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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Otello - when NP stands for "Non Production"

Photo by Ken Howard

The 2015-16 season of the Metropolitan Opera opened with Bartlett Sher's "new production" of Otello that would have been more appropriately labeled as a "Non Production." The set by Es Devlin was a bunch of plexiglass panels that slid back and forth mostly for the purposes of ushering the chorus on and offstage. The stage was bare except for an Ikea-upholstered bed at the end of Act 2 and Act 4. The blocking and person-regie was barely existent. A singer could have read the libretto for five minutes and come up with the same movements. Onstage, offstage, cower in fear, ball fists to look mad, collapse in a heap on the floor to look dead.

It's hard to understand Sher's thinking in this production. The opera is updated to the 19th century -- why? It only reinforces the idea of this being a non-production because the generic gowns and suits (designed by Catherine Zuber) everyone wears evokes nothing in particular except "in the past." I can understand the decision not to put Otello in blackface, but why did he not bother to characterize Otello at all? There's no sense of who he is. He is not an "other" in Venetian society. He is not a fearsome warrior. He is not a tender lover. He is not a jealous, rage-fueled husband. In this production he's just a guy in a military suit. Was it the acting limitation of Aleksandrs Antonenko? Why did Sher almost completely ignore the deliberate structure of Boito's libretto? Boito split the acts into: Act 1 - public realm, Act 2 private realm, Act 3 private becomes public, and Act 4 private. In this production the plexiglass panels move back and forth aimlessly, without any sense of scenes changing. The setup of the performance was often very much like a concert opera -- singers lined up at the lip of the stage, staring at the conductor, chorus in the back.

The cast and musical performance had some highs (notably Sonya Yoncheva's radiant Desdemona) but nothing so spectacular to merit a new production. Antonenko's voice sounds like it SHOULD have the volume, squillo, and stamina for the punishing title role, But the actual sound is strangulated, monochromatic, doesn't project well, and he yells more than he sings. His interpretation brings no sympathy and his diction is atrocious -- consonants AND vowels are mostly gone. "Un bacio" comes out as "Un baaaa-ooooo." This might be ameliorated if he had any acting chops but he might be a worse actor than the last Otello I saw (Johan Botha) if that's even possible. He balls his fists when he's mad. That's it.

Photo by Ken Howard

Zeljko Lucic is a somewhat over-exposed baritone at the Met nowadays -- it seems as if there's a heavy-hitting Verdi baritone role, Lucic goes on. His woofy, fading baritone was less problematic as Iago than in some other roles I've seen him in -- his introverted, low-key stage persona was sort of effective in portraying the kind of quiet, gossipy creeper. His voice still gets stuck in his throat sometimes ("Credo" was an unfortunate time his voice decided to get stuck) but it was a solid performance.

The best thing of the night (and the only singer to merit a new production) was Sonya Yoncheva's Desdemona. Her large, well-produced, shimmery soprano floated over the 4,000 persona auditorium with an angelic sweetness from the first act love duet to then great Act Three concertato to the final piano in her prayer. Yoncheva's acting wasn't that detailed, but she created a dignified, sympathetic character. This is the third time I've seen Yoncheva (I've also seen her in La Boheme and La Traviata) and I don't know whether it's conscious or unconscious but she's set herself up as a viable foil to the Met's current prima donna Anna Netrebko. Netrebko's extroverted, lusty portrayals and powerhouse voice are huge crowd favorites. Yoncheva is a cooler creature, but no less arresting. Beautiful voice, beautiful woman. Her future seems limitless.

The supporting roles were mixed. Jennifer Johnson Cano was an excellent Emilia. Her voice blended well with Yoncheva's. Dimitri Pittas (Cassio) is one of those younger tenors who already sounds old. Quavery, whiny voice. Maybe I'm spoiled -- my last Cassio was Michael Fabiano. Yannick Nézet-Séguin certainly can create an exciting, brassy stentorian sound from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra but he didn't show much sensitivity to the struggling Antonenko, who could have benefitted from a conductor less determined to max out the brass section.

This is a new production that won't even take a season or two to look tired and dated. It already looks tired and dated, and it's ... what, three weeks old?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Returns and Debuts at the Met Opening Week: Il Trovatore and Anna Bolena

Dima getting pelted with flowers -- photo by Marty Sohl
The Met 2015-16 season might have opened with a new production of Otello but the first performance of Il Trovatore was by far the most emotional, exciting start to the season. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky announced in the beginning of the summer that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has returned to the Met as di Luna for three performances in the fall before he'd resume his treatments.

Last night as Hvorostovsky made his entrance music the ovation was so loud and deafening that conductor Marco Armiliato had to stop completely and restart the music after the applause stopped. Dima stepped out of character for a second to bow and acknowledge the audience appreciation. There was an equally heartfelt ovation after "Il Balen" and during the curtain calls the members of the Met orchestra pelted Hvorostovsky with flowers as the rest of the cast tactfully stepped back.

Hvorostovsky would have gotten a warm welcome back even if he'd showed up and marked the whole performance. But his portrayal of di Luna was worthy of all the cheers. No he doesn't have the sheer volume of a "classic" Verdi baritone, but his elegance, use of legato, and musicality make him a very special singer indeed. There's nothing to say except that he's a courageous, classy musician and I hope he gives us many more wonderful performances in the years to come.

Photo by Marty Sohl
The cast assembled for this Il Trovatore was one of the rare modern-day efforts to provide this opera with the voices it deserves. Anna Netrebko's Leonora represented the best of her mature, middle-career voice. The center of gravity in her voice has dropped: she now has a huge, cavernous lower chest register with an almost mezzo-like plumminess and resonance. This made for an exciting "Misere" and "Tu vedrai" (both verses included). Musically Anna was on her best behavior -- the rhythmic slackness and sagging pitch that have plagued her in the past were mostly absent last night. Both "Tacea la notte placida" and "D'amor sull'ali rosee" showed a richness and lushness of timbre that hasn't been present since maybe ... well, since maybe Leontyne Price. And yes, the trills mostly were there.

The tradeoff for this rich, mezzo-like New Anna voice: a thinning, less powerful top. In the first half of the opera high notes were either gingerly touched in cadenza (and quickly abandoned) or high options were not taken (as in the D-flat at the end of the Act One trio). After the intermission her top opened up a little but it still sounded thin and quavery compared to the rest of her voice. Of course Anna wouldn't be Anna if there wasn't some sloppy huffing and puffing during cabalettas "Di tale amor" and "Vivrà! contende il giubilio" but those small demerits paled next to the general excitement and beauty of her portrayal. This role is very simpatico to her current voice. The role doesn't offer much in the way of acting opportunities but Anna's naturally extroverted, bubbly personality gave the love triangle credibility.

Dolora Zajick (Azucena) can probably sing this role in her sleep and in her entrance scena when she forgot several bars of music I did wonder if she was coasting on her still impressive instrument. True, her Azucena doesn't bother to do much besides sit in the center of McVicar's rotating set and let her voice rip. Zajick has a classic mezzo donut hole -- her high notes are still powerful (including the high Bb that ends the opera), her lower notes are enormous. The middle of the voice has lost a lot of color and also horsepower -- it occasionally sounded curdled and (yes) inaudible by Zajick standards. But this would still have been an impressive portrayal whether she was 33 or 63 (Zajick's actual age).

I'm saving the worst for last. Yonghun Lee (Manrico) has a lot of superficial attributes that would make him seem like a good Manrico. His voice is large enough to cut through the orchestra. He has an okayish top. He's good looking. But he's what I call a 9-5 tenor in that he gets the job done but without much in terms of musicality, phrasing, diction, vowel articulation, acting or vocal beauty.

His lack of musicality was the most dismaying. His performance reminded me of Franco Corelli at his laziest but without Corelli's heaven-sent voice. He chugged along a totally ho-hum "Ah! si ben mio" and then of course cut "Di quella pira" down to one verse, let the chorus sing the repeated "Alarmi's" and dropped out completely before capping the act off with a bawled high C that started off with enough ping but went south both in pitch and steadiness as he insisted on holding the note over the orchestra's final bars. As I said, if you want to do this kind of musical hot-dogging, you really, really need to be Franco Corelli.

Stefan Kocan's Ferrando showed off what seems to be a perma-wobble but with an oddly intriguing timbre. Conductor Marco Armiliato indulged all his singers to a fault, allowing Anna in particular to luxuriate in the sound of her own voice all night.

But despite these quibbles this was undoubtedly an exciting night at the opera. The performance has a snap and crackle that matched Verdi's blood-and-thunder music. The ovations for Hvorostovsky are the reasons one goes to the opera -- to experience the love and affection between audience and singer, and the way an audience can sometimes propel singers into greatness with their energy. Viva Verdi and Viva Dima!

ETA: A youtube clip has surfaced of the curtain calls. Enjoy!

