Tag Archives: karel cruz

JeRoméo et JuLesleyette

15 Feb

Much like that scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’, when Treebeard and his fellow Ents took an exceptionally long time to decide that the hobbits Merry and Pippin were not, in fact, orcs, deciding which cast of dancers to see at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette required a serious amount of deliberation. Between newly minted principal dancer James Moore partnered with spritely Kaori Nakamura, the luminous Carla Körbes with princely Seth Orza, not to mention a one-night-only guest performance by former PNB dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite (now dancers with Maillot’s own company in Monte Carlo), the selection was beyond an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I had to go with the underdogs, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, who would only perform the title roles once for a Saturday matinee (and they delivered!). Although it’s unlikely that other audience members mulled over their casting choices as tediously as I did, the house was the most full I’ve ever seen for a matinee performance, an extraordinary feat considering the fact that the Pantastico/Postlewaite performance later that night completely sold out (bravo, Seattle!).

Obviously, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is the perfect ballet to have in Seattle, because it truly satisfies the entire spectrum of dancegoers. The typical model for ballet companies these days is to brandish the war horses in full length, classical story ballets to appease the regular ballet-goers and coax people who generally don’t attend the ballet to do so (thanks to our human need to be told stories), and then leave it to mixed repertory programs to present a greater variety that finds appeal in diversified but niche audiences, namely those with more eclectic tastes in contemporary dance. Historically, modern dance has eschewed the narrative and naturally, the vast majority of contemporary dance are shorter pieces that are easily incorporated into a mixed bill. Still, the question needed to be asked if modern styles of dance could in fact tell a proper story and fortunately, a handful of choreographers have answered the call. Some have taken on original stories or previously unused ones, while others have re-imagined ballet classics and although the results may be hit-or-miss depending so heavily on an individual audience member’s tastes, the exploration is an important part of the evolution of dance. Roméo et Juliette comfortably sits right on the nexus of classical and contemporary here in Seattle, where pretty much everybody loves it. Based on what I’ve heard (“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves, sir, honest!”), it just fits with the energy of the city.

I’ve only recently started warming up to any ballet version of Shakespeare’s tragedy (which, if you’ve followed my blog for some time, or had the displeasure of discussing R&J with me on Twitter, you’ll know that there’s some history behind this, and why things have changed is a long story that I’ll have to tell you another day), but I was quite excited to see Maillot’s take on it, after being inoculated with the balcony pas de deux from PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ mixed bill last year (that time I saw Nakamura/Postlewaite dance the pas de deux). That scene remains my favorite part, for its youthful idealization of love, in the way that it’s sometimes silly, sometimes clumsy and awkward, sometimes carnal in its eroticism, and yet it incorporates these ravishing moves that are just as sensuous and adult as something you’d see in a more conventional production of R&J. In that sense, Maillot’s choreography achieves an honesty that others don’t, because his is not an adult ideal of love that draws on nostalgia. I can almost imagine a teenager choreographing that pas de deux his or herself, because it has the elements of emotional maturity with mimicry as the young couple emulates their elders. There’s a lift in particular that I have to gush about because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, where Romeo tosses Juliet around his waist and catches her as she wraps her arm around his neck, and they spin in circles, which makes your heart just fall into a pit in your stomach. I highly recommend watching the entire following video where PNB dancers talk about the principal roles, but if you’re impatient like me, you can see the lift at 1:29.

Anyway, there were a lot of things I loved about Maillot’s choreography—his use of gesture is a feast for the eyes and his phrasing so naturally picks up on the peculiarities of Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Theatrically speaking, Maillot’s production has a cinematic feel to it, complete with opening credits, a narrator, and slow motion death scenes (oh yes, he went there). Of the three, the narrator was an artistic liberty I took a major issue with—the narrator being Friar Lawrence, who basically replays the tragedy to the audience from his mind’s eye. The reason I felt this way is uninterestingly elementary, but I just felt overwhelmed with different perspectives. So you have this incredible story written by Shakespeare, as imagined by Maillot, but then narrated by Friar Lawrence, on top of dancers’ unique interpretations of the roles, which can even be influenced by the repetiteurs who stage the work. It was strangely overwhelming for a production that finds its beauty in purity, and I felt adding yet another voice convoluted the message (in addition to occasionally being unclear as to whether the Friar was actually present, or taking a stroll down memory lane). It’s sure to be a point of controversy for any traditionalist view on R&J, although in Seattle, there’s not a major dance version to compare it to so I’d imagine New York will have a much more visceral reaction upon its arrival for the company’s touring performances.

