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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Magical Fille mal gardée; a not-so-Wilde biography

Marcelo Gomes, photo @ Kent G. Becker
I caught a second performance of La fille mal gardée and it was basically the greatest thing ever. I had seen a previous performance in the run and thought it was very cute and charming. But tonight's performance is one of those joyous experiences that reaffirms your whole love for the art form. From the very first steps the performance was just on. There was an energy onstage that transmitted across the footlights. By the end of the evening I was limp from happiness. This hasn't happened for me for a long time at ABT performances. I've often felt that they had great dancers, but the level of artistry and care in their performances was not high. At this performance of Fille, everything was on an elevated plane.
Stella Abrera and James Whiteside were wonderful as the lovers -- I knew Abrera would be lovely and lyrical but I didn't expect her to be such a gifted comedienne. Her mime was so well-expressed, especially her daydreaming mime about life with Colas. Her Lise actually reminds me of a lot of Asian daughters with strict moms. The overt obedience, but the covert eye-rolling, sulking, and passive aggressive resistance -- that's basically every Asian teen with a strict mom. The fact that Stella is herself Asian-American made it all the realer. Whiteside was maybe not the most exciting virtuoso dancer (Cornejo has that cornered) but he's an excellent partner. Those big one-handed scissor lifts that were briefly touched upon with Cornejo were spectacular with Whiteside lifting Abrera like paper. He and Abrera were amazing in the Fanny Elssler pas de deux, with Abrera rotating beautifully in that promenade in arabesque with the maypole ribbons, then flitting across the stage first with joyous jumps and then super-fast diagonal steps on pointe. Whiteside's variation was also well-performed, although as I said he can't touch the elevation and explosiveness of Cornejo. Arron Scott was excellent as Alain -- less clownish than Craig Salstein, but with crisper articulation of the distinctive gait and umbrella jumps that Ashton choreographed.

Abrera and Whiteside, photo @ Kent G. Becker
Despite the lovely leads the reason the performance went into orbit was due mainly to Marcelo Gomes' instant classic portrayal of Widow Simone. I'm so used Gomes to playing princes, princes and more princes that it was wonderful to see him stealing every scene as Simone. One thing that was so clear from the beautifully articulated mime between Abrera and Gomes and also Gomes' own joyous dances was that Widow Simone loves to dance. She can't help it. Her daughter knows it so whenever she wants to distract her mom she gets her mom to dance. And wow Marcelo can dance! He filled his clog dance with his own little embellishments, like a firm tango-like stomp to start the dance, and lifting the arms on high in fifth as Simone rose on pointe. He also imitated the super-arched back of Russian dancers in arabesque, and various other ballerina mannerisms. Roman Zhurbin played Widow Simone as essentially a sweet lady. Gomes made Widow Simone a diva, one who primped and fussed constantly over herself and walked with a distinctively puffed up gait. Gomes also has a real stage face and presence -- whenever he was doing anything onstage, your eyes darted to him. It was a master class of great dance-acting.

In other news, there's been a new "Me and Mr. B" biography published, this time by Patricia Wilde. The book is entitled Wilde Times and written by Joel Lobenthal, who also co-wrote Dancing On Water. That memoir by Elena Tchernichova is IMO of the best ballet memoirs ever written -- it gives an unvarnished look at the brutality of the USSR, the complicated politics of the Kirov in the late 1950's/early 1960's, and finally the controversial Baryshnikov era at the ABT. I had similarly high expectations for Wilde Times.

Wilde Times however is hands-down one of the dullest ballet biographies I've ever read. Strike that: it's one of the dullest books ever written, period. It's based entirely on interviews with Patricia Wilde, who judging from the book was a spectacular dancer but led a very unremarkable life. Her relationship with Mr. B was not complicated by any romantic attachment -- he counted on her as a strong allegro technician (Square Dance was created on her and there's a wonderful video of it) and she delivered, year after year. She danced until she lost his interest (it had turned to Suzanne Farrell) and then she retired amicably from New York City Ballet and started a family with her husband. She continued to work in ballet as a teacher and director of the Pittsburgh Ballet. There's not much more to it than that. Or at least there's nothing more that Wilde would like to enter into public record.

If you read the book you get some idea about the hand-to-mouth early existence of the New York City Ballet, when dancers often had to dance three times in one night and double up in the same ballet. And some intriguing insights are dropped into the book, but the author (or Wilde) doesn't elaborate. She says that if she ever gained weight, she knew it because "my roles were gone." But how did she feel about that? The author also says that Wilde remembers Margot Fonteyn falling three times in one performance of the treacherously difficult Ballet Imperial, but again, doesn't elaborate any further. Personalities at the NYCB are vaguely sketched and impersonal. Occasional peaks of Wilde's more candid feelings come through (she was shocked and disgusted at Don Quixote, Mr. B's open love letter to Suzanne Farrell) but one gets the feeling that this is a memoir by a very private woman who would like to keep things private. In other words, why write a memoir if you're not willing to really talk about your life?

There are many, many more interesting books in the "Me and Mr. B" genre. Jacque d'Amboise's memoir is personable, gossipy, full of juicy stories. Allegra Kent's book is a remarkable story of triumphing through a tumultuous private life and troubled marriage. Suzanne Farrell's autobiography is interesting because in other NYCB memoirs she's often the out and out villain -- a siren who destroyed company morale by encouraging Balanchine's attentions and then abandoning him. Farrell's account is not entirely convincing, but it does offer perspective -- according to her, the isolation from her colleagues and pressure from Balanchine and her mother made her suicidal. Finally, Gelsey Kirklnd's infamous book is a sensational tell-all that isn't supported by other NYCB alumni but does shed light on Kirkland's own famously self-destructive personality. In sum, there are lots of interesting books by and about dancers who worked with Mr. B. Wilde Times isn't it.

ETA: there's lots of versions of the clog dance I found on youtube.

Here's Gennady Yanin from the Bolshoi. Marcelo's clog dance most resembled this one.


Here's a Royal Ballet version:


Enjoy!

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