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Friday, February 17, 2017

Welcome Back, Joseph Gordon!

After being out for the fall and Nutcracker season with an injury, the wildly talented Joseph Gordon made his return to the NYCB stage as Gold in the 2/15/17 performance of Sleeping Beauty. NYCB has put up two brief but wonderful clips of the performance:

Joseph Gordon as Gold. No explanation necessary.
And the ever radiant Sterling Hyltin's entrance as Aurora:
Also new to me was Sara Mearns' delightfully hammy Carabosse, by far the most entertaining of the four that I've seen:

This has been a wonderful series of performances. I go to my last one tonight.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sleeping Beauty Marathon

Balanchine's glorious Garland Waltz, photo @ Paul Kolnik

I went on a Sleeping Beauty marathon this weekend and saw three performances in two days. NYCB's Sleeping Beauty is one of the finest productions I've seen -- Balanchine's wondrous Garland Waltz with the SAB children weaving in and out of the garland formations is itself worth the price of admission. The designs are beautiful and tasteful. Although Peter Martins cut the knitting scene and made some more abridgments this is a surprisingly complete Sleeping Beauty, and a nice contrast to ABT's historically correct but somewhat fussy and constipated Ratmansky version. For instance, more of the Panorama music is included than many versions, and the Wedding divertissements are almost all there. Especially adorable is the little SAB students they have as Little Red Riding Hood. They steal the show every time.

Here are the casts I saw:

PRINCESS AURORA: Sterling Hyltin; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Chase Finlay; LILAC FAIRY: Savannah Lowery; CARABOSSE: Marika Anderson; TENDERNESS: Ashley Hod; VIVACITY: Mary Elizabeth Sell; GENEROSITY: Miriam Miller; ELOQUENCE: Claire Von Enck; COURAGE: Meagan Mann; GOLD: Russell Janzen; DIAMOND: Teresa Reichlen; EMERALD: Emilie Gerrity; RUBY: Alexa Maxwell; WHITE CAT: Indiana Woodward; PUSS IN BOOTS: Cameron Dieck; PRINCESS FLORINE: Ashly Isaacs; BLUEBIRD: Harrison Ball

Hyltin as Aurora, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Of the three Auroras I saw, Sterling Hyltin was the most delicate, charming and well-acted. Although her technique is strong (the Rose Adagio balances were solid and each one clearly held), when watching her you focus on the perfume she adds to the role rather than the technique. Little touches like caressing each rose during the Rose Adagio, or lovingly handing the roses to her mother before her final set of balances. Hyltin's flexibility and the harmony between her upper and lower body-- the stretch of her arms and legs, and her soft, pliant back -- is one of her glories. Certain moves like the renverses will just look better on a dancer like Hyltin. She also has a light airy jump. Her Vision Scene is the so lovely, so ethereal. She was really like a sprite, darting in and out of Chase Finlay's grasp.

She and Chase Finlay were a handsome couple. In the Wedding pas de deux, their fish dives were not only perfectly timed, but you noticed the harmony in their body lines -- their arms, necks, the crests of their torsos were all parallel to each other.  Her Wedding variation was the highlight of her performance. Her arms, hands, and feet all seemed to be flicking delicately along with the music as if in a spell. It was enchanting. Finlay was a handsome prince and partnered well but did have trouble with his variation.

Maxwell, Reichlen and Gerrity as the Jewels, photo @ Irving Chow
Other standouts in the performance: the Jewels trio of Reichlen, Maxwell, and Gerrity. They were the only jewels trio to have the sharp lines and precision of a finely cut gem. Claire von Enck in the "breadcrumb" fairy variation and Meagan Mann in the "finger" variation. Harrison Ball's Bluebird didn't have the explosive jumps but did have some very clean lines. He's a beautiful dancer. Savannah Lowery was wonderful with Lilac Fairy's mime and had a motherly disposition, if somewhat diminished technique. Marika Anderson's Carabosse was gleefully malevolent.

PRINCESS AURORA: Ashley Bouder; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Andrew Veyette; LILAC FAIRY: Sara Mearns; CARABOSSE: Maria Kowroski; TENDERNESS: Gretchen Smith; VIVACITY: Sara Adams; GENEROSITY: Lydia Wellington; ELOQUENCE: Kristen Segin; COURAGE: Meagan Mann; GOLD: Chase Finlay; DIAMOND: Megan LeCrone; EMERALD: Lauren King; RUBY: Abi Stafford; WHITE CAT: Samantha Villwock; PUSS IN BOOTS: Taylor Stanley; PRINCESS FLORINE: Erica Pereira; BLUEBIRD: Anthony Huxley

The evening performance with Bouder, Veyette, and Mearns was almost a different ballet. Ashley Bouder is the type of Aurora you'll love if you enjoy the spunky Auroras -- explosive pas de chats in the entrance, endless balances in the Rose Adagio, speed and power and attack all evening. I liked her bold attack and aggressiveness ... until I didn't. In the Rose Adagio she distorted the music to show off an extra long-held balance, but there was no youthful joy, no sense that this is a 16 year old girl's birthday and she's excited. The Vision Scene lacked any sense of poetry, the Wedding pas de deux came across as rather businesslike -- Bouder's interactions with Veyette were non-existent. Bouder didn't lean down for a real kiss, or even a brush on the cheek. Andrew Veyette, who is usually such a solid partner, was actually a bit clunky tonight -- the fish dives were not well timed with the music. The performance was certainly a check list of all the ways Ashley Bouder is a technical wonder, but for me it wasn't Aurora. I want more elegance and grace. I've seen Ashley's Aurora before and don't remember her being so hard-boiled in the past.

Pereria and Huxley as Florine and Bluebird, photo @ Paul Kolnik

The evening's best performers were Sara Mearns, who was authoritative, expressive and refined (!!!) as Lilac Fairy, Andrew Veyette whose brooding presence made the Prince less of a cipher than usual, Anthony Huxley as the most high-flying Bluebird with the cleanest diagonal of brisé volés (although bend your back, Anthony!) and Sean Suozzi as a very funny Catalabutte. The fairies also performed at a more consistent level than in the afternoon performance. Maria Kowroski as Carabosse was not so much evil as sort of goofy. Even with all that makeup and dress and rat entourage you still saw her big friendly eyes. Fun, but a bit miscast. Kind of like if Lassie were to play the Big Bad Wolf.

The evening had two scary falls -- first a bad slip by one of Aurora's friends, then the three jesters (Spartak Hoxha, Daniel Ulbricht, Harrison Coll) toppled over when they piled on top of each others' backs. Thankfully it doesn't seem like anyone was hurt.

