Posts Tagged ‘Balanchine’

Deal – half price tickets for Mariinsky’s Balanchine/Robbins program at Royal Opera House

July 21, 2011

Their Swan Lake has sold out, but the Mariinsky Ballet can still be enjoyed – at half price! – with a great deal from Lastminute.com on their Balanchine/Robbins program. It’s the same awesome dancers doing work by two of the best choreographers of the 20th Century – well, THE best choreographer and then another top one. Show details (from the Royal Opera House website) are as follows: Scotch Symphony and Ballet Imperial, Balanchine: Into the Night, Robbins. Dancers include Evgenia Obraztsova and Uliana Lopatkina on Thursday and Anastasia Matvienko on Friday. Now, LastMinute is ONLY selling the “top price” tickets (at £49 and £46) … but when they’re as cheap as the balcony seats were, how can you say no? Anyway, go to Lastminute.com to buy, and remember, when they sell out, they will be sold out!

Advertisements

Review – dual premiere mixed bill (Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina,” McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” plus Danse a Grande Vitesse) – Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

May 14, 2011

Last night was a fabulous evening of mixed short productions at the Royal Ballet – not just a world premiere (Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise”) but a new Balanchine (“Ballo della Regina”) for the Royal Ballet, plus a remounting of “Danse a Grande Vitesse” (from 2006). To think that this wealth of investment in dance comes on top of a brand new full-length ballet earlier in the year (Alice) – I’d like to thank Monica Mason and whatever magic she has that has made this kind of money show up to grace our stages with new art. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

For “Ballo della Regina,” I’m pleased to report that the Royal Ballet has chosen a delicious, tender and exuberant Balanchine to add to its repertory. I was spoiled with Balanchine back in Seattle; I find the Royal Ballet is suited to its disciplined style. Marianela Nunez was (save one bobble) graceful and delicate turning by an unusual lifting and dropping of the toes (rather than a pirouette); Sergei Polunin was strong and effortless when partnering her. I was struck by the contrast with the Dutch National Ballet’s von Manen bill of the night before: his “Adagio Hammerklavier” seemed to have the Balanchine style but was utterly lacking in emotional connection. Yet in this piece, Balanchine had Polunin not just making constant, intent eye contact with Nunez while executing the complex signature hand-turnings; he also at one point leaned forward for a second to rest his cheek against her arm. It was a tiny, human gesture that perfectly captured what was missing the night before; a connection between the two leads that spoke of universal humanity rather than just being bodies in space.

Of course, what I will take away from Ballo was the just brilliant work Polunin did in the air. The height! The daring! I don’t even have the words for all the different crazy things he did with his legs and the way it all looked like he was born to spend his life springing off the ground as if, perhaps, in his other life he might have been wearing blue tights and a red cape. “Ballo della Regina,” perhaps; I dub this ballet “Ballo della Rex*.” It was unmissable and I felt like my whole night had hit such a high that if I saw nothing else it would have all been worth while.

Next up was Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” in its world premiere. It started with a big video on stage showing animated trucks and equipment moving around on a desert landscape; then a ball of fire exploded upwards and the dance begun. At first, watching the initial pair of dancers clinging to each other and struggling, I thought perhaps here we had a response to the Japanese tidal wave and the Fukushima disaster; I was excited to think he’d went for something so topical and so contrary to his normal technophilia. (And no, I didn’t read the program notes – I think I should be able to understand ballet without having to be told what’s going on. If you have to spell out what happened that extensively, you’re doing it wrong. I’ll go back and see what he said it was all about once this is published.)

But as the dance went on, the movement seemed to disintegrate into … random movement with no context, simply one pose after another, as if Cunningham had taken the wheel and people were no longer at the center of the event. The dancers slid across the slick stage on flat feet; they occasionally seemed frantic; the girls were held upside-down; at one point a woman slapped the stage with her hand. The ball of fire seemed to have no connection with anything; it was only interesting when the dancers stood so close to the projection that they became silhouettes. At one point one of the men covered his partner’s eyes with her hands; and truly, it was all too terrible to bear watching. The fire ended, the screen went to black and white, the little video trucks drove away … and it was over. Such a let down. Much like David Bowie, I feel like Wayne McGregor has run out of new ideas. Maybe he’ll get lucky and Lady Gaga will do a piece with him – God knows she’s got innovation to spare.

This over, my speechless companion and I decided to head into the night, skipping Danse a Grande Vitesse, which I found dull when it debuted and didn’t care to see again. It was a beautiful spring night; I’d seen Sergei Polunin rise to the stars in “Ballo:” it was now time for visiting and relaxing and drinking some nice wine and trying to put “Live Fire Exercise” behind me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 13th, 2011. Performances continue through May 25th. Travelzoo has a deal using the code PZOO for selected dates of this ballet – 24 quid amphi tickets for 10 pounds. I’d say it’s totally worth it just for Ballo alone, and to be honest I do like the Michael Nyman score for “Danse a Grande Vitesse” so you’ll probably feel like it was worth it in the end.)

*With a better control of the language, Ismene Brown calls this “Ballo dello Re.” Ah well, I really ought to learn Italian.

Mini-review – Royal Ballet – Mixed Rep: La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations

October 25, 2010

To my delight, my season at the Royal Ballet opened with not a triple bill, but a previously not-experience “quadruple bill,” with the ever-mysterious “new work” forming the star at the apex of the crown. Ooh ooh! What ever would we get to see? In this case it was a new Brandstrup, which I had hopes for, and a Balanchine, woo hoo! Then there was … duh duh DUUUUUUHM! … a long MacMillan. Damn. I had just swore him off forever after seeing Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, but I had to stick through it to get to the Balanchine. Damn, damn and damn.