Principal Karel Cruz on the role of Friar Lawrence, explaining it way better than I can:

There were a couple of scenes I also felt were on the long side, but overall I appreciate Maillot’s creativity, and its presence in repertories around the world and popularity speaks volumes. I absolutely loved watching Rausch and Tisserand, as I think they have a chic chemistry—in past performances I’ve seen her as that cool-as-a-cucumber type dancer with pristine technique, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see her unleash in something so dramatic. The contrast is so dynamic with the flow of Maillot’s gestural choreography juxtaposed against a perfect ballet arabesque, and it really highlighted Rausch’s full range of ability as a dancer. And Tisserand is an irresistible charmer, boyish at times and yet quite valiant, as gifted an actor as he is a jumper. I do believe it was his first time performing the full ballet, and you never would’ve known it—he’s simply a natural Romeo. A great Romeo needs his wingmen though, and I have to say that Jonathan Poretta as Mercutio, and Benjamin Griffiths as Benvolio were absolutely delightful—I think New York audiences will really get a kick out of their performances. Although Orza will dance Romeo at City Center, it’s a shame they won’t get to see his menacing Tybalt—a thoroughly scary bully (who I think had something going on with Lady Capulet? Her major solo comes upon his death, where she undoes her hair, flinging it wildly about in an anguish that surpasses the grief she later shows for her own daughter, suggesting that her “nephew” was something more to her. I saw Maria Chapman as Lady Capulet and she was wild!).

I look forward to hearing peer reactions as they trickle in from the East coast in the next couple of days. I think I’ve arrived at the conclusion that for me, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette didn’t fully resonate, as I left the theatre not feeling especially bonded to the work. The ending—well, we all KNOW how R&J ends, but Maillot’s particular enactment of it left me a little confused—it had me thinking rather than feeling, which is generally not how I experience dance when given the opportunity to be in my element. Even if it never really makes its way on my list of favorites, I do think it’s a wonderful ballet and in time, I hope to have the opportunity to see it again…in ten, twenty, who-knows-how-many years, I would hope to be a different person in many ways and experiencing Romeo et Juliette at a later age could teach me a great deal about what changes took place—a truly remarkable gift of a work of art that you may not necessarily understand the first time around.

“Carlarella”

30 Sep

Today I attended the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Kent Stowell’s Cinderella. Yes, I know what you’re thinking—“Steve! You avoid Prokofiev like the plague!” and that I typically do, but times are a-changing and there are things about Sergei Prokofiev that are beginning to win me over (more on this latest development for another day!). Also, if Carla Körbes is the star of the show, then it’s impossible to be disappointed. However, the unfortunate truth is that I think Stowell’s choreography and staging are quite problematic—and not just because of the Ashton trump card up my sleeve. The program notes made mention of how Stowell wanted to make a departure from the comic tragedy, opting for a more romantic interpretation, because the former and its derivatives “boast more theatrical variety than narrative or emotional cohesiveness.” Okay, so I’m a little irked by the ding at Ashton, but I’m on board for a different perspective, and I was intrigued by this production’s intention to highlight the contrast between Cinderella’s experiences in reality and her dream world. In fact, from the outset, it sounded like the kind of psychoanalysis that would blend really well with the peculiarity of Prokofiev’s melodies.

That’s not what I got. There were a lot of discrepancies between what the program notes said, and how I felt about what was presented. First of all, Stowell opted to do some compositional surgery and added other selections by Prokofiev into the score, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I don’t even listen to Prokofiev on a regular basis and wasn’t familiar with the added music at all, and the discontinuity was still pretty obvious, which never bodes well for the narrative. The main problem though, was that the choreography didn’t really match with the music or say anything about the characters. Prokofiev’s score is rich like dark chocolate, and ever so slightly bittersweet, but the choreography didn’t highlight the subtleties and was quite often “louder” than the music, either in the step itself, or as a matter of being overdone, with too many steps. This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to choreography, especially in narrative ballets—it’s not just a matter of sequencing steps together on the downbeat of the music. A ginglyform mytacism sabrages a knismesis of jentacular witzelsucht if a dompteuse estrapades its callipygian cagamosis. You can’t just string words together and assume you’re communicating a message just because a sentence is grammatically correct; likewise, the art of narrative choreography must have some kind of method beyond counting steps to the time signature of the music in order to progress the story. It’s hard because there are more literary devices to make a story interesting than there are choreographic ones, but there has to be some minimum amount of attention paid in order to avoid a haphazard-looking result. Although one of the motifs Stowell does give was too blatant—a dozen kids in pumpkin costumes encircling Cinderella, jumping on each beat to represent her midnight curfew, which is later repeated at the ball when twelve couples do the same, albeit in a prettier lift. Rather than being a novel idea, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the obvious, which happens to be my other pet peeve.

