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Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale

The image I'll take away from last night's Mad Men series finale isn't the Coke commercial that Don apparently dreamed up after he found peace in a California commune. It isn't Joan kicking ass and starting her own company and also getting rid of that rich retired guy (although that was wonderful). It isn't Stan and Peggy getting together (although that was nice too).

I think the most remarkable scene last night was the final one with Betty and Sally. Sally is in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the family, and Betty, dying of terminal lung cancer, is grimly smoking a cigarette. Her back is turned towards Sally.

I loved that moment because Mad Men refused to do to Betty what it often does to beloved characters on a long-running series finale: go soft on them. This was shown to an absurd degree on the otherwise amazing Breaking Bad series: by the closing shot Walter White was practically a hero, and he died in his meth lab, ecstatic and at peace. But the final shot of Betty personified what the character has been for seven seasons: cold, closed off, unable to show affection to her kids, the ever-present cigarette a symbol of her own self-absorption.

There were a million reasons to feel sorry for Betty. Her husband Don was a monster. A very tortured, human monster, but a monster nonetheless. We knew her backstory -- modeling was her dream, before she gave it up for the 2.5 kids and the rich husband. She was deeply lonely and unhappy. It would have been easy to make Betty the poor, put-upon wife.

Instead January Jones and the Mad Men writers made Betty one of the most interesting characters of the show, a character who resisted easy sympathy at every moment. Betty wasn't warm. She wasn't affectionate. She was in her own way as self-absorbed as Don. And she had a mean streak a mile wide. Who can remember her screaming to Sally "You broke MY nose!" Or her disastrous attempt to chaperone a field trip which ended with her screaming at Bobby for doing the nice thing and giving a hungry girl food.

When Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, I thought, oh man, they're going to finally make Betty sympathetic. She's going to show affection to Sally for the first time. She's going to make peace with Don. It will be Saint Betty. But that's not what they did at all. Betty's last conversation with Don was tense and strained, with her telling him he wouldn't get custody of the kids and then taunting, "You can see them on the weekends. Oh wait. When was the last time you saw them?"

And Sally came home from boarding school and decided to take care of the family even more than she's always taken care of her very damaged parents. But Betty seems oblivious to the sacrifice, to Sally's pain. So the last shot of Sally sadly cooking for the family, and Betty smoking a cigarette in the kitchen was just so appropriate. It was cold. It was selfish. It was Betty.

Bye bye Birdie, and goodbye to Mad Men, a show that for seven seasons made us care about monsters.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYCB Does Bournonville

I've now sat through three completely different casts of the NYCB's Bournonville program. It is strange how, as a rule, the Bournonville style manages to completely defeat many of NYCB's most excellent technicians, whereas some of their less experienced corps de ballet members have taken to the Danish master like ducks to a pond. I thought of why this might be so. I have a few theories, and the one I'm most fond of is the idea that many principal dancers and strong technicians are so confident in their abilities that they overlook the key to Bournonville style: modesty. It's hard for them not to snap their arms out to show off a spectacular jump, or to keep their arabesques beneath 90 degrees.

A good example would be the three casts of La Sylphide. Here are the major casts:

Cast 1 May 7: Sterling Hyltin (Sylph), Joaquin de Luz (James), Daniel Ulbricht (Gurn), Brittany Pollack (Effie), Georgina Pazcoguin (Madge)

Cast 2 May 16 mat: Ashley Bouder (Sylph), Andrew Veyette (James), Joseph Gordon (Gurn), Megan LeCrone (Effie), Marika Anderson (Madge)

Cast 3 May 16 eve: Tiler Peck (Sylph), Gonzalo Garcia (James), Harrison Ball (Gurn), Faye Arthurs (Effie), Gwyneth Muller (Madge)

Ashley Bouder was maybe the strongest technician of the three Sylphs. Her jumps are amazing -- she flies across the stage and has that ability to hang in the air indefinitely. She even showed that ability off by jumping, hanging in the air, and making a "shhh" motion with her hands while up in the air. Her jumps were so fast one tended not to even notice them, if that makes sense. It was like oh there's Ashley, flying across the stage again. Close behind her was Tiler Peck, who is not as strong of a jumper but also has the ability to dance petit allegro like it's child's play.

But both of them missed the accents of Bournonville. Neither of them were bad, but just didn't have the right perfume. Bouder was too strong and straightforward. She can't quite rid her upper body of that athletic, strong, upright position that serves her so well in, say, Stars and Stripes or Square Dance. Peck was stiff and studied in her acting. Both of them tried the soft arms and the ethereal, playful spirit of the Sylph, but it looked just like that: trying. It wasn't organic. They both just looked like Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck with a white dress and wings.

Sterling Hyltin, on the other hand, is not a natural jumper, and she can struggle in roles that require difficult technique. However, she totally mastered the characterization of the Sylph. Her arms were soft and fluttery, her upper body supple and yielding, her facial expressions alternately coy and joyful, and she disappeared completely into the ballet. Her jumps didn't have the elevation or power of Bouder's but she gave the illusion of flight, as she wafted her arms upwards with each successive sissone. She was the only one who really articulated the Sylph's mime including the final death scene. Maybe she wasn't perfectly idiomatic with the position of her arms, legs, and technique, but she alone transformed herself totally into the Romantic ideal for which Bournonville was aiming. Sterling Hyltin has been having a standout season. She was absolutely riveting earlier in the season in La Valse, a ballet I have almost no tolerance for.

The story with the James' was similar. Joaquin de Luz was the strongest technician -- the fast beats, jetés, the deep pliés, the soft landings, hold no terrors for him. But his James was way too extroverted, without any feel for the restless Romantic hero. Andrew Veyette and Gonzalo Garcia don't have that ability to defy gravity, but their characterizations were true. Veyette was maybe the best in depicting the restless spirit during the Act One wedding festivities. Garcia in particular surprised me -- I've often seen him struggle visibly. Not tonight. It's true that he simplified some of the mind-boggling entrechats that Bournonville demands of his dancers but his portrayal was sensitive and affecting.

This extended even to the Gurns and Effies. Daniel Ulbricht is an incredible technician, but he seemed completely lost in this ballet. Corps members Harrison Ball and Joseph Gordon however looked like they were auditioning for James. They really acted out the part, especially Ball. Same for Effie. Brittany Pollack and Megan LeCrone, two excellent technicians, were completely miscast as Effie. Pollack looked sullen the whole time, LeCrone looked like she was dancing Agon. Only Faye Arthurs, a corps de ballet member, made Effie what she's supposed to be -- the nice, wholesome girl next door, and only Arthurs really articulated the mime. Marika Anderson and Georgina Pazcoguin both make Madge too clownish but again, it's corps member Anderson who more clearly articulated the important mime role.



