This is my third time seeing Carlos Acosta’s showcase performances (once at the Coliseum and then before at Sadler’s Wells), and I have to say my expectations were high – I’d invited both my Acosta loving friend Ibi (soft sell), my husband and W to come with me. The posted program wasn’t really ringing any bells for me, but I felt sure I’d see lots of showy dancing and maybe some nods to Acosta’s past. I was also excited that this show had managed to sell out the house for five shows in a row, though the people standing behind our very-last-row seats weren’t as exciting for me – I just felt hovered over a bit. Still, it’s nice to see that much enthusiasm for dance.
Act One opened with the dancers getting out of their street clothes and into their dance costumes, as if they’d just wandered by the Coliseum for a class. The dancers then transitioned into “Three Preludes” (which I saw as a unit), with a male and female dancer (Begonia Cao and Arionel Vargas) in white doing a lot of dancing on and around a bar, feet on the bar, the woman lifted until she was en pointe on the bar, etc. It was nice but a bit subtle for my back row seats. Much better was “Ritmicas” (Ivan Tenori, 1973) in which two dancers (Veronica Corveas and Miguel Altunaga) in bright costumes went for much more salsa/Cuban flavored dance, with music, attitude, and showing off. It kind of showed both why Cubans love ballet (and why ballet works for Cuba) but also, by comparison, how much more life traditional Western choreography needs – you could feel it all the way in Row K. Sadly, the music was recorded, though much of the evening was live – yet I think live music would have really added to this particular piece.
Next up was Spartacus and at last we got what we had all paid to see. Or, maybe, we were getting what Carlos Acosta wanted to show, as I was suddenly reminded of the legendary Baroque singer who would only perform if his entrance would be the aria to Julius Cesar (I think it was), with him in full battle gear, no matter what the opera was he was supposed to be in … he had to make his entrance singing the same song and armored to the teeth. And there was Carlos, LEAPING! and SPINNING! and doing AMAZING LANDINGS ON HIS KNEES! while CARRYING A SWORD! To be honest, like Spartacus itself, the performance was just over the top – no plot, just feats of athleticism, including some over the head kicks in which Mr. Acosta’s toe appeared to go into an alternate dimension, possibly making contact with the international space station. And though it said it was Act 1 and Act 2 solos, to be honest, they pretty much looked and felt exactly the same.
The program said that playing Spartacus requires “immense strength, an infalliable technique, charisma as well as the sensitivity to portray Spartacus’ touching relationship with his faithful wife Phrygia,” but not a whit of “sensitivity” was present in the bits he performed – probably not surprising as per reviews I’ve read elsewhere, acting is not really Acosta’s forte. Ah well. But the sword bit and the whole hypermasculinity of the performance, well, it actually was verging on the comic for me. I know that when we go to see galas, we expect to see people showing off, but … it made me giggle, though silently lest the other audience members hurt me.
Then it was “Rhapsody,” a bit which I found rather forgettable other than the fact that it used the music from “Somewhere In Time.” I don’t think it was supposed to be “Somewhere in Time, the Ballet,” but, er, the emotional energy was kinda not getting me due to being so overwhelmed by Spartacus. It was like trying to taste a hit of cardamon after eating a vindaloo – my buds were burnt out.
The pas de deux from Act I of Neumeier’s Othello managed to cut through the torpor. (Sadly I did not realize that this was what was being depicted – it would have helped made sense of the dance a lot more.) The Arvo Part music was amazing, and the intimacy of the dancing was lovely – the woman in a nightgown (Florencia Chinellato) very delicate and loving and flexible and wholly open to the man; he, strong, catching and lifting and carrying her effortlessly. However, what blew me away was the passion and barely restrained sexual energy bubbling under the piece, which ended with the woman unpeeling the bit of gauze wrapped over the man’s dance belt. My God, his body – if ever a person could be unashamed of dancing naked, Amilcar Moret was he. My jaw was hanging open, and as I sat there with the binoculars glued to my eyes, my husband (whom I had stolen them from – he doubtlessly had his own opinions about the nearly transparent gown on the woman) turned to me and said, “His definition is so perfect you can see where the muscles attach to the bones.” Wow. The thing is, I wish, for that piece, I could have actually seen it in a far more intimate environment, because in the big barn of the Coliseum, the delicate beauty of it was overwhelmed. And I probably would enjoy seeing the whole ballet.
Next up in the continuing theme of half naked men parading around on stage in the guise of art was “Canto Vital,” described in the program thus: “Choreographed by former Bolshoi dancer Azari Plisetski in 1973 to show off the strength and dynamic masculinity of four dancers from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Canto Vital (Song of Nature) is an allegorical story of nature undergoing rebirth after conflict and resloution between three forces symbolising beast, fish, and bird.”
While “Othello” might have been the most beautiful piece of the evening, “Canto Vital” was, I think, the most memorable. It was so self-seriously masculine it flipped over into camp for me, thanks to being prepped by the strip tease in the piece before and Spartacus. All I could think of was those 50′s “male physique” magazines, in which young men lounged around naked in “brotherly love” positions while they engaged in healthy, outdoor pursuits. Admittedly, there was nothing really to complain about when it was Acosta, Steven McRae, Moret, and Arionel Vargas prancing and flipping and leaping in their speedos on stage; but I just couldn’t take it very seriously. It most certainly was an incredible piece in terms of fully showing off the talents of an all-male cast – and the caliber of performers required was very high. I could only imagine the choreographer, working at the height of the cold war, being utterly incapable of perceiving any homoerotic overtones in his work; but, child of the 80s that I am, it was painted all over this piece for me.
That said, big props for McRae for really tearing the house down on this one. While the other three men were more heavily muscled than he was, he was the one that showed grace (in his entrance leaps, in which he was fluttering his feet as if he were afraid to leap in a cold pool) and outstanding leaps, never once letting himself drop to the level of the other dancers, but always seeking to produce the best possible performance he could do in all of the sections in which he was allowed to show off his stuff – yet still dropping right into the ensemble work. When I walked out of the performance and was looking up who the red haired star was, I saw it was the same man who’d wowed me with “Les Lutins” in May. Ibi said he was much younger than the other guys (and thus more energetic and flexible), but the fact stands: he’s an awesome dancer whose star is in ascendancy (apparently he got promoted to principal in June, which he truly deserved). I’ll be keeping my eye out for him when I’m picking which night of a ballet to go to in the future.
Then it was intermission, from which we headed back in for a well varied program that never really managed to get the energy up as high as before (possibly indicating the pieces should have been shuffled a bit). I’ve completely forgotten DK60 just 24 hours later; “Summertime” made me glad I hadn’t bothered to buy tickets to Shall We Dance, as I think it’s the third time this year I’ve seen ballet dancers doing ballroom and it is just BORING boring BORING. I also hated the singer – “Summertime” isn’t opera and hearing it sung like it was grated like nails on a chalkboard.
Then it was Michel Descombey’s “Dying Swan,” starring, in an act of humility, Mr. Acosta. Um. Okay, so this is a version that has been redone for a man, and the music was somehow reworked to be much more chewy, but … it just kind of totally missed the emotional heart of the piece. It’s a tricky one, I admit, and easy to turn into a (yet again) camp nightmare (blame the Trocks) … but instead of passionate, we got dry. Frankly, I’d like to see Matthew Bourne take this one: he understands the story underneath the ballets and he would make it shine. Oh well. This one gets chalked up on the life list as “a curiosity.”
Next up was Ramon Gomes Reis’s “Over There,” happily done to the music of Purcell, “Ah Belinda” from Dido and Aeneas (“Remember me! but ah! forget my fate”). I saw it as being sort of a retelling of the Orpheus myth, with the man (Moret) attempting and yet failing to save the woman (Florencia Chinellato) from her fate. “Memoria,” which followed, was a solo for Miguel Altunaga (which he choreographed himself especially for this day), but it pretty well disappeared in the late program slump – it would have done much better earlier on when I had more energy to appreciate it, even though Altunaga really danced his pants off.
Wrapping it up was “Majismo,” choreographed for Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1964 by Cheorge Garcia to some very cool music from Massenet’s “Le Cid.” It was a pretty thing, with men dressed like matadors and the women in stylized Spanish dress, with fans; but it didn’t have the energy and impact that an end of show piece really wanted, despite some nice solos. Frankly, I think they could have done much more. The show wrapped with the dancers taking off their costumes, putting on their warmup clothes, and heading off stage; a decent bookend but not the hurrah I would have liked.
In short: this evening provided some great context of the history of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as giving us with an opportunity to see a lot of dance we would likely never or only very rarely have a chance to see – as well as highlighting current dancers from the Cuban company. It was also a real showcase for male bravura performances – nice in a world that seems to become substantially dominated by a female focused style. However, the dances should have been reshuffled a bit and maybe Acosta needs to take a step back from the freakishly butch stuff and insert just a bit more acting focused pieces, as well as rethinking the concept of “grand finale.” That said, I was grateful to see so much dance that was entirely new to me, and on the whole I felt it was a good evening, though it did tend toward being slightly naked at times.
(This review is for a performance on Thursday, July 23rd, 2009. The performance concludes with two performances on Saturday, July 25th. For alternate views, please see Allen Robertson in the Independent, Mark Monahan in the Telegraph, Clement Crisp and Sarah Frater in the Evening Standard.)