Tag Archives: craig salstein

ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

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Step by Step

29 Jun

Though New York has been filled with great fun, not every experience has been easy. I briefly wrote about taking my first class at Steps on Broadway, and feeling like my legs were stuck in a tar pi pretty much sums it up. The last time I had to change studios and teachers was when I moved from Columbus, Ohio to Seattle, Washington and in retrospect, that transition wasn’t pretty either. I went from not having danced in a year, to taking an open class at PNB taught by Peter Boal! Though nobody was the wiser, my Seattle debut isn’t exactly the fondest dancing memory I have, and neither is my memory of my first class in New York. Clearly, this is just my burden to bear in life, to royally freak out the first time around and have things become easier at a gradual pace. I’m now at a comfort level where taking class at Steps isn’t so frightening, and I can actually absorb the information and corrections the various faculty members give in class.

My encounters with the teachers at Steps have been nothing short of awesome, and exactly what I needed. Sometimes when you take class from the same teachers you don’t realize how accustomed you are to their teaching styles and preferred combinations. Part of informing our bodies as students of dance means that muscle memory plays an increasingly important role, and I’m willing to bet that subconsciously, your body can already piece together any combination of exercises as the teacher is giving it because it can recognize something familiar. Taking from different instructors presents the necessary challenge of almost re-teaching your body to move. I took class with four different teachers and it seemed as though each time I had to “reset” myself, the next time I had to do it wasn’t as hard. That’s like a real learning skill right there, and for those of us who struggle with fast-paced adaptability, the way to work on it is to put yourself in that situation and do it.

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of taking a Steps class, but dream of doing it as I did, you might be interested in hearing some specifics about the teachers I took with (especially because the levels at Steps are loosely defined and it can be daunting to categorize oneself). I found Nancy Bielski’s “Adv Int Pro” class to be the hardest for me. Her barre is thorough, comprehensive, and fabulous for giving your body a great workout. Her center combinations were also quite challenging, with the allegros including fast footwork and many tricky changes of direction. Obviously, I had a lot of trouble with this because those quick changes require a great deal of strength to resist letting your momentum take over. For example, consider a series of brisés that travel forward, but then on the third and fourth, go into brisé volé—that’s hard! You have the force of the two preceding brisés behind you and then you have to somehow put the breaks on so you can volé, but with no pause in between. I even like brisé volé but in this series it’s a more of a beast than usual. She’s also not afraid to give a fair amount of entrechat sixes either, which I find to be miserable because my left leg hates them. So if you want to be seriously challenged, rise up!

ABT soloist Craig Salstein teaches “Adv Pro” one day a week, and I absolutely loved his class. Now that I know on occasion I can be an emotionally volatile dancer, it’s a relief to take from someone who teaches well and has a massive sense of humor. Though he has what I call the “Alina Cojocaru eyebrows” that tend to make one look worried all the time, he is a funny guy, who will sing nonsense at barre, and make off kilter comments that had me laughing on the inside. At first I almost wasn’t sure if he was being serious or just had really subtle comedic timing, but as the class went on he definitely got more daring with the jokes. There really is something to be said for dancing better when you’re having a great time, and Salstein’s class can also be the perfect remedy for a Monday morning, when you’re spiteful that the weekend is over or you simply feel like crap because it’s Monday. At any rate, class was going fairly well until horror of all horrors, he asked for the men to do double tours. Like the entrechat six, double tours are an arch nemesis for me because they require so much core strength and a tightly balanced fifth position of the legs. So I opted for singles (even though those freak me out too), and wobbled like a school project made out of toothpicks and marshmallows. I survived though, and I wish every Monday morning could be that much fun!

I did take the infamous Willie Burmann class, and the first time around was like landing on alien planet. He’s very brief with his instructions at barre, and it’s almost like a secret language he uses to give instructions but people do learn, and after a few rounds even I found that things were beginning to make more sense and be familiar. I love his barre—it’s unusual, uses movements that you’re familiar with but in unique sequences and ways that you’d never think of. I think he has a great knowledge of anatomy as well and a lot of what he corrects seems to be based on placement. Simply put, he has a fantastic eye, and even with a shirt tied around my waist he could tell that there was some monkey business going on with my left side, so he pulled on it to get me to feel length on the left side of my back and feel my tendu to the back coming from underneath me. What I also love about Burmann’s class is his musicality—he’s very picky that center combinations are executed to the rhythms that he gives them too, and not even the pianist is allowed to get away with deviating! In short, everything they say about Burmann is true and I have learned an astonishing amount from him in just a few classes.

Victoria Simon (a Balanchine repetiteur) subbed for Burmann a couple of days and she gives a great class as well. She’s quite good at describing what she wants to see, in a way that makes so much sense you can’t help but do it. Her class is relaxing and almost spiritual in a way that puts you in a good place to dance with your mind and body (coincidentally, she wears all white when she teaches!). She too has the eye for details, and especially when they relate to articulation of the feet. I didn’t think the allegros were the hardest—though I messed them up anyway by moving on the wrong beat, and it’s really good for anyone’s training to experience a new way of feeling a particular rhythm. Overall I found her class quite enjoyable, and she’s very good at scanning the studio, zeroing in on things that could use work, and addressing them. For a drop in class you don’t always expect that a teacher will pay attention to you, but she fixed my port de bras the first day within minutes of pliés at barre! As a complete stranger that she may never see again she really had no obligation to do anything for me, but I’m so grateful that she imparted several bits of wisdom.

The quality of instruction and vibe at Steps are simply wonderful. I can’t tell you how great it felt to be surrounded by people dedicated to the art of ballet, even though I was too shy to really speak to anyone. I so wish I had more time, but I’m looking forward to my last class before catching my plane tomorrow evening. From scared out of my mind to excited to come back, it’s been one hell of a week at Steps!

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!

Spring is here! New life, new rules.

20 Mar

How better to celebrate my 100th post than on the vernal equinox?  I didn’t plan it this way, and although I don’t have any specific vernal equinox traditions it is a most meaningful day to me.  I love the spring…it’s my favorite season and it’s a time where there we’re surrounded by reminders of renewal, youth, greenery and freshness.  Although we cannot reverse the aging process, spring does inspire opportunities to reinvent thyself.  Perhaps, even more so than New Year’s, when it’s still dreary and cold and really the only thing that tells us it is indeed a new year is just a bunch of numbers.  I prefer the visual and other sensory stimuli spring provides.  Plus, the vernal equinox means my birthday approaches over yonder horizon!

I think in a previous post I alluded to my posts being sparse this month and although I forget what I said and where I said it, I do know why and in this time of renewal I think it’s a good time to reveal that reason.  I’m packing my life up and leaving Columbus, Ohio and headed westward for the Emerald City…aka, Seattle.  Last weekend I was there looking at apartments and details are all coming together.  I feel really good about this move for many reasons and I feel that Seattle will give me that much needed shot in the arm to renew the search for life, love and happiness.  I don’t hate Columbus…it’s my hometown and I’ve learned to accept and cherish the good, the bad and the ugly.  However, it’s been over twenty years of living here and oddly enough when I realized I was completely fine with spending the rest of my life here, my heart went berserk and told me it can’t do it anymore.  I’ve tried to make things work in Columbus, but have essentially failed (not that that’s a bad thing).  It’s time to do things differently and renew the job search in a new city…job hunting in Columbus only resulted in consistent rejections, and some say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  By the way, tendu anyone?

I have no illusions that Seattle will be perfect, which is the healthiest way to approach anything but there is one thing I am really looking forward to, and that is Pacific Northwest Ballet.  If things go according to plan, I may end up living within walking distance to their studios and performance venue.  PRAISE BILLY ELLIOT!  But why Pacific Northwest you ask?  Well, they are a company that has a strong tradition in Balanchine/Robbins works which brings me one step closer to two things: my beloved Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Dances at a Gathering, choreographed by Balanchine and Robbins, respectively.  Believe it or not, I have not seen works by either choreographer live, and while I’ve seen videos of Tchaik and excerpts of Dances from the Jerome Robbins documentary on PBS, nothing compares to live performances.  Much to my chagrin, PNB just did Dances last season…but at least I know it’s in the repertory.  Regrettably, a move to the West Coast takes me geographically further away from potential Ashton works, since ABT is one of the few companies to do them regularly, but one of my best friends has moved to DC and I can crash at her place if ABT or the Royal Ballet tours something I really want to see (although in defense of the West Coast, San Francisco Ballet actually did Symphonic Variations many years ago.  I would love for PNB to learn it though, and have a triple bill of Dances at a Gathering, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Symphonic Variations.  Heaven…on Earth.)

Dreams are dreams though, and I have to face reality.  Reality isn’t all that bad though, because I move just in time to catch the All Balanchine bill with Serenade, Square Dance and The Four Temperaments (Hindemith!  SQUEE!).  I’m beyond stoked for Serenade and The Four Temperaments, and Square Dance I’ve read a little bit about from the book In the Wings, by NYCB dancer Kyle Froman.  It’s mostly eye-catching photography from studios, rehearsals, backstage and such, with anecdotes from Froman about life as a dancer.  He discusses performing Square Dance in the book, and supposedly it’s quite wild.  It’s a really neat book and I like his perspective as a corps dancer.

In addition to PNB though, I really want to get into the Seattle dance scene, because I’d go nuts without some variety and because PNB only does six or seven performances a season.  So I have a request for my readers; if you have any information about other dance companies in the Seattle area and/or upcoming shows I should check out, please tell me!  Also, recommendations for places to take class would be nice too.  Living close to PNB would have its perks but if that doesn’t work out a backup plan for ballet classes would be nice.  And like a check-up with the doctor, I do like to drop in on the occasional modern class to challenge myself in new ways and experience something new.  Oh, and jazz classes!  I did some searching online but couldn’t really find any jazz classes (for adults anyway).  Enlighten me, Seattleites!  I am in dire need of your help!

Anyway, at present I’m a bit busy with moving logistics but there are a lot of exciting things coming up that I will post more about and everyone should save the following dates (I mostly needed to write these down for myself too!).  Next week is a busy one for dance!

March 22ndABT’s Culinary Pas de Deux, hosted by principal dancer Marcelo Gomes and soloist Craig Salstein.  It’s an evening of fine dining and dance and although a $350 ticket is probably not in the cards for many of us, the event will feature a live Twitter feed to dish the dish. 7:00pm EST.   Meanwhile, Marcelo Gomes follows me on Twitter, and that makes me smile. (^-^)

March 24thJerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz, the Film airs on PBS.  Check local listings for times.

March 26thDance Anywhere, an event where everyone, whether in private or public stops whatever they’re doing and dances at 3:00pm EST.  More on this in my next post, methinks!

An on the topic of dancing in public and being in Seattle, this is what happened last time I visited the city:

*note that none of those people except me have taken dance classes.  Well, quasi-wife dabbled a little.  Inspirations for the above performance include Donkey Kong for Nintendo and chase scenes from Scooby-Doo.