But La Sylphide had the advantage of looking carefully coached. If Bouder and Peck didn't look like naturals they looked like they knew what the style should be. An even stronger litmus test was the company's three different casts of Bournonville Divertissements. It was staged by Nilas Martins, who spent most of his career in the U.S. Sudden cast changes have been frequent (there were three in tonight's performance), and the groups assembled for the solo have been a motley crew of principals, soloists, and corps de ballet members. The three performances I've seen have looked under-rehearsed and under-coached. Therefore, it's interesting to see who instinctively gets the style and who's totally lost.

Opening night, Sara Mearns tried for the unaffected charm and grace for a few minutes before reverting back to extravagant, lunging, swoony, indulgent Sara. She needs to go back to dances like Walpurgisnacht, where her unbridled energy were to die for. In the afternoon performance, Ashly Isaacs and Antonio Carmena were utterly charming in Flower Festival of Genzano. In the evening, Teresa Reichlen and Zachary Catazaro were a total disaster. I've seen Reichlen power through Firebird and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 without breaking a sweat. But in this lovely pas de deux she looked alternately sullen and bored, and ended with a huge blooper. Catazaro danced with buckled knees, kind of a problem when so many of the jumps demand landings in deep plié.

In fact, the landings in deep plié is something only Harrison Ball, Joseph Gordon and Anthony Huxley (in the Napoli pas de six and Tarantella) came close to mastering. (To see how it's really done, check out the Royal Danish Ballet's commercial dvd of their Napoli.) Others made a downward motion and then sort of gave up. Lauren King, who's never really overwhelmed me with either her technique nor her characterization, was truly exquisite both times I saw her in the pas de six (she was the purple girl). Charming, sweet, and she gets the style. Lauren Lovette can be mistake-prone in other ballets but as the blue girl in the pas de six she was indestructible. Another dancer who took to the style easily. Andrew Scordato, another dancer I've never paid much attention to until now, also gets the style. Russell Janzen, usually one of my favorite dancers, was on the other hand miscast and looked like he had no idea what he was doing. Most surprising was Taylor Stanley, whom one would think is Miscasting Central, was absolutely great in the Ballabile, while Allen Pfeiffer flailed.

Overall this has been an interesting experiment for the New York City Ballet. I hope going forward they dance more of this sort of thing, and also take a harder time sorting out who simply gets the style and technique, and who needs help. But meanwhile, this has been a wonderful hiatus from their usual programming of Balanchine/Robbins/Martins/Peck/whoever else. They are slowly growing from a company that has mastered neo-classical style to a company that proves it can master every style.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Elusive Muse


There was a moment in tonight's 2 hour talk with Suzanne Farrell at the New York Public Library where Suzanne was laughing, the audience was laughing, and the ice finally seemed broken. Suzanne was recounting how Mr. B taught them to dance, and she quoted him as saying, "You know, you're not only dancing for your mother." It was a fun, witty remark from the always-witty Mr. B. The audience (packed full of veteran dance enthusiasts and current dancers like Gillian Murphy) loved it.

I wish their had been more moments like that in what was otherwise a painfully awkward, unilluminating two hours. For one, the interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, had absolutely no rapport with Suzanne and seemed stuck to his cue cards all night. His interviewing style takes much like James Lipton of The Actors' Studio -- very starchy, dry, pretentious.

Suzanne, on the flip side, also seemed determined to stick to a script. She was careful to never mention the personal relationship between her and Mr. B (whom she referred to as "Mr. B", instead of "George" as she's done in previous interviews). She focused only on their professional partnership and did not discuss his marriage proposal, her elopement with Paul Meijia, her temporary split from New York City Ballet in 1970, or her final split from New York City Ballet in 1993 when Peter Martins fired her. One of the most painful things was Holdengräber asking Suzanne to "explain" pictures he put up on the screen. The answers Suzanne gave were alternately blank ("That's a posed shot of us before the State Theater opening") or impersonal (when shown pictures of her dancing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Arthur Mitchell Suzanne said "he's a fun guy.")

Alexei Ratmansky submitted two questions which Holdengräber read. One question was about which steps Balanchine changed for Suzanne, and Suzanne answered that even though moving to the State Theater meant dancers had to dance "bigger," Balanchine was pretty adamant about steps. The second Ratmansky question was what Balanchine thought of Soviet companies in the 1960's, to which Suzanne responded "Well, you'd have to ask him." Holdengräber seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Maurice Bejart's ballets, and asked Suzanne why they weren't more popular in the U.S. "Well, the U.S. and Europe were very different in the 1970's," was Farrell's flat answer.

A few more probing questions seemed to make Suzanne shut down even more. For instance when Holdengräber asked whether Suzanne felt "left out" when she saw the 1972 Stravinsky Festival she calmly but cooly said "No, I live in the now, and my now was in Europe with Bejart." The moment I think Holdengräber was going for also went off without any spark. He showed Suzanne a picture of her dancing Diamonds with Peter Martins. The audience gasped. But her response: "That's Diamonds with Peter Martins. It was originally choreographed for me and Jacque d'Amboise." She then switched the topic into a little thing about the creation of Diamonds. When Holdengräber showed Farrell a series of pictures from Don Quixote, Farrell again didn't have much to say about the pictures. And there probably wasn't much to say: a few were posed publicity shots. When asked about whether she read the Cervantes' novel, Farrell says she tried but never made it through because she "couldn't find her character." Well. That's that I guess.

The highlights for the audience might have been the dancing clips they showed. There was the Meditation, which, although not even C-list Balanchine (IMO) did show off the stunning beauty of the young Farrell. There was a clip of Davidsblündertänze and Farrell and d'Amboise had aged visibly but they were still astonishing in the sheer sweep of their dance. But for some reason Farrell seemed unenthusiastic about the clips, and was complaining about how the choreography had to be modified for the tiny TV studios.

There were a few interesting moments. Suzanne said that she once saw a cabaret dancer slink slowly to the footlights with her eyes closed, and then snapped her eyes open to the whole house. She thought it was a simple but effective trick and she said she incorporated the same stage trick into Union Jack. Another was about how she once ran after Stravinsky like a gushing fangirl. She had some genuinely warm words for her long-time partner Jacque d'Amboise. And Suzanne is still beautiful. The hair is now worn short and curly, the posture has slumped a little, but her saucer eyes and big overbite smile are as enchanting as ever.

But overall the evening was a disappointment. It was like one of those political debates where both candidates stick to talking points all night. I thought that after an hour of the scripted questions, maybe they'd ask the audience to submit questions. (That has been the format for most Q&A sessions I've attended.) But nope. It was Holdengräber all the way. Also after most Q&A sessions many of the guest speakers stick around and talk to the audience. Suzanne instead disappeared behind a screen and left. She was an Elusive Muse to the very end.

When I got home I found this short but delightful clip of Suzanne Farrell on Sesame Street. It was a palliative after the 100th "I live in the now" and "What's more real than being onstage?"


