Archive for February, 2011

Review – Anna Nicole – Royal Opera House

February 24, 2011

The Jerry Springer: The Opera people take on the story of Anna Nicole Smith, “former stripper, Playmate of the year, single mom.” I mean, what really could go wrong? It’s not like I don’t already hate pretty much every modern opera I’ve ever seen and that this wasn’t just a blatant attempt to sex up the Royal Opera House with some more of that moronic celebrity-worshiping mentality that’s currently stinking up the West End.

Except, well, I loved it. It was really fun and lighthearted and blasted the cobwebs right out of the dusty old hall. From the excessive swearing on stage to the heaving, much-younger crowd in the seats, everything was new and different and exciting. The audience laughed! Frequently! There was a chorus and what they said was interesting! And funny!

Okay, well, I have to be honest and admit … the music. It was still kind of the same old boring modern opera stuff that just doesn’t ever grab you (well, me) or send you home with a spring in your step and a tune in your heart. Mark-Anthony Turnage did not give us a “Jerry Springer Moment” (fair enough as it was lyricist Richard Thomas who composed the music for that show) but I wish he could have done a little more to put some musical into the music.

Fortunately, the lyrics, story, and staging loomed so high – spilling all the way up the curtain (hot pink!) and to the image of Anna Nicole floating over the orchestra pit – that it was hard to get a head of steam about the notes coming out of people’s mouth (and the orchestra pit). Instead, we were sucked into a comi-tragic tale of a girl with not much going for her who tries to make a life in which she is, and means, something. It could have all been very ugly – wanting fame without accomplishment isn’t very admirable – but she’s built up very sympathetically, with an evil lawyer (Gerald Finley) taking most of the blame for the camera-chasing while Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) is supposedly just trying to get herself and her son out of poverty.

Yet despite the comic-book level of jokiness and crass humor, I felt we were shown very plainly just what a real soul-crushing situation being poor is. Stepfathers who try to grab you, men who get angry when you get pregnant, relatives with dead end lives who only show interest if you have money … a lifetime of working at WalMart, smiling at people who sneer at you and hoping you never get sick because you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to go to the hospital. Really, if this is what you have to look forward to, why not be a stripper? I mean, hey, in this country, aren’t they trying to push it on poor unemployed women anyway? (How long before they just tell all poor women to get jobs as prostitutes?) Stripping is ethical and if you want to be a success, gigantic boobs is the way to go. And when you think about it, Anna Nicole didn’t lie or cheat or backstab or hurt other people to get out of poverty … she just took what little she had and tried to make the most of it.

Meanwhile, we’re treated to a series of songs that illustrate and frequently amuse – songs about not having boobs, songs about the benefits of getting big boobs, songs about names for boobs (sense a theme?), songs about drugs, songs about what it takes to get by when your primary asset is your body – but underlying it all is this big fat sense of tragedy. Anna Nicole gets attention and money, but she’s still having to sell herself for it. She has pretty shoes and a big house, but her hold on these material objects is as tenuous as the grasp on life of her octogenarian husband (Alan Oke, in fine voice and looking good in gold lame’). We can all rejoice that she’s managed to get that wedding ring on her finger – and the marriage is the highlight of the brilliant act one – but what is left for her?

The answer is: getting old, getting fat, losing her money but trying to hang on. Act two becomes very sad, focused on her attempts to grasp or find more dough while she’s not really able to exert real control over her life. She’s pathetic and insipid on TV, but her lawyer just keeps encouraging her to go out and make a fool of herself, while dropping clues to journos about when they can find her getting out of a car and forgetting to wear panties. Wow, this is the big time? It seemed so fitting that we’d see this sad woman using the toilet on stage (like the pole dancers an opera house first for me). She was cheap, she was cheapened, she was disgusting. And yet all the way through … she stayed sympathetic. I was a little worn out at the end – even the giant nodding doggies couldn’t make her decline fun – but overall this is one of the most exciting operas I’ve ever attended, and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011. There are three more performances with the final on Friday March 4th. It’s sold out, but don’t worry; regular work with the F5 button will likely produce a seat.)

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Review – Eva Yerbabuena, “Cuando Yo Era” – 2011 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival

February 20, 2011

Given that the program for this year’s Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells featured a woman in a polka-dotted bata de cola dress on the cover, Eva Yerbabuena’s contribution, a dance piece advertised with her covered in mud, seemed quite likely to be skipping most of the traditions of the form in favor of something … different. Somehow. I want to say “more personal, more revelatory, more experiential” but what we wound up with wasn’t any of these things. It was much more narrative (or it was certainly trying to be); as the program notes explained, the presentation was of the thoughts running through a man’s mind in the seconds before he is executed.

So what are these thoughts? Memories of an old lover – a girl treating a boy like a fool – bars – a cockfight – Carnevale – and rather a lot of time spent messing about in a potter’s workshop. I didn’t need to have much of a story linking these scenes together, as I’m perfectly used to watching a story ballet in which nearly an hour is given over to “and then people dance in front of the prince and/or princess” – I’m looking for good dance and willing to be flexible about coherence. The scene in a cafe, in which a gorgeous young man (Eduardo Guerrero) attempts to impress a lovely woman in a garish dress, was a delight – both of them posing and flirting and playing off of the band members. Ms. Yerbabuena joined the group on stage, duetting with Guerrero so as both of them spun, her shawl and his coat flew off their bodies to create Saturn-like rings around them. And Guerrero’s duet with Fernando Jimenez, both wearing knee-length tights trimmed with feathers, bells on one’s wrists and the other’s legs, seemed like nothing more than a fight for dominance between two roosters. It was unflamenco-like but in the spirit of the (frequently over-)masculine dance style, and Spanish culture, and I was utterly absorbed.

But. The clay. The pot. The splashing of slip (watered down clay) on Ms Yerbabuena, the spinning of her on a large lazy Susan, the crushing of wet clay pots. The boredom. The pretentiousness. The lack of opportunity for her to really show her stuff because she was so busy being symbolic. I missed her gorgeous arms being allowed to tell a different story, her skill at moving skirts and fans and creating beauty, and resented that she’d trusted her dancing skill so little she’d had to layer on this weighty, dull, “we’re really about more than polka-dots and bullfighting” stuff on top of the performance. As modern dance, it seemed extremely immature, like something a college student would have made.

In the world of flamenco, perhaps this is a performance that is really moving the art form forward. But when you pour all of this extra on top, you are suddenly in the world of a very different style of dance, one that is far more advanced with use of metaphors. It’s sad, really; Yerbabuena is a very talented dancer and I think it’s good that she’s trying to do more than just have people in costumes stamping around on stage (this being not at all how I feel about flamenco, of course). But it didn’t trust the dance enough and it was a waste of the incredible resources that came together to create it. Musically, fantastic; costumes (a dusty palette) delicious and unusual (though a good support bra would have done wonders); artistically, limp. Wah. Still, as she was my favorite performer of last year, there is no doubt that I will be coming to watch her again; but Israel Galvan, giving us nothing more than three men in black on a bare stage, delivered so much more exultation in the end.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 18th, 2011. The Sadler’s Wells 2011 Flamenco festival is now over.)

Mini-review – The Blue Dragon – Robert Lepage/Ex Machina at Barbican Center

February 18, 2011

It’s so much easier to really dig into a review for something you love or hate than something you were indifferent about. That’s how I feel about The Blue Dragon, Rober Lepage’s current show at the Barbican. He’s the kind of guy I read about in college, a really snazzy director who Does Cool Stuff, and I had high hopes for this show, especially since I’ve been a sinophile for years and was looking forward to a chance to take my Chinese language skills for a walk and maybe learn a little bit more about “the effervescent paradox that is modern China.”

Well, fiddle-dee-dee to that. While the show had nods to Chinese opera, dance, calligraphy, and customs, it was ultimately just about a French Canadian couple having their own mid-life crises: in short, a “Lifetime ‘Television for Women'” movie presented as a play. The Chinese characters (there was one, Xiao Ling, played by Tai Wei Foo) were seen through their eyes; for him (Pierre, Robert Lepage), as a focus for his lust and ambition; for her (Claire, Marie Michaud), as a producer of the child she wants. Pierre criticizes Claire for wanting a Chinese daughter to be a “pretty little doll that will perform for you, ” but neither of them treat Xiao Ling like anything more than a doll herself. And to me, this play, “about” China, supposedly about modern China, treated it entirely as set dressing for a story that could have been set anywhere. The problem with rich (white) people seeing children from poor (non-white) countries as a commodity was wholly ignored; the question of freedom of expression (or lack of) for Chinese artists was a one-liner; the push-and-pull between a couple severed by decades, or even between a couple (Pierre and Xiao Ling) who have a third party come between them, there was nothing of what could have made this a compelling human drama or something that really illuminated what is going on in modern China.

What we did get was some serious eye candy, mostly in the form of projections that followed the actors perfectly on stage, but also as snow, fish, paintings, and other forms of set dressing. In addition to this, there’s no denying that the sound and lighting design were, as near as I can tell, flawless. It was an ideal play to bring a horde of theater students to show them just what you can do technically (and all within a two hour time frame). It’s just a pity that so much effort was expended in the service of such an empty play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 17th, 2011. Blue Dragon continues through February 26th. The play is about 30% Chinese, 50% French, and 20% English.)

Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar Warehouse

February 17, 2011

Unlike many, I went into the Donmar Warehouse’s production of the Putnam County Spelling Bee completely cold – I think I didn’t even know it was a musical, and I certainly hadn’t seen a previous production. Therefore, when, shortly before I was due to meet my very large group of fellow theatre die-hards at the pub, I got a message saying that there was audience participation to happen, and that if one wished to participate one must be at the stalls bar at the Donmar at 6:45, well, I’ll have you know I was all up for it. I mean, I remember the glory that was the Holiday Gameshow Spectacular back in Seattle, where I won the grand prize with my glamtastic rendition of “My Way” … could the magic happen again?

I did manage to get on the list, but, to eliminate any possible tension in this review, no, I did not make it on stage. Was the choice of people truly random? Somehow I think not, else why the photographs et cetera? Still, be aware that you, too, could be among the lucky four that spend 30 or so minutes (or less if you can’t spell well) on the stage of the Donmar, dancing, fending off the cast, and generally feeling unsure if Joseph’s Amazing Dreamcoat was in Technicolor or Technicolour (I suspect the correct spelling is whatever will result in your being kicked off stage).

The Donmar’s interior was done in a classic American school fashion, with school banners everywhere, Putnam County logo clothing on the front of house staff, rows of blue plastic seats in the stalls, and a basketball hoop hanging from the back of the stage. It was great to see and I’m pleased to report the cast held up their end of creating the illusion, with nary an English mispronunciation in sight. I’m embarassed to report I actually had a wave of nostalgia as we were all forced up to recite the Pledge of Allegience, though I was snickering that the pledge leader was having to recite the words in small sections for us to repeat as if we didn’t all know them already.

Our bee-ers were a motley collection of nerds: the pushy science master with the unfortunate nut allergy; the over-achieving Asian student who speaks six languages; the home-schooled kid with the strange clothes; last year’s winner, a boy scout with way too many badges; a girl whose parents were too busy to bother to come (this one hit a note with me). Of course the entire cast was played by adults, and, while I didn’t buy the kid-ness of the cast (I kind of wanted to mess with their clothing a little bit to make it look more naturalistic and less like Beryl the Peril), their various responses to what was going on and the event they were participating in were appropriately child-like without being nauseating. I loved their (pretend) raw enthusiasm as they jumped around singing about how exciting it all was – it was just so much more fun than many different versions I’ve seen of this same excitement.

Shortly after the beginning, four schmucks were picked from the audience to fill out the ranks of the spelling bee participants. For us, we got a woman in her 20s, one in her late 30s, a cute tall guy in his early 20s (apparently one of the crew I was there with although we hadn’t met before), and a man in his 60s. I am pretty sure they are very controlled about who stays on and who goes off, and though I wrote down the words as they were spelled (it was fun to see how good my spelling was 🙂 ), I think they make sure that you leave when the story dictates you will. So if you are number one to be picked, you’re just going to leave as soon as you are called – take your juice box and walk away with dignity, knowing many other people wished just to make it as far as you did. It’s rather a nice metaphor for a real spelling bee, I think.

While I admired this show’s brisk pace and running time (hurray for 9PM exits), the music wasn’t outstanding and the emotional content was thin. That said, I did get some laughs, and it was certainly more engaging than Ordinary Days or Frankenstein, both of which had similar running times. I also had fun comparing my spelling of the words as the show went along (easy enough with my little notebook already there) and liked the jokes they made by mispronouncing words and giving comic examples of their use in daily speech. I’d say overall it’s an amusing post-work evening, certainly worth the £10 I spent for it, but nothing to cry over if you can’t get a ticket.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011. It runs through April 2nd. Sample words for the geeks among you: elanguescence, flagellate, cuniculus, strabismus, capybara, telepathy, cystitis, mammilaria, boanthropy, xerophthalmia, titup, hausehole, chimerical, omphaloskepsis, phylactery and weltanschauung. For those of you who prefer your reviews spoiler-free, the Whingers have reviewed this same night’s performance – fair enough as they’re the ones who arranged my ticket!)

Review – Frankenstein – National Theatre

February 16, 2011

As the bell rang next to me (making me jump out of my seat and scream) and the lights darkened for the “Cumberbach as the Doctor” version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, I was fascinated by the big glowing circle at the middle of the stage. It seemed made of skin or parchment, and had the shadow of a human figure inside. It seemed … egg like, somehow. Oh my God, were we about to see Lady Gaga?

No such luck, I’m afraid, as when the skin finally tore, it was the scarred, naked body of Jonny Lee Miller that fell onto the stage. We were then treated to about ten minutes of watching him twitch and stumble while a curtain of incandescent lights overhead glowed and glared and flickered in a nice simulation of waves of electricity animating our monster’s frame. He was gaining control of his body, in preparation for heading into society and finding … well, just what would it be?

I’m afraid to say that despite the rather spectacular staging, Mr. Miller had falled, as if by accident, into a rather bad play. As a fan of Romantic literature, I really enjoyed the examination of basic questions such as, “Is man by nature good or evil?” “What is the influence of society on creating character?” “What does it mean to be human?” Most of these really exciting philosophical issues were undertaken by The Monster, who I think made a strong argument for being the most human character in the play.

Sadly, the rest of the characters fell flat, though The Blind Old Man (played by Karl Johnson) who teaches The Creature about philosophy was at least enjoyable in his scene. But Dad Frankenstein (George Harris) was positively wooden and Ella Smith (as “prostitute” and “maid”) was painfully bad (yes, darling, you’re projecting to the back of the Olivier, but I suspect the commuters at Waterloo might have been able to feel your performance as well). I’m going to blame the script for some of this, as Dr Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Naomie Harris) seemed emotionally believable … well, mostly … but was weighted by dreck dialogue.

With a sold-out run, I fear that most of the punters are actually coming to see Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, in his various turns as monster and mad scientist. If this is the case, I think you may enjoy his Creature, as it will ensure you get an eyeful of his kit and tackle. I found his Victor Frankenstein stiff and cartooney. It’s not a sympathetic character to play, I grant: in the end, he, with his desire to have the power of life and death and lack of concern for other people (living, dead, or both) comes off looking like the real monster. Still, mightn’t a better actor have pushed this role to show some sort of conflict that would have made him more interesting, if not sympathetic?

The clunky script is compensated somewhat by really powerful and at times deliciously stark staging, from the steampunk train to the Live! Fire! on stage to the glittering green gaze of polar sky at the end, as the lightbulbs somehow became curtains of ice and Northern Lights at the same time. And I have to say I admire a play that is so focused on the narrative and philosophy of the original novel. That said, we’re two centuries beyond the original, and purely symbolic characters that talk in morality soundbites are not the fashion either on stage or in literature. This could have been so much better and Nick Dear’s script is 80% to blame for this poor result. Without an interval, you’re stuck pushing through the very long two hours without a hope of relief; I have to say, I admired the two women who walked out the center aisle of the stalls, just in time to have Cumberbach point at them and say, “Look down there! Little men!” Rarely has an exit been so pointedly (if inadvertently) mocked by the great … and envied by me.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, February 14th, 2011; the official opening day is the 22nd AND 23rd of February. The show runs through Sunday April 17th and is supposedly sold out for the run; however, there are always some returns so if you’re determined to see this, keep checking back daily for returns for the next few days. Note the women who walked out were allowed back IN to the auditorium … with drinks. Now this was MY Paradise Found.)

Mini-review – Ordinary Days – Trafalgar Studios

February 14, 2011

The modern musical: is there any hope for it? Well, I am constantly hoping I’ll find something that catches me, though only Drowsy Chaperone and Avenue Q have really rang my bells in the last few years. Mostly, I feel like the lifeform has been dying a prolonged death post-Chicago, but I’m ever hopeful that some work of genius will show up – and how can it be created if there is no audience there to support it? Thus I took up a last minute invite from Tim Watson (neglected blog here, rather more lively London theatre podcast here) to see Ordinary Days at Trafalgar Studios. I went totally cold, knowing literally nothing about the show other than the ticket price (£15-£25, so affordable) and the running time (80 minutes). And, really, for that price and that time commitment, I say, why not?

Ordinary Days is about four people living in New York City in the more or less current time. There is a couple, Claire and Jason (Julie Atherton and Daniel Boys), who start with the song “I’m Moving In” (or something, amusingly followed by a song best summarized as “Where Does All of my Crap Go”) There’s also Warren, a male artist-type (Lee William Davis), and Deb (Alexia Khadimo), a graduate student. They sing songs about going to the Met and visiting the sights of the city and worrying about grad school; Warren and Deb meet and become friends, while Claire and Jason seem to be drifting apart. Unfortunately, I found most of the songs very same-same – the music and the way things were being sung seemed neither memorable nor interesting. Some musicals seem to only have one song, and this could almost be said to be true of Ordinary Days, except that I felt it had no songs. This caused me to get bored and kind of drift away during Jason’s big solo, facilitated by the fact that from my position at the extreme sides of the stage I wasn’t able to hear the words the actors were singing and thus had no narrative thread to support me.

There were some good moments in the show – I liked the scene at the art museum where all of the characters were talking about how they responded to art in different ways, and the bit at the top of the skyscraper where I suddenly thought the play was going to turn tragic – but then right before the end Clare did a song about 9/11 and I just burst into tears. Apparently I’m still a bit sensitive about the whole thing. Despite this, I think its use as a device to get her over a character crisis in the play wasn’t very believable, although the song itself was … well, the one I liked the best in the play. Overall, though, this seemed like more work than it should have been for its length and I didn’t care for it. If you know the style of the music, you’ll probably like it a lot, but I really prefer my musicals to have hook and a bit more story to boot.

(This review is for a performance that took place the night of Saturday, February 12th, 2011. The play continues through March 5th. For an alternate take, please see Jake Orr’s review on A Younger Theatre. While there, I was recommended to see the play Hot Mikado at the Arts Depot in East Finchley. “All of our songs sound different, I promise,” the man whispered in my ear before he ran out into the night.)

Review – Israel Galvan – Sadler’s Wells 2011 Flamenco Festival

February 10, 2011

“Bonito!” “Maravilloso!” The praise was being shouted loudly last night by the flamenco fans at Israel Galvan’s performance at the Sadler’s Wells 2011 Flamenco Festival. The volume and frequency of the exclamations said to me that this was one the aficionados had picked up on; it sounded like I was in Spain, as normally the only words of encouragement at a Sadlers Wells flamenco show come from the various performers on stage. But Galvan’s reputation had preceded him and the house was packed with people who wanted to see fantastic flamenco, and they got what they came for.

It’s hard for me to describe what happened last night, as I lack words and to be perfectly honest was far more interested in watching what was going on rather than trying to scribble everything down. The show was stripped to the bare minimum; just two accompanists (a singer and a guitarist, both men, both dressed in black) and the dancer, who eschewed flamboyance in favor of a dark green shirt rolled up to the elbows, soft black pants and black shoes. He traced a line on the stage with his toe, emphasing the musical nature of what he was about to do (and the fact the stage was miked). Then he launched into the most intense, pure, performance of male flamenco I have ever seen, totally one with his singer and guitarist, becoming one, the three of them, with the music they were all creating. His movements went far beyond the usual macho posing; he showed humor, he spun and tapped his toes as he went, he held his fingers behind his head as if creating a comb for a mantilla. He thrust his chest in and out, he lifted his shirt and yanked on its hem, he slapped his chest and his shoes (ever aware of the music he was making with his body), he played his teeth with his fingernails. At one point, it seemed like he was telling the entire story of an invasion of a town by opposing armies entirely with his dancing.

I am constantly amused by the ego I see on stage in flamenco, especially with men; and I want to say that this was about dance and not “Behold, I am Israel Galvan, bow before me o ye lesser mortals.” It wasn’t like that, but I can’t say it was egoless, though; Galvan was wholly himself, one with his music and the performance, utterly aware of himself and his body at all time, but seemingly driven by a vision of perfection, a vision he was capable of executing as he whipped around so fast his feet were a blur. He let his accompanists play their parts while he faded into the background or accompanied him, not appearing to be “condescending” but to be part of creating a perfect flamenco performance. At the end, they all changed roles for a bit, Galvan singing while the guitarist (Alfredo Lagos) strutted a bit on stage, then deliberately teased him by tapping his teeth with his fingernails. Then they switched again, with the singer (David Lagos) dancing very tentatively while Galvan mimed the guitar and the guitarist sang a bit and laughed. After so long and so intense an evening, we were ready for comedy and lightness, and after so many years of seeing men past their prime dominate other people on stage, I was ready for the joy of a performer who was both tops in his class and a gentleman to boot. Israel Galvan, you have set a standard not just for the 2011 Sadler’s Wells flamenco festival, but for every male bailador I shall ever see again.

(This review is for a one-off performance that took place on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011. The Flamenco festival continues through February 19th. For my joy expressed more elegantly, please see Clement Crisp’s review in the Financial Times.)

Review – When We Are Married – Garrick Theatre

February 9, 2011

It had been months since I read the West End Whingers’ positive review of When We Are Married, but I kept putting off going until I realized the show was getting close to the end of its run. Conveniently, a Metro offer for half priced tickets came out in January and I saw this as my opportunity to finally get off the horse and see this show.

As it turns out, I wish I hadn’t bothered. While I have nothing against seeing a show with an audience full of more gray hair than a Madeira hotel in January, I could have lived without their loud chatter during the show. And what, exactly, was fuelling their enthusiasm? Clearly some of the actors struck a nerve – I think most of them are best known for television work – and the set got its own round of applause as the curtain rose (never a good sign). But the play felt like an over-fed sitcom, with a comedy element (“Oh noes, arrogant pillars of Edwardian society discover they’re living in sin”) drug out from the 55 minutes it merited to a full two hours with interval, leaving me sitting there yawning while a drunk photographer shmoozed a young maid. Ooh gosh, being tiddly is so funny, and doesn’t she have the most humorous accent?

Even more offensive was the story line of the henpecked husband and his wife. Once he discovers they’re not married, he’s now free to hit her! Boy, didn’t people laugh! Isn’t it great when a strong woman is finally beaten down! Ha ha ha!

As I dragged myself back to my seat after the interval, I heard a delighted audience member say, “This is very exciting for us country bumpkins.” Is it really, now? It seems like this is possibly the perfect play for readers of the Telegraph and Daily Mail, who might be offended by any slightly modern storyline but still want to have an annual night at the theater and have already exhausted the pleasures of The Mousetrap (while the much more worthy Clybourne Park was opening up the street). I’m all for more plays with older actors, but When We Are Married should be shot where it sits and never be allowed out the door again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 8th, 2011. It continues until February 26th, at which point something that can only be better will replace it.)

Review – American Ballet Theater mixed rep program 1 (Seven Sonatas, Known By Heart (“Junk”) Duet, Duo Concertant, Everything Doesn’t Happen At Once) – Sadler’s Wells

February 5, 2011

Clearly it’s the second rep of American Ballet Theater’s London program that’s the better of the two; but despite Mr Crisp’s damning review, it turns out to be a performance with much to like. It started with Ramatsky’s “Seven Sonatas,” which I felt to be the weakest link in the evening. Three couples in cream dance as Scarlatti piano sonatas are played on stage. Together, they danced conventionally, turned, were mannered; there were nice duets (Yuriko Kajiya, light and graceful, and Gennaidi Saveliev, restrained power; Xiomara and Cornejo, playfully doing the Mashed Potato); Julie Kent’s grace and Cornejo’s bravura (great solo!) distracted me. But all of this totally lacked any emotional content or connection. I yawned. I wondered how long I’d been sitting there. Finally, we had an interval. I’d learned more about the dancing of the six people I’d just watched, but Ramatsky had not left me impressed.

This piece was saved its killing blow by the decision to move “Duo Concertant” to the third slot. A couple, a piano and violin on stage; the setup was nearly the same. And Balanchine proceeded, after a twee start (“Aw! Lookie the cute dancers watching the cute musicians! Aren’t we just so cultured!”), to show the youth how it is done. Misty Copeland and Alexandre Hammoudi seemed to live in a world in which there was nothing but the two of them, and, while there was no tale per se, I felt there was a story being told, a narrative of the feelings of the two people. It was one similar to many Balanchine ballets; the woman seems to be aspiring toward pure beauty and the man, occasionally forgotten, lives for nothing else but her. In a “Serenade” like gesture, she leans her arm out with her hand facing her, in a motion I have read as rejecting death but accepting its inevitability; but Balanchine has the man lean forward so that his face is touching her hand, an incredible, poignant moment of human contact. I almost feel maudlin but I wanted to tell Hammoudi to dry his tears, that he would not be left alone; yet somehow, there is something in Balanchine that makes me think he will be abandoned at the last as his partner follows the muse. Hammoudi was an incredible partner, holding Copeland so tenderly that he made it look as if his entire life depended on her; I can only imagine every dancer in the troupe wishing to be paired with him. Ramatsky, watch and learn.

Before this we had a Tharp extract, a duet to Donald Knaack’s Junk Music. I enjoyed the industrial clanging and banging. Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven looked like they’d fallen out of a Forsythe piece and found a sense of humor and personality that had been lacking before. Millepied’s “Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once” also had that Forsythe look, with the stage fully cleared, a few musicians at the back, and dancers shoulder to shoulder in identical black outfits (male and female versions). However, after the chaos of too many moving bodies and too many steps had cleared out, we had a fantastic duet (Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes?) in which the woman was lifted and moved somehow more slowly than I’d seen before – I don’t know how to say it, but this incredible tension was created, and the entire auditorium was holding its breath. This was followed, deliciously, by a series involving what looked like a 14 year old blond boy being tossed around (caught in mid air!) by the men, then tortured by the women. I thought he was just an object of comedy (and it was light), but then he was given a solo that showed off his own agility and athleticism, the flexibility that only the young have (backflips!), as if to say, “Ha ha, I cannot lift women over my head, but just you spin four times in the air, I dare you.” I had really been fearing the worst of this piece, but it left us exhilarated, curtain call after curtain call for the waves of applause. Overall, a good evening.

(This review is for the final performance of this program which took place on Friday, February 4th, 2011.)

Review – American Ballet Theater mixed rep program 2 (Theme and Variations, Jardin aux Lilas, Tchai Pas, Company B) – Sadler’s Wells

February 3, 2011

The big star of Sadler’s Wells winter/spring season is American Ballet Theater’s two mixed reps taking place from Tuesday February 1st through Sunday February 6th. It’s importance could be seen in the pricing structure alone: at £70 for stalls seats, it’s the single most expensive event in the season. Fortunately, a late-arriving two-fer Metro offer reduced the pain of top priced seats, and with my own members discounted seats clutched in my hot little hands, I eagerly made my way to Islington last night to see what joys the second rep would bring.

The curtain raised on a very dusty-looking Balanchine: “Theme and Variations.” Gah, his “let’s do homage to the Russian Imperial Style” ballets tend to make me yawn, and I’ve seen this one before to boot, and it just all looked so … bleah, so “grandma’s bedroom circa 1950” with its moribund color scheme. The corps dancers were sloppy, too, suffering to reach unison, looking drab in grey and purple tutus, and generally giving the impression that they were City Ballet castoffs who hadn’t managed to capture the Balanchine style. Was this somehow supposed to be acceptable? Our male lead, David Hallberg, appeared, and he looked like a steer stunned for slaughter. Was everyone suffering from jet lag? I had a bad feeling about the evening to come.

Then a woman in a pink tutu, our prima for this piece, started to bubble up through the smotheringly poor corps work and make herself noticed. With her gorgeous red hair, she would have been hard to miss; she looked like Moira Shearer redone as a California girl, with gorgeous, strong arms, high cheekbones, and stage presence to die for. This miracle, Gillian Murphy, proceeded to give a performance that kept my skin going in goosebumps for the rest of the evening. Everything was perfect: the way she held or tilted her head, the arch of her back, the smiles she gave at the right time, the eye contact with her partner … it was like watching a movie, a recording of “and this is how you should execute this perfectly, as it was meant to be.” The way she ran her foot up her (standing) leg before making a great extension was like she was praying; I lost all sense of time during the pas de deux. I stopped looking at the corps altogether (making it easier to not notice their shortcomings); Murphy glowed like a gold nugget and I couldn’t be bothered to waste our precious time together staring at sand.

After a break to catch our breath, we returned to “Jardin Aux Lilas,” a remount of a 1936 ballet created by Anthony Tudor for Ballet Rambert (and taken by ABT in 1940). It had a dreamy, Southern feel, like Kate Chopin’s “Awakening” or some Tennessee Williams play, all stoppered passion and disappointment and duty under moon-lit, moss-covered trees. While I can say I enjoyed the scenery and atmosphere, I found the dancing itself not very interesting and wholly narrative: man and woman are to be married, his mistress wants him back, her true love wants a last kiss. They all end frustrated. Ah well, it was enjoyable as a historical frippery but not really very exciting.

That was delivered almost immediately following in the “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” in which we had Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo running through an eight minute long “missing duet” from Swan Lake that Balanchine created in 1960. It started out slow and pleasant, giving us time to examine our principals; Xiomara had a strange build, very short waisted with a round face; Cornejo with a comical mop of curls. Once he was left to dance solo, I forgot all about his hair; his leaps had a height and “air” that seemed unreal coming out of his small body, and his solid spins … it was the embodiment of “con brio.” Xiomara was light enough but not really airy in her solos; I was contaminated by having seen Ashley Bouder do the same piece in October, and Reyes simply couldn’t match her. This was most painfully obvious in the big finale, in which the ballerina leaps into the arms of her partner and is caught and swept to the ground so her chin nearly brushes the stage. Bouder did this with such enthusiasm my hair stood on end; I thought for sure she would hit her head. Perhaps it was Cornejo’s fault, as he clearly caught her while she was still upright and then swept her down; but somehow before it looked just like a dive to the floor arrested at the last minute before, and there was none of that tension (and excitement) here. Still, this was very enjoyable.

We finished with “Company B,” one of those ballets done to popular music that tends to send the audience home with a smile. I didn’t expect it to be deep; but it managed to be pretty and somewhat complex in its mostly illustrative movements (telling the stories the Andrews Sisters’ songs lyrics conveyed), a real improvement over something like the weak “As Time Goes By” done by Northern Ballet Theater (not too surprising given Paul Taylor’s stature). I loved Arron Scott’s body-jerking in “Tico Tico,” and the comedy of a flock of girls hovering of nerdy David Sedaris clone Craig Salstein in “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” with his hips stuck forward about a foot gave me good laughs. I’m willing to take it light sometimes and get away from all the bravura for a little fun, and I do enjoy seeing ballet engage with the pop music vernacular (even though the 1940s isn’t particularly modern!), so I just let myself relax and watch the company present itself well (although I was creeped out by “Rum and Coca-cola,” has anyone actually listened to the lyrics of that song recently?). All in all, the evening was really good, and I can’t wait to go back on Friday and see the first rep – and see Gillian Murphy perform again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday February 2nd, 2011.)