D.C. DanceWatcher

Story Time: 2012-13 Kennedy Center Ballet Season

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet by lisatraiger on October 26, 2013

Ratmansky’s Cinderella — Maryinsky Ballet
Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet — San Francisco Ballet
Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — National Ballet of Canada
Christensen’s Nutcracker — Ballet West
Dangerous Liaisons — Washington Ballet
By Lisa Traiger

The surfeit of story ballets on the Kennedy Center’s ballet season in recent years has provided a primer of sorts for what works, what doesn’t and what is simply overdone. From new visions of classics by Alexei Ratmansky, to warhorses like The Nutcracker to tricked-up modern versions of favorite children’s novels like Christopher Wheeldon’s up-to-date, smartly modern re-telling of Alice and Wonderland, audiences have been lulled and coddled by mostly known quantities, seemingly to pad the ticket sales by giving subscribers and matinee audiences what they want – story after story after story. If they don’t quite know the ballet, the company or the choreographer, well, no matter; surely they know the rudiments of, say, Cinderella, her nasty stepsisters, her magical godmother and her lost slipper. This isn’t a recent problem at the Kennedy Center, but the valuing of story over repertory and ballet warhorses over newer and more adventurous mixed-bill programs has become standard fare under Michael Kaiser’s direction. Lost with this overly cautious programming is the opportunity to build audiences for newer works, provide opportunities for lesser known choreographers to test their artistic voices and challenge companies to move beyond costume- and story-driven ballets and into new waters.

Back in Washington, D.C., October 16-21, 2012, the Maryinsky Ballet’s Cinderella by Ratmansky – seen here previously in 2005 — opened the season on a mordant note, emphasizing the darker tones of the Prokofiev score along with the choreographer’s darker version of the tale. There’s little light and air in Ratmansky’s vision, set in a foreboding steel trussed urban landscape (the contemporary design is by Ilia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov). In this Cinderella, we glimpse a flashback to her life before her ineffectual and, here, alcoholic father remarried. Her sunny, idyllic childhood has been overshadowed by a Cruella de Vil-like stepmother, the sexy-mean Sofia Gumerova on the two performances I saw. With her razor-sharp pointes stabbing the air, jagged elbows, wrists and knees highlighting her angularity and her treacherous, spiky personality. Her own daughters – Khudishka and Kubishka — deliciously and outlandishly played by Magarita Frolova and Nadezhda Batoeva for full laughs – follow their mother’s nasty footsteps: their preening, primping, one-upmanship as garishly overstated as their florid and cheap costumes (the work of Elena Markovskay). Cinderella, the delicate Daria Pavlenko (on opening night and replacing an injured Ekaterina Osmolkina later in the week) offers the only hope and kindness in this dark and demoralized world of Ratmansky’s making. Her movement is smoothly circular: curves, dips, arcing arabesques elegantly filled with breathy epaulement. Her fairy godmother, a village tramp, the wonderfully warm Elena Bazhenova, shuffles and nods off and looks approvingly on as Cinderella helps the old woman with her spilled groceries. There are no pumpkin-shaped coaches and magical creatures to take her to the ball. Instead, a retinue of seasons – a new-age crew of asexual men in their own outlandish garb, oversee her and spirit her away. The ball Ratmansky staged is wryly astringent, emphasizing the vapid, heartless beauty – air kisses all around, punctuated with disapproving stares — of the young, idle, and rich. Women and men in waves twist and shimmy to a series of made-up faddish dances. The women clad in sleek, garishly colored floor-length dresses, the men in trim tuxedos, wear the bored expressions of the rich and pampered, while the stepmother and step daughters as wannabe socialites try too hard and fall too far.