And I know many dancers are surprisingly withdrawn in real life but I also found this interview of the quirky Allegra Kent and look at how much more spontaneous it is:


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Un Ballo et Maschera - Saving the Best for Last


I'm looking over all my Met programs this season and I attended Macbeth (twice), Le Nozze di Figaro, La Boheme (three times!!!), Traviata (twice), Death of Klinghoffer, Aida, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Les Contes d'Hoffman, Iolanta/Bluebeard, CarmenLa Donna del Lago, as well as the Grand Finals of the Met National Council Auditions and a recital by Rene Pape. You might notice something though: all of those performances happened before March. That was when a real job (and a 5:00 wakeup time) kicked in. But today was the last day of the season and I was determined to see Piotr Beczala sing Un Ballo et Maschera.

In a way I'm glad I skipped so many performances because: 1. the season was incredibly frontloaded, and 2. I could end the season on a total high. Tonight's performance was saving the best for last. It wasn't perfect, mind you. For one, I had a hard time warming up to David Alden's chilly, artificial production. I thought the Icarus symbolism was heavy-handed and the gray paneled set tended to distance the audience from a story that already has a certain built-in cynicism and detachment.

But it was the singers who turned this performance from a tired revival to a magnificent way to end the season. At the hear of this performance was the Gustav of Piotr Beczala. His voice did not have the volume and horsepower of Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia) but he didn't try to force or push. His lyric tenor is so incredibly well-preserved, still sweet and ingratiating after all these years. Piotr isn't a natural tragedian. His personality is too sunny and boyish. But his Gustavo was effective because you could sense the merriment of Gustav's court and the king's charm and mischievous nature. Beczala's last act aria "Ma se m'è forza perderti" was affecting because he exuded such warmth that you think "Who would want to kill this guy?"



Sondra Radvanovsky was Amelia. And she was ... well, she was LOUD. Her voice really shakes the rafters, and it has an enormous range. Her timbre is an acquired taste -- you either love it or you don't, and I (mostly) don't, but I think Amelia is her best role. Her acting in the role was not all that detailed, but it was believable and convincing. "Morrò, ma prima di grazia" was affectingly sung. The second act love duet ("Teco il sto") with Gustavo was spine-tingling simply as she released tsunamis of sound during the climactic moments. I do wish she had pulled back her voice slightly for the final high C as her voice ended up drowning not just Piotr, but the entire orchestra. I always admire Sondra more than I actually enjoy her singing, but I have to admit that in Ballo there was a lot to admire.

I liked Alexey Markov as Renato. His voice is a bit rough around the edges, but impressive for its volume and projection. He sort of has the Russian marble-mouth (but then again, so does Sondra, and she's not Russian). His Renato was a bit of a brute, but "Eri tu" was affectingly sung. One of the few effective moments of Alden's staging was when you saw Renato's home and the sole decoration was a large portrait of King Gustav. Dolora Zajick made the most out of her brief but important role of Ulrica. She's past her sixth decade, but her voice can still shake the walls, especially in the most extreme parts of the range (top and bottom notes). The middle has lost quite a bit of body and color but ... she's 63, folks. Only Heidi Stober sounded weak as Oscar. She had troubles projecting her voice except in the uppermost part of her voice.

James Levine managed to pull together a cohesive, exciting performance. Earlier in the season I heard performances from him that were alternately plodding and uncoordinated. Not tonight. He got great work from the Met orchestra.

Outside at the stage door I met Piotr Beczala, who is exactly as cute and friendly as you'd expect him to be. Also met Jamie Barton, who was just strolling over to say "hi" to her friends in the performance, like any other person. 



And briefly, some season highs:

1. Strangely, the Verdi performances I attended. They always say you can't cast Verdi anymore. The Met fielded excellent Violettas for their revival of La Traviata -- Marina Rebeka's voice silvery and bell-like, Sonya Yoncheva's plush and sexy, and a great Germont in Quinn Kelsey. Anna Netrebko made for a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants Macbeth. And of course, last night's Ballo featured great singing from just about everyone.

2. Michael Fabiano had a real "star is born" in her last minute Boheme substitution. I'm sorry I missed his last minute Lucia substitution.

3. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. One of the most powerful if disturbing evenings I've ever spent in a theater. 

4. The Bluebeard was chilling, creepy, and well-directed. (Iolanta was marred by a ho-hum staging and an unusually shrill-voiced Anna Netrebko). 

5. Death of Klinghoffer got the performance it deserved. Too bad it was not preserved on either Sirius or HD.

6. Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna proved that 5 years later, they're still capable of giving an absolutely sizzling Carmen.

7. Olga Borodina's one-woman show in Aida. The side eye and bitch face she gave to her vocally opulent but dramatically bovine Aida (Lyudmila Monastyrska) was worth the price of the ticket alone.

8. The four hour Boheme where I ended up meeting the nicest cast I've ever met at the stage door. 

I'm sure I'm missing something but oh well! See you in September!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Spring Gala at the NYCB: The New Yorkers Become the Danes

I usually despise the gala crowds. The cameras flashing, the women teetering in 6 inch heels (sometimes you can actually see the blood from their blisters), the listless, overfunded audience. This year was in fact the first spring gala I'd attended since, well, forever. And sure enough, the VIP's were there, the women in their back-breaking heels and the men drinking joylessly at the bar. But the reason I attended was because the ballet the NYCB was presenting was for once a true event: the NYCB premiere of August Bournonville's deathless masterpiece La Sylphide. The true balletomanes (squeezed for the most part into the third and fourth rings) discussed such important matters as: would the NYCB dancers erase memories of the Royal Danes? Could they master the endless series of beats and direction changing jumps? How much of the mime would be preserved? Do the men look good in kilts? And how adorable is Sterling Hyltin?

The answer to those questions: not exactly, not exactly, a lot, mostly yes, and super adorable! The evening was not an unqualified success -- it started off with a frankly sloppy and rough edition of Bournonville Divertissements, staged by Nilas Martins. Although some individual performances were superb (Anthony Huxley and Lauren King in the Napoli pas de six) the overall impression was a great company who was still not comfortable with the Bournonville style. Their arms flailed when they were tired, they didn't bother to make the trailing leg in grande jetes bent. Exhibit A was Sara Mearns doing her usual extravagant, lunging, swooning, powerhouse style in that evergreen ode to youthful romance in Flower Festival of Genzano. The final tarantella from Napoli was exciting but for once the feet of the NYCB seemed to tire and so the endless acceleration of the ecstatic beats and jumps and stomps seemed a bit tired and subdued.

Intermission and the curtain rose on La Sylphide. The first sight of Sterling Hyltin wafting about James' house, and you knew that the La Sylphide had the virtue of being rehearsed and coached with care. There are a bunch of things I could pick on -- James' (Joaquin de Luz) purple kilt was a bit too garish, the day-glo second act set (by Susan Tammany) clashed a little with the super-realistic first act set, Brittany Pollack's Effie was rather undistinguished, Daniel Ulbricht was wasted in the role of Gurn, and Georgina Pazcoguin as Madge was way too cartoonish. I've seen Madges really drip not just evil but bitterness. Pazcoguin seemed to play Madge for laughs.



