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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Parsifal Lifts the Spirits and Heals the Soul

Parsifal, photo @ Ken Howard

Five years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I've seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner's final work. And so with my Parsifal prep package of snacks, juice, a pen to take notes, and ipad to read during the 40+ minute intermissions, off I went.

Looking back the 2013 production really assembled a dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin were just about perfect and Katerina Dalayman was very good. It was with some trepidation that I approached the 2018 revival cast. I'd never heard Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius live but what I had heard of them through videos and recordings I hadn't particularly liked. And Parsifal is one of those works where you better like those voices, because you're stuck with them for six hours.

Pape and Mattei, photo @ Ken Howard
So how was the revival? The good news first: René Pape (Gurmenanz) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas) anchored the first and third acts with performances that were every bit as fine as their 2013 portrayals. Pape's voice has lost a bit in volume -- in the third act monologue he actually was drowned out by the orchestra. But the richness and beauty of his voice are very much intact, and as a result he could make the long monologues really sing. For example the expository monologue on Klingsor's "unmanning" can meander but with Pape's magnificent bass I was riveted. He's not much of an actor though. Pape has always been about The Voice. I do wish his Gurmenanz could have been more specific with the acting but that's a small gripe.

He is capable of much more detailed acting. Just look at this clip of him in the Tcherniakov production:

Peter Mattei's Amfortas is a master class of what Wagner sounds like when sung with legato 100% of the time. There's no barking, there's no snarled consonants. Amfortas' anguished monologues actually sounded like bel canto mad scenes, with his voice flying and soaring. Blood poisoning never sounded so beautiful. "Mein vater!" was especially heart-rending. Dramatically he hit all the right notes. He's naturally one of those tall handsome barihunks but his lanky body crumpled over with pain. And his handsome face added another dimension to this Amfortas -- one could totally believe that once upon a time this King was a ladies man. Bravo. This is a classic performance. He got by far the loudest ovation of the night at the curtain calls.

Nikitin chewing the scenery, photo @ Ken Howard
Evgeny Nikitin also reprised his portrayal of Klingsor and was a fun, over the top villain. His voice is very different from the mellifluous voices of Pape and Mattei. There was definitely some Bayreuth bark in his voice but it was appropriate, and he chewed the scenery and left blood on the stage (pun intended). The Flower Maidens sounded absolutely lovely, like real sirens, and I love their look: the dark hair, the spears, the white nightgowns.

Herlitzius and Vogt, photo @ Ken Howard
Evelyn Herlitzius has one of those thin, screechy shrill voices that somehow always find their way to Kundry/Elektra/Ortud. Dramatically she throws herself into the part, but vocally there's nothing seductive or sensuous about her sound, so her as the raison d'etre of Klingsor's Castle of Temptation strains belief. She does do the big octave drop in "Ich sah ihn und lachte" well. And she does a good cackle. But this is a voice I just don't want to hear again.

Klaus Florian Vogt's voice was definitely a surprise. I had heard him on recordings and always wondered how that high boy soprano sound would carry in a big house over a Wagnerian orchestra. Well Vogt has plenty of volume. You could always hear him. And that flute-like voice is preferable to the old fashioned helden-barkers. What he does not have is a voice that has enough color to make the big moments have any real impact. For instance "Amfortas! Die wunde!" is Parsifal's epiphany and I remember when Jonas Kaufmann sang it 5 years ago it shook me out of my seat. The same moment went for nothing with Vogt. I realize I'm in the minority on this one but I preferred Kaufmann to Vogt.

Here's a back to back comparison of the two tenors in the same moment:

I was also disappointed by Vogt's acting. He looked bored much of the time. In Act Two there was no sense that Parsifal is tempted by Kundry and exploring his own sexual desires. Vogt's body language conveyed nothing but "I better not get any blood on my clothes." He also spent 95% of the time staring at the prompter, which sometimes involved a pivot of the head that Joey from Friends immortalized as "smell the fart" acting. In Act Three Vogt looked disengaged. Parsifal is supposed to be a "pure fool, enlightened by compassion." Vogt plays the "pure fool" bit well but doesn't give his Parsifal enough of an emotional arc so his final anointment as the leader of the Knights of Grail has less impact than it should.

Yannick Nezét Séguin led a performance that was better in the more dissonant, exciting portions of the work. For instance the stormy music that continues throughout Act Two had incredible momentum. He did less well with the quieter, more contemplative moments of the score. The Vorspiel sounded beautiful but the Transformation was oddly ponderous and the Dresden amen music was not as ethereal as it could have been. The orchestration calls for seven harps for chrissakes! The performance was also anchored by the magnificent Met chorus, who were stunning in the Transformation Music and the finale of the opera.

The Francois Girard production is a mixed bag. I think Act One is the best-staged with the men and woman on opposite sides of a chasm that looks suspiciously like a female genital organ. Girard depicts the knights as a closed society/cult, and the rot within the society is a result of its narrow minded worldview. At the end of Act One the crevice opens to a visible vagina and Parisfal lies down on his stomach and peers into the hole. Very subtle. But in general this act conveys the ambiguous feelings about women and sexuality that the knights have.

The infamous bloody vagina, photo @ Ken Howard

Act 2 opens in the infamous bloody vagina which actually dilates (heh) at Parsifal's entrance. The Flower Maidens have the toughest job of all in this act -- they are onstage for the entire 70 minutes or so. One Flower Maiden passed out an a crew guy walked onstage via the stage right wing and carried the poor thing offstage. The idea for this act might have been clever but I've seen two casts and it's hard to make this act work dramatically when singers seem so uncomfortable. Both Kaufmann and Vogt fought a valiant fight of emerging from Act 2 without blood on their hands (pun intended), while Dalayman and Herlitzius struggled to come across as seductive while their nighties were soaked with the fake blood. Also one of the biggest moments of the opera came and went -- when Klingsor "throws" the spear at Parsifal in this production Vogt just turned his back and made a "talk to the hand" gesture to Klingsor. This not-so-polite brushoff freezes Klingsor and voila the spear is Parsifal's and Klingsor's Castle falls apart but not before the Flower Maidens dip their hair in the blood one more time. This actually elicited giggles from the audience.

Vogt and the Grail, photo @ Ken Howard
Act 3 is a barren post-apocalyptic world (of course), and onscreen projections seem to indicate a lunar eclipse. But this is where Girard sort of runs out of ideas. Parsifal is anointed the "redeemer" by ... getting a fresh white shirt. (For those keeping track, unlike Kaufmann Vogt does not go shirtless in this production.) During the final moments of the opera the Knights of the Grail also dramatically shed their dark jackets and all are wearing white shirts. The women now co-mingle with the men. Kundry takes out the grail and gives it to Parsifal. The end.

I think that there's quite a few things about the Parsifal libretto that are disturbing -- the fact that Amfortas is punished so severely for one moment of temptation and the linking of Kundry to Herodias brings some icky feelings of misogyny and anti-Semitism into the work. However it should be noted that Kundry is the only explicitly Jewish character Wagner ever wrote. There's theories on Alberich, Beckmesser and Mime but they are just theories. And Kundry the not-so-nice Jewish girl is treated with compassion by Wagner.

