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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Veronika's Parting

Veronika receiving roses from the girls, photo @ Kent Becker

Part in three of her major roles: Mozartiana, Odette and Myrtha
This afternoon I attended an ABT performance that just a week ago didn't interest me at all. I have a real allergy to the way ABT does Balanchine and the program had one of his most sublime works -- Mozartiana. I wasn't in a hurry to see Gomes' AfterEffect, or the pas de deux from Ratmansky's Nutcracker. I did want to see Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher but it was something I suspect will work better in a smaller theater.

So why, then, did I go? Actually, for a really unhappy reason: this was the last chance to see Veronika Part dance for ABT. She has been let go after 15 years with the company. When word got out that Part's contract would not be renewed, fans created an online petition that garnered over 500 signatures. Then things got a little crazy. A particularly vehement fan started hatching all sorts of plans which included booing BEFORE Mozartiana, staging a sit-in, throwing a tomato at Ratmansky (whom she compared to a Nazi collaborator), and other hare-brained schemes. In the end none of these plans came to fruition. The company's cold attitude towards Part was evident in this hastily planned "farewell" which was announced a few days ago. Contrast that with Diana Vishneva's lavish farewell in which she got promotional articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, was surrounded by bouquets and confetti, feted by Kevin McKenzie and the rest of her ABT colleagues.

I wasn't an unconditional Veronika Part fan. She's what I call a specialist -- she was divine in a few roles but not that diverse of a dancer. Despite her 1940's screen-goddess looks, the remote, stoic mask she often wore during performances verged on affectation. She was too mature to fit in Ratmansky's version of The Nutcracker and struggled with the Lilac Fairy variation in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. I disliked her Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet -- way too overwrought. She looked like she was going to have an epileptic seizure. But at her best she was spellbinding.  I have fond memories of her in Swan LakeLa Bayadere, Myrtha in Giselle, the Fairy Godmother in Ashton's Cinderella, and she was just about the best thing in the otherwise tedious Golden Cockerel. She was also one of the few ABT ballerinas able to handle the controlled adagio of Ashton's Monotones. Her physical beauty always made her stand out onstage, and her powerful, expansive jump, trademarked "Russian" back and languorous way of dancing all cast a spell.

Part as Nikya, IMO her best role
Part in her early years at ABT suffered from inconsistency -- fast footwork or balances was never her strong suit. I remember a rather grim Sleeping Beauty where she struggled visibly during the Rose Adagio. Part was open about her frustration during that time period and considered leaving the company. But in 2009 things started to change. She danced with more confidence and control. There was one magical performance of La Bayadere where she was absolutely on fire. Nikya was always her best role -- her Shades scene was remarkable because she was able to exude both serenity and warmth. This was definitely an opium-induced haze that no one wanted to end. She was always beautiful and exotic and her back was flexible enough for the kind of slinky epaulement of Nikya, but that afternoon she also had complete security. There was no more wobbling, no falling out of a turn. he pirouettes in the Scarf pas de deux went off without a hitch.  She was taking risks just for fun. She ended the Shades scene coda by traveling backwards in arabesque and then going on pointe and holding one last triumphant balance. The audience erupted, and you could see the joy in her face and her body language.  Soon afterwards she was promoted to principal.

But even after the promotion she didn't dance as often as the other ABT principals (Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boyston, Hee Seo, and, in the past few years, Misty Copeland). When she did dance it was often during Wednesday matinees. Who knew why. Company politics? But I still didn't think the company would get rid of a dancer who could get through the full-length classics without much trouble and also had a fairly large fan base amongst ABT followers. But I don't make the decisions so ... The good news is that at least Sarah Lane finally got promoted to principal along with Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko.

Whiteside and Copeland, photo @ Andrea Mohin
So how was the performance? AfterEffect, Nutcracker pas de deux, and Souvenir d'un lieu cher were rather weak appetizers. AfterEffect is Marcelo Gomes' first big choreographic effort and he made a couple rookie mistakes: 1) slapping on a theme (the three main characters are called The Man, His Loss, and His Hope and the liner notes said this ballet was "to those that have fallen, and those who prevail" ) that had little to do with what was happening onstage; 2) choosing a grand, ambitious piece of music (Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence) without really knowing what to do with it and thus winding up with steps that didn't connect with the music; and 3) wanting to include a huge corps de ballet but being unable to utilize all those bodies onstage coherently. James Whiteside as The Man, Misty Copeland as His Loss, and Zhiyao Zhang as His Hope also emoted nothing that would have suggested this heavy theme. The best part of the ballet was actually the last two movements with the corps -- Calvin Royal (newly promoted to soloist) and Skylar Brandt both stood out for at least adding more than generalized energy to the piece.

Ratmansky's Nutcracker pas de deux is one of my least favorite choreographic efforts -- after all these years I still can't stand the sudden crying spurt, the cutesy peeking out from the wings, and most of all, the repetitive lifts that after awhile lost all impact because as soon as Marcelo Gomes had swung Hee Seo in one huge twirling lift there was another one! And another one! The torch lift was awkward -- there was no attempt to jump into it -- Hee Seo stood upstage, Marcelo walked towards her, and hoisted her up by the leg and supported her on the back. Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher was slight, but charming. Two couples (Devon Teuscher/David Hallberg, Cassandra Trenary/Tyler Maloney) love, argue, make up, break up, make up again all in about 14 minutes. The Hallberg/Teuscher pairing I guess was supposed to be the mature couple, the Trenary/Tyler pairing the youthful couple. The mature couple's relationship dissolves as the youthful couple become more smitten. Cassandra Trenary continues to be the best interpreter of Ratmansky -- her bubbly style found its perfect vessel in Ratmansky's very often childlike choreography.