The moral center of the ballet rests firmly with Cinderella and her questing prince. Vladimir Shklyarov and Igor Kolb provide two interesting readings on this role. Opening night Shklyarov was a 21st century geek, retiring, super shy, he looked all the world like he’d have happily avoided the fancy-dress ball for another episode of “Game of Thrones” or the latest video game release at home on the sofa. When he set off on his quest to find the beloved he had glimpsed, he even carried the all-important slipper in a fanny pack, which must be a ballet first. Igor Kolb radiated the maturity and presence of a danseur noble, and was undeniably more princely in his demeanor, confident in his interactions and impeccable in his solo variations. And, interestingly, he used a messenger bag (or was it a European “manpurse”?) slung casually over his shoulder to carry the slipper. Each reading worked, but it was easy to fall for the geeky Shklyarov with his 21st-century anti-hero status. When the pair reunite, the ballet regains its morality, suggested in that early flashback, when all was right with the world and girl-child Cinderella had an intact nuclear family. Ratmansky’s coupling that brings these two outsiders, these two seeking hearts, together as one is the only time the ballet truly sings. Their lush pas de deux, danced alone in moonlight, is a thing of pure beauty – her lines achingly reaching, he finding himself for the first time in the eyes of a beholder. The partnership between Shklyarov and Shirinkina was particularly affecting, imbued with romantic passion. While Ratmansky hasn’t created a Cinderella for the ages, he has undeniably created one right for our age of cynicism and consumerism.

San Francisco Ballet split its week-long visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House, bringing in a program of repertory that included artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Trio,” a high-minded love triangle imbedded in four movements of Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor “Souvenir de Florence,” Op. 70. Tomasson’s work-a-day choreography served its pride of place as a program opener. The centerpiece of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” was a stylized tale drawing on Eastern meditative and martial arts elements that showcased the lovely Yuan Yuan Tan as a warrior’s widow (I think) to Damian Smith’s Prince. Into their rarefied world, Pascal Molat as the evil monk intrudes, taking advantage of the mourning widow and burning a sacred temple to the ground. Along the way, amid Alexander Nichols’ overly elaborate sets and projections, a band of samurai warriors appears to re-enact a battle. Whether it is for body or soul is little matter; the piece is inscrutable. Christopher Wheeldon’s sunny and bright “Number Nine,” to a rhythmically assertive score by Michael Torke, is forceful in demonstrating the large company’s athleticism and musicality. Holly Hynes’s unapologetically bright costumes, cheery yellow for the corps, and popsicle colors for the four couples, set the tone for the effervescent feel Wheeldon is aiming for: shape-shifting patterns for the group – Vs, diamonds, lines, circles, and intersecting paths, and plenty of eye-candy. The company run, though, focused on Tomasson’s 1994 staging of Romeo and Juliet, featuring the familiar Prokofiev score. Tomasson’s retelling of this oft-danced Shakespearean classic is more ordinary than elevated. The choreography and scenes feel studied and carefully wrought. Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s sets and costumes dutifully in period and lovely to observe. But again, and surprisingly for a troupe as fine as San Francisco, the work simply doesn’t soar. I don’t believe it’s the fault of its principals – lithe and petite Maria Kochetkova as Juliet and stalwart Joan Boada, who was buoyant and brash enough as Romeo the evening I attended. In fact, whether in ballet or play form, Romeo and Juliet requires an intense buildup – the tension between the two families, the chance meeting of the two lovers, the street brawls that set in motion the impossibility of them ever being together, their moonlit love scene and their unfortunate demise – the plotlines are laid out in perfect progression. While Tomasson has mapped out his version methodically, he lost sight of the teeming conflicts and passions that make it such a beloved and masterful work.

While story is often beside the point in the endlessly numbing march of Nutcrackers each December, for a few years running the Kennedy Center has brought in a different company to dance its own version. This past Christmas we received a gift in William Christensen’s rendering of this ever-green ballet, done up with impeccable wrapping, bows and tags by Ballet West. The company’s visit to the Opera House December 5-9, 2012, was a lovely re-introduction to this troupe since Adam Sklute took the helm in 2007. Although Ballet West must relish its pop-culture notoriety in the reality TV world, there’s nothing faddish about Christensen’s version of The Nutcracker, first set onstage back in 1944. Christensen didn’t go in for psycho-drama about young Clara on the cusp of womanhood, nor black snowflakes, nor homo-erotic suggestions. A good Nutcracker doesn’t need the extra-suggestive elements to make an impact, Sklute realized, and there’s nothing wrong with simply presenting a good ballet done very well. There’s a warm glow right from the start and the party scene, lit by candles and, of course, a glowing Christmas tree is surely one reason so many families flock yearly to this ballet event: the suggestion that holidays celebrated together provide a semblance of utopia amid the stress and bustle of daily life. There’s nothing lascivious about this Drosselmeyer (Beau Pearson): in his magic-wielding manner he charms the children and parents alike. Lovely, too, is the cast of real children, not simply short adults as the principals, including the key roles of Clara and her prince (Anastasia Markova and Quentin Rouiller) and upwards of 50 other well-rehearsed youngsters from local studios around the Beltway. Unique among the Ballet West dancers was the uninflected approach they gave to the technique. There was a purity and trueness to their dancing that eschewed affectation or a particular Balanchinean, Russian, or other style. Also notable, Ballet West, more so than many other American companies, featured dancers of a wide range of complexions. Long a thorn in the side of the ballet world is the lily-white look of most companies from corps to principal. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, of all places, appears to have a greater proportion of dancers of color than most companies these days. Kudos to Sklute on that. It seems that even the ever-green ballet classics sometimes need a new addition to the repertoire of stories.

