Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Sunday, October 19, 2014
The program that Wendy chose displayed her shrewdness and intelligence. It carefully highlighted what she could still do -- in particular, use her remarkable body as a sculptural instrument to carve positions in the air. In La Sonnambula her tiny, wispy frame still looked as ghostly as ever, her large eyes spooky and soulless. Robert Fairchild, Sara Mearns, and Daniel Ulbricht, all stars in their own right, tacitly toned down their usual high-energy performances so the spotlight was on Wendy.
The second chunk of the programming was perhaps the best. Excerpts from Dances at a Gathering that ended with that always crowdpleasing move of the peach girl (Wendy) being thrown and twisted in the air (and Zachary Catazaro making a great catch). The adagio from Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH was maybe THE highlight of the evening. Tyler Angle partnered Wendy as if she were a goddess, and the choreography showed off the tender, lyrical side of Wendy's dancing that was often forgotten when she was in her prime, as people considered her to be that kickass B&W ballet queen who could contort her body into any shape she wanted. And finally, there was the inevitable After the Rain pas de deux with Craig Hall. For 10 minutes, the audience was pindrop silent as Arvo Pärt's beautiful scored played in the background and Wendy and Craig carved themselves into the by-now very familiar shapes of Wheeldon's signature work.
Now, here's the thing. After the Rain has become such a Wendy calling card that the NYCB has programmed this piece to death since its premiere. Is it a great piece of choreography? Well, as my friend pointed out during intermission ... not exactly? It's effective, and the acrobatic poses are striking, but Wendy made it into a repertory staple. I can't picture other ballerinas being able to move through those poses with such slow control, and displaying such strength even as she fell into Craig Hall's chest repeatedly. One wonderful thing about Wendy: she could make pieces better than they actually were just by being her.
In between the works in the second part of the program there were two brief films of Wendy. Both showed her earthy fun sense of humor. They also showed beautiful clips of her earlier days. I'll always remember Wendy as that unbeatably flexible girl in the Agon pas de deux who could also be a beautiful Sugarplum Fairy (her shoulder jumps were always awe-inspiring). If there was a role Wendy was outright bad in, I can't remember it.
The final piece on the program was a little oddity. A joint effort by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, called By 2 With & From, the score was a Max Richter adaptation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The choreography was basically a tribute to Wendy -- Tyler Angle and Craig Hall took turns partnering Wendy in moments that were alternately solemn (the Wheeldon half) and more offbeat and fun (the Ratmansky half). The final pose was Wendy being held aloft in the air, her back arched proudly for the last time.
And then it was time for the floral tributes, the cheering, the bows, the confetti, the streamers. But maybe the most touching tribute from Wendy came from a security guard who had checked my bags when I first picked up the tickets earlier that evening. "Wendy could do anything," he said. "And she is a nice girl." I murmured something about them all being nice, and he said, "No, but she was NICE." So many people turned up for Wendy Whelan's farewell not simply because they admired her. She was loved.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
The opening night Macbeth was surprisingly sparsely attended but strong word of mouth quickly made subsequent shows sold out. Last night I decided to catch the second-to-last performance of Macbeth -- all the way up in the Family Circle, standing room.
First things first -- it's a cliché that sound is best in the Family Circle, but a very true one at that. Only in the upper rings of the Met do you get the full voice/orchestra balance, so the textures and nuances of orchestration that are missed in the lower rungs ring loud and clear from the upper rings. I heard details of Verdi's score that I never could have heard sitting in a prime orchestra seat.
Second of all, the Adrian Noble production from 2007 looks amazing from so far away. From up close you can see the tackiness -- the oddly dressed, squatting witches, the never-ending business with the chairs (most distracting in the Sleepwalking Scene), the costumes that look for lack of a better word, well, cheap. But from so far away, the dark lighting and shadowy costumes made the whole thing look ghostly and atmospheric. The production really needs to be seen from far away.
