Tag Archives: alexei ratmansky

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.

Advertisements

Ballet Arizona’s ‘Director’s Choice’

29 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mighty Metamorphin’ Choreographers

3 Dec

The other day I found myself enjoying a nice cup of tea and this article at the Wall Street Journal about Alexei Ratmansky, like you do. The article is a great read, but what’s this? A certain nugget leapt out at me like a ferocious goblin and STABBED—like mortally wounded—me right in the heart.

“Balanchine was a genius. Ashton, maybe, was close.”

GAH!!! To his credit, Ratmansky went on to say that he loves Ashton, but the damage was already done, and my psyche fell to the floor, bleeding a slow and agonizing death. Obviously, I disagree with Ratmansky’s assessment and of course I’m not the only one—luckily, a restorative elixir of life remained close, as I’ve never forgotten the following words I read in an interview with Baryshnikov: “Ashton’s not a lesser choreographer than Balanchine. Ashton’s a warmer choreographer—his skin is warmer, warmer as a person. I miss him.”

Post-resurrection, I began to consider the reverence of Balanchine and its effects on this generation’s dancers, choreographers, and even the audience. Balanchine was all the rage in Jennifer Homans’s book Apollo’s Angels, and he has throughout history been recognized for revolutionizing ballet. He is a wonderfully prolific figure and I don’t need to delve into his legacy because it’s so frequently discussed. However, I can’t seem to come to terms with such stringent standards for what defines a genius. I found Ratmansky’s words to be surprisingly rigid, and it made me wonder if he sees himself as a choreographer or a genius; but then that raises questions as to whether anyone who is genius truly seems themselves as such, because if someone is born with a certain aptitude, they only know their own point of view…so wouldn’t his/her self-image seem entirely normal in reflection? Ratmansky is rather humble anyway, and like most artists I’m certain he just wants to create, actualize his visions, and be proud of the results.

I’m not letting go of this “Balanchine-on-a-pedestal” business though. It’s not as though he doesn’t belong there, I just don’t think he should be alone, nor do I think it impossible for new choreographers to join him. I have a tendency to accept the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies and if idolatry of Balanchine goes too far, then no choreographer will ever surpass him because they’re indoctrinated with the belief that they can’t, which is indeed the fatal error. Actually, I should rephrase that because surpass is the wrong word—it’s not necessary to “surpass” Balanchine—the idea is to create in ways he didn’t, knowing that he couldn’t. “Compare and contrast” is a dangerous thing to do because it can be such a double-edged sword; one must be able to assess oneself relative to others without getting overwhelmed with competitiveness. Don’t get me wrong—there is a wealth of Balanchine ballets that I absolutely adore, but even a love of his work on a deeply personal level warrants some analysis. For example, I have no problem with admitting that Balanchine’s batterie is not the most interesting part of his work to me, but the batterie in ballets of Bournonville and even Ashton never fail to throw me into a stupor of fascination. If only I could bottle the essence of Bournonville’s ability to create such intricate sequences…I’d contaminate everyone’s drinking water, after taking a healthy swig or two myself.

Meanwhile, I also find it curious that some of Balanchine’s ballets that have not survived the test of time are rarely discussed. A few years ago I was doing a little research on his Metamorphoses, as it was created to Paul Hindemith’s ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis,’ a piece of music that I love to bits and pieces. Unfortunately, my research revealed two things: one, that the ballet has never been revived after Tanaquil LeClercq (upon whom it was made), was stricken with polio, and two, that the description and photos of it revealed a ballet that didn’t fit what I had imagined. Balanchine interpreted the music as a fantasy on insect life, which was perhaps too literal, though I don’t object to the idea as there are trills and such which can conjure images of swarms of fluttering insects. At any rate, the full title of Hindemith’s score is actually ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,’ and it’s that musical transformation that remains the central idea for me, as opposed to a biological metamorphosis. Having played ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis’ as a part of a wind symphony, I suppose I had experienced the music as quite grand in scope, beyond something terrestrial like the livelihood of insects—the music itself is far too menacing. The last movement (and by far my favorite) is epic—it’s the kind of music that raises your heart rate and can have the audience leaping out of there seats by the end, and yet Balanchine had the dancers fitted with giant feathered wings, and according to LeClercq, there was “lots of running around with poses [and] not much dancing.” It just doesn’t seem right and from photos the wings looked cumbersome and to a modern eye, rather dated.