Fortunately the night got off to a sparkling start with Ashton’s La Valse. I was fascinated by the music – not some cheesy Strauss stuff (I’ve had a lifetime’s worth courtesy of Paradise Found) but Ravel, pulling us into the music with a bunch of dissonant noise, as if all was not right with the world. The dancers, men in formal wear and women in fluffy, mid-calf dresses in varying pastels, looked straight out of a 1950s girl’s bedroom (my companion described it as “looking like a perfume ad”). The dancing didn’t knock my socks off, but the coordinated movement was lovely to watch, though … truth be told … the coordination was a bit off. I got a sudden whiff of “oh, so this is the Royal Ballet B cast,” but, still, I got a guilty pleasure out of it. It even wound up to a sort of “Masque of the Red Death” like fury at the end as the music got all dissonant again, and I felt RAH yes, good start to the night.

Then we moved into “Invitus Invitam,” the new work by Kim Brandstrup. This has got to go down as the best use of projections I’ve ever seen on stage: they were used to change a flat wall into a brick one, show the movement of the dancers as planned out on a computer program (I think), give us titles to the various movements, and (in the one naff bit) show the shadow of someone running offstage. We were led into it very gently, with the lights still up and people guiding set pieces onto the stage while the orchestra tootled a bit … then the two people directing the set pieces started acting like dancers trying to figure out a bit of movement … then the lights went down and we were suddenly sure that yes, this was the ballet happening. Then suddenly we had dressed up dancers, a man and a woman (Christina Arestis and Bennet Gartside, I believe – though the man did look like Ed Watson so maybe it was Leanne Benjamin) in court dress, moving around in ways I found … well, not emotionally engaging. He appeared to be trying to entice or seduce her, she appeared to be holding out – and then the man would run away, and the woman would look bereft. Then the lights would change dramatically, and the stage manager looking couple would come back on. In the final movement, it was the man who was left alone and the woman who ran away … and though it was an intelligent piece and pretty to watch, I’m afraid it just left me a bit dry. Still, my enthusiasm for the evening had not waned.

But … next up was the medicine to accompany the sugar: a 53 minute long MACMILLAN piece based on … wait for it … CHEKHOV. His play Three Sisters was the first Russian play I ever saw, and the theme of whinging people doing nothing to fix their lives, of the pathetic passivity of the bourgeoisie, left me dead inside. I had some hopes that the “music by Tchaikovsky” bit would rescue it … but no. It dragged. And dragged. The audience coughed, they dropped things, the man next to me checked the time on his phone FIVE TIMES, time stopped. The men were generally dancing quite well in a way I do see as typical of MacMillan, but … well, there was one beautiful bit: a duet between Vershinin (Thiago Soares) and Masha (Sarah Lamb) as he decides to leave her. It had the power of the little excerpts you often see in galas, of all of the heart and passion of the entire thing wrapped up in one little perfect bit of dance; and I hope some day I will see this in a gala. Shortly thereafter, two soldiers met for a duel. One of them was shot and died. My thought: “The lucky bastard. I have to wait until this is over before I get to leave.”

Still, I was more than eager to come back for the last bit, “Theme and Variations,” and what a lovely little meringue it was. To be honest, I think the corps dancers were continuing to be sloppy, but I was unwilling to let that detract from my overall enjoyment. It’s kind of embarassing, really, that I was just reveling in all of the shiny tutus and glittering tiaras and all of the utterly most shallow stuff about ballet, and enjoying the movement and just kind of letting myself go. I hadn’t brought my notebook because I really just wanted to be in the moment, and I was, and while Ibi and I both agreed the dancing was not as good as it should have been, still, we left the evening happy and satisfied and looking forward very much to our next ballet excursion, when, with luck, we will finally pick the A cast and get what we are really hoping for: perfection, without any gloomy, bum-numbing MacMillan to take the fun away.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 22nd, 2010. The final performances are October 28th and 30th, and I highly recommend you book for this really solid night of dance. Even Clement Crisp loved it, it had to be good!)

Review – Serenade and Giselle – Bolshoi Ballet at Royal Opera House

July 27, 2010

Last night I busted the piggy bank and went for a last-minute return ticket (in the stalls!) to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Giselle at the Royal Opera House. I hadn’t planned on seeing Giselle: Bolshoi ticket prices have been just too high (three times my normal amphitheatre prices) and I prefer to see new and interesting programming rather than the same old warhorses. But then, well, first Zakharova was going to be performing, then she dropped out but Osipova jumped into her place – and suddenly I had the possibility of seeing (or missing) a truly outstanding Giselle – well, my resistance dissolved with that dangling carrot and off I trotted like the ballet groupie I am.

However, my unexpected treat for the evening was the triumphant version of “Serenade” presented as an amuse-bouche to our main course. The orchestra’s opening bars made the hair stand up on the back of my neck – it sounded so gorgeously modern and lush and sad. And the curtain rose, and there stood a flock of gorgeous ballerinas clad in white, glowing against a blue backdrop. The piece started, and it was just the simplest of gestures, gentle transitions into standard ballet positions – but all so much more. This piece is Balanchine at his greatest – paring ballet back to pure, simple movement that all comes together into so much more, in no way lacking in emotional content because of the lack of story. I compared it to the “Apollo” I’ve seen revived so many times and can’t believe how much more depth this has – one man and several women come together but the (male) ego has gone, and instead we have gorgeous lines of arms and legs, and the heartbreaking reach of Ekaterina Krysanova for a man who, with another ballerina draped over him, seems doomed to never be able to meet her grasp and support her as she needs. Krysanova was brilliant throughout this – pliable, weightless, fully present – and as she was carried off at the end with her back arcing seemingly impossibly far back, I felt that she was being borne away to her death – while she, as a dancer, appears to be headed to greater heights. This performance will be the benchmark against which I shall judge all future “Serenades” (and many future Balanchine performances, no doubt).

