In case you’ve missed them, Bourrée Girl, and reasonably frequently mentioned American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet member Devon Teuscher, are again before your eyes in blog format. This happy circumstance, with its many parentheses, has arisen from ABT’s new Innovation Initiative, a choreographic workshop for company members, the results of which premiered on Tuesday at the Frederick P. Rose Theater. The dancemaking debut was mainly a benefit—a posh affair with a pre-performance dinner and post-performance reception, not to mention a chic promotional film of black-and-white rehearsal footage that followed the warm-up speeches by Kevin McKenzie and David Hallberg (a sort of ambassador, we were given to understand, from the dancers to management and then to the audience). But if you were short the thousand dollars for the full-evening package, or even $350 for the performance-plus-after-party deal, you could still buy a ticket simply to see the ballets. If you’d really coughed up to support the artists, though, you got the royal treatment. Do you have time for a cocktail? You bet you do! Fifteen minutes after curtain time, the distinguished guests flooded in to fill the vacant orchestra section, and the proceedings got under way.
In his remarks, McKenzie invoked other beginning choreographers who had honed their skills at American Ballet Theatre over the years, such as Jerome Robbins and Clark Tippet, but cautioned that, rather than presenting “the next Robbins,” the initiative claimed to offer only “a litmus test of the power of the art form to speak to future generations” and a venue for hearing “what this generation has to tell us.” Someone also thought it would be a good idea to remix this generation’s remarks into a glamorous music video that blended the choreographers’ four voices into one: that of composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. So before the performance we saw dozens of moments from ballets composed to Liszt, Puccini, Mozart, Korngold, Tchaikovsky, and Ravel, edited into an eight-minute montage and set to a single piece for perpetual strings in 4/4 time. Of course, it was attractively managed (a creation of Alex Freund and Lisa Mosko of Gravure), if homogenizing. If I had made a ballet, I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted spoilers introduced right before it premiered, taken out of context and set to different sounds, but no serious harm done. And you may even enjoy it, if you care to take a look.
The first ballet, Gemma Bond’s Manner, employed piano music by Liszt (performed live by Emily Wong, the pianist for three out of the evening’s four ballets); graceful, Grecian-looking white costumes and headbands; and well-timed meetings of the eyes. The effect was sunlit and frequently inspired, apparently by something hovering high in the downstage right wing. I didn’t get a message from the piece, but the tiny differences in the simple and lovely opening cambrés (echoed later in partnering sequences and at the end), as performed by the two kneeling women, Christine Shevchenko and Katherine Williams, provided a subtle and memorable pleasure in an evening celebrating dancers’ voices.
Craig Salstein’s When It’s Over, It’s Over also offered subtly different takes on a single sequence of steps, this time by three haphazardly costumed couples. (Jared Matthews looked fantastic in his white shirt, black pants and vest, but for the others it seemed to have been catch as catch can, and poor Lauren Post drew the polka-dot blouse.) Short bits of dialogue (Mary Mills Thomas bravely spoke the first line, not usually part of a ballet dancer’s job requirement) set up each pair’s emotional situation and prepared us to observe a triple pas de deux inflected with yearning or impatience, buoyancy or vulnerability. Accompanist Anthony Manoli’s piano arrangement of music from Don Giovanni added depth to the couples’ distinct interior worlds by evoking the opera characters’ disparate desires. Ultimately, though, the choreography should have taken this over, and though the pairs began to diverge, only the character danced by Stella Abrera, who sang through the full length of her body, seemed to have been given a vehicle with which to tell her story.
La Relation, by Nicola Curry, featured brightly colored diapers and energetic performances from Sarah Lane, Alexandre Hammoudi, Joseph Phillips, and the coolly challenging Isabella Boylston. To me, though, the flashing legs and shifting partnerships chiefly distracted from Ravel’s delicious, shivering Piano Trio in A Minor and the fluid coordination of the fifth cast member, Devon Teuscher. Teuscher has a special movement quality—easeful but dynamic—that, channeled through enviable proportions and technique, creates miraculous little dramas in the simplest combinations. Watch this girl—indeed, you’ll find it hard not to. And as long as I’m giving instructions, please comment on this post if you saw the performance and did feel it was a sensitive response to the music. The choreographer who volunteers to tame and ride this shape-shifting creature deserves admiration at the very least, for valor and good taste.