Photo by Ken Howard
The Saturday afternoon premiere of Anna Bolena kicked off Sondra Radvanovsky's Three Queens season. Peter Gelb is an unabashed fan of primo ottocento operas and has made them a priority in his season programming. But this afternoon's performance proved that the Met still has a ways to go if it wants to establish itself as a house with high standards for primo ottocento operas.

For one, Marco Armiliato led a performance that one would think might have been tolerated as a late-in-the-day Dick/Joan Australian tour, but was unacceptable with today's knowledge of bel canto performance practices. Internal cuts and hacked off cabalettas might have saved time but they were musically jarring. Armiliato started off by cutting the entire overture.

In other instances he let singers drop out not for just one or two bars, but an entire sheet of music, so they could bawl an acuti at the end of a number. This was particularly egregious in the Act One concertato finale, when Sondra Radvanovsky simply turned her back on the audience for most of the final portion, and turned around to scream a wiry high D. The charged, exciting duet between Seymour and Anna in Act Two also ended with both Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton (Seymour) dropping out completely for way longer than necessary so they could sing a high C.

For anyone who thinks this is "tradition," listen to Callas and Simionato in this duet. Neither singer drops out the way Radvanovsky and Barton did:

These extended drop-outs just to bawl acuti reveal an acute ignorance of the structure of primo ottocento music. The point of cabalettas is for accelerated, exciting singing. The singers, the orchestra, all are supposed to be eight cylinders roaring as the music reaches a climax. By allowing these drop-outs the architecture of the music is lost. Cabalettas simply become throwaway moments where singers can drop out to interpolate a high note.

Sondra Radvanovsky is one of the most frustrating, uneven singers I've ever encountered. She can often go from shrill and squally to exciting and impressive and then back to shrill and squally within a matter of seconds. For instance she can often sing a note and it will start out with laser focus and a trumpet-like ring, but before the note is over it's turned into a sour squeak. Her Anna Bolena was no exception -- it combined some very lovely moments (a surprisingly tranquil, tastefully decorated "Al dolce guidami") with some exciting moments (A "Coppia iniqua" that despite some quirky ornaments was genuinely thrilling and capped off with a strong Eb) with a whole lot of screaming.

Her Anna Bolena has been given a new set of costumes (slightly less dour than the 2011 originals) and the final scene has been restaged by David McVicar. Anna is now in a white gown and her trademark long hair is cut, lock by lock, as she awaits her execution. The blocking is now more like a traditional Mad Scene. I actually didn't like it -- one of the things I loved about Donizetti's writing for Anna was how much of the real-life Anne Boleyn he incorporated into the music. Her fiery temperament, her defiance in the face of death, those things are all vividly apparent in Donizetti's score. By having Anna twitter around like a blank-eyed Lucia McVicar made her more of a conventional heroine.

Jamie Barton (Seymour) has a bright, fresh, well-produced mezzo voice with a delightfully open and friendly stage persona. The role seems to lie a bit high for her -- she often seemed to be singing at the upper ceiling of her voice. But this is a voice with loads of promise.

The rest of the cast was almost identical to the 2011 premiere. Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry) was blandly inoffensive -- not really menacing at all. He nonetheless got some lusty audience boos because you know, Henry's the bad guy. Stephen Costello (Percy) continued to struggle with a role that lies too high for him in a house that's too big for his slender tenor voice. When pushed his voice tends to become a desperate bray. "Vivi tu" went okay but his habit of conking out on cabalettas continued as even with one verse cut he struggled and ended the aria with another huge drop-out, but not even an attempt at an acuti. Tamara Mumford (Smeaton) has an intriguingly plummy mezzo voice and it's a little weird to see that 4 years later she's still singing these smaller roles at the Met.

Radvanovsky received a warm ovation but the audience energy was noticeably lower than at last night's Il Trovatore. Anna Bolena is a great opera, but the current Met cast is not the best advocate for this masterpiece.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Almost everyone knows how Go Set a Watchman got published -- Lee is now infirm and rumored to no longer be of sound mind. Her lawyer "discovered" this lost manuscript. In fact Watchman was a first draft of the novel that was sent to editor Tay Hohoff in 1957. Hohoff rejected the manuscript and suggested many changes and eventually all those changes and rewrites became To Kill a MockingbirdWatchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. It is not an alternate version. It's a first draft, and one can argue about the ethics about publishing it altogether -- would Beethoven have wanted his initial scribblings of his symphonies published and played by orchestras?

The revelation that Harper Lee's "long-lost" novel Go Set A Watchman gave the sainted Atticus Finch a "dark side" made the front pages of the New York Times for days and caused the predictable teeth-gnashing that one of the most beloved literary characters's reputation is somehow ... tarnished? Atticus in this book is not the same Atticus who defended an innocent black man and urged his children to be kind and unprejudiced. He's an infirm man who is vehemently against the NAACP and is outraged at the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. He's even joined the "Maycomb Citizens' Council," a club that's dedicated to preserving, well, the Southern way of life.

I sat and read Go Set a Watchman and if there's any literary character assassination, it's not really Atticus. Atticus in Watchman is so distantly drawn, so opaque of a figure, that one can easily just forget about him as soon as the book is over. The real disappointment, one that's harder to shake, is that the "Jean Louise Finch" of Watchman is NOTHING like "Scout Finch" of To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird's Scout was a precocious, intelligent child. Watchman's Jean Louise Finch plays like a clichéd heroine from a young adult novel, and an annoying one at that.

When one reads Watchman the first thing that jumps out on the page is how thinly sketched every character is compared to the richly drawn Southern gothic counterparts in Mockingbird. "Jean Louise Finch" is a whiny, over-dramatic twenty-something year old and most of her storyline is dominated by a romance with Henry Clinton, a lawyer in Atticus's firm. She's 26, lives in New York, comes back home to Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers to her shock that Atticus is not perfect, Henry is prejudiced as well, Calpurnia no longer really recognizes her and Aunt Alexandra is still very, very annoying. The end. Oh, Jem is dead.

Remember how Scout was a tomboy, who was also really smart and capable? Well here's Jean-Louise: "Although she was a respectable driver, she hated to operate anything mechanical more complicated than a safety pin: folding lawn chairs were a source of profound irritation to her; she had never learned to ride a bicycle or use a typewriter; she fished with a pole."

To get a flavor of the of the love interest in this novel, here's an excruciating passage with Henry:
"I don't even love you like that anymore. I've hurt you but there it is." Yes, it was she talking, with her customary aplomb, breaking his heart in a drugstore. Well, he'd broken hers.
Henry's face became blank, reddened, and its scar leaped into prominence. "Jean Louise, you can't mean what you're saying."
"I mean every word of it."
Hurts, doesn't it? You're damn right it hurts. You know how it feels, now.
Jean-Louise is outraged that her father and Henry have joined the Maycomb Citizens' Council but in the climax of the book she has an argument with Atticus which reveals that she's as bigoted as Atticus, if not worse. She also says that she was "furious" about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision because "they" were "tellin' us what to do again." She also agrees that the "Negro" population is "backward" and "unable to share the fully in the responsibilities of citizenship." In fact, her only defense of Brown is "Atticus, if you believe all that, then why don't you do right? I mean this, no matter how hateful the Court was, there had to be a beginning."

The protracted argument with Atticus stems not from any disagreement with Atticus over the basic philosophy behind segregation but from Jean-Louise's fury that Atticus had brought her up believing all the things about fairness and colorblindness and now he's backtracking. In other words, like many of the millenials of today who post 100 selfies a day with hasthags like #lookingood and #nomakeup, it's all about me. But let's examine some of Lee's "wonderful" prose here:
"Atticus, I'm throwing it at you and I'm gonna grind it in: you better go warn your younger friends that if they want to preserve Our Way of Life, it begins at home. It doesn't begin with the schools or the churches or anyplace at home. Tell 'em that, and use your blind, immoral, misguided, n___r-lovin' daughter as your example. Go in front of me with a bell and say, 'Unclean!' ... Point me out as your mistake. Point me out: Jean Louise Finch, who was exposed to all kinds of guff from the white trash she went to school with, but she might never have gone to school for all the influence it had on her. Everything that was Gospel to her she got at home from her father. You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it's coming home to you --" 
This is awful writing. But it only gets worse: after the blow-up with Atticus Jean Louise talks to her uncle "Dr. Finch" who tells her: "You're color blind. You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see are between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people." Jean-Louise's response to that might the one (unintentionally) hilarious moment in this novel: "But Uncle Jack, I don't especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something." If this is Lee's version of racial enlightenment ...

There's not a single character in Watchman that one wants to "follow" to the next page. Part of a writers' job is writing about characters that the reader cares about. Not good characters, not moral characters, not racially enlightened characters, but characters that attract interest and attention. Watchman is entirely devoid of any such characters, and thus any interest. You read it for the novelty factor and that's it. All the headlines about Atticus not supporting Brown vs. Board of Education when read in the context of the novel seem like a cheap hook by Lee to get the book published because of the timeliness of the current events in 1957.

