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Dancing in Red

Posted in Ballet, Broadway, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 13, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

THE RED SHOES

Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Johan Persson

Generations of budding ballerinas have lusted after the shiny crimson satin pointe shoes in the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes. Who can resist those shoes, they make the wearer dance, and dance, and dance. This week the Kennedy Center Opera House is filled with ballet lovers captivated by the red shoe mystique. Matthew Bourne’s theatrical production re-imagines the Emeric Pressburger-Michael Powell film as a wordless evening of movement theater with mixed results.

Bourne, the British director and choreographer, has long demonstrated his love of classics. His Swan Lake featured a prince discovering his sexuality and a gaggle of bare-chested male swans, while his Sleeping Beauty, seen here two seasons ago, was populated with vampires. His Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray, and Play Without Words all evoke classic movies. Bourne’s The Red Shoes is a riff on the Technicolor movie, using a recorded score from Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Hermann. Like the film, it pits art against life. Art wins.

Usually an astute storyteller, here Bourne has trouble boiling down the narrative into a compelling performance without dialogue. He does maintain the vivid color and heightened musicality of the motion picture, but paring down the story to essentials denudes it of some of its drama.Victoria Page is a young ballet dancer vying for a company job and, ultimately, stardom. She convinces – through the help of her overbearing mother – impresario Boris Lermontov to hire her for his world-renowned European company, with its repertory of classic and cutting-edge choreography. As a rising starlet, Page gets a shot at the spotlight when the lead ballerina suffers an injury: a Broadway plot line for the ages, which differs from the film when the lead ballerina marries and leave the company. Lermontov sets his sights on Page’s stardom and becomes jealous when she takes up with a handsome, young composer, Julian Craster. The ballet’s centerpiece is a realization of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a spare, black and white mid-century modern vision of a dancer caught up in the enticing life of an artist.

The 16-member cast of the New Adventures company is exceedingly attractive and adept at bringing Bourne’s ideas to fruition. They dance with the flair of storytellers but remain mindful of ballet’s demanding technical precision. As Victoria, Ashley Shaw resembles the film’s ardent lead, the exquisite Moira Shearer, and we understand her best in her heart-breaking duet with Julian – American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes on opening night. The pair have been rejected by Lermontov after their affection rankled the possessive producer. Down on their luck performing at low-rent music halls instead of grand opera houses, their relationship frays. We see that conflict danced out in tensile angles. Gomes, too, demonstrates his capacity for dramatic storytelling in a solo that makes visual his conductor’s creative process in musical composition. The interpretation is of an artist at work, discovering the subtleties and gaudiness of Hermann’s music. It’s a compelling visualization of an artist in process. Alas, Sam Archer’s Lermontov – a Diaghilev or Balanchine-like figure – does not inhabit the severity and control that an old-school impresario would exhibit, which puts Shaw at a disadvantage – her struggle between her director and her beloved composer isn’t as compelling as it could be. And that’s one of the best elements of Bourne’s Red Shoes: he shows artists hell-bent on perfecting their art.

Act one is filled with intrigue: backstage rehearsal scenes and artistic encounters. The company, dressed in their rag-tag rehearsal togs a la mid-1940s, dance through sections of a 20th-century classic, Les Sylphides, an homage to Romanticism set to an aching Chopin piano score. These show-within-a-show moments are a Bourne trademark that pays homage to the past in smartly succinct vignettes.

Act two features a Gatsby-esque party for the dancers, who Charleston, tango, and conga with abandon overlooking the Mediterranean sea on the French Riviera. The talents of designer and frequent Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston are a key element in interpreting the work. He remains loyal to the saturated colors of 1940s Hollywood and the centerpiece is a show curtain and a stage-within-a-stage that spotlights the onstage/backstage tensions that percolate within a ballet company. (On opening night, a chandelier flew in too early and the internal show curtain got stuck causing a nearly 10-minute pause. “Safety first,” Bourne remarked after the performance.)

Marcelo Gomes

Marcelo Gomes as Julian Craster and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Shaw in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” photo Lawrence K. Ho.

 

There is much to like about this lavish, lovingly conceived production, but, it can’t, and shouldn’t, upstage the classic film. For those planning to attend, do your homework, re-watch the Powell/Pressburger movie. It will enhance your enjoyment. In the movie, Lermontov asks young Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” He responds, “I must.” And Vicky says, “That’s my answer to you.” The Red Shoes is a full immersion in the art of living a fully committed creative life. Let’s hope this re-telling inspires another generation of ballerinas enamored of shiny, red satin slippers that inspire the dance.

© 2017 by Lisa Traiger. Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and reprinted here with kind permission.


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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