Posts Tagged ‘Serenade’

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.)

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.)

A message from your sponsor – apologies and upcoming features

April 28, 2008

To regular readers: an apology in advance for the lack of posting you’ll be getting until about May 12th. I spent the last weekend in Barcelona and will be in Florida for a conference for all of next week. That said, this Friday I’ll be off to see home town favorite Dina Martina at the Soho Theater, then catching up for my lost week in Orlando with a fury, hitting the Young Vic for Jane Horrocks in the Good Soul of Szechuan with the West End Whingers, the Royal Ballet in a mixed rep program (new work by Kim Brandstrup, ooh!), then “The Only Girl in the World” and “The Lady from the Sea” at the Arcola Theatre the week of May 12th. I think I may toss in an article on the best places to eat near Covent Garden while I’m in Florida just to keep the flow going on the site, though – I’ve certainly become an expert, at least if you’re dining on a budget.