PRINCESS AURORA: Tiler Peck; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Tyler Angle; LILAC FAIRY: Ashley Laracey; CARABOSSE: Rebecca Krohn; TENDERNESS: Mimi Staker; VIVACITY: Olivia MacKinnon; GENEROSITY: Claire Kretzschmar; ELOQUENCE: Indiana Woodward; COURAGE: Unity Phelan; GOLD: Zachary Catazaro; DIAMOND: Savannah Lowery; EMERALD: Brittany Pollack; RUBY: Ashly Isaacs; WHITE CAT: Kristen Segin; PUSS IN BOOTS: Sean Suozzi; PRINCESS FLORINE: Lauren King; BLUEBIRD: Troy Schumacher

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
For those who loved the power and attack of Ashley Bouder but also longed for the porcelain delicacy of Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck's Aurora was a happy medium between the two extremes. Peck's Aurora started off coltish -- she burst onto the stage with so much energy she lost her balance and fell. First time I've ever seen her stumble. But she collected her nerves quickly to complete a serene, secure Rose Adagio. Peck is a human gyroscope. In the variation after the Rose Adagio she was the only ballerina to do all triple pirouettes in that 4-pirouette sequence, and she also added some fancy arm flourishes. Peck's Aurora was probably the most conventional -- she made the predictable growth from youthful energy to maturity. Her Vision Scene had the right aloofness and by the Wedding Scene she was regal although still powerful -- she started her variation delicately by wafting her fingers and arms in the air but finished with a series of blindingly fast pique and chaine turns. She is Tiler Peck, after all.

The performance had the best all-around cast. Tyler Angle again proved his worth as a wonderful partner and a classical danseur noble. His Prince variations were the cleanest with the purest line. The fairies were ALL terrific, particularly Olivia MacKinnon who was the only fairy I saw that could handle the Vivacity variation, Indiana Woodward who lit up the stage in the Breadcrumb variation and Unity Phelan who dispatched the finger variation with frightening efficiency. Ashley Laracey had the most beautiful epaulement and classical style of the Lilac Fairies. She is like Hyltin with the flexible back -- her renverses were also gorgeous. Her mime needs to be more clearly articulated, and then she'll be just about perfect. Troy Schumacher's jumps were not that powerful but he was the only Bluebird to bend his back and also really articulate the mime with Florine. Only sour spot was Lauren King's rather sloppy Florine -- strong, precise footwork just doesn't seem to be her thing. Zachary Catazaro's Gold variation was the cleanest of the three Golds I saw but is the Gold variation for the guys a "do what you want" thing? The three Golds (Russell Janzen, Chase Finlay and Zachary Catazaro) all did three very different variations.

I left the marathon feeling incredibly grateful that NYCB is so deep in talent that it can put on such strong casts in Sleeping Beauty, the ultimate test of a company's classicism. I mean, when in the prologue the fairy cavaliers all are able to pull off squeaky clean double air turns in unison, that's called depth. And having two Auroras who can put on such different but equally valid interpretations. What a great company!

And finally, my friend Irving is a wonderful photographer and he snapped this absolutely precious photo of Little Red Riding Hood (Alessia Reira) and Big Bad Wolf (Daniel Applebaum):

Photo @ Irving Chow

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Puritani - no high F, but who cares?

Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau, photo @ Marty Sohl

Whoever knew that the serene I Puritani would be the opera to bring out the audience crazies? Last night at the Met's premiere of I Puritani there was this EXTREMELY vocal Diana Damrau fan who would scream "BRAAAAAAVVVVVVIIIIIIISSSSSSIIIIIIMMMMMMAAAAAA" and "THANK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU" after every number. You could admire her enthusiasm except that sounded more like she was giving birth than anything else.

Then at the end of "Credeasi misera" some fanatical vocal purist (???) shouted "NO HIGH F" at Javier Camarena. The audience was shocked.

The two overly vocal audience members leant some comedy to an otherwise rather sleepy (if vocally solid) revival. Don't get me wrong -- there's reasons to see this revival, the number one being Javier Camarena, whose warm sweet timbre, glorious upper register and winning stage presence officially put him in the designated spot of The Great Arturo of His Time. This status isn't to be sniffed at -- this notoriously difficult part has struck fear in the hearts of many a tenor. Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda (RIP), and Luciano Pavarotti were previous bearers of this mantle.

No, Camarena didn't sing the high F in "Credeasi misera" but he took so many withdrawals from his NOHC (Notes Over High C) Bank Account that you wonder if he has a secret Swiss NOHC account with millions more notes stashed away. From the C-sharp in his entrance aria "A te o cara" to a blazing high D in "Vieni fra queste braccia" Camarena was unstintingly generous with the audience some of whom were probably counting the acuti and keeping tally on their program. But even if he had missed all those notes, he still would have been a wonderful Arturo simply because of his truly bel canto singing. He has the legato, the musicality, the style. Go see him. He's a star.

Diana Damrau as Elvira was vocally a bit hard-pressed, her acuti shrill and her style of singing does not allow for the kind of seamless legato that's necessary in numbers like "Qui la voce." The voice has lost a lot in color and flexibility. She has come full circle -- last night she approached high notes in the same brittle way she might attack the high F's in Queen of the Night (one of her early successes). Her acting was a bit hammy -- in the long second act scena I thought of what Lucille Ball might have done playing a mad scene and looked onstage and uh, it was a perfect match. She was fond of wrapping herself up in her wedding veil like a mummy. But one cannot fault her enthusiasm, her energy, and her obvious professionalism -- she just finished a run of Juliets (which was a much better fit for her vocally). She and Camarena had a warm chemistry onstage.

Luca Pisaroni and Diana Damrau, photo @ Marty Sohl
The two lower voiced men (for the life of me I can't ever recall their actual names -- I just remember the Nice Bass and the Mean Baritone) were solid if unexciting. Alexey Markov The Mean Baritone has a voice that's rather dry and not mellifluous enough to sound right in Bellini. Luca Pisaroni The Nice Bass looked very cute but it's one of those voices that's rather hollow sounding, without the body or plushness to give the character's numbers the requisite warmth. "Cinta di fiori" was disappointing. The usually barnstorming duet "Suoni la tromba" was routine and not the jolt of caffeine the audience needed. Virgnie Verrez was fine as Henrietta, The Most Boring Queen in Opera.

Conductor Maurizio Benini opened some cuts in the act one concertato and also let Damrau sing "Ah! sento o mio bell 'angeli" to conclude the opera but was almost comically lethargic, with no drive or impetus behind his conducting. I Puritani cannot have a conductor who seems like he just popped a xanax before entering the pit. It already has so many built-in Xanax moments. The Met orchestra which can be so glorious with right conductor sounded almost provincial last night with an embarrassing flub from the French horns. Maybe he'll pick up steam as the run goes on.

The production by Sandro Sequi at this point is a collection of pretty costumes for Elvira and picturesque sets and little else -- even the chorus seems to have given up any pretense of blocking. The multiple steps on the set did allow the vertically challenged singers to look taller while standing next to Luca Pisaroni, so there's that.