But ... this is the most important part. When Parsifal finally healed Amfortas with the spear and as the  mesmerizing Dreden Amen music played I started crying. Not just a few tears. I was having an ugly cry in my seat. The ending of this opera is full of beauty and hope. In 2018, the idea of compassion, forgiveness and healing is so powerful. Parsifal is not just an opera , it's an experience that lifts the spirits and heals the soul.

By the way, here's my Parsifal prep packet;

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: The Groundhog Says Six More Weeks of Winter ...

Amazing Groundhog Day Four Seasons cast
February 2, 2018 - Groundhog Day. And according to the weathermen, the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter! It was fitting then that NYCB's second week of the winter season showed a company getting its mojo back. The first week had a few uncharacteristic stumbles, bloopers, and sloppiness, but after the Groundhog Day performance of, fittingly, The Four Seasons, all felt right with the world. The fact that last night was one of those ART series performances where all tickets were $30 and they gave free beer and kaleidoscope glasses to everyone after the show sweetened the deal.

The evening actually started out rather unpromisingly: an unexpectedly sloppy performance of Square Dance with Ashley Bouder being off the music (the coda was particularly bad, as she seemed to be on a different beat than the rest of the corps), with leaden jumps. The gargouillades and coupé jetés usually bring about applause but not tonight. She also displayed her worst instincts of constant mugging to the audience. If this was another ballerina we'd probably say "good job" but Bouder has set the bar so high on this, one of her trademark roles, that when she's below par it's immediately noticeable. Taylor Stanley was very fine in his adagio solo. Very flexible back. I went back to a later performance on February 6 and the Ashley got both her jumps and her speed and musicality back. This time her feet did go "wickety wack" so much that it got spontaneous applause.

Bouder and Stanley in Square Dance, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Oltremare suitcase pose
Then we got Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare, or Ellis Island Orgy as I like to call it. The whole stage is dressed in vaguely early 20th century clothing. They are all carrying suitcases. They start the ballet sitting on their suitcases in a semi-circle. Then they dance. And there's basically one step for an entire minute ballet: man turns woman upside down, woman spreads eagle and in an upside down crotch baring split. There were two main pas de deux (Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, then Tiler Peck and Peter Walker) but they basically contained that same move. Only difference: Maria's long legs made those upside down crotch splits slightly more aesthetically appealing. The worst part is: this went on for about 35 minutes. This is one of those "never again" ballets.

Thankfully Robbins' Four Seasons saved the evening. It was one of those "perfect" performances. By perfect I don't mean not a step was out of place and there were no mistakes. But the performance had a joy, energy and momentum that made you leave the theater on a high. Props must go to Joseph Gordon, Harrison Coll, and Indiana Woodward for their debuts in Winter -- this is the one part of the ballet that can be a bit precious with all that shivering but this trio (and the wonderful corps) was so naturally ebullient that it was cute rather than cutesy. Spring brought a charming, lyrical performance from Sterling Hyltin (subbing for an injured Sara Mearns). Jared Angle partnered her admirably. Their "walking" duet was particularly lovely. The move in Spring that brought about the biggest applause was when the four corps men (Daniel Applebaum, Spartak Hoxha, Lars Nelson, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez) did their simultaneous frog leaps. On February 6 Sara Mearns was back in Spring with Jared Angle and she brought a very different kind of grandness to the role.  I love them both.

Dieck, LaFrenier, Farley, Frances, Chamblee, photo @ Paul Kolnik 
Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring looked like sultry mythical deities in Summer. Tess shines in roles where she is asked to be sexy. Danchig-Waring seems to be getting stronger in every performance. He did have a slight problem with the final lift which goes from a fishdive to a shoulder sit. Finally, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht as the Puck figure brought down the house in the bacchanalian Fall. Peck of course did multiple fouettés, de Luz is in his 40's but still has fresh legs and amazing pirouettes a la seconde, and Ulbricht continues to maximize his limited stage appearances. It's hard to compete with the virtuoso technique of a role that was created on Mikhail Baryshikov but de Luz did himself proud. In the second performance he even did those mid-pirouette jumps which were a Baryshnikov speciality. What a lovely performance of a ballet City Ballet dancers obviously love doing.

Second cast of Divertimento
February 3 - the last of the Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne all-Balanchine bill. The second Divertimento #15 cast had stronger men (Chase Finlay/Joseph Gordon/Cameron Dieck) but women who while on their own are fine dancers were just unsuited to the lyricism of this ballet. Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira, Unity Phelan, Ashly Isaacs and Ashley Bouder all have strong, straightforward technique but except for Woodward they aren't very lyrical. This was especially apparent in the andante, when none of the women could really transport you to another world. This included perhaps the most famous moment of the ballet, when the men and women both make a circular "petal" pattern -- you could see that the women were not really stretching their fingertips to maximize that effect. Perhaps the most disappointing was Unity Phelan as the third variation -- compared to Ashley Laracey Phelan projected nothing but a rather geometrical strength. Mozart needs to be about more than that.

Four Temperaments also was less taut and exciting than last week -- there were some last minute substitutions and the ballet had an under-rehearsed look. Mearns was out of Sanguinic and Savannah Lowery replaced her. She's good, but doesn't have the sharp attack of, say, Tiler Peck or Sara Mearns. In turn Megan LeCrone replaced Lowery in Choleric. Lecrone is one of those soloists who works hard but is rarely compelling to watch. Olivia Boisson (who danced the first theme) had a scary wipeout in Choleric -- she just toppled over and the audience gasped. Later she seemed to have trouble holding herself up in a supported arabesque. Hope she's not injured. Sean Suozzi is an old hand at Melancholic. Russell Janzen shone in Phlegmatic -- he really emphasized the arm twisting positions of the variation more than any recent Phlegmatic that I can remember. There have been better performances of 4T's.

Adrian and Maria
Thankfully Chaconne saved the day. Maria Kowroski is much more suited for Chaconne than Mozartiana. This role allowed her to show off what she still has -- long, beautiful lines and pleasing adagio work. Adrian had an easier time partnering her than he did Sara Mearns and his solo work continues to get stronger as he's danced every Chaconne since the season started. Harrison Coll and Lauren King were a very charming and spritely in the "blue" pas de deux. In the Mandolin trio Andrew Scordato overdid the strumming (it looked more like air guitar) but Ashley Hod and Isabella La Freniere continue to be two of the loveliest female corps members. Overall a good performance of a rather fragile ballet.

dance odyssey, photo @ Andrea Mohin
February 9 - Went to this performance mainly to see the sole "new ballet" of the winter season, Peter Walker's dance odyssey. This is Walker's second ballet for the company (the first being ten in seven) and other than a pretentious e e cummings-like disdain for capital letters, Walker has some good instincts as a choreographer. The first is that he's not afraid to make his ballets pretty. The curtain goes up and the stage is awash in a palette of pastels -- lavenders, aquas, blues. There is a neon strip-light that emits a warm glow. The music by British composer Oliver Davis is similarly tuneful, pleasing to the ears. There's no screeching dissonant violins.