Photo @ Kent G. Becker
The main event of the afternoon was of course Balanchine's sublime Mozartiana. Usually ABT and Balanchine are like oil and water -- the styles clash so much that I can't enjoy their Balanchine performances. But Maria Calegari did an amazing job staging Mozartiana -- no, ABT dancers do not dance it with the speed and crispness of NYCB, but the performance caught the essence of Mozartiana. When the curtain rose and Veronika Part was standing center stage, head lowered, with the student dancers besides her, one sensed a seriousness and concentration on Getting It Right that I don't always get when ABT does Balanchine. Part moved through the Preghiera with a magisterial grace that garnered applause. But one expected that of her. Arron Scott then danced the Gigue with minimal impact. However, Part and Blaine Hoven's Theme and Variations was gorgeous and delightful -- a little deliberate, but the sense of competition between The Woman and The Man, the way their variations both mirror and one-up each other, and their joint partnership as they dance together to the joyous finale, was all there. It was a delight to see them match pirouette to pirouette, to see them circling each other as if to say, "Wow, you can dance." When they finally held hands to dance together it was one of those Balanchine moments that hits you with unexpected emotion.

Hoven in Mozartiana, photo @Rosalie O'Connor
Then came the hastily organized farewell. Unlike the other farewells, this one was low-key. They skipped having each principal dancer and the retiring dancer's friends and family come onstage with bouquets. Perhaps the nicest moment was when the little girls each presented Veronika with a flower, and fans threw single roses onstage. Kevin McKenzie came out with some flowers, as did Alexei Ratmansky, Irina Kolpakova, Blaine Hoven, and finally Marcelo Gomes. Gomes is often said to be the rock of the company, and you could see that this afternoon -- he quietly pushed Veronika forward to let her bask in the audience's applause one last time.Throughout the proceedings Veronika was stoic. Her face didn't show much joy (how could she?) but she was a pro.

There was chatter that this wasn't a proper farewell for Veronika, that she deserved better. No arguments from me there. Veronika's dismissal was particularly graceless on the part of ABT. But Mozartiana in a way WAS a wonderful way to see her leave. Mozartiana was Balanchine's tribute not just to the Ballerina Goddess, but to Ballet. And so Veronika exited as a Queen, her head held as high as the heavens in the Preghiera, surrounded a kingdom of by adoring girls (the future), corps dancers (the heart), a jester (the laughter), and a consort (the love).

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls:

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Divine Miss M(urphy) in Hello! Dolly, and Bandstand

So last night I saw Hello Dolly! with the Divine Miss M and didn't have to donate a kidney! Of course the Divine Miss M in this case was Miss M(urphy). Some people in the audience muttered that they wanted to see Midler (I guess the sign to the left didn't tip them off?). But once Donna Murphy stepped off that trolley and started singing, I think the entire audience was like "Bette who?" Donna really sang the living daylights out of a role that's often associated with divas of a certain age with a limited vocal range. She can belt, she can interpolate high notes, she can sing while doing all sorts of physical comedy, in other words she was absolutely amazing! It was one of the most joyous nights in the theatre that I've ever experienced.

It's not really fair to compare the rest of the cast to how they were in March. That was early in previews and they were still figuring out what worked, what didn't, and the comic timing. What I can say though is how much they've grown over the past few months. Everyone is funnier, more extroverted, more of an ensemble. The award for Most Improved goes to David Hyde Pierce, whose timing in his lines is now actually hilarious, and his singing has become more confident as well.
"Penny in my Pocket" didn't seem like an end-of-intermission filler. Kate Baldwin has also made Irene Molloy a lot sexier. I also really noticed the antics of Jennifer Simard as Ernestina Money a lot more. Even performances that were excellent in previews (Gavin Creel's Cornelius, Taylor Trensch's Barnaby, Beanie Feldstein's Minnie) were that much funnier last night.

Minnie, Barnaby, Irene, Cornelius, photo @ Julieta Cervantes
Now Divine Miss M(urphy) vs. Divine Miss M(idler). I can't really say who is better -- it's apples and oranges. Bette's performance was more based on her old concert schticks, which the audience adored. I never saw her concerts, so some of the humor went past my head. Bette's comedy is more of the stand-up variety. For instance the little one-liners she would throw in during the "Hello Dolly!" production number were classic stand-up comedian tricks. Donna Murphy relies more on physical comedy/slapstick to get her laughs. She has a rather goofy, even girlish persona and a joie de vivre that was endearing. Donna's Dolly was also sexier. Murphy is such a beauty -- a real MILF (Matchmaker I'd Like to F...). Just one example: the famous eating scene became rather sexual with Murphy -- instead of just stuffing her face, Murphy had a multiple food orgasms. Her body shook and writhed with each dumpling. Also, I got more of a sense that this Dolly was really mentoring the young, stupid and in love crew (Cornelius, Barnaby, Minnie, etc.). It was more of an ensemble performance, perhaps because the audience wasn't so focused on seeing Bette.

The biggest difference between them was in vocal ability. Bette's voice is now showing its age, and so she conserves it for the big numbers, and there's no Broadway belting. This is not a bad thing -- in fact, the fragility of Midler's voice, its occasional raspiness, gives Dolly a more vulnerable sound. When Midler's Dolly says she's been struggling for 10 years, you believe her. Donna Murphy's on the other hand has a set of Pipes!!!  She could do things vocally that weren't possible for Bette. Added high notes, Ethel Merman-like belting. It was thrilling when she unleashed her voice -- THIS was a classic Broadway Voice with a capital V! Because her voice was so strong, Jerry Herman's score SOUNDED better. The end of "When the Parade Passes By" was thrilling with Donna's extra vocal flourish. Her vocal security also allowed her to do way more stage business while singing.

If you were to ask me which performance to see, I'll say: both interpretations are wonderful, but Donna's can be seen for less than three figures.

UPDATE: On July 2 I took my mom to see Hello Dolly! with the very same cast. My mom enjoyed the show a lot. She was especially taken by the dancing ensemble (Waiter's Gallop) was her favorite and Gavin/Kate/Taylor/Beanie as the four lovers, and especially Gavin and Taylor. She didn't really like the storyline of Dolly and Horace. "It doesn't resonate with me" she declared. She did like how both Dolly and Irene had to work for a living. But overall she loved the show. So ... definitely a good momsical choice.