But overall La Sylphide was an artistic triumph for Peter Martins and a personal triumph for Sterling Hyltin. Martins got the same girls who are used to standing as an army in the leotard ballets to look soft, light, and romantic. And Hyltin was simply amazing as the Sylph. Someone must have coached her carefully about arms, head, legs, because she was simply exquisite and perhaps the best non-Danish Sylph I've ever seen. She was flirtatious, ethereal, but aloof -- she pulled away firmly whenever James tried to touch her. Hyltin was obviously coached about the Danish port de bras and jumping -- she kept her arms low and her grande jetes mostly traveled that beautiful arc. My one quibble: when she was poisoned with the scarf she took a little too long pulling her wing off. It needs to be a more seamless move. Bravo Sterling.

Her sister Sylphs were also impressive. The softness of their arms, the lightness of their jumps, how "at home" they looked in the woods scene, was impressive considering how often they are trained to have that clawed, angular look that's necessary for the leotard repertoire. There is always that one moment in Act Two of La Sylphide that makes me almost scream for joy: when the four Sylphs travel downstage and begin a series of gravity defying petit allegro beats. When I saw this moment the other night it looked familiar. Then I realized this is one of Balanchine's favorite techniques as well.



Hyltin's James was Joaquin de Luz, who was comfortable with all the rapid jumps and beats of the part (no mean feat considering he's 39) but overall seemed too extroverted for the role. His James seemed more like a happy playboy than a moody, introspective young man in search for the romantic ideal. In fact, during the first act when Effie (Brittany Pollack) does that famous mime of touching James' head and heart and asking what's wrong, de Luz had a huge megawatt smile the entire time. His interactions with Madge also seemed rather casual. But I'm sure he'll grow into the role. As of now, it was an impressive debut.

NYCB seems to be slowly but surely changing its identity from "the best neoclassical company in the world" to "the best all-around company in America." With their new production of La Sylphide reasons to watch the ABT diminish even more.

Monday, May 4, 2015

NYCB's New Apollo: Back to the Future

George Balanchine never stopped complaining about the atrocious conditions for the premiere of his first masterpiece, Apollo. Apollo was danced by Serge Lifar, a dancer Balanchine disliked both artistically and personally. But he had to be cast as he was Serge Diaghilev's lover. Balanchine's Terpischore, Alexandra Danilova, was shelved in favor of Alice Nikitina, due to Nikitina having been the mistress of a wealthy sponsor. Balanchine later would remark "If we were to go back to the premiere of Apollo everyone would be laughing his head off."

Nevertheless Balanchine would stick to his assertion in later years that Apollo was meant to be a demi-character role. He wanted to see power, stamina, muscle. If you look at the films of Jacque d'Amboise (thankfully available on DVD now) you see d'Amboise's thick, powerful frame and the frenzied speed at which he took the Apollo solos.

But over the recent years NYCB's AD Peter Martins has tended to cast Apollo as mini-Peter's: tall, elegant, and (mostly) blond. Martins' favored Apollo has been Chase Finlay, a gorgeous blue-eyed blond. Finlay certainly looked beautiful, but I never saw him make it through an Apollo without a major stumble in his solo and without some labored partnering. The other Apollo, Robert Fairchild, is superb in every way. Alas, both Finlay and Fairchild are out (Finlay due to injury, Fairchild because of American in Paris. So Martins had to pick a new Apollo, and his choice was Adrian Danchig-Waring.

The first thing you notice about Danchig-Waring is not his looks (although he's good-looking too, as dancers are wont to be), but his strength. My, what muscles! He highlighted his bulk by starting the solo in an exaggerated, stretched position that showed off his deep backbend and the tautness of every muscle in his arms, shoulders, thighs and calves. Then he started moving, and you realize that this Apollo truly has Olympian stamina and horsepower. He powered through his opening lute solo with ferocious energy. It wasn't all that refined, but it was powerful, exciting, feral. And his partnering was fantastic. The upside down lift with Terpischore was effortless, as was the "swimming" portion of the pas de deux.

His trio of muses was overall a successful combo, although they all needed a lighter touch. Tiler Peck is a very serious, introverted Terpischore without much of the playful flirtatiousness that one often sees in this role. Of course her positions are textbook clean and her musicality superb but she doesn't look relaxed. I think of her wonderfully sassy performances as Swanilde and Colombine and wish she could bring a bit of that lightness to her Terpischore. I enjoyed Lauren Lovette as Calliope -- she's also a rather serious Muse, but that meant that for once we didn't see a jaw-dropped, constantly mugging Calliope. I thought Ashly Isaacs was a bit inelegant as Polyhymnia -- those arabesque-into-pique-turns were well-executed but there was something too brassy about it.

But it was Danchig-Waring's triumph and I hope Peter Martins continues to let Danchig-Waring grow in this role. Otherwise the black and white portion of the Spring Season has featured performances that ranged from subpar to stunning. Last night Ashley Bouder and Taylor Stanley chugged through a sluggish Square Dance that surprised me considering how superb Bouder usually is in the role. She and Stanley are not a good match: their body lines are too incongruous -- her tiny sleek head and matchstick figure looks odd against Stanley's endomorphic build. The corps were superb in an elegant rendition of Le Toumbeau de Couperin, but Stravinsky Violin Concerto was again unusually listless. I think the awkward partnering between Ask La Cour and Sterling Hyltin contributed -- he's way too tall for her. Robert Fairchild was her best partner in this ballet. Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar were fine in the other pas de deux, but the corps and soloists were unusually out of sync in the surefire finale.



Order was restored this afternoon first with the Apollo, and then with excellent performances of Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. Symphony in Three Movements was especially remarkable -- the audience started applauding at the opening diagonal of ponytailed girls, and the dancers seemed energized by the audience. And they kicked ass. They were militaristic, they were strong, they were fantastic. Balanchine's choreography is so rich you can watch it 100 times and keep noticing new things -- today I noticed how the leading pink leotard girl (Sterling Hyltin) and her partner (Taylor Stanley) began their pas de deux with almost comical arm rippling. Hyltin really has taken over the role that for many years was closely associated with Wendy Whelan. Hyltin is the exact opposite of Whelan -- Whelan was all about sharp angular shapes, Hyltin exudes a soft femininity even in a leotard. But Hyltin has the requisite sharp attack -- her circle of pique turns accelerated beautifully -- and she's made the role her own without copying Wendy in any way.

Other random thoughts:

- It's so weird how Duo Concertant is really what dancers make of it. I've seen this with Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay. It was adorable -- tender and sweet. Ashley Bouder and Anthony Huxley made it a bit like a classroom exercise, where each new melody of the violin inspired a different set of steps. It wasn't better, it wasn't worse, it was different.

