Tag Archives: abt

The Irony of Byron-y

7 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’

1 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Too…complex…brain…meltdown…

6 Sep

The Guardian published on article yesterday asking ‘Where are the black ballet dancers?’ and the subheading makes the claim that a lack thereof is “dance’s biggest blind spot.” There’s a lot going on here and I hesitate to weigh in on the subject because racism is so complex…but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that article or the one published the day after in the New York Times, where Alastair Macaulay points out—or rather, reiterates—that classical ballets still employ racial, ethnic, and national stereotypes, making further claims that ballet companies do in fact exercise “race-blind casting.” Between the two articles, there is so much food for thought my brain is working in a clockwork frenzy to try and grasp what this all means about the current state of ballet. It’s difficult for me because I’m simple-minded—speaking as an audience member; race = not an issue. Of course this doesn’t mean I’m apt to recognize all the signs of racism in ballet—even in my precious favorite, ‘The Dream,’ I recently mentioned on Twitter that it bothers me that English ballet companies insist on having Titania wear a blonde wig. I didn’t like the way it looked, and loved that ABT has their ladies wear their hair down in Botticellian glory. This was all in response to a ballet company that had posted photos of their dancers in ‘The Dream’ and both Titanias were Japanese. I was slow to connect the dots because I didn’t give much thought as to why the wigs looked particularly unnatural and even missed the conformity Macaulay mentioned in his article altogether when I saw Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird.’ Poignant reminders that I too, need to constantly adapt my level of awareness, and that political correctness is not a state you simply achieve once in your lifetime.

At any rate, the article at the Guardian bothered me for a few reasons. First of all, we have to be able to separate some statistics from the racism. The minority ratios of Afro-Russian people in Russia and African-American people in the US are vastly different, and does account for part of the reason why the Bolshoi has no black dancers. Not to mention the fact that the Bolshoi barely has any dancers from outside of Russia, which could be in part due to racism, body fascism, a simple preference for dancers that graduate from the Bolshoi Academy, or all of the above. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that a black dancer growing up in Russia faces a different set of circumstances than one growing up in the US or the UK, and we can’t distill things into a simple solution for black dancers worldwide—it’s incredibly complex in relation to geography. It’s not just a matter of recruitment/promotion of black dancers, fair casting, elimination of pink tights, and outreach—ballet itself has to procure the conditions in which anyone can excel. Easier said than done…but I think Macaulay is definitely right about one thing—some of the beloved classics are definitely furthering the image of ballet as a primarily white art.

As it is, there’s a dearth of new narrative ballets these days. Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’ was the latest for ABT, something of a vehicle for Misty Copeland, who was the cover model for the advertisements. By all accounts, Copeland is an amazing dancer—unfortunately, injury meant that I didn’t get a chance to see her with my own eyes, but I don’t doubt the countless that have opined as such. Still, it’s kind of unfortunate that in a leading role, she’s wore a full body red unitard, and was type-cast a bit in something more “dynamic.” As she continues to inspire, it seems like there’s a lot riding on her successes, as if to brew the perfect storm for a ballet boom amongst black communities, but it’s not that simple. Copeland has already gained notoriety for many reasons, for having started in ballet so late and for being a muse of pop music star, Prince, but even she has said that she’s not really the first black soloist ABT has had—so I keep wondering, why has ballet systematically undermined the achievements of black dancers, such that we still have to pin our hopes on Copeland to make a difference? I honestly don’t know…it may be as Aesha Ash said, that donors are having their say, which sadly, wouldn’t surprise me. The people who claim to love ballet the most may be the most harmful towards it…which is ironic, because I’d like to think many ballet audiences wouldn’t bat an eye, and certainly members of the general public would be the same way. I’ve coerced friends into watching ‘Center Stage’—a guilty pleasure—and when they see Eva Rodriguez or Eric “O” Jones, nobody asks questions, or thinks it weird to see black dancers in a ballet setting.

