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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.

There were pleasures to the performance that had little to do with the ballet itself. David Hallberg finally made his return to the Met stage after a 3 year long absence. When he climbed out of the "Coffee" bin the hardcore ballet fans cheered loudly. This was a moment where everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And he's still DAVID HALLBERG of the impossibly beautiful feet and remote, handsome manner. His role was more partnering than anything but how great it is to have him back!

Another was a closer check of the program. I found two names -- Justin Souriau-Levine (as Nicolo) and Catherine Hurlin (as Mademoiselle Marainne Chartreuse). Way back when they were picked as Little Mouse and Clara, respectively, in Ratmansky's original Nutcracker. What wonderful continuity to see them dancing on the Met stage in adult roles now. 

Whipped Cream puffs, photo @ Matt Masin
The actual ballet, however, is a meandering, muddled mess. No other way to put it. Part of the issue is the music -- Richard Strauss's 1924 score keeps a very even keel of unrelenting, waltzing sweetness, but has few musical climaxes for the choreographer to achieve its effects. Everyone says Balanchine's ballets are "abstract," but ever notice how dramatic his musical choices were? The loud crashing chords in Allegro Brillante, for example. Without musical climaxes to choreograph to, Ratmansky's inspiration comes in fits and spurts.

The other issue is the "storyline," which is like cotton candy -- sweet, but evaporates on contact. Basically a Boy loves whipped cream too much. He gets sick. He's brought to the hospital. The Sweets in the Sweets Shop come to life to dance. In the hospital the Boy is saved from the grips of a sadistic doctor and his army of needle-wielding nurses by Princess Praline and alcoholic beverages. The alcoholic beverages (played by actual dancers dressed as liquor bottles) get the doctors and nurses so drunk that Boy is whisked away to Princess Praline's Land of the Sweets. The end.

There were undoubtedly some very clever moments -- the dance of the whipped cream girls and the nightmarish nurses were funny spoofs of the Petipa ballet blanc. The whipped cream scene recalls the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadere, the nightmarish nurses draws inspiration from the Wilis in Giselle. Princess Praline (a pert, charming Sarah Lane) was given bossy, staccato marching steps to establish her take-charge "You're coming with me, Boy" personality. And the Princess Tea Flower and her tea leave sisters have some cleverly "crumpled" choreography --  pirouettes done with the leg bent at an exaggerated angle. The pas de deux between Tea Flower and Coffee was a sendoff of the classical Petipa divertissement.

Abrera and Hallberg, photo @ Gene Schiavone
But Ratmansky used his most tiresome tricks -- one is the by-now obligatory throwing of the main character up in the air, trampoline-style, by a group of guys below. This happens near the end of the ballet to the Boy (an androgynous, child-like Danil Simkin) without much rhyme or reason. The other is the cutesy, cloying romantic gestures -- Princess Praline ends a pas de de deux by shyly pecking Boy on the cheek. Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera, ever graceful) and Prince Coffee (David Hallberg -- welcome back!) end their act one pas de deux with Tea Flower held aloft by several men over Coffee's head, as if she's flying down for a kiss. A little of this first grade puppy love goes a long way.

Other times Ratmansky seemed to be doing a weird parody of ABT's virtuoso, overstuffed spring season tastes. For instance, is it an accident that Danil Simkin actually plays an anonymous Boy, and also expresses his boyishness by a series of split leaps, 540's, barrel turns, and other YAGP gala tricks? Or that Act 2 actually has a parade of stuffed animals and enlarged float-heads? Even though the actual time of the ballet is short (less than 1.5 hours, with an intermission), interest lags and the final scene at Praline's kingdom goes on for way too long. Whatever the case, this Ratmansky work ends up being more empty calories than substance. Beautiful decor, but it's all dressed up with nowhere to go. And although all the sugar you see onstage is mouth-watering, it touches only the taste buds and not the heart.

Here's a video I took of the curtain calls:

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).

I also loved Rob Howell's scenic design, a rotating set that cleverly allowed the same scenes to keep repeating themselves throughout the musical. Everyone goes on about The Great Comet's set design and yes it is clever to turn a Broadway theater into a cabaret club, but I also believe in the power of old-fashioned, beautiful stage sets and Groundhog Day's set is magical.