Despite their virtues, none of the three exhibitions of dancing came across as a coherent work of art with a definite style or meaning. One ballet out of the four, which is really a pretty good success rate for this kind of experiment, did offer innovation, and enchantment besides: Daniel Mantei’s Armaments. (If you watch the Gravure film, this is the one in socks.) Mantei’s ballet, to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, played entrancingly with gravity—ingeniously stealing it from the physical dimension and infusing it into the emotional realm. The six dancers projected a sense of great seriousness, both in one-on-one partnering work—which was exquisitely careful without being personal—and as a group, assembling in the shadows in anticipation and turning together to the light. Yet they created an atmosphere of wondrous lightness and suspension with their slow-motion, floating elevés and pliés. Socks in place of more constraining ballet slippers emphasized, and perhaps to some degree enabled, the dancers’ catlike relation to the floor, while protecting feet that presumably lack a barefoot dancer’s calluses. And, thankfully, no one slipped.
Now that the gala is over, what will become of these ballets? At this point, three of them deserve more work to hone style, dynamic, and message, and one of them deserves more exposure. What will be the next venue for Armaments? And what else does Mantei have up his sleeve? An event with so much good will turned to hard cash must have the power to launch him to another showcase, a fellowship or commission. The company and its donors have invested in putting him out there. Now, ballet world, make it happen!
Bourrée Girl hasn’t seen a lot of ballet since the end of ABT’s Met season; she’s been busy and kind of broke, and recently the internet has stopped coming to visit her at home. She’s so happy, though, to be able to share with you this interview with Ashley Tuttle in Time Out New York. She’s been looking all year for an excuse to tell you what a revelation Ashley was in the Met’s new production of Carmen, where she appeared in two brief pas de deux choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Maria Kowroski, of the New York City Ballet and the endless legs, did the first performances of what seemed to be showy but empty little pieces, clichéd and embarrassing. Not that Maria seemed in the least embarrassed, but the Met needn’t have hired the usually worthwhile Wheeldon if this music-hall stuff was all they were going to get. When I saw Ashley later, I was blown away.
I saw a performance of Complexions Contemporary Ballet once at the Joyce, executed with great vigor by apparently soulless athletes until an unnamed redhead slid on at the end of the Marvin Gaye ballet and grabbed everyone’s attention with the trick of appearing to be a human being having an experience and interacting with somebody. I supposed she might be an apprentice, since she hadn’t appeared in anything that evening except this large ensemble ballet. But she’s all I remember from that performance now. By imbuing the generalized Carmen steps with immediacy and poignancy, Ashley created the same irresistible magnetism: a performance that sculpted dimensions out of thin air, making each step powerful because it was personal. A human being having emotions you can perceive! The reason you go to the theater! It was crazy exciting!
Quite possibly ABT, when they let her go, felt you could have too much of that kind of thing on your roster, or maybe Ashley developed this priceless ability after she was forced to seek alternative employment. That would be interesting, for those pondering whether this expressive power is a gift, a skill, or a combination of these. Discuss? Alternatively, those with any curiosity about the paths open to ballerinas who’ve lost their jobs will find much of interest in the interview. For me, it was gratifying to read that Ashley and I struggle with the same aspects of yoga. A turned-out lunge provides so much more stability than a parallel one, and I think of her now whenever I wobble.
Eight shows a week can really wear you out—and that’s without taking a step on stage. Yes, I had to take time to recover from watching a solid week of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Met. The fact that it’s eight different casts adds excitement but, like a sugar rush, drops you lower when a given cast isn’t working for you. You’ve seen better, tomorrow you may do so again, and until you do the music will sound hollow and the choreography will look like choreography. It’s not, you quickly realize, a matter of how many performances you’ve already seen; it’s whether the one you’re watching now can make you forget them.