But don't just read me. Judge for yourself:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Great Comet

Last night I saw Dave Malloy's wonderful musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and reviewed it for parterre box here. Suffice to say I enjoyed it very much and recommend it to people looking for a fun night at the theater. Josh Groban and Denée Benton are amazing. A blurb from my review:

I never made it through more than a few chapters of any Tolstoy work. And I never made it through Chapter One, Volume One of War and Peace. Yeah, I know. I suck. Turns out I was just not using the left side of my brain, because War and Peace can actually be a fun, entertaining, lighthearted musical. 
The travails of Natasha, Pierre, Andrey, Anatole, and company are really a funny, tongue-in-cheek soap opera. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is one of those improbable shows that  throws in everything, including the kitchen sink, cabinet and refrigerator, and somehow the final product just works.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Winter Season Diaries: Swan Heaven, Sunday Un-funday

The flock of black swans, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I've seen lots of Swan Lakes in my balletomane life. And to be honest, I've disliked or felt indifferent to almost all of them. A long time ago Nina Ananiashvilli impressed me with her boneless arms and old-style Bolshoi acting. Mariinsky swans are hard to beat -- I loved Viktoria Tereshkina's strength and chutzpah. Uliana Lopatkina's Odette/Odile was a master class of classicism, and she also had an inner radiance and spirituality that was heartbreaking. But really, that's ... it?

Well tonight I was transported to Swan Heaven again, and in the unlikeliest form: petite, slight Sterling Hyltin in Balanchine's one-act version of the ballet. I've never taken Balanchine's abridged Swan Lake seriously -- sometimes I think he took an orchestral suite and had no idea what to do with it. He added a coda to the pas de deux. He added variations. He deleted variations. He changed the setting to some sort of arctic winter wonderland replete with icebergs. The best part of his Swan Lake is unsurprisingly his choreography for the corps -- he has them swarm as an a scary flock in their black feathery costumes. They are not the mournful swans of most "after Petipa/Ivanov" versions. They're wild birds. But his changes to the white swan adagio (a peppy coda) and Odette's variations are unimpressive, the solo for Siegfried is unnecessary, and he unfortunately deleted the dance of the cygnets in one of his many revisions. One thing: nice costumes, especially for the hunters.

It takes a special ballerina to make Balanchine's Swan Lake not just a wintry abstraction. Last week I saw Sara Mearns give one of those performances that you'll really love if you are a Sara Mearns fan. She was majestic, she was dramatic. But as for me, I wanted more refinement in the upper body, more connection with the music, and an actual Odette soul instead of overwrought facial expressions. Sara's lack of any port de bras and her hunched shoulder posture has only gotten worse with time.

Hyltin's Odette, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Sterling Hyltin doesn't exude majesty -- she's too small for that. In fact, when she first came onstage she looked more sparrow then swan. But then she danced. And wow. Her approach was not the usual "Balanchine" way of fast footwork and aggressive attacks. Those slight arms were boneless -- they fluttered mournfully along with the music. Her back was "Russian" in its flexibility. Her many deep, pliant backbends gave Balanchine's cold abstraction a startling tenderness. Her entrechats/passés in the coda were lightning fast and timed so perfectly with the music. But most of all, she made you believe that this was Odette. She put the tragedy of Odette back in Balanchine's abstraction. Her pas de deux with Siegfried (the always sensitive Tyler Angle) was startling in its intimacy, especially the way her face would gently graze his cheek in one of her many arabesque pencheés. When at the end of the ballet she bourreéd back into Rothbart's kingdom one felt loss and heartbreak. It was a treasurable performance. I never predicted that Sterling Hyltin would be the ballerina to put the love, soul and poetry back into Swan Lake.

In fact, tonight had a series of outstanding performances from unexpected quarters. Megan Fairchild was her usual excellent self in Allegro Brillante. She doesn't have the dynamic movement of Tiler Peck but one can't fault her accuracy and precision. A bigger surprise was her partner Amar Ramasar. He can struggle with posture in classical roles but not tonight. Very classical, clean beats and no hunched shoulders. The 8 corps members were as usual excellent.

Sean Suozzi, Melancholic, photo @ Paul Kolnik

In Four Temperaments, Sean Suozzi, a dancer that has barely registered in all the years I've seen him, kicked ass with his Melancholic variation. Whoever knew he had such a flexible back and such a sense of when to contort his body before falling to the floor? Every time he'd twist, hang in the air for a little bit before making that dramatic drop. The loud thud added a thrill -- you wondered if he'd blown out his back. Anthony Huxley (whom I saw last week) was more refined, but Suozzi more exciting. Another standout was Megan LeCrone and Aaron Sanz in the Third Theme. I love Ashley Bouder in nearly everything but I prefer a taller, leggier girl for Choleric. Those aggressive kicks just look more menacing with more leg. But still, Four Temperaments is a CB classic that is consistently well-maintained.

Tonight's performance offset the disappointment of the Sunday matinee, which was supposed to have been an exciting afternoon of debuts. It's a City Ballet tradition to sometimes give huge parts to corps members. And with most of those choices, the dancers rise to the occasion and then some. I'm remembering Harrison Ball's stunning debut as Puck, or Indiana Woodward's last minute sub in La Sylphide that was sensitive, soulful and charming. These debuts are the stuff City Ballet fans live on -- successful debuts are an instant "star is born" moment.

Alas, Sunday was not the day for those moments. Isabella LaFreniere had to pull out of her Firebird debut due to injury -- Ashley Bouder danced instead. This meant she was paired with the towering Silas Farley, who made his debut as Prince. Farley was adorable -- courtly, a sensitive actor, but the height difference between the two dancers was awkward.

Miriam Miller as the Siren, photo @ Andrea Mohin
But Firebird was at least solid. Ashley Bouder has years of experience and knows how to make the best out of any situation. Prodigal Son was an outright disaster. Anthony Huxley had no problems with the steps -- he's one of the most explosive jumpers and turners the company has. Unfortunately Prodigal Son requires acting, and Huxley is also a rather wooden actor. In the opening scene when he beat against his father's chest Huxley's face only registered a pleasant, calm disposition. Peter Martins has also been pushing a tall, leggy blond Miriam Miller. And Miller did have the legs for the Siren. Unfortunately that's all she had. From the very beginning when she fumbled awkwardly with the cape and wobbled in those upward kicks it was apparent she didn't have the core strength for this part. The pas de deux was hampered by poor partnering and timing -- in that moment the Siren stands on the Son's shins and slides down, either Huxley let go too quickly or Miller lost her balance because her knees buckled and she face-planted. Unfortunate.