There are a couple things in Watchman that remind me of Mockingbird, but unfortunately they don't speak very well of Lee as a writer. You remember how in Mockingbird Harper Lee had this habit of introducing every character with a long expository history, instead of simply letting the character come alive by himself on the page? That habit is here in Watchman, except there's no colorful lines to make those expository character introductions more interesting. You remember how sometimes huge confrontations in Mockingbird were tidied up with a neat homily, like "You never really understand a person until you see things from his point of view"? Well, you see traces of that in Watchman. But without confrontations that hold any meaning, those neat homilies become even more irritating.

It's interesting, then, to see that among all this trash, Hohoff rescued parts of Watchman that turned into Mockingbird. The "Tom Robinson" storyline in Mockingbird is drawn from a one paragraph description in Watchman about how Atticus once defended an unnamed black teen in a statutory rape case and won. In Watchman the story is told in such an impersonal, brief way that blink and you might miss it. The character of "Dill" is also taken from a brief passage about Scout's school days. "Aunt Alexandra" in Watchman is an insufferable and bigoted, but somehow Hohoff managed to make Lee rewrite her into a woman with a similar character, but enough pathos that she becomes a recognizable figure in the Southern gothic genre: the proud, lonely belle. Jean Louise's close relationship with Calpurnia as a child is also present in Watchman, except in a far more mundane storyline: Calpurnia talked Jean-Louise out of a phantom pregnancy scare.

Other things one just has to assume were created by Lee mining her imagination. Who knows where the Boo Radley story came from? It's not anywhere in Watchman. It became the heart of Mockingbird. Why is the relationship between Jem and Jean-Louise remembered as so cold and distant in Watchman, when it was warm and close in Mockingbird? How about Tom and Mayella Ewell? Sheriff Tate? These richly drawn characters are again missing in Mockingbird.

I think most people who read To Kill a Mockingbird assumed that Scout was really Harper Lee, and Harper Lee was Scout. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and Lee worked many elements of her childhood and upbringing into the novel. Scout Finch's sharp observations, her love for her family and community, her integrity and moral compass -- I think most readers assumed that these were really the qualities of Harper Lee. The fact that Lee has led a reclusive life since the book's publication in 1960 has only added to the mystique. Harper Lee never crashed and burned the way her childhood friend Truman Capote (Dill in Mockingbird) did. It's like she wrote the book, and closed the curtain on her life permanently.

Watchman is so poorly written, so devoid of anything that might even suggest the embryonic stages of a literary classic, that I started to wonder if that old rumor that Truman Capote had a heavy invisible hand in the writing of Mockingbird was correct. What's more, it made me think, is this "Jean-Louise" Finch really Harper Lee? If these were her first thoughts about herself, then either she didn't give herself enough credit or Lee later created a Scout Finch that was less true to life but more appealing to readers.

But all these debates about the ethics of publishing Watchman, who really were the invisible hands that shaped Mockingbird, how much of Harper Lee was put into both novels, is really a moot point at the end of the day. The fact is To Kill a Mockingbird is not a perfect book, but it's a book worth reading because it's well-written, interesting, and imaginative. In other words, a classic. Go Set a Watchman is none of those things.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Still Loyal to the Royal

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, photo by Andrea Mohin

It used to be that the Royal Ballet's tours to the U.S. were guaranteed sell-outs and their stars had rabid followings across the pond. Margot! Rudi! Sibley and Dowell! Lynn Seymour! Their versions of the "classics" were considered superior to any American company's. This was true even 10 years ago -- I remember the last time the Royal Ballet toured NYC it played at the Metropolitan to packed houses. They presented a wonderful tribute to Ashton ballets, and several ballerinas on their roster were internationally acclaimed dancers (Alina Cojocaru, Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo). I remember seeing, among others, Syvlie Guillem in Marguerite and Armand, and absolutely beautiful The Two Pigeons by the Birmingham National Ballet, and Symphonic Variations.

Ten years later and they make their return trop to New York and it's astonishing how much the company has changed. Cojocaru, Guillem, and Rojo all left but dance elsewhere. Darcey Bussell retired. Their newest imported star is Natalia Osipova. And the company itself seems to be going through a transition period in terms of both personnel and repertoire choices. The mixed bill they are presenting this weekend has works by Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett, and an eclectic collection of divertissements. Shows were heavily discounted at the usual suspects -- TDF, Goldstar. But still, there seems to be a loyal contingent of balletomanes who were enthusiastic about this return trip.

I caught two performances of their first program -- a double bill of Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream and Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth. The Dream is actually well known to NY balletomanes -- ABT does an excellent version of it. Still, it's good to see the Royal's take on this beloved ballet. First cast (6/24) was what you'd might expect from the Royal Ballet -- a very pleasing, professional performance that nevertheless was slightly constipated. Sarah Lamb (Titania) is a beautiful dancer with amazing balances -- in the grand pas de deux with Oberon she was able to hold so many balances in those tricky "mirroring" positions. Her back was supple enough for the final pose (laid over Oberon's lap, in total submission) to be a thing of beauty. But Titania is not just a lovely fairy. Shakespeare writes her as a HBIC type and Lamb didn't exude much imperiousness, or much of anything, actually. Steven McRae is a very elegant Oberon with a very flexible arabesque. In fact, I was a little surprised to see him pushing his leg almost to 180 degrees in arabesque. McRae's chaine turns in his scherzo were very fast and impressive, and as I said, so was his arabesque penchée, but his characterization was only slightly more outgoing than Lamb's. Neither of them really project much beyond a kind of generalized elegance.

James Hay (Puck) was quite different from Herman Cornejo, who has virtually owned this role at the ABT. Hay is like Cornejo tiny and elfin. But whereas Cornejo explodes into the air with gravity-defying body rotations, Hay is more like a butterfly, graceful and fleet. Both are excellent at the cabrioles and flying leaps. Cornejo is more dynamic, Hay probably more idiomatic. Bottom (Bennet Gardside) was an audience favorite. His variation on pointe in the donkey suit drew laughs.

Osipova and Golding, photo by Bill Cooper

The second cast I saw (6//26) was rougher, more uneven, but also more interesting. Natalia Osipova (almost unrecognizable in a blond wig) is not a natural for Titania -- she's no longer the wunderkind who burst onto the scene as SuperKitri, but her dancing still has a sharpness to it that doesn't quite fit Ashton's choreography. Personality-wise though, she's more interesting than Lamb -- there is a spunk and imperiousness to Osipova's Titania. And her style of dancing suggests a forest wildling creature -- she sometimes launches into a fast pirouette almost as an afterthought. Matthew Golding is a large, broad-shouldered, somewhat stern looking dancer. His natural face tends towards a scowl. He's not as elfin as McRae, not as polished, but his dancing is more dynamic -- faster spins, bigger movements. When he completed those multiple pirouettes he drew attention to the feat. It's a tradeoff.

But they are better alone than together -- Golding and Osipova's partnering had some awkward moments in their reconciliation pas de deux -- she's a bit too petite to match him in those mirroring poses, and they were still dancing as if it were a competition of wills. It did make for a more interesting dynamic than Lamb and McRae however. You sensed that Oberon and Titania's next quarrel is not far off. Valentino Zucchetti (Puck) was not to my taste -- he was a letdown after seeing Hay in the same role (not to mention Cornejo). He doesn't have much elevation and mugged way too much, but Jonathan Howells (Bottom) was even more skilled in pointework than Bennet Gardside.

I can't help but compare this version to Balanchine's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Ashton's version is more compact, more focused on the relationship between Titania and Oberon. There is a beautiful pas de deux for Titania and Oberon and some wonderful choreography for Puck (perhaps superior to Balanchine's version where Puck is sort of a story driver but doesn't have that many solo bits). Balanchine's version covers more of Shakespeare's story, and the Athenian lovers are given zany antics that often become the highlight of the show. Ashton's "Athnenian" lovers are somewhat starchy, correct Edwardian ladies and gentlemen.  The four Athenian lovers don't play much of a role in this ballet. In Balanchine's ballet, the lovers' dramatics onstage and offstage are a running theme. They flail, they weep, they fight, they pull each others' hair. Balanchine also makes his fairies Titania and Oberon much more selfish and self-absorbed. Titania's extended pas de deux with Bottom in Balanchine is one of the ballet's peaks -- in Ashton the Bottom/Titania affair is much shorter. In Ashton's version, all's well that ends well. In Balanchine's version, the final tableau is again the darkened forest with butterflies and bugs flying around. Ashton: prettier. Balanchine: funnier.