That’s how I wound up leaving after the first act of Natalia Osipova’s much-anticipated debut as Juliet. The night before, I’d seen Irina Dvorovenko, whose arms gush with hyperextended histrionics but whose face doesn’t convey much distress beyond a doll-like pout of perturbation. When I noticed Osipova’s lips rounding into the same fetching little expression, my heart sank. By the time she sprinted up the balcony steps, her gymnast’s arms pumping friskily, I’d remembered about lunch. However powerful her jump, however lovely her feet and her partner, the hot young guest star didn’t make Juliet-sense to me.
Now, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how subjective this determination is. Where I see Bend It Like Beckham, some see Shakespeare. It’s terribly clear to me that some dancers whip up a windstorm on stage and others just don’t. Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, who followed Osipova and Hallberg that evening, disturb the air. They trouble the water. It’s not debatable, surely. Is it?
Maybe it is. So for this last post on ABT’s summer season, let’s talk about something a little less emotional and more dissectable—not to mention more inclusive, bringing in a few more of the players in this story. A general question, then, for the characters and their coaches—I’m going to kind of splutter it, though, okay?—
When did the Capulets and the Montagues get so grabby?
Diana Vishneva was the only Juliet who didn’t seize Romeo’s shoulders in their first private encounter to warn him that someone was coming and steer him out of sight. (She’s never touched a man like this in her life; would she really do it now? I wouldn’t have at her age, and I was educated outside the home! With boys!) Romeo plants bold little kisses on Juliet’s naked shoulders, which seems pretty racy coming as it does before the “palm to palm” moment taken from the play, which mines the chaste touch of hands for erotic and spiritual significance before moving on to a meeting of lips. (In the 1966 film of the ballet, the gesture looks exploratory, chancy, as if he’s trying maybe for her cheek if she’ll allow it, or to whisper in her ear if she won’t.) And Romeo and his friends go after the poor Nurse’s bottom with an enthusiasm I don’t remember in the letter scene, scaled up from friendly-looking pinching or swatting to vicious grasping and shoving. Paris, whom I’ve always thought of as well-meaning, has become positively brutal toward Juliet, wrenching and yanking and insisting. (Grant DeLong was the gentle exception.)
Is all this really necessary? Has the . . . interpersonal physicality been amped up to correspond to some perceived audience expectation in the forty-five years since the ballet premiered?
Lord Capulet, I noticed, has abdicated some of his authority to regulate such matters. I had to watch the ballet three times before I even noticed the Nurse explaining to Juliet that her new boyfriend is a dreaded Montague—a rewarding moment to watch, if the Juliet is a thoughtful one and you’d like to see how she takes the news—because I was distracted by the father’s odd behavior on the other side of the stage. He’s come to investigate the problem Tybalt’s spotted: a stranger moving in on his daughter. But he’s staying calm. When Tybalt gives Romeo a little shove, Capulet intercedes with a warning gesture (“Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone”). Tybalt can’t resist pushing again, harder, and Capulet steps in again, more strongly (“He shall be endured. . . . I say he shall”). Or so I’ve seen in the past. What happens now is that Capulet positions himself just ahead of Tybalt, faces squarely into the wings and, stepping neatly in time with Tybalt, stares past the young men, impassive, while his nephew provokes his guest. The first shove happens right under Capulet’s nose, but he ignores it. Does he approve? Disapprove? He doesn’t say, but he keeps stepping in time. Same for the second shove; he’d have to turn his head left to even see it, and he’s keeping focused on whatever is off stage right. Only after three does he raise a hand in cold protest.
This seems like a dramatic opportunity wasted, a choice not made clear. Yes, Capulet could take Tybalt’s side while pretending impartiality, moving only belatedly and without sincerity to keep the peace. (It’s not in the play, but the ballet pretty much does away with the complexity of parental good will anyhow; this would be in keeping with later decisions.) But what we see is more bewildering than that. He goes blank, a human wall, advancing in dumb support of his aggressive ally instead of taking the lead as host and head of the family. The staging just doesn’t work with the patriarch’s dominating character.