I rarely stage door but this time I just wanted to express my appreciation towards the cast. They ALL came out and were very gracious and signing and pictures. Here's me with Donna Murphy, Beanie Feldstein, and Gavin Creel:

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The band, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
I also saw Bandstand last week. Bandstand manages to be one of those musicals with an excellent score and choreography but a book that's too unfocused to really be a great musical. Richard Oberacker's score both mimics the 1940's swing/big band style without sounding dated. "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home" I can imagine will be mined by Broadway divas long after Bandstand closes. The first is a classic torch song, the second a thrilling 11 o'clock number. Andy Blankenbuehler deservedly won a Tony for his choreography -- again, it's obviously based on 1940's style dance but also looks contemporary. So for the music and dancing, Bandstand is definitely worth seeing.

Osnes and Leavel, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
The cast is excellent -- most of them were obviously chosen for their ability to play their own musical instruments (this is one of those musicals where the singers are also the musicians), but they all exude a fresh charm. Corey Cott as Donny is given the thankless task of reciting some of the musical's most clichéd lines but he does so, can sing well, and isn't afraid to make Donny abrasive and unlikable. Laura Osnes (Julia) has an incredible set of pipes and the ability to take a rather loosely sketched, humorless character (she's a grieving widow who can write lyrics and sing, and that's about it) appealing. Beth Leavel has perhaps the best lines as Julia's mother and brings some much-needed comic relief to a story that's otherwise rather self-serious.

But the book can't decide what it wants to be -- a serious examination of the effects of PTSD among returning WWII vets, OR a good ol' Mickey-and-Judy-let's-put-on-a-show extravaganza OR a love story OR an indictment of the sleazy practices of the music business. It tries to do too much all at once and as a result makes little emotional impact. There's no follow-through with so many storylines. One minute the trombonist (Geoff Packard) has been kicked out of his house by his wife for erratic behavior, but in the second act his storyline is dropped completely and he's just in the band, playing happily. Other stories are telegraphed so obviously (like the one with Julia's late husband and Donny) that when the Big Reveal finally happens we're already impatient and ready to move on. Despite the wonderful voices, music, and choreography, Bandstand is definitely a missed opportunity.

But there are the songs. Isn't this gorgeous?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Farewell Diana

Diana and Marcelo's curtain calls
Tonight ABT bid farewell to one of its most beloved artists. After the fraught finale of Cranko's Onegin the sold out crowd screamed and yelled their appreciation for Diana Vishneva. Her longtime stage partner Marcelo Gomes hugged and comforted her. Confetti streamed down from above, the stage was covered in flowers, ABT colleagues marched onstage with hugs and more bouquets, and Diana looked simultaneously sad and elated as she basked in the love of the audience. Oh yeah, Diana's husband also made an appearance. The Diana and Marcelo Lovefest Curtain Call Routine was dialed up an extra notch tonight. He swung her around in an embrace as confetti fell. He fell to his knees in obeisance and she fell to her knees in response. She cried, they kissed, they nuzzled. It's really the Show After the Show. Usually I find their routine cloying, but this was her farewell, so it was almost cute.

Bedroom pas de deux, photo @ Gene Schiavone
Not much needs to be said about the performance -- Diana and Marcelo are old hats at this ballet and know exactly what to do with their roles. Their timing in their pas de deux is so precise, yet they're able to maintain the illusion of this spontaneous passion. Those lifts (torch lifts, upside down lifts, sideways lifts, one hand lifts, basically lifts in every position imaginable) looked effortless. Diana's portrayal of Tatiana eschewed some of the girlish mannerisms she had included in the past and thus had more sincerity. Her pliant back, expressive face, and soft arms were as exquisite as ever. Gomes usually is such a warm stage presence that the cold, priggish Onegin isn't a natural fit for him, but he also was able to make it work. His Onegin was a ladykiller who knew his effect on women. When he ripped up Tatiana's letter and crumpled it in her hands he walked away smugly, as if he'd made another conquest AND rejected said conquest. Onegin might not be the greatest ballet, but Diana and Marcelo's passion and commitment elevated the material. Roman Zhurbin made a winning Gremin -- stolid, but exuding a quiet decency that made Tatiana's loyalty understandable. Isabella Boylston (Olga) and Blaine Hoven (Lensky) were a nice, youthful foil for Diana and Marcelo's mature passion.

Here is a video of the curtain call that was uploaded to YT:

Flowers and confetti, photo @ George Etheredge
Diana was blessed in many ways. She was born with a classic stage face -- huge eyes, cherry lips, thick dark hair, that all managed to catch the light in the best way. Her face could look doll-like or sophisticated depending on the ballet. Her frame was petite but her limbs were elongated and her arms had that beautiful tapered look. She received the best training at the Vaganova Academy and became a star at both the Mariinsky and other companies around the world in record time. At ABT she found a wonderful partner first in Vladimir Malakhov and later in Marcelo Gomes. Just billing Vishneva and Gomes was often a sell-out for ABT -- the two of them complemented each other perfectly. His partnering skills always made her look stunning and her intensity pushed him to greater emotional heights. Their highly staged, over-the-top curtain calls (where Marcelo prostrates himself on one knee, and the two of them don't look at the audience, but instead kiss and nuzzle the whole time) became almost as anticipated as the performances themselves.

Vishneva and Gomes, photo @ Andrea Mohin
I first saw Diana Vishneva in 2006 performing Giselle. I still consider Giselle her best role. I saw Diana's Giselle several more times over the years and it was always a unique experience -- she put on tons of black eyeshadow, her face was ghost white, she added extra layers of tulle to her dress, and frankly looked scary. There was a fierceness to her Giselle that was unmatched. In Act 1 when she found out about Albrecht's betrayal she always ripped Bathilde's necklace and threw it on the floor with a ferocious rage. In the Mad Scene she avoided any lithographic prettiness as her mouth drooped open and her hair flew wildly all over her face. In the second act, the speed of her turns during the Wili initiation, the way she stared down Myrtha, and her habit of not pledging love to Albrecht during the final moments of the ballet made Giselle as much of a ghost story as a romance. It was unique and unforgettable. Marcelo Gomes was her Albrecht for the latter portion of her career but to me the most memorable Giselle was the one she did in 2006 with Vladimir Malakhov. I had never seen that kind of demented, off-kilter portrayal, and it made me rethink the entire ballet. Her later performances of the first act were tamer than the wild-child 2006 portrayal but she was still remarkable in her intensity and her Act 2 remained the same ghostly, spooky marvel.