[The final pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. Some pretty moments and danced with a lot of heart, but I can’t help but feel that it’s…overcooked. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the pas they’re showered with glitter! (dancers are principal Rachel Foster, and former principal Lucien Postlewaite)]

 

Misuse of the score aside, rather than do something different, I found Stowell’s Cinderella to be somewhat derivative of Ashton’s after all (and just made me miss Ashton more!). The structure was relatively the same, with two comic stepsisters, fairy godmother, four seasons soloists, jester, one-dimensional prince…you know, the standard assortment. Some of the insertions into the plot include triple casting the role of the fairy godmother, as Cinderella’s mother in flashback sequences, as well as a masked fairy at the ball, performing a divertissement. The idea was to emphasize Cinderella reminiscing about her past and the likeness between her mother and the fairy (though they are not one and the same), but what does this really contribute to the story? It would be one thing if the fairy godmother WAS in fact her deceased mother, but as a godmother that looks like her? It doesn’t make sense! Cinderella’s father also plays a bigger role, showering Cinderella with affection, but then not really acting on her behalf until the final act, when he actually espies Cinderella dancing with the glass slipper, stands up to the stepmother and stepsisters, and later on presents the slipper to the prince. This, for me, was an egregious error—we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for her father, because when he is truly preoccupied with the dastardly dames, Cinderella’s isolation is highlighted, thus giving significance to her dream of falling in love with the handsome prince. Trust me, I’m an escapist (aka, professional daydreamer) and I dig the libretto for Cinderella, but that’s why her desolation is so crucial; the emotional impact of living her fantasies becomes much more effective.

I was hoping for something darker and moodier, and was practically blinded by the second act when the entire corps de ballet came out in BRIGHT red costumes. Even from my nosebleed seat in the second tier, this was hard to look at. Not to mention the fact that the stepmother was dressed in maroon, and the stepsisters in orange and coral, there was a lot of clashing in the overall color scheme. The costuming was otherwise gorgeous, although some of the theatrical changes lacked drama. Using Ashton as a reference point, he handled Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches by actually having her change offstage during a divertissement and then reappearing fully dressed in her coach, but Stowell has the fairies simply put a cloak over her shmata-dress and send her off, appearing in her ball gown at the beginning of the next act. In Ashton, when the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella runs offstage and a double in her ragged frock runs through the scene (facing away from the audience), while Stowell has her run into the coach, which then rolls away. From a theatre perspective (and speaking as someone who had to stand backstage for high school plays like a human coat rack, with unzipped costumes draped over my limbs and safety pins in my mouth for emergencies), the effect was lackluster.

Still, I did think the entire cast was wonderful, and Carla is truly in a league of her own. I could go on and on about everything I love about her, but she has such a gift to make her performance look natural. Her character is believable because it seems so real, and the fact that she has flawless technique helps to make her the superstar she is. I’d imagine she’d be a choreographer’s dream to work with because they may ask her to do certain things, but she surely isn’t the type of dancer you’d have to wrestle it out of—one need simply ask, and she’ll just do it, and make it her own. Her Cinderella had generosity and warmth, and the way she floated through her pirouettes was absolutely heavenly. Karel Cruz, as her prince, was a quiet nobleman but no less chivalrous, and really, bravo to the entire cast for a marvelous performance. I have to say that one of my favorites, Margaret Mullin, was exceptional as Autumn—what makes her so special is the way she uses her upper body and head, which was on full display in a commanding variation where she just ate up the stage with her presence. Even when dancing in unison with the full corps you see that detailing when she does simple waltz steps and it really is a treat, so watch that space (and face).

Suffice to say, I enjoyed standout performances by PNB dancers and really the whole cast lived up to their reputation as a world-class company. A full length story ballet is a behemoth, and the amount of work, rehearsal, and effort that goes into putting on the show was all there—I just wish Cinderella could have suited them better and really showed off their finest qualities, rather than a pastiche of clichés.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Coppélia

13 Jun

Sometimes a person will have a day where they always seem to be a half step behind and today, that person was me.  I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Coppélia, with choreography by Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova (who danced the role and helped stage it from memory with Balanchine for NYCB).  According to the program, this is the first time Balanchine’s Coppélia has been performed outside of New York.  ‘Twas a night of firsts because it was also the first time I had ever seen a full length production of Coppélia, which means I have no idea what specific differences are compared to other stagings, but the program does mention that the third act is comprised of entirely new choreography by Balanchine.  Unfortunately I thought the third act was really out of place…but more on that later.

I should have known it would be a strange evening because for one thing, the weather was sensational—not a cloud or raindrop in sight.  In Seattle.  Seriously, Seattle.  Good news for commencement attendees at the University of Washington, including my quasi-wife who informed me that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, co-founders of PNB received honorary degrees at today’s ceremonies.  I should have taken that as some kind of omen…not in the evil sense, only that I was in store for drama.  Unsurprisingly, next on fate’s list was missing the bus I needed to take to get home.  As I attempted to transfer from one bus to another, the bus I needed drove away as soon as I got to its door and with it, my opportunity to get home in time to change into nicer clothes.  I figured it would be better to just make it to the show because in the end, a body in the seat is better than an empty seat waiting for a late body in better clothes.  Changing plans, I made it to the Seattle Center but somehow in between the bus and the two minute walk from the bus to McCaw Hall, I lost my ticket.  Grief-stricken and panicking with bells-a-ringing, I searched my pockets and bag to no avail as time was running out.  Thankfully, the ticket window had my name on file and was able to reprint a ticket for me.

I made it into the theater, aided by the act that the first few minutes were used for an introductory speech that talked about funding and such.  However, as I entered I learned that Carla Körbes and Seth Orza would be replaced by Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths (I didn’t catch the reason why so I don’t know if it’s an injury or what have you).  Now I’ve only seen full length ballets four times in my life and so far half of them had casting changes…I think the odds are against me and of course I was a little disappointed that Körbes wouldn’t be dancing because I was so impressed with her when she danced Terpsichore and she reminds me a bit of Marianela Núñez (who I assume to be a lovely Swanilda).  Casting changes can be a little frustrating but are of course just a happenstance in ballet and honestly, I was a little preoccupied with the fact that I was sweating like a beast since I had just freaked out over ticket issues and basically ran to get to my seat as soon as possible.  Despite my trendy haircut from earlier in the day, I.  Felt.  Pretty. (as in not)

At any rate, the troops rallied and PNB put on a truly lovely production.  Foster was delightful—fussy, clever and she really shone in Act II, during the famous scene where Swanilda pretends to be a doll, starting out with stiff, mechanical movements and melting into human ones as she fools Dr. Coppelius into thinking his doll is magically coming to life.  She was also very crisp in the Act I, with some amazing, lightning quick passé and echappé work.  By Act III, I thought she looked maybe a little tentative in the female variation but I think Swanilda’s variation is deceivingly hard.  It is painfully slow and requires a lot of careful placement and the variation Foster chose to perform was one without the Italian fouettés which I actually think is more difficult because without a flashy bravura step it becomes all about balance and the pointe work.  Griffiths (as Swanilda’s love interest, Franz) did well to partner her and is quite a jumper.  He’s not particularly tall (and by that what I really mean is that he’s short) but he just ate up the stage in travelling leap combinations.  I was really impressed with how clean the jumping was, especially the way he landed in a very secure arabesque out of his cabrioles.  Exceptionally clean beats in his jumps and good control in the series of double tours at the end of his variation to boot (the same music as Aminta’s variation in Sylvia).

Now onto the rest of Act III…okay, so please tell me that not every production of Coppélia has a random attack of valkyrs in the middle of Swanilda and Franz’s wedding?  First of all, I didn’t think there was such a thing as a male valkyrie and it was the most bizarre thing to have them disrupt a wedding, dance and leave (the lead valkyr, which I think was Karel Cruz was on FIRE though…just awesome dancing).  Second of all, it made absolutely no sense.  There really is something to be said for editing a dance because despite Cruz’s prodigious technique the whole scene was just deepening the “WTF?!” frown lines on my face.  Then of course there was the children’s scene earlier on…an army of young girls in neon pink tutus (which clashed with the romantic style costumes in my opinion…I don’t like peas to touch my mashed potatoes and accordingly I don’t like my ballets to contain anachronisms).  I know I know…it’s great that the kids get a chance to participate in a big production and really I should know better than to judge them for bent knees, wonky port de bras and recognize that they’re trying to appeal to larger demographics and spark interest in kids.  But let us recall that children is one of the reasons why I avoid the Nutcracker…I really could have done without them and not because they’re young or because I think bourée on demi-pointe just looks weird, but because they were a little distracting during the solos (I think the characters were Prayer, Dawn and ???) in the third act.  They were given movements and basic formations that cramped the stage a bit  and detracted from the soloists.  For example, one of the soloists was performing a manége (a series of travelling pirouettes that move in a circle) but there was no space for it and the manége ended up too tight to really make an impact.  So I found some of the decisions questionable from an aesthetic point of view but I know the truth to be that ballet isn’t just about aesthetics.

Aside from the strangeness of Act III it really was (is, since they have one more matinee tomorrow) a fine show, with beautifully done sets and excellent dancing (minus one dancer who took an unfortunate spill tonight…I blame myself for that though because I think I brought a strange aura to the building).  Coppélia was made possible by virtue of generous gifts and I hope that’s a sign of more to come *cough MacMillan.*

And as always, kudos to the orchestra.  Live music rrrrrrrrocks!

(Visit Pacific Northwest Ballet’s website for ticket info and other tidbits…Peter Boal’s story about his experience with Coppélia is pretty neat)