(Speaking of choices made clear, dancers cast as Juliet would benefit from the opportunity to observe the musicians who provide the sound for the mandolin dance Juliet “plays,” and to choose one of their parts to mime on stage. Just one. And, since she is the only “player” on stage, it should probably be the one that comes in first. So that’s arpeggios.)
Of course, gamely acting away through the changing of the stars has been the corps de ballet. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t particularly showcase them, dressing them mainly in blendable brown smocks for the marketplace and massive headdresses and heavy gowns for the ballroom. And MacMillan’s choreography doesn’t flatter them; it’s arranged to convey a mood rather than to display virtuosity or even pleasing bodily shapes. But may I take a moment to acknowledge these dancers, who, whether in occasional featured roles like Cupid and Princess Florine or en masse (oh, The Sleeping Beauty’s leaping huntsmen!), provided welcome excitement during these eight weeks at the Met? Many went without an opportunity to stand out as individuals; nonetheless, let’s keep in mind that the dancers who waltzed or mazurka’d through the summer as anonymous guests at all the royal parties are truly elite performers, each capable of so much more than they’re allowed to show us. (Remember Devon Teuscher and Jose Sebastian from Ballet Builders? Astonishing dancers. Party guests.) One hopes they’ll each be granted their breakout opportunity, and are being nurtured toward that moment. Until then, ABT’s off season could mean a chance to see them in other venues. (Yes, freelancing: just when you thought a dancer’s life was hard enough. This article shines a light on one determined dancer—who saw the same shows I did, and didn’t carp in public.)
Four performances already! If I’m not dismissive, I’ll never get this done.
Gillian Murphy made a very believable teenage girl, with a dear, expressive face that I could all too easily imagine sporting braces. I don’t know about Renaissance Verona, but her sweet, gawky demeanor seemed perfectly appropriate for my own high school. Her Romeo, David Hallberg, looked like the ballet prince who had come to her party. Her modesty and skittishness made sense; when she dropped these protections to fling herself into Hallberg’s arms, though, it didn’t make a pretty picture. I can’t quite buy them as a pair, she rough and he smooth.
See Reyes and Cornejo in Don Quixote or The Sleeping Beauty. This probably doesn’t do them justice, but I was on my second R&J of the day, standing as far from the stage as you can be and still be in the audience, and none of my favorite bits seemed well considered or well rehearsed. Props to Carlos Lopez as Mercutio.
People, it’s all about the Wednesday matinee. The exquisite Hee Seo
was promoted to soloist just in time to dance Juliet this afternoon with Cory Stearns. (Last year, when they debuted in these roles, he was the new soloist and she was still in the corps.) Go ahead and promote her to principal, I say. The girl’s already made Juliet her own.
Both Seo and Stearns progressed through ABT’s studio company to apprentice and corps contracts with the main company, and both are solidly up to the technical demands of this ballet. They are also appealingly youthful. (When the three harlots tease Romeo in the marketplace, it’s as if his youth has made him a pet of theirs, in contrast to the usual and rather disturbing impression that he’s a favorite customer.)
Despite his long, clean lines and ample elevation, Stearns doesn’t look like Nijinsky or Count Albrecht; he looks like a good kid in love who wants things to come out well for everyone and harbors a stubborn faith that they can. But his Romeo isn’t simple, or simply conceived. No other Romeo this week has approached the spontaneous-looking grace with which Stearns averts his unmasked face from Tybalt at the ball, or has managed to suggest, when he then crosses the room to speak to Juliet, that he pauses because Tybalt is moving to intercept him. Tybalt isn’t, but I believe he used to, in older productions, and when he doesn’t, Romeo’s pause looks uncalled for. Stearns seems to respond subtly to the malevolence Tybalt is directing at the back of his head, and actually makes the moment work. The time he takes deciding to pick up his sword and fight after Mercutio’s death adds poignancy to the scene; as he absorbs the truth of a world harsher than he’d realized, Romeo needs a moment to become a person who can kill.