- So great to have Andrew Veyette back! He was amazing in Agon -- no sign of lingering injury. Rebecca Krohn also seems to have benefited from some time off -- her pas de trois showed none of the shaky balances that I've seen in the past.

- Why is Maria Kowroski a totally different ballerina when she's in a leotard? In tutu ballets I've never seen her make it through the performance without a stumble, small or large. In leotard ballets her extreme flexibility and beautiful legs seem to propel her to complete confidence. She was unshakeable in Agon today, awesome in yesterday's Violin Concerto where she executed a perfect handstand/cartwheel.

- I'm starting to think Tiler Peck has the opposite problem of Maria Kowroski: Peck is simply not a leotard ballerina. It seems like you put her in a peach dress or tutu and she stuns with her fast footwork and accelerating spins. You put her in a leotard and she seems nervous, closed off, cautious.

In other news, the great Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya passed away yesterday. There's really no words to describe her dancing, so I'll just post this video:


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Something Rotten!

There's something to be said for a musical that doesn't attempt to be anything more than a rollicking good time. Something Rotten!, which just opened at St. James Theatre after a month of ecstatic word-of-mouth previews, makes its intentions clear from the very first number, a catchy but shamelessly brassy tune called "Welcome to the Renaissance." It's belted out by Michael James Scott and he's soon joined by a cartoonish collection of Renaissance sights and sounds. It's high-energy, lowbrow fun.

Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell's book and music had most of the audience in delirious laughter for most of the afternoon. The premise is that in the Renaissance England theater scene, two brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (a superb Brian D'Arcy James and John Cariani) are struggling to make ends meet as rock-star playwright William Shakespeare (an absolutely mesmerizing Christian Borle) has hogged all the fame, money, and funds. Nick is the pragmatic producer, Nigel the dreamy lyricist. Nick desperately uses the last of his money to pay off a fortune teller Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) to "steal" William Shakespeare's best idea and to predict the future of theater. He also enlists a wealthy Jewish financier Shylock (Gerry Vichi) for his Hail Mary bid for a commercial success. The musical he's decided to produce? "Omelette," about a Danish prince and, well, eggs.

I don't need to tell you that this ends up turning into a parody not just of Shakespeare, but of all musical comedy and show business tropes. Almost every line is an in-joke and you have to listen carefully or you'll miss all the references. This all climaxes in the huge Act One production number "A Musical," where just about every famous musical from the Great White Way is lampooned. The mockery of "Les Mis" is especially funny. "A Musical" is such a crowd-pleasing number that it actually stopped the show as the audience refused to stop applauding. It's followed by another show-stopper, "Will Power," in which William Shakespeare acts like an obnoxious, entitled rock star with screaming groupies.

The choreography by Casey Nicolaw is another high point for the show. Yay, tap is back! Tap dancing has become for whatever reason an endangered species in American musicals, so the clickety clack of tap shoes was really music to my ears. And the cast can really tap. No, they're not Bojangles or Fred Astaire, but they don't just do a few tap moves and then stop. They really sustain tap dancing throughout the show. It's wonderful.


The show is so funny, so good-humored, such a great all-around show, that it's churlish to criticize but there are some weaknesses. For one, this is a very male-dominated show. I won't explain all the male characters but there are a lot, and there's not a single weak link. The Bottom brothers, William Shakespeare, Shylock, Nostradamus, Lord Clapham (Peter Bartlett), and Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas) take over the stage and never let it go. Therefore the two female characters almost seem like distractions. Nick's long-suffering wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) is charmingly down-to-earth but she's not given that much to do. Nigel's obligatory love interest is Portia, a poetry-loving Puritan. Kate Reinders (Portia) is the show's weak link -- her soprano is scratchy and undistinguished, and her acting skills not as strong as the others in the cast. This is a contrast to On the Town, which is also a "three dudes" musical but where the female cast is just as strong as the guys.

The other criticism is that director and choreographer Casey Nicolaw run out of gas somewhere in the second act. The show really climaxes at "A Musical" and "Will Power" and everything afterwards feels just a little bit of a let-down. The second act is like so many Broadway musicals in that it gets sidetracked with romantic subplots and superfluous songs, and the jokes that landed so wonderfully in the first act become less consistent. Thankfully the energy picks up again with "Make an Omelette," another one of those production numbers that just makes you deliriously happy. But the resolution is a tad disappointing.

Still, this is a great show, and I imagine it will have huge appeal not just with the hardcore theater folks but the general Broadway audience. You don't need to be an expert in musicals or Shakespeare to get the pop culture parody, and as I said, the cast sells this material like no other. Something Rotten! is as delicious as a well-made omelette.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On the Town: Best in Show

This is going to seem like a PSA rather than a review but: run, don't walk to see the wonderful revival of On the Town that's currently playing at the Lyric Theatre. The show is so funny, so sharp, so well-directed and well-acted, that there was literally not a moment of down-time.

On the Town was composed more than 70 years ago, and you'd think parts of the show would seem dated. Not so. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's superb book and lyrics are funny, sharp, but also capture the loneliness of the New York metropolis. Leonard Bernstein's score would later be eclipsed by West Side Story in fame but for On the Town he wrote a helluva score. There's something to please everyone: jaunty production numbers ("New York, New York"), pretty ballads ("Lonely Town"), and character-driven songs ("I Understand").

With that being said, the best lyrics and best music can't carry a show alone. Director John Rando and choreographer Josh Bergasse have created a show where the singing, dancing, and acting are so beautifully woven together that EVERY joke landed. EVERY subplot was delightful. EVERY dance made its full impact. Bergasse's choreography doesn't aim for the highbrow ballet-goes-Broadway concept of Christopher Wheeldon's American in Paris. But it is in every way superior choreography, because every dance number is appropriate to the scene, to the characters, and to the actors' dance skills. They did need a dance double for the act one ballet scenes but the substitution was unobtrusive. The choreography is also diverse. Whereas Wheeldon used the same steps over and over again ad nausem, Bergasse makes each production number unique. I particularly love the "boxing match" fantasy sequence between Ivy and Gabey. The original Jerome Robbins choreography has been lost, but Bergasse more than fills in that gap with dancing that was consistently engaging throughout the evening.

The show is incredibly well-cast. The Ivy (Megan Fairchild) was out for the night, so her understudy Skye Mattox went on instead. But Mattox was a fine dancer and a great actress who brought a charming wistfulness to this somewhat opaque role. The three sailors were amazing. They had such strong personalities that not for a moment did they seem interchangeable -- Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) were really the triple threat. They could sing, they could dance, they could act.