Peck and Catazaro, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Unfortunately the ballet doesn't ever develop beyond "nice." This isn't an "odyssey," it's more like a stroll in the park. There first pas de deux was between Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro. He lifted her high like a crane. She spread her legs towards the heavens. More turning, more lifting, more athletic partnering, more, more, more. But the duet remains blank and anonymous and at the end we don't know anything more about these two dancers than at the beginning. The final moments of the ballet are dominated by a slower pas de deux between Ashley Laracey (in a floaty lavender dress) and Peter Walker (subbing for Adrian Danchig-Waring). Similar type partnering, but again, anonymous. The corps have a flurry of steps that are too busy to give the feeling of jauntiness that I think Walker was aiming for.

The ballet's one moment that definitely had character was an idyllic pas de deux between the two male soloists Devin Alberda and Sebastian Villarini-Velez (subbing for Anthony Huxley). The two men dance playfully, mirroring each other's steps. The mood is light and flirtatious, much like a Fred-and-Ginger "getting to know you" number. The Michael Jackson moonwalk is cleverly referenced. This pas has all the intimacy and sweetness the ballet's heterosexual pairings lacked. It will be interesting to see where Peter Walker goes from here. Right now he definitely has talent, but not enough maturity to package it all into one great ballet. But that's okay. I recently revisited Justin Peck's Year of the Rabbit and found it rather amateurish.

Ratmansky's Russian Seasons closed the program. This work remains pretty much indestructible. I've seen numerous casts from numerous companies tackle this ballet and the effects work every time. The predictability makes it a bit limited but one can admire the craftsmanship. Ratmansky draws out qualities from dancers that aren't immediately apparent in other ballets. Unity Phelan made an arresting debut as the bride -- there could have been more fear in her eyes at the close of the ballet but that's a small gripe. Otherwise the ballet is dominated by the playful antics of a flurry of characters. Ratmansky as early as 2006 was not afraid to be different -- the ballet has many unorthodox steps like males lying on the ground kicking their legs in the air, or people running in place, or chasing each other offstage. Megan Fairchild reprised one of her best roles as the Green Girl -- in the pas de quatre she was with three guys (Cameron Dieck, Ask La Cour, and Sean Suozzi) who could surround and isolate her but  could not dominate her. In a show of strength she performed the ballet's most iconic moment in which she "stepped" up the staircase of male hands. The role brings out her best qualities: her humor and spunk. Other standouts: Joseph Gordon and Kristen Segin as the Purple Boy and Girl, Emilie Gerrity being more dramatic than I've ever seen her as the Red Girl. The ballet's closing moments are haunting: the crowd watches this joyless, ritualistic marriage and then fall to the floor. Have they died? Is it a spiritual death? Ratmansky is smart enough to keep the audiences thinking and guessing.

Some noticings about the interim team that's currently running the company: they respect seniority -- Maria Kowroski is being given more assignments than she's perhaps able to take on at this point in her career. At the same time they clearly are grooming a few corps de ballet members for bigger things. Harrison Coll and Devin Alberda are dancing more than they ever had under Peter Martins's reign. They seem more open to having older dancers coach the current crop: this photo shows Patricia McBride coaching Megan Fairchild. There's still some untidiness that one imagines Peter would have fixed quickly. But overall the feeling is that the company is being run by people who are scrupulous and conscientious, and that's a good thing.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Theater diaries: Farinelli and the King; Return Trips to the Diner and Price&Son

King Philip's court, photo @ Sara Krulwich

In general I go to theater to enjoy it. I don't like to think that I spent my hard-earned money and time to see total "shite," as the Brits might say. Therefore I always am in a state of denial when I realize that I'm watching a total turkey. And so it was with Farinelli and the King.

Claire van Kampen's play that happens to star her husband Mark Rylance is one of those creations that takes an interesting premise (the real-life bizarre relationship between the famous castrato Farinelli and the depressed, mentally unstable King Philip V of Spain), and proceeds to drain the premise of any vitality and authenticity. Instead, we get cheap joke after cheap joke, and one self-indulgent soliloquy after another for Rylance, who plays Philip V so broadly and with so much artifice that it ends up reading like a bad SNL skit.

I knew things were not going to be good when the first 15 minutes or so of the play involve Rylance trying to fish ... out of a fishbowl that has a goldfish in it that he's named "Alfonso." Basically it's a one-note joke that doesn't have many places to go, and so it goes nowhere, but not before 15 minutes of this nonsense has elapsed. Obviously King Philip is "mad" and needs some therapy, and his enterprising wife Isabella (Melody Grove) thinks she's found the answer during a trip to London. She hears the of London's latest operatic sensation Farinelli and is convinced his voice can cure the king's ills. And that is what happens -- she brings Farinelli to the Spanish court, and the king is shaken from his melancholy and even builds an outdoors woodsy retreat where with the help of Farinelli's voice he  hears the "stars sing to each other."

Davies and Crane
It's one of the plays conceits that Farinelli is played by two men: the actor Sam Crane and the countertenor Iestyn Davies who shows up whenever Farinelli has to sing. This arrangement has two fatal flaws. One is that Sam Crane is very stiff and wooden as an actor, and his Farinelli remains a cipher. The other is that Iestyn Davies has a very nice countertenor voice (with a vocal technique that is completely different from the castrati of the baroque era) and sings a pleasing selection of Handel arias but this is not a voice that will set a whole city on fire or shake a mad king out of the depths of despair. You could imagine Maria Callas's voice changing someone's life. Iestyn Davies? He's like easy-listening classical music and nothing more. The Farinelli singing segments make a static play have even more static moments. The musical selections don't enhance the storyline in any way.

But as you might expect, after Farinelli shakes Philip out of his funk, the story arc is stuck with few avenues for development. So the second act is an overlong, excruciating attempt to make a story where there is none -- there's a cutesy "forest concert" where the actors act really surprised that there's such a huge "audience" (us in the theater) who have followed them to the woods to sing. There's horrible jokes -- when Farinelli talks about his brother Riccardo who had him castrated Philip gives the brother the nickname "Rick the Knife." In another moment he says a "casserole" is like "French paella." There's a love story so hackneyed I'm surprised the actors could even say the lines with a straight face. And the play chugs along to its prolonged, unexciting ending. By the time we make our way to the inevitable "Lascia ch'io pianga" I could barely care about the lovely Handel melody. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The sets by Jonathan Fensome are great -- it evokes an 18th century royal court. There is on-stage seating and a charming band that plays before the show. Actors like Jonathan Peel as the King's wily minister and Melody Grove as the king's loving but unhappy wife do the best they can with flimsy material. But in the end this is a pure vanity project for Mark Rylance. It's all dressed up with nowhere to go.