Seo, too, brings a wealth of intelligent shading to her role. I love the perfect seriousness of her face when she first sees Romeo, as if she knows that what is happening is truly grave. This isn’t just some hot guy; this is her destiny, which has come to take her away from everything she knows, and she meets it, daring it to blink. (This video shows David Hallberg explaining that he’s been coached against his own nature not to take the first encounter with Juliet so seriously. I was sorry to see that. What, pray, might Romeo value above what’s happening in that ballroom? Go with it, David; it’s your Romeo, not anyone else’s.) At the point in Act III when harassed Juliets usually press their hands to their ears to shut out their family’s demands, Seo lets the crescendo come and go before bringing her hands slowly to her head, in a way that lets you know she’s holding herself together more than she’s shutting anything out. Her Juliet is both self-controlled and self-possessed, and fights to remain so. The inner strength she draws on blazes forth when she runs upstage left, toward the window where Romeo made his escape, and wheels immediately and fiercely on Paris. He’ll never take her. Yet, earlier in the same act, Seo rose from her wedding bed still shimmering with the vulnerability of a young girl, though one now pledged and consecrated. She retains a habit of letting a gesture linger in space with special significance—but where she once hoped to prolong the feeling of Romeo’s first touch, she now holds her breath to preserve what could be his last.
I could go on. Seo’s characterization, though distinct from the one I loved on Monday, is as rich, as sympathetic, and as wondrous. But before I do, shall I spare a word for Craig Salstein, the Mercutio who so far has filled the choreography with the most character and accomplished it with technical brilliance? And for Frederic Franklin, at ninety-six the saintliest Friar Laurence you’ll ever see? Good.
In the last minute of the ballet, Seo lifts her head from Romeo’s body and opens her mouth to let out a silent wail. It’s in the choreography, they all do it, but I have never before had to cover my face and go and stand in the corner so I could try to get ahold of myself. You would have, too—unless you’d slipped out to catch a train. Before the performance, a subscriber had complained to me that the Wednesday matinee audience had again been denied a cast with big-name principals. Instead, they got better than they could have hoped for, and it was the tepid afternoon audience that cheated a first-class cast of their full quotient of ecstatic curtain calls. Anyone who left this performance for any reason before the last smatterings of applause is not only unlucky but despicable and beyond help. Just saying.
For the last week of American Ballet Theatre’s summer season at the Met, I’m going to try a different approach to writing about their full-length classics.
With The Sleeping Beauty in mid June, I felt the production’s deficiencies compared to the Beauty I’d been taught as a young dancer, and pondered the prejudices formed by experience. I tried to order archival footage of the one I remembered but was blown off. (If you have a tape of “Hop o’ My Thumb” at the studio tea circa 1989, don’t worry, I know you wouldn’t blow me off and I didn’t mean that one.) I ordered other research materials—academic studies, like Tim Scholl’s “Sleeping Beauty”: A Legend in Progress—but all that’s arrived so far is The Sleeping Beauty as salacious novel, by Adrienne Sharp (dancers, drugs, and self-destruction). I noted my favorite first-act Auroras (Wiles—surprise!—and Cojocaru), third-act Auroras (Reyes—surprised?—and Cojocaru), and Lilac Fairies (Abrera—for once—and Wiles), and the way Marcelo Gomes as the prince made the precious fairy tale into a shockingly vital drama. Then I didn’t write anything.
Swan Lake kept me up at night. It seems to me the ballet most prone to seepage; that is, its mythic, cultural, and most of all musical power allow it to penetrate you with only casual exposure: certainly without your having ever had to dance it yourself. Music boxes, records, piano arrangements for ballet class, live performances, videos and films work on you until Swan Lake becomes yours, and you are its. It needn’t be your favorite ballet, but it comes to signify all ballet. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home from the theater with swan music pumping through my veins and David Hallberg’s princely anguish replaying in my mind was sit down and write. There was no choice in the end but to take my mutinous hips and traitorous knee to ballet class. Then I felt better, and didn’t write anything.