La Sonnambula also had three debuts. Zachary Catazaro as the Poet and Ashley Laracey as Coquette were exactly what you'd expect them to be -- two of the most elegant, classical dancers in the company. Laracey, by the way, was stunning in the Pas de Neuf of Balanchine's Swan Lake. But Claire Kretzschmar, who'd made such an impression as Coffee in Nutcracker, was miscast as Sleepwalker. Her bourreés were bumpy, and her upper body too stiff. You got the feeling she needed way more rehearsal and coaching time than she got.

Oh well. You can't win every time. But all in all, NYCB still gives the most consistently outstanding dancing of any company. And now I must see Sterling Hyltin dance a full-length Swan Lake.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Winter Season Diaries: NYCB's Academy Awards

Teresa Reichlen and Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son, photo @ Andrea Mohin

The first week of Winter Season at NYCB is usually low-key. The company is tired from the Nutcracker marathon and also rehearsing for the inevitable world premiere of some new works. So the programming tends to be basic Balanchine. Stuff the audience knows and loves. Dancer-proof ballets.

And thus it was so this winter season. The first week was dominated by two excellent Balanchine triple bills: a "Balanchine Short Stories" program of La Sonnambula/Prodigal Son/Firebird and a more eclectic program of Allegro Brillante/Swan Lake/Four Temperaments. I saw one of the AB/SL/4T's performance and two "Short Stories." I don't need to tell you that Tiler Peck was amazing/super/stupendous in Allegro, and that her diagonal of consecutive triple pirouettes that was timed to end exactly with a CRASH in the piano chords gave me goosebumps. Andy Veyette was her fine, steadfast partner. Ashly Isaacs made an energetic debut as Sanguinic in the 4T's and Anthony Huxley's Melancholic was a highlight. He really has the contorted backbends and sudden shifts in poses down pat and what's more, make them look natural.

La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird and Swan Lake were interesting as it required NYCB dancers to do something they're not accustomed to doing: acting. All four are short but intense story ballets and it's not okay to simply "do the steps, dear." I saw two separate casts and it's interesting how different dancers handled this demand to act. So, we now present the Academy Awards of Motion Dances, winter NYCB edition.

Nominees: La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird, and Swan Lake

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son. You could simply marvel in his technique -- huge flying jumps, series of triple/quadruple pirouettes that he decelerated as a show of control. But his portrayal was a success because he clearly made an arc in the Prodigal Son's development from an arrogant brat to a horndog lush to the humbled but mature man. His first and last interactions with his father (a wonderful Aaron Sanz) rang true. His chemistry with Teresa Reichlen's implacable Siren was hot. When the Prodigal Son crawled under the Siren's crotch there was a gasp in the theater. The Maria Kowroski/Joaquin de Luz by pairing by comparison was too PG-rated in energy to make much of an impact.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Teresa Reichlen in Prodigal Son. When did Reichlen turn into such an actress? Her Siren was nasty, sexy, venomous. We all know about the Siren's famous snake coiling arm gesture, but she was the only Siren out of the three I've seen this year (Maria Kowroski and Veronika Part of ABT were the others) to use her cape as a boa constrictor. When she tightened that velvet around her neck and looked at the boys suddenly we were in an S&M club. When she kicked the beaten and robbed Prodigal Son it was delicious.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Zachary Catazaro's Prince in Firebird. Firebird is such a ballerina-dominated ballet. Who cares about the Prince and his insipid Princess? Well, Catazaro proved that it's possible to make something out of this role. Catazaro is the only Prince I can remember in recent memory who actually responds with surprise to the light at the back of the stage before the Firebird (AshleyBouder) makes her entrance. A tender glance here, a startled reaction there, and all of a sudden this becomes the Prince's story as well. In contrast Justin Peck merely let Teresa Reichlen to carry the entire ballet.

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Sterling Hyltin as the Sleepwalker. I know this is sort of cheating but Sleepwalker is a SHORT role. Most of the ballet is dominated by the flirtation between the Poet and the Coquette and the various interactions at the masked ball. The Sleepwalker flits onstage in her candle, flits offstage, and only returns for the ballet's gruesome conclusion. Hyltin's feathery light bourreés which made her seem like she was gliding across the floor, her mass of unkempt tresses, and the completely blank, soulless stare she gave her Poet (Chase Finlay) whenever he tried to touch her made a ghostly frightening impression. By contrast, Tiler Peck's very well-danced Sleepwalker was very much of this world. Because she's Tiler Peck she was technically clean as a whistle. But the ethereal feeling was not there. This extended to her perfectly straightened, set and sprayed hair which just didn't give off a Crazy Woman in the Attic vibe.

Honorary mention in supporting act go to Aaron Sanz as the Father in Prodigal Son, Daniel Ulbricht who brought down the house as Harlequinade in La Sonnambula.

And just for kicks:

Chagall's initial curtain
Best Production Design: Is this even a race? It's still Chagall's amazing Firebird backdrops. In fact, the trouble with this ballet is that the production can dwarf the actual dancing. Thankfully NYCB currently has Teresa Reichlen and Ashley Bouder, two strong Firebirds. They have different strengths -- Reichlen uses her long arms and back to create a soulful, majestic creature. Her Berceuse is a song of mourning. Bouder startles with the quickness of her jumps. But both are equally valid interpretations and the force of their personalities can battle Chagall. No mean feat.

Mearns and company in Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Best Costumes - Alain Vaes' costumes for Swan Lake. Yes, the red-headed stepchild of the Balanchine canon, his not-very-inspired abridged Swan Lake. The ballet he openly said was a "bore" and changed countless times (new coda to adagio, added variations, dropped variations, reshuffling numbers, you name it). The ballet itself despite some lovely choreography for the corps remains a odd duck -- as if someone had decided to choreograph to a 30 minute orchestral suite from a 2+ hour ballet. But, my oh my, the costumes! Siegfried and his hunters have real hunting bags along with their bows and arrows, and the corps de ballet is outfitted in these black feathery concoctions that look gorgeous. The image of the black swans surrounding their Swan Queen (decked in the traditional white tutu) is stunning. And in the Swan Lake I saw with Mearns and Jared Angle, the costumes were just about the only thing great in that performance.

Best Original Score - I don't know. Getting to be a Sophie's choice here. Stravinsky's Firebird is one of the most famous ballet scores of all time but Prodigal Son's score matches the action so well that ... We'll defer to Mr. B on this one. No doubt he'd pick Firebird.

Best Director - George Balanchine in Prodigal Son. Duh. And look at this picture. 'Nuff said.

Best Picture - Prodigal Son. Made in 1929 but has lost none of its dramatic power. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll blush. And if you're not moved by this, then ...

