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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Taming of the Shrew; Waitress Hat Trick

Katharina and Petruchio, photo @ Jack Devant

The Lincoln Center Festival chugged along with more Bolshoi Ballet -- this time they were dancing Jean-Christophe Maillot's Taming of the Shrew. After the excitement of Superjewels, this seemed anti-climactic. I went to see the opening night performance and while it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend a summer evening it's not something I'll rush to see again.

The ballet has some virtues. One, its brevity. With an intermission and the prolonged Russian-style curtain calls you were still out of the theater within 1 hr 45 minutes. Two, the score. The music is piecemeal Shostakovich which meant it was always listenable and often very fun. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin (Bianca and Lucentio) have two calm, glamorous pas de deux that establish these two remarkable dancers as the foremost classicists of the company. The role of Hortensio is one of those Bolshoi bravura cameos that gets the entire crowd yelling, especially when danced with the explosiveness of Igor Tsvirko (seriously, wow! He has a pretty cool Youtube channel where you can see him dance other roles).

Bianca and Lucentio (Smirnova and Chudin), photo @ Jack Devant
But, but, but. Maillot ran into the same issues choreographers always run into while adapting Shakespeare: the Bard is all about the Words, and dance is all about the Moves. Unless you have a score at the caliber of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet or Mendelssohn's incidental music to Midsummer's Night Dream, pure-dance lends itself very poorly to Shakespeare. You might ask, what about Kiss Me Kate? And again, two words: Cole Porter. Plus, a musical allows for dialogue and lyrics that take you farther into Shakespeare's world than a pure-dance work. Many of the nuances of the play are gone in Maillot's work. One of the biggest is Bianca's manipulative, passive-aggressive personality that is so important in the play -- it's Shakespeare's way of reminding all men that your perfectly sweet, obedient, virtuous wife-to-be probably isn't any of those things. In Maillot's version she's just a glamorous Stepford wife. Smirnova does manage to insert a slightly smug, bitchy look that hints at Bianca's darker side. 

Kryasanova and Lanatrov, photo @ Jack Devant
Maillot also doesn't have the choreographic vocabulary to bring Katharina and Petruchio's love-hate relationship to life with any degree of subtlety. Instead the long pas de deux that culminates with the consummation of their marriage is just a sort of a PG-13-rated S&M-lite: think Fifty Shades of Grey without the shade. Taming of the Shrew has enough built-in tawdriness to tolerate the predictable Maillot style: as you might expect, Katharina is manhandled, dragged to the point where you fear for her shoulder sockets, pushed, pulled, lifted in about 50 different crotch-baring ways, etc. etc. etc. It's to the credit of Ekaterina Kryasanova (Katharina) and Vladislav Lanatrov (so gorgeous, but alas, given practically no dancing to do -- he does look nice shirtless though) that they do all these steps without ever seeming cheap and they're able to generate heat despite the overwrought choreography.

The choreography has some other affectations that irritate: for instance, the house lights go down and the housekeeper (a glamour girl with a chic bob, played by Yanina Parienko) sits in front of the curtain lazing around as the orchestra warms up in cacophony. After about 5 minutes of this nonsense the conductor finally walks to the podium. 

The company, photo @Mikhail Loginov
It's a testament to the strength of the Bolshoi dancers that this was even watchable. Tonight's performance just reaffirmed what I thought of them in Superjewels -- that they have the finest male dancers in the world. Their feet! Their faces! Their HAIR!!! They're not just pretty though -- they have enough horsepower to get the crowds screaming. As for the females, Taming of the Shrew is not a fair judge of their talents -- they don't have much substantial dancing to do, but as always with these Russian companies you admire the heart, the energy, the tirelessness. Today in the first act a fire alarm went off and beeped incessantly. We in the fourth ring were told to vacate, as were other sections of the house. It was chaos for about a good 10 minutes. During that time the dancers were onstage, completely oblivious, dancing with the same ease, and still remembered to close their feet for a tight fifth position.

This is a great company and I can't wait to see them again. Just not in Taming of the Shrew.

Sara Bareilles and Betsy Wolfe, from @Waitressmusical twitter
On July 22 I went to see Waitress again -- third time in three months. I rarely do musical hat-tricks but Waitress has become the musical for which I have the most personal affection. I went back mainly because there's been quite a cast reshuffling -- Betsy Wolfe replaced the amazing Sara Bareilles, Drew Gehling returned as Dr. Pomatter (I saw his replacement), Jeremy Morse (Ogie) and Joe Tippett (Earl) are reprising the roles they created when the show was at American Repertory Theatre.

The good news first: Drew Gehling was a much superior Dr. Pomatter than Chris Diamantopoulos. There was nothing wrong with Chris but Drew really captured the persona of the nerdy, slightly awkward doctor whose good manners and shyness appeal so much to Jenna. Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn) and Charity Angel Dawson (Becky) continue their excellent work, as did OBC members Eric Anderson (Cal) and Dakin Matthews (Joe). Jeremy Morse (Ogie) was not quite as outrageous as Christopher Fitzgerald but very funny and endearing as well. His pint-sized stature helped. Joe Tippett's Earl was different from Will Swenson's. Will was more overtly intimidating, whereas Joe was able to code switch between the charming layabout that he presents at the diner with the abusive drunk at home. I found Joe to be more believable -- he's that guy at the local dive bar who is always bitching about women.

The bad news: Betsy Wolfe has an amazing Broadway belter voice, but in many ways was miscast as Jenna. She lacked the down-to-earth sense of humor that Sara Bareilles had in spades, and approaches this role as she might approach any other ingenue character. Her two expressions were a bright showgirl smile and a sulky pout. Sara was great at conveying that Jenna's everyday reality is not happy, and she's accustomed to it, and so she takes everything with a matter-of-factness and sense of humor. Even Wolfe's poofy platinum blond wig was all wrong -- Jenna's not supposed to look like a Southern pageant queen. Also, although the voice is impressive the nasal sound was too much to take at times and grated on the ears.