But the supporting cast was if anything even more remarkable. Ozzie's love interest Hildy (Alyssha Umphries) simply stole every scene she was in with her earthy, bawdy sense of humor. "Come Up to My Place" and "I Can Cook Too" brought down the house. Chip's love interest Claire (Elizabeth Stanley) was also hilarious as the horny museum worker. Perhaps the best was Michael Rupert as Pitkin, the hapless judge and Claire's fianceé. His big number "I Understand" was just amazing. Jackie Hoffman was also wonderful as Ivy's unscrupulous voice teacher. The comic timing of all the actors ensured that running gags didn't wear out their welcome. A good example was the two subway girls whose conversations begin with "So I said ..." "What did he say?" "So *I* said ..." Another example was the deadpan way Claire explained how she got together with the judge. "He said the two magic words: Suspended sentence."

There are so many reasons for the success of On the Town but I think it all boils down to one factor: trust in and respect for the original material. There was no attempt to update, no attempt to make the script "deeper." They didn't try to make the thin storyline beefier by adding new subplots. And you realize that by not updating or rethinking, the directors behind this show have managed to make the show seem hip and timely. New York might not have sailors on the prowl for hot girls, but everything else will strike a familiar chord with straphangers. It's the same New York -- the busy bees, the lonelyhearts, the grifters, the seedy nightclubs.

This show has no major stars, and it plays in a very large theater (Lyric Theatre) so there were some empty seats last night. But everyone: just go see it. Even if you hate musicals, you will love On the Town.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The King and I

The King and I production that's in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway is perhaps indicative of how many shows are nowadays: polished, professional, aesthetically pleasing. Bartlett Sher's revival does nothing radical with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The iconic bits, like the long Jerome Robbins' ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" or the march of the King's children are lovingly recreated. Sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber aren't really spectacular but they follow the outlines of, well, what you'd expect to see in a The King and I production. Zuber has gone to great lengths to recreate Deborah Kerr's enormous hoop skirts.

This is in many ways a good thing. The American in Paris attempted to do too much and the results were (in my opinion) tedious and pretentious. The King and I is a perfect evening for those who loved the original musical or the classic film adaptation. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll whistle a happy tune.

There's only one problem: as it stands, the show seems more like a homage to past greatness than a living, vibrant musical. Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe as the leads are, as I said, polished and professional, but they don't catch fire the way Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr did. O'Hara and Watanabe seem distant and cordial to one another at all times -- that wonderful moment when in "Shall We Dance" when the King places his hands on Anna's waist goes for nothing.

For a glimpse of the sexual tension that was missing last night:


Listen to the quiver in Kerr's voice as she says, "No, as a matter of fact ..." Kelli's cheerful, matter-of-fact delivery of the same line neutered the whole scene.

Of course the Kerr/Brynner pairing was one of those happy felicities where lightning simply struck at the right time. Brynner was (let's not beat around the bush here) hot as hell, and Kerr had the perfect mixture of stiff upper lip with an underlying sexual curiosity and intensity. The two of them had fantastic chemistry. Yes, Kerr's singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon, yes the yellow-face on the extras was cringeworthy, yes several songs got cut, but the film still sizzles, all these years later. 



Kelli O'Hara (Anna) on the other hand exudes a cheery confidence and the niceness of an elementary schoolteacher. This is all to the good. But her Anna is not particularly warm. In fact, Kelli's Anna might be exhibit A for the crucial difference between warm and nice. Warm suggests inner feelings, niceness is the surface affect. The connection to the King came across as slightly superficial -- a bit like colleagues at a workplace who might like chatting during lunch, but it begins and ends there. Someone also needs to fix that overly fussy wig -- just way too much hair. 

Most of Anna's songs ("Hello Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance," Getting to Know You") are indestructible. O'Hara has an absolutely lovely voice, but the role seems to lie too low for her, as her voice sounded grainy and somewhat bottled up at times and didn't bloom the way I expected. I heard her as Valencienne in the Met's The Merry Widow and that high soprano part was way more her metier. 

Ken Watanabe's diction was at times very hard to understand -- not a surprise, as English is not his first language. The King doesn't have to do much actual singing, but Watanabe struggled sometimes with the bits of singing he had to do -- he completely flubbed a section of "Is a Puzzlement." I think before the show opens officially they still need to work with a diction coach so his dialogue is more clearly articulated.

Watanabe's acting sometimes mimicked the iconic Yul Brynner poses and mannerisms (like the exaggeration of "etc. etc. etc" and the pigeon-toed strut) but Watanabe did differentiate his portrayal from Brynner in some crucial ways. Brynner was full of swagger, Watanabe seemed plagued by self-doubts from the beginning. But at other times Watanabe looked just flat out uncomfortable all by himself on the stage, and I'm not sure this (or his lack of chemistry with O'Hara) can really be fixed. 

The production really shines in other ways -- first of all, there isn't that usual tiny Broadway band, but a respectable sized orchestra (situated under the stage, Bayreuth style). That made the music sound less canned than usual. The dancers and extras (including the children) were wonderful. They took great care to cast Asian dancers and actors and avoid yellow-face. "Small House of Uncle Thomas" was hands down the highlight of the show. The iconic Robbins choreography was as enchanting as ever and Ashley Park (Tuptim) nearly stole the show with her heartfelt portrayal of the unhappy Burmese "present" to the King.

In fact, Park is reason enough to see this show. She's absolutely lovely as Tuptim. Her duets with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora) were highlights and not just throwaway numbers in a side plot. Ruthie Ann Miles gave a much more modern portrayal of Lady Thiang but it worked -- you believed that this strong-willed woman kept the peace in the palace and harem. Jon Viktor Corpuz (Prince Chulalongkorn) was also very strong and again, not a throwaway character.

There's so much good about this show that one is tempted to believe that maxim "good is the enemy of great." Kelli O'Hara is very good as Anna, she's just not great. Ken Watanabe is good as the King, but he's not great either. The production is good, the sets are good, the costumes are good, the singing is (mostly) good, the dancing is very very good, etc., etc., etc.

In contrast, there's a lot about the 1956 film that isn't good. The dubbing by Marni Dixon is intrusive . Rita Moreno in yellow-face as Tuptim is cringeworthy, as is the exaggerated pidgin English much of the cast adapts (it's thankfully minimized in the Sher revival). The obvious studio sets give the film an artificial feel. And the lack of irony in the "Western exceptionalism" zeitgeist comes across as hopelessly naive in the post-Vietnam era. But Yul Brynner's towering performance as the King and Deborah Kerr's equally heartfelt Anna make the film great.

Maybe good really is the enemy of great.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Met National Council Auditions: Grand Finals


What a wonderful afternoon! What a great thing to see young singers singing their hearts out and all that talent onstage. I was 4/4 with my picks. Only unsure about the fifth winner, who turned out to be tenor Joseph Dennis. And thanks to my friend Gerald Martin Moore I got to meet some of the amazing winners afterwards in the reception.
These were my predictions during intermission. I was 4/4. Unsure about the final winner.