Reviews generally noted the exhilarating spectacle of Metamorphosis and seemed to like Karinska’s bizarre costumes for it, but there is a possibility that Metamorphosis offered nothing profound. A vehicle for LeClercq yes, but a masterpiece? Impossible for me to say, and the number of people who have seen it is only dwindling. Still, I can’t help but feel that even if Metamorphosis were to be revived, the reality may very well be that it wouldn’t resonate with the audiences of today for any other reason than nostalgia for something Balanchine and an appetite for something different of his. To update it now would be something of a revisionist history anyway, and the ballet itself almost sounds a bit loony—a madhouse of strange costumes, Chinese/Balinese inspired movements, metal springs, and even a pas de deux between a dragonfly and a beetle, where the beetle partners the dragonfly entirely on his knees merely because Balanchine wondered if it was possible, and challenged himself to do it. As the remnants of Balanchine’s Metamorphoses gather dust on shelves, would choreographers today challenge themselves to take on the score he once used, with a belief that they could succeed with it, or more importantly, do—dare I use this ever precarious word—better? And is it audacious to think it possible, or is it a necessary human characteristic? And how does the human tendency to blur the lines between ego and belief play a factor?

Tanaquil LeClercq in 'Metamorphoses' (if the Beetle is the original cast, that would be Todd Bolender). Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

Tanaquil LeClercq in ‘Metamorphoses’ (her partner might be Todd Bolender) Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

I have no idea, but what I do know is that to live a life in fear (or perhaps in this case, inferiority) is a folly. Especially in ballet—we’re all about fine lines and balance so surely a healthy and honest harmony between the awe of others can be woven with a cherishment of oneself. Although it’s never guaranteed, every great achievement begins with a seed of belief. And so does every…uh…“less-than-stellar” one. After all, even the choreographer of “the Chicken Dance” can claim an immortality that Balanchine can’t, even if I’d rather have Serenade danced at my wedding.

Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina

12 Sep

Photo ©Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau (I think!)

When I reviewed Paris Opera Ballet’s La Source for SeattleDances, I initially left the theater wondering what the heck I was going to write about, and subsequently found myself exceeding the word limit by quite a bit. Somehow I have even more to say, though I think I covered enough of what I thought about La Source in my review. Still, I can’t rave enough about how much I love Jean-Guillaume Bart’s choreography—the musicality and details are exceptional, and inevitably, I began to think about Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, who are heralded as this generation’s torchbearers of classicism. I’ve seen handfuls of ballets by both, both on film and with my own eyes and while I do admire both choreographers greatly, I have to be honest—Bart’s La Source, which is essentially his debut as a choreographer (I’ve read that previous pieces were only for students), was a home run, and impressed me in ways that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon did the first time I saw any of their ballets. The opening scene of La Source, featuring a band of swift elves and awakening nymphs, had me completely drawn in—from the unusual set, to the delicious allegro for the elves, with shades of Bournonville and Ashton, but still very much in Bart’s unique voice.

Opening scene of La Source, featuring Matthias Heyman as the green elf, Zaël:

I was sold on Zaël from the get-go (not to mention that gargantuan pas de chat he does as he enters!), as the character also provides some comic relief a la Puck and is just generally delightful. Petit allegro served as the motif for the elves throughout, and Bart’s sequences are so creative, miraculous, and charming—using a number of my absolute favorite steps—that when they’re paired with the elegance of French schooling, they achieve divinity. It’s quite interesting that Bart is able to downplay virtuosity without hiding it, such that the most difficult movements can look so natural and so fitting in a certain phrase. In the above clip, one of the subtleties I loved was the series Zaël does beginning at 4:10, where the first jump is a cabriole where the rebound is delayed. I remember seeing French dancers do this before—finding fifth position in air and holding that shape before opening the legs and the effect is stunning. I don’t know if the French have a specific term for it, but they certainly make a distinction between a cabriole with an immediate rebound (which they also perform at 5:17) and this delayed cabriole (or perhaps hybrid “assemblé-pas de poisson” for the pedants out there—what shall we call it: Assembloisson? Pas de poissemblé?).

Unfortunately, the rest of La Source proved to be difficult. Not every classical ballet has a great story behind it, and I thought having seen my fair share and reading the plot synopsis would be enough to follow the action, but I was completely confused. I went with a friend who is also a dancer and seasoned ballet-goer and she too was lost, and when we talked about it, we realized anyone who would’ve seen La Source as their first experience with ballet would have been even more confounded, and possibly turned off by the experience. I mentioned the obscurity of the magic flower in my review, and if you think about The Dream or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-in-idleness flower casts a very specific spell—to make one fall in love with the first creature they see, something that is made very clear throughout both ballets. However, the magic flower in La Source is ambiguous—it heals people, teleports nymphs into palaces, freezes time…one would think it omnipotent, and yet it doesn’t save Naïla from death. Lack of common sense is just too prevalent, when you have a nymph sacrificing herself for a hunter who never reciprocates her love, and he himself in love with a woman he barely knows and doesn’t have affection for him either. When this is stretched over two hours of beautiful dancing with no mime, it becomes a very long two hours, especially when the presented characters fail to strike an emotional chord.

