vishneva is like no other. She can jump and she can move fast, hurtling herself into Cranko’s menagerie of immaculate lifts without hesitation and for all her limberness, she doesn’t abuse it. She certainly gives the full range but uses that to her advantage to add depth to her performances and really flesh out the characters she portrays. As Tatiana, the gentle soul who goes from lovelorn to crown jewel, she maintains an engaging presence throughout, coloring it with all the hues of innocence, heartbreak, nobility, and inner turmoil. It’s a relatively simple story of a young woman falling in love with a man who rejects her, and a passage of time reveals her marriage to another, as the original object of her affection futilely attempts to win her back. Watching Vishneva has a sense of living through every moment with her and the final duet in which she rejects Onegin was a ping-pong match of “Do it! Wait—stop! Get him! Don’t do it! Eek! You go girl!” and the final image of her alone on stage, staring off into the distance is an arresting one, lips pursed with a grim solace. It’s appropriate for a ballet with no happy ending, no forgiveness or reconciliation, which is so satisfyingly discomforting.

Onegin is kind of a male dancer’s ballet though, and more importantly, a great actor’s ballet, o which Gomes gave the master class. You love to hate to see him as a reprehensible character, and even the way he first appears, stalking in the background like a panther was alluring yet eerie, with an air of mystery that makes you want to know more about this man. There’s a moment in the opening solo where he steps into an arabesque and reaches out with one arm and recoils it back in a seductively feline way and really makes it a predatory gesture. Even the beginning of the famous mirror pas de deux, when Tatiana dances with a specter of an imaginary Onegin, of course I knew he was going to appear but I nearly ducked underneath my chair to hide anyway when he did, because Gomes hovered behind her reflection with this spooky, really menacing posture. I do so love the mirror pas de deux—transformation is an iconic theme in ballet for women, but hardly ever for men. Giselle turns into a Wili, Nikiya a shade, and even Cinderella gets a fancy new dress, but the bread and butter role has to be Odette/Odile, and Onegin/Onegin’s visage can be seen as something of an inverse. Just like how Odile appears only briefly to dispatch her trickery, Onegin’s reflection is the ephemeral, deceptive one, but is instead the idealization. However, without a dramatic costume change and because of the realistic story, the differences have to be tempered with both showmanship and subtlety—he can’t just emerge a valiant gentleman because he still has to retain certain qualities and characterization of the real man.

I wasn’t nearly as engrossed by the acting of Isabella Boylston and Jared Matthews, both fine dancers but perhaps miscast with Vishneva/Gomes. The relationship between Olga (Boylston) and Lensky (Matthews) has to be believable because its perceived breakdown sets the events in motion for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. I find Boylston charming enough as Tatiana’s coquettish sister, but actually I think the relationship between her and Vishneva’s Tatiana is what I didn’t find plausible. They certainly don’t look alike and it’s not that siblings have to resemble each other, but each dancer’s unique physicality and portrayal of their respective characters made it apparent that they had nothing in common, and even the most divergent of siblings still have some thread of similarity indicative of kinship. Even Tatiana feels the need to protect Lensky, begging him not to duel with Onegin, but her relationship with Olga is what makes that powerful. Matthews’s Lensky is a stand-up guy, and I found his solo prior to the duel quite moving, smooth as satin and wrought with despondency, but I couldn’t help feel that the sorrow was more based in a resignation to die, rather than anguish at the horrifying idea of aiming a pistol at his friend. When it comes to theatrics you have to make the audience wait for it, and I prefer to see Lensky with both poignancy and valor. In San Francisco, when Joan Boada’s Lensky fell to the ground, it was like my world had shattered and I had to fight back the tears.

It’s really important for performers not to give too much away when they know what’s going to happen next. It’s an area where Gomes excels; that first release of his head and upper back right after he kills Lensky is the first, fleeting sign of remorse and vulnerability, but when he returns in the third act he still has remnants of that pompous cynicism which he brought to the previous acts. When Onegin sees a matured and married Tatiana (Vishneva is a stunner in red, by the way), Gomes allows for the decay of that exterior to happen, rather than making it obvious. This is another moment I find fascinating because of its likeness to Giselle’s mad scene—although we see the events he relives take place behind a scrim, the gestures of reaching out to the phantoms of his past and burying his face in his hands have to be done with the same amount of integrity. At long last, when he and Tatiana are finally alone, do we see him completely disintegrate into a pitiable wretch, and the differing perspectives on the source of his regrets make for a roller coaster as Tchaikovsky’s music runs away with histrionics. Is Onegin apologetic for hurting Tatiana? Rueful of killing Lensky? Or shamefully wanting what he now can’t have…it’s certainly a mixed bag and if you have the magnetism and emotional capacity of Vishneva/Gomes, you may as well go for broke and do it all.