New Cast of Kinky Boots
These days a show that has been running for two years is considered a "long-running" show. By that definition, Kinky Boots (running since 2013) is practically a dinosaur and Waitress (running since March 2016) is well on its way to being a veteran show. In fact, Kinky Boots recently just celebrated its 2000th performance. I recently revisited Price&Son and Joe's Diner to see what it was about these shows that has allowed them to be successful long after the initial buzz has worn off.

The two shows have some things in common: both feature strong scores written by two talented female songwriters (Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots and Sara Bareilles for Waitress). Both shows have an appealing message of empowerment. Both have 11 o'clock numbers that have become classics of modern musical theater: Kinky Boots' "Hold Me In Your Heart" and Waitress's "She Used to Be Mine" have the sort of heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that gets to audiences every time.

Most of all, both of these shows are still doing well because the producers have done an amazing job keeping the show fresh even with the usual cast turnover. They've resorted to some stunt casting (Brendon Urie sang Charlie for a few months, Jason Mraz is doing a stint as Dr. Pomatter) but they've kept the integrity of the show. For Kinky Boots, the original leads of Stark Sand and Billy Porter returned to the show for a few months. I saw them twice, including their final performance on January 7, 2018. There was nothing stale about their routine, no phoning it in. The tender rapport between Sands and Porter was evident throughout the show. But after Sands/Porter left, the show brought in the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears to play Charlie and had J. Harrison Ghee return as Lola.

I saw Shears and Ghee recently. I didn't think anyone could top Billy Porter's Lola, but Ghee gave a very different but equally valid interpretation. Porter's Lola is petite, vulnerable and wears her heart on her sleeve. Ghee is a giant -- he towers over the cast and is built like a football linebacker. His Lola is flashier, with a glow of self-confidence that makes the perfect foil for Shears' pocket-sized, insecure Charlie. Shears does not make as strong of an impression as Ghee -- the British accent comes and goes and then just sort of disappears, and he interpolates some high notes to the end of "Step One" and "Soul of a Man" but doesn't seem to have made a real connection to the character yet.

The energy of the theatre however was incredible -- you would have thought this was an early preview audience with the way the crowd applauded and sang along and just had a grand rollicking time. Ghee's powerhouse vocals in "Lola's World," "Sex in the Heel," and "Hold Me In Your Heart" delighted the audience, but his Lola wasn't just flash. He was also wonderful in the quieter moments like "Not My Father's Son." I have a feeling that Price&Son and Lola's World will be running for a long time.

Here is the video I took of the final curtain call for Stark Sands and Billy Porter:

I also made a return trip to the diner today to see Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz in their four week only (!!!) overlap. I last saw Waitress in July with Betsy Wolfe and thought she had an incredible voice but was sorely lacking the humor and personality that makes or breaks Jenna.

Well Sara's back in those white sneakers and she's even more incredible this time. She's gained confidence as an actress, and improved her comedic timing. It's amazing what a natural she is onstage -- she has a radiant stage face that catches the light in the best ways. She has a voice that sounds  so real and earthy, like the girl next door.  Her Jenna was full of sass, humor and heart, and of course she sings the s__t out of the score. The musical is best-known for the 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" but IMO Sara's best moment is "What Baking Can Do." She sings that I Want song with the hunger, drive and determination that foretells her future.

Pop singer Jason Mraz as Dr. Pomatter could be called stunt casting. Mraz is not as natural onstage as Sara. He plays Dr. Pomatter differently from Drew Gehling -- he's not so much awkward and nerdy so much as awkward and goofy. His hair is a little too perfectly spiked to be believable as the square OB-GYN. But his singing voice is lovely, and he's also fairly funny and he and Bareilles have a nice if overly cozy rapport. I think the show works better when Dr. Pomatter and Jenna are from two completely different spheres. Sara and Jason are too obviously old friends from from the indie-pop/rock sphere. With Jason and Sara their duets "It Only Takes a Taste" and "You Matter to Me" sound too much like a music video with the perfect harmonics.

There's been some turnover in the supporting roles -- Benny Elledge is now Cal, and Natasha Yvette Williams Becky. They're both fine although I miss the sarcasm and bite that Charity Angel Dawson brought to Becky. Props have to go to the cast veterans Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie), Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn), Dakin Matthews (Joe), and Joe Tippett (returning to the role of Earl, which he originated at A.R.T.) These actors know this show inside out and their experience and enthusiasm anchor the show. Fitzgerald continually acts to his schtick as Ogie and gets more and more laughs each time.

The show obviously casts with care and Sara Bareilles (who wrote both the music and lyrics) remains heavily involved in the production. I have a feeling that Joe's Diner will be staying open for a long time to come.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All-Balanchine Programs Test the Company's Mettle

Finlay and his muses, photo @ Andrea Mohin

There was almost something perverse about the curtain rising on NYCB's Winter Season and the sight of the blond Peter Martins-lookalike Chase Finlay dancing Martins' trademark role of Apollo. One could almost imagine Martins' observing his performance in his usual seat in the rear orchestra except of course Martins wasn't there, the NYCB programs had been scrubbed of any mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named. The show must go on.

I caught four performances in their first week. NYCB's two all-Balanchine programs (Apollo/Mozartiana/Cortegé Hongrois and Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne) are the type of programs that would test the company's classical chops under any circumstances. But NYCB is now a ship without a captain, and in many ways the performances reflected both the company's depth of talent and how even the world's best dancers need a strong leader.

Tess as Choleric, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The good news: some staples are in fine shape. Four Temperaments for example: Anthony Huxley's and Sean Suozzi's Melancholic, Tiler Peck's steely Sanguinic, Ask La Cour's strange Phlegmatic, and Tess Reichlen's implacable Choleric (great gargouillades!) as well as some tight and coordinated work from the corps and demi-soloists made sure Four Temperaments lost none of its impact. Huxley was the Melancholic in the first performance and Suozzi in the second. Huxley was lighter, more nimble, Suozzi more "melancholic" with heavier falls to the floor. I also enjoyed the second theme with Devin Alberda and Sara Adams. 4T's might be the most perfect ballet Balanchine ever made, but there can be nothing tame or formulaic about a performance -- it has to drive forward with a frightening intensity towards its brilliant conclusion. Those huge grande battements that the ballet army makes towards the end of the ballet are as menacing as ever. Looks like it's in good hands.

Bouder, Janzen, Phelan, Suozzi
Then there's the bizarre case of Raymonda Orchestral Suite I mean Cortège Hongrois. There's practically no original choreography there and the green-tassled costumes and the George Washington hats look ridiculous. Yet it's become that rare thing in the NYCB oeuvre -- a guilty pleasure. I saw two vastly different couples in the "classical" section of the ballet -- Mearns/Janzen and Bouder/Janzen (replacing an injured Veyette). The thing about Cortège Hongrois is that it allows the Raymonda-ish title character to totally be herself. So it's not surprising that Sara Mearns began and ended her variation with a loud clap, and whirled and lunged extravagantly throughout the ballet. Category 5 Hurricane Sara coming through! Also not surprising that Bouder in her debut was her usual straightforward, strong self. Bouder is more of a classicist than Mearns and I loved her unpretentious way of presenting the work. Her variation was assertive (with two firm claps) without the wildness of Mearns. Janzen's partnering was as always superb and he's become more confident in his solo work. He'll never be a virtuoso but he's shaping up to be one of City Ballet's best danseur nobles.