Thus, I found myself wondering a few things: What makes for a successful story ballet? Why do we crave them so much? Why haven’t we had a truly great one in so long? These are far from new questions as the dearth of new narrative ballets seems to always be on the mind of balletomanes worldwide. The saying goes that there is a human need to be told stories, and something I pointed out in my review was that the art of choreography is a transmissible folklore, very much like an oral tradition. Stories, fables, idioms, etc. are passed from one generation to the next and sometimes bits are kept/altered/lost, and ultimately, provide the greatest gift by teaching us something about ourselves, or re-illuminating emotions that we’ve already experienced. The typically favorite romantic and classical ballets fulfill this at basic levels—betrayal and forgiveness in Giselle, naivety and exploitation of innocence in La Sylphide, fragility in Swan Lake, hopes and dreams in The Sleeping Beauty, and arguably more, though I tend to think these are the most successful at really connecting with audiences. For example, it’s not that the modern woman (or man!) fantasizes about BEING an Odette, but I can easily imagine a person today relating to her fragility, someone who has perhaps felt vulnerable in her/his life, and would simply hope that someone could love her/him even in that state. Advertisements today bombard us with images that “confidence is sexy” and thus, outwardly attractive, but what about the times you feel insecure? Is it perhaps in our weakest moments that we need to feel loved the most? Questions like these keep Swan Lake relevant.

When it comes to the next “wave” of great story ballets, I look to Ashton and MacMillan, who created a fair number of ballets between them, though there are a few that have truly achieved “classic” status in my mind, based on frequency of performance by companies worldwide. We have Ashton to thank for Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, and The Dream, where he delighted us with themes of escapism, youth, romance, the fickle nature of love, and many spritzes of humor. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon have permeated into countless repertories, and he gave us insight into love, hatred, desperation, lust, corruption, and grief. The truth is, we see bits of ourselves in those characters, which is why the events within the story mean something to us. An art like ballet works an incredible magic when it draws empathy from people, and it’s fascinating when you find yourself affixing to an unlikely character, or having a change of heart after repeated viewings. The following is a statement of the obvious, but the more multi-dimensional a character is, the more chance a dancer has to resonate with an audience in presenting that person, hence, an innate love for character development.

After a certain drought, we find ourselves today depending on Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and now Bart, but the re-doing of lost classics and the seeking out of fairy tales that have yet to be done has become a bit banal. Is it enough to love the score and see the steps, or simply have a desire to do a particular ballet? Are any of these choreographers so moved by a particular story, that they can’t rest until they express it in dance? As it is, the above trio of men have been creating ballets that audiences do enjoy, but are they relevant to what audiences want (need)? Have their experiences as accomplished dancers prevented them from really being able to understand the general public? How does one negotiate choreographing for dancers, a dance audience, and people? With the Balletomanes librettistis being a critically endangered species, who will communicate the relevant stories to choreographers? Could choreographers themselves benefit from creative writing workshops—not to write publishable short stories, but to reveal something new about the process of character development, of crafting a story arc, driving a plot, etc.? I have no idea…though I suppose asking difficult questions is a place to start.

Oh well—more Zaël!

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!

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!

Long Overdue Review for DonQ

13 Feb

For the past two weekends, Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote has been a major hit in Seattle. I attended the first Saturday evening performance, where the buzz was already apparent after Act I—with the exception of the bitter couple that left their orchestra level seats in front of some friends of mine during the first intermission (take a wild guess who was then “upgraded” from second tier to orchestra!). To be honest I probably could’ve agreed with those people about the ballet at one time in my life because DonQ isn’t exactly on my list of favorites. In fact, I rather despised it, with its bland (but irritatingly catchy) Minkus score and its hackneyed plot. Given, few things about ballet are logical, but DonQ pushed it to the extreme for me and when I watched the Baryshnikov staging on film, I was underwhelmed. However, I can honestly say that I enjoy a great deal of Ratmansky’s version and had a wonderful time watching Pacific Northwest Ballet be the one to premiere it in America.

One of the most difficult challenges for this production though was choosing which cast to see! A few of my favorite dancers were in the lead roles, like Carla Körbes, Carrie Imler, and Lucien Postlewaite, but of course never with each other! Ultimately, I decided to see Imler because I hadn’t seen her in a full-length story ballet before as I have with both Körbes and Postlewaite. Before all else, it has to be said that Imler is an absolute treasure in the ballet world—she’s not a string bean contortionist or a petite porcelain doll—no, she’s a throwback to what the women of ballet used to be, and embodies the qualities that made them legendary. She has a flair that conjures images of the Soviet greats from the 1960’s, combined with thoughtful acting, marvelous technique, and a huge jump (I’ve espied her in company class holding her own with the men, and in some cases her jumping was even better). In a nutshell, she’s old school, it’s glorious, and there aren’t enough dancers like her out there today.