There remains a tough question to ask though…Copeland, for example, could have all the success in the world, but what if nothing changes? There are still socioeconomic factors that hold black people back, not to mention the brutality of going through the corps de ballet that so strictly demands uniformity. I’m interested to know what enrollment demographics are like at the Houston Ballet Academy, where Lauren Anderson, a black woman, was in fact a principal dancer (touted as the first in the US). I first read about her in ‘Meet the Dancers’ (a book by Amy Nathan, geared towards kids and young adults…but whatever, it was a fun read!) and I instantly adored her, setting about to find out more. What I found was an awesome interview, where she was talkative, honest, witty, and had such an incredibly healthy perspective not just on being a role model, but being a dancer in general. It’s great, and she’s wonderful in so many ways that it’s an absolute must see:

As is her Don Quixote pas de deux with none other than Carlos Acosta (her perfectly centered a la seconde turns that melted into penche starting at 2:39 gave me chills!):

Coincidentally, it’s interesting that in her interview, she mentioned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as the only “white” role, which just so happens to be the most recent full length ballet created for the Royal Ballet, by Christopher Wheeldon. It made me wonder…Macaulay posed the question “are choreographers telling the stories for our time?” and is it possible that both Wheeldon and Ratmansky, despite their talents, aren’t equipped to respond to the needs of society, that they, like their institution are out of touch with reality and are either unwilling or complacent in taking risks? (I really hope that doesn’t sound like an attack on both of them because both have created work that I admire greatly) Let’s be honest…a young black girl having seen Copeland in ‘Firebird’ could easily think “I want to be just like Misty” but would she feel the same way about dancing the role of the Firebird? Visibility is crucial but so is desire; it’s not a matter of simply providing roles for black dancers—there needs to be roles black people will want to dance.

I feel like I’m just going in circles now and the more I try to think about it, the more lost I get…but on this topic of responding to the needs of society (and going back to why the Guardian article also bothered me), my final thoughts are that I’d like to put forth the suggestion that things are equally, perhaps more difficult for homosexual dancers. This was an idea first brought to my attention while watching a special by comedian Wanda Sykes, where part of her act is a hilarious enactment of what it would be like to “come out black.” While stereotypes can be used in intelligent ways to rouse a laugh, Sykes has since appeared in interviews to elaborate more seriously on her own statement, mentioning how there are groups who pay millions of dollars to ensure bans on gay marriage, and though she was quick to recognize grim times in the civil rights history of African Americans, right now, it’s harder to be gay. In terms of ballet, a black Odette/Odile has in fact happened, thanks to Anderson, but what are the chances of a purely classical Swan Lake production featuring Siegfried falling in love with a Swan Prince? Or a Princess falling in love with Odette/Odile? Purists would never let it happen because apparently the steps can’t tell the story if the Swan Prince can’t dance en pointe or if a Princess Siegfried equivalent couldn’t perform some kind of acrobatic lift with her partner, and to change Petipa’s choreography would be heresy, and so the oppression of gay dancers will persist.

Despite the prolific amount of same-sex partnering in contemporary ballet, the fact remains that nobody seems to trust that the classical steps can tell any story. People always talk about taking risks in the arts, which for dance has a tendency to be perceived as the invention of new movement styles, when maybe the risk that needs to be taken is having faith in classical ballet to be a versatile medium. The closest pas de deux we have is one from Roland Petit’s ‘Proust,’ but one could still go back to classical themes—I was reading Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ when it occurred to me that the myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus had marvelous potential as a classical ballet. The story goes that Apollo falls in love with a Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, who in another version is also the object of affection of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind. Long story short, when Apollo teaches Hyacinthus to throw a discus, a jealous Zephyrus deflects it to strike Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. The crestfallen Apollo, refusing to let Hades claim his love, transforms him into a flower (ironically, it’s believed to be a larkspur or iris). The destructive power of an Olympian god, the fragility of a mortal, and despite divinity, an immortal’s desire to love like a human…it’s a fairly rich story (okay, maybe as a one act), and is there anything we crave more in classical ballet than love triangles, death, and transformation? I think not. Still, I doubt anyone would be interested in funding or creating it.