In the czardas Savannah Lowery and Ask La Cour (who danced with Mearns/Janzen) made the most out of Balanchine's rather clichéd choreography. They looked like they were having a grand time and that's what's important. Unity Phelan and Sean Suozzi (in their debuts) were much livelier, more exciting. I loved both the variation girls -- Lauren King and Emilie Gerrity in the first performance, Claire Kretzschmar and Meagan Mann in the second. Krestzschmar danced with such authority that she's my pick to be the next corps promoted to soloist. I now love this ballet. It's not top drawer Balanchine but it is fun.

By the way, I am comparing pictures of Melissa Hayden and Ashley Bouder and am struck by how similar they look. I mean compare:

Hayden and Bouder

Hyltin, King, Fairchild, Laracey, Stafford, Scordato, Finlay, Appebaum
Also in good shape: the sublime Divertimento #15. Perhaps no cast will ever match the original lineup of five ballerinas: pretty hard to beat Patricia Wilde, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden. But Sterling Hyltin, Lauren King, and Ashley Laracey brought their usual lyrical beauty to the ballet, while Abi Stafford and Megan Fairchild provided the fast par terre footwork. Andrew Veyette, Daniel Applebaum and Andrew Scordato were fine but nearly disappeared behind the five ballerinas which is I suppose how it's supposed to be. Andrew Veyette looked stiff and had an awkward landing on a double tour and laughed it off which prompted a nice chuckle from the audience.

In the second performance an apparently injured Veyette was replaced by Chase Finlay and the performance was smoother and even more heavenly. Finlay handled the clean, classical demands of the choreographer better than Veyette. The andante allowed each ballerina to show off their strong suit. Hyltin did her trademark bourrées with her head and neck thrown up upwards and her arms outstretched, as if she's being pulled by some invisible force. Laracey in her duet with Finlay showed off her beautiful extension in her developpé a la seconde -- no vulgar ear grazing, but an effortless geometrical line that reached towards the stars. The whole thing is so beautiful you never want it to end. Yes, I think Divertimento will be all right.

Mearns and Danchig-Waring in Chaconne
But there was also an awful lot of unexpected sloppiness -- for instance, in the first performance of Chaconne the wonderful apprentices, the pas de deux between Erica Pereira and Troy Schumacher as well as the pas de cync all sparkled, but Aaron Sanz danced the mandolin pas de trois with totally unnecessary jester-like hand movements, and the main show between Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring had several glaring partnering mishaps including one moment when Mearns was doing a series of supported pirouettes/promenades with her legs bent deeply in a near-squat. It's at 3:01 in this video. Something happened and Mearns grew visibly angry with Danchig-Waring and slithered away from him to finish the Dance of the Spirits opener on her own. The bad energy continued throughout the ballet -- Danchig-Waring's solo work was fine (nice cabrioles), but Mearns danced the ballet as a display of brute force and strength without any lightness and etherealness. This is a work where the Hurricane Sara approach is not appropriate.

In the second performance there were some changes, all to the better.  Sanz was replaced by Andrew Scordato in the Mandolin pas de trois and Scordato actually looked like he was strumming a mandolin. The lovely sequence with the apprentices was tighter and the way they formed lines that were straighter than the company corps members was beautiful. Mearns and Danchig-Waring made the same blooper in the same moment (the squatting promenades) but this time Mearns simply put her hand on the floor to avoid falling and the choreography was uninterrupted. Mearns lightened her approach quite a bit and Danchig-Waring's solo work was more fleet. The audience lapped it up, but this ballet definitely needs a lot of work.

Mearns in Mozartiana, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Even worse was first-night Mozartiana -- this  late-Balanchine masterpiece needs precision, speed, and on-the-note musicality. Maria Kowroski, Tyler Angle and Daniel Ulbricht gave the kind of sluggish, sloppy performance I would have expected at ABT. Kowroski who was never technically that secure could not meet the demands of this role. She looked gorgeous as always and her bourrées in the Preghiera were lovely but her footwork was smudged and imprecise in the Theme and Variations. Tyler Angle has never really been a white tights dancer and frankly looked out of shape. He also seems to have completely given up on things like turnout or pointing his feet. Even Ulbricht looked formulaic in the Gigue. NYCB currently has two excellent interpreters of this Suzanne Farrell role -- the quicksilver Sterling Hyltin and the dramatic Sara Mearns. Why is Kowroski still dancing this?

The second cast Mozartiana (Mearns/Finlay/Schumacher) was leagues better. For one thing, Mearns can actually handle the steps. Mearns was relatively restrained although sometimes she still is in danger of overpowering the choreography completely. For instance in that one moment near the end of the Theme and Variations when the ballerina does a supported flat-footed pirouette in arabesque penchée (23:19 in this video) Mearns turned so fast she nearly knocked Finlay over. Still, I'd rather have an abundance of strength over NO strength. Finlay's lines and solo work were much more classical than Angle's, and Schumacher was also an improvement over Ulbricht.

Danchig-Waring and Peck, photo @ Andrea Mohin
As for Apollo. I think of all the ballets this is the one that suffers the most from Peter's absence. I saw two casts. Chase Finlay was heavily pushed by Peter but his Apollo remains an airbrushed, empty portrayal. There hasn't been any growth over the years. He looks beautiful, but that's about it. His muses (Hyltin, Bouder, and Lovette) were appropriately playful and sweet, but there wasn't much for them to work with. Adrian Danchig-Waring is coming back from a devastating injury and he still has heavy landings and a certain stiffness in the legs. But he gets the ballet in a way that Chase doesn't. He gets the wildness, the sense of adventure. With him you see how revolutionary the ballet is: the unorthodox, hunched over, torso-twisting poses and the jazzy inflections were totally new to classical ballet in 1928. His soccer variation actually included an extra force through his legs, as if he were physically kicking a ball. With Finlay it was just one smooth continuous movement. Danchig-Waring's muses (Tiler Peck, Ashly Isaacs and Indiana Woodward) were mixed: I love Woodward's sweet and appealing Calliope but Peck remains too serious and correct for Terpischore.

So in general NYCB maintained its high standards although I can't help but wonder if Peter would have immediately corrected Danchig-Waring in his partnering so the same blooper would not have been repeated, and whether some of the raggedy corps formations and mistimed entrances and exits I saw throughout the week needed a sterner presence behind the scenes. But it's useless to wonder. Peter's not coming back, and the company has to move forward. After Week 1 I'm cautiously optimistic.