Barrett Doss, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Despite all these great things I thought Groundhog Day suffered from some structural problems -- one is the radical turn the show makes in the second act. It goes from funny and edgy to serious and sappy without much transition. One minute Phil is trying to kill himself to get out of living in February 2, the next minute he's acting like a transformed Scrooge and running all over town doing wonderful things for the down-and-out. Another issue is that Phil's love interest Rita (Barrett Doss) is pleasant and sweet but the chemistry between the two actors is not particularly dynamic. The big 11 o'clock love duet number "Seeing You" thus had less emotional impact than expected.

The supporting characters are not as well-developed as they could be. For instance, Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) is a girl Phil has a one-night stand with. She's never really a big presence in the show, but in Act Two she suddenly gets a sad ballad "Seeing Nancy," which is a lovely tune but the audience hasn't really gotten to know Nancy. So the number was a bit formulaic and (IMO) a rather obvious way to turn the show from humorous to serious. Ned Ryerson (John Sanders) also goes from being a one-note obnoxious insurance salesman to singing a serious song of grief for his wife ("Night Will Come"). The melody itself is haunting. But again, we haven't had a chance to really know Ned beyond the few laugh lines.

As a whole, the show doesn't have the tight focus of Dear Evan Hansen or Come From Away. It lacks the showy glitz of The Great Comet. Personally, I think the race for Best Musical shouldn't even be a race -- Dear Evan Hansen is in a class by itself. However all the other three musicals are very strong -- Come From Away is the feel-good type of show audiences crave, The Great Comet is the offbeat type of show theater nerds love, and Groundhog Day is a genuine star vehicle for a leading Broadway actor. As for Best Actor, Andy Karl's performance, as charming and wonderful as it is, isn't as overpowering as Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. So I don't think Groundhog Day will win Best Musical or Best Actor. But that doesn't mean it's not worth watching -- it is. And it might have the most classic, beautiful score of the four nominees. So Best Original Score? Best Set Design? Maybe?

Volle and Wagner, photo @ Richard Termine
I also caught the last performance of The Flying Dutchman at the Met. Although the performance was anchored by the veteran bass-baritone Michael Volle in the title role, the performance also (rare for Wagner) featured the promise of some younger voices. Amber Wagner's Senta was powerfully sung, with a gleaming sound that reminded me of the young Debbie Voigt. This is a punishing role and her top occasionally became wayward but she has hands-down the most impressive dramatic soprano voice I've heard in ... well, a long time. Ben Bliss's Steersman and AJ Glueckert's Erik offered handsome, robust tenor voices. And most of all, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will be the Met's next musical director, gave a thrilling account of the score that was very different from James Levine's stately, slow style. The production was old and stodgy, but the performance was filled with hope for the future of Wagnerian singer. Fingers crossed.

I also saw Waitress a second time and loved it even more -- Sara Bareilles' voice was even more powerful, Christopher Fitzgerald was back is Ogie, and the whole evening had a wonderful estrogen-receptor energy.

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.

How was Odessa? Well ... uh ... I think I need to see this ballet more times to fully absorb it, but it was radically different from Ratmansky's usual style. There was no quirky humor, no sense of a happy, insular community. Instead it was a dark and disturbing piece that seemed to consciously eschew all the qualities that make Ratmansky so in-demand as a choreographer.

The music by Leonid Destatnikov (the same composer of Russian Seasons) was haunting. If it sometimes sounds like movie music that's because it is -- it's incidental music from the Russian film Sunset. A mix of tango rhythms with Russian folk dance and a strain of traditional Jewish music. The setting was a smoky, dark ballroom where a group of six dancing couples are in the back of the stage and only intermittently aware of the drama between the three main couples: Sterling Hyltin/Joaquin de Luz, Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley, and Sara Mearns/Amar Ramasar. The costumes by Keso Dekker were colorful and stylish.