The amazing Reginald Smith, whose voice really shook the rafters.
Elegant French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez
Amazing bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee

An American in Paris


I actually hesitated before writing this review of An American in Paris because: 1. It's still officially in "previews" although the prices that are charged are the same as a regular show; and 2. maybe some time and distance will soften my stance on the show. But then I decided no, better to just lay it all out.

First, a little background: I am a huge fan of Robert Fairchild, the NYCB dancer who is the leading man in An American in Paris. I knew when he made his Broadway debut that I'd be there, no matter what. I am an even bigger fan of the classic Gershwin songbook and film score. I've been impressed with much of Christopher Wheeldon's choreography. A dancer I adore dancing (and singing) to music I loved -- who could ask for anything more?

An American in Paris turned out to be one of my bitterest disappointments. Even more so since this was my first "treat" to myself after finally landing a decent job. There was so much potential to make a great show that it's unbelievable how many wrong turns were taken. I guess I'll just go down the list, one by one, of ways An American in Paris turned out to be a disappointment:

1. THE MUSIC. 

You're going to shake your head at this. How can they mess up the Gershwin ballet suite, the great American songbook, the Concerto in F? Well, it's possible. The musical arrangements were a travesty. They were relentlessly brassy and pushy -- they managed to make classics like "Embraceable You" and "S'Wonderful" sound irritating. I wasn't expecting Ella Fitzgerald but I also thought that the Gershwin music would be played with some care. I guessed wrong.

I know comparisons are odious but Hershey Kay's orchestral arrangements for Balanchine's Who Cares? are superior in every way. They at least allow the Gershwin music to breathe.

2. THE BOOK.

Craig Lucas has decided to "fill in" some of the original film's paper-thin plots with more modern jokes and storylines. Jerry Mulligan is still an ex-pat/artist, but Adam is now Adam Hochberg, a Jewish composer with a gimped leg from the war, and Lise is a dancer. Jerry is the scenic designer and Adam is the composer for a ballet that's commissioned by Lise's guardians, the Baurels. Henri is the Baurels' son and still Lise's suitor. And Milo is still a rich patron of Jerry's art.

The main issue with the book is how they handle the problem of Henri. Henri in the first act is the constant source of "tee hee, he's gay" jokes. Which would be okay as a plot point because after all (spoiler alert!) Jerry has to end up with Lise. There's a big punch-line where Henri alone compliments a woman on her fabulous shoes. I thought some of the gay jokes were a bit too modern (Henri's mother asks him whether he's simply not interested in the "fairer sex") but whatever, comic relief and all that.

The whole issue is that in the second act, Henri switches sexuality. His gayness is dropped completely and he becomes a bit like the Paul Henreid character in Casablanca -- a noble (if stolid) resistance fighter. And the reason Lise feels indebted to Henri is because (spoiler alert!) she's Jewish and her parents were killed by the Nazis but Henri hid her during WWII. Henri says he'd "die" for Lise. In light of this total switch in characterization, the treatment of Henri in the second act by Adam and Jerry borders on cruel and uncomfortable and the gay jokes in Act One seem cheap and pointless.

The characterization of Adam was also a problem. Adam has been re-written to be a sour, hard-drinking Debbie Downer. Come on. This is a musical comedy. Actually have some, you know, comedy. Even the character of Milo is neither fun nor amusing -- in this musical book she's a completely lovely lady whom Jerry spurns because she's not Lise.

The character development for Jerry and Lise was always going to be weak -- it was in the 1951 film as well -- but I didn't expect it to be that weak. Jerry pleads and Lise pouts. That's about it. A shame because Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have real charm.

3. THE CASTING.




Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are terrific dancers and game singers. Fairchild in particular has a wistful, airy tenor that adds to his boy-next-door appeal. But with that being said, it was obvious that the show decided to cast around their singing limitations. Most of their singing numbers end as ensembles and Cope tries with "Man I Love" but can't quite cut the mustard. This splitting of the cast into the "the singers" and "the dancers" means that much of the Gershwin songbook is squandered in meaningless throwaway moments. Max von Essen (Henri) and Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) probably do the most actual singing but their characters are somewhat peripheral. Jill Paice (Milo Davenport) is a terrific actress and singer, so the choice not to give her much to sing is a puzzlement. I thought maybe giving Paice a Gershwin number would have added depth to Milo's character.

Veanne Cox and as Madame Baurel is also wasted -- she's actually a good singer, but she has almost nothing to sing either. She does do a good job as the shrewish Madame Baurel, and provides some much-needed comic relief.

The show probably would have been better off either having Jerry and Lise sing more (their voices are not bad -- not true Broadway voices, but acceptable) or having more of their scenes be pure-dance. As it stands right now it's a mish-mash.

4. THE CHOREOGRAPHY.

This part disappointed me the most. I thought that if the singing and the book disappointed, the dancing would at least blow me away. But Wheeldon's choreography is for the most part incredibly formulaic Broadway steps. It's background dance choreography that you see in, well, pretty much every Broadway show. For those familiar with Wheeldon's ballet choreography, this is a disappointment -- you expect more.

The worst moment was the "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" number in which the charming tap-dancing of Max von Essen is marred by vulgar Busby-Berkeley line-dancing showgirls who quite frankly look like strippers and (even worse) an interruption by Brandon Uranowitz that makes no sense as isn't Adam supposed to have a gimped leg? A moment that might have humanized Henri and also showed off Max von Essen's talents is wasted by a whole bunch of extraneous noise.

More shockingly, the incredible dance talents of Fairchild and Cope are squandered as they (believe it or not) don't have much notable dancing. Oh sure there's a lot of dancing -- off-centered pirouettes for Fairchild because he's, you know, a jazzy kind of guy, and Cope gets lifted over and over again with her beautiful legs sticking out like arrows -- but it's empty choreography. Wheeldon is overfond of a one move in particular -- it's the one where the man lifts the woman to about shoulder length and twirls her around. Use it once, beautiful. Use it twice, beautiful. Use it 100 times, tiresome and tedious. There's one lovely moment that has so much potential but is wasted -- Jerry and Lise have a clandestine moment and dance to "Liza." I thought this would be a big dance production number -- maybe to a medley of Gershwin music. A moment like Astaire/Rogers "Cheek to Cheek" or "Never Gonna Dance." But nope. Jerry gives Lise a few twirls and bye-bye.



Only the final "An American in Paris" fantasy ballet (pictured above) sequence remotely lives up to Wheeldon's potential. I wasn't crazy about some of the corps dancing that Wheeldon has for the ballet but the moments between Jerry and Lise finally have some real choreography. There were even several steps that stood out to me, one being Jerry blissfully putting his cheek on Lise's leg. But it's frankly too little, too late. (The show, FYI, runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes).

