Archive for July 18th, 2010

Review – Triple Bill (Halte de Cavaliere, In a Minor Key, Divertissements) – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum 2010

July 18, 2010

Today’s performance of the Mikhailovsky ballet was a real treat: a chance to see a one-act ballet by Petipa that I’d never seen before and the debut of a newly-created ballet receiving its London premiere, plus a rich selection of divertissements from other ballets, many of which I’d never seen or even heard of before.

The first third was “Le Halt de Cavalerie,” a one act comic ballet based on a work by Petipa (anyone know the original date?), reconstructed in 1968 with music by Ivan Armsheimer. It’s a cute little story about an army coming to a man-starved Bavarian town (or so it seemed to me, it all looked very Sound of Music) and the various soldiers immediately making their way through the local female populace. Pre-soldiers, we have a group of charming peasants dressed mostly in white (girl:boy ratio about 2:1), capering about; the big action is the one fellow, Peter (Anton Ploom, my favorite from Swan Lake on Tuesday), who has two girls after him: Maria (Anastasia Lomanchenkova) and Teresa (Olga Semyonova). Sadly, I can’t tell which was which, so I’ll refer to them as Blue and Red based on their costumes. Maria and Teresa each give Peter a hanky based on their key colors, leading him to do a very-non-Othello like hanky dance as well as a ribbon dance that reminded me of “La Fille Mal Gardee” (but was not nearly as elaborate). Eventually he tucked the hankies in his pocket in a way which seemed utterly innocent of any possible secondary meaning to the act of “red hanky, front pocket,” then watched the girls get into a catfight. As they were both blonde, I found the red/blue confusion only getting worse.

However, suddenly the toy soldiers – er, local cavalry marched into town, and suddenly every girl had a sweetheart – except for Blue and Red, whose boyfriend was arrested for, er, offending the comic, red-coated colonel (Andrei Bregvadze in a highly comic role – he couldn’t even draw his sword right!). For some reason, each of the officers winds up trying to woo Red; first the guy in blue (I think the “cornet,” Maksim Podosyonov), who partners her nicely but is chased off (seemingly for dereliction of duty) by Green (the Captain, Vladimir Tsal), who did great kicks in the air but then (character-wise) makes an utter ass o;f himself by trying to force his attentions on a protesting Red. Then the Colonel shows up again. He reminded me quite a bit of Signor Tomato from yesterday afternoon, as he was a clown, but he went even further with his movement; during his dance with Red he was shakey and wobbly, couldn’t spin, could barely hold her hand, and acted completely incompetent. I was reminded a bit of the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine shows why she should not dance; the Colonel was just terrible.

This led to a scene quite unique for me, as the soldiers and village girls return to the square: Red evens the score by mocking the way each of the officers has danced with her, putting them all in her place. However, for some reason the Colonel decides that Peter is now to be united with Blue, which gives him a chance to do a very grand solo (though in his second variation he wasn’t as clean with his jumps). Then Red comes back for a dance with the three officers, which is terribly comic; Peter finishes up with a dance with Blue, whom he lifts up as they trace a large circle around the stage, and gives a little extra toss in the air at the top of every lift – very athletic! Then the army is all called away, with the Colonel leaving last of all – emerging half-dressed from hut, followed by Red. It was very racy for a ballet! He kept the joke going through the curtain calls, showing up with his shirt open, pulling a leaf from his trousers, and continuing to flirt with Red. Really, the whole thing was a big pile of fun, with some nice solos and good group scenes (that reminded me of the tradition Balanchine came from rather strongly, especially in the grand finale “everyone get on stage including the girls in the purple boots that showed up out of nowhere”). I really hope i get to see this ballet again some time, it was just a perfect little treat at all of 36 minutes and action packed from start to finish.

Next up was the London premiere of Slava Samodurov’s “In a Minor Key,” set to Scarlatti piano sonatas. It’s done with the pianist (Alexander Pirozhenko) on stage and the space mostly swept bare, with metal frameworks hanging over the stage at the beginning. There are six dancers, all of whom get duets, but as each dancer is dressed identically to the other dancers of the same gender, I could not tell them apart and thus will not credit them. Worse, I just have so little to say. There was some kicking and fists waved around; the ballerinas had cute red corsets on and the men wore very strange knitted caps. A dancer walked across a man’s body; I seem to recall a solo. I had to force myself to write, and my companion wound up napping a bit (“the warm air and the pretty music was just so relaxing”). Ah well, thanks for at least making the effort to show us some new dance, Mikhailovsky people, I am very grateful you made the investment but some times these things just don’t work out.

The evening ended with a sort of mini-gala, featuring “divertissements” from a horde of ballets: Ivan Susanin (an opera, actually), Spartacus, The Fairy Doll, Sleeping Beauty, and Spring Waters. Ivan Susanin was totally money, with some dozen fully costumed dancers on-stage to rage through a Polonaise and a Cracovienne. I don’t know anything about this music or about Polish culture but the dances were very lively, with lots of little kicks and heel clicks, and watching the women bowing and swirling with their feathered hats and ostrich fans was gorgeous. I was reminded of the thistle dance from the Disney version of the Nutcracker Suites (sorry I can’t remember what its proper name is).

This was followed by the Spartacus pas de deux, which I think is Spartacus and a courtesan. Our dancers were Vera Arbuzova and Marat Shemiunov. This piece was chock-full of thick acting and very acrobatic dancing. The acting was 1) woman: be seductive and 2) man: act impressed. Shemiunov laid it on heavily and I rolled my eyes. I had some fear for the performance I’m going to in two weeks. On the other hand, there was amazing balancing going on, with Shemiunov at one point holding Arbuzova over his head with one hand while she supported herself with one of hers and her legs arced into the air: the movement was very impressive (and gave me home for the Bolshoi). On the other hand, Shemiunov had problems on at least two occasions: I saw him slide her down his body in a way that I thought would end with her dangling, wrapped around his hips, but she made it all the way to the floor without a pause: and, more critically, at a time when he was suppose to move her away from him, he wound up slipping and letting her go so she landed on her back with a thwack. Thankfully they soldiered through to the end and even manage to accomplish some pretty serious contortions in the meantime, but I was on the edge of my seat for the rest of the time and for all of the wrong reasons. They both ought to practice a bit more and Shemiunov might want to lift some weights or maybe dip his hands in rosin – if Arbuzova doesn’t beat him within an inch of his life after this performance was over.

Next was a complete novelty, the pas de trois from “The Fairy Doll” (no notes in the program to enlighten me with Sabina Yapparova as the doll and Maksim Yeremeyev and Nikkolay Arzyaev as her two Pucinella-like suitors. They fought with each other to dance with her, stole her away when she was about to stat partnering with the other, and generally acted both utterly enamored of her and completely jealous of the other. The movement for this was charming and comic; I loved it when the doll kissed her finger then placed it on each boy doll’s cheek, sending them into raptures. The boy dolls had a great “I’m better than you” duet with each other, and the whole thing ends with her tricking them into kissing each other. It was frothy and adorable.

The best dancing of the evening was, in my mind, saved for the rather perfect pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty,” which I think is the post-wedding dance with the prince (Andrei Yakhnuyk) and Beauty (Maria Kochetkova). Kotchetkova had the same assurance and presence as did Irina Koshelova in the previous afternoon’s “Cipollino;” she looked every inch the ballerina, with tightly controlled leaps, delicate pirouettes, and a sort of glow about her while on stage. A call-out for Yakhnuyk, however, as his first solo, with the change-of-direction-in-mid-air kicks and jumping-in-the-air-and-clicking-his-heels-together moves were exhilirating and the best male dancing of the evening. (Sorry I can’t call these out by their proper ballet names, but I’m just really not there.) He also provided a good partner for Beauty, showing her off to her best and knowing just when to let go so she could show off her fine sense of balance.

Then it was the finale, a very, very quick turn through “Spring Water,” which had Shemiunov back with Irina Perrin, both in horrible blue faux-Grecian garb. Shemiunov had to carry Perrin rather a lot, and somehow I got the feeling the whole thing had been cut short after the Spartacus cock up. Perrin, still, showed no fear, as she dashed across stage and launched herself feet first in front of Shemiunov – who still managed to catch her. This was also full of gymnastic type moves and lots of balancing of the girl, but, given that it was heading on toward 5:30, I was glad that it was, actually, both short and the end of the evening. Overall, this was a performance that was well worth seeing and won’t be repeated, sort of the Mikhailovsky’s little gift to London fans with its unusual choices from the rep as well as a premiere. Balletomanes, if you didn’t catch this performance, you missed out!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 18th, 2010. It will not be repeated.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)

Review – Cipollino – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum

July 18, 2010

While the Bolshoi’s pulling the big prices with a summer of reruns, the Mikhailovsky’s actually making an attempt to give something back to London audiences by giving us two different, unique ballets: Cipollino, a children’s ballet, is a UK premiere of a ballet originally choreographed in 1973 (and based on an Italian children’s book); Laurencia is billed as a “world premiere” but is actually a revival of the 1939 original (meaning I can’t call it a world premiere by any stretch). (Details of both on the Mikhailovsky site).

Today was the opening day of Cipollino, which, per Wikipedia, is “a children’s tale about political oppression” but as done by fruits and vegetables. I was prepared to be highly amused despite further rather gloomy promises that “the main theme is the struggle of the underclass against the powerful;” it all seemed to promise a play that would hinge on the tomato, which could be either depending on your point of view, and with all of the trouble caused by a little green onion-boy (the “Cipollino” of the title). Glorious revolution ho!

Sadly our day got off to a dreary start with an extremely long plea for donations for a children’s cancer care charity, which, no matter how worthy, couldn’t help but bring the mood down with its evocation of a room full of people many of whom would be unpleasantly and too soon dead. (Sorry, Ms. Narrator, but 1/4 of the room WAS children, you must not tarry in the maudlin lest you lose the momentum.) However, when the curtain opened and the cheery painted drop of 70s psychedelic Russian folk kitsch appeared, all was forgotten. We were introduced to the lead characters: Cipollino, the little green onion boy (Alexey Kuznetsov, laboring under the most unattractive wig this side of Little Lord Fauntleroy and making it even worse with his terrifying grin) and his family; his girlfriend Radish (Sabina Yapparova) and her family; the various proletariat members of vegetable town (Mr. Pear, a violinist, Master Grape, the cobbler, and “old Mr. Pumpkin,” who is apparently 1) old and 2) homeless). Then it was the key members of the oppressive fruit caste: Signor Tomato (big handlebar mustache and quite a bumbling policeman look to him – will credit when I get the cast sheet) and Prince Lemon (hysterically over the top foppish, again can’t credit at present).

Then the ballet itself starts. We have our happy little vegetables in their baskets and dancing in their village. They are, thank God, dressed in charming balletic peasant clothes rather than in eyeball-burning, painfully obvious actual vegetable costumes (no Tales of Beatrix Potter here). Cipollino’s status is designated merely by a green sprout coming from the top of his head; everyone else just goes for the right colors for their role (or maybe a tasteful print of grapes or flowers on their clothes), generally speaking. It’s all set against a backdrop that seems to be vaguely Italian town, which, you know, is fine.

Our villains appear. Signor Tomato is a blustery, angry fellow with a black admiral’s hat on and a large mustache; he comes off like a vicious Major General. He’s accompanied by a group of four men whom I could only think of as elves escaped from Santa Land. This caused me considerable mental distress as I quickly saw the elves “kettling” the happy villagers for the crime of stepping on Prince Lemon’s toe; later I saw the same elves engaging in a “little bit of the old ultra-violence” with the same Prince Lemon. I kept expecting them to hand out presents or make toys; the red and green suits simply couldn’t read any other way. Elf prison guards, what has the world come to?

Prince Lemon has a much bigger contingent of accompanying toadies, all solidly dressed per “children’s ballet” standards of brights, striped, and polka dots. My favorite were the yellow guards, four young women in Tour De France winner’s gear of bright yellow with black trim, nicely accented by bicorn hats and glossy black toe shoes. They got some good choreography (footwork-wise) which made them even more fun to watch. My companion and I both got a kick out of the ballet’s heavy-handed depiction of the flattery exacted by Prince Lemon.

As for the rest of the actual so-called plot, I’ve dropped the synopsis below. In short, Cipollino must both rescue his father from his prison at Prince Lemon’s castle and successfully rebel against the fruit aristocracy so that poor Mr. Pumpkin can have a place to live and the vegetables can live in peace. This requires a long visit to the castle, giving us an opportunity to introduce two secondary characters Count Cherry (Nikolay Korypaev) and Magnolia (Irina Kosheleva) who perform the cruelest trick of all: they steal all of the good dancing away from the lead vegetables.

So really: how about that dancing? Cipollino himself gets almost no exciting choreography, save for his acts 1 and 2 fights with Signor Tomato. Instead, as in all good Panto, the villains totally steal the show. With their incredible high kicks and leaps, Tomato and Lemon really made me want to see them set loose to show off their stuff, as they appeared to be great athletes with very good timing, as well as good actors. Really, the way their legs snapped up in the air about to their noses was quite remarkable. Perhaps they were supposed to be showy, but I couldn’t help but wonder: couldn’t Cipollino just get a little better stuff to dance, and maybe a different wig?

His girlfriend Radish was sprightly and fun, but her charms were washed away when Magnolia came onto the stage, seemingly from an entirely different ballet. She was light, she was airy, she pirouetted like a dream, she flirted and seduced and totally stole the second act. Her duet with Count Cherry was the best dancing of the ballet; second best was the immediately following trio in which Cipollino joins the mix and the two men kind of show off to her and take turns partnering her. If it hadn’t been for this bit, I think I would have just not believed Alexey Kuznetsov could really dance at all.

In short, although the choreography of this ballet (by Genrikh Mayorov) isn’t of the sort that’s going to be making its way into the gala repetoire any time soon, it was still enjoyable on a variety of levels and I consider it worth seeing, especially if the half-priced day of seat tickets are available from the TKTS booth (as they were today). I had a great time from my stalls seats and was pleased by the two hour start-to-finish (with interval) running time. If you are considering bringing children, I’d suggest seven to eleven as the right age range; don’t bring younger unless you’ve already got a ballet fan on your hands as I saw a few four or five year olds just looking too worn out to manage through the show. But do go; you may never have a chance to see this fun work again.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 2 PM on Saturday July 17th 2010. This show will be repeated on July 24th.)

Synopsis of Cipollino from Mikhailovsky site (for those who don’t have Flash):
Act I

A square in a fairytale town. It seems there are only vegetable baskets and fruit cases. But in fact those are big and small houses where fruits and vegetables live. And all the fruits and vegetables resemble people so much.
The family of the Radishes meet the family of the Onions. Mother Cipolla and father Cipollone are trying to cope with naughty Cipollino who is tired of nursing his little sister Cipolletta. Master Grape is mending shoes. Mister Pumpkin is looking for some bricks to build a house for himself. Professor Pear is playing the violin and all the citizens of the town are dancing. Suddenly Signor Tomato appears on the square and announces the visit of Prince Lemon who’d like to talk to his citizens. Prince Lemon has just issued a new law: the sunshine, the wind blow, and the rain must be paid for. Vegetables and fruits are indignant.
In the stampede Cipollino has inadvertently stepped on Lemon’s foot. The guards are outraged: Prince Lemon has been insulted. The ‘rebel’ must be punished. But Cipollino has vanished and the guards arrest his father, the old Cipollone.
The Onions are grieving. But other families have problems too. Mister Pumpkin on his own cannot build a house. All the citizens united by Cipollino are helping him. No sooner than the house has been built, Signor Tomato appears. He’s nearly bursting with anger: the Pumpkin’s house has been built on the land of Countesses Cherries. It’s private property and nobody can use it. The Guard of Prince Lemon destroy the house. The poor old Pumpkin is desperate. Cipollino sets for revenge.

Act II

Cipollino and his friend little Radish are going to the palace to find the place where old Cipollone is kept. On the way they meet young Count Cherry who is very lonely in the palace. Cipollino, Radish, and Cherry make friends. Trying to find the imprisoned Cipollone they are nearly caught by Signor Tomato but manage to escape. The Countesses Cherries are throwing a feast in honour of Prince Lemon. While everybody is busy dancing the friends manage to set Cipollone free.
Lemon’s Guard and the police are looking for the runaways. Cipollino hides his father and Radish but gets arrested.
In the gardens of the palace Count Cherry meet Magnolia. Together they find Cipollino incarcerated. Magnolia with her fragrance sends the guards to sleep; Count Cherry ties them up and sets Cipollino free.
Prince Lemon comes to the prison to punish the ‘rebel’ but finds only the guards tied up.
The enraged Prince orders to fire the cannon into the townsfolk but Cipollino and his friends manage to push the Prince into the cannon. When the smoke rolls away there is no Prince Lemon, no cannon, and no guards. From now on everybody will happily live in the fairytale town. There will be a new town under the clear blue sky — a town of friends!