Vishneva and Zverev in Ratmansky's Cinderella
Vishneva was a diverse artist in her prime. In later years she shrunk her classical ballet repertory. None of her other roles quite rose to the heights of her Giselle, but she was still a special artist in all of them. Her Nikya in Bayadere had all the Russian attributes -- flexible back, beautiful coiling arms, a way of infusing each step with beauty. At ABT she danced MacMillan's two most famous heroines: Manon and Juliet. Her Manon was seductive and calculating. and she and Gomes (de Grieux) had sizzling chemistry together. She was also a wonderfully passionate Juliet, although the kind of raw naturalism that MacMillan wanted isn't really in Diana's DNA. For a great rendition of her Juliet I recommend the commercial video from the Mariinsky. Lavrovsky's choreography fits her better. I adored her wistful, winsome Cinderella in Ratmansky's otherwise uneven version for the Mariinsky. When she toured with the Mariinsky in 2008 she performed a slinky, over-the-top Zobeide in Fokine's Scheherazade that really lit the stage on fire. It's a shame she only did Ashton's Sylvia a few times as she was wonderful as the huntress. A few not-so-memorable roles: her Odette/Odile was surprisingly low-impact, mannered and fussy. She couldn't save Alberto Alonso's atrocious Carmen. She also did not have the best taste in modern dance projects.

Vishneva as Aurora, photo @ Gene Schiavone
Diana's final and greatest triumph, however, was when I saw her Ratmansky's new/old Sleeping Beauty two years ago. She was by then nearly 40 and there was chatter about whether she'd be able to fulfill the requirements of a ballet that is considered the ultimate test of classical technique. No one should have worried. Vishneva put on a master class for the youngsters on how it's done. She was the only Aurora I saw who conquered all the technical challenges of the role, and her characterization of Aurora really made an arc from young and bubbly to dignified and queenly. When she held that final triumphant balance in the Rose Adagio, the audience started roaring and for good reason.

This is Diana's own lovely tribute to her time at ABT. I think it speaks for itself. Farewell Diana. She was that rare combo: a true artist, a true ballerina, and a true star. ABT audiences were lucky that this star traveled to this galaxy. She was one-of-a-kind and will be missed.

This is my tribute; my words of heartfelt gratitude. A tribute to the company that, many years ago, has become part of my life, and has always felt like a second home. Of my 22 years on stage, thirteen have been shared with the ABT. Not that long, one may say, but to me, this equals to a lifetime! The ABT is a troupe like no other. The passion and dedication of its artists are truly rare for a large company; everyone will be there for you; everyone will lend you their shoulder, share your joy and your sorrow. The years with the ABT are now an inseparable, treasured part of my soul. Among the people I’ve had the honour of working with over those thirteen years, some are no longer with us; others are no longer in dance, but the moments spent together, our show times and our rehearsals, remain in my heart. On the Met stage, you breathe in the thrillingly vibrant energy of New York and sense its rhythm as it fills every cell of your body. I have experienced that while at the ABT, and this magical experience will stay with me as long as I live. Life is cyclic, and I’m sure I will keep meeting my friends from the ABT both on and off stage. This is why today doesn’t feel like parting ways. How would one forget all the love and warmth of those thirteen beautiful years? No farewells, then. Fair winds! @abtofficial #dianavishnevaabtfarewell
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Friday, June 16, 2017

Sarah Lane's Swan Lake

Sarah Lane and Danil Simkin
Last night Sarah Lane made a last-minute substitution for an injured Maria Kochetkova in Swan Lake. This was Sarah's New York debut in the role, and after a banner season where she's triumphed in Ratmansky's Whipped Cream and Giselle, the buzz and anticipation in the sold-out auditorium was high. It was generally thought that if Sarah could bring down the house as Odette/Odile, a promotion to principal would happen.

Odette/Odile is not as natural of a fit for Lane as Giselle. Sarah Lane doesn't have a physique that screams "swan." She's petite and her limbs are beautifully proportioned but not elongated. Her extension is decent but without the height and dimensions she did not fit the aesthetic of the traditional Swan Queen. Also, she's a natural allegro dancer with fast limbs and quick footwork. (Whipped Cream took advantage of this to an absurd degree.) The drawn out adagio movements of Odette were sometimes clipped short -- no languorous poses. With that being said, it's remarkable what she was able to do as Odette. Her arms are soft and fluttery. Not the majestic flapping arms, but certainly boneless enough. She has a wonderfully flexible, pliant back. Her Odette variation was marvelous -- those sissones that seemed to scream "I want to be free!" along with a fast. exciting coda that established Odette's independent spirit. And as always with this dancer, there's this quiet intensity that is riveting to watch.

She had a worthy partner in Daniil Simkin. Simkin put aside his usual arsenal of tricks and partnered Sarah beautifully in the lakeside scene. The overhead lifts went off without a hitch. What's more, Simkin did something that also doesn't come naturally to him -- he emoted. This was a Siegfried who was in awe of Odette. He often lowered his head as if in obeisance to her. Simkin's youthful look gave us a reminder that this prince is young and wet behind the ears. He's not Albrecht.

After the white lakeside act was over the general consensus was that Sarah would have an easier time with Odile. Alas, this was not the case. Sarah's Odile came across as incomplete in characterization -- more rehearsal time no doubt would have helped. She smiled a lot directly towards the audience but didn't project much besides a vague coquettishness. The tender rapport that she and Simkin had in the lakeside scene did not carry over to the Black Swan pas de deux. There were a few partnering bobbles, nothing major, but enough to throw off the flow of the adagio. Sarah's Odile variation was technically fine, but she hasn't figured out the trick of dancing for the ballroom crowd yet. The exhibitionism that is very much a part of Odile wasn't there with Lane. And ... those 32 fouettés. Sarah started strong -- single, single, double, but abruptly stumbled out of them with some extra music to go, and couldn't hide her disappointment. So the moment of triumph for Odile was overshadowed by Lane's visibly crestfallen demeanor. There's no doubt Sarah has a better Swan Lake performance in her. Hope she's given another chance.