And yet, there are always signs of hope for change—today, on New York City Ballet’s Facebook page, a wedding announcement was made for soloist Craig Hall, a gay black dancer, and his husband Frank Wildermann. Though not directly related to either article, reading that news after reading the Guardian and the New York Times was a breath of fresh air. Congratulations to the newlyweds!

A Melancholy Goodbye to You, New York

30 Jun

Since I already reviewed one Swan Lake, I won’t rehash it all here, but I would like to write about some of the interesting points about the performances of Polina Semionova and David Hallberg, as well as combine that with some closing thoughts about everything that has happened for me in New York.

First of all, Semionova is just incredible. Her lyricism is astounding and the tempo was so slow for her Odette it seemed to take an eternity in the best possible way. It’s so challenging to have the patience to fill the music for adagio and Semionova is one of the best that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Her Odette is one hundred percent beauty, a flawless creature sculpted of silk and diamonds, and I love her detailing, like how she crossed her wrists in the partnered pirouettes to create beautiful shapes and frame her face. The purity of her Odette is so believable that the idea that she becomes heartbroken over Siegfried’s infidelity makes a lot of sense. I think that’s also a large part of what makes her partnership with Hallberg work for this ballet because he too is so divine. What I found fascinating was how they played this out in the black swan pas de deux, where he seemed almost aloof in his transfixion of her, as if in a hypnotic state. Odile can be danced as a very seductive character, which essentially puts the blame on Siegfried for falling for the doppelganger scam, but when she’s danced as more of an enchantress who bewitches him, in a sense, he remains a paragon of virtue. It really works for this pairing because Semionova’s Odile is a very powerful character. The chemistry between them is subtle and yet dazzling for what has to be one of the most elegant couples performing in ballet today.

Meanwhile, there really isn’t anything I can say about Hallberg that hasn’t already been said but he is magnificent. The lightness, the ease of movement, and the sheer perfection of line—he is a classic classical classicist, and an absolute joy to watch. His Siegfried was reserved, almost quiet, and I loved how he showed us this in facial expression but also his body. The way he moves is consistent with how he portrays the character, and I’ll never tire of the way he presents his foot in a croisé devant, with his legendary feet so beautifully turned out you can hardly believe it’s real! What I also really love about Hallberg is that he doesn’t always do an extra beat in a cabriole or turn like a tornado (though he really went for it in this performance!), but he makes the simple things, like a grand jeté look so easy that your heart practically explodes. The magic of his stage presence is told in subtleties and though I’ve learned a great deal about his versatility, delighting in his mighty Oberon and maniacal Kaschei, Siegfried definitely highlights this quality the most. When he leapt off the cliff at the very end, in a perfectly prone position with one arm raised to the sky, not only are you heartbroken over the tragedy between him and Odette, but you grieve for beauty that was just lost to the world.

Though I would say that I enjoyed Wednesday night’s cast more, I did find Semionova/Hallberg eye opening and am so glad I was able to see them. As satisfied as I am with the whole experience, I’m also devastated to be leaving after what felt like not nearly enough time. I don’t like to base my happiness purely on a location, but the more I see and learn about ballet the harder it is to be out of proximity from a large company that regularly performs the classical repertory. This is not to say that I want to see Sleeping Beauty seven times every season, but I’ve realized how important it is for me to have more exposure to ballet in order to feel alive. I can almost feel the possibilities swarming around me in New York, and while they remain invisible to me their presence remains comforting. Still, it’s going to hurt to be torn away from this feeling, and even though I’ve known this all along, I really have to admit out loud (or rather, in writing) that a life without ballet at the forefront of it is no life for me.