I thought it was obvious that compared to opening night, Lucic (Macbeth), René Pape (Banquo), and Joseph Calleja (Macduff) all sounded slightly tired. Lucic in particular appeared to be doing a sort of early-Verdi-meets-Bayreuth-bark thing. His voice, which can turn wooly and clouded under pressure, brayed and was often beneath the pitch. Only during "Fuggi regal fantasma" was there a hint of the legato and cantabile line that's so important in early Verdi. Luisi's treatment of the score again tries to erase the sometimes crudely written Verdi melodies. It makes the music sound more important, but perhaps less exciting.
Anna Netrebko, however, seemed completely freed from any pressure to be note-perfect for the HD, and instead she did some wonderful vocal experimentation. It's odd what she apparently thought needed improvement, vs. what I thought needed improvement. For instance, on opening night, I thought her opening aria "Vienni t'affreta" was a bit rough and imprecise. Last night the bumpiness was still there, and there were still missing grace notes and trills. I also thought that the Act Three duet with Macbeth on opening night was marred by awkward blocking and a weak climactic high C -- well it was even weaker last night. The C was barely touched as she pulled Lucic into a rather awkward tight round of horizontal mambo.
However, the changes she did make were all improvements. For instance, "La luce langue" was even more expressive than opening night -- less of a sledgehammer approach, more introverted and sung as an internal dialogue. Maybe the greatest improvement was during the Brindisi -- opening night I remembered her sounding somewhat insouciant throughout. Tonight, during the second verse her voice had a cold rattle, as if she were gritting her teeth and shaking with rage at her husband. She also managed two full-throated trills that in context sounded like her exerting her control over the situation in the most kick-ass way.
And the Sleepwalking Scene -- opening night I thought she was note-perfect, but she seemed determined to get through the scene without any vocal bumps, so the portrayal was very introverted. The fussy business with having her walk on chairs didn't help. Tonight, she added much more fanciful "traditional" mad scene effects -- some ritards here and there to emphasize Lady Macbeth's confusion, a lot more conventional "mad scene" acting. She colored her voice differently -- gone was the sheet of ice in the opening night. Her voice sounded more disconnected, almost kooky. She also took the final D-flat as a thin whisper, a vocal effect that so many sopranos try without much success.
Interpretively she's also added a lot since opening night. Now Anna's Lady Macbeth is even tougher, if that's even possible -- at one point she literally gives her swift husband a kick in the rear. I doubt Lady Macbeth is a role Anna is going to sing much in the future -- sometimes I could hear that despite her large voice and astonishing range, she was pushing her voice to the maximum. So I'm just glad that I caught 2 of these performances, so I saw both her initial thoughts on the role, and her final thoughts.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
In less than two weeks, Wendy Whelan will retire from the New York City Ballet. It's definitely the Dance Event of the year. Tickets were notoriously hard to get -- I snagged two fourth ring tickets for $94 -- a minute later the whole show was sold out. The farewell will be a busy, emotional event, and I'm sure not many people will really remember the dancing. For that reason I bought a ticket to see Wendy this afternoon in La Sonnambula. I wanted to see her just dance a regular performance.
I remember when Wendy used to dance the Sleepwalker, her bourrées were so fast it was as if she was skating on the ground. She was paper thin, and it added to her otherworldly persona. This afternoon when I saw her she no longer had the speed and effortless ability to skim the ground on pointe. She danced the steps slowly, gingerly, and if one were to be objective you could say some of her bourées looked bumpy. She once had a sky-high arabesque -- this afternoon she sometimes couldn't even get her leg to 90 degrees. She's 47, and time and injury have taken a toll on her remarkable physical instrument.