Now I'm signing off because I really don't want to hear any of these winners thanking their agents and publicists.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama, no longer president, but always My President

A photo posted by Ivy Lin (@poisonivylin) on

It's hard to believe that in less than 24 hours Barack Obama will no longer be POTUS. He's a man I admire so much as a person, as a politician, as a leader, as a role model.  He never lost his dignity, his cool, and (most importantly) his humanity. Other people have expressed their admiration more eloquently. I'll just say this: Barack Obama might no longer be the President of the United States, but he'll always be My President.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Roméo et Juliette - Shakespearean Tragedy is a Happy Night at the Opera

Grigolo and Damrau, photo @ Ken Howard
Romeo and Juliet are in the crypt. Romeo succumbs to the poison just as Juliet awakens from her self-induced slumber. Juliet stabs herself so she can die along with Romeo. Bodies slump over each other. Curtain. That's what happened last night at the end of the Met's new production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. It's basically what happens at the end of any presentation of Shakespeare's play.

Tragic. Heartrending, right? But as the lights dimmed I felt something I haven't felt while attending an opera in a long time: happiness. Yes, happiness.

Why? Because the performance last night was pretty much perfect. Not perfect in the sense that there were no flaws with the singers (there were), or that the production by Bart Sher was mind-blowing (it wasn't), but the energy from the star-crossed lovers (Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau) was such that all flaws and reservations were swept aside in by the force of their performances. They were extraordinary.

Grigolo has finally found a role where he can channel all his sometimes hyper, erratic energy. His Roméo brimmed over with life. During the balcony scene he leaped onto one of the pillars in an attempt to touch Juliette's hand. Did he succeed? No, but he got cheers from the audience just for the try. Vocally he was also on his best behavior. There was his usual fondness for exaggerated dynamics, and his tendency towards veristic delivery clashed with the traditional French style of singing. But my, what singing! The role lies in a sweet spot in his voice -- there was no strain, no yelping. His voice was ringing and clarion all night. He capped the Act Four ensemble with a huge high C, and in his numerous duets with Juliette it was his ardent voice that soared over the orchestra and into your ears. Moreover, he really lived the role, made this somewhat sappy, cardboard character into someone real and lovable.
Balcony scene, photo @ Ken Howard

Damrau was not as flamboyant as Grigolo. You could tell she prepared for this role -- she can sometimes be brassy but she took care to present herself as shy and reserved. Her voice took some time to warm up. It now has a slightly husky, colorless quality and trills no longer come easily to her. "Je veux vivre" didn't have the ideally youthful quality and her voice has lost some flexibility. But as the opera progressed she and Grigolo's partnership became symbiotic -- they pushed each other to greater heights. Her Potion Aria was surprisingly powerful. By the bedroom duet her voice was soaring along with Grigolo's. She was a ying to Grigolo's yang. They complemented each other beautifully. Will they become the New New New (Onstage) Love Couple?

The supporting cast varied from mediocre (Mikhail Petrebko's wobbly, hollow Friar Laurent) to promising (Virginie Verrez as the pageboy) to excellent (Diego Silva as Tybalt). But really, this is a two-person show. Gianandrea Noseda led a vigorous but taut performance in the pit -- perhaps this was the reason for Grigolo's vocal discipline. There was no Marco-Armiliato-like indulging of every singers' vocal whim.

Picture I took of the unit set
Bartlett Sher's production took no risks but also did no harm. The unit set (by his longtime collaborator Michael Yeargan) was a handsome stone court yard that was a believable Verona. Small onstage props indicated different scenes like Friar's church or the crypt. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were colorful and generally flattering to the singers. The only misfire was Sher's longtime love for huge fabrics as a scene changer -- he used it in Le Comte Ory, he used it in Fiddler on the Roof, and in Act Four the "bedroom" scene was yet again a large, stage-encompassing sheet that was laid out over the stage. It also billowed over the stage on occasion. I guess this gave Grigolo and Damrau more opportunity to roll around the floor. But in the crypt scene two stone slabs were brought out. So why no bed, in a production otherwise so literal? Oh well. Sher's production was pretty, it didn't intrude on the Grigolo Show, and it sort of matched the somewhat treacly vibe of this entire opera.

Some nights at the opera feel like "eat your spinach" exercises. Last night was a comfort food night. Beautiful music, beautiful voices, pretty sets, pretty costumes. It was like digging into a bowl of chili fries.

Here is Grigolo in one of his patented curtain calls. On anyone else I'd say "over the top." For him? Ange Adorable.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Candide - Not the Best of All Possible Presentations

Candide on paper looked like the perfect opera to revive for New York City Opera's "Renaissance." The old NYCO's Hal Prince production (adapted from his Broadway version) was one of the company's glories. Bernstein's lovable operetta was a perfect fit for the uniquely American sensibilities of the company. So to bring back that wonderful production, with the same revered director supervising, well, that was the best of all possible worlds right?

Wrong. For one, the limits of the tiny Rose Theater made it necessary to scale down Hal Prince's production to what looked like the Dollar Store version. Same familiar circus-performers concept, but tiny, cheap drops that wrinkled and flapped, an awkward miking system that made the voices sound thin and inaudible but the set changes and stage movement ear-splitting, and a cast that was obviously under-rehearsed. Prince (and choreographer Patricia Birch) seem not to have gotten the memo however -- the tiny stage was filled with a full set of dancers and extras and all the stage business of his old production. I've seen a NYCO telecast of the original. In a full sized theater those effects are wonderful. Here it just looked like nonstop onstage traffic jams.

Things started poorly when the orchestra (led by Charles Prince) gave a bumpy, poorly coordinated and out of tune rendition of the famous overture. The cast had talent, but not the right sort of talent -- experienced Broadway actor Gregg Edelman (as Voltaire and the various other authority figures) forgot his lines in several instances. Sometimes he just shrugged it off, but one time he did the all-time most obvious "oops" stage trick -- simply turning the back to the audience and making a jazz hands gesture.

Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde) has a cute stage presence and comic timing, but not nearly enough voice for "Glitter and Be Gay." Note values were approximate, high notes came out either pipsqueak, flat, or not at all. At least the audience seems to have liked her. In the title role Jay Armstrong Johnson (who's done some great work in On The Town) sounded nervous and the miking was odd -- he faded in and out. It also sounds like he was trying to beef up his light, pleasant voice with an overly intrusive vibrato. Linda Lavin (Old Lady) finally brought a dose of old-school vaudevillian "We Need to Put On a SHOW!" mentality -- her line readings weren't subtle but at least you could tell this was a pro who knew how to put on a performance no matter the circumstance.

Other performers who acquitted themselves well in their roles: Jessica Tyler Wright was consistently cute and funny as Paquette, Chip Zien as the Jew who shares Cunegonde with the Grand Inquisitor (Brooks Ashmankis).