Wheeldon, in 2011, found inspiration in the fantastical 1865 Lewis Carroll novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with all its dusky undertones. Originally created for the Royal Ballet in a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, the Kennedy Center saw the Canadian production January 18-27, 2013. Featuring a wise and melodic score by Joby Talbot and theatrically stunning sets and projections by Bob Crowley and Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the production provides a visual feast while following a lovely Jillian Vanstone as Alice – here a teen on the cusp of womanhood, like so many Claras and Auroras before her — into a bevy of encounters with those well-known odd fellows, creatures and curious royalty in her imaginative world. The whole adventure is set in motion during an outsized garden party where Greta Hodgkinson as an uber-dominating mother bares her teeth and steely pointes to control the event. Later, she like the rest of the cast, reappears. As the erratic but mean-spirited Queen of Hearts she’s equal parts bumbling dominatrix, and mad harridan. There’s even a great sendup of the Rose Adagio, while her emasculated spouse looks on in dreaded hilarity as she wobbles and overdramatizes to ridiculous effect. Woefully mismatched, Rex Harrington keeps a stiff upper lip as the father/King of Hearts, and once in a while a smile slyly peeks through noting his wife’s foolish demands. This Alice is spunky, up for an adventure and by no means a wilting flower, even in the face of her prickly mother/mother figure. The rest of the characters – from the white Rabbit, who doubles as auteur Lewis Carroll – to the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse Cook, Caterpillar and the rest fill the stage, scene by picaresque scene. Choreographically Wheeldon here seems more concerned with the job of traffic cop than dancemaker. With so much happening on stage, the comings and goings of outlandish characters, the changes in scenery and dimension, even a time warp flashback saved for the final epilogue – helped along quite nicely with those projected video effects – leaves the choreography on the back burner. The steps given the dancers seem often an afterthought, filler to get them from one sequence to another in this mostly busy ballet. The budding Alice has her own pas de deux with Jack (Naoya Ebe) in the second act, but this angle seems an afterthought and doesn’t move the characters forward. When we meet them again in the epilogue, there we’re to understand that fate brought them together a 100 years hence, but it’s too little too late from Wheeldon.

A mid-season entry into the story-filled ballet season, The Washington Ballet’s Valentines Special program titled incongruously “L’amour (love, baby …)” included a world premiere of “Dangerous Liaisons”  by the company’s associate artistic director David Palmer. Drawn from the 18th-century French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the 1988 bodice-ripping film adaptation featuring Glen Close and John Malkovich, the work was simply not meant to be a ballet. The seductive court drama with its interlacing romances and betrayals all played out within the ever-important hierarchy of courtiers and servants is far too complex to break down into manageable movement motifs and recognizable character-driven relationships. There are letters passed and re-passed, whispering women in wigs and shortened hooped skirts. Men with ruffled shirts and knickers biding their time to bed and conquest a woman. A Marquise (the exquisite and worldly Sona Kharatian) takes revenge on a lover in challenging Valmont (a passionate Jared Nelson) to seduce his rival’s virginal fiancée (the slip-thin Maki Onuki). With more than a dozen characters in total, from maids and dancing masters, to servants, a favorite aunt, an old military man, and a religious wife, it’s impossible to keep anyone straight in this costume drama. The result, all danced to the clichéd Vivaldi “Four Seasons,” is an attractive but impenetrable mess. Balanchine famously said, with good reason: “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Indeed, this stage of shifting paramours and power-hungry courtiers vying for allegiance would have been better left to the spoken and written word rather than retro-fitting it into a wordless, murky vision of a ballet.

(c) 2013 Lisa Traiger
This article was originally published in the summer 2013 issue of Ballet Review (p. 14). It is reprinted with permission. For more information or to subscribe to Ballet Review, visit here.

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