But even with all those limitations she was amazing. Her Sleepwalker was terrifying -- a bloodless, heartless ghost. Her visibly aged face worked to her favor -- it gave the Sleepwalker a kind of gothic, crazy-woman-tied-up-in-the-attic feel. She still knew how to make her maximum effect in this brief role -- when she stepped over the Poet, she never hesitated or looked downwards to make sure she wasn't, you know, actually stepping on the Poet's stomach. She was creepy and ghostly and the other wonderful dancers in the cast (Robert Fairchild as the Poet, Faye Arthurs as Coquette, Lauren King and Antonio Carmena in the commedia dell'arte-like pas de deux) couldn't overshadow Wendy (pun intended). And Wendy doesn't cheat the steps. She might not be able to execute them effortlessly, but she still carried the dead Poet offstage like a champ.
Tiler Peck started the program with a wonderfully sprite Donizetti Variations and Ashley Bouder ended the program with a dynamite Firebird. Both of these ballerinas are in their physical and technical prime -- there seemingly isn't any tricky allegro combination that Tiler can't toss off with effortlessness, and Bouder's Firebird is a modern classic portrayal. Her amazing jump, her expressive arms, that can alternate between jittery nervousness and sad Odette-like yearning, all make her Firebird the standard for this generation the way the Firebirds of Maria Tallchief or Gelsey Kirkland once set the standards for their generation. Balanchine's choreography, the Chagall scenery and Jerome Robbins' whimsical choreography for the Kastchei Wizards and company make the NYCB Firebird in my opinion the definitive interpretation of Stravinsky's masterpiece. The Fokine version has its moments, but it's less focused than Balanchine/Robbins.
But as I saw Peck and Bouder breeze through their ballets, I wondered how they'd be at 47. Would they still be able to take over the stage the way Wendy still can? Wendy is no longer in her physical or technical prime, but she's still a Prima Ballerina. October 18 will be an emotional experience for everyone who cares about dance, about the New York City Ballet. It will be the end of an era.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
The NYCB fall season. It only started a few years ago, but now I can't imagine life without it, and it's become maybe my favorite NYCB season. The dancers are fresh and rested from a summer off, the programming is usually full of Balanchine classics, and the weather's nice so you don't have to trudge home from the ballet in snow boots.
The 9/27 evening performance at the NYCB was a severe all Stravinsky, all B&W program: Apollo, Momentum Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Duo Concertant, and Agon. It's a testament to Balanchine's genius that not once did I think, "Wow, this is too many leotards against too much Stravinsky dissonance."
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Well tonight the persona was dropped, the coy girly act disappeared, and ANNA NETREBKO appeared onstage and it was glorious. Lady Macbeth suits her voice like a glove -- she has the volume, the range, the dark timbre, and the ruthlessness that was spellbinding. After a few shaky off-pitch moments in "Vieni t'affreta" (and smudged trills -- one of the things about Anna Netrebko is she can do a beautiful slow prepared trill but not a fast short trill) she proceeded to give the realest, most convincing, best-sung performance I've ever heard her give. It was bold, kick-ass, seat-of-your-pants singing. "La luce langue" had her dipping into her now formidable lower register and the chilling edge that her voice has acquired. She wasn't perfect: the Brindisi had some of the famous Netrebko rhythmic slackness, and the duet with Macbeth at the end of Act III had a surprisingly weak high C (probably due to the fact that the direction called for her to spread eagle and get Biblical with Macbeth). But the Sleepwalking Scene was by any standards an amazing piece of vocalism. The voice flowed like lava, and the fact that she capped it with a pitch-perfect D-flat was just icing on the cake.
Anna's interpretation of Lady Macbeth was not very sexy, despite the revealing clothes and blond Veronica Lake wig. (Which for the record I didn't like. For me the definitive Lady Macbeth look was the austere straight black hair Akira Kurosawa chose in Throne of Blood.) She was given new costumes (including a Hillary Clinton power pantsuit), and she wore them like a champ. She was tough and masculine and it was clear she had her husband's balls in an iron vise-grip. Her body language resembled Mike Tyson, or a Fortune 500 CEO. I loved it. In the Sleepwalking Scene she wasn't really crazy, more like a caged sociopath on Death Row. All evening there was no coyness, no twirling. This is the Anna Netrebko who gave Debbie Voigt the staredown of death in an HD interview after Debbie made the mistake of asking about what Anna "learned" from Valery Gergiev. I love this "new" Anna.