Unfortunately, I felt like casting was an issue because there didn’t seem to be a suitable partner for Imler. Batkhurel Bold was cast as the Basilio to her Kitri, and he’s a big guy known for his jumping as well, but he’s not exactly praised for his acting abilities. I really hate to say this because I’ve read so many reviews of his dancing before where he’s just criticized out the wazoo for not being the most expressive actor…but it’s true. It’s not as though there’s only one way to play Basilio, but I do think that he’s a character that at the very least requires charisma. It’s for that reason alone that I found it disappointing that Jonathan Porretta was not cast as Basilio—Porretta is one of PNB’s most vivacious performers and had the audience in stitches as Kitri’s absurd, French poodle of a suitor Gamache. I suspect type casting (Porretta is openly gay), though it’s possible that because of that ridiculously unfair one-arm lift in Act I, that logistically, the assumption was that there wasn’t a partner short enough for him. It’s ironic because the one-arm lift proved to be problematic for Bold as well, and I’m surprised that it wasn’t adjusted to something that could be accomplished cleanly. The ease in which a movement is executed is first and foremost in ballet and any overhead lift would have achieved the same dramatic effect, especially because in that awkward open second position Kitri does in the air, her dress ends up obscuring Basilio’s arm anyway. Towards the end of this clip, you can see Nakamura/Postlewaite performing this beastly lift:

 

Before I go back to gushing over Imler, I’m so glad that PNB posted the above video so we could get a glimpse at the Nakamura/Postlewaite partnership too. I had a feeling Postlewaite would be a very charming Basilio, and Nakamura is deliciously feisty. I adored those two in Giselle, but remembered that Nakamura/Porretta were fantastic in Le Baiser de la Fée and it would have been nice to see them in DonQ together as well. In fact, Imler/Postlewaite were amazing in Black Swan Pas from that same program, and it makes me wish that principal casting for DonQ could have been the same. Porretta would have even been great as Espada too, but no such luck there either.

Speaking of Espada, Jerome Tisserand was absolutely brilliant. When he was performing you literally couldn’t look at anyone else because his presence was so commanding. It was quite an auspicious occasion too because while his promotion to soloist has been known of since the end of last year, Saturday night was when it was consecrated on stage, and Peter Boal had him take bows before the show, and dressed in full costume he was almost in character the way he just lifted his arms, invoking a strong desire to shout “¡Olé!” He was perfect, as was Maria Chapman as the Queen of the Dryads. Soft and elegant, she did a tour jeté during one of her solos where her upper body was such at ease she was gliding rather than jumping. In that same scene, Rachel Foster was delightful as Cupid (even though I still hate that stupid wig she has to wear). However, it was in this scene in particular, where the ease in which Imler dances was especially apparent. The thing about Imler is that she makes things look so deceptively easy—whether it’s the suspension in her jumps or the sureness of her balance, she’s never shifting around to find her footing or exerting herself in a series of leaps.

Also in Act III, where Kitri and Basilio unleash the bravura in the ubiquitous wedding pas de deux, Imler was on. She has some of the best chaînés turns I’ve ever seen, which is kind of funny because it’s an underrated step—it’s always the first turning movement dancers learn in ballet, which also makes it the one prone to a lot of bad habits. Not so with Imler, who tightens the line through her legs and spots with dynamism. Obviously, her thirty-two fouettés were perfect, weaving in consistent doubles throughout while opening and closing a fan, sneaking in a triple when the music changed after the first sixteen, but it was probably her manége, where she performed simple piqué turns in a circle where she was most impressive. For those unfamiliar with the piqué turn it’s a common step where a dancer basically steps to the side onto a straight leg into a pirouette (rather than bending their knees and springing up into one), and sometimes that step gets big enough to be a little jump, and sometimes if you’re Carrie Imler you practically leap into them with crazy speed, never wavering in the slightest. It almost felt like the nail in the coffin for Bold, who was already at a disadvantage because of his quiet personality, but to have Imler looking so effortless made his incredibly difficult jumps look like work. As grand as they were, the exertion in doing them was also apparent.

All in all, I really enjoyed myself and the show was definitely highlighted by Imler, Tisserand, Poretta, and the majority of the cast, with much credit due to the acting of Tom Skerritt as Don Quixote and the comedic flourishes of Allen Galli as Sancho Panza. It was brilliant to generate some publicity with the involvement of a mainstream actor, and hopefully appeal to new audiences. After the success of Giselle, it seems Seattle audiences are excited by the inclusion of yet another new production of a story ballet to the repertory. I, for one, rather like this trend!