Sidenote: I love the art exhibition at NYCB right now. It's Geronimo, an artist who works with balloons, and she's transformed the austere marble promenade of the D*v*d K*ch Theatre into a festive, surreal place. Go see it.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jonas Kaufmann's Grand Return

To be a Jonas Kaufmann fan in the past few years has meant constant heartbreak. In 2014 he sang a sensational series of Werthers at the Met. During the last performance fans ripped up programs to shower him with confetti. The world was his oyster. Little did we know that he would not return to the U.S. to sing for nearly four years. He canceled Carmen, he canceled Manon Lescaut, he canceled Tosca. Therefore speculation was high about whether he'd actually show up for a Carnegie Hall recital. Fans feared for days that we'd get an announcement of illness. But January 20 rolled around, and he posted a photo of himself in front of Carnegie Hall. By 8:00 the old place was packed like sardines.

So 8:15 rolled around, and out strode Jonas and pianist Helmut Deutsch. There was a rapturous ovation and he gave a brief speech thanking the crowd and then the recital was on. Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin is a song cycle often associated with slightly younger-sounding tenors than Jonas. It is, after all, about the heartbreak of a young man. Fritz Wunderlich made a famous recording that shows what can be done with this cycle when the singer sounds like a young miller. And in the first song ("Das Wandern") Kaufmann's thick, hooded voice sounded neither young nor particularly tenor-ish. In the four years since Werther he's sung Otello and Andrea Chenier, and his always baritonal timbre has grown even darker. It wasn't an encouraging sign.

But these fears were alleviated within a few songs -- he lightened his voice, he started to use a lot of his trademark pianissimo, and by "Die Neugierge" (IMO the most beautiful song in the entire cycle) Kaufmann was in his element -- tender and dreamy. As the song cycled through the miller's first blush of love, joy, jealousy, and finally heartbreak, one realized that Kaufmann still knows what to do with this music even if the voice now sounds too mature to be convincing as a young miller by the brook. Schubert's music also did major legwork for Kaufmann. The tender songs about love and loss naturally draw in the listener. Only Schubert could make the mention of a green ribbon break your heart.

In general Kaufmann was better with the more lyrical sections of the cycle. "Morgengruß"was absolutely lovely. He did not do as well in the more frantic, defiant, or angry songs like "Mein" and "Der Jäger." He had a particularly tiresome habit of punching out the final stanza as if he were singing "Esultate" from Otello. This stentorian delivery sounded at odds with harebell delicacy of Schubert's music. He ended the song cycle with the most beautiful, least affected singing of the night. "Trockne Blumen," "Der Müller und der Bach," and the lullaby "Des Baches Wiegenlied" were all sung with the simplicity and directness that recalled the tenor that the world fell in love with.

Jonas picks up a bouquet from an avid fan
At the end of the cycle the ovation was the kind of raucous, ecstatic type that one doesn't associate with lieder song cycles. He came out again and again for bows with Deutsch and sang four encores including Schubert's "Die Forelle." I was hoping for Lehar's "Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss" but oh well.  He ended the recital by blowing kisses at the audience. New York loves him.

Kaufmann is one of those singers who is Worth It. And by Worth It I mean that you can complain about his dark, throaty timbre and his odd vocal technique which makes him sound like a lyric tenor half the time and a heldentenor-lite the other half of the time. You can find the way he phrases and shapes music mannered. But at the end of the day this is a major artist, whose total effect is greater than the sum of all his parts. In other words, he can (almost) get away with canceling and disappointing fans over and over again. Because when he does show up it is always special. Come back soon Jonas. You have been missed.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tosca as Comfort Food

Grigolo and Yoncheva, photo @ Ken Howard
There exists a "live from the Met" recording of Tosca made all the way back in 1903. These Mapleson cylinders have horrible sound and are mere snippets of a performance. Nevertheless a recording of an opera made only three years after the premiere is sure to tell us something about how Tosca has evolved over the years, right?

Wrong. Even though the singers in the recording (Emma Eames, Emilio de Marchi and Antonio Scotti) have voices that today don't sound like natural fits for the opera, the most revealing thing about those Mapleson cylinders is how unrevealing they are. You can imagine everything that's happening onstage just from what the singers are singing. Eames screams at the exact moment you expect her to scream -- when she realizes after the third "Mario" that the execution was real.

Puccini's "shabby little shocker" is choreographed down to the minute. That's it's greatest strength and biggest limitation -- Puccini makes the trains run on time to such an extent that there's very little room for interpretation and creativity. Luc Bondy's 2009 production was an attempt to try something new -- he took away the usual trappings: the ornate Roman church, the candles and crucifix at Scarpia's body, the famous leap into a mattress that all Toscas since time immemorial have taken in the final moments of the opera. Unfortunately he replaced the traditional Tosca with a dreary, industrial, boring production. The best experience I ever had with that production was when Angela Gheorghiu showed up with her own costumes, and completely did her own thing. There wasn't a single Bondy direction she followed. It was great.

Why is he painting in such a white shirt?
What Gheorghiu recognized was that behind the blood and guts story Tosca is really comfort food opera. You go to Tosca to NOT be surprised. A good performance should be like a well-oiled machine where the soprano, tenor, and baritone all do their thing and have their moments and everyone goes home happy. It's no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed so liberally from Puccini. They are brothers from another mother.

David McVicar's production which premiered New Year's Eve put Tosca squarely back in the comfort food zone. The production had maybe the highest turnover of any Met new production in recent history -- by the time opening night rolled around we were on our second Tosca, second Cavaradossi, second Scarpia, and third conductor. Yikes. Despite the changes what I saw on the third performance was a perfectly competent, professional performance. As I said, Puccini really makes the trains run on time.

McVicar's production has traditional, opulent sets by John MacFarlane (despite an oddly sideways raked stage) and mostly traditional blocking. The most daring thing about it was the slightly modern twist on Tosca's clothing and mannerisms -- she doesn't wear a veil while entering the church, and her dress in Act 2 is a low-cut evening gown that shows quite a bit of cleavage. She also has a more extended makeout session with Cavaradossi in Act One than is normal. Since this is Opera Life and not Real Life, I was only mildly perturbed by the fact that Cavaradossi was painting in a puffy white shirt in Act One. Uh, I've never seen a painter in such a bleached shirt. A little more bothersome was the fact that Scarpia had a roaring fireplace in a Roman summer, and that there was light streaming through his windows when the whole of Act Two takes place after Tosca's evening performance. Oh well. As I said, Opera Life, not Real Life.