The performance of Macbeth was overall pretty strong. Zeljiko Lucic (Macbeth) kind of breaks my heart. He's a musical singer, he has a basically pleasing timbre, and that puts him above most of the "Verdi baritones" on the scene nowadays. But, but, but. He's a reserved singer, one whose body language often indicates a weird discomfort onstage. In fact, I noticed that even during his big aria "Fuggi regal fantasima" he avoided downstage center like the plague. Also, his voice seems to get stuck in his throat a lot, and the sound is cloudy and wooly. And he flies off pitch when he applies pressure. The person sitting next to me said, "A for effort C for execution." So the title character got lost in the background.
The luxury casting didn't help Lucic. He was surrounded by so many oversize voices. René Pape (Banquo) made the most out of his short but memorable role. All the cigarettes, alcohol and hard partying can't seem to touch his glorious voice. Joseph Calleja (Macduff) was perfect casting: great voice, stolid actor. "Ah la paterno mano" had all the Calleja touches: that fast vibrato, the honeyed timbre, and the sense that he doesn't know what the hell he's singing about, but who the fuck cares when he sounds like that? Even Malcolm sounded great. Noah Baetge is a big guy with a big, ringing voice and was definitely a pleasant surprise.
I have this unreasonable crush on Fabio Luisi. I think he's adorable, with those cute nerdy glasses and curly gray hair. With that being said, he can be an uneven conductor. There were some weird coordination problems with the chorus all night long (the act one concertato took some time to settle), and also an unwillingness to revel in Verdi's oom-pa-pa melodies. It's like he wanted it to sound slower and graver when part of the appeal of early Verdi is the mindlessly rousing tunes.
The 2007 production by Adrian Noble steals heavily from staged Shakespeare trends. The World War II setting. Seriously, why is it de rigeur that staged Shakespeare tragedies about rulers be reset to World War II? There were dictators before and after, just sayin' ... Extremely dark lighting, atmospheric uses of blood stains, blah blah blah. It looks nice and gets the job done.
This performance felt like the real start of the Met season. The screaming, stomping ovation the cast received at the end of the performance reminded us why opera is important, and it was wonderful to hear after a summer of intense labor negotiations. It was sound and fury, signifying that everything was all right at the Metropolitan again.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
There are so many ridiculous moments in Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus that by rights, I should have hated it completely. The choreography for Spartacus and the slaves consists almost entirely of marching (the "goosestep"), leaping on a diagonal, chest-beating and sword-fighting. The choreography for Phyrgia consists entirely of being lifted like a sack of potatoes. The only remotely interesting choreography is for Crassus and Aegina. Crassus brandishes his penis extension (uh, I mean sword) in some truly convoluted ways, and Aegina is asked to shimmy, to lie on the floor and thrust her hips upwards, and then in Act Three, to do a pole dance in which she actually takes the pole and rubs it between her legs and shivers from the orgasm. The score by Aram Khachaturian takes a melody, and then repeats it about 10,000 times more.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Don Quixote has long been considered the Bolshoi Ballet's house special and touring warhorse. Wherever they go, audiences go crazy over the Bolshoi's boisterous, happy, busy depiction of a Spanish fairyland. The curtain rose tonight at the Koch Theater and the effect was the same -- the audience was bombarded with sashaying skirts, rustling maracas, banging tambourines, swaying fans, swinging capes, and the happy reaction said "Ah, so fun."
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
There's a saying in ballet that says "Put Swan Lake on the billboard, and they will come." This certainly seemed the case tonight as the Bolshoi Ballet has kicked off its two week stay at the Koch Theater with a week a Swan Lakes. Well ... I think many of the audience were shocked, to say the least, that in the Bolshoi/Grigorovich version, there's no swan and no lake. In fact, audience reaction was muted, and it made for some awkward moments when the audience was dead silent and the dancers decided to come out for another bow.