It’s funny that a vacation is meant to relax and rejuvenate, but it’s not often one can say that they were a better person because of it, and in my final moments here in New York, I can say that I truly am. I never dreamt that I would learn so much about myself, along with my fears, my goals, and my readers, some of which I’ve had the great pleasure and fortune to have now met in person. I honestly haven’t been this happy in years—not since I was dancing like crazy at Ohio State University and it’s amazing how inspired and so damn happy I feel because the last time I can recall this kind of bliss was so long ago. I hesitate to claim to know what this all means because ever since I discovered ballet for myself I’ve felt like I’ve been in a perpetual state of trying to discern my purpose in life, and at some point, New York is going to have to be a bigger part of it. However, until I can figure out how I can even have a chance to be successful doing whatever it is I’m supposed to do, it’s back to reality, and although I hate to return to the chilling zephyrs of Cascadia, I do have unfinished business in Seattle. While it pains me that my head is one place and my heart another, the truth is that I don’t know the dance community in New York, and Seattle offers me the best chance at finishing my first choreographic work as well. The even sadder truth is that I really don’t have the credibility (or money) to accomplish anything in the city of my dreams, so until I’m apt to, I have to fight for it.

However, I promise that I will be back. Things have changed within me and though I don’t know how I’m going to make things happen, I’m ready and might even have enough confidence to figure it all out. Thank you all for reading and I hope this special New York series was illuminating and enjoyable for you. It’s back to the Emerald City with me!

My first ‘Swan Lake’

27 Jun

Now that my pulse has returned to normal, I think I can write a competent review of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. The Wednesday evening cast had Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette/Odile and Marcelo Gomes as Siegfried. Though I had some idea of what to expect having watched the dress rehearsal, I didn’t expect myself to get so caught up in the whole spectacle! By the end of their white swan pas de deux there may have been a tear in my eye, by the end of the third act I had already forgotten about some of the things I don’t like about Kevin McKenzie’s particular production, and by the fourth I was a few blips away from a heart attack. In short, I had a blast and Gillian and Marcelo absolutely killed it. I sort of hate the crudeness of that phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the magic that happened on stage in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Since I prefer to talk about good things, I’m going to keep all the complaints to this one paragraph and be done with it so I can rave like a lunatic. I still don’t like the blatancy of McKenzie’s staging, and feel the prologue where you see von Rothbart transform Odette ruins a few things like her entrance in Act II, where you don’t see her change from a swan into a human but it’s symbolized by a single leap in flight. It’s a much more poetic entrance, and even von Rothbart’s entrance as a human sorcerer in the third act has more excitement and drama than what we see in the prologue (seriously, ask the music). There’s also a lot of choreography during the overtures which I didn’t like because the overtures are in fact a part of the experience of going to the ballet—they offer a reprieve from the action, a moment to absorb the music and even process what you’ve seen or are about to see. It almost felt like McKenzie was trying to add to the story, but the result was a ballet super-saturated with superfluous dance. I appreciate that he wanted to develop the plot, but I wish he picked elements that would actually contribute, and choreographed in a way that was more than just haphazardly stringing steps together because some of the corps patterns and pas de trois work had me constantly wondering what I was supposed to be directing my attention to. And choreography has to be more than just a sequence of steps that hits the obvious accents, because the art of phrasing necessitates more thoughtfulness. Also, I like a tragic end so the apotheosis where Odette and Siegfried are reunited in heaven is questionable for me, not to mention the fact that we see that after an excruciatingly long death scene for von Rothbart. I would be happy to see the suicide leaps simply be the end!

Meanwhile, I’m ambivalent about the maypole in Act I. I wasn’t bothered by it, but I would like to point out that Frederick Ashton’s use of a maypole in La Fille mal Gardée is far superior in every respect. I helps that ribbons are a motif in La Fille, but Ashton’s use of it has more charm and creativity in weaving it together. So, I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that ABT should do La Fille. Last week I had a chance to speak with Ashtonians Karen Eliot and David Vaughan (author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets and the companion website, the Ashton Archive), who both agree the company would be lovely in La Fille.