As the super secret formula for superlative storytelling continues to elude modern day choreographers (to a certain extent), I love that Onegin can still be so enthralling and relevant—I’m now more excited than ever to see Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a matter of days, which is going to provide an interesting contrast on a similar time period of early 19th century Imperial Russia. The only problem with doing Onegin and Month so closely to one another though is that casting is too formulaic. Some of the same principal couples of Onegin are cast as the leads in Month, and unfortunately, Vishneva/Gomes not among them. It’s a shame for Vishneva in particular because I think Month is more centered on Natalya Petrovna’s quiescent distress and I would have loved to seen her portrayal. Count me a fan.

Boston Ballet’s ‘Chroma’

16 May

I’ve never missed an opening curtain—until I arrived in Boston. What was supposed to be a nice drive from Philadelphia to Beantown went from five hours to six, and six to more than nine. As I wasted away in the endless traffic, firing a colorful assortment of curses that singed my ears, increasing my white hairs twenty-fold, and resorting to smashing my forehead against the steering wheel aplenty, I lamented that I wouldn’t make it in time to see the curtain rise on Boston Ballet performing Serenade—which felt like a cardinal sin. To my chagrin I resigned to seeing only Chroma and Symphony in C of the triple bill, but considering all the rage I had going in, Wayne McGregor’s work was actually a blessing in disguise.

The controversial modernist McGregor, known for his back-breaking, hyper extended extremist alien choreography, is essentially the torchbearer of what I often despise most in a great deal of contemporary work. The physical aggression and severity of his ballets is such that it demands genetically acquired gifts—women must have a freakishly mobile spine and everyone has to have open hips to the nth degree. Now, this is of course true for ballet dancers in general (though it wasn’t always the case) but McGregor exploits it to a point where I’m not sure all accomplished dancers can even train to do his work. I don’t even find his style particularly innovative; it might be new to ballet, but it isn’t new to rhythmic gymnastics, twenty, thirty years ago (because rhythmic today is more circusy than ever) and without the noodly legs, the leftover substance isn’t new to things that have been done in postmodern dance. When I’m left with a feeling that gymnasts who train as athletes could probably learn to dance his work over trained ballet dancers, it begs the question: what are we really looking at?

Regardless, I have to admit that Chroma is a brilliant piece to behold, in large part due to the percussive score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of The White Stripes fame. With a set of ten dancers dressed in flesh toned undergarments unleashing a constant wave of undulating spines, rolling hips, and limbs extended to the sky, then punctuated by sharp, angular gestures that connected one moment to the next, one body to another, there’s always something of intrigue to look at. I mistakenly assumed that due to the assailing dynamic of the piece that Chroma didn’t allow for much individual expression, but I was wrong. Because of unfamiliarity with the dancers of Boston Ballet, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who in the Friday (5/10) cast, and to my surprise the dancers on Saturday (5/11) night revealed some wonderful idiosyncrasies, probably because I had something to compare them to. Corps member Seo Hye Han made a lasting impression by tempering softness into it, and I also found my eye drawn to Joseph Gatti, who brought a keen Michael Jackson sensibility (check out this video of him dancing like MJ—it’s incredible), complete with a signature glossy, endless spin. It’s clear the dancers loved performing Chroma—I’d imagine the experience was both indulgent and liberating, getting to do the things ballet training says “no” to and it was fun to watch them be ferociously offensive.

The Royal Ballet in Chroma:

I have tremendous respect for Dame Monica Mason for having hired McGregor into the Royal Ballet because even if I don’t like everything about the results I believe she made the right decision by taking a risk. However, I worry that if a line isn’t drawn somewhere, then the identity and essence of ballet could be further denigrated. I actually like that McGregor’s work is making its way into company repertories all around the US because American audiences in particular love the bombastic, but whether you like Bournonville or Balanchine or whomever, the master choreographers of this art form have always had a reverence for the steps themselves include ballet vocabulary. It’s true that McGregor is making work that resonates with audiences, but I wonder if his work is succeeding in making him relevant—rather than ballet. So yes, “back-breaking, hyper extended extremist aliens” have their place in dance because it’s still movement but I don’t know that it can go beyond novelty, in the sense that companies can regularly perform his work but not necessarily promote it as “the new ballet”. I’d feel differently if classical ballet was actually popular and subtlety still appreciated, but when the man behind me said: “that [Chroma] blew the first one [Serenade] out of the water”, my heart sank because it’s not that I think Serenade is imbibed with universal appeal (though it’s pretty damn close), just that the lack of understanding of ballet is such that this particular audience member’s immediate reaction was to draw a comparison to two vastly different pieces and that art appreciation in America is inevitably reduced to competition where the outrageous always wins.