Speaking of those fouettés -- ABT audiences often complain that there's a lack of consistency and artistry in the 8 week Met season. Well, I'm just going to put it out there that ABT's audience is part of that problem. Much of the audience seems to only care about the fouettés (which is about one minute of music in a 2.5 hour ballet) -- after Sarah fell out of her sequence, she received nothing but golf claps. This couldn't have been good for her nerves and for her future performances. Likewise, Daniil did not get applause until he started doing his usual fast turns, double tours, and other tricks. As long as the audience continues to treat the ballet as a display of circus tricks, ABT has no reason to coach dancers to focus on the finer details. Just churn out 32 fouettés (for the women) and 540's (for the men) and you're good.

This was illustrated last night by the audience APPLAUDING Simkin as he jumped into the lake and made an impressive arc with his body. Come on now. That's just vulgar. And the audience ignored the very beautiful final duet between Odette and Siegfried. Purple Rothbart (Alban Lendorf last night) usually gets the loudest cheers of the night for a very brief if flashy solo.

Alban Lendorf as Purple Rothbart
As for the production, I've avoided it for years and I'm not in a hurry to revisit. It's a very basic Swan Lake which captures little of the poetry of the ballet. First of all, Purple Rothbart: he's become a huge audience favorite but he adds nothing to the story. The fourth act is abridged beyond recognition -- the beautiful, mournful dances of the swans has become reduced to some marching in front of what I call the "swamp curtain." The whole thing lasts 12 minutes, of which way too many are taken up by the Green Swamp Thing gyrating in the background. Only the Ivanov-choreographed lakeside scene isn't really tarred by the general Disney-ish, shallow feel of the production. The swan corps were very sloppy last night -- arms, wrists, and fingers all not in sync, many sickled feet. The pas de trois was well-danced by Joseph Gorak, Cassandra Trenary and Skylar Brandt but Gorak's been dancing this number for years. It can't be good for his morale that he's still stuck with the pas de trois.

Will Sarah be promoted to principal? Will ABT finally provide its dancers with the coaching and support they need? Will ABT's audience ever learn to look beyond the obvious tricks and learn to appreciate the subtler artistic details? I hope so, I hope so, and I hope so.

I mean, last night's couple only had four rehearsals. Wow.

ETA (June 17, 2017): Word came today that Uliana Lopatkina, the longtime ballerina of the Mariinsky, has retired. I didn't see Lopatkina as often as I would have liked, but the times I did see her the beauty and artistry of her dancing was unforgettable. Her Swan Lake lives in my memory as far and away the greatest Odette/Odile I ever saw, and reckon I'll ever see. She made time stand still with her uniquely mournful, elegiac Swan Queen. I was also fortunate enough to see her dance her cameo specialties such as The Dying Swan, La Rose Malade, and even some Balanchine: her adagio in Symphony in C was a master class of control. Her Nikya in La Bayadere was a bit too remote for me, but I couldn't argue with the beauty of her dancing. But Lopatkina's artistry extended even to pieces that were frankly sub-par. I remember beautiful legs and feet slicing through the trite choreography of Alberto Alonso's Carmen -- she alone made something sexy out of this tripe.

An amazing ballerina. She will be missed.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Spring Diaries: A Doll's House Part 2, SAB Workshop, Le Corsaire

Danil Simkin as Lankedem
Over this week I attended a mishmash of performances. They ranged from good to mixed to awful.

Let's start with the good: a fun, entertaining performance of Le Corsaire from ABT. This season at ABT the principal women have been falling like flies due to injury (currently, Isabella Boylston, Veronika Part, Gillian Murphy and Maria Kochetkova are on the DL list). What this has meant is lots of opportunities for soloists, and the 6/8 performance showcased the talents both of veteran soloist Sarah Lane (Gulnare) and the newer Skylar Brandt (Medora). These two talented ladies managed to grab attention away from the men, whose pirate's chest full of ballet tricks usually dominate the ballet.

Skylar Brandt is a winning combination of technique, charm, and beauty. She has a natural stage face -- her large eyes capture the light. Her technique is formidable -- in act one her solo had attitude turns followed by triple pirouettes. You can see how strong her core is during the lifts -- she was so solid and never moved from position. But she's not just about the tricks. She has lovely arms, beautifully tapered legs and feet. She's small but dances big. Her pas de trois with Herman Cornejo and Jeffrey Cirio showed off her elegant line and tasteful style. Her fouttés were centered and clean in form and she sprinkled some doubles in the sequence. Later she did some clean, balanced Italian fouettés. Her portrayal also had an ebullience and sincerity that made Le Corsaire much less of a circus than usual.

This is Sarah Lane's season -- she's dancing with so much confidence and control. Her Gulnare was delightful. Her pas de deux with Simkin in Act One was wonderful. She did a beautiful series of backwards traveling changements and also held an extra long balance. She and Skylar were both beautiful in the Jardin Animé scene. The three Odalisques were mixed -- Cassandra Trenary as the first Odalisque was fast and crisp in the first variation, Katherine Williams charming in the second one, with those brisés but April Giangusero's Third Odalisque variation (a diagonal of pirouettes) didn't generate much speed or excitement and she fell awkwardly out of a final pique turn.

Now, the men: Herman Cornejo seems fully recovered from his injury, and his partnering of the petite Brandt was superb. Didn't think I'd ever see the day when Herman could do a Soviet-style upside down lift without any apparent effort, but I saw it tonight. His characterization of the pirate Conrad was full of his usual machismo and his cabrioles remain one of the 7 wonders of the ballet world. Jeffrey Cirio as Ali also has an impressive array of tricks, including a deliberately decelerating triple pirouette that ends with him sitting on the floor. But he doesn't really have the feline, exotic grace often associated with this role. Daniil Simkin as Lankendem has maybe the most impressive war chest and that's ironically his biggest limitation -- it's like he never developed out of that gala circuit mentality. But his Lankendem was funny and of course he ended with the obligatory 540. Craig Salstein (Birbanto) continues to be ABT's best character dancer followed closely by Roman Zhurbin (Pasha).