But I digress—the dancing throughout Swan Lake tonight was superb by the entire cast. Gillian was especially bewildering and I was quite moved by her Odette. I know many like their Odette’s fragile, but Gillian’s has a bit of diva in her and sometimes it’s nice to see an Odette that gives some meaning to her title as Queen of the Swans. She still gave us delicacy, but I enjoyed seeing that melt away as her pas de deux with Siegfried continued, as if her trust in him were blooming in front of our eyes. She of course delivered the fireworks in style as Odile, capitalized by one of the most inconceivable series of fouettés I’ve ever seen. I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it is to coordinate moving your arms WHILE pirouetting, but to give some idea, dancers center pirouettes by supporting themselves with their backs, which is also where arm movements must originate. Many people instinctively move their arms from their shoulders, but in ballet this looks superficial and can also make the torso appear very stiff. However, somehow Gillian has figured this all out and can do a moving port de bras a la seconde while turning, and the effect is breathtaking. I remember seeing her try this in a video from the Vail Festival, and thought she was just sort of fooling around, but she’s obviously perfected it and bravely did it tonight in her only Swan Lake this season (alternating them with triple pirouettes of course). While I’ve aligned myself in the school of thought that believes things that already have a name need not be named again (I’m looking at you “B-plus,” aka, “attitude a terre”), these should be called “Murphy turns.” (seen at 0:21 below)

I have to say that after seeing her voluptuous, Renaissance Titania, and now her exciting Odette/Odile, I have fallen in love with Gillian Murphy. She has a wild side and I can’t get enough of it! When Odile has the audience in the palm of her hand, tricking Siegfried is almost an afterthought.

As for Siegfried—what can I say about Marcelo? Oh, that he’s a gracious partner, has fabulous technique (the way he rolls through his feet when coming down from relevé in his Act I solos is DIVINE and highly underappreciated), the finest of acting skills, and a million dollar smile. I’m pretty sure even all that isn’t enough praise, but it’s impossible to not love it when someone dances their heart out. It’s such an appropriate quality to have as Siegfried because with just the right amount of naïveté it makes the idea of love at first sight believable, which is crucial for his first encounter with Odette. The same characteristic can be magnified to become tempestuous and foolhardy, making the scam Odile and von Rothbart pull off on him also authentic. Sure, Siegfried is a chump, but you do empathize with him because we’ve all had a taste of deception in our lives and know how horrid and bitter it is. Thus, Marcelo’s Siegfried is one we can easily forgive in Act IV, which succeeds in only intensifying Odette’s amnesty. It’s dangerously close to being more drama than the soul can handle, but despite my aversion for vulnerability, precariousness, and the pearly gates of Heaven, it’s an adventure worth dying for.

With only one more Swan Lake that I’ll be attending on Friday, the end of my time in New York looms on the horizon. Still, milestones have been achieved and I am happy to report that yes, I waited by the stage door to meet Marcelo and present him with a small gift, in person this time. This also proved to be a near-death experience when at one point while waiting, Catherine and I turned around to screams of young girls, finding ourselves practically swimming upstream in a stampeding horde of budding ballerinas. Still, what a treat for them to see their idols! Though Gillian was mobbed for what seemed like ages, she took her time for pictures and autographs. I patiently waited my turn to see Marcelo, because A. I’m not a teenage girl and B. I don’t need pictures or autographs (the stage door is in the parking garage and who even wants to be photographed in a subterranean dungeon with fluorescent lighting?). For me, the memories are enough and a great performance from a dancer is like a gift—they literally give themselves to us on the stage, which is why I felt the need to give back. Obviously, I avoided doing it in person the first couple of times, but I was almost mad at myself for being such a scaredy-cat. I’m almost thirty for crying out loud, I can’t have the same fear equivalent of a baby bunny! Wounding my own pride may have done the trick though because I was determined (and stubborn enough) to get over it, and so I did. I gave him his gift, had a lovely conversation, and he was incredibly gracious. Best of all, I didn’t feel crazy or stupid, and with Catherine as my witness, I got a hug!

