Tag Archives: balanchine

New York City Ballet: Bringing Splendor to Tchaikovsky

9 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Boston Ballet’s ‘Chroma’

16 May

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

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

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

The Royal Ballet in Chroma:

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

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

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

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

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

Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’

10 May

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

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

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

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

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

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Howling in Houston: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

19 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Modern Masterpieces’

17 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.