5. THE SILVER LININGS

The show is aesthetically pleasing -- sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are charming and evocative of post-war France. The projections are somewhat busy but do a good job of switching scenes with minimum fuss.


As mentioned, the cast is terrific. Fairchild really does have the Gene Kelly boy-next-door appeal, and Leanne Cope has gamine charm. Max von Essen is a great singer and dancer.

But as I said, An American in Paris is all about squandered opportunities. There is so much potential for greatness. But when the lights dimmed yesterday, all I could think was "thank god it's finally over."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A (Long) Chat with Danielle de Niese

Soprano Danielle de Niese, photo by Sven Arnstein
Opera lovers of today might know Danielle de Niese from her astounding output in the last decade: starting with her famous video of Giulio Cesare as well as her continued participation in the Glyndebourne Festival and for New York operaphiles, her recent performances of The Enchanted Island, Così fan tutte, and Nozze di Figaro. But de Niese actually made her Met debut in 1998 as Barbarina and has been singing ever since she was 8 years old! Unfortunately Danielle won't be able to sing in the may revival of The Merry Widow, but for the happiest reasons: she is expecting her first child! But Danielle was kind enough to take the time to talk with me about her very long, successful career. Thank you Danielle!

Here are some highlights:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Winter Season Conclusion


Today was the first day of March but New York got hit with yet another snowstorm. It's okay though -- the New York City Ballet's final Winter Season performance was enough to put a smile on any balletomane's face.

The performance started off with a performance Square Dance that might be the finest performance I've seen at the NYCB all winter, period. Ashley Bouder was of course magnificent in the leading lady role -- crisp, secure, fast, with endless reserves of horsepower, but with enough delicacy that's appropriate for this extremely courtly ballet. She's still hands down probably the strongest allegro dancer of the company. Anthony Huxley matched Bouder beat for beat, jump for jump. His adagio solo was buttery smooth. But the corps behind them were with them every step -- it was just one of those performances where you got the sense of a happy dancing community, which is the key for Square Dance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

La Donna del Lago



This is a weird way to begin a review but the thing I kept thinking of at tonight's premiere of La Donna del Lago was that Seinfeld episode when Kramer is driving with George's mother and in the middle of a casual conversation he "stops short" with the car. This causes much awkwardness all around.

What does "stopping short" have to do with Rossini? Well, Rossini is one composer that (if played right) never "stops short." Bellini was maybe a better melodist, Donizetti a better dramatist, but Rossini has an implacable momentum that is always musically impressing.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter Season at NYCB


NYCB had some bad timing during its winter season. The start of their season coincided with the sold-out Mariinsky gig at BAM. Since then, mother nature and injuries have plagued what is traditionally the NYCB's busiest dancing season. Ana Sophia Scheller and Rebecca Krohn are still out with injuries, and on Tuesday 2/3 Andrew Veyette joined the list of injured.

I caught one of their first week performances (a triple bill of Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C) which was notable for several debuts: Erica Pereira's surprising quickness and security as the Russian girl in Serenade, and Ashley Bouder's glittering performance in the first movement and Brittany Pollack's whiz-bang turns in the 4th movement of Symphony in C.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Disruptor at the Met for Iolanta/Bluebeard Premire


Last night the delayed NP of Iolanta/Bluebeard was interrupted by this man. I reviewed the entire performance for Parterre Box. An excerpt:

Trelinski said Alfred Hitchcock films inspired him when he planned these productions. With this insight in mind I’ll just say that Hitch would have called theIolanta half (replete with the noisy protestor) the MacGuffin. The lush music, fairy tale marriage story, and curtain call antics were just a trick for the audiences to appreciate the bone-chilling story of Bluebeard and his doomed wives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Call Me Debbie

The first thing you need to know when you read Deborah Voigt's Call Me Debbie is that she's a "down to earth" diva. I confess I have an allergy to people who label themselves "down to earth" -- it's my experience that genuinely down to earth people don't walk around with a "Down to Earth" advertisement.

That reservation aside Debbie Voigt's memoirs (we learn that "Deborah" was a stage name she chose to seem more formal) are enjoyable, easy to read, in an Oprah kind of way. I download this on my ipad this morning and by noon I was done. Those looking for gossip or insight into the cut-throat, competitive opera business will be disappointed. Jessye Norman required a personal assistant to spray her path with mist. There's unnamed Mezzo X and Mezzo Y who gave her a hard time but otherwise everyone is wonderful, fantastic, supportive, amazing. Luciano Pavarotti called her up one night to ask about gastric bypass. Leonie Rysanek cheered her on the first time Debbie sang Chrysothemis. Anna Netrebko gave Debbie pointers on how to signal to the prompter "I need help." Placido Domingo made her swoon with an onstage kiss. President Bill Clinton kinda sorta copped a feel. And so on.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mariinsky Waves Goodbye

The final performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky was maybe the most old-fashioned of the three Swan Lakes I caught. Viktoria Tereshkina has a contemporary physique and line, but her facial expressions and portrayal owed a lot to silent movie acting. There was nothing subtle about it, but her Odile especially was tons of fun. The long-held balances, the doubles and triples thrown into the fouette sequence, and, finally, the old-fashioned milking of bows. She came forward for a bow whether the audience response warranted it or not. Her Prince, Vladimir Shklyarov, was the Siegfried with the most bravura technique. His boyish looks and spotlight hogging reminded me of the young Nureyev. He's one of those dancers that does that slow walk with his back to the audience before he begins a variation to drum up anticipation. Andrei Yermakov really camped it up for his last performance of Rothbart (the death scene convulsions!), while Vasily Tchachenko was by far the most appealing Jester of the run.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mariinsky Swan Lake #2: A Turkey


There is a certain look performers sometimes have on their faces when things are just not going their way. There's a deflated look in their eyes, posture, and demeanor that makes it clear to the audience that magic is just not going to happen on this particular night, and they are being professionals by chugging through the remainder of the performance. That look was in abundance at tonight's performance of Swan Lake at BAM. The Mariinsky swans were as beautiful as ever, Andrei Yermakov was a terrifying Rothbart, the pas de trois was elegantly danced by Filipp Stepin, Nadezhda Batoeva, and Yana Selina (!!!), but the leads Ekaterina Kondaorova and Timur Askerov were just disappointing compared to last Friday's magical performance by Uliana Lopatkina.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Royal Danes


There exists a brief snippet of La Sylphide's opening solo as performed by Ellen Price in 1903 (see above). The film might be of low video quality but the lightning fast footwork, the effortless ballon, and the charmingly modest épaulement are immediately apparent.

How does one preserve the Bournonville hallmarks of charm, grace, fast and fleet footwork, and effortless elevation in a ballet climate that now favors big jumps and flashy pirouettes? This question has been plaguing the Royal Danish Ballet since time immemorial but the miraculous thing is, for the most part, the Bournonville tradition lives on. This was apparent in the Royal Danish Ballet's brief tour to NYC this week.