Song of the Earth was one of Kenneth MacMillan's first successes and it doesn't have the overwrought, indulgent choreography of his later works like Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling or Manon. There's no dancing prostitutes. Instead it's a bare stage, with a male and female singer (Katherine Goeldner, Thomas Randle) on the edges of the stage singing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The NYCB orchestra did a wonderful job with Mahler's challenging orchestration -- one shudders to think how the ABT's pickup orchestra would have murdered this music. A full text of the six songs can be found here. MacMillan's work actually requires absolutely synchronicity in the six males and eight females that weave in and out of the stage. There is a lot of "mirror" dancing, with slow controlled movements that look a bit like Enrico Cecchetti's exercises.

The 6/24 performance had the males in the First Song at times completely out of sync with one another. Their legs were at different heights, they put their free leg down at different points, they pirouetted at different places. But no one was worse in this regard than Carlo Acosta (Messenger of Death). He simply doesn't dance in the same style as the rest of the males, and it showed. He also is not sinister -- he still exudes, at age 40, an eager, warm bravura performer. His ménage of coupé jetés garnered applause for all the wrong reasons. Much the same could be said about the female lead (Marianela Nuñez). She's an excellent dancer with a wonderfully clean style. But she didn't project much at all -- in fact, she looked as if she could be performing classroom exercises. I appreciated the technique, but this isn't the right role for her. Nehemiah Kish made up the third member of the trio. To be honest I didn't get much from this performance. I thought the ballet was overlong and a bit repetitive with the endless scenes of death and rebirth.

Photo by Dave Morgan: Hirano, Cuthbertson, and Watson

Well the 6/26 performance made the ballet make sense. The trio of Edward Watson (Messenger of Death), Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryochi Hirano was much more expressive -- they really made the choreography sing. Watson in particular was a sinuous and creepy creation -- he made the Messenger of Death a sinister force every time he was onstage. When he put his hands over another dancer's face (a recurring theme in this ballet) you really felt the Death Force. He was also wonderful at mirroring other dancers' poses and body languages, almost like a ghost. Cuthbertson cuts a more singular, lonely figure than the sunny Nuñez -- especially in the last song her lightning fast pas de bourrees felt like desperate attempts to escape. Hirano's figure isn't defined at all in the ballet, but when the three of them danced together, and joined hands and walked downstage towards the light at the ballet's conclusion, the song's "circle of life" theme somehow made sense. In addition to this wonderful trio Yuhui Chloe was lovely both nights as the "sunny" girl.

This is a very dense song cycle, to difficult (read: not obviously balletic) music, but it grows on you, and the ballet does as well. The music's vaguely Eastern sound is reflected in the Oriental-inflected positions MacMillan choreographs -- I like his use of flexed feet, rippling arms, and tilted heads. The ballet has lighter moments. The Fourth Song has some lovely couples choreography that is NOT like the "sack of potatoes" lifts that MacMillan would later become so fond of -- instead the women are gently rocked back and forth to a lilting melody. The Fifth Song is an ode to drunken rollicking. It's interesting to see how different MacMillan's later warhorses are compared to Song of the Earth, and one wonders what might have happened had MacMillan not choreographed Romeo and Juliet.

At the end of both evenings applause was enthusiastic and there wasn't the mass exodus to the exit signs. Yes, it seems that after all these years, New York is still Loyal to the Royal.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Romeo and JULIET

Photo by Nigel Norrington
Evgenia Obraztsova was only 19 when she performed her first Romeo and Juliet at the Mariinsky. She was an instant sensation. It's not hard to see why. She looks like the Juliet of your dreams -- the huge saucer eyes, the radiant smile, the flowing Renaissance locks. For several years she seemed to be on a path to becoming a Mariinsky prima ballerina -- she was given roles in reconstructions of Ondine, The Awakening of Flora, and Shurale. I saw her in Little Humpbacked Horse and Symphony in C when the Mariinsky toured the U.S. about four years ago. She was adorable.

But then ... the roles stopped. Why this happened, no one knows. In 2013 she finally left the Mariinsky for good and became principal at the Bolshoi Ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet doesn't currently have a Romeo and Juliet in its repertoire so chances to see Obraztsova in her signature role are big events indeed.

Obraztsova almost singlehandedly lifted this tired, gazillionth revival of Romeo and Juliet into something special. Technically, she's stunning. Her backwards pas de bourreés were so fast and silky smooth, she made this routine move into a "wow" moment. It was like she was a pebble skimming water. Her arabesque is also beautiful -- she's a tiny, petite dancer but she's able to project into the audience not only with her face but with the stretch of her legs. I'm reminded of Alexandra Danilova reminding her students that in arabesque, the audience must see the movement upwards. Obraztsova always showed you the arc of the shape she was creating. Her jump has the bounce and spring of a young, coltish teenager. I could go on and on about her gorgeous feet, her pliant back, her rippling arms, and what not, but let's just call it a great performance.

Obraztsova's characterization of Juliet is definitely in the "lady-like" Ulanova/Fonteyn/Bessmertnova tradition (as opposed to the more veristic, passionate Seymour/Ferri/Vishneva/Osipova strain). But she's not for a moment disengaged. In fact, her Juliet has some interesting touches that I had never seen done before. In the Tomb Scene many Juliets will pick up the dagger, stare at it, contemplate, and then stab. Obraztsova runs around the tomb, stumbles over the dagger, and quickly stabs herself. It's a reminder that Juliet is still an impulsive teeenager.  Obraztsova is also one of the few Juliets I've seen in recent memory to follow the stage directions and sit absolutely still on her bed as she's contemplating her fate. So many Juliets feel the urge to devise a little mad scene. Not Obraztsova -- she let the music do the acting for her. Obraztsova unlike many Juliets doesn't overtly fight against Paris when her parents announce their engagement. Instead, she ducks and skims away with her pas de bourreés, with such speed that all of a sudden she looks like an unattainable sylph.

Photo by Kent G. Becker

Obraztsova's Romeo was Herman Cornejo. Cornejo's been plagued by injuries over the years and there are sometimes signs of it -- his jumps are still powerful, but he's lost flexibility in his legs and back. One notices that he can no longer really stretch during his arabesques, and that his split leaps don't have much of a split anymore. His overhead lifts are impressive for a guy his size but again, he's been better. There wasn't that much chemistry between him and Obraztsova and they are obviously dancers from very different schools and training, but both are musical and conscientious enough as dancers to make MacMillan's somewhat overwrought choreography work.

Danil Simkin (Mercutio) and Joseph Gorak (Benvolio) completed the trio of Montague males. They are all short and slight, and looked very harmonious standing as a threesome. But they're all actually very different dancers. Simkin's Mercutio was full of bravura tricks. His solos were full of interpolated moves calculated to generate applause. His death scene reminded me of Sylvia Plath's line "Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well." Wow he milked that death for all it was worth. Gorak is all about elegant lines. I look forward to seeing his Romeo eventually. In fact, I commented to a friend that Gorak's Romeo might look great with Obraztsova's Juliet.

The revival was otherwise a tired affair. The orchestra was slow, ponderous and horribly out of tune. The corps, so drilled and together during the Ratmansky Sleeping Beauty, looked tired and out of it tonight. In the Act One sword fighting scene many of them did not even bother looking at the person they were supposedly fighting, they just absentmindedly flicked their wrists and made some motions with their plastic swords. One of Juliet's friends took a tumble. Devon Teuscher (Lady Capulet) thankfully did not make Mercutio's death scene an over the top flailing extravaganza.

But really, the night belonged to Obraztsova, who had throng of admirers waiting for her at the stage door and was practically mobbed when she exited. She's even more beautiful in person. ABT often relies on guest artists to fill gaps in scheduling that quite often comes across as lazy -- it's as if they simply have neither the time nor the care to coach one of their own dancers in a role. Nevertheless Obraztsova is the kind of guest artist worth having -- she's been in NY rehearsing for over two weeks, and she was a star, but did not dance like this was a star turn. I hope she returns soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 3

Diana Vishneva, photo by Gene Schiavone
I caught the final Sleeping Beauty in ABT's highly successful run. Alexei Ratmansky's new-old Sleeping Beauty has no doubt been the box office hit of the season -- today's performance was completely sold out (I stood). And I'm glad, because this performance was (overall) the best performance of the run. Saving the best for last, if you will.