Still, in terms of contemporary choreographers, what I do like about McGregor is that he has been able to separate himself from the pack because he’s found a way to fully realize his extraordinary visions with—wait for it—authenticity. If we now live in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to say anything new, McGregor’s voice is at least true to himself. He’s incredibly intelligent and I’m interested to see how he embraces the narrative format for his upcoming ballet Raven Girl—not that I can skip across the pond at leisure anytime soon but I’m curious to read the forthcoming reviews nonetheless (reading dance reviews—imagine that!), and I like that McGregor has me thinking a great deal, wanting to converse, and to see more, even if it’s not because I love to. Thankfully, Boston Ballet “Oreo-d” Chroma with Serenade and Symphony in C, and whether you enjoy the cookie parts, the cream filling, or the whole sandwich, you were made to experience something you normally wouldn’t, had the evening been “All Balanchine” or “All Contemporary”.

Now there’s nothing I can say about Serenade that hasn’t already been said in regards to its history or its stunning beauty, so I’m going to describe a mere sliver of it as a dance of angels to the most beautiful music by Tchaikovsky (first ballet Balanchine made in America, eschewed the ornate in favor of highlighting the dance, beloved by many, etc. etc). I never tire of seeing Serenade—watching the curtain rise on that famous diamond pattern of seventeen women in pale blue skirts on Saturday night lifted my spirits and eliminated in one breath all the angst I had accumulated in my travels towards Boston. A last minute cast change had Adiarys Almeida filling in for one of the featured roles and she was a delight. I found her dancing so tranquil and having extraordinary balance certainly worked in her favor. Even as a shorter dancer she filled empty spaces with long lines and fluidity. Equally enjoyable was Brittany Summer, who emanated a pleasant freshness in her expressions.

Over two performances of Symphony in C, possibly Balanchine’s most classical work and symbolized by pure white tutus, Almeida again stood out with a lovely charm that she subdued in Serenade. The second night had Misa Kuranaga in the same role as the lead ballerina of the first movement, a bright allegro to match her fabulous technique. Kuranaga is the kind of dancer you can watch and forget that you’re watching ballet because it looks completely natural on her and nothing is forced or has the appearance of something that requires any amount of concentration. She moved diligently and in the simplest manner possible, a resplendent queen in a garden of white roses. Paulo Arrais partnered with Kuranaga, and sailed cleanly through a series of pirouettes with an adorable smile, also presenting Kuranaga most nobly. Ashley Ellis and Nelson Madrigal performed the slow second movement both nights that I saw, Ellis with a glorious sense of luxuriousness without overindulging, and Madrigal a reliable partner in a role that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of recognition for the male dancer. However, the third movement is a scherzo/allegro vivace and seemed to lack some spark. If I had to address any cracks in the armor, this was the place where I noticed timing as an ensemble wavered and some of the dancers looked a little tentative. These issues lingered into the fourth movement and my favorite (because I love the way Balanchine reworked the choreography from each of the previous three movements to fit into a faster tempo when he reintroduces each grouping), but when you’re cramming fifty-two dancers on stage, it’s hard to synchronize them like clockwork. Still, the ifnal movement is fast, fun, and exciting—or so I thought because the ovation for Chroma in comparison to Symphony in C had me wondering if the latter wasn’t drastic enough to be a show closer anymore…the difference is however, a marker of how times have changed.

Strong programming and exceptional dancers—I couldn’t have asked for more in seeing Boston Ballet put together a couple of strong performances that also highlighted how big the company has become in recent years. Including Boston Ballet II they now have just over sixty-five dancers which puts them on par with San Francisco Ballet and given the strength of their school (the adult program alone is unbelievable—and a topic for another day!) they’re a fortress of ballet on the East coast, a remarkable feat considering the proximity to New York. Boston Ballet is very much its own entity though, one of the first to bring McGregor’s Chroma to the US (the second after San Francisco, I believe) and monstrously strong with great diversity amongst its ranks. I envy the city’s residents and the fine dancing they get to enjoy and egads they’ve already opened with Coppélia, not even one week removed from the last showing of ‘Chroma’! Perhaps I left too soon…or maybe not, because Coppélia really isn’t my—whatever, nevermind. That’s enough bias for one day!

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/