Yoncheva and Lucic, photo @ Ken Howard
The three principals were varying degrees of competent/professional. The most inspired was Sonya Yoncheva. She's new to the role, but handled the vocals with admirable ease. Her voice is now large enough to handle the heavier Puccini orchestration, and she even has a surprising chest voice. The only alarming things: her timbre, once so plush and beautiful, now sounds much harder and slightly bottled, with some unsteadiness in the upper register. Her acting was not the fiery diva -- she in general doesn't do "fiery" well. More of a terrified #metoo victim. I thought she handled the long scene with Scarpia in the second act very well -- the high C's were secure, she has fairly good diction for a non-Italian singing verismo, and she strongly conveyed the fact that Scarpia was making her skin crawl. Oddly "Visse d'arte" was her weakest moment -- it was just a little too placid and the sustained B-flat was not her loveliest note. In Act Three she had just enough desperation in her voice to make one think that Tosca had her own doubts about Scarpia's promise. Her dive off Castel Sant'Angelo was great -- she stretched her arms and fell like she was embracing this meeting with Scarpia before God. Overall well-sung, well-acted Tosca.

Final tableau for Act Three, photo @ Ken Howard
Vittorio Grigolo was the ying to Yoncheva's yang. Yoncheva relied mostly on her large voice to make her effects. Grigolo stretched his considerably leaner tenor into a baby-spinto and for most of the opera it worked. "Recondita armonia" even had a nice degree of Mediterranean sunshine. And when he simply did not have enough voice for the music ("Vittoria," "E lucevan le stelle") he relied on some shouting, crooning, whispering, and other popera effects. However all the vocal effects couldn't hide that where you wanted to hear a trumpet you heard a bugle. His acting was his usual ball of energy. You admire his always giving 100%, even if his 100% is not exactly what the opera needs. For instance when he saw Angelotti (Christian Zaremba) he embraced him with the same passion as he had for Tosca. But it was good that he was paired with Yoncheva -- I think she needed someone considerably more frenetic to shake her out of her default passive stage persona.

The most disappointing was Željko Lučić as Scarpia. It's not that his voice is inherently wrong for the part -- it's sort of wooly and rough around the edges but Scarpia is the definition of creep so an ugly voice isn't a detriment. It's not that his acting is uninspired -- in Act Two he definitely gave off a very Harvey Weinstein vibe with the way he constantly tried to invade Tosca's personal space. It's that his overall performance has moments where it just seems like he doesn't much care what's happening. For instance in Te Deum he dropped out of bars and bars of music and seemed to simply mime the words. Was he losing his voice, or simply saving it for the Act Two marathon? Considering that after the intermission his voice was 100% back, I think I know the answer. 

Emmanuel Villaume was shoe-horned into the production on short notice and the lack of preparation and rehearsal time was apparent. He sounded better than opening night but overall he just didn't seem to know Tosca's train schedule. His default style is ponderousness and Tosca calls for nonstop urgency, tension, suspense. I'd hate to see him conduct any of Bernard Herrmann's scores. 

But the audience went away happy and so did I for the most part. The fact that Grigolo's curtain calls now include him cupping his ear at the audience as if to say "louder, I can't hear you" is just part of the comfort food experience. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Post-Martins City Ballet

Email I received about Martins' resignation
Peter Martins' long tenure as the Ballet Master of New York City Ballet came to an abrupt, unpleasant end on January 1, 2018. He rang in his new year by submitting his resignation and the Board accepted. Since his departure many NYCB dancers have taken to social media to express their dismay at the regime change. These people ranged from corps members like Alexa Maxwell to soloists like Megan LeCrone to principals like Tiler Peck. Martins resigned amid allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, with most of the allegations from former members of the company. He was also recently arrested for yet another DUI. I completely believe the testimonials from the current dancers that he was a supportive boss who took the company to new artistic heights especially in the last decade. I also completely believe the allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct from former dancers. His resignation/dismissal was justified if all the allegations of physical abuse are true. At the same time life is in shades of gray. Peter Martins did a lot of good for the company, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

It took me awhile to gather my thoughts on this whole ordeal. First of all, NYCB is the arts institution I love more than any other. I often joke with my friends about how many tickets I buy over the course of the season. I just went to Nutcracker seven times in six weeks. I want the company to flourish. I believe that they have the most valuable ballet repertory in the world -- a treasure trove of ballets from Balanchine and Robbins, as well as more contemporary masterworks from Alexei Ratmansky (who does his most inspired, consistent work with NYCB) and Justin Peck (whose Times Are Racing is IMO the ballet anthem of the 21st century).

With that being said, I remember my beginnings as a watcher of New York City Ballet. They weren't so felicitous. I went to my first performances maybe 17-18 years ago. It was a Nutcracker (isn't it always)? It was a frankly awful experience. The poor Sugarplum (a long-time principal who always suffered from severe nerves) fell off pointe at the beginning of her variation and slogged through the performance looking as if she were about to burst into tears. The Snowflakes were a mess. Dropped wands, two slips, hands splayed to an absurd degree. This was the famous, magical, wonderful Nutcracker that everyone raved about?

From 2000-20004 I went to NYCB sporadically but was present at the creation of several "masterpieces." I distinctly remember being at the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Shambards, a screechy unlikable thing that is so different from Wheeldon's slick but empty works of late. I was also at the premiere of Boris Eifman's Musagete, an endless atrocity "based on" George Balanchine's life. Alexandra Ansanelli was the "Tanny" figure, Wendy Whelan was the cat Mourka, Maria Kowroski was the "Suzanne Farrell" figure, and Robert Tewsley played the calm, placid "Mr. B" as a tortured, moody emo artist. I also remember many "new Martins" pieces, but don't ask me the names. I forgot them. I just remember them being unmemorable. Reviews for the company in those days was savage.

I went to repertory programs too -- I remember a Diamonds where the ballerina fell over just as the curtain was about to come down. I remember a Midsummer's Night Dream where the Titania shook constantly. A La Sonnambula where the Sleepwalker visibly crumpled over while trying to carry the Poet. One of the few good memories I have is a Symphony in 3 Movements where Wendy totally kicked ass, as she always did. At the same time, I was going to ABT and back then that was more my thing. Nina! Angel! Marcelo! Irina and Max! Alessandra! Gillian! David! Diana! Those full-lengths with those Big Deal Stars were easier to absorb than Stravinsky leotard ballets. I was young and foolish. Back then Romeo and Juliet was the pinnacle of ballet. Today I can barely stand the thing.

Then from 2005-2007 I moved away from NYC and saw very little ballet. I moved back to NYC around the end of 2007 and quickly resumed my ballet-going activities. But I returned mostly to ABT. Again -- David! Marcelo! Diana! And then there were new stars -- guest artists like Natalia Osipova and Alina Cojocaru. You get the picture. When I went to NYCB, it was usually to see the Nutcracker. I do remember my first Nutcracker after my move back to NY as a revelation -- this time Wendy Whelan was the Sugarplum Fairy and she was magical. I also remember seeing Symphony in C around 2008 and thinking, "Wow, they are good." I think Sara Mearns danced the second movement, and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz the third. Then a Coppelia with Tiler Peck and Sleeping Beauty with Ashley Bouder where again, I thought "wow, they are great."

