Tag Archives: james whiteside

The Irony of Byron-y

7 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’

1 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABT’s Mixed Bill (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.