The production is colorful but garish -- the hot pink tutus in the Jardin Animé scene. And let's not get into the racism and misogyny in the story, which ABT matter of factly prints out in its program: "Dealers and buyers fill a noisy bazaar where slaved girls are being treated. Conrad and his men arrive as Lankedem, the owner of the bazaar, is selling girls." Yeah, better not think about the story too much.

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A week ago I saw the highly acclaimed A Doll's House Part 2. This quasi-sequel of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House got glowing reviews and is nominated for 8 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Actress, Actor, Featured Actress (two nominations), Best Director.  I didn't know quite what to expect.

Metcalf, Cooper and Houdyshell, photo by Brigitte Lacombe
It ended up being bar none the most disappointing theatrical performance this year. And maybe of all time? I really can't think of anything good about this play. Lucas Hnath's writing sounds like a womens' studies dissertation defense. The formula went like this: Nora presents her dissertation about freedom/marriage/empowerment, one of Torvald (Chris Cooper), Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), or Emmy (Condola Rashad) challenge Nora on her thesis, and Nora defends her dissertation thesis some more. Wash, rinse, repeat for 1.5 hours. The whole time I wanted to scream "No one talks like this! You are not in academia!" By reducing Nora to a series of feminist tropes, it's taken all the complexity out of the Ibsen character.

I was also unimpressed by the acting. Laurie Metcalf projects a confidence that is fitting for the character but she's also one of those actresses who thinks shouting + exaggerated facial expressions + bug eyes = Acting. She made no attempt to temper her lectures with a conversational tone. It was just lecture, emote, lecture, emote, lecture, emote. Chris Cooper (Torvald) took the opposite approach which was mumble, make droopy eyes, mumble some more. Condola Rashad played Emmy as an automaton with a stiff, artificial speaking cadence. I don't know whether this was an accident or not but again, it made Emmy seem manufactured and not real. Only Jayne Houdyshell approached anything close a flesh and blood characterization. Boo. At least I got the tickets on TDF. Couldn't imagine paying full price for this stuff.

Darius Black, Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Roman Mejia, photo @ Paul Kolnik

The SAB workshop this year also didn't have the excitement and quality of last year's workshop. Part of it was the programming -- Christopher Wheeldon's Scènes de Ballet, Peter Martins' Hallelujah Junction and Balanchine's Scotch Symphony are not the most exciting works.  The Wheeldon is one of those "ballet class as ballet" works. The central motif is that there's a barre down the middle and on each side dancers are doing symmetrical moves, so it gives the illusion that they're dancing in front of a mirror. It involved 64 students. It's cute and harmless enough, but doesn't really showcase the talents of any individual dancers and Wheeldon doesn't develop or deepen this idea as the ballet progresses. A more creative choreographer might have had the dancers increasingly unhappy with their look in the mirror. Something. So this number ended up being both charming and tedious.

Hallelujah Junction is one of Martins' best works and it has plenty of opportunity for bravura dancing. In the evening performance Roman Mejia (son of Paul Mejia, Suzanne Farrell's ex-husband) wowed the crowd with various bravura steps and Mary Thomas MacKinnon (sister of NYCB corps member Olivia MacKinnon) and Darius Black were also impressive. The dancing was so exciting that Martins' Hallelujah Junction, became an audience hit (and Martins and "audience hit" rarely are ever in the same sentence). With all the cheering that went on during yet another bravura sequence Hallelujah Junction started to feel like a YAGP gala.

Domini and Zuniga, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Thankfully the program closed out with some Balanchine, even if its B-list Balanchine. Scotch Symphony has lovely costumes (pretty pink dresses for the girls, fancy looking kilts for the men), but the choreography just isn't all that interesting. Balanchine's corps work is usually masterful but here it was bland and unmemorable. The most amusing choreography is for a small girl dressed en travesti in mens' kilts  -- in yesterday's performance, the bubbly, fleet footed Amarra Hong. The central couple were Andres Zuniga and Gabriella Domini. There were definitely some performance nerves and awkward partnering moments but they're young. Domini has a winning, dignified stage presence and Zuniga has lovely petit batterie.

The SAB workshops are always worth attending. I hope next year's program will be more appealing.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gisellex3: Hello David! Bravo Marcelo! Brava Stella and Sarah!

Hallberg and Murphy, photo @ Kent G. Becker

I saw three (!!!) Giselles in ABT's spring season. And in a way, each Giselle was a celebration -- the first celebrated the return of a beloved dancer whom many feared was lost to injury forever. The second performance celebrated the 20th anniversary of a company treasure. The third performance celebrated a long-time soloist's chance to shine in the spotlight.

Albrecht was the last role I saw David Hallberg dance nearly three years ago. Then came the devastating injury. Every year balletomanes hoped to see him again and he didn't appear. He disappeared from social media, so much so that when he finally posted on Instagram again the caption read "emerging from the shadows." Turns out he has spent the last year in Australia for intense physical therapy. The May 27 performance of Giselle at the ABT was therefore the kind of event where you see as many dancers in the audience as balletomanes. I saw Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz, Allegra Kent, and a bunch of other former and current dancers all in the audience, cheering on this magnificent dancer.

So ... how was he? Well, he's very much the same dancer. His jumps are more careful and his solos perhaps not as penny-whistle clean as they might have been pre-injury. He was also a bit ginger with the overhead lifts in the Act 2 pas de deux. But the beautiful feet, the classical line, the austere stage manner, the soaring jump, were all there. In Act Two I could hear a collective gasp when he walked upstage to do his 24 entrechat sixes. The audience started applauding almost immediately. His characterization was also the same as I remembered it -- sort of an aristocratic icicle, whose aloofness is part of the charm. Some might prefer a more emotive Albrecht but Hallberg's characterization works for him. The company suffered in his absence. Welcome back!

The rest of the performance was not on Hallberg's level. Gillian Murphy was making her New York debut as Giselle and Stella Abrera was Myrtha. Gillian's Giselle was professional, well-danced, but she was essentially miscast -- she's not really a Romantic ballerina. Her upper body doesn't have the softness required for this sort of ballet, nor does she have the light airy jumps. And as a portrayal she didn't convince either. She doesn't exude frailty -- she looks like a hearty, healthy, happy village lass. Her Spessitvseva variation had great hops on pointe but her upper body just didn't sing "I'm in love." In Act Two there wasn't a sense of a spirit healing and saving Albrecht -- there's something too down to earth with Murphy for her to pull that off. I understand that she has been suffering from an injury but the steps in Act Two were fine, although there was some wobbliness in the exposed developpé-to arabesque penchée that starts the grand pas de deux.  Still, steps or no steps, it wasn't a Giselle. She checked the boxes and that was it. The romantic chemistry with Hallberg was not there either. I've seen them paired in a number of ballets together and they always exude a brother/sister vibe.

Abrera as Myrtha, photo @ Gene Schaivone
Stella Abrera's Myrtha is a well-known portrayal. She was commanding, and her face had a ghostly pallor that was spooky. Overall it was odd casting -- Abrera is the natural Giselle, with those wispy arms and soft, pliant upper body, while Murphy's powerhouse technique and rigid, block-like torso makes her a more natural Myrtha (a part she's played beautifully for many years). In the peasant pas de deux Joseph Gorak and Skylar Brandt were very charming. Gorak has a clean style and beautiful form -- wonder why his career at ABT has stalled.  Brandt continues to be one of the most promising soloists -- I actually can't wait for her to dance Giselle one day. Craig Salstein was a wonderful Hilarion -- you felt for the poor guy when he threw the flowers he'd left on Giselle's doorstep away. The Wilis were the usual ABT level -- not great, with a few sagging legs and sickled feet which were the most noticeable in  those famous arabesque chug across the stage.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. At the curtain calls he looked introspective. This has obviously been a painful journey back to ballet. Let's see what the future holds.

Marcelo and Stella, photo @ Kent G. Becker

The May 30th performance celebrated Marcelo Gomes' 20th anniversary with the company. Gomes has always been ABT's rock -- the company's best partner and one of the most versatile dancers. In recent years Marcelo has been scaling back his performances. There is a heaviness to his dancing now -- the jumps are lower, the landings not as soft, and in those parallel assemblés with Giselle in Act 2 he didn't cover that much space. But in other ways but this performance of Giselle showed that he's still got IT -- in Act 2 he lifted Stella in those parallel press lifts like she was paper. His partnering was beautiful in the pas de deux. He also completed a clean set of entrechats. Moreover, his portrayal of Albrecht is still convincing -- not the icy prince of David Hallberg. Sort of a rakish playboy. If you follow Marcelo's Instagram you know that he has a wonderful sense of humor. His Albrecht has the same joie de vivre. I hope he continues to dance with ABT for many years to come, even if it's character roles. His Widow Simone was one of the funniest performances I've ever seen.

Abrera as Giselle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Marcelo's partner for this evening was the eternally lovely Stella Abrera. Abrera, unlike Gillian Murphy, is a natural Giselle. She skips out the house and you love her. She pledges her love to Albrecht and your heart aches for her.  She emerges from the grave in Act 2, her whole face drained of life, and a chill goes up your spine. One caveat: her mad scene reads as slightly calculated and mechanical. Her performance was not technically perfect -- her Act 1 variation had a shaky moment when she put her free leg down, readjusted, then completed the hops on pointe. But as with most special artists you focus on what she can do more than what she can't. Her light, airy jump (those assemblés just floated across the stage and her entrechats were so fast and buoyant), her wispy arms, her pliant upper body, her sweet demeanor, all of these made for a wonderful Giselle.

Christine Schevchenko's Myrtha was not on the level of Abrera's Myrtha. But she's still growing in the role. Cassandra Trenary was wonderful in the peasant pas de deux, Blaine Hoven less so -- he was rather sloppy in his variation and frankly looked out of shape. Thomas Forster's Hilarion was also not as articulate with the mime as Craig Salstein. The two Wili attendants Melanie Hamrick and April Giangusero were very consistent throughout the run.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls and celebration of Marcelo. Watch the fun moment at 1:40:

Lane and Cornejo
It was the third Giselle on 5/31, however, that will live in my memory. This Giselle almost didn't happen -- Herman Cornejo was originally scheduled to dance with Maria Kochetkova. But Maria got injured, and so Sarah Lane subbed for her. And she is quite simply on the short list for the best Giselle I've ever seen (and this list includes Diana Vishneva, Natalia Osipova, Alina Cojocaru, and Nina Ananiashvilli).

This was one of those magical performances where everyone was on. Even the peasant pas de deux was clean and bouncy and added to the story rather than serving as a placeholder. Cassandra Trenary's pirouettes and sustained arabesques were lovely, and Gabe Stone Shayer had some very clean cabrioles in his variation.  Christine Shevchenko's Myrtha was much more elevated and intense tonight -- she just seemed to jump higher and farther. Craig Salstein repeated his poignant portrayal of Hilarion.

But the heart of the performance was Sarah Lane's unforgettable account of the title role. What separated Lane from Abrera and Murphy was: 1) her technical security; and 2) the intensity of her portrayal. The technical security allowed her to roll her foot down from arabesque to pencheé without any obvious gear shifting, and to hop across the stage on pointe as if it were the easiest thing in the world in the Act 1 variation. It allowed her to transform herself from a still ghost to a whirling frenzy in the Wili initiation scene. Her turns in attitude were faster than anyone I've ever seen, except for maybe Osipova. It allowed her to hold the sustained developpé and arabesques without any apparent effort, and for her to fly across the stage in any form of jump, be it the assemblés, sissones, entrechats, the soubresauts, or the grand jetés. It's obvious she prepared meticulously for this opportunity and grabbed the brass ring.