Gregg Edelmann, photo @ Tina Fineberg
But in the end I don't think it's the fault of the performers that this Candide was not even close to the best of all possible performances. They all have talent. The lack of rehearsal, preparation, venue, and (let's face it) funds was obvious. The opening night crowd was a real mink-and-champagne crowd but even for this fundraising group the presentation was careless -- Hal Prince didn't even come out for a curtain call. There was no speech by Michael Capasso about the importance of this production in NYCO history. If NYCO is truly going to have a Renaissance, they need to let that garden grow more so they can put on performances that don't come across as a pale imitation of the company they once were.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

December Warhorses, part four: Cats, and Yet Another Nutcracker!

Cats! photo @ Richard Termine

Last year I took my mom to see The Lion King, which I decided would be the perfect momsical. This year I decided to extend the tradition. My mom will only see family friendly musicals. And so my mom, predictably, chose Cats (what else)? The reason: "I love cats." (She does.)

A picture of the junkyard set
So I took my mom to see Cats, and it was an even more perfect mom-sical. I never saw the original 1982 Broadway version but I've read that this revival (also directed by Trevor Nunn) hasn't changed much. The dancing and lighting effects do have a very 1970's disco jellicle ball feel to them. My mom has a hard time understanding dialogue in the theater. Cats is a pure song-and-dance extravaganza. There's almost no storyline or character development (even my mom said "I wish there was more of a story") but she loved the non-stop dancing numbers, the cool set (the stage and theater is decorated like an abandoned junkyard), and of course the big 11 o'clock number "Memory."

The dance numbers are very fun and the ensemble cast performs these numbers with high energy. It's a big cast but some standouts:  NYCB dancer Georgina Paczoguin as Victoria the white cat was quite the scene-stealer. All she had to do was lift her leg in a high developpé and she caught your eye. The musical has some charming, tuneful vignettes -- the duet between cat burglars Mungojerrie (Jess LeProtto) and Rumpelteazer (Shonica Goodman) is an earworm. The best dance production number is "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" (played by the stunning Ricky Ubeda). It's really just fabulous. Leona Lewis was the original Grizabella but her performance wasn't well received by critics and she left the show quickly. Now Griz, the old cat with memories of her days in the sun is sung by Mamie Parris. She did a decent job but her voice doesn't have the volume or power of this:

Is Cats a deep musical experience? No. Is it is a great musical? No. But once you accept it for what it is, it's fun. I enjoyed the show, and what's more important, my mom loved it. I'm already planning next year's mom-sical.

Claire Kretzschmar as Coffee, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I rounded out my December warhorse tour by seeing -- you guessed it -- another Nutcracker! In this case the SPF/Cavalier leads were familiar (it was the tried-and-true Hyltin/Veyette pairing), but I did get to see some new interpretations I hadn't seen previously. Emily Kikta's Dewdrop, for one. Kikta certainly has the power for the role, and her movements have the right amplitude. What she needs is some refinement -- the timings of some of her exits and entrances were a bit off with the music and her posture could be improved. But that will come with experience.

The dancer who blew me away was Claire Kretzschmar's Coffee. I've complained in previous posts that none of the dancers seem to have the flexible backs and sensuality to sell this variation. Well, look no further -- Kretzschmar's Coffee was exactly that -- sinewy, sensual, a bit of a tease.

Also, can Harrison Coll get some sort of trophy for the incredible amount of roles he's played in Nutcracker this season? I saw him as Drosselmeier last night, also saw him as Candy Cane and Mother Ginger. I didn't get a chance to see his debut as Cavalier. But in the roles I did see, he brought a wonderful energy and enthusiasm. It's hard to picture such a young guy as Drosselmeier but Coll made it work.

So I've attended a record four Nutcrackers in a season, here are just some random happy memories:

- The high quality of the Candy Cane variations. I saw Harrison Coll, Devin Alberda (twice), Daniel Ulbricht (last night). All the Candy Canes made it through all 12 hoop jumps, the double jump at the end, and more doubles in the coda without tripping.

- Noticing corps de ballet members I hadn't previously -- Olivia MacKinnon as the only Marzipan I saw who could really do the gargouillades, Claire Kretzschmar as Coffee.

- Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck in a fierce neck and neck battle for the Greatest Dewdrop of Them All. Because I saw both this season and I couldn't choose. Of course Teresa Reichlen was also not far behind and Emily Kikta definitely has potential.

The 8 amazing Polichinelles of this year's run. Photo @ Andrea Mohin

- The amazing 8 polichinelles, who in every performance I saw danced like true Balanchine ballerinas. They danced with the speed, precision, and musicality that would make Mr. B smile. In three of the four performances I saw the girls were: Veronica Dronsky, Eliza Eder, Kate Eid, Camille Leveque, Manuela Lira, Caden Santander, Ada Sensoy, Brando Speach. Remember the names. They upstaged their excellent Mother Gingers every time (and this season, I saw some good ones -- Alec Knight, Harrison Coll, Aaron Sanz).

- The three Sugarplum Fairies I saw who ALL brought something special to the role. They were all very different. Sterling Hyltin is the twinkly, bubbly, charming fairy and her partnership with Andrew Veyette is long-standing and very special . For instance in the coda/finale of the ballet Veyette lifts Hyltin around in a menage of lifts before finally lowering her SLOWLY. Hyltin does small beats with her legs as she's being lowered. The effect is enchanting.

Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro were the most elegant, classical pairing. Laracey has a natural regal bearing and epaulement. But there's also warmth in her portrayal and I definitely want to see it again. Tiler Peck's SPF is a technical wonder -- endless balances, effortless turns, such a strong core that you never for a moment think she'll fall over.

So that's a wrap. Mr. B's production is so beautiful, so perfect, that when Nutcracker season is over I'm always sad. No more Nutcrackers. The positive: next year I get to see them again!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

December Warhorses, part three: MORE Nutcrackers!

Shelly Anderson as the hostess of Nutcracker Rouge
My December chestnut tour ended up with ... more Nutcrackers. Also, a visit to the Trocks. I didn't really enjoy the Trocks as much as I thought I would (despite their very funny Passages in Space, a parody of Merce Cunningham). The Dying Swan number was cute, I guess. But it really wasn't my kind of thing.

So let's talk about those Nutcrackers. On December 22, I went to see Company XIV's wonderful Nutcracker Rouge. It's now in the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn (tucked away by a church) but it's still the same great show it was last year, with a few changes here and there. Austin McCormick's skill at putting together a cohesive entertainment from a company of such eclectic talents is amazing. There's been some turnover (Laura Careless is no longer with the company -- Allison Ulrich danced Marie Claire this year) but the mainstays are still there -- Shelly Watson as the hostest/cabaret singer, Marcy Richardson singing Sia's "Chandelier" while doing some jaw-dropping Pink-like trapeze artist moves. As usual, the Nutcracker score is mixed with Madonna, baroque music, even hip hop, and whatever else strikes Austin McCormick's fancy. The result: by far my favorite alternative Nutcracker, ever. Go see them. You'll have fun and become an instant fan of this quirky, wildly talented company.