A large credit must go to Diana Vishneva, a veteran dancer whose Aurora I caught way back when in 2007 in Gelsey Kirkland's hideous production. I remember Vishneva being unimpressive in that production. She pulled out of later performances of that run. Vishneva has a reputation in the ballet world of being stubborn and at times intractable. Ratmansky however seems to have earned her respect. In an Instagram post today she had this to say about the production:

About working on the Sleeping Beauty by Alexey Ratmansky: This performance is based on the notes by Stepanov, the ones that Sergey Vikharev had used. Alexey decoded and thoroughly studied those notes. The corpo, the movements of hands and head were not there, so of course, the performance contains as well what Ratmansky created himself. It was a hard, a painful even, working process: how to bring those notes to life, to keep the stylistic accordance with the time of their creation whilst giving them the spirit of today where the cleanness of dance increased enormously. Finding the right balance was not easy.
But all that hard work with Ratmansky apparently paid off, because Vishneva's Aurora tonight (and she's near 40) was technically and dramatically stronger than she was almost 8 years earlier. Vishneva as a dancer has changed with age -- extensions no longer come as easily, and her once buoyant jump is now subdued. But Ratmansky's production flatters the older, more mature Vishneva -- "no underwear for the Czar" means that developpés have to be kept low, big flying grande jetés and flashy high attitudes and arabesques are banned. This seems to have freed Vishneva to concentrate on showing off what she can still do. For one, her Rose Adagio balances were rock solid, and she knows that trick of making each successive balance longer. Vishneva broke one of Ratmansky's dictums in the Rose Adagio. Unlike Gillian Murphy or Sarah Lane, she didn't follow the instructions to lean the torso forward, Marie Taglioni style. She kept her torso ramrod straight. But in doing so, her balances were more secure. By the final promenade, the audience was already clapping.

Other strengths of Diana's performance probably stem from her training. She has the pliant spine that's the trademark of Russian schooling. Diana's flexible back allowed her to do a long-held unsupported cambré in the Wedding pas de deux. Her partnership with Marcelo Gomes is always a thing of beauty. Their vision scene pas de deux was tender and sweet, their Wedding pas de deux grand and sweeping. The fishdives were amazing. Each successive one was snappier, faster, and higher. Marcelo and Diana, by the way, came dangerously close to breaking the "no overhead lift" rule.

This role doesn't give Vishneva much room to act (unlike Giselle or Juliet) but dramatically she was still winning -- she has a natural stage face, and her big eyes and smile give the illusion of a youthful freshness.  The only self-serving note was her habit of coming forward to the apron for extended bows after every variation. Vishneva was simply a class above Sarah Lane and Gillian Murphy.

Photo by Gene Schiavone
Marcelo Gomes is not a natural for Prince Desire. That petit batterie in his variation was an explosive tour de force for Herman Cornejo but looked effortful with Gomes. But he was much better tonight than opening night, and seems to have figured out to take the variation at a slower pace rather than forcing himself to attain a speed and elevation that he doesn't have. His partnering however was impeccable. To watch his arms wrap around Vishneva's waist during those fish dives was to see a master class of strength and coordination.

Other aspects of the production have been tinkered with since opening night. The most welcome -- the overhead lift and ear cupping gestures are back in the Bluebird/Florine duet. Yay! (I still miss the flying gesture.) Danil Simkin was if anything even smoother tonight, and managed to complete his brisé volés without even bending his knees. Cassandra Trenary has learned to project and express more as Florine -- opening night she was fresh and pretty, but not much more than that. Tonight she was adorable, and in the final diagonal she flew along with Simkin with (unusual for ABT women) real elevation. I only saw two Bluebird/Florine casts, but Simkin and Trenary were by far better than Copeland/Shayer.

Some unwelcome changes -- opening night the Garland Dance was marked by low, swinging flowers wreaths. ABT corps now swing the wreaths up and down much more dramatically, but in a kind of jerky motion that goes against the grain of Tchaikovsky's gentle, lilting waltz. The waltz, by the way, is one of those dances that looks better from the orchestra. Tonight from the Dress Circle I could see more of the sloppiness in the formations, and also, as I said, the way the dancers jerked the wreaths up and down. Also, it seems as if Ratmansky's stage directions for Carabosse work better on a male dancer -- Nancy Raffa was actually excellent in articulating the mime, but her smaller, thinner frame didn't make as much of an impact with Ratmansky's very broad, over the top directions. Craig Salstein was much more entertaining.

Nancy Raffa, photo by Gene Schiavone
Veronika Part danced the Lilac Fairy and she was disappointing. She danced the "Marie Petipa" variation instead of the more difficult variation Devon Teuscher and Stella Abrera danced. The Marie Petipa variation is really nothing -- a bunch of attitudes while miming the "cradling" motion. But even with this simplified variation, Part made some puzzling choices. For one, she kept hunching her shoulders forward in a very deliberate, awkward manner. One of the specialties about Part is her broad, regal arms shoulders. Why she'd choose to complete the whole variation so hunched over is a mystery. Of the Lilac Fairies I saw Stella Abrera was by far the best. She performed the more difficult variation without problems, and exuded grace and charm. Teuscher and Part were equally problematic in their own ways.

The prologue fairies (other than Part) were wonderful tonight. Stella Abrera made the Temperament Fairy's arm motions look more natural than anyone else I've seen in the role. Sarah Lane, freed from the pressure of carrying an entire performance, was smooth and charming in the Breadcrumb variation. Skylar Brandt continued to amaze in the Canary variation. Luciana Paris (Wheat) also continued her good work that she's done throughout the run. I do wish the fairies were more matched in height -- Devon Teuscher (Sincerity) towered over Sarah Lane, and the moment when the fairies linked arms in a circle didn't look as together as it could have with more physically similar fairies. But hey, you can't have everything. It's especially puzzling since in the three casts I've seen they've been able to match the Jewel Fairies well in terms of height and physique. Christine Shevchenko was a sparkling, witty Diamond Fairy tonight.

Overall, Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty has been an artistic and commercial success for ABT. He's given many corps de ballet members chances to shine -- for instance, some questioned his inclusion of the Cinderella/Prince variation but the other night I saw Courtney Lavine as a really lovely Cinderella and tonight I saw an equally lovely Gemma Bond. His strict rules on overhead lifts, extensions, variations on demi-pointe instead of pointe, and jumps may not be to everyone's taste, but they suit ABT as a whole. One of the things about ABT is how the crowd-pleasing "star" turns often clash with their army of subdued, low-key soloists and corps members. By forcing everyone, from the "stars" to the corps to drop the legs, round the arms, soften the shoulders, and lower the jumps, he's made this often cruelly hierarchical organization more of an even playing field. Ironic that the ballet that finally made ABT more democratic is an ode to the glories of monarchy.

For those who are curious, here is how Vishneva danced the Rose Adagio over 15 years ago. She was much much stronger tonight. Stronger balances, more classical line, she was just better.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 2

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Last night I saw a second cast of Alexei Ratmansky's much-talked about Sleeping Beauty. And again, I was amazed at how Ratmansky demanded (and got) all the ABT dancers to drop their usual dancing instincts and to dance his way. Again, you noticed the lower free leg in passé, the chaine and pique turns in demi-pointe, the very specific, rounded, modest épaulement, the low extensions in developpé, attitude, and arabesque, and the lack of overhead lifts. The mime was all there, meticulously articulated by Carabosse (Nancy Raffa), the King and Queen (Victor Barbee and Kate Lydon), and Catalbutte (Alexei Agoudine). All this could never have happened without much rehearsal time, coaching, and a strong artistic vision. And for that, I thank Ratmansky.

With that being said, the cast I saw last night of Sleeping Beauty also highlighted the painful fact that even when ABT dances like a company, they often don't dance like a very strong company. Many of the women have little to no jump -- even with the ban on flying grande jetés, one notices how little elevation and ballon the women have. The Garland Dance also showed the ABT corps' weaknesses -- they struggle with crisp formations. Snappy entrances and exits become traffic jams, and the whole thing just looked messy.

Sleeping Beauty demands excellence not only from its leads, but from the many variations. The Fairy Variations in the Prologue have long been a source of joy for balletomanes. The Fairy Variations last night were frankly sloppy and indifferently danced. Yes, the dancers followed all of Ratmansky's rules, but each fairy also chugged through her variation without much joy or sparkle. Cassandra Trenary (Canary) was maybe the best of the fairies but that's not saying a lot. Most disappointing was the Lilac Fairy of Devon Teuscher, a dancer I've admired in previous performances for her strength. Teuscher's Lilac Fairy variation last night was a mess. She struggled with the pirouettes in arabesque so much that one wonders why they didn't use another notated variation that apparently Veronika Part has been dancing in her performances. She also completely stopped dancing during the Fairy coda. Teuscher's acting choices were also strange. She made the Lilac Fairy rather imperious and aloof, without any of the graciousness usually associated with the role.

Devon Teuscher, photo by Kent Becker

Sarah Lane was the Aurora. Lane on the surface has the potential to be a perfect Aurora. She's small, petite, and when she burst onto the stage in her pas de chats she looked like she was going to be very special. And in a way, she executed the choreography better than the other Aurora I saw (Gillian Murphy). For one, Murphy struggled executing the menages of chaine and pique turns in demi-pointe. I think this might be a shoe issue -- Murphy wears Gaynor Mindens, which are extremely hard in the shank. Lane however executed those steps with a delightful ease and crispness. The choreography looked more natural on her.

However Lane suffers from something I'm going to call "Peasant-Pdd-itis." I'm referring to the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, which is often given to mid-tier soloists in ballet companies. Lane's been stuck in this mid-tier soloist level at ABT for so many years -- in 2008 she made her debut as Aurora, but since then her chances at lead roles have been miniscule. And she's danced lots and lots of peasant pas de deuxs. I've noticed that many soloists who are assigned the same variations year after year are often very technically proficient, very lovely, very tasteful. However, they don't project much beyond proficiency and generalized charm to the audience, because they've never been given the opportunity to be anything but, well, proficient and charming in the Peasant Pas de Deux and similar parts. (This can happen in companies that don't even dance Giselle. For instance, at the NYCB there's quite a few soloists who have the same issue.)

Lane's Rose Adagio was actually technically fine -- a few shaky moments, but almost every dancer has them. What she didn't know how to do was give the illusion of really nailing her balances. More experienced Auroras will often make the first balance very short, and make each consecutive one longer. Or in the final promenades, really hold the last balance before snapping their arms out in triumph (to huge applause). She tripped over the Queen's train in the exact moment when Aurora is supposed to collapse -- a nice coincidence. In other moments, Lane showed her technical proficiency, but again, a more experienced dancer will know how to milk the spotlight. In the Vision Scene Aurora balances on a shell. Facebook pictures reveal that the shell has a foot support so the Aurora can look like she's balancing forever. But Lane sort of stepped on the shell and stepped off. She has all the necessary skills in her arsenal to be a great Aurora except for one: how to sell her own performance. She's dancing Aurora with the same brisk charm she'd dance the Peasant Pas de Deux. But Aurora is a princess.

Herman Cornejo's part is much smaller, but in him you see the experience of someone who is able to project beyond the footlights. The devilish batterie of the Act 3 variation suited Herman -- whereas Marcelo Gomes came to grief with all those small beats, entrechats, and double tours, Herman sailed through it. What's more, he knew how to sell it. Before the double tours he'd stop for a brief second, and then explode into the air. During the entrechats he traveled almost to the apron of the stage before beginning the series. The crowd went wild. Again, these are skills a dancer only acquires when they're allowed to develop beyond the peasant pas de deux. The partnering between Cornejo and Lane was very fine. In the Vision Scene I noticed a lovely moment when Lane rested her head on Price Desire's shoulders. They did not do the fish dives, but it's probably a good thing -- the fish dives really only look good with a very tall cavalier. The final fish dive pose was great, although I wish Ratmansky would allow that vertical lift/drop into fish dive that traditionally ends most Wedding pas de deuxs.

Photo by Kent Becker
Misty Copeland and Gabe Stone Shayer were the Bluebird and Florine. First of all, a few things have been inserted back into this pas de deux: first are the ear cupping motions by Florine (although Florines still seem to be instructed not to really emphasize that motion much), and second of all, the ending overhead lift (although the "flying" gestures are still a no-no). Shayer is still learning in this role -- his form suffered and his elevation is not on a level with say, Danil Simkin. In those split leaps across the stage Shayer kept bending one knee, and his brisé volé's were sluggish and careful. Misty Copeland has been on a whirlwind of publicity (she's published a book, been on 60 Minutes, presented at the Tony Awards), but her dancing, oddly enough, also suffers from Peasant Pas de Deux-itis. There's nothing objectionable about it, but again, she doesn't project. She is one of those ABT women who have not just a weak jump, but no jump or elevation. In the final diagonal theoretically the Bluebird and Florine should sort of fly across the stage together, as the Bird has finally taught Florine how to fly. But Copeland's complete lack of elevation in the petit batterie was a problem.

The Jewel fairies last night were excellent -- Skylar Brandt (Diamond) dancing with the spirit of someone determined not to dance the peasant pas de deux for 10 more years, and Luciana Paris (Silver), Nicole Graniero (Gold), and Gemma Bond (Sapphire) really making their variation sparkle. Courtney Lavine showed beauty and promise in the brief Cinderella solo.

This is a wonderful production by Ratmansky. The dramaturgy, the sets, the artistic choices all show a sound mind and (more importantly), a strong belief in ABT as a company, and not just a collection of stars and soloists. But Ratmansky has also challenged the ABT dancers as never before, and only time will tell if they can live up to these challenges.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Midsummer's Night Dream - Exciting Debuts

A Midsummer's Night Dream has become the traditional way to close the NYCB's spring season. Because the ballet requires so many moving parts (a huge cast of soloists, the entire corps de ballet, plus a large contingent of SAB students) sometimes casting for this ballet can be a bit stale. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Thus, there was a bit of a shockwave when casting for MSND and cast as Titania in the final performance of the season was one Miriam Miller, who is not even a corps de ballet member yet. She's only an apprentice. The final performance of the season suddenly became a hot ticket, as everyone was curious about Miriam Miller.

So ... how was she? The short answer is that she was promising, the long answer is that she was very promising. I say "promising" because she certainly has all the physique du jour for the role -- the long limbs, the blond beauty queen looks, and a natural dignity that make her seem mature beyond her years. Her Titania is not a fully formed portrayal as yet -- but how could one expect it to be? She hasn't figured out how to stretch and unfurl her long limbs for maximum effect, and sometimes it seemed as if she was simply concentrating on the steps and not really listening to the music. She also had some unsteadiness in the pas de deux with her cavalier (Ask La Cour, replacing Russell Janzen). But there were also things she did that suggest that with experience, she could become a very special Titania. In her pas de deux with Bottom (an excellent Cameron Dieck) she was already playing off the audience and Bottom for laughs. She was fawning over Bottom with real tenderness, and it was delightful. She understands that Titania's have to be beautiful, but they also have to be funny.

Fuzzy picture of Miriam Miller and Anthony Huxley
Miller was not alone in making an anticipated debut -- Anthony Huxley was also making his debut as Oberon. Huxley's Oberon was perhaps the cleanest Oberon I've seen in recent memory -- his line is impeccable, he points his toes, his scherzo was not just a crowd-wowing combination of jumps and beats, but a model of restrained classicism. It was just maybe a little too clean. There was no increasing momentum in his various entrances and exits during the Scherzo -- a more experienced Oberon knows how to build excitement. There should also be an element of ridiculousness to Oberon that Huxley didn't quite capture. But you can't argue with the quality of his dancing. Not a surprise to find out that he was promoted to principal today.

Other highlights of the performance: Sterling Hyltin's wonderful Hermia (she's one of those who can really make something special of this role) and Faye Arthurs' sensitive Helena. The two of them were wonderful whether they were dancing their angsty solos or in a hair-pulling fight. Antonio Carmena was a spirited Puck, and Ashley Bouder and Adrian Danchig-Waring brought a wonderful serenity to the the Act Two Divertissement. Bouder isn't a natural in this role, but she's so secure, so solid, even with all the tricky hand positions in the diagonal and the promenades. Danchig-Waring's partnering of her was impeccable.

The performance this Sunday afternoon was overall stronger than last evening's performance. In that performance, the only real highlight was Daniel Ulbricht's incredible Oberon (also a debut). Ulbricht's Oberon was the opposite of Huxley -- Ulbricht doesn't have Huxley's long, clean lines, and his form can be sloppy. But Ulbricht was powerful, explosive, even, much like the original Oberon Edward Villella. He seemed to burst into the air in his jumps, and he had that ability to stay in the air. Every time Ulbricht flew offstage during his scherzo the audience went nuts. His characterization was also much more extroverted. Who's better, Huxley or Ulbricht? Who cares? NYCB now has two great new Oberons. Troy Schumacher was also excellent as Puck.

Otherwise, Teresa Reichlen was at her most cool, remote, and inscrutable as Titania. She gets the beautiful part, but she doesn't quite get the funny part. She needs to take cues from Maria Kowroski (going on maternity leave) on how to better articulate the funnier moments. She was such an ice princess that her Bottom (Harrison Coll) had no choice but to ham it up shamelessly in their pas de deux. But the comic effect of the dance was lost -- Titania is supposed to be fawning over a puzzled Bottom. In this case, Reichlen was barely aware of Bottom, who was lovestruck -- with the audience.

The Athenian lovers were okay, but a little blank -- Brittany Pollack (Helena) nor Ashley Laracey (Hermia) both sort of generic. The men (Russell Janzen as Lysander and Zachary Catazaro) were better. A sour note was struck by Georgina Pazcoguin's Hippolyta. She was also Hippolyta in this Sunday's matinee. Pazcoguin doesn't have the towering build nor long legs traditionally associated with this role, and in both performances her fouettés travelled wildly. Her form was also sloppy.

In the Act Two divertissement Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar were also making their debuts. Ramasar partnered admirably, but Hyltin was slightly miscast in this role. Her natural instincts are for charm, femininity, sweetness. This role is really more about abstract classicism. Hyltin also doesn't have the rock solid technique for this sort of thing -- her hands shook in the promenades.

