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Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Performances of the Year #1

This countdown has been so much fun, and not only because I got to relive memories of some great performances, but because for some personal reasons this holiday season has been very upsetting for me. Therefore I'm remembering the performances of 2010 with a lot of joy.

Number One on the list was a no-brainer -- it goes to Alina Cojocaru, who did one guest appearance at the ABT this summer in Sleeping Beauty, and brought joy, radiance, charm, and strength to this greatest test of classical ballet. She brightened up ABT's muddled, Disneyfied production and brought an afternoon of pure adulterated joy.



Even though Alina Cojocaru is one of my favorite dancers, my chances of seeing her have been hit and miss. I first saw her in La Bayadere at the ABT many years ago, and it was love at first sight. But I didn't know that much about ballet then. In 2004 she came with the Royal Ballet for the Ashton Celebration. I saw her in an Ashton mixed bill, but I'm still kicking myself for giving up tickets to see her Cinderella. I was going through some personal problems at the time, and didn't feel up for it.

I followed her career though every chance I got, and learned with some dismay that she's suffered a series of injuries to her foot, neck, and back that could have been career-ending. You can still see the effects of her foot injury in the shoes she wears -- extremely wide, with a huge block, they're the result of some serious stress fracture and bunions. So I jumped at the chance to see her in Sleeping Beauty when I heard she was coming to the ABT this year for a one-shot performance. She did not disappoint.

From her entrance, she exudes joy. She is tiny, with small features that nevertheless project to the entire auditorium. She has a buoyant jump and those jumps got me excited even before the Rose Adagio started. Alina is a like most great performers a master of illusion. Her balances in the Rose Adagio had some shakiness, but she exuded calm as she held onto each prince's hand, steadied herself, and held her arms up triumphantly in fifth position. The audience saw the arms in triumph, rather than the work needed to maintain that balance. Cojocaru's Aurora was about more than balances though. The way she smiled at each suitor, the loving interactions with her parents, and most of all, her manner of soldiering on bravely after being pricked, until she finally collapsed, made this a lovable Aurora.

Cojocaru was perhaps best in the Vision scene. She's paper thin, so fragile looking, and when she makes her entrance in the Vision scene she really does seem to be a fairy darting about in the woods. She doesn't have endless limbs, but her legs nevertheless have great amplitude, so she's able to shape her movements to the music exquisitely.

In the Wedding Scene (minor rant: Kevin McKenzie, please restore the lovely divertissements of Act 3 pronto), Alina exuded a real maturity. She was still the sweet girl of Act One, but also now a Queen. But the best part of her Act Three was her variation. She used her arms and hands in a delicate, incredibly musical way, so that one could just watch her arms all day. She was dancing to the music, not just on the beat. It was just an incredible performance by an incredible dancer.


As a postscript, I decided to wait by the stage door and meet Alina Cojocaru. I have now done this a few times, and all the dancers I've met have been gracious and polite. But Alina Cojocaru was more than that. She came out, tiny and with a voice so tiny it sounds like she was whispering. But she was so patient, so kind, she signed every program (even a stack of programs by Lois Kirchenbaum that were from 50 years ago and had nothing to do with her), posed endlessly for pictures, and what's more, hugged every little girl who wanted a hug. The sweetness and radiance that we see onstage I realized was not an act. It comes from within. She's as much of a Beauty offstage as she is onstage.

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