But the musical just gets better every time you see it. Jenna is already a classic musical theater heroine, with just about everything. A rousing "I want" song ("What Baking Can Do"), a huge 11 o'clock number ("She Used to Be Mine"), and finally an empowering anthem ("Everything Changes"). So many women in the audience identified so much with Jenna they yelled things out during the show (woman next to me yelled "what an asshole!" after Earl took Jenna's hard-earned tips). I usually never do this sort of thing but when you walk out you can leave 'guest checks' and pin them to the lobby. This is mine:

Friday, July 21, 2017


Original Jewels cast, photo @ Martha Swope
In 1967 George Balanchine decided to make a three-act plotless ballet. And then he hit upon marketing gold -- the three sections would be named after gemstones -- Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. And voila! An indestructible cash cow was created. Jewels has in these 50 years filled the coffers of not just the NYCB but ballet companies across the world. It's a hit wherever it goes. Balletomanes love their jewelry and Diamonds are a ballet company's best friend.

Lincoln Center Festival decided to capitalize on Balanchine's foundation by creating a One Time Only (!!!) Event -- a Very Special Jewels in which each section was danced by a different company. Ticket prices were through the roof but the event sold out anyway. The Paris Opera Ballet took Emeralds, while the NYCB and the Bolshoi took turns swapping between Rubies and Diamonds. I attended the first two performances so I saw both combos -- NYCB Rubies/Bolshoi Diamonds and Bolshoi Rubies/NYCB Diamonds.

Seeing three different companies dance the three different sections of Jewels is sort of strange -- the ballet is supposed to be a display of company versatility. On the other hand, it is a One Time Only Event -- Superjewels. The audience absolutely loved it -- there were loud ovations after every ballet, audiences refusing to leave their seats until dancers came out for yet another solo bow. I have to remind myself sometimes that not everyone gets to see Jewels as often as those who live near NYC do and for those people it's a very special treat.

Reichlen (top), Smirnova/Chudin, Pujol/Ganio
The opening night performance combined some of the best Jewelry-related dancing I've ever seen with some of the worst. The weakest section was Emeralds. The Paris Opera Ballet dancers are as always tasteful and refined. Their corps uniformity is amazing, and all of them have beautiful feet with highly arched insteps. They are also incredibly boring dancers. Part of this is personal preference -- I dislike their overly stiff torsos, their extremely deliberate epaulement that is stuck in time -- the music moves, but their upper bodies don't. What bugs me the most is that they dance through the steps rather than respond to the music. They also airbrush everything to the point of deleting the choreography -- for instance, in the "walking" pas de deux the Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann did not do the famous arabesques in which the legs and arms are raised in a staccato manner and held at different heights -- to see what I'm talking about watch this at 22:50. That's one of Emeralds' iconic moments. They just did a regular arabesque. I was shocked. Dramatically they were off too -- the walking pas de deux is supposed to be danced as a trance, but the two dancers were constantly looking at each other and smiling. The lead couple was veteran Laeticia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio. Pujol is retiring after these Emeralds performances. She's a fine dancer, but simply doesn't project anything. In the Violette Verdy solo she also did a lot of distracting head-bobbing. Ganio is one of the most elegant danseurs I've ever seen -- he's Paris's David Hallberg. I have fond memories of him in Giselle. But he couldn't inject much energy either. The "walking couple" of Ould-Braham and Heymann was different dancers, same story. The trio of Marc Moreau, Hannah O'Neill and Sae Eun Park -- again, same thing. Fine technically, but so so dull. Even their costumes lacked the sparkle of most Jewels costumes.

Reichlen in Rubies, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Rubies had the tried-and-true team of Megan Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz, and Teresa Reichlen. I've seen this trio many times. Reichlen is always a wonder as the Tall Girl -- no matter how many times I see her I never fail to be amazed at the control and strength she exhibits. I doubt I'll ever see anyone dance this better -- the nonchalant way in which she seems totally unaware about the men who are manipulating her limbs, those deep squatting pliés, the multiple unsupported arabesque pencheés including a final one held for what seems like an eternity, it's just perfection. With her endless legs and towering presence she is really an Amazon in a tutu. Fairchild and de Luz were their usual selves -- perky, more cute than edgy, but always technically excellent. Fairchild is a wonderful foil for Reichlen -- petite, bouncy, brisk allegro footwork, a cheerleader in a tutu. de Luz is one spry 41-year old: he finished his "jogging" variation with huge corkscrew jumps that exploded into the air like a cannon. The crowd went nuts for the home team, with screaming until Reichlen came out for a solo bow. In the final curtain call people even banged on the walls when the Rubies crew came out.

Smirnova and Chudin, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Bolshoi's Diamonds was a great finisher. The Bolshoi corps is slower and more deliberate than I'm accustomed to with NYCB. It's not wrong, just different. But the soloists Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin were stunning. They too dance the ballet with a slightly foreign accent, but it's obvious they've studied and absorbed the Balanchine style. The respect they gave the choreography paid off. There was mercifully no "acting" (which I've seen from other foreign companies who dance Jewels), no exaggeration. It was just one long beautiful reverie. Smirnova has the soft Mariinsky arms and regal bearing, but it looks like she's also studied Suzanne Farrell. The way she holds her neck and chin is very Farrell-like. If I have one quibble it's that she doesn't go for the off-balance lunges the way a NYCB ballerina would -- she's more careful and studied. Chudin was elegance personified and his Scherzo solo with a long series of pirouettes a la seconde followed by a quadruple pirouette finishing in textbook fifth position got the loudest applause of all (how often does that happen?). Smirnova and Chudin have wonderful chemistry. Not of the sizzling, sexy kind. But they match each other in serenity. There is total trust and coordination between them. Their pas de deux was one of the most finest renditions I've ever seen. They alone were worth the ticket.

The curtain calls at the end of the night were lovely. Each company came out again (corps included), and the soloists all got flowers, and then solo bows in front of the curtain. Then the curtain rose again, corps came out for their bows, and Peter Martins, Aurelie Dupont and Makhar Vaziev also bowed to the crowd.

Jewels final curtain call. Thanks Andrea Becker for the picture!

The second night of Superjewels was very different from the first night. The performance was more homogeneous in quality -- unlike opening night there wasn't the case of some of the worst performances (POB's Emeralds) side by side with the Olympians (Teresa Reichlen, Olga Smirnova/Semyon Chudin). Everything averaged out.

