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Friday, September 2, 2016

The Color Purple

The radiant Cynthia Erivo as Celie, photo @ Matthew Murphy

I saw The Color Purple last night on a total whim. I had heard wonderful things about this revival but I had been resistant because as a rule I dislike musicals that are based on beloved novels. Alice Walker's novel was/is so perfect that I thought any musical adaptation would seem shallow by comparison. I also didn't have any points of comparison -- I hadn't seen the original Broadway production.

For this revival director John Doyle made the conscious choice not to age the actors in any way even though the story spans almost 40 years. Aging was indicated by body language, vocal inflection, facial expression. There were also no real scene changes -- a large unit set (a back panel of wood and a bunch of chairs) suggested the stark surroundings of Celie's life: her home, her church, her community. Celie's birth of her second child was depicted as Celie pulling a large sheet from under her dress, then folding the sheet to resemble the shape of a baby bundle.

The net effect was that the focus was squarely on the actors. When the house lights dimmed I was skeptical of the direction. Could the actors really carry the entire musical? Well forget the doubts. Believe the hype. Cynthia Erivo (Celie) is every bit as astonishing as everyone says she is. She has the pipes, she has the charisma, and most importantly, she has that inner radiance and light. She walks onstage and without saying a word her body emanates "I'm Here." (Later when she sings the 11 o'clock number she gets a standing ovation.) In addition to her incredible pipes, Erivo is an amazing actress. Her Celie is tough, practical, of a very strong constitution. Erivo takes the audience on Celie's journey and at the end of the evening most of the audience was in tears but it didn't feel cheap or manipulated. We were actually crying for Celie. Erivo earned her Tony.

Johnson as Mister, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The entire cast is remarkable. They all have strong handsome voices, and they also are all wonderful actors. No one phones it in -- they make every moment and every line count. Heather Headley as Shug Avery was sultry, seductive, with just enough of a careworn look and manner to suggest that Shug's swagger is equal parts genuine and a show. Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe were nice comic relief as Sofia and Harpo, whose relationship differs so much from Celie's relationship to the brutal Mister (a wonderful Isaiah Johnson, whose suave man-next-door persona made Mister someone you know and recognize).  Joaquina Kulakango was lovely as Nettie, Celie's long-lost sister. Smaller characters like Squeak (Patrice Covington) and the ever-present chorus were all cast from strength.

The three amazing ladies, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple is not perfect -- for one, the book by Marsha Norman doesn't capture the voice of Celie as well as the book does. Norman is more sentimental, and the second act has a slightly pat, mawkish feel. The music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Steven Bray, and Allee Willis. There's certainly moments in the score that are beautiful -- the anthem "I'm Here," the title song "The Color Purple," and Celie's tender lullaby to her son "Somebody's Gonna Love You." But unfortunately a lot of the music sounds too similar -- a sort of generic faux-gospel/soul sound. It's a great story, but not necessarily a great score or book.

Thus it takes an incredible cast that's full of energy and conviction to pull this off and this cast certainly did. Erivo's radiant voice and expression were so full of uplift that I can only say: Like a blade of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all part of me. Like the color purple, where did it all come from?" Beautiful beautiful evening. Catch Erivo while you can (I believe she leaves the show in January).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sarasota Ballet's Sir Fred Steps

The milkmaid of Facade, photo by Frank Atura

Sarasota Ballet made their debut at the Joyce Theater on August 8 with an All-Ashton program that was given an extremely twee name: A Knight at the British Ballet. Artistic Director Iain Webb was a former dancer with the Royal Ballet and has decided to take Sarasota Ballet down a different path than the usual one for regional ballet companies. Instead of the mix of contemporary ballet mixed with some Balanchine (with an annual Nutcracker thrown in) Sarasota Ballet has made a commitment to presenting the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, and not just his warhorses like La Fille mal Gardee or Monotones or The Dream but the lesser-known works in his canon.The performance I caught at the Joyce seemed like this endeavor has yielded admirable but mixed results.

Valses sentimentales, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The program was an eclectic one -- only Facade was anywhere near "well-known". The others were all ballets that for whatever reason have fallen out of the general repertory. First up was Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Curtain goes up, music starts playing, and balletomanes are thinking this looks very familiar. That's because it's set to the same music as Balanchine's La Valse (Ravel's famous waltz). Costumes and decor are strikingly similar too -- same ballroom setting, same long maroon dresses for the women. But look closer and the ballet is the exact opposite of Balanchine's -- strange how two different choreographers set the exact same music to ballet at roughly the same time (Ashton's premiered in 1947 and Balanchine's in 1951) but "heard" the music so differently. Balanchine heard darkness, decadence and death in Ravel's waltz. Ashton presents the music as a backdrop for a rather elegant ballroom event. Couples waltz and waltz and it's all very impersonal.

This is where the limitations of Sarasota Ballet were the most apparent. They seemed to suffer from opening night nerves -- legs were stiff and wobbly and the girls made several slips in the final waltz portion. That's all understandable. Less understandable was how all the dancers had these stiff, fixed, front facing smiles at all times. This was the weirdest with the central trio (Danielle Brown, Ricardo Graziano, Jacob Hughes). Even when Brown was being carried aloft in a menage by the two men, her face was squarely to the audience in an unchanging grin. Surely Iain Webb coached them about how much Ashton emphasized interactions between dancers? They all looked like they were gymnasts who were saluting to the judges after nailing a vault.

The other issue I saw throughout the night was partnering. The small Joyce stage and auditorium meant that you often could see the many adjustments partners made in the middle of a performance. But men often had issues with holding their partners without noticeable shifting and women on their end had trouble holding poses without their legs wobbling or form faltering. Not sure whether it was a case of nerves but I did notice that the men were on the whole rather slim and slight.

Tweedeldum and Tweedledee, photo by Andrea Mohin
Intermission and then it was an eclectic mix of pas de deux. All of them were made in the later phase of Ashton's career and showed him branching off into different directions. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (1978) is a brief cameo based on the Alice in Wonderland books. It's a little precious but harmless. A Walk to Paradise Garden (set to gorgeous music from Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet) had Ashton abandoning the prim Fred step and "walking" lift in favor of MacMillan and/or Soviet style acrobatic lifts -- the plank lifts, the torch lift, the upside down lift, you name it. The Soviet-style partnering was beyond the abilities of Ricardo Graziano and Danielle Brown couldn't hold the poses without wobbling.  Too bad because this was by far the most intriguing work in the second set and it had a haunting ending. Jazz Calender/Friday's Child was again marred by too much fixed, front-facing smiles (it's a sexy, sultry duet) and Sinfonietta seemed too derivative of both Monotones (white space suits? Check) and Balanchine's The Unanswered Question (woman being held aloft by six men with her feet never touching the ground? Check). It even had a blatant ripoff of the famous sunburst pose in Apollo for good measure.

Facade final tableau, photo by Frank Atura

It was good that Sarasota Ballet got all their performance nerves and jitters out of the way because the final number of the evening required the entire company and they were magnificent. Individual dancers finally started stealing the show -- Kate Honea as the milkmaid, Sam O'Brien and Patrick Ward deadpan and droll in the Popular Song, Danielle Brown and David Tlaiye in the Tango-Pasodoble. Facade is the oldest number on the program (premiered in 1931) but it's the most timeless. This parody of the English music hall/vaudeville works because it's tongue-in-cheek but also a tribute. The best bits are maybe the Swiss yodeling song with a milkmaid "milking" two cows (really male dancers' fingers), the two soft-shoe dancers in the Popular Song and the Tango-Pasodoble (a parody of the overwrought mannerisms in Latin ballroom dancing). And the entire Sarasota Ballet ensemble was finally on for this ballet. There were no more wobbly arabesques, no more shaky partnering, no more fixed smiles. They were having fun, and the audience was having fun along with them. This was Sir Fred's best step.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Winter's Tale in a Summer Festival

Dronina and McKie in A Winter's Tale, photo @ Karolina Kuras

The dog days of summer are often the worst time for balletomanes. The home companies' seasons are over, and the days of huge summer-long tours by the Bolshoi/Mariinsky/Royal Ballet are increasingly rare. It was thus that I found myself plunked down for a ballet (Christopher Wheeldon's A Winter's Tale as part of the Lincoln Center Festival) that I really had no desire to see. Hey, as I said, slim pickings.