The ballet that changed everything for me
But I didn't become a hardcore City Ballet aficionado until January 22, 2011, when I bought a ticket to one of those "Saturdays At the Ballet With George." Totally on a whim, expected nothing. NYCB used to celebrate George Balanchine's birthday with all-Balanchine programs. The program I saw was Mozartiana, Prodigal Son, and Stars and Stripes. I have no idea what it was about this program that clicked for me. Maybe Ashley Bouder's Liberty Bell along with Andrew Veyette's delightful El Capitan? Maybe Daniel Ulbricht leading the Third Campaign with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics? But I remember thinking "I could watch Stars and Stripes for the rest of my life." I was on such a high after the performance that I think I bought five or six tickets on the spot for future performances and started attending regularly. That fizzy, joyous high was not like a drug-induced high. It never went away in the coming years. I never developed a "tolerance." I would often walk out of the D*v*d K*ch Theatre and it would be snowing/icy/sub-zero, but I would be smiling ear to ear from the explosion of dance I just saw. NYCB lifted me up when I was at my lowest -- unemployed, uncertain about my future. When I finally got a full-time job after a period of unemployment the first thing I did to treat myself was to get a subscription package.

La Sylphide was proof that NYCB could do full justice to the "classics" 

You see, all the years I had been so unimpressed with NYCB, Peter Martins had slowly been laying the groundwork for a great company. In 2000 he accepted a spunky little dynamo named Ashley Bouder into the company. In 2001 a tall leggy blonde Tess Reichlen. In 2002 the perky, sweet Megan Fairchild got in, and in 2003, another petite wonder named Sterling Hyltin joined the company. In 2004 Sara Mearns. In 2005 Tiler Peck. To say that these six principals have been the bedrock of the company for the last decade or so is an understatement. They're not perfect in everything they do, but my, can they dance! They're versatile, they're unique, they combine great technique with musicality and artistry. And they can now go toe-to-toe with ABT's ballerinas in the full length "classics" -- this fall the NYCB ballerinas did a better job with those famous fouettes in Swan Lake than ABT's roster. Sterling Hyltin's Sylph was the kind of performance you'd expect from someone who had been dancing Bournonville her whole life -- light, airy, enchanting. Last summer in the very hyped Superjewels the NYCB contingent won over the Russo-phile/tourist crowd with their stunning renditions of Rubies and Diamonds. Many in the audience came to see the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera Ballet; they left screaming for Tess Reichlen's Tall Girl.

Peter's greatest accomplishment has been his cultivation of talent for the past decade or so. Many revered older dancers retired (Wendy Whelan, Kyra Nichols, Damian Woetzel) and some talents did not last. Kathryn Morgan departed due to health problems, Alexandra Ansanelli went to the Royal Ballet and then premature retirement, Robert Fairchild just left to pursue a career in Broadway, prominent soloists Carla Korbes and Seth Orza decamped to Seattle. But the talent was constantly replenished and so ballets did not just die because one dancer was injured or unavailable. One example: Robert Fairchild was an excellent Apollo but took a leave of absence for a Broadway role. The other company Apollo (Chase Finlay) was injured. In steps Adrian Danchig-Waring and his Apollo was one of the most memorable performances of my ballet-going life. The talent pool is still being replenished. I look at soloists like Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, Unity Phelan or Indiana Woodward or corps members like Ashley Hod, Claire Kretzschmar, Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, Preston Chamblee and Aaron Sanz and think the company has a great future.

Martins in the past few years also tacitly acknowledged an unpleasant but undeniable fact -- that he was not a good or even mediocre choreographer. The "new Martins" works decreased to almost nothing -- his last new work for the company was a straightforward adaptation of Bournonville's La Sylphide. He also drastically cut the number of Martins ballets in season programs. To see a Martins ballet on the playbill (often sandwiched between two Balanchine masterpieces) used to be a regular thing -- now, it's a rarity. In the upcoming winter season there are only two Martins ballets programmed -- Red Violin and Romeo + Juliet. In the spring season that number drops to zero. It took self-awareness for Martins to realize that choreography was not his thing.

Ashley Bouder in Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. IMO it's his masterpiece
At the same time he started to test out new choreographers. Christopher Wheeldon's contributions to the company tapered off after he left the position of Resident Choreographer in 2008. Alexei Ratmansky turned down the offer to be Wheeldon's replacement, but his work for NYCB is by far the best work he's ever done, anywhere. Russian Seasons, Namouna, Concerto DSCH, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Odessa are all masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Justin Peck's oeuvre has been more uneven -- amazing highs (like The Times Are Racing and Rodeo) with some lows (The Most Incredibly Thing). But he's not even 30 yet, and he's already making his mark not just in New York but around the world. Another promising choreographer is Lauren Lovette -- For Clara and Not Our Fate are both compelling, coherent ballets with a strong choreographic voice.

Not every choreographer was a winner -- Benjamin Millepied's ballets are an automatic "skip" for me, as are Troy Schumacher's creations (The Wind Still Brings is 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back).  I have painful memories of such gems as Miles Thather's excruciating Polaris or Lynne Corbett's The Seven Deadly Sins which managed to make Wendy Whelan look uninspired and Patti Lupone sound bad. How is that even possible? Wheeldon still comes back now and then, each creation being ever slicker and emptier. The Here/Now programs in Spring 2017 exposed just how many mediocre ballets sit in the NYCB vault. But still, the "new works" no longer cause dread among City Ballet aficionados. A typical NYCB season now finally has the right balance of repertory staples, new works, modern masterpieces, and box-office-friendly full lengths. And there's a high level of consistency and quality among all the types of works in the repertoire. I even saw Preston Chamblee and Tess Reichlen make something semi-sexy out of the dreadful Red Angels, bless their hearts.

Reichlen, Hyltin, and Peck
Even though I saw Peter Martins many times (he often could be seen racing up and down the stairs during performances), I never spoke to him, and he remained an elusive, mysterious figure to most balletomanes. I knew about the DUI arrests, the 1991 domestic violence arrest, I heard rumors that he had a temper, there were jokes about his love of "tall blondes." He had a reputation for being spiteful and possessive about letting former Balanchine dancers coach the company. How wonderful would it have been for, say, Mikhail Baryshnikov to coach Other Dances, or Patricia McBride and Jacque d'Amboise Who Cares?, or Patricia Wilde Square Dance or Allegra Kent La Sonnambula? Alas that wasn't the Martins way. But I didn't know enough about him to make a judgment call. I still don't know enough. As I said, shades of gray. Wonderful people can have drinking problems. Wonderful people can have scary tempers. Wonderful people can do horrible things. I know it because I've lived it. I hope Martins takes this time to get help for some of his personal demons.

Martins leaves behind a company that is strong on all levels -- principal, soloists, corps, even apprentices are making their mark -- during the Nutcracker season a beautiful apprentice named India Bradley immediately caught my eye as one of the dolls. So as NYCB enters this new chapter, with no named successor as yet. But I firmly believe that the company can weather this catastrophically disruptive storm. Perhaps that's Martins' legacy -- a company that no longer needs him to survive and thrive.