Dorothée Gilbert, photo @ Julien Benhamou
First the good news: POB's second cast of Emeralds was much improved. Dorothée Gilbert was stronger technically than Laeticia Pujol -- her balances were longer-held, her torso more pliant, her dancing more energetic. She's also more charming, with a winning smile. A sore spot: she also does that annoying head-bobbing thing in the Verdy solo. Both her and Pujol bobbed their heads more than they moved their arms. Are they trying to imitate sea lions? Hugo Marchand was not as elegant as Mathieu Ganio but he made a fine partner. The walking duet was also much improved -- hurrah, the arabesques in staccato were back! Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet also did a lot of glancing and smiling but at least one of the iconic steps was restored. The trio was pretty much the same -- Marc Moreau, Sae Eun Park and Valentine Colasante. I don't think the POB's style will ever be my favorite but this performance did restore faith in them. Sidenote: I watched the 2005 DVD of Jewels and wow what has happened to the POB? I know in recent years people have complained loudly of the deterioration of the French classic style but when you watch that video and then you see the company live, it really is noticeable. Are there no more dancers like Clairemarie Osta or Aurelie Dupont?

Bolshoi in Rubies, photo @ Damur Yusipov
Rubies was an awkward fit for the Bolshoi -- they obviously gave it their best shot, and there was nothing egregious about the performance, but it clearly is not their thing. First of all: THE MEN NEED JOGGING LESSONS. In that famous jogging lap around the stage the men rose to very high demi-pointe, stiffened their torsos, and sort of did this dainty hopping in one place with alternating legs. There was no sense that they were doing anything remotely resembling jogging. No forward push of the torso, no hiking of the elbows to propel the body, no distance covered. They need to watch some Usain Bolt videos before they ever do this again. The three soloists were technically without reproach but again, Not Their Thing. Ekaterina Kryasanova and Artem Ovcharenko in the pas de deux had no playfulness and flirtatiousness. Instead, Kryasanova swung her hips and legs but looked straight out at the audience with a huge showgirl grin. Ovcharenko is a beautiful dancer and that was the problem. He was way too pretty to be believable as a sporty all-American jock (which is how the original, Eddie Villella, played it). Yulia Grebenshchikova (Tall Girl) is also a lovely dancer -- beautiful legs and feet, great flexibility. But the Tall Girl is supposed to be Queen of Cool, and Yulia played her like the Sugarplum Fairy, all sweet smiles. She also didn't have the control to really sustain those unsupported arabesque penchées in her solo. As a whole the company just didn't get the jazziness, the sportiness, the off-center swing.

A reminder of how this ballet is supposed to look:

Mearns and Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
NYCB took Diamonds. I say this is a draw with the Bolshoi from the previous evening. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle did not have the pristine elegance of Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin. Mearns in particular didn't have the soft flowing arms and classical line of Smirnova. But Mearns got the fast off-center arabesque lunges, the sudden changes in the center of gravity that are a hallmark of Balanchine style. Mearns is also a more inherently dramatic dancer than Smirnova. She projects emotion to the point of being overwrought. Tyler Angle was as always a wonderful partner and he did his best in the Scherzo solo but he really needs to point his feet more. In white tights his unpointed feet were so obvious. I do wish the NYCB would put forth an alternate cast for Diamonds in this run -- this ballet looks very different when, say, Teresa Reichlen dances it. The biggest difference between the Bolshoi and NYCB was the corps. The Bolshoi corps was stately and magisterial, sort of content to be the ballet blanc background of a Petipa ballet. The NYCB corps understands that Diamonds is a tribute to Petipa, and not actual Petipa. They had a speed and attack that made them seem like fairies darting in and out of this magical kingdom. The polonaise finale was deliberate and grand with Bolshoi. With NYCB it was a thrilling race to the finish with their trademark fast footwork and group acceleration until the whole stage is moving at the speed of light. Barbara Karinska's costumes with the soft flowing skirts add to this impression -- in the finale those skirts started flying up and down. With the Bolshoi you think "oh how lovely." With NYCB you think "Omg how exciting."

So this Superjewels actually lived up to its hype -- you learned things about every company's style. Their strengths, their weaknesses. Considering how many dancers of different companies I saw in the audiences I hope that they all learn from each other. Fifty years later, Jewels is the gift that keeps on giving. It challenges companies to absorb three very different styles in three different ballets. It gives great roles for principals, soloists, and the corps de ballet. And it makes arts organizations lots and lots of money. Thanks, Mr. B.

Here's a video I took of the opening night curtain calls:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Veronika's Parting

Veronika receiving roses from the girls, photo @ Kent Becker

Part in three of her major roles: Mozartiana, Odette and Myrtha
This afternoon I attended an ABT performance that just a week ago didn't interest me at all. I have a real allergy to the way ABT does Balanchine and the program had one of his most sublime works -- Mozartiana. I wasn't in a hurry to see Gomes' AfterEffect, or the pas de deux from Ratmansky's Nutcracker. I did want to see Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher but it was something I suspect will work better in a smaller theater.

So why, then, did I go? Actually, for a really unhappy reason: this was the last chance to see Veronika Part dance for ABT. She has been let go after 15 years with the company. When word got out that Part's contract would not be renewed, fans created an online petition that garnered over 500 signatures. Then things got a little crazy. A particularly vehement fan started hatching all sorts of plans which included booing BEFORE Mozartiana, staging a sit-in, throwing a tomato at Ratmansky (whom she compared to a Nazi collaborator), and other hare-brained schemes. In the end none of these plans came to fruition. The company's cold attitude towards Part was evident in this hastily planned "farewell" which was announced a few days ago. Contrast that with Diana Vishneva's lavish farewell in which she got promotional articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, was surrounded by bouquets and confetti, feted by Kevin McKenzie and the rest of her ABT colleagues.

