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Serenades and Diversions

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 6, 2018

Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied and Wheeldon
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
January 30, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

As parts of the nation settled in to hear 45 read the script of the State of the Union address, and other parts assiduously ignored the same, balletomanes and ballet goers in the Washington area welcomed a program of new and recent choreography from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) to kick off its annual Kennedy Center Opera House season. I’ll leave comments on the SOTU to the political pundits, but can proclaim wholeheartedly that, on the heels of a tough year for ballet companies, from shrinking budgets, to rising touring costs, tighter visa restrictions for foreign artists, and year-end revelations of sexual harassment  and abuse in companies large and small, the state of ABT is strong. In fact, I haven’t seen the company as a whole dance this well since its heyday in the mid-1980s, when premier danseur Mikhail Baryshnikov served as artistic director.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Blaine Hoven and Daniil Simkin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,”  photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Tuesday evening’s program of four works — three by living male choreographers created in the past decade — showcased the company’s commitment to building repertory for the 21st century, instead of recycling the tried and true of the past. Though none were world premieres, these offerings demonstrated a high level of sophistication that demanded far more from the typical “story ballet” crowd that fills the Opera House on Saturday nights and weekend matinees for the Swan Lakes, Giselles and Le Corsaires that the company can churn out.

Artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky has been a prolific dancemaker, creating pieces for his current home company, ABT, as well as for New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, which he directed from 2004-2008, and many others. His choreography demonstrates an astute awareness of the classical underpinnings that remain integral to the art form, but he has a fresh take on how these classic steps get put together and, more essential, how dancers perform them. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” shows that he’s in top form, creatively, intellectually and technically. The work is among his best, featuring seven of the company’s male principals in unexpected and consequential solos that focus on new their distinctive personalities and putting them far enough outside their comfort zone to allow them to shine.

Ratmansky takes self-assured inspiration from a less-well-known, but by no means lesser, score from Leonard Bernstein. “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” is a violin concerto (here marvelously played by Kobi Malkin), joined by strings and percussion, especially deep timpani. The composer crafted it in 1954 after a Platonic dialogue and you can hear the questions and answers in the score, as well as the distinctive voices of the participants. Ratmansky follows both the intellectual tenets and the emotional currents Bernstein put into play, placing his dancers in conversation, giving them singular solos — danced monologues — and drawing them together into a larger discursive group, Platonic discourse embodied.

The work for seven men is filled with smartly executed Ratmansky-isms – complicated but pure bits of footwork that showcase the swiftness of feet and legs in a fashion not often seen in new ballets that too often focus on hyperextensions, and gymnastic-like tricks or other elements peripheral to the choreography. But Ratmansky loves and honors the ballet dictionary, the vocabulary that dates back to the French court. The more complicated and honed the footwork is, the more interesting it makes the choreography. And the more interesting the choreography, the better the opportunities dancers have to step up to the plate and hit it out of the park. Atop this evolving base of old and new, he allows for a sense of open expressiveness in the upper body, emphasizing epaulement — the shifting placement of the shoulders and head to enliven and add dimension to the dancers’ interpretations. For this “Serenade,” they really use everyday conversational hand gestures — widespread and open arms with palms up, a questioning shrug, an emphatic fist, an accusatory forefinger — which are more than decorative, they’re essential to the work’s development and purpose.

Calvin Royal in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheedon. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Calvin Royal in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Most striking in “Serenade” is the luscious attention to detail from the dancers, from soft-footed landings following soaring jumps, to gentle bourrees — a quick gliding step most often associated with women dancing en pointe — to sequences of freshly executed pirouettes, full body reverses, and a simple repose. Here Ratmansky gives his men equal opportunity to showcase their softer, feminine sides in choreography that allows for a different dynamic and level of attack than is typically expected of male ballet dancers. The men are draped and swathed interestingly in muted tones of gray, beige, rust, black and crisp white, the varied costumes by Jerome Kaplan suggesting the one-shouldered classic Greek toga. Brad Fields’ lighting, too, assists in distilling each of the seven singular performances, and also adding special effect upon introducing the one woman in the cast.