But last night's MSND had one extra bonus besides Daniel Ulbricht's amazing Oberon. Sitting a few seats ahead of me was the incredible, amazing Elisabeth Moss aka Peggy of Mad Men. She was incredibly gracious as about a zillion people went up to her to gush about Mad Men. I was completely tongue-tied as I told her how great she looked in a not-plaid dress. It's great to meet celebrities whose work you admire and to get a chance to express appreciation of their talents to their face. I even got a selfie with her.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

La Bayadere Brought to Life

Photo by Gene Schiavone
There are certain performances where you go in with low or no expectations. I've sort of come to accept ABT's La Bayadere as a weak-tea version of Petipa's grand ballet. The corps formations in the Kingdom of the Shades are simplified, the variations are often a mess, and sometimes even the biggest stars can't keep the flame alive. I wasn't even planning on attending last evening's performance of La Bayadere. It was a last minute decision.

Well, despite many faults, I ended up liking this performance way more than I expected. Credit goes almost completely to Alina Cojocaru, the tiny, waiflike dancer whom I saw in this role more than 10 years ago. 10 years later, Cojocaru has suffered injury after injury, and you can sometimes tell with her occasionally shaky pirouettes and balances. But it's remarkable how much Cojocaru still has to offer in this role.

Cojocaru is one of the smallest ballerinas on the stage, but she dances big. For one, the plasticity of her upper body is amazing -- actually, it's superior to Vaganova-trained Olga Smirnova, whom I saw last year. In the opening fire dance, she stretched her tiny, delicate limbs and back and her whole body seemed to flicker like a delicate but persistent flame. Her jumps are high, she has incredible ballon, and soft landings. It must take a lot of strength to fly so high in the air and stay there for such a long time, but, unlike, say, Natalia Osipova, Cojocaru's jumps look effortless. What's more, Cojocaru brings to Nikya the same spirit she brings to Giselle -- a kind of inner light and spirituality that make the character's actions and motivations understandable. Her dance with the basket was truly a dance of grief, punctuated by her deep bows to Gamzatti and Solor. Many dancers play the Shades scene in a kind of remote trance -- not Cojocaru. She's ethereal in the way she seems to float through the mist, but when she gently touches Solor and raises her foot on pointe and arms in the air, we know she can forgive. Many Nikyas have probably danced the scarf duet or the Shades pas de deux with more security. I'm not sure many Nikyas have imbued so much heart into the steps.

The evening's Gamzatii, Misty Copeland, is not on Cojocaru's level either technically or dramatically, but their polar opposite approach somehow made the love triangle more understandable. Copeland projects a kind of hauteur that contrasted with Cojocaru's humility. Copeland's very upright, muscular upper body only highlighted Cojocaru's pliant, arching back and rippling arms. Copeland handled with demands of Gamzatti with varying success. Her fight scene with Nikya was exciting and well-acted on the parts of both the ladies. Copeland was also fairly graceful in the last act wedding. But in the grand betrothal pas de deux after completing some okay Italian fouettés she started to tilt to one side and chugged through a few fouettés. She stopped well before the musical cue to end. One thing Misty sorely lacked compared to the rest of the cast was a strong jump. In fact, she can barely jump at all. This was painfully apparent in the Grand Betrothal Scene as Herman soared and Copeland never got off the ground.

Herman Cornejo is another dancer whose career has been beset by injuries. It used to be a sort of running theme of an ABT season -- can Herman make it through without a huge injury? He still has a powerful jump -- his cabrioles in the Grand Betrothal variation and his ménage of double assemblés in the Shades scene both brought the house to loud cheers. What he's lost is flexibility -- yes he can get in the air, he can stay there, but his back and legs all seem rather stiff. It appears he can no longer do a split leap. His characterization of Solor was a bit brutish -- there's a lot of the warrior, maybe not enough of the lover. But still, Cornejo is another one of those dancers (like Cojocaru) who is tiny but dances huge, and who even after repeated injuries has more to offer than many dancers in their prime.

The soloist variations show how frustrating ABT can be -- talented soloists mixed with people who seem like they barely rehearsed. Joseph Gorak dancedthe often clichéd Bronze Idol variation with  rare elegance. The three shades were mixed -- Skylar Brandt was excellent in the first shade variation. Brandt also stood out in the Ratmansky Sleeping Beauty as the most charming of the fairies. Definitely one to watch. Great musicality, sailed across the stage. Stephanie Williams looked like she barely remembered the steps in the second variation. She is another one of those dancers who stops dancing way before the musical cue to stop dancing is over. Cassandra Trenary was not as crisp as Skylar Brandt in the third variation but she wasn't bad either.

The corps de ballet were okay. A few traffic jams in the Grand Betrothal Scene, some wobbly legs in the Shades scene. What the ABT corps always fails to do in the Shades scene is to add any kind of spiritual dimension to the famous sequence of arabesque/tendus down the ramp. Their arms don't go upwards, towards the heavens, the way the Mariinsky corps do. I guess I can't expect the same level of detail from the ABT corps but still, would it not hurt for them to try this pose?

Photo by Gene Schiavone. 
The audience was actually pretty star-studded. Spotted were former ABT greats Alessandra Ferri and Natalia Makarova. Crowd reaction (which can be pretty somnolent for Bayadere) was ecstatic -- Herman and Alina were called twice for curtain calls even after the house lights came one.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ratmansky's New New Old Sleeping Beauty

Photo by Gene Schiavone
I don't exactly understand why this is, but it seems as if ballet companies and choreographers delight in presenting us with their "original" takes on Swan Lake or Nutcracker but when it comes to Sleeping Beauty, they become obsessed with authenticity, original notation, and even recreation of vintage sets and costumes. The ABT (and more specifically Alexei Ratmansky) just debuted yet another "new old" Sleeping Beauty with sets and costumes that are supposedly inspired by Léon Bakst's 1921 Ballet Russes production. And yet again, there are assurances that the choreography is carefully reconstructed from notations.

And when the curtain rose on this Sleeping Beauty I realized that Richard Hudson's sets and costumes were indeed "inspired" by Léon Bakst. That meant heavy, knee-length bell-shaped tutus for the women, primary colors (and color clashes -- Florine's dress is a mix of orange and blue), and of course, huge curly wigs on all and floppy Louis XIV style hats on the extras. What this kind of production often means, however, is dancers dressed in a metric ton of powdered wigs, floppy hats, heavy velvet tutus for the ladies and "modesty trousers" for the men, lots of over the top mime, and little else. So in other words, authentic costumes, restored mime, but Sleeping Beauty like your mother  and grandmother saw it. There are a few videos of the Mariinsky reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty which show that the Auroras donned the heavy knee-length tutus but otherwise danced Sleeping Beauty with the modern style (including the high developpés and attitudes).

Well Ratmansky is a choreographer who, for better or worse, not only demands new choreography from his dancers, but he also demands that the dancers follow his vision and ideals. I saw the NY premiere tonight (the production had made an earlier debut in LA in March) and overall admire the results more than I like them. I'll focus on the positives first. Ratmansky clearly has made more headway than anyone in recent memory of making the ABT dance like an actual company rather than an assorted collection of international guest artists. He's used the entire corps de ballet, plus children from the JKO School, and the group onstage tonight clearly danced like they were guided by a unified vision, similar style and sense of aesthetic. For instance, in the Garland Dance, it was clear that the dancers, from the children to the leading corps, were coached on how to wave the garlands in a sort of low, understated way, without drawing attention to the flowers. You might not agree with that artistic choice, but clearly that choice was made by Ratmansky himself.

The respect and rehearsal time that Ratmansky demands (and gets) from ABT is probably unparalleled in the company's recent history. It shows too. For instance in the Fairy Variations of the first act, the different dancers were clearly coached that their attitudes had to be low, and modest, and their épaulement matched. So Devon Teuscher (Sincerity), Luciana Paris (Wheat), Gemma Bond (Breadcrumbs), Skylar Brandt (Canary) and April Giangeruso (Temperament), dancers of vastly different height, appearance, and probably training all raised their legs to that low attitude, and every angle of their fingers matched.

Ratmansky has also presented more of Tchaikovsky's ballet than the last Sleeping Beauty production which cut the music to shreds. The Vision Act has both the destruction of the knitting needles and the Prince's "journey" around the kingdom during the Panorama. The violin solo is cut but we hear more of the Panorama music and also see more than the Prince simply getting on some sort of sliding contraption with the Lilac Fairy. The Act Three character divertissements are all back (even Cinderella, and a group of boys for the Hop o' My Thumbs trepak which in the old days was often given to the "Three Ivans"), as well as the Jewels. Even with short intermissions and simple drop set changes this is a three hour evening.

Ratmansky has some very firm ideas about how an authentic Sleeping Beauty should be danced, and no one dared contradict and dance "the modern way." For instance, Ratmansky was quoted as saying. "You can't show your underwear to the Czar" and he meant it! The obvious things like low arabesques (below 90 degrees) and even lower attitudes were in place, but less obvious "modesty" styles seem to have been strictly enforced. For instance, the modern training of pulling the working leg up high in passé/retiré pulls the tutu higher. So all the soloists had to pirouette and balance with the working leg just a hair above the ankle. On the one hand, it was a little odd to see, on the other hand, the modern habit of preparing for a pirouette by hiking the leg up high in passé is absent, so pirouettes seem more spontaneous in this Sleeping Beauty revival.