I wasn't an unconditional Veronika Part fan. She's what I call a specialist -- she was divine in a few roles but not that diverse of a dancer. Despite her 1940's screen-goddess looks, the remote, stoic mask she often wore during performances verged on affectation. She was too mature to fit in Ratmansky's version of The Nutcracker and struggled with the Lilac Fairy variation in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. I disliked her Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet -- way too overwrought. She looked like she was going to have an epileptic seizure. But at her best she was spellbinding.  I have fond memories of her in Swan LakeLa Bayadere, Myrtha in Giselle, the Fairy Godmother in Ashton's Cinderella, and she was just about the best thing in the otherwise tedious Golden Cockerel. She was also one of the few ABT ballerinas able to handle the controlled adagio of Ashton's Monotones. Her physical beauty always made her stand out onstage, and her powerful, expansive jump, trademarked "Russian" back and languorous way of dancing all cast a spell.

Part as Nikya, IMO her best role
Part in her early years at ABT suffered from inconsistency -- fast footwork or balances was never her strong suit. I remember a rather grim Sleeping Beauty where she struggled visibly during the Rose Adagio. Part was open about her frustration during that time period and considered leaving the company. But in 2009 things started to change. She danced with more confidence and control. There was one magical performance of La Bayadere where she was absolutely on fire. Nikya was always her best role -- her Shades scene was remarkable because she was able to exude both serenity and warmth. This was definitely an opium-induced haze that no one wanted to end. She was always beautiful and exotic and her back was flexible enough for the kind of slinky epaulement of Nikya, but that afternoon she also had complete security. There was no more wobbling, no falling out of a turn. he pirouettes in the Scarf pas de deux went off without a hitch.  She was taking risks just for fun. She ended the Shades scene coda by traveling backwards in arabesque and then going on pointe and holding one last triumphant balance. The audience erupted, and you could see the joy in her face and her body language.  Soon afterwards she was promoted to principal.

But even after the promotion she didn't dance as often as the other ABT principals (Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boyston, Hee Seo, and, in the past few years, Misty Copeland). When she did dance it was often during Wednesday matinees. Who knew why. Company politics? But I still didn't think the company would get rid of a dancer who could get through the full-length classics without much trouble and also had a fairly large fan base amongst ABT followers. But I don't make the decisions so ... The good news is that at least Sarah Lane finally got promoted to principal along with Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko.

Whiteside and Copeland, photo @ Andrea Mohin
So how was the performance? AfterEffect, Nutcracker pas de deux, and Souvenir d'un lieu cher were rather weak appetizers. AfterEffect is Marcelo Gomes' first big choreographic effort and he made a couple rookie mistakes: 1) slapping on a theme (the three main characters are called The Man, His Loss, and His Hope and the liner notes said this ballet was "to those that have fallen, and those who prevail" ) that had little to do with what was happening onstage; 2) choosing a grand, ambitious piece of music (Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence) without really knowing what to do with it and thus winding up with steps that didn't connect with the music; and 3) wanting to include a huge corps de ballet but being unable to utilize all those bodies onstage coherently. James Whiteside as The Man, Misty Copeland as His Loss, and Zhiyao Zhang as His Hope also emoted nothing that would have suggested this heavy theme. The best part of the ballet was actually the last two movements with the corps -- Calvin Royal (newly promoted to soloist) and Skylar Brandt both stood out for at least adding more than generalized energy to the piece.

Ratmansky's Nutcracker pas de deux is one of my least favorite choreographic efforts -- after all these years I still can't stand the sudden crying spurt, the cutesy peeking out from the wings, and most of all, the repetitive lifts that after awhile lost all impact because as soon as Marcelo Gomes had swung Hee Seo in one huge twirling lift there was another one! And another one! The torch lift was awkward -- there was no attempt to jump into it -- Hee Seo stood upstage, Marcelo walked towards her, and hoisted her up by the leg and supported her on the back. Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher was slight, but charming. Two couples (Devon Teuscher/David Hallberg, Cassandra Trenary/Tyler Maloney) love, argue, make up, break up, make up again all in about 14 minutes. The Hallberg/Teuscher pairing I guess was supposed to be the mature couple, the Trenary/Tyler pairing the youthful couple. The mature couple's relationship dissolves as the youthful couple become more smitten. Cassandra Trenary continues to be the best interpreter of Ratmansky -- her bubbly style found its perfect vessel in Ratmansky's very often childlike choreography.

Photo @ Kent G. Becker
The main event of the afternoon was of course Balanchine's sublime Mozartiana. Usually ABT and Balanchine are like oil and water -- the styles clash so much that I can't enjoy their Balanchine performances. But Maria Calegari did an amazing job staging Mozartiana -- no, ABT dancers do not dance it with the speed and crispness of NYCB, but the performance caught the essence of Mozartiana. When the curtain rose and Veronika Part was standing center stage, head lowered, with the student dancers besides her, one sensed a seriousness and concentration on Getting It Right that I don't always get when ABT does Balanchine. Part moved through the Preghiera with a magisterial grace that garnered applause. But one expected that of her. Arron Scott then danced the Gigue with minimal impact. However, Part and Blaine Hoven's Theme and Variations was gorgeous and delightful -- a little deliberate, but the sense of competition between The Woman and The Man, the way their variations both mirror and one-up each other, and their joint partnership as they dance together to the joyous finale, was all there. It was a delight to see them match pirouette to pirouette, to see them circling each other as if to say, "Wow, you can dance." When they finally held hands to dance together it was one of those Balanchine moments that hits you with unexpected emotion.

Hoven in Mozartiana, photo @Rosalie O'Connor
Then came the hastily organized farewell. Unlike the other farewells, this one was low-key. They skipped having each principal dancer and the retiring dancer's friends and family come onstage with bouquets. Perhaps the nicest moment was when the little girls each presented Veronika with a flower, and fans threw single roses onstage. Kevin McKenzie came out with some flowers, as did Alexei Ratmansky, Irina Kolpakova, Blaine Hoven, and finally Marcelo Gomes. Gomes is often said to be the rock of the company, and you could see that this afternoon -- he quietly pushed Veronika forward to let her bask in the audience's applause one last time.Throughout the proceedings Veronika was stoic. Her face didn't show much joy (how could she?) but she was a pro.

There was chatter that this wasn't a proper farewell for Veronika, that she deserved better. No arguments from me there. Veronika's dismissal was particularly graceless on the part of ABT. But Mozartiana in a way WAS a wonderful way to see her leave. Mozartiana was Balanchine's tribute not just to the Ballerina Goddess, but to Ballet. And so Veronika exited as a Queen, her head held as high as the heavens in the Preghiera, surrounded a kingdom of by adoring girls (the future), corps dancers (the heart), a jester (the laughter), and a consort (the love).

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls:

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Divine Miss M(urphy) in Hello! Dolly, and Bandstand

So last night I saw Hello Dolly! with the Divine Miss M and didn't have to donate a kidney! Of course the Divine Miss M in this case was Miss M(urphy). Some people in the audience muttered that they wanted to see Midler (I guess the sign to the left didn't tip them off?). But once Donna Murphy stepped off that trolley and started singing, I think the entire audience was like "Bette who?" Donna really sang the living daylights out of a role that's often associated with divas of a certain age with a limited vocal range. She can belt, she can interpolate high notes, she can sing while doing all sorts of physical comedy, in other words she was absolutely amazing! It was one of the most joyous nights in the theatre that I've ever experienced.

It's not really fair to compare the rest of the cast to how they were in March. That was early in previews and they were still figuring out what worked, what didn't, and the comic timing. What I can say though is how much they've grown over the past few months. Everyone is funnier, more extroverted, more of an ensemble. The award for Most Improved goes to David Hyde Pierce, whose timing in his lines is now actually hilarious, and his singing has become more confident as well.
"Penny in my Pocket" didn't seem like an end-of-intermission filler. Kate Baldwin has also made Irene Molloy a lot sexier. I also really noticed the antics of Jennifer Simard as Ernestina Money a lot more. Even performances that were excellent in previews (Gavin Creel's Cornelius, Taylor Trensch's Barnaby, Beanie Feldstein's Minnie) were that much funnier last night.

Minnie, Barnaby, Irene, Cornelius, photo @ Julieta Cervantes
Now Divine Miss M(urphy) vs. Divine Miss M(idler). I can't really say who is better -- it's apples and oranges. Bette's performance was more based on her old concert schticks, which the audience adored. I never saw her concerts, so some of the humor went past my head. Bette's comedy is more of the stand-up variety. For instance the little one-liners she would throw in during the "Hello Dolly!" production number were classic stand-up comedian tricks. Donna Murphy relies more on physical comedy/slapstick to get her laughs. She has a rather goofy, even girlish persona and a joie de vivre that was endearing. Donna's Dolly was also sexier. Murphy is such a beauty -- a real MILF (Matchmaker I'd Like to F...). Just one example: the famous eating scene became rather sexual with Murphy -- instead of just stuffing her face, Murphy had a multiple food orgasms. Her body shook and writhed with each dumpling. Also, I got more of a sense that this Dolly was really mentoring the young, stupid and in love crew (Cornelius, Barnaby, Minnie, etc.). It was more of an ensemble performance, perhaps because the audience wasn't so focused on seeing Bette.

The biggest difference between them was in vocal ability. Bette's voice is now showing its age, and so she conserves it for the big numbers, and there's no Broadway belting. This is not a bad thing -- in fact, the fragility of Midler's voice, its occasional raspiness, gives Dolly a more vulnerable sound. When Midler's Dolly says she's been struggling for 10 years, you believe her. Donna Murphy's on the other hand has a set of Pipes!!!  She could do things vocally that weren't possible for Bette. Added high notes, Ethel Merman-like belting. It was thrilling when she unleashed her voice -- THIS was a classic Broadway Voice with a capital V! Because her voice was so strong, Jerry Herman's score SOUNDED better. The end of "When the Parade Passes By" was thrilling with Donna's extra vocal flourish. Her vocal security also allowed her to do way more stage business while singing.

If you were to ask me which performance to see, I'll say: both interpretations are wonderful, but Donna's can be seen for less than three figures.

UPDATE: On July 2 I took my mom to see Hello Dolly! with the very same cast. My mom enjoyed the show a lot. She was especially taken by the dancing ensemble (Waiter's Gallop) was her favorite and Gavin/Kate/Taylor/Beanie as the four lovers, and especially Gavin and Taylor. She didn't really like the storyline of Dolly and Horace. "It doesn't resonate with me" she declared. She did like how both Dolly and Irene had to work for a living. But overall she loved the show. So ... definitely a good momsical choice.

I rarely stage door but this time I just wanted to express my appreciation towards the cast. They ALL came out and were very gracious and signing and pictures. Here's me with Donna Murphy, Beanie Feldstein, and Gavin Creel:

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The band, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
I also saw Bandstand last week. Bandstand manages to be one of those musicals with an excellent score and choreography but a book that's too unfocused to really be a great musical. Richard Oberacker's score both mimics the 1940's swing/big band style without sounding dated. "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home" I can imagine will be mined by Broadway divas long after Bandstand closes. The first is a classic torch song, the second a thrilling 11 o'clock number. Andy Blankenbuehler deservedly won a Tony for his choreography -- again, it's obviously based on 1940's style dance but also looks contemporary. So for the music and dancing, Bandstand is definitely worth seeing.

Osnes and Leavel, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
The cast is excellent -- most of them were obviously chosen for their ability to play their own musical instruments (this is one of those musicals where the singers are also the musicians), but they all exude a fresh charm. Corey Cott as Donny is given the thankless task of reciting some of the musical's most clichéd lines but he does so, can sing well, and isn't afraid to make Donny abrasive and unlikable. Laura Osnes (Julia) has an incredible set of pipes and the ability to take a rather loosely sketched, humorless character (she's a grieving widow who can write lyrics and sing, and that's about it) appealing. Beth Leavel has perhaps the best lines as Julia's mother and brings some much-needed comic relief to a story that's otherwise rather self-serious.

But the book can't decide what it wants to be -- a serious examination of the effects of PTSD among returning WWII vets, OR a good ol' Mickey-and-Judy-let's-put-on-a-show extravaganza OR a love story OR an indictment of the sleazy practices of the music business. It tries to do too much all at once and as a result makes little emotional impact. There's no follow-through with so many storylines. One minute the trombonist (Geoff Packard) has been kicked out of his house by his wife for erratic behavior, but in the second act his storyline is dropped completely and he's just in the band, playing happily. Other stories are telegraphed so obviously (like the one with Julia's late husband and Donny) that when the Big Reveal finally happens we're already impatient and ready to move on. Despite the wonderful voices, music, and choreography, Bandstand is definitely a missed opportunity.