This “Serenade” is a men’s dance: by, about and for men. But it’s also a dance about Love — not cupids and cute Valentine hearts and happily ever afters. This is Platonic love, a divine inspirational connection to the idea of Eros, a transcendent, non-sexual love that rises above the banality of happy endings. Bernstein’s inspiration was the Platonic symposium — an intellectual conversation where the ultimate truth and beauty are in service of Eros.

Interestingly, Ratmansky has avoided any homoerotic undertones in his danced “Symposium” — instead providing heartfelt camaraderie, friendly sparring, frustration, joviality, even disruption. It’s an idyllic universe of music, dance and ideas. They cuff one another like playful lions, but they also question, shrug, clasp hands, brush off and draw in their compatriots as Ratmansky pulls from non-verbal gestures that allow an easygoing verisimilitude. As shifting configurations of twos, threes, fours and the entire group evolve, some dancers peel away to recline, Greek style or to sit on the sidelines regarding their brothers in debate. There’s a real-world feeling to this conversation — or symposium — and the oversized tilted placard states in Greek letters just that, “symposium” at the start of the ballet. By the end it is upturned and becomes a cloud or canopy, hanging above the dance space.

On opening night, Jeffrey Cirio’s solo set the conversation in motion, Calvin Royal’s lush adagio — in his split personality half black, half white costume — let him stretch to his fantastic height. Gabe Stone Shayer seemingly invented new jumps and skips and leaps from thin air in an airborne section while littler Daniil Simkin was playful in his lightness and larger Alexandre Hammoudi seemed stoic. Blaine Hoven, in his white jacket, appears to lead, while bearded James Whiteside played up some of the more feminine steps — crossed Romantic-style wrists, bourrees — with tongue in cheek.

Then, like a deus ex machina, Eros appears in person, entering through a gold-lit opening in the back curtain. Eros (Devon Teuscher in a pale blue dress) dances a brief, entangled duet with before exiting, and this is, interestingly, the least compelling part of the work. The pas de deux is ordinary, while the men’s previous solos and duets were extraordinary, filled with sentiment, moments of softness and rigor.

This was the program’s gem, a keeper that should be well on its way to masterpiece status.

Alas, the revival of Jerome Robbins’ small but not inconsequential pas de deux “Other Dances,” originally made for the incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in 1976, provided an example of what happens when a dance is mothballed and remounted without care to casting and attention to detail beyond the steps. Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns managed the technical demands of Robbins’ highly evocative choreography without a glitch. They simply had no passion, either for one another, or for the poignant yet lilting Chopin pieces that suggest a lost Russian world of mazurkas, booted men, and aproned women, borscht and dachas in the woods, which the choreography acknowledges in the snappy heel closes, hands resting proudly on waists; toe and heel taps, and even — here, entirely too timid — an emphatic floor slap. Yet, neither dancer projected that soulful longing for each other or for bygone days. “Other Dances” evokes another time and place, when wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve added life and zest to the piece. The Chopin was lovingly played on piano by Emily Wong.

Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions in American Ballet Theatre: Ratmansky, Robbins, Millepied & Wheeldon. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions,” photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions” is a small piece, a collection of duets, made bigger by adding a 16-member corps behind the four solo couples. Wheeldon’s most memorable dance moments for me have been his duets — here he multiplied those by spreading paired couples across the stage as decorative ornamentation and filtering them in clumps. Danced to Benjamin Britten’s “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21,” the 13 variations melded into one another, while Fields’ lighting, opening with a triangular corner of the backdrop glowing and growing, before evolving into changing colors and temperatures as a bar of bright orange, then blue, then purple, bisected the wall horizontally.

French-American choreographer, former short-lived director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied dabbled in post-modernism with some outtakes from Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” On a stage stripped of scrim, drops and all accoutrements, the dancers march across in a platoon, before the lights come down. Clad in gray tanks and black biker shorts from the rag and bone catalog, the dancers look small and inconsequential in Millepied’s pastiche of exercises and floor patterns for the large cast. Even megastars Misty Copeland and David Hallberg — recently back after a long recovery from an ankle injury — needed something more substantial to shine.