It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago I had written “An Open Letter to Famous Dancers” and it’s even harder to believe I might’ve just achieved freedom from my fears. It appears as though many gifts went around tonight!

Behind the scenes at ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’

26 Jun

(Well, not literally behind the scenes as in backstage.)

There’s nothing like having the opportunity to observe the process that produces the final product and attending the dress rehearsal for American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake was pretty damn sweet. I purchased the incredibly inexpensive ticket through an exclusive deal for Mastercard holders, and first of all, the seats ended up being in the parterre section, which at the Metropolitan Opera House are the prime seats that cost way more than I could ever afford! So in addition to seeing how a high caliber ballet company rehearses, I also got to feel what it would be like to have buckets of money and splurge on the best that money can buy. Well, maybe quasi-best because I could have done without the tall lady in front of me (or the crabby one to her left), but I was too excited to be really bothered by it. Second, I got to share the experience with friends and readers, which—like Mastercard so often tells us—is something priceless. Lastly, as an added bonus, while Denise took a picture of Robin and I standing in front of the Swan Lake poster in front of the MET, David Hallberg was taking a picture of the Corsaire poster right behind us! David Hallberg! In street clothes!

Anyway, the average person may not know what a dress rehearsal looks like so I’ll try to paint a picture. The sets are of course up, though there is no full orchestra—only the conductor and pianist. Some of the dancers are in regular warm up clothes, some are half in costume, others in full costume. Lighting is more or less there, though the technicians fiddle with it from time to time to make sure everything is in working order. The artistic director and ballet mistress sit smack dab in the middle of the orchestra section, speaking into microphones to fine tune several details. Sometimes the action stops to correct an error, sometimes the show goes on. For ABT, pausing meant that on a few occasions they would switch the principal cast members briefly to give them an opportunity to find their bearings on the stage. For the most part, the audience saw the young pairing of Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin, set to make their debuts as Odette/Odile and Siegfried respectively on Wednesday, while Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes were listed to perform the fourth act.

Though the fabulousness overload was indeed a treat, what I found incredibly fascinating was the difference between the veterans and the newcomers. For Murphy/Gomes, they’ve done this rodeo a great many times and the experience shows. For Boylston/Simkin, the talent is all there but the maturity isn’t, though I don’t mean that to be interpreted negatively. It’s generally touted to be one of the ballet dancer’s greatest achievements to dance the lead in Swan Lake, and with it comes tremendous pressure from outside and within. There’s nothing heavier than bearing the weight of a historical tradition, because of the numerous responsibilities to uphold it. Rehearsal was really just business as usual with a couple of bumps along the road, so there’s nothing dramatic to report. I think it’s fair to expect that their debut may not be Earth-shattering, but these things take time and I’d venture to say that for the majority of dancers, their first Swan Lake is never the one they’re happiest with. Youth seems to be on their side too, because it definitely brings something fresh to a warhorse classic. After all, the easiest way to give Swan Lake a quick makeover is to simply put new dancers in it.

Inevitably, one of my favorite things about rehearsals is when things go wrong—though not “bad” wrong—like when they started to rehearse Act IV and Marcelo came out to find that Isabella was perched on the lakeside cliff as his Odette. Hilarity ensued when Marcelo went to get Daniil, who, already half out of costume was sure it was a mistake. Eventually Gillian showed up, and the image of two Odettes posing on the cliff, with two Siegfrieds laughing is one that will remain permanently etched in my memories. Now, about that cliff though…in many Swan Lakes any combination of Odette or Siegfried and both of the above will make a suicide jump into the lake, and it appeared as though it was in fact, Isabella and Daniil’s first time actually getting to do the fateful vault. Isabella seemed tentative—after all, dancers are used to landing on their feet so landing prone on a mat isn’t exactly a comfortable idea. Both she and Daniil made attempt after attempt, and while he played around with it, unafraid of a little silliness, it’s definitely harder for her because if his jump isn’t perfect, he can get away with it, but you know the swan’s dive is expected to look graceful. I suppose one need not look further than Marcelo’s dive, which has all the drama and passion a Swan Lake could handle.