Then it was on to Giselle. This was described as a “Russian staging,” and I’m not entirely sure what that means – less mime, certainly (which is good as Giselle can leave me a bit lost), but different dances in act one. A truly new bit was the dance of the engaged “peasant couple” (Anastasia Stashkevich and Viacheslav Lopatin) – dramatically creating a model against which Giselle’s disappointment with Albrecht’s duplicity can be measured. I also seemed to recall the royalty (Bathilde and her father, and, I think in some productions, Albrecht’s mother) sitting down to watch the various dances leading toward the end of act one – but other than the peasant pas de deux above and some sousing around with a keg of beer and tambourines, there was little in the way of group dancing in this production. Bonus tacky points for Bathilde’s necklace, which doubtlessly left a Christmas tree naked, and for the courtiers’ stuffed “falcons,” which I loved but were as fake as the dancing mice in the Nutcracker.

But what this was really about was Giselle. And Natalia Osipova, wow. I have never seen such perfection in the creation of character in ballet. Aside from her amazingly expressive face, which was so much more than the cartoon of acting most ballerinas pull on stage, she had the body movements down to unconscious perfection – a little head lean against Albrecht said so much – and her dance steps really illustrated the character – the way she just barely moved her feet when she was struggling created more of an impression of illness than any “fist clenched to heart” I’d seen before. This subtlety is to me what made this a great performance. I loved her brilliant whirl onto stage as a freshly risen ghost in Act 2 – her newfound strength but lack of control seemingly perfect for Wili-Giselle but an interpretation I don’t seem to have seen before. I was also blown away by her great death scene – it was as if I could see her heart exploding just before Albrecht caught her in his arms, and she was gorgeously, hopelessly dead when she landed. But these moments were merely capital letters in a long essay of an ideal performance – it was the whole of it, the words, the sentences, the thoughts – that made it all come together in a way that’s convinced me that I must, now and forever, attempt to see Ms Osipova in any story ballet she ever deigns to perform in. How lucky we were to have had her come to visit!

However, I find my enthusiasm for the rest of the show more reserved. It seemed that it just generally lacked in brilliant dancing, the kind of showcase stuff I always expect the Russians to toss in just because they can’t help but make a spectacle of themselves and their talent. I’m sure I’ve seen Myrtha look less like a tanned version the evil queen from Snow White; but Maria Allash made this character a panto villain, more like an insect than a creature with thoughts. The Wilis danced nicely but not memorably; both Albrecht and Hilarion’s “dance to the death” were lacking. This is particularly sad for Ruslan Pronin, who, as Hilarion, was utterly denied the opportunity to show his brilliance during his star turn on stage (as Roman Petukov did in the Mariinsky version). I felt Ruslan Skvortsov also missed out, as Albrecht’s last scene, dancing for his life with the Wilis, just didn’t feel nearly like he was being forced to drip every last ounce of energy out of his body (to our benefit!). So ultimately, this will not go down as the best Giselle ever, but, in fact, a lacking Giselle – except for our actual Giselle, Ms Osipova, who has given me a performance against which I think I will be judging all dancers in the future, not just performers in this role.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 26th, 2010. The production continues today and July 27th – casting for today here and Wednesday here.)

Review – Carlos Acosta – Apollo and Other Works (Faun, New Apollo, Suite of Dances, Apollo) – Sadler’s Wells

December 3, 2009

Last night’s Carlos Acosta show was the weakest solo outing this Royal Ballet star has had to date. I can understand that over the course of the three years since I have been watching him that his body might be changing and he might no longer be capable of the spectacular leaps and spins of the Spartacus solos; but this show even avoided the imaginative programming that was the saving grace of his similarly sold-out summer Coliseum performance, leaving us with cold leftovers for dinner.

What we did get was an “Apollo” he performed as part of another Acosta highlights evening some three years ago that showed off his strengths (his incredible partnering skills make him the ideal Balanchine male lead) as well as his torso (in a skimpy toga). We also got a perfectly danced Robbin’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which he stretched gorgeously and, as near as I can tell, identically to the way he did this piece with Royal Ballet two years ago. Do these ballets show him as a sexy guy? Yes. Did they push him as a dancer? I think not.

The third work*, Robbin’s “Suite of Dances,” just seemed, again, a lazy choice. It was performed to a butchered Bach’s cello suite in which the playing got so insufferably bad at the end my friend thought the cellist had snapped a string: please fire Natalie Chen now. The first of the suites was joyful and an incredible chance to see musical perfection expressed by the human body; but as the piece wore on, with time filled by skipping and booty-shaking, I began to wonder just what this was doing in the middle of what I was expecting to be a male dance spectacular. Surrounded by two fiery works, it would have been fine; but given that most of what he did was pose, lift, and stretch in both of the other pieces, “Dances” was an utter letdown and basically represented what was wrong with the evening.

Look at this great dancer with his spectacular form, unusual background, and remarkable ability to pack a house. I would expect choreographers would be fighting to create original work for him, but I saw nothing of the sort** in this extremely short program (finished at about 9:15PM), and he didn’t even give us the pleasure of pulling from his Ballet Nacional de Cuba experiences to round out the show and broaden our horizons. Carlos, if you can’t do Spartacus or the “Dance of the Golden Idol” anymore – and based on your summer show I think that’s not yet true – can you at least spare some effort show us something new***?

*Performed in the middle of the show, mind you, but certainly third in terms of quality.

**Yes, there was one original work but Adam Hougland’s “Young Apollo” wasn’t even danced by Acosta. I don’t mind him not dancing in everything but I’d think he’d take on the new piece for himself.

***Rather than just showing off your body. Yeah, you’re built, I get it, but seriously, it’s getting to be a bit of a joke that I go to see a Carlos Acosta show and it’s like Chippendales with classical music.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009. The show is sold out but it’s not really worth getting bothered about if you can’t get a ticket – if you’ve been before, you’ve already seen it all.)

Review – Scottish Ballet’s 40th Anniversary Mixed Rep (Balanchine, Forsythe, Pastor) – Sadlers’ Wells

October 3, 2009

Last night J and I went to see what I consider the start of the fall dance season in London, Scottish Ballet’s visit to Sadlers Wells. Initially I’d written it off because Scottish Ballet is not on my list of “preferred companies” (ROH, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet being the “local” three) and because, let’s be clear, I can live the rest of my life without seeing anything from Balanchine’s Jewels suite again. I saw it at City Ballet, I saw it at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s empty style, sort of showy but still hollow, like a wedding cake with fancy icing but dry cake underneath it. I’d much prefer the more emotional Serenade and Agon, or the fabulously over the top Stars and Stripes, or the just perfect La Valse (God, have I seen enough Balanchine?) to Jewels. HATE HATE HATE. And how about just having some goddamned new ballet anyway? ENOUGH WITH THE BALANCHINE!

Only, well, I looked at the program (as it got closer to the date – nudged by Twitter, I think), and I saw that it did have quite a bit more – it had a piece by my favorite choreographer, William Forsythe, and a piece by a choreographer that I’d never heard of before (Krzysztof Pastor). And then Ballet Bag posted a link to a Rubies pas de deux on Twitter … and I thought, well, you know, that program Scottish Ballet is doing, it actually really has a lot going for it. I should go see them and see what they’re made of – my recollection is that the Balanchine Trust is kind of picky about who it lets do their dances, so chances are that technically they’re pretty good. And it’s the Friday after my first payday at my new job … time to celebrate, and what better way than a night at the ballet! (I realize “lifting pint glasses” would probably be how most people would do it but I know what I like, and it’s enjoying other people’s artistry with all of the attention I can bring to bear.)

When the curtain rose on “Rubies,” my first view of Scottish Ballet was of a very young and very fresh looking company (“fresh” as in “not burnt out from doing 7 shows in 6 days”). I realized they’d performed the night before, but the dancers just seemed remarkably full of energy. Soon Ja Lee, in the solo female role, was positively saucy, smiling and selling the dance for all she was worth. Her movement was sprightly and elastic and (key to Balanchine) effortless, and in the bit where the four men manipulate her legs, she kept smiling and I caught only even a hit of a tremble in her arms. This must, I think, to some extent speak to the strong work of the male dancers, and indeed, all I saw of the Scottish Ballet’s male corps throughout the night, as in this bit they must co-partner with a unification of movement and focus, staying on point as she stays en pointe and yet keeping an awareness of each other. Because my eyes were not focused on them trying to do their jobs, only looking at them occasionally to admire what they were doing, I must say that they were doing great work at creating seamless movement that only assisted in showing off the extravagane of this part of the work – a woman partnered by four men!

I was also utterly fascinated by the male half of the duo, Tama Barry, who was simply the most masculine danseur I have ever seen. With his broad chest and strong thighs, he looked to be a rugby player who could easily have tossed Claire Robertson three times her height into the air. I wondered if such a physique works against a dancer. Would he have the nimbleness of Ed Watson? How was he at propelling his own body through the air? I kept my eyes on him (not unwillingly) for the rest of the night (easily enough as he was in every piece). My conclusion was that he was a great partner – in fact, I felt he really changed the tone of Rubies, making it seem less …. well, it’s perhaps incorrect to call Mr. B either misogynistic or anti-male, but Tama made it seem more gender balanced, with a look and a strength that drew attention to him on stage even when he was partnering. As I watched him through the night, I thought he didn’t leap like I thought he might have been able to, but in some ways I felt that might have reflected more of a choice to not make a spectacle of himself (even though I’ve seen few male dancers throw away an opportunity to show off if it presented itself, still sometimes presenting an even medium in one’s execution of a move is more appropriate for creating the right look for a dance). He seemed fairly fleet-footed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced he was able to get the height and move as fast as I’d expect of the best of male leads. Still, I’d very much like to watch him again, in a role in which he was supposed to go bravura, and see what he’s really made of. He’s certainly got the charisma.

The next piece was my Forsythe, new to Scottish Ballet but in fact from 1996, so already several years old when I first saw “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” I’ve seen some pieces by him in the last two years that were very new, and “Workwithinwork” felt very much like a transitional piece; still on toe shoes, dancers suddenly stopping and standing around on stage doing nothing, the legs lifting high with incredible strength and swiftness, the extravagantly rotating arms. The movements seemed to painfully underline the historicity of the Balanchine; these weren’t done by sad waifs who wanted to look pretty for Mr. B: they showed the burning spirit within that I think must be the thing that keeps ballerinas going, a desire to be brilliant and please themselves, burnished in a punishingly competitive environment.

Newer, though, was the loss of focus on interaction, the ensuing isolation of the dancers on stage (occasionally broken by a pas de deux or a rare group interaction); this fragmentation was also reflected by the music, which had neither beginning nor end but just seemed to be a lot of squeaky violin playing (Berio’s Duetti for two violins, not something I’ll be buying any time soon). Then suddenly there was a duet between a small blonde (Kara McLaughlin?) and a man with dark hair, with music that actually sounded like it had fallen out of some world of structured music … and it was really beautiful. Afterwards I’m afraid I lost the plot a bit and got caught up in trivial details like how tall the female corps really was (they looked about 5 foot on average) and just how transparent the men’s pantyhose-style leggings were (dance belts ahoy!). I blame my exhausting work week in general, as I’d enjoy seeing this piece again, but it really just didn’t have the power of his mid-80s works for me. Ah, well, the movement was gorgeous.

The evening ended with Krzysztof Pastor’s “In Light and Shadow,” rather interesting to see so soon after the Brandstrup/Rojo project two weeks ago. My thought was: “Bach! The composer against which choreographers throw themselves again and again, hoping to at last equal his brilliance – with little success.” This piece also used a big chunk of the Brandenberg concerto, the aria, which was now very familiar to me, and I enjoyed Pastor’s light handling of it more than the tweedling and lack of commitment I saw in Brandstrup. However, the whole piece seemed light – brilliant color in the costuming (really, our favorite bit of the whole work – lovely androgynous things, men in skirts, the grace of the transparent suits the first couple wore, strapped-on corsetty tops and shorts, great!), but the movement not memorable or very interesting. It wasn’t bad, mind you, it was just forgettable, other than a brief bit when the lighting went to just 3 feet high on stage and only the women’s legs could be seen beneath their lifted skirts. Still, it’s always nice to end an evening listening to Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, and on the whole I’d say that I’d be very happy to watch Scottish Ballet again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 2nd, 2009. The last performance at Sadlers’ Wells was on Saturday the 3rd, and I am sorry if you missed it but they do appear to be on tour so you may have an opportunity to see them again.)

Review – Tribute to Diaghilev – “International Stars” and Royal Ballet members at Royal Opera House

June 8, 2009

The Sunday “Tribute to Diaghilev” event at the Royal Opera House seemed a bit of a mystery to me, best summarized as “Flashy Russian Dancers” and “Flashy Russian Ballet!” rather than “Some Particular Company” doing “Any Ballet, Really.” I had no idea what was going to happen. Were there going to be speeches? Was it a way of promoting Russian culture? Was everything going to go Fa Lun Gung and leave me sneaking out the back between sets? I couldn’t tell, but since I love flashy Russian ballet and flashy Russian dancers (and really wanted to flesh out some more of my Diaghilev knowledge – so much that I’ve only ever seen photos of still!), I decided to go ahead and fork out for the rather expensive privilege of attending this show.

God knows why the tickets were so high – not a single set came with the dancers (leaving poor Petrushka fighting to escape from an invisible prison), the orchestra was provided by the Royal Ballet, and based on the pathetic handling of curtain calls (Bow on the stage! No, come in front of the curtain!) and props (I’ve never seen the “Apollo’s Lute” variation of Les Sylphides before) it was clear they hadn’t bothered with a dress rehearsal to work out the kinks beforehand. That left us with the Diaghilev tribute element – thankfully limited to one short burst of film that was maybe 5 minutes long and sloppily narrated – and the dancing, which consisted of gorgeous ones and twos of people doing “K-Tel’s Power Duets and Solos Snippets a la Ballet Russes,” fully costumed, no holds barred and no silly plot to tire them out or get in the way of the dancing. In short, there was lots of great dancing, which was what I came for, but the snippets were so short I found them a bit difficult to digest. On the other hand, wow, dancers just doing the memorable highlights while they’re all fresh, ZOWIE! It was a format I was comletely unused to (since for me a night of shorts usually means no more than 4 ballets, not 15), but once I’d mentally adjusted to it as a taster of ballets I didn’t know performed by people who were going to rock my socks off, I was good.

As for the program, mystery as it was, here it is reproduced to the best of my typing abilities (after the first, assume by Mikhail Fokine unless I say otherwise, * for dancers not in RB, bold for new shows for me):

Scheherazade (by Fokine, danced by Uliana Lopatkina*, Igor Zelensky*), Daphnis and Chloe (by Ashton, danced by Natasha Oughtred, Federico Bonelli), Petrushka (danced by Dmitri Gruzdyev), La Chatte (by Ashton, danced by Alexandra Ansanelli), Giselle (danced by Mathilde Froustey*, Mathias Heyman* – not originally in program), Tamar (by Smoriginas, danced by Irma Nioradze*, Ilya Kuznetsov – ditto), Le Spectre de la Rose (danced by Yevgenia Obraztsova*, Dmitri Gudanov*), interval, Apollo (by Balanchine, danced by Maria Kowroski*, Igor Zelenski*), Les Sylphides (danced by Tamara Rojo, David Makhateli), Le Tricorne (by Myassin, danced by Dmitri Gudanov*), The Firebird (danced by Irma Nioradze*, Ilya Kuznetsov*), Les Biches (by Nijinska, danced by Mara Galeazzi, Bennet Gartside), Swan Lake (by Petipa, danced by Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares), Le Carnaval (danced by Yevgenia Obraztsova*, Andrei Batalov*) and The Dying Swan (danced by Uliana Lopatkina*) Oddly not included was “The Rite of Spring,” a damned shame as I’d like to see how it was originally done.

Of the various short performances, my very favorite was Andrea Ansanelli (retiring? No!) in “La Chatte,” a sweet little bonbon of a dance that was just perfect from start to finish. Wearing a cute (but not face obliterating) mask with white ears and a feathered dress, Ansanelli groomed, preened, stretched, flirted, did impossible things with her legs, clawed the furniture, and pirouetted off after a mouse. I thought it was just lovely – perhaps not the most technically challenging of the night but very memorable.

My second favorite (and winner of the “shows I’d like to see in full” award, though perhaps this is all there is to it) was “Le Spectre de la Rose,” a piece originally choreographed for Nijinski. The costume, a pink half-body leotard with flowers on the shoulders, head, and here and there was both androgynous and very male and just distractingly sexy. I could only imagine Edwardian matrons swooning in their chair at this piece. Who would have thought that this would be the spirit hiding within a rose? (Fortunately I’ll get to see it again when English National Ballet do their own Diaghilev performance at Sadler’s Wells – I can’t wait!)

The third best moment was … well, gosh, not the Russians, and not even Fokine! No, it was hometown company members Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares rocking out with Odile’s duet with Prince Siegfried, in which she confirms her hold over him and her utter triumph over her rival (with a thrusting down of her arms at the very end – it just seems to say, “You’re cursed forever!” in my books). It is a very Russian moment, the bit of the ballet with the thirty-two fouettés en tournant (I didn’t count) that basically provides the unimaginative with a chance to evaluate ballerinas in the same way sopranos would be measured against the Queen of the Night’s high F – not a moment that really determines artistry but something measurable and, for many, memorable. I would imagine in the pure Russian style that this would be a dancer’s whole performance, making this tiny bit so memorable, with but Nunez we had the entire character of Odile there, the entire story accompanying her in a cloud. She was so sharp, so smooth, so seductive … so vicious, and Soares was just so the drugged-out-on-promises-of-sex aristocrat I always see Siegfried as in this scene (I always wind up hating him for being so ignorant and easily led astray) – BRRR there was clearly no need to import talent to this stage. Of course, I had the advantage of knowing this story just a little bit too well. AHEM.

Among the rest, I enjoyed Schehezade (once again, full of sex, perhaps this was how Diaghilev sold ballet to the masses?), with its costumes looking fresh out of a James Bond movie and athletic moves for Igor Zelensky (including a leap with a spin and a back kick – I wonder if it has a name?); Le Tricorne, a sort of Spanish flamenco/bullfighter thing that had Dmitri Gudanov practically leaping from a kneeling position into a high kick, very strong and impressive; and the pretty, pretty Le Carnaval, which had a Neapolitan couple (as I saw it) playing catch with each others hearts, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Andrei Batalov completely inhabiting their characters. My husband loved Ulyana Lopatkina’s Dying Swan, but she had so much elbow on display I couldn’t focus on her dancing (in short, she was so very thin I found it distracting); and Dmitri Gruzdyev was a strong Petrushka, giving me a chance to see the dance I may have ignored before but suffering from a lack of context.

None of the others were horrible, though I found Tamar boring and couldn’t help but laugh at Apollo (it’s the lute, it just looks ridiculous). It was a very good evening and my appetite is whetted for more. Too bad dance always looks so awful on the screen – I’d really like to see these works done in full!

(This show was a one time only performance that took place on Sunday, June 7th, 2009.)

* are people who aren’t in the Royal Ballet – I think. They are listed in the original cast list.

Ballet Summer 2009 – Mikhailovsky and Diaghilev program at Royal Opera House!

April 25, 2009

I finally flipped through the Royal Opera House program last night and was very pleased to see that we’ll be getting some Russian ballet this summer! The Mariinsky/Kirov is coming to the Royal Opera House from 3-15 August and presenting four different programs. However, I was disappointed at the rather unimaginative seat-fillers they’ve got on offer – Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. I mean, GAH, could they pull any chestnuttier chestnuts out of the chestnut case? (Oh, wait, they’re not doing Nutcracker, so I guess they could have pulled one more out still.)

Now, it’s Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, so it should be substantially different from the Royal Ballet productions people would be more likely to be familiar with. (Note that the Swan Lake is choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev off of Petipa and Ivanov, so again a different version.) But I’m just really disappointed at the lack of really different productions, like when the Bolshoi brought Spartacus and The Pharaoh’s Daughter to the Royal Opera House five years back. They weren’t just different versions of the same old stuff (Look! A cheese sandwich with relish on it!) but just entirely different worlds of ballet to what I was used to seeing (rather like chicken mole’ after a lifetime thinking Mexican food meant tacos). And that is what I would like to see – or, better yet, some really modern choreographers, the Mariinsky doing work especially choreographed for it, a chance to see something truly new! But no, all we get is Balanchine, and it’s Balanchine war horses to boot. I mean, come on, Serenade and Rubies, not only have I seen them before, but they will have both been done in London earlier in the yeah, and even on the stage of the Royal Opera House.

Wah. On the other hand, there’s this wacky little “Tribute to Diaghilev” thing happening on June 7th, directed by Valeriy Ovsyanikov, with various Russian dancers and Royal Ballet members doing some real classics I’ve never even had a chance to see (Le Spectre de la Rose and The Dying Swan being particularly notable holes in my ballet experience), and while the tickets seem a bit painfully priced, I think I’m going to make the effort – 30 quid is more than I’ll normally spend for a ticket, but, well, you know, a few times a year I can let myself splurge. And, inevitably, it’s for ballet, and it’s in the summer, and it’s the shows that, with luck, I’ll spend the rest of my years talking about “that one time I saw that really great production of that wild XXX” and I won’t regret spending the money one little bit.

(Booking for these shows opens on April 28th, 2009. Gentlemen, start your engines!)

Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum

April 15, 2009

Last night W (“Parsingphase”) and I went to the London Coliseum to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” program, part of the Spring Dance at the London Coliseum series.

My interest in this was due to 1) really enjoying my previous viewings of this groups’ work (they are a strong notch above English National Ballet and, as near as I can tell, the second best ballet group in England) and 2) the pictures for the Penguin Cafe piece were really intriguing.

I was fascinated by the idea of a ballet featuring zebras. Really, how would it work? Would it be like Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds,” or would it be (shudder) more like the “Tales of Beatrix Potter?” It had a look of whimsy (tempered with high artistic skill) that I really appreciated – even though I realized in some eyes the whole thing could come off like a giant Furry fantasy ballet. (But, you know, perhaps best not to go down that path!)

I faffed and faffed about buying tickets, hoping I could get a half price deal and get seats on the floor, but the gods weren’t with me – the deal I saw was for Sylvia, and when I looked at ENO and Sadler’s Wells sites to figure out what seats were available, it in fact looked like it was nearly sold out! I decided that rather risking not going, it was best to get some sort of seat bought, and so I settled on £20 seats in the next to last row of the Coliseum’s upper balcony (aided pricewise by Sadler’s Well’s 20% multibuy discount – I bought seats for Northern Ballet at the same time to get that deal).

As it turns out this was not a bad decision – while the show certainly wasn’t sold out (at least in the balcony), it did NOT come up on the TKTS offerings for the day (though I note it’s there today). Perhaps our balcony seats were a bit warm, but the view was unobstructed, and other than the damage to my knees from the ridiculously narrow space between the edge of my seat and the back of the next chair (a problem for all but the last row of the second balcony), it was most decidedly worth £20, especially since all of the music was done live (yay!).

The first piece was Balanchine’s “Serenade,” which premiered in 1935 and was the first piece he choreographed on American ballerinas. It did show signs of age – some of the movements looked like they’d been lifted right from Martha Graham (right arm straight out Hi-YAH!), and a few of the group bits had a heavy feel of Busby Berkeley – but it was still such a pleasure to watch. Really, his 70 year old ballets look so much fresher than many choreographers’ works from the seventies and sixties. The bit with the five women knotting and unknotting themselves with each other seemed to have almost a mathematic quality to it, and the “menage a trois” scene (rather a more appropriate name that “pas de trois” given what appeared to be the subject matter) had real dramatic tension in it. I didn’t feel like the corps of BRB was as good in this piece as Pacific Northwest Ballet was when I saw them do it some years back – there’s just something about the discipline in the way they hold their arms, and the incredible strength of the women’s torsos, that wasn’t happening for BRB – but the power of Balanchine carried me through (and they were certainly good enough to make it work, just not 100%).

“Enigma Variations,” as choreographed by Frederick Ashton to the music of Elgar, summary: Ashton ain’t for me. I have seen several of his ballets and they just utterly failt to grab me. The program went on about his skill at capturing character through dance – well, he does, that’s great, but there’s more to ballet that just putting some characters on stage and having them “express” themselves. I want to see great movement, I want to be swept away and amazed, and cutesy vignettes (a la his “Tales of Beatrix Potter“) just don’t cut the mustard. Jerome Robinson was his contemporary and managed both the dance and the character, so it’s not like it’s something that wasn’t happening at the time or can’t be done. I did enjoy the pas de cinq (as it were) with the four townspeople dancing around the old man (David Morse, whom they’d imprisoned in a hoop), but I just wasn’t convinced in the least by this dance, which suffered immensely by being placed next to a Balanchine. I am going to either have to have someone seriously explain to me why Ashton is so great (and change my experience of watching him) or just give up on seeing his work altogether and write it off to just not getting English tastes in ballet.

I liked Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design – though, in some ways, the extremely detailed costuming and set rather weighed the piece down in the very way that Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” were utterly freed to just be dance by having nothing else to them but the dancers and the music. And, geez, maybe all of those years of watching PNB perform Balanchine have just informed my tastes in a way I can’t overcome anymore than I can warm up to feathered hair or bell bottom jeans. I like plotless dances in the same way I like vanilla ice cream, plain cheese pizzas, and undecorated sterling flatware – strip all of the nonsense away and you can really see what something is made of and what kind of quality it is.

Enough grousing. The final piece of the night, David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe,” choreographed to music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, wound up the program in high style. I had great fears that it would be insufferably horrid, that it would get nauseatingly cutesy (due to having humans dressed as animals) or irritatingly preachy (with its underlying environmental message). Somehow, it avoided either of these big wide pitfalls and was both entertaining and fun to watch – with good music. Each of the pieces had an animal as its center, with dancing done in a particular style that the choreographer had taken a shine to – the Utah “Longhorn Ram” (rather a comic name as it was clearly a she-sheep rather than a ram, and a “bighorn” as “longhorns” are a type of cow!) with Angela Paul as a glamorous ’30s Hollywood starlet dancing with her tuxedoed (human) partners, the Texas Kangaroo Rat (Christopher Larsen) a yee-hawing country bumpkin, the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao per the Teenage Theatre Critic) a bit of a chanting tribal shaman dancing amidst fashion models.

I realized, while watching this, that it’s a horrible thing to have a dancer perform with a mask on. It reduces our ability to see what emotion they are experiencing, and while they should be able to express themselves quite competently with their bodies – well, as humans, we’re programmed to look for the face for clues to what’s going on in the head. And I began to wonder, as I watched the Texas Kangaroo Rat, if maybe having a mask on puts a dancer at a serious disadvantage, not just in terms of movement and weight, but in terms of their ability to connect with the audience. I felt like Mr. Larsen was maybe not feeling as “there” as he could of because of his own restriction in seeing the audience, as if perhaps wearing a mask made him feel like it was not really “him” performing the role, and that he didn’t need to give his all because he was just an anonymous body performing as an animal. At any rate, I was seeing a lack of fire and commitment in his movement, so ultimately this proved the most disappointing to me of the scenes.

This, however, was but a small twinge in the overall pleasure of “Still Life.” I’ll focus on my favorite bit, “The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas,” starring a made-up species, the Humbolt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. It started with an orange-clad dancer (Carol-Anne Millar) skipping on stage, being bouncy and fun, followed by a platoon of … wait for it … Morris Men. I kid you not. Never before have I seen such a queer embodiment of English culture depicted in the highbrow world of ballet (though of course we have bastardized versions of Scottish, Spanish, and Hungarian folk dancing galore) and I was laughing. Then the bizarre factor was really turned up as the flea and the dancers interacted. She danced with them, they carried her, she ran away as they swung their sticks, she refused to participate in leap-frog – it was just totally fun and great to watch and really a good time.

But it got better and better. The big finale with the Brazlilian Woolly Monkey had us all thinking we were going to end the night on a simple high note of “crazy monkey in a top hat” plus Carmen Miranda/Caribbean ladies in full skirts … then the Morris Men and the Zebra’s fashion models came back on stage – only suddenly Hayden Griffin’s costumes had been pared back to just the black and white, and they all blended together nicely while still maintaining ties with their earlier incarnations (I was really impressed by this).

There was a huge “everybody come out and party” finale … and then … it turned out it wasn’t the finale. The masks came off of the animals, and everyone was dealing with a sudden burst of rain … and rifle shots, occasionally hitting the people as well as the “animals.” (Or was it lightning strikes? Both seemed possible.) The lighting was really great – swirls on the floor, shimmers (of water) on the backdrop – and somehow it didn’t make the whole thing feel like, “Ooh, ooh, save the pwecious cute animals from extinction,” but rather a more generalized panic, a desire for shelter, a bit of truth about death – and while I found the final image of the Noah’s Ark (painted on a scrim so the animals could show “within” it) a bit twee, it was pretty enough as a framing device and didn’t wreck the mood. (The painting itself was childlike and I didn’t care for the use of an ark – it’s just too fraught and felt a bit inappropriate being used outside of the context of a Norman cathedral.) If I just focused on the glowing bodies huddling together behind the scrim … it was nice. And really, this whole ballet was just really great. I could talk about the rest of it at length, but 1800 words seems like quite enough! I’m really glad I had a chance to see it and I look forward to seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they come back to Sadler’s Wells in the fall, presenting David Bintley’s “Cyrano” (thanks to the head up from Rob at BRB) and hopefully another program of shorts – which will, of course, be what I’ll be seing.

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, April 14th, at 7:30 PM. Two more performances take place on April 15th, at 2:30 and 7:30.)

Review – The Nutcracker – New York City Ballet (Lincoln Center)

December 29, 2008

Two days before Christmas my husband and I went to Lincoln Center to see City Ballet’s Nutcracker, as choreographed by Balanchine himself. According to the program, Balanchine is the one who brought this ballet back into the modern story ballet repertoire and established it as the Christmas ballet of choice for all dance companies, and before he touched it, it has pretty much been unloved in forgotten*. What I was there to see, though, was not “The Nutcracker, as Envisioned by Mr. B. in the Great Revelation Which He Shared with America,” but rather yet another take on one of my favorite story ballets (most of the versions I see credit Petipa as being the originator of their choreography), one which has millions of different possible combinations of how to handle the music. I’ve seen Kent Stowell’s (at Pacific Northwest Ballet), Matthew Bourne’s, English Ballet’s, Arizona Ballet Theater’s, and a few others I can’t remember right now. I love the way all of these different choreographers and dance companies take something which I sort of think doesn’t have a lot of flexibility (the music stays the same and there’s always the Hoffman story behind it all) and makes completely different ballets – in my mind, at least.

City Ballet’s Nutcracker is most notable, in my mind, for the fact that rather than having Clara turn into an adult before she goes into the fantasy world (where the various Suite dances take place), a child is present throughout in the role – which limits the dancing she can do, as you’ll never get anywhere near the same quality of dancing from an 8 or 10 year old as a 24 year old! (She’s also called “Marie” instead of Clara – how did that happen? – and was performed by Maria Gorokhov.) This also limits the emotional intensity of the role – it’s not about her coming into adulthood, it’s dancing about an 8 year and her toys and fantasies. This is not intrinsically interesting and, I think, diminishes the overall potential of the ballet substantially.

That said, there are things to enjoy about the first act, primarily the costumes and the charm of the young dancers (and some fun scenery as a scrim is used to hide the living room, the first time I’ve ever seen this done – the children stand in front of a door and peer in the keyhole, and the lights go on behind the scrim so we can see what they are looking at). This half of the Nutcracker follows a more or less normal “plot,” with boys and girls (and adults) showing up for a party at Marie’s parent’s house, Marie being given a Nutcracker, and the inevitable fight between the boys with their war toys and Marie (and the girls) which results in the Nutcracker being injured, a “growing Christmas tree” and rat/mice versus Nutcracker battle.

City Ballet’s also has a dance for other toys that Drosselmeier brings with him, in this case a toy soldier (Austin Laurent) and a “Harlequin and Columbine” pair (Erica Pereira and Brittany Pollack). There is also a new character, the nephew of Drosselmeier (played by Joshua Shutkind), who is kind to and solicitous of Marie (and later becomes the spirit animating the Nutcracker when we move on to the dream sequence). Marie falls asleep on a couch and the story transitions into the dream sequence, of which the most notable thing was the multi-headed rat king. Once the Nutcracker has defeated him, his crown is given to Marie, and the set is swept away to a snowy wonderland (no idea why) where Marie and the Nutcracker appear to be royalty of some sort and hordes of ballerinas come out to dance as snowflakes while white bits fall from the ceiling. This last bit was pure theatrical magic, although I was a bit worried that the ballerinas were going to slip on the “snow.”

The second half follows the conceit that the ballet is taking place in the “Land of Sweets,” but all of the traditional names for the solos have been changed. The Arabian (or Peacock in Stowell’s version) dance is now “Coffee,” the Chinese dance is “Tea,” the Russian dance is Candy Canes – where did this come from? I was put off my the peculiar choices here. On the other hand, the freaky woman with the giant skirt I hadn’t seen since Ballet Arizona made an appearance, and I got a huge laugh watching the little kids come out from under her skirts and dance on stage. Thanks to Justin Peck for being this ballet’s panto dame (Mother Ginger, to be accurate) – I really enjoyed his clowning and hamming. We also got a nice Waltz of the Flowers, with the flowers in lovely tiered full skirts in increasing intensity of pink that poofed up gorgeously as they swirled around. Aaah!

Unfortunately, I was rather checked out for Teresa Reichlen and Charles Askegard’s performance in the final duet of “The Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.” But I don’t think it was just me worrying about the bills piling up during this trip; it was the rather uninspired choreography in all of the show leading to its ultimate, well, canned duet. I just wonder what was going on for Balanchine – to me, it felt like he just wasn’t very excited about this show and didn’t want to make it a showcase for outstanding dancing – he just wanted to move the narrative along. I wonder if the music didn’t inspire him enough, or if he was in a hurry, or if there was something else going on – but when I think of the incredible things he was doing at this time and earlier, I feel like he forgot to care about the Nutcracker enough to make it a great dance piece. So, overall, while I found this an entertaining enough evening, I left disappointed. Balanchine was not only not able to make the first act any better than almost anyone else (only Bourne has excelled here), but he didn’t even make the second act brilliant like I think he had the ability to do. Ah, well – at least the music was great, and with luck, I’ll be able to see City Ballet more than once in ten years and get a better choice of shows the next time.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 6 PM on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008.)

*Note the Wikipedia article on the Nutcracker completely blows this assertion out of the water. What is up with this obsessive worship of Balanchine? Is City Ballet incapable of accepting the fact that things have gone on in ballet during the time he was choreographing that didn’t involve him, that other influences were moving ballet forward at the same time? No wonder I came to the UK being ignorant of Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan!