Archive for August 13th, 2014

Ten Things I Hate About Balanchine’s Apollo

August 13, 2014

It has to be said: I’ve had it with “Apollo!” Of all of the Balanchine or Ballets Russes productions to get revived, this popular number is the golden turd in the swimming pool of ballet. As I sat through yet another performance last Friday (prior to watching the Mariinski perform Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), I started listing out the reasons why I hate it so, and given my lack of time to review the actual performances I’ve been seeing, I’ve decided I’m going to share this instead.

1. The props! My God, the props! Has NOBODY ever seen the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia has to do the modern dance WITHOUT the scarf? GET RID OF THE PROPS!
2. The way they get rid of the props! It’s a little funny in The Firebird when the sleeping princesses toss their golden apples off stage, but the sloppy way the props are handled in this piece just makes me want to scream. DON’T GET RID OF THE PROPS!
3. The mime! The horrible horrible mime! HI I AM THE MUSE OF SPOKEN WORD AND I’M GOING TO BE REALLY REALLY OBVIOUS WITH MY HANDS. Olivia Newton John in Xanadu has more subtlety than these muses.
4. The way the women are so utterly and completely trivial in this work. They look beautiful but they’re just window dressing.
5. The way this ballet allows every arrogant ballet dancer to portray himself as LIKE UNTO A GOD with absolutely no sense of irony. Not that Carlos didn’t make it work but mostly I have to roll my eyes.
6. Has anyone noticed how revoltingly the women fawn and coo over Apollo? Does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, there was a little bit of Balanchine in this role? Isn’t it gross? I imagine him handing out bulimia and anorexia to them in exchange for their pathetic props, and feeling smug because it was for their own good.
7. The birth scene! Both ridiculous and inaccurate! How is it someone giving birth could be so COY?
8. It’s almost the only ballet where a woman OPENS HER LEGS toward the audience, and she’s doing it from eight feet above the stage. Ew! I am particularly grossed out by this position as it makes me feel like I’m at a gynecological appointment.
9. The goofy, herky-jerky choreography, almost like Picasso had a hand in figuring out how to move people around. Why don’t people just go around with HELLO IT’S THE TWENTIES stamped on their foreheads?
10. The guitar strumming scene. I love laughing about Apollo as a member of The Who but it’s just too ridiculous to tolerate.

Is that enough? CAN WE KILL THIS BALLET? I would suggest we replace it for all time with either Les Noces or Concerto DSCH, which has the incredible good luck to be new, fun, and generally awesome. NO MORE APOLLO. JUST SAY NO TO APOLLO!

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Review – Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios

August 13, 2014

As regular readers know, I’m an easy mark for a new musical, and when a chance came up to review Dessa Rose – a recent American musical (2005) making its British debut at Trafalgar Studios– I was pretty psyched. Ahrens and Flaherty are both powerhouses on the New York scene (thanks substantially to Ragtime), but I was fascinated by the opportunity to see, here, a musical about our great American tragedy – slavery. I remembered how, when growing up, I had seen pictures of “ante-Bellum plantation houses” and thought that they came from an era when everything was more beautiful (not being too good with Latin). Listening to Ruth (Cassidy Janson – long time no Avenue Q) I was struck how every bit of gentility and luxury (“ten petticoats!”) was really only possible because of the fantastic profits that could be made using slave labor. (Well, cotton was also trading high as well, but if a family had been trying to run a farm with their own labor, well … there would have been a whole lot less gentility to it all.)

Anyway, it was notable that this show was coming over nine years later – to me, an indication that it wasn’t very successful the first time around – and also that it was coming over on the the heels of The Scottsboro Boys‘ sold out run at and transfer from The Young Vic. Maybe there’s something about being further away from the still hot feelings on this matter that makes the English audience capable of enjoying a show on its merits rather than judging it strictly on its political content … or maybe there was just a gap in the season. For me, watching 12 actors jammed into the tiny downstairs space at Trafalgar Studios, I couldn’t help but think this show was produced in hopes of a transfer. The set may have been tiny, but the costuming showed signs of a substantial budget – I think I was looking at actual Victorian hand-made lace on a few outfits – which spoke of solid backing. There was certainly no stinting on talent.

As a story, Dessa Rose is a bit of a fantasia on the American South, taking inspiration from the era but in no way beholden to strict cultural accuracy. The lead character, Dessa (Cynthia Erivo, sounding a bit New York and not very Old South), is born into slavery around 1830; we pick up her life in 1847, when she is living on a plantation with her mother Rose (Miquel Brown) and being courted by Kaine (Fela Lufadeju). When Massa Steele (Alexander Evans) kills Kaine in a moment of rage, Dessa Rose’s life is transformed, sending her ultimately to a jail where she awaits execution for murder.

Somewhat in parallel, we have the story of Ruth, a Charleston belle whose love marriage to a gambler leaves her running a plantation alone with a baby and not even her old nurse (Sharon Benson) for company. When a bunch of runaway slaves show up at her door, well, in my eyes novelist Sherley Anne Williams just decides to have a little bit of fun with the format. In my eyes, its all in service of good story telling, so rather than being disappointed that this play didn’t turn into a polemic on American race relations, I’m just grateful that the second half built into a fun “Ocean’s 11” buddy/caper tale that made for a solid night’s entertainment.

The whole experience is even more amazing in the context of being crammed into a tiny basement with a high quality cast belting out the tunes right in front of you, their skirts brushing your legs as they passed by. The intensity was amazing. And while the songs didn’t have the Tin Pan Alley singability of golden era Broadway, “White Milk and Red Blood” and “Twelve Children” were emotionally powerful songs. This show is only on for a few more weeks and is shockingly underpriced for the value delivered: I highly recommend seeing it in this intimate space while you can.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, August 9th, 2014. It continues through August 30th.)