Here are some videos I took of the evening.

Here is their beautiful snow scene:

Arabian Variation. This guy's skill with a hula hoop is astonishing. I've seen many Arabian variations in many Nutcracker versions and I have to say this one is my favorite.

Marcy Richardson singing Sia's Chandelier while hanging from the hoop is a huge audience favorite. People started cheering the minute they saw the hoop being lowered. Marcy Richardson is a talented singer period -- she later sang a Vivaldi aria with all the bells and whistles ornamentation.

The charming Mother Ginger variation in which the children were replaced by sexy French poodles. This is another audience favorite, with people clapping the minute the poodles came out. Again, a very clever take on this Nutcracker tradition.

And finally, the grand pas de deux in which Marie-Claire's dreams are finally consummated. Audience gave them a standing ovation. This video doesn't give an idea of how small the space was in which they were dancing. But it's a tiny stage, and so the big lifts and acrobatic choreography had a high-wire thrill -- were they going to fall offstage right into the champagne bottles?

More videos of Nutcracker Rouge can be found here.

Tiler Peck as Dewdrop, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The next evening I was back at NYCB for my third Nutcracker of the year. I went primarily to see a different cast -- Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, and also to see Tiler Peck's amazing Dewdrop again. Ashley Laracey is one of the company's most graceful, lyrical dancers and she did not disappoint in this role. Her flexible back, gorgeous extensions, and lovely epaulement immediately made her a gracious, winning leader of the Kingdom of the Sweets. In the grand pas de deux she unfurled her long limbs and beautiful feet to create a majestic, serene impression. Her movement is so lush, so able to fill out the phrases of the music. This is a portrayal that's worth a return visit. This is my third Sugarplum Fairy of the year and they were all in their own way wonderful. Sterling Hyltin is the most graceful and charming, Tiler Peck the most technically secure, and Ashley Laracey the most lyrical. I love them all.

Zachary Catazaro had a bit of hesitation with the shoulder jump lifts but otherwise was a fine partner and his variation in the coda had fast, centered, pirouettes with the free leg alternating between relevé position and pirouettes a la seconde. And have I mentioned that he's very, very handsome? Tiler Peck's Dewdrop is a known quantity -- a modern classic. Every time she dances this she almost plays with the audience, either by holding a balance for eternity, or by slowly lowering her free leg to show off her strength. Her way of accelerating turns never fails to astonish. Like Ashley Bouder she can perform those pirouettes with leg in high attitude without ever lowering the leg. She had the audience roaring.

Overall,  a lovely performance despite the fact that there had to be a mid-performance Marie change (the dark-haired Maria Kashvili was subbed out for the red haired Emerson Tate Alexander in the second act), and another weird hiccup: Alexa Maxwell was doing a lovely job in the Coffee variation until she dropped a bell and it slid downstage. It was later picked up by Devin Alberda as he ran into the wings after his Candy Cane variation. This chivalrous gesture earned him a small ovation.

Here is an instagram picture of Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro:

A photo posted by Ashley Laracey (@ashleylaracey) on

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Warhorse Diaries, part 2: More Nutcrackers!!!

Abi Stafford in Yorkville Nutcracker

My tour of December warhorses has predictably resulted in more Nutcracker-ing. I did another round at NYCB with a different cast, and then headed over to the Yorkville Nutcracker.

Yorkville Nutcracker first: Francis Petrelle's Nutcracker is one of those "locally-based" versions. In this case, it's set in 1895 in Gracie Mansion and all the characters are historical people. The heroine is "Mary Strong," daughter of NYC mayor William L. Strong. The dancers are culled from a variety of sources but the kids are mainly of Ballet Academy East. If you're expecting a super-professional high-calibre Nutcracker you're likely to walk away from Yorkville Nutcracker disappointed -- the students and professional dancers are at varying degrees of ability, the production values consist of three different painted backdrops, and the music is recorded.

But this version has its charm. It's a real family affair -- the students are culled from various ballet academies around the city and if they're not quite as disciplined as the SAB students their diversity is endearing. The local color is also cute -- Teddy Roosevelt shows up in the first act first as a teddy bear and then as "Teddy Roosevelt." Perhaps the highlight of the performance is the first act snow scene. It's set in a pond in Central Park and the corps simulate 1895-style ice skating as snow gently falls. Lovely. The performance was anchored by the wonderfully expressive Mary of Hara Schwarz and Michael Aromando as her brother Putnam (who in this version doubles as the Prince).

The second act divertissements (set at the New York Botanical Garden) are more traditional -- yes there's Mother Ginger, there's a slinky duet between two scantily clad dancers in the Arabian variation, and the Sugarplum Fairy is very, very pink. I loved the simple but effective choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers -- the flowers make various circular patterns and use their arms as petals.

Therese Wender and Maximillien Baud made strong impressions as the Snow Queen and King, and Tallison Costo (Snow Prince) stole the show with his crowd-pleasing series of jumps. Megan Dickinson was also a graceful Dewdrop. The Dewdrop in this version is not the jumping powerhouse of the Balanchine version, but rather a fairy-like figure who flits in and out of the circling flowers. NYCB vets Abi Stafford and Craig Hall as the SPF and Cavalier were by comparison disappointing -- Stafford wooden and charmless, Hall (who retired last May) struggling with the partnering. Hall is of course a classy and expressive dancer -- would love to see him dance Drosselmeyer (Noah Wheaton in this version).

But this is a fun charming Nutcracker. And the Kaye Playhouse is intimate and inviting.

I'm a Snowflake!

The December 9 performance of Nutcracker at NYCB was just excellence as usual. Tiler Peck as the Sugarplum Fairy was as commanding as you'd expect -- rock solid balances, squeaky clean double pirouettes, such a strong core that she can practically partner herself. The only thing she's missing is that last ingredient of gentleness and charm -- there's a seriousness about her Sugarplum Fairy that causes one to admire rather than love the portrayal. Her husband Robert Fairchild continued his struggle with the classical repertoire post-An American in Paris. He's no longer out of shape, but the strength and spark are not there anymore and at this point I'm afraid they won't ever return. He said on twitter that he hasn't danced the Cavalier since 2013 and the inexperience showed -- he missed the small timing tricks that can create such magic in the grand pas de deux. For instance, in those long diagonals that culminate in the shoulder jump lift he was unable to create the illusion of running towards the SPF and simply catching her on his shoulder. He stopped dead center stage and Tiler hopped on his shoulder. He also struggled with the final fish dive pose and Tiler could not hold that fish dive as long as she usually does.

Tess Reichlen as Dewdrop, photo @ Andrea Mohin
This was my first time ever (!!!) seeing Tess Reichlen's Dewdrop and although her extreme height and legginess make it harder for her to complete all that tricky allegro footwork her airy jump, gracious demeanor and the amplitude of her movements created a beautiful (if very different) effect from the smaller whizbangs like Ashley Bouder or Tiler Peck. Tess is not a fast turner but in the coda she completed a series of slow, controlled Italian fouettes. Harrison Coll made a very strong impression as Candy Cane -- all 12 jumps went off without a hitch, double jump at the finale caused a huge roar, and he got more roars for more double jumps in the coda. Olivia MacKinnon completed the Marzipan solo with impressive hops/pirouettes on pointe, pique turns, gargouillades, but try to have fun while you're doing it! Her face exuded fierce concentration rather than fresh charm.

It's so interesting how Balanchine's Nut is so predictable yet so different in each performance. The applause machines never fail -- the growing tree, the snowflakes, the Prince's mime, the candy cane variation, the SPF being pulled on the magic slide. But finding the right balance of graciousness, charm, and technical security is a secret not many Sugarplum Fairies can unlock. I have been very lucky this season to see two such amazing Sugarplums -- Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck are as different as chalk and cheese, but both inspire wonder and awe. AND both have inspired me to buy a ticket to see yet another Sugarplum tackle the role -- Ashley Laracey on December 23. Stay tuned.

In other news, I thought the NBC live Hairspray was by far their most enjoyable live musical presentation yet. Seems like NBC has finally figured out that it's better to hire people who can really sing rather than to go for stunt casting. I hope NBC keeps up this trend of enjoyable family musicals around the holidays. They're getting better and better at this.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Warhorse Diaries 2016, part one: Aida and Nutcracker

Latonia Moore as Aida, photo by Cory Weaver
It's Nutcracker season again! Actually to be more precise it's warhorse season in NYC. Thanksgiving-Christmas is not the month for artistic institutions to take risks. It's tourist season, and so this means lots of Messiah's, Revelations, Rockettes, and Snowflakes. This is cash-cow time.

With that being said the quality that companies maintain these warhorses can be a good measure of the overall health of that company.  I hope to catch Alvin Ailey's Revelations and a Messiah before the season is done. And maybe another Nutcracker. Thanksgiving week I kicked off my tour of the warhoses at the Met for their reliable warhorse Aida and at NYCB for their money-tree, Nutcracker.

The energy of these two performances could not have been more different. On November 22, everything about Sonja Frisell's 1988 production of Aida looked and sounded tired. The production still has its old-fashioned picturesque charm but it's clear that the singers are left to their own devices without direction or guidance. Marco Armiliato led a sluggish and painfully out of tune Met orchestra. Dmitry Belosselskiy and Solomon Howard at least had sonorous bass voices. Marco Berti is a reliable belter and that's how he sang Radames: he walked to center stage, planted himself by the prompter and yelled the role from the very first notes of "Celeste Aida" to the end of the Tomb Scene. Mark Delavan (Amonasaro) sounds like the epitome of a provincial, rote baritone. Ekaterina Gubanova who was a wonderful Brangane a few months back has neither the voice or temperament for Amneris. Her smooth, medium-sized mezzo ran out of gas well before the Judgment Scene. She didn't bother acting this part which can be so much scenery-chewing fun. Just watch Fiorenza Cossotto eat the stage alive in this video and you'll get a sense of all that was missing from Gubanova's portrayal.

Latonia Moore was the reason I dragged myself to this performance. A year ago she was absolutely lovely in NYCO's otherwise middling Tosca. Moore, who is visibly pregnant, has one of the most beautiful soprano voices on the scene today. You can get drunk from the sound of her glowing, warm, soft-grained voice. And the evening started off strong with lovely floated notes at the end of "Ritorna vincitor" and a voice that soared rather than shrieked in the Triumphal Scene. Unfortunately she came to total grief in the Nile Scene -- that ascent to the famously exposed high C started off shakily and got no better as she reached for a note that simply wasn't there. The long ensuing duets with her father and Radames revealed that this role requires more stamina and body that Moore's delicate, lyrical voice can provide. I can't help but feel that she's being unfairly typecast for a role that's not really suited for her voice. I can only speculate about the reasons she's not being given Mimi or Desdemona. It was a depressing evening.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker was the huge blockbuster hit the New York City Ballet needed in 1954  and over 60 years later it's still an automatic sell-out. The quality of Nutcracker performances has ebbed and flowed along with the health of the company in the years following Balanchine's death. I remember a particularly dire performance over 10 years ago where the unfortunate Sugar Plum Fairy looked to be on the verge of tears the entire time.

This afternoon I went to a performance that was fresh as a daisy. The cast was well-stocked with a mix of adorable SAB kids, brand-new apprentice members and veteran principals who were all eager to show their best to the packed audience. Robert La Fosse reprised Drosselmeyer with the right amount of cape-waving eccentricity. The snowflakes and flowers were all together. The mice were as skittish and funny as ever, and touching: when their Mouse King (Alec Knight) died, they gathered around him with real heartbreak. Devin Alberda nailed the double-jump through the hoops in the Candy Cane variation. The eight Polichinelles who ran out of Mother Ginger were absolutely the best I've ever seen. They articulated the joyful pas de chats with the speed and precision of a true Balanchine dancer. They're little kids but dancing like pros. These details are so important in a successful Nutcracker performance.

Sterling Hyltin, eternally beautiful as SPF, photo @ Andrea Mohin
There's really not more superlatives I can add to the Sugarplum Fairy/Dewdrop team of Sterling Hyltin and Ashley Bouder (pictured above). Both are veterans at their roles and their experience shows -- Hyltin knows exactly how to wave that wand and bourrée downstage as the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy. If you closed your eyes and imagined a Kingdom of the Sweets Sterling Hyltin is exactly the enchantress of your dreams. And, in a more technical way, her balances were rock-solid and her pique and chaine turns were lightning fast. In the celesta solo she had a way of bouncing her pointes in passé/relevé so that her feet twinkled with the music. Andrew Veyette as the Cavalier was an expert partner, knowing exactly when to let go to give Hyltin the illusion of total weightlessness or invincibility. Their pas de deux ended with a picture-perfect fish dive. Of course.

As for Bouder, she powered through the Dewdrop role with a fearsome determination. In that long diagonal where she "sprinkles" all the flowers all her jumps lingered in the air for a second before she charged forward. She prolonged every one of Dewdrop's exits with an extra-long-held balance in arabesque. Of course she chugged out a few fouettés along the way. It was as if she was showing the kids how it's done.

I actually love warhorse season. There's something comforting about the Rockettes kicking their legs for the umpteenth time or having an entire auditorium rock along to Revelations . But old horses need love and nourishment. One company (the Met) seems content to let its warhorses starve, while another company across the plaza treats its old faithful with the enthusiasm of a brand-new puppy. The results of this treatment are all too easy for the audience to see.