Intentionally the piece felt regimented, with much walking and dancing in unison, canon, and succession and much that likely required a traffic cop to keep order as lines crossed and bled in and out of one another. In the opening section, “Tremor,” Copeland pulls and prods Hallberg from the floor, they push palms against each other and each has a moment before the group overtakes them. Throughout there’s a push against the solo and partnered dancing as the group usurps the individual or couple. At times their mouths covered by black kerchiefs, it’s hard not to think of rioters or protesters, yet the work felt bland, not statement-making.

Much has been written about Millepied (spouse of Hollywood’s Natalie Portman) challenging ballet with something fresh and shocking. But these ideas, themes and barebones staging have a long history in modern dance. Perhaps some ballet audiences may experience shock and awe at the discomfiting usurpation of classical modalities and techniques, but it can’t possibly be that many. In the larger dance world this is rather ordinary. As lovely as it was to see Copeland and Hallberg, along with fellow principals Herman Cornejo, Hee Seo, Stearns and Teuscher, they weren’t able to shine in this dreary piece. It was hard not to wish for another Ratmansky work on this program, which began so promisingly.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
This piece was originally published on dcmetrotheaterarts.com, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

 

 

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Stepsisters and Swans

Posted in Ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on November 30, 2015

Cinderella
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
March 28, 2015

Swan Lake
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
April 9, 2015
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

It was a fortuitous spring for ballet lovers in Washington, D.C. American Ballet Theatre celebrated both its 75th anniversary and its long relationship with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March with a revival of Ashton’s Cinderella. Then the home-town team, The Washington Ballet, hit one out of the park with its first production of Swan Lake, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack (among other leads) – likely making history as the first African American Odette/Odile and Siegfried in a major company.

ABT’s Kennedy Center season was bittersweet, though, with the leave taking of homegrown ballerina Julie Kent, who retired after 29 years from American Ballet Theatre, making her own history as the longest serving dance in the company’s history.

copeland mackAlas, Kent, who was scheduled to dance her last time in Washington in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, March 28, 2015, had to pull out due to injury. Instead Gillian Murphy substituted, her crystalline technique punctuating the achy Prokofiev score. The muted tones of the music and Ashton’s first act choreography were highlighted by Murphy’s portrait of the put-upon, abused sister in a household of mean-spirited and grasping women. The step sisters, en travesti roles for Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin asserted their mean girl status in Thursday’s opening with a thick schmear of high ridiculousness. Cinderella’s father, Clinton Luckett, was a berated depressive in this dysfunctional fairy tale family. Murphy’s broom-sweeping solo in act I ached with yearning romanticism. Her transformation, at the hands – and wand – of Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, also on opening night, was not quite magical. Part, regal and distant, is a chilly ballerina, an ice princess and later, in the act III apotheosis, Murphy, too, accompanied by her prince, James Whiteside, show her classical demeanor with little of the warmth or fluidity of her earlier characterization. Here she becomes queenly, precise: bouree-ing and spinning like a music box ballerina.

The Ashton production is not without its moments – comic bits of business by those outlandish stepsisters, or a ridiculous caricature of Napoleon as one of the ball’s guests – but even with David Walker’s lavish sets and costumes, it felt subdued, a bit deflated. The sparkle was missing. Perhaps it was the loss of Kent’s performance. Her bow to Washington came after the curtain dropped; Kent stepped on stage a wisp in her street clothes, for one final curtsy to her hometown audience.

The much publicized debut of ABT’s now principal ballerina Misty Copeland in The Washington Ballet’s first full-length Swan Lake occurred five weeks later, in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater. Heralded as a history-making first for its pairing of Copeland with TWB’s Brooklyn Mack, also African American, the media frenzy and public interest was high and ticket sales brisk. A smart marketer at the ballet screen printed t-shirts that proclaimed: “I Saw Misty and Brooklyn” across the back.

Artistic director Septime Webre brought in Kirk Peterson, who himself had an illustrious 17-year career as a principal at ABT. The former artistic director of Hartford Ballet and one-time assistant artistic director to Washington Ballet, then under the direction of the late founder Mary Day, Peterson’s expertise in restaging full-length classics shone brightly here. Webre also wisely connected with the small, but lively Evermay Chamber Orchestra, which has grown from an ensemble of five into a modestly sized but highly adept mini orchestra, here under the direction of Nabil Shehata. With just 20 full company members and three apprentices, TWB filled out its swan ranks with its 13 dancers from the Studio Company along with additional support from senior level students from the company’s professional training program.