Also in the "underwear to the Tsar" camp are some traditional poses, like the Wedding Act pas de deux movement where Aurora does an extravagant arabesque penchée to kiss the kneeling Prince. In Ratmansky's version there's barely a penchée and the Prince is standing, not kneeling. The pas de deux is more formal, less intimate. Well, it's an artistic choice that you might not like, but it did lend consistency and texture to the production.

Here is as far as Aurora and the Prince get in their pas de deux in the "kissing" move:

Photo by Souheil Michael Khoury
Other artistic choices Ratmansky sat less well with me (and I generally like reconstructions). For one, Ratmansky completely eliminated overhead lifts. Oddly enough the place I missed it the most was not the Wedding Pas de Deux, but the Florine/Bluebird pas de deux. That iconic final lift where Florine goes off "flying" on Bluebird's shoulders is gone. I understand that it might not have been in the Imperial Ballet style for over the shoulder lifts, but that lift between Florine and Bluebird is one of those performance traditions that in my opinion needed to stay. It was the perfect climax for the Florine/Bluebird "story" about a bird teaching a Princess how to fly.

The Mariinsky in their reconstruction DID include the flying lift:

Another issue is that Ratmansky's adherence to the notations was inconsistent. For instance, I doubt it was "notated" for the PussNBoots or Little Red Riding Hood dance to be played so broadly, but they were played for laughs, just as they are in other Sleeping Beauty productions (well, the last ABT production junked them altogether, so ...) But on the other hand, adherence to notation meant that the traditional "acting" poses between Florine and Bluebird are gone. There's no more Florine cupping her ears to "hear" the Bluebird, nor is there any facial expression between the Princess and the Bird. In this case, my hunch is that these gestures and expressions were not notated because they did not need to be -- Petipa would have assumed that the dancers would act out this pas de deux, notation or not. For Aurora and the Prince, adherence to notation was also inconsistent. The fish dives (definitely NOT notated -- they were added for the 1921 Bakst production) were there tonight, but the overhead lift that usually precedes the final fish dive pose was gone.

Ratmansky's biggest artistic choice was to make so much of Aurora's variations on demi-pointe. This choice might be 100% authentic and notated, but it was probably not a choreographic choice as an example of the training and pointe shoes available in Imperial Russia. It was considered "cheating" by Anna Pavlova to make the blocks of her shoes flat and wide so she could balance on them for prolonged periods. Ballerinas over 120 years ago were expected to balance on the strength of their toes alone, and wear softer pointes. However, I suspect that because of their training and musculature, they were used to performing difficult menages of jumps and turns on demi-pointe with the proper speed and crispness. The ballerinas of today are not trained to dance Aurora's entrance of pas de chats and the menage of chainee and pique turns on demi-pointe. Gillian Murphy (tonight's Aurora) in particular wears hard Gaynor Mindens that are designed so the ballerina does not have an easy time on demi-pointe. As a result Aurora's variations in the first act had a sluggish, sleepy feel, and gave exactly the opposite affect of the bubbly, excited 16 year old princess.

Furthermore, I'm not even sure the insistence on demi-pointe is accurate. A contemporary review by Akim Volynsky of one of the most famous of Aurora's, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, said that her feet had almost "no arch" but marveled that "her dancing -- always on pointe -- produces the impression of a smooth flow of forms, with no springy bending of the knees as she moves and no gentle gracefulness and quivering surge on the surface, and it does so via the powerful and solemn play of its vigorous hues. Her double and triple turns create a whirlwind on the stage. In her solo dancing, in her leaps en avant, which are accompanied by the most difficult cabrioles, Kshessinskaya is unmatched. In her par terre dancing, just as in the dancing constructed on the ethereal rhythm of elevation, Kschesinskaya, for all the imperfections of the structures of her legs, must be recognized as a great artist of phenomenal power."

Here's a picture of the original Aurora, Carlotta Brianza. Note how low the working leg is in passé, an effect re-created by Ratmansky.

Here's a picture of tonight's Aurora, Gillian Murphy. Note how different the pointe shoe looks:

Gene Schiavone photo

The results Ratmansky got from his leads were mixed. It was wonderful that he got the corps and the soloists to adhere to his style and vision, but the soloists had a harder time taming their natural tendencies. The dancer who seemed most at home with Ratmansky's rules and regulations was Stella Abrera (Lilac Fairy). The Lilac Fairy in this version has no dancing except for the Prologue. Abrera was able to exude a mysterious benevolent air even while walking around in a huge dress and character shoes. Abrera's a modest, unassuming performer whose gracious manner and elegant épaulement fit the role like a glove. Abrera didn't seem to have to adjust her style to the rigorous aesthetic. She was just tweaking her inherent dancing instincts slightly. She sailed through the Lilac Fairy variation in the Prologue without issue, and the low working leg in pirouettes looked completely natural and organic on her, as did the lower to the ground sissones and grand battements.

The Aurora (Gillian Murphy) was definitely a mixed bag. Her natural instincts are for a straightforward, athletic, spunky interpretation. Ratmansky insisted on her adopting an aura of Imperial elegance and modesty that doesn't quite fit her. Some things looked nice -- the lower developpé and attitudes and rounded arms were aesthetically pleasing under those bell-like knee-length tutus. Some things looked awkward -- Murphy's upright torso was lunged forward in a more old-fashioned, lithographic pose. Some things just flat out did not fit Murphy's technique -- as I said, all those variations on demi-pointe (including the backwards traveling pirouettes and the tour jetés) in hard Gaynor Mindens made Murphy look sluggish and Aurora is supposed to be anything but sluggish in her 16th birthday party! 

Ratmansky's insistence on modesty meant that Murphy could not do what the vast majority of Auroras do with their suitors during the Rose Adagio: "raise arm, balance, lower arm, and hand yank." Instead Murphy had to balance serenely, and just as serenely place her hand in the suitor's hand. This went off without a hitch ... almost. But the first suitor's hand wasn't quite where it needed to be, and Murphy couldn't yank his hand into place, so as a result there was some wobbling. The low developpés that Ratmansky insisted on also took away from some of the Rose Adagio's excitement: it was as if Murphy kept checking to see if her legs were low enough. Murphy's performance was professional, if a bit overcoached and efficient. 

Surprisingly the ever-game Marcelo Gomes ran into grief as Prince Désiré. For one, Marcelo is such a strong partner, so used to lifting ballerinas high and low, that the aloof, hands-off approach Ratmansky demanded made Gomes appear alternately disengaged and dull. This is a pure cavalier role, and that's not really Gomes' forte. Désiré in this production has only one variation -- the Act Three Wedding pas variation, but it's a killer variation with a diagonal of tiny beats and jumps. Gomes' legs are too long, his style too usually grand, and he simply couldn't cope with the petit batterie demanded of him. 

Cassandra Trenary and Danil Simkin (Florine and Bluebird) were technically fine but as they were unable to really act out the story, their performances were a bit vanilla. Simkin has very fast beats (his variation got applause well before its finish) and all the requirements needed for Bluebird but naturally has a somewhat blank stage presence. Trenary is still in the corps and it's nice that Ratmansky plucked her out for such an important premiere but she doesn't project much beyond a fresh prettiness (and maybe she can't, as the Florine's acting is completely deleted).

All the fairies (mentioned previously) were really excellent, and so were the gems (for the most part). Special mention goes to Skylar Brandt who was absolutely delightful in the Canary variation. One dancer who seemed unable to cope with the new style was the Diamond Fairy, Isabella Boylston. Boylston is a natural jumper. Her upper body and arms can be sloppy. And so it was tonight -- she alone went for the big, air-cleaving grande jetés and in the process her arms started flopping. 

Ratmansky has included a few personal quirks in this Sleeping Beauty -- it wouldn't be a Ratmansky production if we didn't have them. Ratmansky's irreverent sense of humor was inserted into his presentation of Carabosse (a hammy Craig Salstein, so at home in this kind of character role) and even more so by his characterization of Catalbutte (Alexei Agoudine). Ratmansky goes further than most productions to show exactly the kind of fawning, weak royal hanger-on that Catalbutte is, and Catalbutte's acting provided much of the night's laughs. Victor Barbee also acted with broader strokes than the usual Kings. 

But overall, the madcap Ratmansky zaniness that defined much of his previous work was gone. This was indeed a Very Serious Production of a Very Serious Classic. Only time will tell if this new approach will last, or whether in a season or two the costumes and sets will be there, but ABT's assortment of traveling guest artists will have gone back to dancing Sleeping Beauty however they always danced it.