But there are the songs. Isn't this gorgeous?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Farewell Diana

Diana and Marcelo's curtain calls
Tonight ABT bid farewell to one of its most beloved artists. After the fraught finale of Cranko's Onegin the sold out crowd screamed and yelled their appreciation for Diana Vishneva. Her longtime stage partner Marcelo Gomes hugged and comforted her. Confetti streamed down from above, the stage was covered in flowers, ABT colleagues marched onstage with hugs and more bouquets, and Diana looked simultaneously sad and elated as she basked in the love of the audience. Oh yeah, Diana's husband also made an appearance. The Diana and Marcelo Lovefest Curtain Call Routine was dialed up an extra notch tonight. He swung her around in an embrace as confetti fell. He fell to his knees in obeisance and she fell to her knees in response. She cried, they kissed, they nuzzled. It's really the Show After the Show. Usually I find their routine cloying, but this was her farewell, so it was almost cute.

Bedroom pas de deux, photo @ Gene Schiavone
Not much needs to be said about the performance -- Diana and Marcelo are old hats at this ballet and know exactly what to do with their roles. Their timing in their pas de deux is so precise, yet they're able to maintain the illusion of this spontaneous passion. Those lifts (torch lifts, upside down lifts, sideways lifts, one hand lifts, basically lifts in every position imaginable) looked effortless. Diana's portrayal of Tatiana eschewed some of the girlish mannerisms she had included in the past and thus had more sincerity. Her pliant back, expressive face, and soft arms were as exquisite as ever. Gomes usually is such a warm stage presence that the cold, priggish Onegin isn't a natural fit for him, but he also was able to make it work. His Onegin was a ladykiller who knew his effect on women. When he ripped up Tatiana's letter and crumpled it in her hands he walked away smugly, as if he'd made another conquest AND rejected said conquest. Onegin might not be the greatest ballet, but Diana and Marcelo's passion and commitment elevated the material. Roman Zhurbin made a winning Gremin -- stolid, but exuding a quiet decency that made Tatiana's loyalty understandable. Isabella Boylston (Olga) and Blaine Hoven (Lensky) were a nice, youthful foil for Diana and Marcelo's mature passion.

Here is a video of the curtain call that was uploaded to YT:

Flowers and confetti, photo @ George Etheredge
Diana was blessed in many ways. She was born with a classic stage face -- huge eyes, cherry lips, thick dark hair, that all managed to catch the light in the best way. Her face could look doll-like or sophisticated depending on the ballet. Her frame was petite but her limbs were elongated and her arms had that beautiful tapered look. She received the best training at the Vaganova Academy and became a star at both the Mariinsky and other companies around the world in record time. At ABT she found a wonderful partner first in Vladimir Malakhov and later in Marcelo Gomes. Just billing Vishneva and Gomes was often a sell-out for ABT -- the two of them complemented each other perfectly. His partnering skills always made her look stunning and her intensity pushed him to greater emotional heights. Their highly staged, over-the-top curtain calls (where Marcelo prostrates himself on one knee, and the two of them don't look at the audience, but instead kiss and nuzzle the whole time) became almost as anticipated as the performances themselves.

Vishneva and Gomes, photo @ Andrea Mohin
I first saw Diana Vishneva in 2006 performing Giselle. I still consider Giselle her best role. I saw Diana's Giselle several more times over the years and it was always a unique experience -- she put on tons of black eyeshadow, her face was ghost white, she added extra layers of tulle to her dress, and frankly looked scary. There was a fierceness to her Giselle that was unmatched. In Act 1 when she found out about Albrecht's betrayal she always ripped Bathilde's necklace and threw it on the floor with a ferocious rage. In the Mad Scene she avoided any lithographic prettiness as her mouth drooped open and her hair flew wildly all over her face. In the second act, the speed of her turns during the Wili initiation, the way she stared down Myrtha, and her habit of not pledging love to Albrecht during the final moments of the ballet made Giselle as much of a ghost story as a romance. It was unique and unforgettable. Marcelo Gomes was her Albrecht for the latter portion of her career but to me the most memorable Giselle was the one she did in 2006 with Vladimir Malakhov. I had never seen that kind of demented, off-kilter portrayal, and it made me rethink the entire ballet. Her later performances of the first act were tamer than the wild-child 2006 portrayal but she was still remarkable in her intensity and her Act 2 remained the same ghostly, spooky marvel.

Vishneva and Zverev in Ratmansky's Cinderella
Vishneva was a diverse artist in her prime. In later years she shrunk her classical ballet repertory. None of her other roles quite rose to the heights of her Giselle, but she was still a special artist in all of them. Her Nikya in Bayadere had all the Russian attributes -- flexible back, beautiful coiling arms, a way of infusing each step with beauty. At ABT she danced MacMillan's two most famous heroines: Manon and Juliet. Her Manon was seductive and calculating. and she and Gomes (de Grieux) had sizzling chemistry together. She was also a wonderfully passionate Juliet, although the kind of raw naturalism that MacMillan wanted isn't really in Diana's DNA. For a great rendition of her Juliet I recommend the commercial video from the Mariinsky. Lavrovsky's choreography fits her better. I adored her wistful, winsome Cinderella in Ratmansky's otherwise uneven version for the Mariinsky. When she toured with the Mariinsky in 2008 she performed a slinky, over-the-top Zobeide in Fokine's Scheherazade that really lit the stage on fire. It's a shame she only did Ashton's Sylvia a few times as she was wonderful as the huntress. A few not-so-memorable roles: her Odette/Odile was surprisingly low-impact, mannered and fussy. She couldn't save Alberto Alonso's atrocious Carmen. She also did not have the best taste in modern dance projects.

Vishneva as Aurora, photo @ Gene Schiavone
Diana's final and greatest triumph, however, was when I saw her Ratmansky's new/old Sleeping Beauty two years ago. She was by then nearly 40 and there was chatter about whether she'd be able to fulfill the requirements of a ballet that is considered the ultimate test of classical technique. No one should have worried. Vishneva put on a master class for the youngsters on how it's done. She was the only Aurora I saw who conquered all the technical challenges of the role, and her characterization of Aurora really made an arc from young and bubbly to dignified and queenly. When she held that final triumphant balance in the Rose Adagio, the audience started roaring and for good reason.

This is Diana's own lovely tribute to her time at ABT. I think it speaks for itself. Farewell Diana. She was that rare combo: a true artist, a true ballerina, and a true star. ABT audiences were lucky that this star traveled to this galaxy. She was one-of-a-kind and will be missed.

This is my tribute; my words of heartfelt gratitude. A tribute to the company that, many years ago, has become part of my life, and has always felt like a second home. Of my 22 years on stage, thirteen have been shared with the ABT. Not that long, one may say, but to me, this equals to a lifetime! The ABT is a troupe like no other. The passion and dedication of its artists are truly rare for a large company; everyone will be there for you; everyone will lend you their shoulder, share your joy and your sorrow. The years with the ABT are now an inseparable, treasured part of my soul. Among the people I’ve had the honour of working with over those thirteen years, some are no longer with us; others are no longer in dance, but the moments spent together, our show times and our rehearsals, remain in my heart. On the Met stage, you breathe in the thrillingly vibrant energy of New York and sense its rhythm as it fills every cell of your body. I have experienced that while at the ABT, and this magical experience will stay with me as long as I live. Life is cyclic, and I’m sure I will keep meeting my friends from the ABT both on and off stage. This is why today doesn’t feel like parting ways. How would one forget all the love and warmth of those thirteen beautiful years? No farewells, then. Fair winds! @abtofficial #dianavishnevaabtfarewell
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Friday, June 16, 2017

Sarah Lane's Swan Lake

Sarah Lane and Danil Simkin
Last night Sarah Lane made a last-minute substitution for an injured Maria Kochetkova in Swan Lake. This was Sarah's New York debut in the role, and after a banner season where she's triumphed in Ratmansky's Whipped Cream and Giselle, the buzz and anticipation in the sold-out auditorium was high. It was generally thought that if Sarah could bring down the house as Odette/Odile, a promotion to principal would happen.

Odette/Odile is not as natural of a fit for Lane as Giselle. Sarah Lane doesn't have a physique that screams "swan." She's petite and her limbs are beautifully proportioned but not elongated. Her extension is decent but without the height and dimensions she did not fit the aesthetic of the traditional Swan Queen. Also, she's a natural allegro dancer with fast limbs and quick footwork. (Whipped Cream took advantage of this to an absurd degree.) The drawn out adagio movements of Odette were sometimes clipped short -- no languorous poses. With that being said, it's remarkable what she was able to do as Odette. Her arms are soft and fluttery. Not the majestic flapping arms, but certainly boneless enough. She has a wonderfully flexible, pliant back. Her Odette variation was marvelous -- those sissones that seemed to scream "I want to be free!" along with a fast. exciting coda that established Odette's independent spirit. And as always with this dancer, there's this quiet intensity that is riveting to watch.

She had a worthy partner in Daniil Simkin. Simkin put aside his usual arsenal of tricks and partnered Sarah beautifully in the lakeside scene. The overhead lifts went off without a hitch. What's more, Simkin did something that also doesn't come naturally to him -- he emoted. This was a Siegfried who was in awe of Odette. He often lowered his head as if in obeisance to her. Simkin's youthful look gave us a reminder that this prince is young and wet behind the ears. He's not Albrecht.

After the white lakeside act was over the general consensus was that Sarah would have an easier time with Odile. Alas, this was not the case. Sarah's Odile came across as incomplete in characterization -- more rehearsal time no doubt would have helped. She smiled a lot directly towards the audience but didn't project much besides a vague coquettishness. The tender rapport that she and Simkin had in the lakeside scene did not carry over to the Black Swan pas de deux. There were a few partnering bobbles, nothing major, but enough to throw off the flow of the adagio. Sarah's Odile variation was technically fine, but she hasn't figured out the trick of dancing for the ballroom crowd yet. The exhibitionism that is very much a part of Odile wasn't there with Lane. And ... those 32 fouettés. Sarah started strong -- single, single, double, but abruptly stumbled out of them with some extra music to go, and couldn't hide her disappointment. So the moment of triumph for Odile was overshadowed by Lane's visibly crestfallen demeanor. There's no doubt Sarah has a better Swan Lake performance in her. Hope she's given another chance.

Speaking of those fouettés -- ABT audiences often complain that there's a lack of consistency and artistry in the 8 week Met season. Well, I'm just going to put it out there that ABT's audience is part of that problem. Much of the audience seems to only care about the fouettés (which is about one minute of music in a 2.5 hour ballet) -- after Sarah fell out of her sequence, she received nothing but golf claps. This couldn't have been good for her nerves and for her future performances. Likewise, Daniil did not get applause until he started doing his usual fast turns, double tours, and other tricks. As long as the audience continues to treat the ballet as a display of circus tricks, ABT has no reason to coach dancers to focus on the finer details. Just churn out 32 fouettés (for the women) and 540's (for the men) and you're good.

This was illustrated last night by the audience APPLAUDING Simkin as he jumped into the lake and made an impressive arc with his body. Come on now. That's just vulgar. And the audience ignored the very beautiful final duet between Odette and Siegfried. Purple Rothbart (Alban Lendorf last night) usually gets the loudest cheers of the night for a very brief if flashy solo.

Alban Lendorf as Purple Rothbart
As for the production, I've avoided it for years and I'm not in a hurry to revisit. It's a very basic Swan Lake which captures little of the poetry of the ballet. First of all, Purple Rothbart: he's become a huge audience favorite but he adds nothing to the story. The fourth act is abridged beyond recognition -- the beautiful, mournful dances of the swans has become reduced to some marching in front of what I call the "swamp curtain." The whole thing lasts 12 minutes, of which way too many are taken up by the Green Swamp Thing gyrating in the background. Only the Ivanov-choreographed lakeside scene isn't really tarred by the general Disney-ish, shallow feel of the production. The swan corps were very sloppy last night -- arms, wrists, and fingers all not in sync, many sickled feet. The pas de trois was well-danced by Joseph Gorak, Cassandra Trenary and Skylar Brandt but Gorak's been dancing this number for years. It can't be good for his morale that he's still stuck with the pas de trois.

Will Sarah be promoted to principal? Will ABT finally provide its dancers with the coaching and support they need? Will ABT's audience ever learn to look beyond the obvious tricks and learn to appreciate the subtler artistic details? I hope so, I hope so, and I hope so.

I mean, last night's couple only had four rehearsals. Wow.

ETA (June 17, 2017): Word came today that Uliana Lopatkina, the longtime ballerina of the Mariinsky, has retired. I didn't see Lopatkina as often as I would have liked, but the times I did see her the beauty and artistry of her dancing was unforgettable. Her Swan Lake lives in my memory as far and away the greatest Odette/Odile I ever saw, and reckon I'll ever see. She made time stand still with her uniquely mournful, elegiac Swan Queen. I was also fortunate enough to see her dance her cameo specialties such as The Dying Swan, La Rose Malade, and even some Balanchine: her adagio in Symphony in C was a master class of control. Her Nikya in La Bayadere was a bit too remote for me, but I couldn't argue with the beauty of her dancing. But Lopatkina's artistry extended even to pieces that were frankly sub-par. I remember beautiful legs and feet slicing through the trite choreography of Alberto Alonso's Carmen -- she alone made something sexy out of this tripe.

An amazing ballerina. She will be missed.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Spring Diaries: A Doll's House Part 2, SAB Workshop, Le Corsaire

Danil Simkin as Lankedem
Over this week I attended a mishmash of performances. They ranged from good to mixed to awful.

Let's start with the good: a fun, entertaining performance of Le Corsaire from ABT. This season at ABT the principal women have been falling like flies due to injury (currently, Isabella Boylston, Veronika Part, Gillian Murphy and Maria Kochetkova are on the DL list). What this has meant is lots of opportunities for soloists, and the 6/8 performance showcased the talents both of veteran soloist Sarah Lane (Gulnare) and the newer Skylar Brandt (Medora). These two talented ladies managed to grab attention away from the men, whose pirate's chest full of ballet tricks usually dominate the ballet.

Skylar Brandt is a winning combination of technique, charm, and beauty. She has a natural stage face -- her large eyes capture the light. Her technique is formidable -- in act one her solo had attitude turns followed by triple pirouettes. You can see how strong her core is during the lifts -- she was so solid and never moved from position. But she's not just about the tricks. She has lovely arms, beautifully tapered legs and feet. She's small but dances big. Her pas de trois with Herman Cornejo and Jeffrey Cirio showed off her elegant line and tasteful style. Her fouttés were centered and clean in form and she sprinkled some doubles in the sequence. Later she did some clean, balanced Italian fouettés. Her portrayal also had an ebullience and sincerity that made Le Corsaire much less of a circus than usual.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gisellex3: Hello David! Bravo Marcelo! Brava Stella and Sarah!

Hallberg and Murphy, photo @ Kent G. Becker

I saw three (!!!) Giselles in ABT's spring season. And in a way, each Giselle was a celebration -- the first celebrated the return of a beloved dancer whom many feared was lost to injury forever. The second performance celebrated the 20th anniversary of a company treasure. The third performance celebrated a long-time soloist's chance to shine in the spotlight.

Albrecht was the last role I saw David Hallberg dance nearly three years ago. Then came the devastating injury. Every year balletomanes hoped to see him again and he didn't appear. He disappeared from social media, so much so that when he finally posted on Instagram again the caption read "emerging from the shadows." Turns out he has spent the last year in Australia for intense physical therapy. The May 27 performance of Giselle at the ABT was therefore the kind of event where you see as many dancers in the audience as balletomanes. I saw Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz, Allegra Kent, and a bunch of other former and current dancers all in the audience, cheering on this magnificent dancer.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Here/Now ends with a whimper; Little Foxes

Concerto DSCH with Bouder and de Luz, photo @ Paul Kolnik
A matinee performance on Saturday, May 20 (officially titled Here/Now No. 9) was perhaps the single most dispiriting afternoon I've ever spent at NYCB. The program presented six different works. By the end of the fourth week of the Here/Now festival the number of injuries was staggering -- every week had a multitude of casting changes.  The dancers, usually so chipper on social media, had resorted to venting and more venting. Georgina Pazcoguin's wry line "To those who fell, to those who made it (extra kudos) and to those ballets we will never see again..." pretty much summed it up.

Reichlen in Red Angels
The first work on this program was something called Red Angels. Four dancers in red unitards stood in four separate spotlights and gyrated for 10 minutes. It actually pained me to see Tess Reichlen and Preston Chamblee, both so gorgeous in physique, reduced to this sort of junk. Then we had Varied Trio, in which the talents of Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley were wasted doing ... uh, I don't remember. That's how memorable the ballet was. But the worst was Myles Thatcher's Polaris, where 13 minutes felt like 13 hours in an excruciatingly boring ballet of nothingness. And of course there was the ubiquitous, cloying After the Rain. Of this long program (2.5 hours), only Barber Violin Concerto and Concerto DSCH had any choreographic value.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ratmansky's Whipped Cream is Empty Calories

Princess Praline and Boy (Lane and Simkin), photo @Matt Masin

ABT's spring gala began with the usual boring speeches, and then an announcement from Kevin McKenzie that he was basically giving choreographer Alexei Ratmansky a blank check -- the "Ratmansky Project" would allow this prolific choreographer $15 million to create ballets for the next five years. Ratmansky is obviously a hot commodity and ABT will do anything to keep him -- a few weeks ago, his new piece Odessa was also the raison d'etre of New York City Ballet's Spring Gala.

The Sweet Shop, photo @ Gene Schiavone
And then the eagerly awaited New York debut of Whipped Cream. This ballet had its premiere in Costa Mesa in March. Everyone marveled at Mark Ryden's sets and costumes. And when the curtain went up, I looked at the sets and costumes and thought, wow, they are amazing!!! They look like a Macy's Thanksgiving float come to life, with enormous blinking and moving stuffed animals, tutus that contain expertly wrinkled tea leaves, and an army of corps girls that actually look like puffs of whipped cream. This is the ballet for the sort of balletomane who is obsessed with opulent designs and fabrics.