But all this would have been for naught had there not been a strong characterization. Lane's Giselle despite her pretty, petite girlish looks was almost frightening in her intensity. The emphatic, desperate way she clung to Albrecht, or implored her mother to let her dance, or glanced at Bathilde (Brittany DeGrofft) with a mix of envy and admiration, all set her apart from the rest of the village girls. In the Act 1 variation she kept looking at Albrecht with a mix of adoration and lust. In the mad scene instead of moving carefully from iconic pose to iconic pose she danced feverishly until she fell to the ground in exhaustion. It was an eerie foreshadowing of Act 2. And the intensity extended to the more abstract second act. For the first time I could clearly see Giselle imploring, no, commanding, Albrecht to get up and dance. When Giselle held up her two fingers as a final pledge of love you believed her, and thus you believed in Gautier's tragedy.

Herman Cornejo had wonderful chemistry with Lane. You can see where he's still injured -- his free leg seemed stiff, and he had difficulty lifting his leg in arabesque. But his cabrioles are still the highest, the freest, the most expansive, and he completed two wonderful diagonals of brisés. The brises make more sense than the entrechats dramatically -- the brisé diagonal looks like Myrtha's force is drawing Albrecht to his doom. And his partnering was fine. Only the first press lift had a somewhat awkward position and exit. His portrayal also matched Lane's intensity. This couple in the first act were all over each other. They couldn't stop hugging, kissing, caressing each other. This was a love story, not just a nobleman having some fun.

Sarah Lane has been a soloist for a long time, and she's seen opportunities slip away. But after this performance of Giselle, I don't know how she can not be principal. This was indeed a celebration of her hard work and dedication.

And here is her Instagram showing that after such a show, she still has a sense of humor:
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Friday, May 26, 2017

Here/Now ends with a whimper; Little Foxes

Concerto DSCH with Bouder and de Luz, photo @ Paul Kolnik
A matinee performance on Saturday, May 20 (officially titled Here/Now No. 9) was perhaps the single most dispiriting afternoon I've ever spent at NYCB. The program presented six different works. By the end of the fourth week of the Here/Now festival the number of injuries was staggering -- every week had a multitude of casting changes.  The dancers, usually so chipper on social media, had resorted to venting and more venting. Georgina Pazcoguin's wry line "To those who fell, to those who made it (extra kudos) and to those ballets we will never see again..." pretty much summed it up.

Reichlen in Red Angels
The first work on this program was something called Red Angels. Four dancers in red unitards stood in four separate spotlights and gyrated for 10 minutes. It actually pained me to see Tess Reichlen and Preston Chamblee, both so gorgeous in physique, reduced to this sort of junk. Then we had Varied Trio, in which the talents of Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley were wasted doing ... uh, I don't remember. That's how memorable the ballet was. But the worst was Myles Thatcher's Polaris, where 13 minutes felt like 13 hours in an excruciatingly boring ballet of nothingness. And of course there was the ubiquitous, cloying After the Rain. Of this long program (2.5 hours), only Barber Violin Concerto and Concerto DSCH had any choreographic value.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ratmansky's Whipped Cream is Empty Calories

Princess Praline and Boy (Lane and Simkin), photo @Matt Masin

ABT's spring gala began with the usual boring speeches, and then an announcement from Kevin McKenzie that he was basically giving choreographer Alexei Ratmansky a blank check -- the "Ratmansky Project" would allow this prolific choreographer $15 million to create ballets for the next five years. Ratmansky is obviously a hot commodity and ABT will do anything to keep him -- a few weeks ago, his new piece Odessa was also the raison d'etre of New York City Ballet's Spring Gala.

The Sweet Shop, photo @ Gene Schiavone
And then the eagerly awaited New York debut of Whipped Cream. This ballet had its premiere in Costa Mesa in March. Everyone marveled at Mark Ryden's sets and costumes. And when the curtain went up, I looked at the sets and costumes and thought, wow, they are amazing!!! They look like a Macy's Thanksgiving float come to life, with enormous blinking and moving stuffed animals, tutus that contain expertly wrinkled tea leaves, and an army of corps girls that actually look like puffs of whipped cream. This is the ballet for the sort of balletomane who is obsessed with opulent designs and fabrics.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Groundhog Day and Who Deserves the Tony?

Andy Karl as the Weatherman stuck in February 2. Photo @ Sara Krulwich

Well I did something I never thought possible -- this afternoon I saw Groundhog Day: The Musical and with that I've seen all four musicals up for a Tony for Best Musical.  I've also now seen the two actors thought to be in hot contention for Best Actor in a Musical: Dear Evan Hansen's Ben Platt vs. Groundhog Day's Andy Karl.

How did I like Groundhog Day? Well ... uh ... I liked the parts more than the whole, if that makes sense. I LOVED Tim Minchin's breezy, catchy, compulsively listenable score. I think "Small Town, USA," "Nobody Cares," "One Day," "Night Will Come," "Seeing You," are all great songs and the strength of the score will give Groundhog Day a life after award seasons are over. I also LOVED Andy Karl's smarmy, smug Phil Connors. He plays the character totally different from Bill Murray -- Murray is all sarcastic bite, Karl is a glib pump-and-dump playboy. Andy Karl actually looks like those vapidly handsome weathermen that populate the local news. His voice is also sleepily seductive. In other words, he wins you over even though for most of the show he's a Class A jerk. I know Karl hurt his knee during previews and he wears a leg brace that he now uses for comic effect in the scene with the fur coat (you have to watch the show to get it).

Friday, May 5, 2017

Spring Gala: New Ratmansky, Old Gala Warhorses

Cast of Odessa, photo @ Andrea Mohin

Spring Gala at the New York City Ballet is traditionally a more substantive, dance-heavy evening than the Fall Fashion Gala. The good news: dance lovers often line the third and fourth rings dressed in non-designer clothes because they love ballet. The bad news: the ballets.

The raison d'etre for last night's gala was Alexei Ratmansky's new piece for City Ballet. Ratmansky's batting average at the NYCB has been 4/4 -- Russian Seasons (2006), Concerto DSCH (2008), Namouna (2010), and Pictures at an Exhibition (2014) have all traveled widely to other companies and are considered modern classics. My expectations were sky-high for his new work Odessa.