The big departure for Ratmansky was the gender relationships in Odessa. Gender relations between couples in Ratmansky ballets are usually quirky, cute, even cloying. (Remember in Nutcracker how Clara plays peek-a-boo in the middle of the pas de deux?) In Odessa the dance hall becomes a trap for the women. Taylor Stanley grabbed Tiler Peck in an attempt to force her to dance. Peck wriggled, pushed, struggled against the sexual assault. She was still carried offstage with force. The next time we saw her however she was alone and walked downstage and did a seemingly endless series of pirouettes. It garnered applause. No one puts Tiler Peck in a corner.

Hyltin and de Luz, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Even creepier was the Hyltin/de Luz relationship. de Luz constantly reached out to Hyltin, trying to get her to dance. His efforts were not successful, as she proved elusive and non-responsive even when he did make contact with her. Her body bent as if she was traumatized from abuse. Finally a group of males carried her in the air, threw her up and down like a beanbag, and roughly manhandled her into submission. de Luz reached for her to prevent the gang assault. When she finally was released she slapped de Luz in the face. Why? The audience gasped. Only the Mearns/Amasar relationship was consensual. They danced a slow, if joyless dance together. The entire group of dancers and the corps gathered onstage for a dark, bleak ending where some of them already seemed dead.

The steps were always inventive -- sometimes resembling ballroom, other times folk dance, other times modern dance. It clocked in at 20 minutes and was compulsively watchable. Ratmansky is probably the most talented choreographer in making inventive steps for dancers and he's obviously branching out from his tried-and-true style. I just didn't personally enjoy the ballet as much as I've enjoyed his other works.

Here are the curtain calls for Odessa:

Kowroski and La Cour
As for the rest of the gala, not even the talents of Megan Fairchild, Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, and Aaron Sanz as well as some of the cutest costumes could save Martins' Jeu de Cartes. It's one of Martins' excruciatingly long, meandering pieces where when the curtain goes down you've learned nothing and felt nothing. After Jeu was that overdone gala piece, Wheeldon's After the Rain pas de deux. Maria Kowroski unfurled her long limbs, cascading hair, and jelly-like flexibility into the various gynecological poses of this ballet, while Ask La Cour proved a solid board for Maria to dive into constantly in the ballet's main motif. It's not my thing, but the audience loved it.

Bouder and Veyette
Thankfully there was some Balanchine -- Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette in Tchaikovksy pas de deux. These two are old hands at this sort of thing. Veyette ran out of steam in his turns a la seconde in the coda, so Ashley saved the day by leaping into his arms with so much force that a less experienced partner would have dropped Bouder face-first onto the stage. But of course Veyette caught her, and they repeated this gravity-baiting trick a second time, and by that time the audience was roaring and they were still roaring when Veyette carried Bouder into the wings. I guess that's the power of Balanchine -- he had the unmatched gift of making audiences delirious with happiness.

So how do I feel about Odessa? It's not a work that engenders instant love, the way Concerto DSCH or Namouna do. But I remember it. The vision of Sterling Hyltin struggling while being held aloft by men she is afraid of are still on my mind. And that's what is important.

Update: I saw Odessa again on May 6 with a different cast: Ashley Bouder/Taylor Stanley were the "Tiler/Taylor" couple, Unity Phelan/Tyler Angle were the "Sara/Amar" couple, and Megan Fairchild/Daniel Ulbricht were the "Sterling/Joaquin" couple. With the new cast the ballet was considerably less dark and disturbing. The battle between Ashley and Taylor seemed more like a lovers' quarrel than a violent dispute, and Megan did not exude the same kind of fear as Sterling towards the men. When she slapped Daniel she seemed more peeved than anything. Daniel Ulbricht made his character considerably less sleazy and menacing than Joaquin de Luz. It wasn't better or worse, just different. The music and steps are as watchable as ever.

Also on the program were two works that premiered in the fall: Lauren Lovette's For Clara and Peter Walker's ten in seven. For Clara now seems a better work than I remembered -- I liked her inventive work for the corps. Still don't like the aggressive partnering for the solo dancers, but I definitely see more structure and style in the work than I did in the fall. ten in seven on the other hand was much less impressive on second viewing. Still an enjoyable trifle but that's all it is.