I was already familiar with A Winter's Tale from the Royal Ballet video. I found the ballet slickly produced but unmoving, like so much of Wheeldon's work. But in that video I admired the demented, intense performance of Edward Watson as Leontes (sort of doing a Prince-Rudolf-in-Mayerling-lite) and also the matriarchal, authoritative Paulina of Yenaida Zenowsky. The National Ballet of Canada's 7/29 performance (it runs from 7/28-7/31 with multiple casts) had none of the excesses of the Royal Ballet performance. The performance suffered from a surfeit of good manners. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Evan McKie, photo @ Karolina Kuras
One performance really isn't enough to judge a company but I thought all the major principals were good, with some being very good. Evan McKie (Leontes) resisted the full-blown crazy eyes Edward Watson interpretation and took  a more dignified and regal approach. Jurgita Dronina (Hermiones) avoided the Poor Innocent Woman trap and instead was flirty and vivacious -- you could sort of see why her husband would be so jealous. Former Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina brought a quiet grace and dignity to Paulina. Young lovers Perdita (Elena Lobasnova) and Florizel (Francesco Gabriele Frola) were charming and cute. But it was the secondary parts that were for me the most memorable -- Jonathan Renna was kindly and grandfatherly as Antigonus, Brendon Saye being dark and dashing and a contrast to Evan McKie's Leontes.

Watching the ballet live did allow me to appreciate some things about Wheeldon's work. Wheeldon is an expert craftsman -- his long-standing collaborations with set and costume designer Bob Crowley and silk effects designer Basil Twist (who also worked with Wheeldon in his Cinderella) ensure that at the very least, A Winter's Tale will be visually appealing. And it was. The sets and costumes perfectly evoked a distant past but with a timeless, non-specific feel. The statues of Act One were a nice bit of foreshadowing. I particularly loved the huge tree that starts Act Two -- it symbolizes a new beginning for Perdita. As for the music, Joby Talbot also collaborated with Wheeldon in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Talbot's music is not going to enter the pantheon of great balletic scores but it's not offensive. Talbot's style mixes a sort of modern sound with traditional folk rhythms.

Wheeldon also knows how to tell a story in the sense that he distills the complicated plot of Winter's Tale into an easily understood, digestible 3 act narrative ballet. The first act is maybe the best -- Wheeldon in 50 minutes checks the boxes of Leontes and Polixenes' friendship, Leontes' marriage to Hermione, the birth of their little boy Mamillius, the visit of Polixenes, Hermione's second pregnancy, Leontes' doubts/jealousy about Hermione's faithfulness, Hermione's imprisonment, the death of Mamillius, Paulina secretly shuttling away Hermione's baby, Hermione's death, and yes, even poor Antigonus's "exit, pursued by a bear." It was action packed and never boring. Wheeldon injects some ambiguity by prolonging the dance sequences between Hermione and Polixenes and also by having Hermione's dancing with Polixenes be more flirtatious than her dancing with Leontes. The second act is a pure dance act that celebrates the pastoral romance between Perdita and Florizel. The loose ends of the story are wrapped up in the final act. In terms of pacing, structure, timing, Wheeldon meanders less than any other modern choreographer.

Second act pastoral festivities, photo @ Karolina Kuras

Where the ballet fails (and this is where most Wheeldon ballets fail, at least for me) is the actual choreography. He can organize a ballet so that it's a tight, well-constructed, visually appealing entertainment package but he can't actually come up with steps that do more than tell a story. Wheeldon remains a prosaic, repetitive choreographer who can't convey the themes of love and redemption that are at the heart of Shakespeare's play. The first act is an example: Hermiones wears a prosthetic pregnant belly but it's clear that Wheeldon never considered how a heavily pregnant woman might move, because she's tossed and lifted overhead and upside down like a rag doll  (with her legs in a split) repeatedly. Her "song of grief" is her doing spinning arabesques. It's typical modern ballet choreography (especially the overhead split leg lifts) but Wheeldon actually undercuts one of the play's most heart-rending themes, which is that the Hermione is being vilified and abused by her husband while she's in the final, least mobile stages of pregnancy.

Wheeldon's ballet choreography hasn't changed over time -- he loves pas de deux that are full of moves where the woman is draped over the man with her legs in some sort of split. His over-reliance on this step makes it lose all meaning -- women are draped over men when they're happy, sad, loving, hateful, lustful, and anything in between. He repeats other effects that upon repetition lose their power -- splayed arms/hands and flexed feet to indicate anger/grief is a particularly overused motif. His choreography for the corps de ballet remains weak to nonexistent. The charming second act (which covers the budding romance between Perdita and Florizel) has a beautiful tree as a backdrop and a pretty successful ambience of a pastoral romance. Wheeldon even uses an onstage shepherd to play a pastoral flute melody and an onstage musical quartet (including an accordion player) for the general festivities. But again the actual steps for the corps and the main lovers are lifts, lifts, and more lifts.  The finale of A Winter's Tale should be real tearjerker.  It's a reflection on Wheeldon's limitations tht Hermione's resurrection as a statue come back to life is strangely unmoving. The reunited husband and wife embrace. She moves away. She comes back. Wash rinse and repeat until she's reunited with Perdita. As I said, it tells the story. It doesn't touch the soul.

And that is the story of Wheeldon as a choreographer. Wheeldon is more in demand than ever -- on Broadway, in ballet stages around the world. You can see why -- he picks great stories, and usually has great music, and almost always has great production values. It seems he can do almost anything except make great choreography.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Stella's 20th Anniversary at ABT; Peter Wright Autobiography

Stella celebrates 20 years with company, photo @ Kent G. Becker

Last night Stella Abrera celebrated her 20 years with ABT with her company debut as Aurora in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. She wasn't technically perfect, but she was exemplary, as she is in anything she dances. Abrera is one of the rare Auroras who grows in each act. In her birthday party she's bubbly and excited, in the Vision Scene seemed ethereal and elusive, and finally in the Wedding Scene she was regal and even a bit aloof.

Abrera is now 38 -- one wishes ABT would have allowed her to dance Aurora years earlier. As it is there were some concessions to age and time -- her Rose Adagio balances were not the longest and most secure (although she didn't really wobble noticeably) , and she seemed to have a few issues negotiating the petit batterie right before the start of the Rose Adagio. What sets Abrera apart from the rest of the ABT ballerinas is her almost Russian carriage in her upper body -- her soft arms, supple back, beautiful neck and shoulders. When she balanced on the clam shell in the Vision Scene her upper body had a freedom and elegance that made her look almost lithographic. Her other special quality is her unaffected acting. Abrera is never acting the part of the Prima Ballerina. There's a modesty, humility and charm to all her performances that shines across the footlights. People used to say the same thing about Margot Fonteyn -- that part of her charm was that she never took on any grand diva mannerisms.

At the end of the evening confetti rained down on her and many principals past and present came onstage to bring her flowers. Her path to principal was long, protracted and painful, and it was wonderful to see her soaking in the admiration from her colleagues and audience. Here's a clip of the curtain calls. Watch for Emma Belosserkovsky, the daughter of former ABT principals Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belosserkovsky!

Gomes and Abrera, photo @ Gene Schiavone
She had strong supporting partners. The company has settled into Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty -- the lower leg positions and demi-pointe work no longer look awkward and forced. Some compromises Ratmansky seems to have made for the sake of modern ballet technique -- the dancers no longer pirouette with their feet quite as low in passé, and the leg in developpés in the Rose Adagio seem to have crawled a few inches higher (although still no higher than the waist). Marcelo Gomes' Prince was of course a wonderful partner (fish dives in the Wedding pas de deux were amazing). He still struggles with his variation but I don't think anyone goes to Sleeping Beauty to see the Prince's variation. Skylar Brandt was charming as Florine, but what's better is that Gabe Stone Shayer seems noticeably more comfortable with the famous Bluebird diagonals than he was last year. His brisé volés were faster, entrechats more open and expansive, and overall he moved with greater speed. Veronika Part's Lilac Fairy was one sour spot -- it's okay that she chose to do the simpler Marie Petipa variation. It's not okay that this Lilac Fairy failed to even look at baby Aurora. Nancy Raffa was not the most exciting Carabosse.

One good thing about Ratmansky is his meticulous coaching/rehearsal methods and one can see the rewards in how well ABT now dances the Fairy Variations in the Prologue and the Precious Stones trio in the Wedding scene. They variations last night were given to long time and new corps members (Devon Teuscher as Candide, Luciana Paris as Wheat, Gemma Bond as Breadcrumb, Zhing-Yong Fang as Canary, Catherine Hurlin as Temperament) and all of them danced with a musicality and precision that was not always present in past ABT productions (and still isn't present in many ABT performances). As the Precious Stones Christine Shevchenko was a sparkling Diamond, and Stephanie Williams (Gold), Paulina Waski (Sapphire) and April Giangeruso (Silver) danced as if they were really sisters. Great unison. Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty may not be the BEST production around (although comparisons are hard) but there's no doubt that he brought out the best in ABT, and that is what is important.

And so that's my ABT season in a wrap. I only attended 6 performances in the 8 week season and in retrospect I'm glad I did. ABT I'm starting to think is a company best taken in small doses. But it says something that by far the two best performances I attended were with Stella Abrera. As great as her Aurora was, her Lise in Fille mal gardee was one of the best nights I've ever spent at the ballet in recent memory. I'm so glad this beautiful ballerina is finally getting the starring roles she deserves.

In other news I've finished Peter Wright's autobiography Wrights and Wrongs: My Life in Dance. Today Peter Wright is best known for his versions of Giselle and Nutcracker, which are both still in the Royal Ballet repertoire, and Sleeping Beauty, which is danced by some companies around the world. But in the early days he worked for Kurt Jooss, most famous for the anti-war ballet The Green Table, and then he worked for John Cranko at the Stuttgart Ballet and Sir Kenneth MacMillan at the Royal Ballet. He eventually became the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Wright's autobiography (co-written with Paul Arrowsmith) is one of those books which reveals that the narrator is not someone you'd like or want to know. Wright is an inveterate name-dropper (he goes on about the charm of Imelda Marcos), prejudiced (he says that he didn't connect with Sir Frederick Ashton because he waved at him in a "homosexual" way), passive aggressive (he claims to have "adored" Svetlana Beriosova but then goes into more than necessary detail about an unfortunate incident with Beriosova performing Anastasia intoxicated), and monstrously egocentric. Wright was for so long a #2 to greater ballet lights (John Cranko, Sir Kenneth MacMillan), and the whole book bubbles over with barely hidden resentment that he was never given the worship and adulation he considered his due. He matter of factly says that the only stagings of the "classics" he likes are his own. Consider this passage about Wright's attempt to sue Natalia Makarova when she staged Giselle and he considered some of the details she added to be "theft" --

"Rather than face another protracted legal wrangle I chose the higher ground and had to content myself with pointing out that if Natasha did not wish to make further modifications I would let the matter drop. After all, neither she nor I owned the ballet but we shared the same desire for it to continue to live for audiences today. I am, however, comforted by the fact that Natasha's production only had a few performances before it was dropped ..."

But as you might have imagined this book is also sort of fun if you like behind the scenes gossip. You get good anecdotes of Sylvie Guillem (who does not come across well), Rudolf Nureyev, "Madam" Ninette de Valois Deborah MacMillan, and so on and so forth in a who's-who of British ballet history. There's also some rather candid opinions on many ballets and choreographers (Wright dislikes the Petipa classics La Bayadere and Raymonda, and also has no fondness for any version of Romeo and Juliet, be it Lavrovsky's, MacMillan's, or Cranko's. He doesn't like MacMillan's Manon or Mayerling either. And don't even get him started on Wayne McGregor). You get behind the scenes detail about those early BBC films of ballets made by Margaret Dale. There's nuggets of information I had no idea about -- I didn't know, for instance, that the Jerome Robbins Foundation pulled the rights for the Royal Ballet to perform Dances at a Gathering because of what they considered over-acting by the dancers. And of course there are the bitchy one-liners that get a laugh: "Nadia Nerina was the only person who ever thought she was musical." Zing!

But overall so much ego on someone who's contributions to ballet are middling at best is not a good look, and you don't trust Wright, as so much of what he has to say seems riddled with an agenda. Arlene Croce once called him "Mr. Wrong." So many years later, that label is still apt. The more you read about him the more you dislike him.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ferri's Juliet Proves You Can't Go Home Again; Fun Home

Ferri and Cornejo, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On Thursday June 23 the Met was packed to the rafters with balletomanes for an Event of the Season: beloved ABT ballerina Alessandra Ferri's return to the stage in her signature role of Juliet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Ferri retired in 2007 but sort of unretired and this was the sort of splashy I'm Back moment that draws out every hardcore balletomane in the city.

Ferri's entrance as Juliet was electric -- when she emerged from behind the curtain and jumped in the Nurse's lap the audience cheers were so loud the music was completely drowned out. At the end of the evening Ferri and Herman Cornejo (the Romeo) were called out again and again for thunderous ovations. The audience totally lapped up everything about the evening.

Me personally? I hated it. I hate myself for hating it and thought throughout the evening -- why am I being grouchy? What's wrong with me that I can't appreciate such a touching return to the stage? And Alessandra was still Alessandra right? Her feet were still had those beautiful arches, her arms the same limpid softness, right? RIGHT? Why am I not crying and weeping for joy?

But I guess I go to the ballet to see, um, dancing, and all night I wanted Ferri to DANCE, and realized that she at this point in her career (she's 53) can't dance. She can pose, she can swoon, she can die prettily, but everything about her performance was about concealing what she couldn't do dance-wise. For instance: those beautiful feet now can't really roll on and off pointe. If she got on pointe it was through an effortful push, and she would stay on pointe stiffly as if she were afraid that she wouldn't be able to get on pointe the next time. Her bourrées were a joke. No other way to put it -- she didn't skim the floor so much as limp along. She did some artful dodging of the choreography by flat-footing (no more demi-pointe) those famous Juliet runs. She eliminated all the jumps. In the balcony scene the moon arc lifts and arabesques were stiffly posed -- there was no sense of moving according to the choreography. This isn't like an Odile who can't make it through the 32 fouettes. I don't care about things like that. But this kind of cheapening of ballet, like, "I'm Alessandra, y'all can stare at my feet all night even as I duck almost every part of the choreography, because, you know, I'M ALESSANDRA FERRI" -- I actually find that offensive. It's why ABT will never be taken seriously as an artistic institution -- because they cater to an audience that's not there to see dance, but to see "their" dancers.

Ferri and Cornejo, photo @ Kent G Becker
Ferri's Juliet was all the more disappointing because I remember what she used to be like in this role. She was never a 32 fouette or Rose Adagio balance sort of ballerina, but her technique wasn't shoddy. She always had a beautiful sense of line, movement, speed, and her pointe work was always so light and effortless. It was therefore sad to see her struggling to simply stand on pointe, or to see her arabesque as a stiff pose rather than a free, arc-like movement of the leg. As for her interpretation, I honestly found it creepy how she was so studiously affecting the expressions of a fresh, innocent, shy teenager. There was no sense of her adjusting her Juliet to acknowledge her more mature face/body/persona. Great artists have the ability to loop themselves into the role -- for instance in the old film with Margot Fonteyn the then middle-aged Fonteyn used her huge saucer eyes and sweet smile to give the illusion of youth, but she also quivered with ecstasy in the balcony scene as a mature woman might. It was a great way to reconcile the fact that she wasn't anywhere close to 13 while still being "13 year old Juliet." Ferri had none of that adjustment last night. Her portrayal was fossilized, mummified. I wanted to be moved when she slumped over on her tomb but ultimately mummies don't move me.

As for her Romeo Herman Cornejo he was magnificent in the solo parts -- a ménage of sauts de basque had the audience gasping. His partnering was less magnificent but I'm not sure it's really his "fault" per se -- those big fancy lifts that MacMillan loved so much require the ballerina to have a very strong core. You can't do that with a Juliet that is so weak. But still, the success of MacMillan's ballet depends on the Romeo and Juliet having an illusion of abandonment and ecstasy. Big flying leaps from Juliet into Romeo's arms, followed by swoony lunges. It was hard to appreciate that when you saw the mechanics behind every lift so carefully telegraphed by the two dancers. This was apparent in the tomb scene -- when Cornejo lifted the "lifeless" Juliet you could see the minute adjustments both dancers made to get in the just right position. This sort of thing kills the evening. The chemistry between Ferri and Cornejo was weak on other levels too -- very little eye contact, and no sense of joy. Blech. This evening left a bad taste in my mouth. If you wanted an evening where a lot of sentimental ladies gushed about how great it was to see "Alessandra" again, this was your thing. If you wanted an evening where dancers actually danced, then the whole Event was a cynical, cheap ploy to drum up box office without any consideration for artistic merit.

"I Wanna Play Airplane!" -- photo @ Joan Marcus

In other news, the lovely musical Fun Home is closing soon. I caught a performance this week. Much of the original cast is still intact, from Michael Cerveris as the tormented gay dad to Judy Kuhn as the bitter wife and Beth Malone as Adult Alison and Emily Skeggs as Medium Alison. Of the major leads only Gabriela Pizzolo as Small Alison is a replacement -- the original was Sydney Lucas. Everyone in the cast was pitch perfect -- there wasn't a single false note the entire evening. Even the supporting roles like Roberta Colindrez as Joan and Joel Perez as the many lovers of Bruce were full of 3-dimensional humanity. I particularly loved the use of kids in this musical -- besides Small Alison, also Alison's brothers (Zell Steele Morrow and Cole Gray). They were never "cute" or just there as props to give the warm fuzzies. They were treated as an integral part of this sad family drama.

This may not be the splashiest musical, but the chemistry between the cast, the realness of the book, and the beauty of the music made Fun Home a rich, rewarding evening at the theater. This is an ensemble piece in the best sense of the word -- there's no 11 o'clock production numbers, just an amazing intimacy among the cast so that every interaction seems completely organic. The songs are surprisingly catchy -- "I'm Changing My Major to Joan" is an earworm, as is "Ring of Keys." The subject matter is rather dark but the presentation of the subject matter and themes is so tender and honest that one walks away uplifted rather than depressed. Beautiful musical. See it while you can.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The King and I PSA: Mazzie and Kim are Something Wonderful

Mazzie and Kim
Lincoln Center Theater's production of The King and I is will close on June 26. Sales slumped after the original leading lady Kelli O'Hara departed the show. However good word of mouth convinced me to see the second cast last night -- Marin Mazzie as Anna and Daniel Dae Kim as the King of Siam. My reaction: this is a PSA. If you love this musical, if you love Broadway classics, if you love theater, PLEASE snatch up tickets to the remaining shows. I doubt I'll ever see such a dynamic TKAI pairing as Mazzie/Kim in my lifetime. They were simply magical.

 Mazzie and Kim blow the original cast (O'Hara and Watanabe) out of the water in every way. Well maybe not vocal superiority -- Mazzie has a much lower, huskier voice than O'Hara's pure light soprano, and technically it isn't as beautiful of a voice. Watanabe couldn't really sing but neither can Kim. Where the Mazzie/Kim pairing succeeds is acting, timing, and chemistry. They are funnier and more dynamic than O'Hara and Watanabe -- with O'Hara and Watanabe you felt a cordial employer/employee relationship. With Mazzie and Kim sparks fly. TKAI can be rather preachy and naive, with built in ideas about Western superiority and Asian weakness that make one cringe if one remembers that 58,000 Americans and countless numbesr of Vietnamese people lost their lives because of American ignorance and condescension about Asian geography, culture, and politics. Mazzie/Kim take away the cringe factor of the show by the strength of their portrayals.

I'm a big fan of Daniel Dae Kim ever since he was on LOST. His character on LOST was a somewhat stolid hero, but Kim was always watchable and he made nobility interesting (who can forget the time Jin refused to leave the ship without Michael, and thus got blown up?). Kim's portrayal of the King just oozes charisma, sex appeal, humor, so much so that one can totally believe the sexual tension between Anna and the King. Lines that went for nothing with Watanabe drew huge laughs here, like "I build a wall around Siam" (an obvious reference to a certain orange-faced presidential candidate.) Watanabe pronounced words phonetically and never got the nuances of the dialogue: "A Puzzlement' was a disaster. Kim's "A Puzzlement" was a showstopper that garnered a prolonged ovation. Kim's King was so appealing that when he became implacable about Tuptim (a radiant Ashley Park, who has been with the production since the start) the moment was chilling. You felt Anna's disappointment and dismay because the audience felt the same way.

Kim and Mazzie in the emotional farewell, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Mazzie's Anna is different from Kelli's chipper, sweet, butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth portrayal. Mazzie is clearly an experienced woman of the world. It's not just her throaty, husky speaking and singing voice. Her body language is almost masculine -- it resembles Hillary Clinton. A real boss lady type. There were drawbacks to this -- "Getting to Know You" and "Whistle a Happy Tune" felt slightly artificial -- Mazzie exudes such strength that you wouldn't peg her as the type of teacher to sing such homilies. But Mazzie highlighted a lot of the humor and heart of the show the way O'Hara didn't. For instance, at the end of "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" (usually a moment that makes Anna seem shrewish and whiny) Mazzie delivers the last two lines ("Give us a good kick, your Majesty!/Oh that was good, your Majesty!") while leaning against the bed pole and clearly suggesting the ladies having sexual relations with "Your Majesty." First of all it's funny. Second of all it telegraphs the feelings Anna has developed for the King.

TKAI is one of the rare musicals that gets better in the second act. The "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, "Shall We Dance," the finale, this stuff practically writes itself. But there have been a lot of improvements since I saw this show in preview. The ballet has gotten sharper, Robbins' iconic choreography more articulated. "Shall We Dance" is now bolstered by the strong chemistry between Mazzie and Kim. When they finally physically touched the audience was pin-drop quiet. I only wish the orchestral arrangements for "Shall We Dance" hadn't been so relentlessly brassy. It takes away from the sweetness and depth of the moment.

The production is still in good shape, with much of the original cast still there.  Jon Viktor Ortiz's Prince Chulalongkorn now delivers his lines with much more assurance. Ashley Park as I said was simply radiant as Tuptim. Only Ruthie Anne Miles' Lady Thiang has become more mannered and less appealing. She glowers too much. Some thing about Bartlett Sher's production still grate -- his love of spare, minimalist sets and fondness for shower curtains to signal scene changes is getting old. (It was in Le Comte OryFiddler on the Roof -- enough!!!) But with the energy of Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim you barely noticed the scenery. It was a beautiful night at the theater. Go see it while you can!!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Spring Season Diaries: Ratmansky's Golden Cockerel, SAB Workshops

Front drop for Golden Cockerel, taken by moi

Ratmansky's Golden Cockerel opened at ABT last night. Ratmansky's ballet is "inspired" by Mikhail Fokine's ballet for the Ballet Russes which starred Tamara Karsavina and Fokine himself (pictured below). Ratmansky first staged Cockerel in 2012 for the Royal Danish Ballet but supposedly added more dance for the ABT version. Richard Hudson's colorful sets and costumes are loosely based on the original designs by Natalia Goncharova. The auditorium was fairly full but I think audience reaction was mixed at best and muted at worst. There was an angry heckler at the end of the ballet, who kept shouting "EVIL," seemingly impervious to the fact that the whole ballet was, in fact, a satire of Russian rulers.

Skylar Brandt as Golden Cockerel, photo @ Fabrizio Ferri
Whether you enjoyed Cockerel depends I think on expectations. If you are looking for a Petipa or Balanchine-like ballet, Cockerel is not for you. It's more like a dance-inflected folk drama. There are no big dance moments. The actual choreography is I'd say more folk/character dance and mime than classical ballet. Queen of Shemakhan (an unexpectedly witty and goofy Veronika Part) rises on pointe but mostly does some slinky moves and then disappears. The Golden Cockerel (Skylar Brandt) has this repeated step in which she kicks her legs in a sort of upwards bicycle motion. Those looking for majestic Odette-like wing flapping or Firebird-style jumps will be disappointed. Then again the Golden Cockerel unlike Odette or Firebird is a mechanical creature, and portrayed as such. These ladies actually don't have much dancing to do and their top billing I think is due to the pressure of advertising two ballerinas in a new ballet.

Mikhail Fokine as the Astrologer
The heart of the story is with the men who are almost completely mime characters -- the Tsar (Gary Chryst), his two sons (Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak) and the Astrologer (Cory Stearns). The story is a classic part of Russian folklore -- the foolish, almost simpleton Tsar and his wastrel sons. I think those really familiar with Russian culture will enjoy this more than people simply looking for a nice evening at the ballet -- the dark, cruel humor and the grisly ending to the piece probably surprised the audiences since everything about the colorful, storybook sets and costumes suggested a fun fairy tale.

The good is that Ratmansky inspires some ABT dancers to "think different," as Steve Jobs would say. Or rather he demands that they go outside their comfort zone. Former Joffrey Ballet dancer Gary Chryst was hysterical at the Tsar -- simple, foolish, vain. Veronika Part in other ballets can really put on a masterclass in Russian Diva Mannerisms 101 but here she did a delightful self-parody of that persona -- the Queen is a siren and seductress, but one who can't help but giggle at her own behavior. Cory Stearns as the wily  Astrologer was a revelation -- almost unrecognizable in a huge beard, robe, and wizard hat, but absolutely eating up the stage. Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak probably have the most actual dancing to do but again they trade in their prince-like personas for a vividly drawn portrayals of two lazy, spoiled sons. Also fantastic was Martine van Hamel as the Tsar's Housekeeper, who still has to tuck the Tsar into bed at night. The ABT corps were also inspired by Ratmansky to do their best -- the Warriors in particular were great, flashing their cardboard swords. Oddly the usually sparkling Skylar Brandt failed to make much of an impression -- I guess her role is too constricted and one-dimensional, as is her choreography.

Veronika Part, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The problem with Cockerel is that this really is more of a lengthy one-act ballet that was stretched into an evening-length piece. Fokine's original was, in fact, a one-act ballet. The music is beautiful (although Rimsky Korsakov's original opera is even more so -- it has that famous coloratura aria Hymn to the Sun), the sets and costumes by Richard Hudson are eye candy, but large chunks of the ballet seem like filler. Each act is 40 minutes but about 20 minutes from the ballet could be trimmed and no one would care. The corps numbers for the Peasant Women and Persian Women in particular wear thin -- sometimes Ratmansky's penchant for parody is so relentless it ends up becoming tedious. As of now this piece doesn't hold one's interest for an entire evening. I actually thought about how great this piece would be if edited to an hour and then on a double bill with Firebird (either Ratmansky's own version or Fokine's). That evening really would be steeped in the mysterious, exotic world on the steppes of Central Asia.

As a side note I found this Youtube video of the original Ballet Russes production. It seems like the choreography for the Golden Cockerel was originally much more feral:

SAB students rehearsing the 4T's, photo by Rosalie O'Connor
I can't believe this is my first year attending an SAB workshop, but I attended both performances on Saturday June 4. Dammit. Now I'll never be able to live without seeing these again. SAB is the country's largest professional dancing school and its list of legendary alumni are so numerous that it'd be tedious to list even a fraction of them. The Vaganova of the Hudson is a good way to think of it. So naturally the workshops are a great way for talent scouts from ballet companies to recruit for new dancers. Indeed, besides Peter Martins of NYCB you also saw Margaret Tracey (Boston Ballet) and Peter Boal (PNB) during intermission. And there's always chatter about which dancers got accepted into the NYCB and other major companies around the country.

But that's not the real reason why the workshops are such a joy to attend. The performances were filled with love. Love from the beaming parents, who could be heard either loudly cheering their children or nervously counting the steps of a sequence ("1, 2, 3, oh yes she got it! 1, 2, 3, uh oh .. well not too bad ..." ). Love from NYCB company dancers, some of whom were clearly there to support their friends in SAB. Love from ballet lovers everywhere. You saw Allegra Kent, hair still tied neatly in a bun chatting happily about the performance. A very pregnant Chelsea Clinton took the day off from the campaign trail -- on this day, she was just another balletomane. Most of all, the love the kids show for dance is evident and that love made the performances sparkle with joy. SAB is a premiere dancing school, but not everyone will advance to a major professional career. But that's okay. They love dancing, and we loved watching them dance.

The program was well-chosen -- Balanchine's Danses Concertantes is rarely performed and it's easy to see why -- it's a weird combination of Commedia dell'Arte with Petipa-style variations with a modern Stravinsky score. Not really a masterpiece. But it has a four color coded trios that get to show off their stuff in distinct variations. The main couple was Emma von Enck and Thomas Davidoff -- von Enck is the sister of NYCB corps member Claire von Enck and her spitting image as well. There were a few bobbles and wobbly legs but the overall impression was a lightness and youthfulness that NYCB itself isn't always able to conjure with this baffling ballet. Next up was Peter Martins' Les Gentilhommes, for 10 boys. The whole ballet is a series of Cecchetti-like adagio exercises. In the afternoon, Ethan Fuller (who already has had experience as he was one of the Billy Elliot kids) impressed with his power and strength. In the evening, Andres Zuninga was delicate and almost ethereal. It's great to see how even at an early age dancers are developing their own personalities.

Kennard Henson rehearsing Phlegmatic
The highlight of the workshop was The Four Temperaments, staged by revered SAB teacher Suki Schorer. Would the kids be able to "get" the taut, muscular tension of Balanchine's seminal ballet? Would the men be able to twist and contort themselves into those famously odd poses in the Melancholic and Phlegmatic variations? Could the ensemble do justice to the famous ending, as the dancers march towards some mysterious power and four women are lifted high in traveling lifts, as if they've already achieved that higher plane? The answer was yes, yes, and yes. The SAB students truly did justice to this masterpiece, which, by the way looks so modern even today. It's hard to believe that in 1946, Balanchine created a ballet where one of the leading motifs was women being lifted in a frontward facing, split crotch lift. Could you have imagined Margot Fonteyn or even Martha Graham doing that?

What's great is how the soloists in both the afternoon and evening performances distinguished themselves by personality and by placing different accents on the same steps. They're already acting like unique dancers, and not just uber-correct students. Only the Sanguinic soloists remained the same. Ethan Fuller's Melancholic showed off his core strength and ballon. Nathan Compiano in the evening put more emphasis on the arm and hand movements of this complicated solo. The Phlegmatic solo in both performances were astonishing and so very different -- Kennard Henson was powerful and even a bit menacing, while Christopher d'Ariano, his handsome face a mysterious mask, used the suppleness of his torso and arms to great effect. Both of them were able to capture that off-center, contorted posture like professionals. It was also impressive to see how the girls of the Melancholic variation were able to power through those famously aggressive kicks in diagonal. Courtney Nitting of Sanguinic reminded me a little of Tiler Peck with her solid sense of balance and nonchalant security, and Gilbert Bolden III was able to lift Nitting in a complete circle around the stage, something I've seen NYCB dancers struggle with. The Choleric girls were very different as well -- Justine Flores more compact and with a bolder attack, Christina Clark leggy and sinewy. It's wonderful that Schorer allows such individuality while so carefully coaching all the dancers about the essence of the piece.

These kids really "got" 4T's, they "got" Balanchine, and now as they embark on their professional careers we wish them the best of luck. They deserve it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Magical Fille mal gardée; a not-so-Wilde biography

Marcelo Gomes, photo @ Kent G. Becker
I caught a second performance of La fille mal gardée and it was basically the greatest thing ever. I had seen a previous performance in the run and thought it was very cute and charming. But tonight's performance is one of those joyous experiences that reaffirms your whole love for the art form. From the very first steps the performance was just on. There was an energy onstage that transmitted across the footlights. By the end of the evening I was limp from happiness. This hasn't happened for me for a long time at ABT performances. I've often felt that they had great dancers, but the level of artistry and care in their performances was not high. At this performance of Fille, everything was on an elevated plane.

Stella Abrera and James Whiteside were wonderful as the lovers -- I knew Abrera would be lovely and lyrical but I didn't expect her to be such a gifted comedienne. Her mime was so well-expressed, especially her daydreaming mime about life with Colas. Her Lise actually reminds me of a lot of Asian daughters with strict moms. The overt obedience, but the covert eye-rolling, sulking, and passive aggressive resistance -- that's basically every Asian teen with a strict mom. The fact that Stella is herself Asian-American made it all the realer. Whiteside was maybe not the most exciting virtuoso dancer (Cornejo has that cornered) but he's an excellent partner. Those big one-handed scissor lifts that were briefly touched upon with Cornejo were spectacular with Whiteside lifting Abrera like paper. He and Abrera were amazing in the Fanny Elssler pas de deux, with Abrera rotating beautifully in that promenade in arabesque with the maypole ribbons, then flitting across the stage first with joyous jumps and then super-fast diagonal steps on pointe. Whiteside's variation was also well-performed, although as I said he can't touch the elevation and explosiveness of Cornejo. Arron Scott was excellent as Alain -- less clownish than Craig Salstein, but with crisper articulation of the distinctive gait and umbrella jumps that Ashton choreographed.

Abrera and Whiteside, photo @ Kent G. Becker
Despite the lovely leads the reason the performance went into orbit was due mainly to Marcelo Gomes' instant classic portrayal of Widow Simone. I'm so used Gomes to playing princes, princes and more princes that it was wonderful to see him stealing every scene as Simone. One thing that was so clear from the beautifully articulated mime between Abrera and Gomes and also Gomes' own joyous dances was that Widow Simone loves to dance. She can't help it. Her daughter knows it so whenever she wants to distract her mom she gets her mom to dance. And wow Marcelo can dance! He filled his clog dance with his own little embellishments, like a firm tango-like stomp to start the dance, and lifting the arms on high in fifth as Simone rose on pointe. He also imitated the super-arched back of Russian dancers in arabesque, and various other ballerina mannerisms. Roman Zhurbin played Widow Simone as essentially a sweet lady. Gomes made Widow Simone a diva, one who primped and fussed constantly over herself and walked with a distinctively puffed up gait. Gomes also has a real stage face and presence -- whenever he was doing anything onstage, your eyes darted to him. It was a master class of great dance-acting.

In other news, there's been a new "Me and Mr. B" biography published, this time by Patricia Wilde. The book is entitled Wilde Times and written by Joel Lobenthal, who also co-wrote Dancing On Water. That memoir by Elena Tchernichova is IMO of the best ballet memoirs ever written -- it gives an unvarnished look at the brutality of the USSR, the complicated politics of the Kirov in the late 1950's/early 1960's, and finally the controversial Baryshnikov era at the ABT. I had similarly high expectations for Wilde Times.

Wilde Times however is hands-down one of the dullest ballet biographies I've ever read. Strike that: it's one of the dullest books ever written, period. It's based entirely on interviews with Patricia Wilde, who judging from the book was a spectacular dancer but led a very unremarkable life. Her relationship with Mr. B was not complicated by any romantic attachment -- he counted on her as a strong allegro technician (Square Dance was created on her and there's a wonderful video of it) and she delivered, year after year. She danced until she lost his interest (it had turned to Suzanne Farrell) and then she retired amicably from New York City Ballet and started a family with her husband. She continued to work in ballet as a teacher and director of the Pittsburgh Ballet. There's not much more to it than that. Or at least there's nothing more that Wilde would like to enter into public record.

If you read the book you get some idea about the hand-to-mouth early existence of the New York City Ballet, when dancers often had to dance three times in one night and double up in the same ballet. And some intriguing insights are dropped into the book, but the author (or Wilde) doesn't elaborate. She says that if she ever gained weight, she knew it because "my roles were gone." But how did she feel about that? The author also says that Wilde remembers Margot Fonteyn falling three times in one performance of the treacherously difficult Ballet Imperial, but again, doesn't elaborate any further. Personalities at the NYCB are vaguely sketched and impersonal. Occasional peaks of Wilde's more candid feelings come through (she was shocked and disgusted at Don Quixote, Mr. B's open love letter to Suzanne Farrell) but one gets the feeling that this is a memoir by a very private woman who would like to keep things private. In other words, why write a memoir if you're not willing to really talk about your life?

There are many, many more interesting books in the "Me and Mr. B" genre. Jacque d'Amboise's memoir is personable, gossipy, full of juicy stories. Allegra Kent's book is a remarkable story of triumphing through a tumultuous private life and troubled marriage. Suzanne Farrell's autobiography is interesting because in other NYCB memoirs she's often the out and out villain -- a siren who destroyed company morale by encouraging Balanchine's attentions and then abandoning him. Farrell's account is not entirely convincing, but it does offer perspective -- according to her, the isolation from her colleagues and pressure from Balanchine and her mother made her suicidal. Finally, Gelsey Kirklnd's infamous book is a sensational tell-all that isn't supported by other NYCB alumni but does shed light on Kirkland's own famously self-destructive personality. In sum, there are lots of interesting books by and about dancers who worked with Mr. B. Wilde Times isn't it.

ETA: there's lots of versions of the clog dance I found on youtube.

Here's Gennady Yanin from the Bolshoi. Marcelo's clog dance most resembled this one.

Here's a Royal Ballet version:


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, part 5: Classic Comedies at ABT and NYCB

Mearns and Veyette in MSND, photo @ Andrea Mohin

NYCB ended its spring season with its traditional run of A Midsummer's Night Dream. This is a timeless comedy that almost always sells out no matter who's cast. It's the spring Nutcracker. In recent years Peter Martins has mixed seasoned principals with debuting corps members, and so it was here. The May 26th performance had only three principal dancers in the cast: Anthony Huxley (Oberon), and the divertissement dancers (Abi Stafford and Adrian Danchig-Waring). There's no need to talk about Huxley -- he's the finest technical male dancer of the company, period. His scherzo was a master class of soft landings, deep plies, beautiful soaring jumps, clean lines, pointed toes. He could be more extroverted in his presentation but the beauty of his dancing speaks for itself. Nor is there much need to talk about Abi Stafford in the divertissement pas de deux. She gave the same efficient, uninteresting performance she always gives.

But let's talk about the rest of the cast, since everyone else was a soloist or corps member. How did they do? We'll start with the great. Harrison Ball made a smashing debut as Puck. He might be the best Puck I've ever seen -- funny, engaging, beautiful jump, but with an elegant body line that suggests a little fairy. His mime was clear and well-articulated. The other Harrison in the company, Harrison Coll, was also absolutely adorable as Bottom. His duet with Titania was funny, but also a little sad, as we in the audience know that their love isn't here to stay. These two wonderful dancers deserve more opportunities, and I'm glad Peter Martins is giving it to them.

The Athenian lovers also had some corps members debuts: Cameron Dieck (Lysander) and Peter Walker (Demetrius). These are not big roles, but the debuts gave them some extra energy to amp up the comedy of the lovers' antics. In contrast, their female counterparts (Ashley Laracey as Hermia and Brittany Pollack as Helena) did all the schtick without much conviction. They danced well, they just weren't very funny. Silas Farley in his debut as Titania's Cavalier ran into a few partnering snags but otherwise continues to be one of the most striking male corps members -- tall and handsome with a sweet face. Gina Pazcoguin powered through Hippolyta's solo with some impressive multiple fouettés, while Claire von Enck struggled through her Butterfly. She fell off pointe in her opening solo and just couldn't get it together for the rest of the evening. Andrew Scordato danced Theseus and I know it's not his fault but in his costume and wig he looked too much like Joffrey from Game of Thrones.

Miriam Miller as Titania, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The snag of the night was Miriam Miller's Titania. She made her debut last year as an apprentice. She's now had a year of experience in the corps. There's wonderful things about her performance -- she's beautiful, long-limbed, with an understated style and an unaffected, sweet stage personality. Her Titania is kittenish but likable. But dancewise she is not quite ready for prime time. She needs to strengthen her core -- as of now she doesn't have the strength either to stay on pointe for extended, exposed periods of time, or to stretch her body and limbs and hold the poses in a sculptural way. You noticed this during the lifts -- she has trouble staying in position. There was shakiness in her pas de deux with the Cavalier, which I might have chalked up to partnering problems but she was also unsteady in the solo développés or arabesqeue. Titania can't just be a tall leggy blond. I remember seeing an aging Darci Kistler quaking through the role. You need a lot of strength and right now Miller isn't there yet.

Tiler Peck and Tiler Angle, photo @ Paul Kolnik

In contrast, the 5/27 performance had almost all principals and soloists in the major roles. Only exceptions: Kristen Segin making an impressive showing as Butterfly, and Andrew Scordato again dancing Theseus. This more seasoned cast certainly understood timing and comedy better -- Andrew Veyette may have had some hard landings and fudged beats in his scherzo, but he captured the pompous, annoying personality of Oberon perfectly. Other standouts: Taylor Stanley as Bottom, Lauren King as Helena. King brings a joy, spark, and radiance to everything she dances and I hope she gets promoted to principal soon.

The key difference in the performance came from Sara Mearns as Titania and Tiler Peck/Tyler Angle in the Divertissement. Sara projects a certain strength and authority that Miller just doesn't have as yet, and what's more, Sara's dancing has strength and authority. If Sara's leg shot up, it could stay there until she chose to lower it. As a result, the physical shapes of Balanchine's choreography were articulated. Sara is also an excellent actress -- her Titania was simply funnier than Miller's. As for Tiler and Tyler in act two, well, they're as good as it gets. Tyler is hands-down the best partner in the company, and Tiler has an incredibly strong core -- she slowed the multiple promenades into almost absolute stillness, without ever stopping, if that makes sense. She just had that much control in her balances in arabesque that she could play with the tempo and stop time. The pas de deux ended with Tiler falling face forwards only to be caught by Tyler and then turned slowly so her body made a perfect arc. Trust and faith in your life partner -- that's Balanchine's homage to a mature marriage. It was a mesmerizing reverie, and the audience responded by huge bravos.

And so that's the NYCB season in a wrap. Just in the spring season alone I attended 11 performances, and once again I'm amazed by the depth of the company. There were dancers who went on maternity leave (Ashley Bouder), dancers who got injured (Ashly Isaacs, Ana Sophia Scheller, Joaquin de Luz),  dancers who retired (Craig Hall and Jennie Somogyi), dancers who came back but in a very limited way (Maria Kowroski and Robert Fairchild), but the flow of the season and the quality of the performances was never affected. I can't even imagine the amount of competition in the company, as everyone is so strong. So many wonderful performances all season to savor, but a few stick out in my mind: my return to Mr. B's Nutcracker after a several year hiatus (and what an Nut that was!), the amazing series of La Sylphide/Tchai Piano Concerto #2 performances in the winter (I saw three casts, all great in their own way) and the Concerto DSCH debut performance in which Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring all made their debuts and were all stunning.

Dancing chickens in Fille, photo @ Andrea Mohin
At ABT, there was a welcome revival of another classic comedy -- Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardée. I first saw this ballet 13 years ago and was enchanted, but have had no chances to see it live since. ABT's revival of Ashton's most charming work was leagues different from their indifferent, sluggish Sylvia earlier this season. The corps looked energized and together. All the character roles were cast from strength. Roman Zhurbin absolutely ate up the role of Widow Simone -- he's a huge guy but he can move fast, as he proved in his clog dance.  Craig Salstein also stole every scene as the simple-minded, umbrella-loving Alain. The big "umbrella" leap frog jumps were performed with panache. Alexei Agoudine danced up a storm as the dancing chicken.

Cornejo and Copeland, via Herman Cornejo's twitter
Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo were the young lovers. Misty Copeland is not always my favorite dancer -- her aggressive self-promotion often doesn't match her small-scale dancing. She has almost no jump and occasionally weak ankles and pointes that make pirouettes hard. She was however delightful as Lise. Her interactions with her mother seemed organic and believable, and her chemistry with Cornejo was surprisingly strong. She was funny and spunky, exactly the way a Lise should be. This role calls for acting and stage personality over pure technique, but Copeland acquitted herself well with some of the challenges of the choreography-- those super-fast steps on pointe in the coda of the Fanny Elssler pas de deux went off without a hitch. The only real moment of weakness was her promenade with the maypole ribbons -- she couldn't coordinate the rotation with the maypole and got sort of stuck. And I still wish she had some semblance of a real jump. But overall lovely performance.

Cornejo (Colas) was his usual marvelous self -- in addition to the ability to churn out pirouettes a la seconde as if it were as easy as brushing one's teeth, he really brings out the best in everyone onstage. I'm convinced he can have chemistry with a rock. He's so virile, so charming, really a dream man, and he emphasized the erotic aspects of Ashton's choreography so that it wasn't just stylized ballet passion that we were witnessing, but real horny young lovers passion. Throughout the ballet he was kissing her everywhere -- neck, arms, hands. He'd sneak a kiss on the neck at the picnic, exactly the way young lovers often can't contain their passion even in public. In the act two pas de deux when he picked up Copeland from behind a doorway and we just saw her quivering legs the ballet the audience cheered, as they would if a marriage proposal was done in public. Their cat's cradle pas de deux was adorable. The whole ballet is adorable. The recurring themes of love and community gives one the warm fuzzies. Bring it back often, ABT!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, part 4: DSCH Debuts

Now iconic final pose of Concerto DSCH
This week was all about Ratmansky. At ABT, the entire week was devoted to Ratmansky: a new work entitled Serenade After Plato's Symposium, revivals of his Shostakovich Trilogy, plus his Firebird (which, if Misty Copeland was cast, was sold out) and Seven Sonatas. I must be a very bad balletomane because I didn't manage to catch any of these works. I did, however, manage to catch two NYCB performances that ranged from the classics (Serenade) to modern classics (Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH) to the awful (Wheeldon's American Rhapsody).

May 20 - Second cast of the NYCB program of Belles Lettres/Mothership/American Rhapsody/Concerto DSCH in which there were no less than four debuts in Ratmansky's modern classic. Not much to say about Mothership or American Rhapsody.  They had no cast changes and time has not improved them. Wheeldon's work is even slicker and emptier on second viewing. Robert Fairchild has now resorted to more desperate jazz hands mugging, and Tiler Peck still looks like she's doing her taxes.

Belles Lettres had two intriguing debuts: Indiana Woodward and Kristen Segin took over for Ashley Laracey and Lovette. Both Woodward and Segin aren't the stereotypical NYCB corps girls: they're both petite and exude a soft romanticism rather than wholesome energy and athleticism. They were both exquisite. The ballet overstays its welcome and the clichés (four waltzing couples, women loosening their hair, a lone jester-like figure) are annoying, but the music is beautiful and Peck's steps are always watchable. And with these new casts, there's always someone intriguing from the corps to watch.

Harrison Ball and Indiana Woodward a few years ago, Photo @ Paul Kolnik
Even though there was only one Ratmansky ballet on the program, he dominated the evening. Concerto DSCH's invention and wit simply highlighted the weaknesses of the three other choreographers on the program and actually, it highlights some weaknesses in Ratmansky's other efforts. I'm convinced that a century from now, the one ballet guaranteed to still be a staple of the repertoire from Ratmansky is DSCH. Ratmansky really creates a world in 22 minutes -- a world where there's a brief but noticeable jealousy between the blue girl and the green girl, and a playful, bromantic rivalry between the two blue boys. As with all of Ratmansky's best works the world he creates seems timeless -- this community will continue to dance after the curtain drops. DSCH with an almost brand new cast looks fresher and more imaginative upon each viewing, and it brings out the best in its dancers.

Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring made their debuts as the "lyrical' green couple. They were beautiful, but we knew they would be. The partnering was stellar. Hyltin has that light, sparrow-like body that makes all those twirling lifts fly, and Adrian pulling Sterling in those circular glides around the stage were as smooth as ice skating -- no bumpiness whatsoever. Their second movement was a master class in adagio dancing. But then again, we knew these roles would fit them like a glove.

The more interesting debuts were the blue boys. Those two roles have so many pitfalls that a double debut must have been nerve-wracking. Joseph Gordon and Harrison Ball (still both in the corps) knocked it out of the ballpark. They're very different dancers -- Apollo vs. Dionysus. Even though Ball is technically shorter than Gordon, Ball is the Apollonian dancer with his long stretched lines and double tours that emphasized the elegant straight line and closed fifth position landing rather than the power and height of the jump/rotation. Gordon is an explosion of energy with incredible ballon and speed. The most beautiful part of the ballet was when they partnered each other -- it was like Apollo and Dionysus finally joining up and meeting in the middle. Brittany Pollack as the blue girl was charming, but she couldn't match the energy of the two boys. Congrats to NYCB for putting together such a wonderful run of Ratmansky's masterpiece.

Hyltin and Fairchild in happier times, photo @ Andrea Mohin
May 21 - Program on paper looked great. Serenade, Hallelujah Junction (one of Martins' few watchable ballets), Duo Concertant, Western Symphony. In reality though the performance showed classic signs of end of season fatigue. Western Symphony was low-energy except for Andrew Veyette, Serenade was sloppy. Tiler Peck made a strong debut as the Russian Girl in Serenade but the overall vibe of the evening was one where things didn't click the way it should have. I won't go into all the ways the performance was disappointing, but just zero in on one particularly depressing sight: the once gorgeous, toned, all-American charmer Robert Fairchild struggling to make it through Duo Concertant.

Fairchild/Hyltin were always a magical couple in this 20 minute gem. They were puppyish, energetic, and just flat out adorable. Fairchild in those days exuded such a wide-eyed romanticism that made this piece special. I remember seeing them in this (and other Stravinsky ballets like Apollo or Violin Concerto) and back then I would have said Fairchild would go on to have the greater career. Hyltin was always fresh and beautiful but in her early years as principal she was slightly generic. Whatever the case was, if these two were cast, I knew that once that piano and violin were playing I'd be taken to a happy place.

Tonight Hyltin was still sweet and charming, but the former dream Duo has become a nightmare. Fairchild did become a star -- on Broadway. His return to NYCB full time has not been an easy transition. Fairchild's classical technique has eroded to the point where his whole body looks misshapen -- he hunches his shoulders or fusses with his hands, but his line is horrendous, like a Bob Fosse parody. He's not overweight, just incredibly out of shape. Muscles bulge out irregularly. Maybe a lot of off-season conditioning can fix that. Harder to replace will be his spirit. This boyishly romantic dancer is now grim and joyless. He looks miserable out there and it's miserable to watch him.

Anyway, he's departing soon for the London production of An American in Paris. The ending of Duo Concertant seemed like a fitting farewell to Robbie Fairchild, the classical ballet dancer. The spotlight dims on the two dancers. They try to find each other in the dark. They do, but then lose each other again. Curtains.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, Part 3: Sylvia, and more NYCB Classics

Murphy and Gomes in Sylvia, photo @ Andrea Mohin
It's that time of spring dance season when ABT and NYCB go head-to-head almost every night and balletomanes often have to make agonizing (not a hyperbole) choices about what to see. This week I saw one performance of Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia at ABT (May 9), and three performances at the NYCB (May 10, 14th matinee and evening).

Sylvia at its best is a perfect little concoction -- the combination of the beautiful Delibes score, Ashton's sensitive choreography, and a great bravura part for the title character (originally choreographed on Margot Fonteyn) give this ballet is continued appeal. Unfortunately, the performance I saw on Monday was sluggish, poorly attended (entire swaths of the orchestra, grand tier and dress circle were empty), and simply reinforces the feeling that right now ABT is going through an ebbing of talent and morale.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Spring Season Diaries Part 2: Listless Rhapsody

Wheeldon's American Rhapsody, photo @ Paul Kolnk

I attended three performances of week 3 of Spring Season of the NYCB. It chugged along with the usual amount of welcome returns to the repertoire (the ever-lovely Vienna Waltzes that made its usual impact despite some apparent pre-performance chaos), standout performances (Tiler Peck in Ballo della Regina, Sterling Hyltin and Joseph Gordon in Symphony in 3 Movements, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Amar Ramasar in Kammermusik No. 2), disheartening injuries (Ana Sophia Scheller seems to be out again just after returning from a long injury), corps de ballet members who have leaped above the pack (Unity Phelan, Indiana Woodward, Sara Adams), and I also unknowingly witnessed Sara Mearns' "farewell" to the Flower Festivals of Genzano.

But the big "event" of the spring season was the world premiere of two ballets: Nicholas Blanc's Mothership and Christopher Wheeldon's American Rhapsody. I missed the splashy spring gala but did catch the 5/7 performance which featured both new works, Justin Peck's Belles Lettres, and Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH.