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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 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.

The usually sterling Gillian Murphy made some uncharacteristic mistakes -- she had a bad slip in the Act Two "sexy" dance and in the famous pizzacato polka I saw her shortening some phrases, clipping them before they could make their full impact. Several times she did not fully stretch out her arms and legs to the full arabesque position. Her posture and demeanor all night was tense and joyless. (She later canceled her second performance due to injury.) Marcelo Gomes is still a wonderful partner. He was able to carry Murphy in that difficult Act Three entrance lift (where she's draped over his hand and shoulder, her body leaning backwards) without any apparent effort. But in his solos the age showed -- years and years of heavy lifting have made his back stiff, his footwork leaden. At times even lifting his leg in arabesque seemed to be a struggle. These are two beautiful dancers who are perhaps no longer right for this ballet.

ABT has a tendency to overdo the cutesiness of Ashton choreography, making him seem more quaint than he is, and so it was here. Gemma Bond and Joseph Gorak pranced and mugged as the dancing goats, James Whiteside also pranced and mugged as Orion (although to be fair, the role is meant to be hammy). Craig Salstein (Eros) and Devon Teuscher (Diana) were both magnificent -- regal, godlike, imposing. The corps had a few sloppy moments but what was most disheartening was their sluggishness, as if they themselves didn't believe in this ballet. Beautiful music, choreography, costumes, sets, but the whole evening was listless and routine.

Maria Kowroski, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The next night at NYCB Anthony Huxley made a magnificent debut in Ballo della Regina. The flying entrances, the soft landings, they were amazing. Megan Fairchild wasn't as able to luxuriate in certain sequences of the ballet (in particular the pique turns to arabesque) as much as Tiler Peck, but her performance was just as charming and her allegro footwork always stellar. The four demi-soloist ladies (Alexa Maxwell, Brittany Pollack, Sara Adams, Emilie Gerrity) were all so impressive that their consecutive solos became rather hair-curling in their open competitiveness. The soloist/corps level is so crammed with talent that no one can afford a bad variation, let alone a bad performance.

Maria Kowroski made a welcome return in the Der Rosenkavalier part of Vienna Waltzes, her flexibility greatly diminished but her charm as present as ever. She has such an open, friendly stage face that projects across the footlights -- she dances, and you want to dance with her. The corps looked more settled in the grand finale -- less traffic jams. Otherwise the second cast of Vienna Waltzes was mostly inferior to the first cast -- only Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Voices of Spring caught any of the joy and sweep of the 3/4 time music. The second cast for Kammermusik No. 2 had a huge improvement in the female casting. Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen blew Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford out of the water with their strength, speed and amplitude. I've watched this ballet and while I'm finding more interesting things in the all-male corps and the open athleticism of the two women this ballet still remains "fairly unappealing," as Arlene Croce said.

"Eddie and Patty," original cast of DAAG, photo @ Martha Swope

I saw a double header of Dances at a Gathering/West Side Story Suite twice in one day. End of season injuries have mounted, so as a result Chase Finlay had to dance both DAAG's in one day PLUS Tony in WSS. Not much to say about WSS -- it's an awkward "ballet." The dancers are obviously lip-synching and doing a horrible job at it, and once you've seen the whole musical the "suite" of dances comes across as a weak-sauce sampler. Robbins' choreography loses its edge and "Cool" when reduced to a 30 minute romp. With that being said, the afternoon performance of WSS Suite was a hot mess. Obviously poorly rehearsed. The evening performance was much better. Everyone was well cast -- you had Robert Fairchild FINALLY getting his mojo back as Riff, Gina Pazcoguin owning HER role (Anita),  Justin Peck hamming it up as Bernardo, Chase Finlay (Tony) and Mimi Staker (Maria) luxuriating in their all-American basic Aeropostale model personas as the young lovers, Gretchen Smith doing her thing as Riff's bitch (no other way to put it).

DAAG is the more interesting and fragile ballet. It's very much a 1960's concoction where dancers have to appear like they're just frolicking in a happy place for over an hour. Free love with neat dresses and ribbons. The Chopin piano pieces can either sound enchanting or boring, depending on how musical the dancers are. Both casts had their treasures and problems. For the record:

5/14 matinee: Robert Fairchild (brown), Jared Angle (purple), Antonia Carmena (brick), Chase Finlay (blue), Amar Ramasar (green), Sterling Hyltin (pink), Megan Fairchild (apricot), Lauren King (blue), Rebecca Krohn (mauve), Sara Mearns (green).

5/14 evening: Gonzalo Garcia (brown), Tyler Angle (purple), Joseph Gordon (green), Chase Finlay (blue -- again), Adrian Danchig-Waring (green), Tiler Peck (pink), Lauren Lovette (apricot), Brittany Pollack (blue), Sara Mearns (mauve), Megan Fairchild (green).

Overall the perfect cast would have been the afternoon's ladies with the evening's men. In the afternoon Robert Fairchild struggled with the "Eddie" role. The Brown Dude is the ballet's anchor -- he begins the ballet with a solo walk and near the end of the ballet he touches the stage in a homage to the audience and to dance. You have to believe in him as the Leader of the Happy Place. Fairchild is not that dancer. He still looks out of shape -- when he jumped, he had trouble matching the height of Jared Angle, the most senior dancer of the company. Fairchild did weird things to overcompensate, like making jazz hands. He could still whip off multiple pirouettes but it comes across as a calcified skill, like those ballerinas of a certain age who can barely stand on pointe but can somehow still churn out 32 fouettes. He used to be such an expressive dancer but now his face is a frozen, grim smile. He is a dancer who really needs to get his groove back.

Thankfully the ladies were stellar. Hyltin was enchanting as the Pink Girl. This is a dancer who always knows how to stretch out her limbs, feet, and back and to make each movement count. Her once budding partnership with Fairchild was revived briefly in their pas de deux. It was gorgeous. She put his head on his shoulder and happy memories of them flooded back. Mearns and M. Fairchild were also amazing -- Sara was funny and quirky in her "Violette" solo, and Megan was able to bounce through the ballet with total joy. Lauren King (blue) has a wholesome simplicity that's just a joy to watch. The rest of the men were very fine. Chase, Antonio and Amar managed that tricky throw/catch sequence with the three ballerinas (Rebecca, Lauren, and Megan) without a hitch.

Peck, Mearns and Pollack in DAAG, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Mauve role needs to be re-coached. It's the most conventional of the ballerina roles but it's still a simple, Dancing in that Happy Place role. Krohn (mat) and Mearns (eve) both looked like they were dancing Odette. So much angst and drama! Plenty of overwrought facial expressions, overly fussy rippling arms, and grand diva mannerisms (as well as too much red lipstick). Mearns also had issues being caught in that throw sequence on Saturday night. Tyler Angle seemed hesitant about throwing her, Chase Finlay hesitant about catching her, so both just sort of did a fake hand-off/non-throw.

Speaking of mannered performances, Tiler Peck (Pink) herself was oddly remote and made little impact. Her torso was always strong and a built like a brick wall -- it's the shape of many masterful terre a terre dancers. But now it's like she's gearing up for a quadruple pirouette no matter what she's dancing -- her upper body is stiff and unyielding. There's a very beautiful moment when the Pink Girl sits on the ground with the Purple Dude and they slowly hold hands. Hyltin looked shyly up at Jared Angle and placed her hand in his. Peck just mechanically took T. Angle's hand. That was it. All the evening ladies were problematic -- Lauren Lovette blank, charmless, and (deadly for this role) jumpless, Brittany Pollack efficient but unmemorable, Sara Mearns doing Mauve-Odette, Megan Fairchild too tiny for a role associated with taller girls.

Lovette is another dancer who needs to get her groove back. You can certainly see why she caught Peter Martins' eye -- she has a beautiful face and lovely proportions. She was promoted so quickly, but has been sidelined by injuries and never grew strong or secure enough for the principal roles Peter routinely gives her. Nowadays she exudes this glum energy despite the pasted on smile. She was this way as the Merry Widow in Vienna Waltzes, and she's this way in DAAG. She's just not enjoyable to watch.

The men were the ones to watch in the evening. Gonzalo Garcia can't do multiple pirouettes but he has the airy jumps, soft landings, and I'm in a Happy Place persona that Brown Dude needs. Tyler Angle (Purple Dude) was elegant and the strongest partner of the company, Joseph Gordon exploded in a volley of pirouettes and jumps as Brick Dude (he's my pick to get promoted to soloist this season), Adrian-Danchig-Waring (Green Dude) is quickly taking the place of Robert Fairchild as the All American Hunk of NYCB, and Chase Finlay fine as the Blue Dude. It's a role (like Tony) where his callow, pretty-boy personality isn't a drawback.

I remember the first time I ever saw DAAG. I thought it was the most boring hour of my life. Now I've seen so many color-coded piano ballets, from the excruciating (Millepied's Without) to sublime (Concerto DSCH), and also a bunch of Dancing in a Happy Place pieces (Paul Taylor's Esplanade being maybe the best of the genre). I can better appreciate how Jerome Robbins set a new template. DAAG's DNA is everywhere. Seeing the original enchilada was a revelation, flawed casts and all.

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.

Belles Lettres, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Belles Lettres was obviously Peck's attempt to do something different. Peck's ballets are usually distinguished by their energy and youthful vigor. Belles Lettres (set to César Frank's lush score) is like a cross between Liebeslieder Waltzer and Serenade -- four waltzing couples (the women eventually let their hair down), plus a lone disruptor (the always astonishing Anthony Huxley). I liked the mood and romance of the piece ... until I didn't. Eventually the swoony, emo waltzing and Huxley again disrupting the couples overstayed its welcome, and that's hard to do in a 20 minute ballet. Perhaps it's the lack of truly distinguishing choreography for the 4 couples (Lovette/J. Angle, Laracey/Danchig-Waring, Pollack/Stanley, Krohn/T. Angle). They're all the same, and they don't grow during the ballet -- curtain up, curtain down, and there's no sense that these couples have gone on an emotional or spiritual journey.

Backstage rehearsal for Mothership
Next on the program was Nicolas Blanc's 8 minute Mothership, set to a vaguely electronica score by Mason Bates. Not much to say about this one -- it was developed by the N.Y. Choreographic Institute, and looks like something that belongs in a small contemporary ballet exhibition rather than a huge theatre. There's a lot of guys jumping across the stage and girls in big overhead upside down split lifts. The best thing about this piece is that the cast of eight featured all corps members and apprentices -- of the men, Silas Farley and Sebastian Villarini-Velez again distinguished themselves as two of the tallest and most handsome dancers in the company, while apprentices Christopher Grant and Alec Knight showed remarkable energy. The women were completely anonymous, sort of there just to be hauled into upside down split lifts. Moving on.

Christopher Wheeldon's American Rhapsody. Ugh. Where do I start. This is a classic case of striking when the iron is hot. As the program notes, "American Rhapsody is Christopher Wheeldon's 20th work for the NYCB and his first since directing and choreographing the Tony-Award winning music An American in Paris, which is currently running at the Palace Theatre on Broadway." Get it? It even gives you directions. So of course Wheeldon's new ballet is set to another iconic Gershwin piece (Rhapsody in Blue) and stars (you guessed it!) Robert Fairchild, the erstwhile (and future) star of An American in Paris -- in March 2017 he will again reprise Jerry Mulligan in London's West End production.

Too bad that Wheeldon's choreography is as slick, trite and empty as his choreography for An American in Paris. Everything about this ballet was a big fail. Janie Taylor's hideous costumes didn't help -- the tops made all the women appear thick and trunk-like, while the peplum skirts made them look like they were in junior high. Balanchine once said that choreography is supposed to make you "See the Music." Wheeldon's choreography is so busy and pointless that it makes you un-see the music. The grand sweeping melody of the piece is lost when for so much of the ballet you have the dancers lying on the floor (why?) or being lifted in awkward, static lifts. When the music soars the dancers are on the floor. When the music speeds up to a climax the dancers are stiffly posing.

Ramasar, Phelan, and Peck in American Rhapsody
The choreography also brought out the worst in the soloists. Amar Ramasar and Unity Phelan (the red couple) were at least energetic and Phelan's movements have a grand sweeping amplitude. But when Robbie Fairchild spent most of the ballet making his "jazz hands" and Tiler Peck (real-life husband and wife) made her entrance with a fast but joyless series of chaine turns I knew that Wheeldon's ballet would allow Fairchild and Peck to indulge in their least likable mannerisms. Fairchild still seems out of shape after his year-long stint on Broadway -- the lifts with Peck were effortful, and his smile is slick but his dancing is slow and leaden. Peck, who at her best is just an explosion of joy, energy and amazing par terre footwork (yesterday she bounced through those difficult circular hops on pointe and that sequence of pique turns to arabesques in Ballo della Regina like it was child's play) can also be remote and calculating. It was so here -- there was nothing appealing about her, no reason for Fairchild to chase her until she finally succumbed to his charms. I've seen them in Who Cares? (also set to Gershwin) so I know they can have a lot of onstage chemistry, but this ballet doesn't bring it out of them. Peck looked like looked like she was doing her taxes. Rhapsody in Blue deserves more inspired choreography than Wheeldon provided.

Concerto DSCH, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The evening was looking like a total wash but thankfully it closed with Concerto DSCH. This was one of Alexei Ratmansky's earliest pieces and for my money it's still his best. As always with Ratmansky's strongest work there's a sense of warmth and community -- of love, friendship, joy. Almost like if Karl Marx's dream of a utopian, egalitarian communal farm come to life. Shostakovich's catchy and jaunty Piano Concerto #2 is so danceable, and what's more, it brought out the best in its dancers. Brittany Pollack, Anthony Huxley and Gonzalo Garcia (the "blue" dancers) all breezed through the first movement. Pollack can often read as an efficient but dull soloist. Not here -- she actually smiled! I have also seen Gonzalo Garcia struggle with the bravura steps of many ballets, but tonight he completed a series of fast double tours without a single stumble. Huxley was of course excellent, but he always is.

The real miracle, however, was Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in the second movement. The choreography calls for the woman to be repeated twirled in the air (Ratmansky revisits this step often -- it's also in Pictures at an Exhibition).  It's a picture of young love at its most joyful. Usually this role is assigned to very light, sparrow-like dancers (Wendy Whelan, for example). Mearns is not that kind of dancer, but Angle managed to twirl Mearns over and over as if she were a little child. Mearns, who at her worst tends to gracelessly punch out the steps while over-emoting (she did that again in Flower Festivals of Genzano two nights ago) was in this ballet lyrical, playful, even sweet, and with Tyler's expert partnering she flew. You not only saw the music, you saw the dancers responding to and being inspired by the music. That's great choreography.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, part one: shiny Jewelry

The incomparable Tall Girl of Teresa Reichlen, photo @Andrea Mohin

Spring Season is so hectic that it's easier simply to keep shorter diaries of things you saw. So the first two weeks of spring season I saw three ballets at NYCB. Here are my brief thoughts:

April 19, 2016 - New York City Ballet's Spring Season kicked off on April 19 with a performance of Jewels that was packed to the rafters even in the fourth ring (unusual on a weeknight). It was not the best NYCB could offer as Jewels. Emeralds was the biggest mess -- Amar Ramasar is completely miscast in the lead cavalier role and this ballet brings out the least in Tiler Peck. She's good, but you can always see her working too hard to achieve a resemblance of a dreamy reverie. Rebecca Krohn in the second solo part gave one of her usual low impact, bland performances. Rubies was much better. Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia didn't have the spiky edge that this ballet calls for but they did have the flirtatiousness and playfulness down pat. Teresa Reichlen reprised her unparalleled Tall Girl portrayal in Rubies. The cool, remote authority she exudes (as well as the mile-long legs and nonchalance) make this a modern day classic portrayal. She has so much strength -- she did all those unsupported developées and penchées without any strain. When she exited the stage with one last unsupported arabesque penchée the audience clapped loudly. Then Diamonds. I've now seen Sara Mearns in Diamonds several times and she looks more miscast each time. At this point in her career she's simply not classical enough to pull this off. Her arms get sloppier every day. She has a habit of pushing through the music and punching out the steps that takes away from the reverie of the pas de deux. In the Scherzo section she failed to play with the music, but again muscled gracelessly through the steps. Tyler Angle was her attentive partner.

Famous diagonal in Symphony in Three Movements, photo @ Paul Kolnik
April 22, 2016 - Order was restored three nights later in a rather eclectic mixed repertory bill. Bournonville Divertissements is still a work in progress for City Ballet dancers. But the wonderful thing is watching certain dancers "get it" this time. For instance, Indiana Woodward stood out in the Napoli pas de six as someone who just gets the style. She's sweet, unaffected, with a buoyant jump and soft landings. Anthony Huxley (the soloist in the pas de six) is another dancer who looks at home in Bournonville. He gets the deep plies, the direction changing jumps, the modest arms. The two of them were also wonderful in La Sylphide this winter. I have high hopes that Woodward will be able to one day carry the more romantic, classical portion of NYCB's repertoire.

Moves is Jerome Robbins' ballet that's set to no music. Instead, we're supposed to concentrate on the sound generated by the dancers moving through space. To achieve the maximum sound Robbins' choreography is rather cold and angry -- lots of foot stomping, thigh slapping. I suspect the ballet was gimmicky when it premiered in 1959, and it's gimmicky now. The two central pas de deux despite their complicated contortions don't have much sensuality and instead come across as sexually aggressive. Despite the scowls and predatory positions the ballet feels shallow -- in fact a sort of City Ballet beauty pageant, as the tallest and most model-like members of the company (many still in the corps) paraded around onstage in attractive workout clothes. Adrian Danchig-Waring and Emilie Gerrity in the central pas de deux (the one where he carries her offstage in the shooting duck position) looked like an underwear model ad.

After intermission the meat and potatoes of the program came out. First, Tiler Peck absolutely blazed through the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. This is an overdone gala piece but actual City Ballet performances are surprisingly rare. Anyway, back to Peck. She flew around the stage for 9 minutes with her trademark accelerated chaine turns and bouncy fast footwork. Andrew Veyette partnered her very well (great fishdives, complete with the downward head dip). A few caveats: Peck went for a series of straight fouettes instead of the alternating step sequence between fouettes. Veyette still has very hard landings on his cabrioles, to the point where he lands with a large audible thud. Ouch. Despite these reservations the overall performance had an infectious energy that had the audience cheering and demanding multiple curtain calls.

Hyltin and Stanley, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Brief pause, and the army of 16 white leotarded girls in that famous Symphony in Three Movements diagonal upped the energy level of the performance even more. All of the soloists were stellar -- Ana Sophia Scheller surprised me by going head to head with Daniel Ulbricht in the famous leapfrog jumping sequence in the first movement. Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley were wonderful at conveying the the contrasts in Balanchine's steps -- being turned in and then turned out, arms and feet stretched and then flexed, arms rippling and then aggressively clawing. Hyltin herself completed a blindingly fast, expansive ménage of pique turns and from where I was sitting I saw that she had so much momentum she crashed into the wings face first when she went offstage. Megan LeCrone and Joseph Gordon completed the sextet and both were wonderful. LeCrone used her lanky, jelly-like torso to great effect and nailed every single pirouette in that lengthy sequence towards the end of the first movement. The corps were amazing -- this ballet demands total energy and concentration from them and they didn't disappoint. They really were an army of soldiers.

Reichlen and Janzen in Diamonds, photo @ Paul Kolnik

April 28, 2016 - Another performance of Jewels. Several reasons to be happy. For one, novelty factor. Jewels casting tends to be very repetitive so until tonight I'd never seen this particular Emeralds combo, Hyltin/Veyette in Rubies or Reichlen/Janzen in Diamonds. In Emeralds, Abi Stafford gave the liveliest performance I've ever seen her give, Jared Angle continues to prove his worth as the senior danseur partner, Sara Mearns was actually restrained and elegant in the Mimi Paul role, she and Adrian Danchig-Waring walked up a storm in their walking duet, and finally, Taylor Stanley/Sara Adams/Meagan Mann might be the new winning trio ticket. Rubies: Savannah Lowery as the Tall Girl in Rubies was simply not as strong and iconic as Tess on opening night. Hyltin/Veyette were not quite as cute as Fairchild/Garcia (who looked like puppies) but they had more humor and edge. Veyette looks way more like Eddie Villela's self-described "leader of the pack in Queens." Hyltin has more flexibility and extension than Fairchild, and could really hold those sudden lunge poses. And as I said, she's less "cute" than Fairchild, but she has more sass.

Reichlen in Diamonds were maybe the best Diamonds goddess I've ever seen? (Point of reference: I've seen Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, and Sara Mearns do it). Wendy had the musicality but lacked something in glamour. Kowroski had the glamour but not the technique. Mearns has the technique but not the elegance. Reichlen had it all -- the beauty, the elegance, the statuesque strength and technique. Even her remote introversion worked here. Janzen looked cute and disappeared behind Reichlen, which is the point of this very goddess-centric work. It's exciting to see the rows of newish corps members and apprentices in Diamonds -- they're all beautiful, tall, and you can imagine them dancing the leads one day. It's an exciting time to be a fan at NYCB. Three performances down, at least seven (???) to go?

In other news, Angel Corella has fired 40% of the PABallet roster. I was shocked at the dismissal of Evelyn Kocak, who I remember dancing very well in the PA Ballet's trip to the Joyce. Made me more grateful to follow the NYCB where, for the most part, the roster stays constant, and you can follow dancers as they develop and grow from season to season.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Miami City Ballet Paints the Town Red

Serenade by the MCB, photo @ Andrea Mohin

When out of town ballet companies that are not The Royal Ballet/Mariinsky/Bolshoi/Paris Opera Ballet tour NYC, the formula is often depressingly predictable. They book for a few performances at the Joyce/City Center/Theatre Formerly Known as State Theatre, they bring some modern works along with some Balanchine, they try their best, and the reaction of the NY audience is polite but distant. This makes the Miami City Ballet's tour to NYC this week all the more remarkable. They got the snotty "I saw SUZANNE do this" audience to stand up, scream, cheer. They not only exceeded expectations, they smashed them into smithereens. Miami City Ballet came to the Big Apple and painted the town red.

How did they do this? Simple. They picked ballets that highlighted their strengths and hid any weaknesses. The first thing you notice about the dancers is their incredible vigor. There are no "alabaster princesses" (as Mr. B called his muses) among the dancers -- almost all of them are like Energizer Bunny rabbits. The second thing you notice is that this is a company that embraces diversity. There aren't rows of corps girls who are alike in shape, build, and appearance. There is a great variety in height, body type, and yes, skin color. Rather than try to squeeze the dancers into a specific mold, it seems as if at MCB the differences are embraced. You have tiny little dynamo  Nathalia Artha burning up the stage side by side with stately veteran Jennifer Kronenberg. It's clear though that despite the diversity this company dances with a similar spirit and purpose, and sometimes that is just as effective as having a row of girls where every finger is held at the exact same angle.

I caught two programs, and both programs showed how shrewdly this whole trip was planned. Lourdes Lopez opened the tour with Serenade, that seminal Balanchine ballet that until now I had thought required incredible purity and a feeling of sisterhood among the famous 17 girls. MCB doesn't have that and probably never will -- it's not in their DNA to embrace architectural, geometrical shapes. You notice how wild the girls are -- their abandon reminded me of the Wilis. And then the soloists come on, and you realize that MCB hasn't changed the ballet's steps, but it is danced with a very different accent. For one, this becomes very clearly the story of the Waltz Girl (former ABT soloist Simone Messmer, making her role debut!) and her death.  Nathalia Artha (Russian Girl) dances up a storm, and Emily Bromberg (Dark Angel) has a quieter presence, but their antics seem like traps designed to pull Waltz Girl to her death. The whole ballet takes on a very sinister edge. Rainer Krenstetter hovered creepily over the fallen Waltz Girl's body like Death Spirit. The famous ending in which the Waltz Girl is carried offstage had a step that was given a very strong emphasis -- Messmer held a long, tender embrace with one of the girls before she was carried off. It was like Giselle embracing Albrect before she returns to her grave. Is this ur-text Balanchine? Probably not. But it was compelling, and Messmer was incredibly strong -- beautiful jump, rock-solid balances, expressive face. Messmer was a soloist whose career at ABT floundered until she finally packed her bags and left. So glad to see that she's found an artistic home in Miami. New York's loss, South Florida's gain.

Nathalia Arja in Symphonic Dances photo @ Alexander Izilaev

I admit I wasn't a fan of Ratmansky's Symphonic Dances -- as is often the case with Ratmansky he seems to be saying too much and too little at the same time. There's a vague nod to Soviet tractor ballets -- the first and third movements evoke the humble, hearty spirits of field peasants (although oddly dressed -- the guys in the third movement seem to be wearing bags over their heads), while the second movement is rather obviously the bored ballroom waltzing of the bourgeoisie. But the whole thing was too hyperactive to really make an impact -- the eye just saw overly busy steps. But again, the dancing was remarkable. Nathalia Arja received huge applause as the girl with the red dot -- she ended the ballet with a monster dive into the arms of a dancer (Kleber Rebello?) who carries her offstage. She was at all times the solo spitfire. Equally remarkable was Jeanette Delgado, another dancer who exemplified the "comrade peasant" spirit. It was their irrepressible energy that made Symphonic Dances appealing despite itself.

The second program again showcased the inexhaustible energy of this company. Justin Peck's Heatscape is set to the pounding music of Martinu's first piano concerto and as with a lot of Peck is notable more for its athleticism and vigor than truly memorable steps. But it's fun to watch. The beginning and ending reminded me of Peck's Rodeo, with the entire cast running towards the curtain. The middle movement (danced by Tricia Albertson and Kleber Rebello) was a hyperactive pas de deux with Rebello repeatedly throwing Albertson in the air when she's in arabesque position. Liam Scarlett's Viscera was considerably less portentous than anything else I've seen from him. There was structure and contrast in mood, and the music (Lowell Lieberman's Piano Concerto #1) had clear dancing beats . Scarlett himself designed the costumes and they were wonderful -- leotards, but made of thick velvet and full of deep reds and purples. The ballet is dominated by two contrasting dance styles -- the stately, serene veteran dancers Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra (retiring after this season) in their quiet duet vs. the turning, jumping ball of energy that is Jeanette Delgado. Delgado is one of those dancers who is so secure in her core that she can go off-balance on purpose without ever losing her balance, if that makes sense. I don't know if Viscera or Heatscape are really a great or even good ballets, but again, MCB dancers know how to sell their material.

Bourrée Fantasque, photo @ Renato Penteado

The program ended with Bourrée Fantasque, a gem of a Balanchine ballet that isn't currently in the New York City Ballet repertoire. Bourrée shows how much pop culture Balanchine was able to absorb and then insert into his classical ballets. The score by Emanuel Charbrier sounds like salon music. The first movement with a comically mismatched pair (the pint-sized Shimon Ito with the leggy Jordan-Elizabeth Long) reminded one of a vaudeville act. The pratfalls might have been too cute by half but the audience laughed. The second movement had Simone Messmer in the trademark Karinska-style tulle gown. When Balanchine brings out those long tulle gowns usually the mood is foreboding and ominous (think La Valse!). But the mood of the movement in Bourrée was showy rather than serious -- think big MGM "ballet" production number. The third movement was really an eleven-o-clock Broadway showstopper. Girls were hoofing, they were jumping joyfully across the stage in huge grande jetés, and, best of all, they repeatedly ran around the stage in a big happy circle. In the middle of this was again the irrepressible Nathalia Artha, this time with the charming Renato Penteado. Only Balanchine can do these ballet finales where the stage just seems flooded with joy. Why doesn't NYCB revive this? It's delightful.

