Tag Archives: daniil simkin

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.

Behind the scenes at ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit A:

(Photo ©Rosalie O’Connor)

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

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

Face Your Fear

22 Jun

I don’t know how one normally faces the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but for me there was an astonishing amount of fear involved. By no means did I think ABT would disappoint—and they didn’t—just that even in reward there is still an element of fear. I liken it to graduating or winning a Nobel prize…on the day of the award ceremony all the work has already been done, but that doesn’t mean your stomach isn’t in knots leading up to the moment when you get that diploma or medal in your hands. Looking back on how difficult things have been in my personal life, from giving up on graduate school, forsaking what I spent years on studying as an undergraduate, to moving across the country with the hopes that I could learn more about dance completely on my own, to working myself to the bone so that I could eke out a living…it has all brought me to this day and I’ve decided that I had every right to fear it, out of sheer amazement that it did in fact happen. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed.

The day started out with a class at Steps on Broadway, yet another bulb on the string of lights that comprises the dancer’s rites of passage, and that was a somewhat rough experience. My expectations were that the class would be crowded and I’d fumble but manage to get through it, but I had no idea I’d freeze like a deer in the headlights! Sure, there were ABT principals who took barre standing right behind me, but I don’t think I was star-struck (having PNB dancers drop in on open classes in Seattle may have helped to desensitize me to it—over time). I think it came down to dancing in a new city, with a new teacher, with no friends in the class, which stripped me of a confidence that I wasn’t fully aware of, and despite what I told myself internally, my body responded to my emotions. It wasn’t pretty…dancing like a nervous wreck looks a lot like just that—a wreck, and it was so weird to feel like I was telling my legs to do one thing and not be able to feel them doing it! There are people who can will themselves to get through such things without a problem (we tend to call them professionals), but it certainly was a humbling reminder of the courage dancers summon every time they put themselves on stage for everyone to see. Interestingly enough, sometimes we may never know the extent to which a dancer rises to the occasion because they so often deliver what is demanded of them.

With that in mind, I can relay the wonderful news that ABT’s production of The Dream was perfection! And this comes from an Ashton enthusiast who watched the film of Anthony Dowell many, many, MANY times before today. Of course there are certain things that I would have preferred, but they were just that—a matter of preference. Overall, The Dream wove a spell that simply couldn’t be broken and I think Ashton smiled upon us tonight. I do enjoy that the Royal Ballet uses a children’s chorus for the vocal parts, which adds a certain charm to the fairy divertissement that contains Titania’s big solo—but I can easily live without it too. Also still missing is the kiss between Lysander and Demetrius during the lover’s confusion scene, reduced to just an emphatic hug, but again, something I can live without (I just think the kiss is funnier). The sets are beautiful and evocative, the costumes wonderful…everything was gorgeous. I couldn’t have asked for more, and I felt so transported into this fantasy that it didn’t even seem like I was watching a ballet anymore. There is something of a consensus among the Twitterfolk that Giselle is a ballet that ABT does incredibly well, and I’d like to submit that their staging of The Dream should be right up there too.

Casting was of course superb, and Marcelo Gomes’s Oberon is so brilliant and so devilishly cunning. Not that you need me to tell you, but everything they say about his acting skills is true, and his technique is also faultless. The make-or-break moment is of course the scherzo, and a few steps were altered from what Dowell originally did, though the choreography is so virtuosic it’s almost like a variation anyway. If I had to nitpick—and I really mean absolutely forced to do it—I did miss one little detail where at the end of Oberon’s first entrance, he does a pirouette and finishes it by diving forward into an immediate penché, a precarious move that could easily end in a faceplant. I had a teacher (she knows who she is) give us this death-defying stunt in class once and I remember my hands became well acquainted with the floor that day. Marcelo ended in an arabesque—something he happens to be very good at I might add, for those of you who have seen his Von Rothbart—but when all is said and done, I do prefer clean dancing and though the penché enhances a dramatic hit in the music and perhaps inflates Oberon’s ego, the effect isn’t entirely lost. In fact what I was most impressed with by Marcelo’s scherzo was how he wove in and out of the music, at times bending it to his will, highlighting his power as the king of the forest. During the manège of tour jetés en tournant, that tricky guy inserted an extra turn coming out of one of the jumps and somehow managed to find the time for an extra step in an already brisk dance.

Having watched The Dream every other day of my life you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised by anything, but seeing it live added such wonderful dimensions to my understanding of it. I used to think Oberon was just a selfish brat, but the way in which Marcelo simply spied on the lovers made me sympathetic towards him, because despite his power and regality, Oberon desires the love that Lysander and Hermia have for each other in effect, wanting to be human. One of the keys to great story ballets is characters we can relate to and although Oberon is mythical, we respond quite easily to the idea of quarreling with a lover, but beneath the surface we also respond to the jealousy and longing he feels. After all, despite his cruel prank on Titania, he does have a sense of justice in righting the wrongs between the four lovers. He could’ve easily left them to their own devices once he got what he wanted, but does in fact absolve their issues before his own. Watching it live also seemed to paint more hues into this watercolor of love, making it messy, wounded, repaired, confusing, imperfect, selfish, unreciprocated, manipulative, beautiful, and a slew of other adjectives that we all have used to describe love at one time or another. We see so much of ourselves in The Dream that it’s virtually impossible not to follow the story with incredible ease.

Meanwhile, Julie Kent was stunning as Titania, a picture of elegance with a hint of sass. Though I never doubted her talents, I feel lucky to now know why she is so beloved by the New York audience. Daniil Simkin was also a fun Puck to watch, with a wonderfully airy, playful quality. Simkin is so light on his feet I couldn’t hear a sound when he landed from a jump, and he is entirely believable as a slippery, wily elfin creature. Kenneth Easter was great as Bottom, and I enjoyed all four lovers immensely (Adrienne Schulte as Helena, Kristi Boone as Hermia, Gennadi Saveliev as Demetrius, and Roman Zhurbin as Lysander). Between the above roles and the four fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Moth, and Mustardseed, I have to say that Ashton really did well to create such fine dancing roles, and incorporate them seamlessly into a one-act ballet, while giving so many the chance to shine. I think any accomplished dancer can be proud to dance any role in The Dream, and though the following generalization may come back to bite me in the ass someday, I also kind of think that it’s a ballet that would be difficult to look awful in. And just so we’re clear, I’m not looking to be proven wrong about this! With an obvious bias for the genius of Ashton, it’s how I felt leaving the opera house today.

As for Ratmansky’s Firebird…well, it ended up being essentially what I was afraid of and unfortunately I’m not one who enjoyed it, though a second viewing may (but probably won’t) change that. Still, I have reservations with writing about it in a euphoric state because I don’t want to end on a sour note. Already odd references to tube worms and a Muppets version of Balanchine’s Jewels (which, for the record, is an observation I made, in case Eric Taub steals it!) are invading my mind, so let us (well, at least me) dream of fairies tonight and I’ll talk Firebird tomorrow. Just to give a little snippet though, I did think Isabella Boylston was both impressive and enchanting.

So, good night, with lullaby.

-William Shakespeare

P.S. I did go to the stage door today, though I cheated and went after most of the dancers had left. I think I’m going to do it for real tomorrow!