Exhibit A:

(Photo ©Rosalie O’Connor)

However, where there’s a wrong, there’s always a right, and as an added bonus we were treated to Gillian and Marcelo’s white swan pas de deux, and a black swan pas de deux from Polina and David. Both couples were marvelous (the more I see of Gillian Murphy the more I like her), and I was in awe of Polina—the command she has over her technique is astonishing and I can’t wait to see her take on the full story for her Friday evening performance. Though there are still production elements and choreographic motifs that I disagree with throughout Kevin McKenzie’s staging, I do think his Act III is wonderful, and will provide a perfect atmosphere for any exceptional Odile like Polina. I’m also interested to see how Gillian has changed over the years since Swan Lake was filmed, as I think she was a bit rawer (yes, that’s a word, and yes, you totally said “rawr” in your head just now) at the time. Though I love her fearlessness, the preview she gave as Odette in the rehearsals were very promising that she has found more refinement.

Overall, the experience was well worth it and has set me up to enjoy some really exciting Swan Lake performances this week. I won’t get to see Boylston/Simkin, but I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to read the reviews. Apparently tickets for all performances are selling like mad (the box office employee said that even employees aren’t able to get discount tickets for themselves now) so I expect nearly full houses and a wild audience. It’s now really starting to hit me that Wednesday will be my first live Swan Lake ever, and with the excitement and anxiety starting to build, I’m beginning to worry it might be my last! I hope the paramedics will be at the ready…

Reviewing Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’

24 Jun

It’s bittersweet that ABT has now finished its all too brief run of The Dream, though repeated viewings with different casts were well worth it. Obviously this trip to New York has been filled with firsts, so seeing Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg live was of course a new experience. Coincidentally, when I took class this morning, Gillian did barre to warm up and left, so it was actually a neat experience to see her at work as a person, and then transform into a fairy queen. And not just any fairy queen—Gillian’s Titania has a wild side that deserves a new title I’d like to call “Divatania.” She has an energy and an aura in that role that made me love her the most of all three ballerinas I saw dance it. On that note, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Xiomara Reyes in the evening performance, who is softer in temperament, but had a little firepower too—when she shot an indignant glare towards Oberon after he tried to purloin her changeling, I only wished that Cory Stearns had given a more emphatic reaction. Stearns certainly has a majestic carriage, fine technique, and I think he can act too but I also felt that he may be unsure of where he wants to go with his interpretation of Oberon, perhaps beyond what he’s told to do with it. Watching Gomes last night was a lesson in attack and full out dancing at eighty-five million miles an hour, while David showed more contrast and really played with pushing and pulling the music in today’s matinee.

Some of the same dancers reprised roles from last night, though I was very pleased that I got to see Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, Sascha Radetsky, and Jared Matthews perform as the Lovers because they’ve clearly done it before and have polished the comedic timing to perfection. Also right on the funny money were both Craig Salstein and of course Herman Cornejo as Puck, the former showing a more raw interpretation with dynamism and speed, the latter the epitome of carefree and clever. Though Puck has sort of become the token substantial consolation role for the short dancer ever since Wayne Sleep originated it, to be honest I wouldn’t mind seeing Cornejo as Oberon. There’s something to be said for developing a conscious ability to present oneself in a way that is contrary to what people tend to think, and many times those who can tap into that are more successful. Tall dancers like Gomes, Hallberg, and Stearns may not even be aware of how their stature affects people’s perceptions of their dancing. I could go on, but I really do need to explain myself in regards to Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird.

I tried to like it, in fact, I tried to like it three times. Unfortunately it never happened and I couldn’t bring myself to back the concept Ratmansky and the designers of the production had in mind. First off, the sets invoked images of deep sea tubeworms that proliferate around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (watch ‘Blue Planet’ on the Discovery Channel if you just failed to follow my geekery), and second the costumes made me think this Firebird was like some kind of collaborative production between the Muppets and Cirque du Soleil to perform Jewels—under the sea, teeming with ruby sea urchins, emerald jellyfish, and diamond…Elvises. I always say that those who try to be edgy or avant-garde inevitably fail because those are things you can’t try to be. Cirque du Soleil for example is known for similar costumes to the firebirds, but with much more innovative choreography and amazing acrobatics so it’s a concept that works, and the same look didn’t seem to highlight Ratmansky’s use of classical steps. Even the more modern stylized movements lacked purpose and the use of some repeated motifs didn’t really contribute to the story.

Oh the story…it hardly made any sense, and leaves you with so many unanswered questions I can’t even begin to ask them all.  The plot elements that are somewhat logical are either drawn out to fill the music, or are told in probably the last five minutes of the ballet. Essentially, Ivan wakes up alone in a room (we’re never told how or why), enters the tubeworm forest where he find firebirds, captures one who gives him a feather to summon her in a time of need. He then happens upon a group of maidens in green, recognizes one as his long lost love and tries to get her to remember. Enter the maniacal sorcerer Kaschei, controller of the maidens, and the conflict presents itself. Ivan summons the Firebird, there’s dancing, and then she reveals an egg that Ivan smashes to defeat Kaschei. The maidens reveal themselves in white gowns and blonde wigs, their long lost loves are freed from within the tubeworm trees and the starry people are jubilant. I actually found the ending quite beautiful, but most of the significant action literally takes place in the last few minutes when the meat of the story is revealed, but that’s after almost an hour of choreography that is stretched very thin. I’m rather shocked that this is in fact Ratmansky because it seems so unlike him and when I passed him in the theatre I almost wanted to ask: “what happened?”

The initial pas de deux where Ivan captures the Firebird didn’t convince me that she couldn’t get away from him, and even duets between Ivan and his lost Maiden didn’t illuminate any sort of romantic possibilities. Later there’s a quartet between Ivan, Firebird, Maiden, and Kaschei that moves through molasses and like much of the other sections in the ballet is too long and nonsensical. Still, the production isn’t entirely without merit but I fear that Ratmansky’s ballet relies entirely on casting. Isabella Boylston and Natalia Osipova were the two Firebirds I saw in three casts, and Boylston was lovely (the crowd was going wild for her), though Osipova had a certain kookiness that I found convincing. The role of the Firebird itself is oddly insignificant, and the Maiden isn’t really one I found relatable either. When Simone Messmer performed it, there was a moment at the end where she stripes off the green dress and hair net after Kaschei’s spell over her is broken, and she really tore off those clothes with shock and disgust, which was the first time I truly felt anything for the character. All three Ivans (Alexandre Hammoudi, Gomes, Cornejo) were fantastic, however, I did feel Herman was the most believable. I know some of you may be shocked because you think Marcelo gets the trump card but I’m not entirely without objective thought! While Gomes dances full out, Cornejo’s interpretation has such innocence and honesty that it really fits the image of a prince in white. Hallberg as Kaschei was deliciously maniacal and sinister, and it’s very gratifying to see him in a role that breaks the convention of him as such a regal, classical dancer. Again, though, Firebird can’t simply rely on the opportunity to see Hallberg go crazy…there has to be more substance than that and when the gimmick of the strange designs wears off, I didn’t feel the choreography really offered much substance.

While I appreciated the invested performances of the dancers in Firebird, and in some ways the fact that Ratmansky decided to take a risk and step outside of his comfort zone, but his Firebird simply isn’t for me. Maybe it was an error in programming to put something flawless like The Dream before it, because Firebird doesn’t tell the story with the same sort of wit and charm. What’s interesting though is I don’t know that it’s particularly controversial, though it does divide opinions rather easily. It’s hard for me to imagine this particular ballet as a masterpiece that will stand the test of time, though it will be fascinating to see how the audience reacts differently since it’s a joint commission for the Dutch National Ballet. For those who get that opportunity, I do encourage you to take my words with a grain of salt and see it for yourself before you join the club or discern for me what it is I’m missing!