MCB was Eddie Villela's brainchild and it still looks very much like Eddie's company -- the dancers have the same strength and many of them even have the same Eddie jump. The transition from Villela to Lourdes Lopez in 2012 was not smooth -- there were many bitter feelings, all played out in the press. But this tour to NYC shows the company is in good hands with Lopez. A few caveats: the women shone very brightly, the men less so. And all this raw power and energy is wonderful, but can they dance Petipa, or better yet, can they dance the "imperial" Balanchine pieces like Theme and Variations? I'd need to see this company more to make that judgment. But that's the point -- I want to see more of this company. Come back soon, MCB. You've already conquered NY.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra - Game of Thrones

Meier and Stemme in Chereau's Elektra, photo @Marty Sohl

My favorite TV series now that Mad Men is over is Game of Thrones. I've followed the sex and gore in Westeros since the first season and have also read all of George R,R. Martin's books. One of the greatest things about Game of Thrones is the character of Cersei. Cersei is the series' great villainess. She's pure evil. It would take too long to list all of Cersei's depraved machinations and deeds. But one of the fascinating aspects of Cersei is that all of her actions are understandable, and even sympathetic. In her own mind, she's doing the right thing, and when we watch her, we find ourselves agreeing.

Last night the Met premiered Patrice Chéreau's intelligent and insightful production of Richard Strauss's Elektra and I thought about how everyone in Elektra (at least as directed by Chéreau) is like Cersei -- a monster who happens to be 100% right. Chéreau died before he could personally direct this production (it premiered in Aix in 2013) but Chéreau's DNA was all over the evening. This production took away the campy sensationalism that Elektra can sometimes become and really brought the Greek tragedy back into the opera. 

The unit set (by Richard Peduzzi) at first looks unremarkable -- Mycanae is an orderly grayish courtyard where the servants are (surprise!) cleaning. The look is vaguely Hellenic and timeless at the same time. And for the first part of the opera there really wasn't anything "special" about Chéreau's direction -- Elektra (Nina Stemme) was indeed the feral creature of most other Elektra productions -- she crawled on all fours and burrowed in an underground basement that was accessible by a trap door. She carried around a blue security blanket. When she sang "Allein" it was clear her physical, emotional, and psychological separation from everyone was an unbridgeable gap.

Pieconzka and Stemme, photo @ Marty Sohl
Where Chéreau's intelligence as a director became evident was the first duet between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka). The contrast between the two sisters was remarkable -- Elektra is dressed in baggy pants and a grubby T-shirt, whereas Chrysothemis for all her deprivation looks beautiful and put together. And when Klytämnestra entered (Waltraud Meier) suddenly this looked like a real family, not just an opera family. Chrysothemis physically and facially resembles Klytämnestra, and Elektra looks nothing like them. Waltraud Meier plays Klytämnestra not as a cackling harridan, but someone very much like Chrysothemis -- determined to maintain appearances no matter what the circumstances. Like mother, like daughter. Klytämnestra and Elektra are unable to reconcile not only because of Agamemnon's death but because mother and daughter simply have two different worldviews. How many times have we heard "I just can't get along with my mother? She just doesn't understand me, and she never has." That was them, onstage. 

There are so many other thoughtful, human touches to Chéreau's personenregie and I don't want to give away how he handles the final confrontations of the opera but one way he really makes this a real drama is the way he directs the servants. The oldest servant (Roberta Alexander, 67 years of age) was also the most sympathetic to Elektra. That makes sense, as she would have known Elektra as a child and seen her before she became feral and consumed by anger and rage. There are no small roles in this production. You can tell the servants also live in fear, from the way they roll out a red carpet and bow obsequiously to Klytämnestra to their furtive side glances whenever Elektra comes onstage. Even Orest's guardian (Kevin Short) was a vividly realized, chilling character. His reaction (or non-reaction) to the bloodbath spoke volumes about what this man has seen, what horrors Orest's journey might have entailed. This level of thoughtfulness and text-specific direction makes Chéreau's death that much more of a loss to the artistic community.

Stemme and Owens, photo @ Marty Sohl
Chéreau's production is so intelligent that I wish I could say the evening was an unalloyed success. There was however some seriously compromised singing. Nina Stemme despite her committed acting and wonderful interpretation struggled with the vocal demands of the role throughout the night. In the beginning of the opera, her middle simply didn't have the richness, steadiness and resonance to cut over the huge orchestra, although the attacks on the upper register were exciting. Later in the opera, just when the core of her voice settled, her top turned wiry and harsh. Maybe it was opening night nerves, but the exciting climaxes of Elektra's music were subdued when it was so clear Stemme was working that hard to control her instrument. Adrianne Pieczonka has a bright soprano with a surprising ability to cut through the orchestra, but her upper register can also sound harsh and colorless. The interaction between the sisters was beautifully portrayed though -- as I said, this seemed like an actual family rather than an "opera family." When Elektra spits "I curse you" to her sister it wasn't just a vocal and dramatic climax. It was an intimate family drama.

Waltraud Meier's ageless beauty and incredible acting skills almost made up for the fact that at this point, the core of her voice simply is insufficient to carry over the orchestra. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen wisely withdrew the volume during the riveting mother-daughter confrontation scene but even with the orchestra marking there were times I saw Meier's mouth open and very little sound came out. She eventually settled on a form of sing-speech but Strauss's music really demands more voice than Meier can provide at this stage of her career. Meier did not do the traditional cackle at the "news" of Orest's death. It was an unorthodox but effective choice. Queen Cersei does not need to cackle to exert her power.

Eric Owens (Orest) had the opposite problem -- his handsome bass-baritone had the firmness, richness, and pure volume that the ladies lacked. But for whatever reason he fit awkwardly into the production. Chéreau's personenregie calls for more subtlety than Owens can provide -- Owens is a straightforward sort of performer, and Chéreau's vision of Orest is ambiguous and unsettling. Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth had a similar problem -- plenty of voice, but unable to make an impact in his brief time onstage. He seemed like a bland guy in a suit.

Esa-Pekka Salonen got a huge deserved ovation for his sensitive reading of Strauss's score. If one craved decibels, he didn't disappoint -- the overwhelming loudness of the orchestra was ear-splitting in the side balcony boxes where I sat. But he also was scrupulous about following the almost lilting waltz rhythms that dot the score, and the Met orchestra sounded gorgeous during the more lyrical moments.

Last night's performance vocally wasn't an Elektra for the ages -- in terms of pure vocal fireworks, the concert at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke was more exciting. But the Met now has a wonderful new production of Strauss's seminal opera, one that hopefully will be handled with care in upcoming revivals. Strauss's opera and Hofmannstahl's libretto are not subtle. They were designed to shock, to provoke, to offend. But Sophocles' play is a timeless drama about love, hate, power, and revenge. Chéreau managed to remain true to both Strauss/Hofmannstahl and Sophocles. This was Greek tragedy at its best.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pennsylvania Ballet - Contemporary Ballet Done Right

Lillian DiPiazza and Arian Molina Soca in Grace Action, photo by Alexander Izilaev
It was almost on a whim that I decided to check out Pennsylvania Ballet's program of contemporary pieces at the Joyce Theatre. PA Ballet has received a lot of buzz since the appointment of beloved ABT principal Angel Corella as Artistic Director. Corella immediately put his stamp on the company -- he fired longtime staff and has shuffled the roster. The Joyce Theatre brochure had a "letter" from Corella in which he tellingly talks about how the company just finished performing "my new Don Quixote." This is HIS company now.

The program he brought to NYC are all recent pieces -- the oldest (Matthew Neenan's Keep) premiered in 2009. And they're all what I would call pop ballet. They're not masterpieces, nor do they intend to be. And I must say, they chose three pop ballets that, unlike a lot of contemporary ballet pieces, were refreshingly watchable and fun. There was no screeching dissonant music, no agonizing ennui and angst, and best of all, the pieces were SHORT! The whole program was like eating a bag of potato chips and ice cream -- empty calories to be sure, but enjoyable.

Lillian diPiazza
First of all, the dancers of PA Ballet are gorgeous. Not just generically good-looking dancers, but strikingly drop dead gorgeous. The most beautiful of them all was the couple of Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca. These two dark-haired stunners were the centerpiece of both Matthew Neenan's Keep and Nicole Fonte's Grace Action. Not only are they facially beautiful, but they dance with this authority and style that set them apart from the rest of the company. Even when diPiazza is spinning face down on a stool (why???) in Keep she moves like a prima ballerina.

The weakest piece of the evening was the opener. Matthew Neenan's Keep is one of those ballets that has a severe disconnect between the music, the choreography, the costumes, and the mood. None of the elements were bad but it never came together. The music was to string quartets by Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov but the costumes looked like flamenco and the choreography was a mix of uh ... contortionist contemporary ballet and Alvin Ailey? I really couldn't keep track. Three couples were in flouncy dresses, with Lillian diPiazza at first looking like that iconic Revelations woman with the flouncing skirt on the stool. But her choreography was mostly of the "woman lifts leg, wraps around man's neck" sort. It was watchable, but there wasn't any cohesion.

Revelations stools

Trey McIntyre's The Accidental was much more enjoyable. It was more modern dance than ballet -- actually, you could picture Paul Taylor using this music. It was set to a charming, plaintive set of songs from Patrick Watson's Adventures in Your Own Backyard, and the choreography didn't say much either but sometimes it doesn't need to. In a 20 minute ballet, choreography that is energetic and sets a nice mood for the music is enough. The ballet opens with a sweetly sexy duet between Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman, had a few more duets (Oksana Maslova was lovely in the second duet) and ended with a melancholy solo by Craig Wasserman. I urge people to give this album a listen too. It's very catchy and Watson's melodies are soulful and sweet.

Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman in The Accidental, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The best piece of the night was Nicolo Fonte's Grace Action. It was set to a variety of pieces by Philip Glass. First of all, when you use Philip Glass music you already win -- the music is always compulsively listenable and its insistent rhythms and repeating melodies lend themselves well to dance. The ballet on the surface is a Twyla Tharp imitation -- feet kicking, heads thrown back, dancers screaming ENERGY at all moments. Dark blue lighting and sleek navy blue leotards completed the look of wholesome athleticism. If this had just been danced by average dancers, I might not have enjoyed it much. But, as I said, this is where Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca proved their star quality. The heart of the ballet is the long section set to Movement II of the Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. There are numerous pairings and groupings, but diPiazza and Molina Soca stood apart. Among the sea of strobe lights and and athletic leotarded girls they somehow made their duets pulsate with romantic urgency.

In his opening letter Angel Corella said "I know that New York audiences are very smart and know good work and good dancing when they see it, which is why I know you are going to love this program." And I think that's why this run at the Joyce has been a success -- he played it smart. He didn't overshoot and program an all-Balanchine bill that would have invited unflattering comparisons to New York City Ballet. (A few months ago, I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet in a Balanchine triple bill. They tried hard but except for James Moore's wonderful Prodigal Son the dancers weren't really memorable and they came across as a regional company that was too ambitious.) He didn't program a gala of "classics" that wouldn't have fit the tiny intimate Joyce Theatre. He programmed three highly digestible but relatively unknown ballets. PABallet is in good hands with Corella.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Roberto Devereux - God Save (???) the Queen

Roberto Devereux, photo by Ken Howard

Last night I saw Sondra Radvanovsky complete her "Three Queens" trilogy with a performance of Roberto Devereux, commonly thought to be the most difficult role in the trilogy. Overall I thought it was the most impressive of her portrayals, although as with all things Sondra she was consistently inconsistent.

I didn't expect her to cope flawlessly with the vocal demands of the role. The role is notoriously difficult and Beverly Sills once said it took five years off her career. Radvanovsky however is not a singer who makes you forget this passage here or that passage there that was bumpy. In fact, her style of singing magnifies all those bumps in the road. Part of it is her voice -- a large, unwieldy instrument with that doesn't have the flexibility for all the tricky coloratura-with-sudden-octave-drops that Donizetti wrote for Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis. Cabalettas had to be taken at a slow pace -- "Quel sangue" was practically a dirge. But I could accept that "Vivi ingrato" and "Quel sangue" would not be sung with the ideal ease and speed and momentum.

Less forgivable are rather unmusical habits that have crept into her singing. Her blazing upper register (up to a D natural) is both a blessing and a curse -- audiences crave the ear splitting acuti and she usually delivers -- "Ah! ritorna qual ti spero" ended with a fabulous D natural. But she also lunges at these high notes in a veristic manner, and ignored the repeated high B's that preceded the cabaletta's finale. She's overly fond of repeating certain vocal effects -- a wispy pianissimo whether the music calls for it or not, snarled/spoken declamation and glottal attacks rather than truly dipping into her lower register. And one wishes she hadn't gone for the high D at the end of the "Quel sangue," as she couldn't really sustain the note and so when Elizabeth collapsed on the floor it seemed out of vocal necessity rather than as a dramatic choice.

Radvanovsky in the final scene, photo @ Ken Howard
But Sondra's obvious hard work and diligence were also evident and her voice for all its flaws has a way of rising majestically with the music. Donizetti's opera has such grandeur written into the music for Elizabeth that to hear Sondra's voice flood the auditorium in a huge wave of sound had its own built-in thrill. Sondra's acting was also less histrionic than I had feared -- yes she might overdo the old-lady gait that apparently afflicted the real-life Elizabeth I, but she also captured the desperation and pain of the queen. In the past vulnerability isn't something that Sondra conveyed naturally, but when she sang "Vivi ingrato" she made the wise decision of singing directly to the audience, and you wept with the queen. Sondra will never be a singer I adore. But I do admire and respect her accomplishment this season.

Hard-working Gelb stalwart Matthew Polenzani I heard struggle with the title role's prison scene cavatina/cabaletta on opening night. Last night he cancelled right before curtain time and was replaced by Mario Zeffiri, who actually had a light, graceful tenore di grazia which he used with a refreshing sense of primo ottocento style. His voice was a bit underpowered and he approached the cabaletta "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" very gingerly but give him credit -- he sang both verses, with the second verse decorated. I heard the Met audience ungraciously boo him during curtain calls. The two people next to me booed him. I wanted to slap them.

Here's a clip of him singing "Credeasi misera":

Garanca and Kwiecien, photo by Ken Howard
Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca (Sara) was true luxury casting: she had the gorgeous timbre, arresting stage presence, and ease of vocal emission that made her emanate star quality. Her voice has grown in size and her upper register is now much more powerful, so she was able to interpolate quite a few high notes. Sara's music is sort of ho-hum but Garanca made it sound beautiful, especially her opening cavatina "All' affitto." Less felicitous casting was Mariusz Kwiecien as Duke of Nottingham, who has reshaped his baritone into an almost unrecognizably dark, snarling instrument. Fine, do that if you can actually sing the music. But he sounded horrific -- off pitch braying on any sustained tones, ugly barking elsewhere. For whatever reason Nottingham was directed as ambiguously gay, with strong romantic vibes with Devereux. It's weird how in Pearlfishers Kwiecien and Polenzani showed very little bromantic chemistry, when both the music and text support some homoerotic longing. Nottingham and Devereux? I don't see it, but okay.

Conductor Maurizio Benini conducted a shapeless, unstylish account of the score. Part of this might have been his adjustment for the idiosyncratic phrasing and rhythm of Radvanovsky, but part of it seemed like laziness. For instance in the overture he played the "God Save the Queen" melody with no sense of solemnity, and the instruments were shockingly out of tune. He then switched gears to the "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" melody as if it were a Sousa marching band anthem.

The production overall was a success. David McVicar avoided the dourness and stodginess that crept into his productions of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. The large handsome unit set that McVicar designed himself served the production well -- it evokes both a royal court and an Elizabethan-era theater. I could have done without the quirk of having the courtiers constantly present in the upper "gallery" but overall the production told the story, was nice to look at, and satisfied 21st century America's craving for all things Tudor era. The costumes by Moritz Junge were very colorful and, as I said, satisfied this Tudor buff.  McVicar was not working with very strong singing actors, but he drew decent acting performances from everyone.

This Met season had five operas by Donizetti and the real success story was that after many years of lagging behind, uh, the entire opera world, the Met audiences and the administration has embraced primo ottocento masterpieces. All three Queen trilogy operas play fast and loose with historical facts, but all of them have something deeper: emotional truth that is more compelling than pure historical accuracy, and that credit belongs to Donizetti alone. I mean, listen to this. There is no book than can make me feel Elizabeth I's inner life more than these fifteen minutes of music:

Singer is Mariella Devia, who I heard sing this in Carnegie Hall in 2014. It was only one of the greatest experiences of my operatic life.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

She Loves Me

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in She Loves Me, photo by Joan Marcus

Right now two classic musicals by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are playing across the street from each other. Fiddler on the Roof and the Roundabout Theatre's She Loves Me are both playing by the corner of 53rd St./54th St. and Broadway, and you can't really go wrong with either musical. Both shows are over 50 years old, and the fact that they're still being revived is a testament to their continued appeal. But the approach Bartlett Sher took to Fiddler on the Roof and the approach Scott Ellis took to She Loves Me is a useful comparison of how to revive (or how not to revive) classic musicals.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore: A Tale of Two Tenors

Grigolo and Kurzak, photo @ Marty Sohl
On March 15 and 16th the Metropolitan Opera performed two beloved Donizetti comedies that starred tenors with remarkable vocal instruments. Both Vittorio Grigolo (Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore) and Javier Camarena (Ernesto in Don Pasquale) have the kind of voices most singers dream of: the warm, sunny, timbres with bright pinging upper registers. They open their mouths, and the audience loves the sound of their voices. However, the similarities between the two tenors begin and end there.