Peterson’s production was finely wrought, well danced and equally well acted. Most notable – and gratifying – was his return to many classic mime passages that are hardly seen, at least not on American soil. He delved into Nicholas Sergeyev’s research on the 1895 original Petipa/Ivanov production following Vaganova’s 1933 Sadler Wells staging in London, which made many Sovietizing adjustments to the work. So it’s possible – or at least believable – that Peterson’s research has returned the ballet to a purer original stage – though of course we’ll never know. In any case, the mostly contemporary dancers of TWB handled the complex mime passages and dramatic sequences with ease and finesse. My favorite is the reintroduction of the passage when Odette tells Siegfried about the curse on her mother and the lake she and her swans inhabit, which was made from her mother’s tears. Equally notable: the lovely and energetic the corps de ballet, particularly in the Lev Ivanov white acts. They were not a unified singular body, but, oh, how they danced with vigor and liveliness.

The main question on most readers’ minds, though, remains, “How did Misty do?” Admirably well considering that Odette and Odile aren’t really her roles. Copeland is a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong dancer, a formidable powerhouse of a mover who can take up space and radiate personality. What she’s not is a classical princess, nor is she, as Odile, a determined seductress. Copeland has the technical chops to knock many roles out of the park. But for Odette, she lacks an abiding sense of fragility and litheness. She understands the physical musculature necessary, for example for her arms to undulate like a bird’s wings, but she doesn’t yet – and may never – have the languid, free-flowing fluidity to make me believe she could in fact take flight. As Odile, of course, beyond being a seductress with an ulterior motive, she has to whip out those beloved and despised fouettes. Alas, for a ballerina of her power and steadiness, it should be an effortless task, one that is barely noticeable, but there was a glitch, she didn’t hit her mark or the count.

As for Copeland’s partner, Mack, who completed his sixth season with the company in the spring, and received some of his training in Washington, D.C. at the Kirov Academy, was an adequate Siegfried. He was not, though, fully believable as a prince. He’s a romantic, but with a more modern sensibility. I’ve seen him expertly and suavely woo a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What he is not, or at least not yet, is a fully classical prince with that sense of elevated self importance, but also that sigh-inducing reverie, that soul-searching quest ever at hand. He has the power to let loose the big jumps and stage engulfing leaps, but he didn’t discover the intense emotional connection with his partner, Copeland, that is necessary for Swan Lake to soar. Alas, they both remained more prosaic than passionate. Now that Copeland has attained the status of principal, there are more classical roles in her future. Time will tell as to whether she can truly attain the classical realm in her dancing. Physically she has the ability; it’s a matter of becoming fully immersed in the drama and emotional life of her role that will make Copeland a true classical ballerina.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2015 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

Photo: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, by Theo Kossenas

 

Sweet Dreams

Posted in Ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 10, 2011

Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker,” photo Geme Schiavone

“The Nutcracker”
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Set and Costume Design: Richard Hudson
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
American Ballet Theatre
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
December 8, 2011

By Lisa Traiger

You don’t always get “The Nutcracker” you want, but, invariably, in the overabundance of this sugar plum-filled season you sometimes get “The Nutcracker” you need. Alexei Ratmansky’s latest version from 2010 for American Ballet Theatre, in its first foray beyond New York, is a sweetly digestible one for these heart-burn inducing times. Beyond Clara’s awakening from innocent child to curious (but still chaste) adolescent, the ballet’s other subject is chiefly gluttony – that act-two trip to the Kingdom of the Sweets, introduces Clara and the audience to a vicarious land of coffees, cakes and candies, danced, as always, to that luscious Tchaikovsky score that has been bastardized by too many television commercials and shopping mall soundtracks.

With the sweetly, gluttonous subtext, it’s more than fitting that Ratmansky launches the ballet behind the scenes in the large cook’s kitchen. There pre-party chaos reigns as the curtain rises: The cook, butler and maids flit at their wits’ ends while little and not so little mice play a Tom-and-Jerry game of hide-and-seek and snatch garlands of meaty sausages. Mihail Chemiakian’s grotesque vision of “The Nutcracker” that he did for the Mariinsky Ballet in 2003, immediately comes to mind, for he, too, began in a kitchen, though darker and more sinister as it was strung with sausages.

Ratmansky keeps proceedings light through much of act one’s party scene, which has the feel of organized chaos, although at times he shows us too many backs,especially of the graspy children. The adults fade into the background as hordes of those well-dressed but not-so-well-behaved young ones (finely trained students at the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York) run riot in anticipation of presents and sweets – another sign of our holiday of conspicuous consumption. Clara, finely danced by Mikaela Kelly on opening night, is a near model child – she has no Freudian hang-ups, doesn’t hate her parents, doesn’t even hate that bothersome brother – and surely she does well in school too. Even rambunctious Fritz – Kai Monroe – isn’t a real bad seed, just a bit high strung – maybe from anticipating all that sugar. In any case, the conflict over the broken Nutcracker doll is quickly smoothed over.

Victor Barbee’s Drosselmeyer is more magic than mystic, though he does have a touch of that as well and in his round spectacles, top hat and cape he suggests a balletic Johnny Depp (in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” not Jack Sparrow – no wonder all the middle-aged women swooned over his slightly feminine gait. There’s no seediness or sexual undertone in the way this beloved uncle favors Clara with an enchanted Nutcracker doll. Here Ratmansky gets the child-like imagination just right: The gift he gives comes to Clara in real boy form and we see her imagination at work as she humanizes the doll, while everyone is distracted at the buffet table. If this were a movie, everything would go fuzzy at this point to suggest an interior monologue. But that’s not needed here; Kelly has the acting chops to support the illusion.

Later, during the battle scene, The Nutcracker Boy, as he’s called here (Theodore Elliman), is valiant, but as always, Clara comes to the rescue with a pitch of her shoe against that nasty seven-headed Mouse King. Ratmansky’s most touching moments are actually the small but not insignificant gestures shared between young Clara and her boy prince – a shy glance, a steady gaze, clasped hands, a brush across a shoulder. These speak of young love. But Ratmansky reminds us that they’re still kids: I love how they tear through the snow storm and slip and slide amid the swirling ballerina snowflakes. Perfect.

Later, in act two’s Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the dancing sweets and teas are introduced by a turbaned pasha (Zhong-Jing Fang) and her majordomo (Alexei Agoudine) as the non-dancing Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. Ratmansky’s vision includes some humorous takes on the traditional character dances in stylish and clever costume designs by Richard Hudson. There are cartoonish bumblebees wearing helmets and oversized goggles, a harem straight from the Arabian peninsula and a bald(!) and bare-chested Sascha Radesky as the polygamous husband. The brisk Chinese duo sparkles with cartwheels and bright footwork executed by Skylar Brandt and Daniil Simkin. The Russian trepak here is an athletic goof: a trio of clownish dudes are part Russian acrobats, part beer-drinking buddies and all fun and smiles.

The dream-like quality of this “Nutcracker,” though, comes to fruition when Clara and her boy-prince are transformed into ardent adult lovers, a glamorous princess and a prince. Opening night Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes portray the adult alteregos with fervent passion and Part is both meltingly lush and girded by steel, while Gomes is any woman’s dream: supportive, loving and exuberant in his mimed marriage proposal (not a usual “Nutcracker” feature). Ultimately, Clara’s adventure and transformation in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy turns out to be, alas, a dream – which we’ve seen before in Baryshnikov’s version among others. But in Ratmansky’s hands it’s a wonderful one. This rendering is clearly for American audiences weaned on conspicuous consumption, but momentarily exhausted by the bitter and vitriolic cultural and political conversations of the day. His “Nutcracker” is an antidote – sweet, nostalgic, but not cloying. And the fact that he populates the stage with ever so slight and sly suggestions from pop culture – a pair of governesses who recall Neil Simon’s tittering Pigeon sisters, the quartet of bumblebees who look like stars of the next post-modern cartoon sitcom – gives this classic an up to date feel. Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker” is right for right now. Will it be one for the ages? Only time will tell.

© 2011 by Lisa Traiger
Published Dec. 10, 2011