This week it’s all Romeo and Juliet, by Prokofiev and Kenneth MacMillan, and I thought I might just write a short nightly comment as we go along. We all know the story, it doesn’t take you back into the tangled wilds of archetype, and why bide your time hoping to form some grand, definitive summing-up (and dropping the whole thing by the end of the week) if you have something to say on the very first night? Namely: as far as I’m concerned Julie Kent can dance this role any time she likes. (Seventeen years after her debut in the role, this is surely a comfort to her.)
It’s not, or not mostly—although this is nice—because when she stands dreaming on the balcony she resembles a Brancusi come to life. She also has a thrilling moment with Romeo’s discarded poison bottle, checking it for friendly drops as Shakespeare suggested but MacMillan’s production doesn’t usually show. But every moment of her interpretation glows with a radiance that softly obscures any less incandescent beings. Kent embodies Juliet completely, makes us love with her, breathe with her, believe that she is speaking for us—yet despite this intimacy we’re on the edge of our seats to see what she’s going to do. She is more beautiful than Juliet could possibly have been, and we don’t hate her for it, but wonder how anyone might have conceived of a Juliet without long curving feet in pink satin pointes.
Yes, it is of course the ballerina’s job to make us feel this way. Yet, if we are honest, we cannot count on transcendence at the ballet, the theater, the concert hall. The artists work for it, we hope for it—but it’s a blessing, remarkable each time, if we find it. ABT offers seven more chances at it this week.
Bourrée Girl kicks off her pretend-interview segment with a question for Alastair Macaulay. She would love to speak to all of the people she is pretending to quote, one day, but please note that she has not actually done so.
BG: Mr. Macaulay, you wrote today in the New York Times that “It’s amazing how much the whole climate of the Metropolitan Opera House improves once American Ballet Theatre stops presenting its nineteenth-century classics.” Please explain.
AM: Actually, I wrote “American Ballet Theater” and “19th-century classics,” because that’s the Times’ style. Or, if I didn’t, that’s what the editors changed it to.
BG: Right. So did you mean that the dancers seem to have become happier, the audience smaller but more intelligent, the orchestra more competent . . . ?
AM: I guess I meant that Performance Manager Jackie Archis is back from a long hiatus recuperating from knee surgery. At least, it seemed long to me. It just didn’t feel like the Met without Jackie.
BG: Oh, I agree. Let’s talk to some of the dancers. Julio Bragado-Young, I think we can agree that most of the ballets on this evening’s all-Ashton program are too boring to talk about—but how does it feel to have given pretty much the only performance of charm and interest tonight in The Dream?
JBY: Oh, gosh. I can’t believe that’s true. Look how the audience went wild for Herman [Cornejo]. Puck is a showstopping role, and he does it so well. Isn’t he one of your favorites?
BG: Yeah, I’ve always liked him, but he’s been doing the part a long time, and I didn’t get the sense tonight that he was really trying to impress me. For that matter, it’s been several years since you first danced Bottom, but your characterization still looks fresh and adorable.
JBY: Thanks so much, but really—listen, it’s a great costume. We have a wonderful costume department that created this donkey head and keeps it looking clean and fluffy. Hey, here’s Titania, Gillian Murphy, don’t you want to talk to her?
BG: Oh, my goodness, no, I’d be too embarrassed. Those elbows . . . it’s like she and Wendy Whelan had the same teachers, you know? How do you talk to someone like that? Does she have the Changeling Boy with her? Changeling Boy, I see in the program that your name is Coco Monroe. That’s just too cute! Is it for real?
CB: No, I made some bad decisions and got into financial trouble. By the terms of my debt payment plan, set by my older sister, I have to go by Coco Monroe until I’m fully paid up.
BG: Wow. That sounds serious for a six-year-old kid. What kind of debt are we talking about?
CB: I’m sorry, I can’t comment further. Look, here comes Oberon!
BG: Oh, David Hallberg! What a disappointing day for you. Romeo in this afternoon’s matinee and Oberon this evening: two roles that should have been perfect. But ABT really screwed you over. I mean, when we think Romeo and Juliet, we think of Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Leonid Lavrovsky—some choreographer, anyway, who liked ballet and had the sense to use Prokofiev. But this pas de deux was by Tudor, with music by Delius. Did you know when you agreed to dance Romeo that there would be no dancing involved?
DH: Uh, I was a little surprised at that, sure.
BG: What was it like to perform something so completely boring?
DH: Well, it was a matinee, you know, so . . . Gillian and I do try to keep it interesting for ourselves by throwing in something intentionally bizarre from time to time, but it doesn’t seem like anyone can tell the original choreography from the ugly stuff we’ve just tried on for a joke—so the audience never gets to share in the fun.
BG: Sure, I can see how that would be. And The Dream—all those fairies clattering around, Titania with her elbows, John Lanchbery making a mess of Mendelssohn—I think Ashton’s fairy ballet is pretty lumpen on the whole. Was it frustrating to be king of such an imperfect world?
DH: Look, things could be a lot worse. Cory and Paloma had to dance the “Awakening” pas de deux tonight without scenery or even capes.
BG: God, I know, that piece is completely misnamed. The only thing keeping you awake is the question “Seriously—this is Tchaikovsky?” I can’t wait ’til you guys go back to doing evening-length ballets full of drama and pyrotechnics.
DH: The kind with music that calls to your very blood, that enchants and bewilders you and makes dance writing, and indeed life itself, feel futile?
BG: Pretty much, yeah. Oh, David, I knew you understood.
The other night a balletgoer grumbled at me as she settled into her seat at John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, “I had to buy a separate ticket for tonight. I don’t know why they didn’t put this in my subscription. I want to see the new stuff.” Though premiered in Hamburg in 1978, Camellias (one in a whole bouquet of stage or screen adaptations of the novel La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils) hadn’t appeared on a program at American Ballet Theatre until this season. So those of us who’d missed it when it was anything like “new” were now making do with “new to you.”
Having developed a recent antipathy to La Traviata, the operatic version of the tale, I wasn’t expecting to be deeply moved. In fact, consumptive heroines, at least as presented by Baz Luhrmann or Franco Zeffirelli, usually try my patience, no doubt in part because I’ve never had a chance to be one. (Ever get the feeling everybody would like you better if you were sick—in a way that made you thin, it goes without saying?) Verdi’s music is great, of course—though I don’t love it as much as one patron I met, who walked out of the ballet because she found she couldn’t bear to see the story of the courtesan Marguerite Gautier unfold on stage without it. In fact, for me it was Chopin’s music, with Neumeier’s choreography, and costumes by Jürgen Rose, that finally seemed to open the world of Dumas’ lovers and their real-life originals, the author and his lover Marie Duplessis.
I haven’t seen much Neumeier, though now I intend to; to me his work most resembles John Cranko’s, and can be most broadly described as dramatic—representative of a period (as I understand it, the 1960s and ’70s) when choreographers like Cranko and Kenneth Macmillan were turning the balletic vocabulary inside out to come up with new ways for lovers to throw themselves at each other or, pretty often, to their deaths. There are charming solos in the lighter moments, but the success of these ballets rides on partnering, and principals Roberto Bolle and Marcelo Gomes, whom I saw in the role of Armand, needed all their reputed skill for Camellias. The choreography also, in order to live, demands extraordinary flexibility, lyricism and expressiveness from the ballerina. Without these, the audience might well be left cold, as was New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay. I was fortunate enough to see a devastating performance by the St. Petersburg-trained international star Diana Vishneva as my introduction to the ballet. Macaulay was not.
Julie Kent, longtime and long-favored ballerina at ABT, is the Marguerite of this season’s advertising posters and Playbill cover, and she danced the role on opening night. I saw her the next week, after I’d already been stunned and stricken by Vishneva, and I can see why Macaulay thought the choreography looked uncomfortable. He had probably constructed his review, with all its philosophical musings, around this impression by the time he saw Vishneva himself, and didn’t want to throw his hard work out the window. Because he would have had to, if he’d wanted to address Vishneva’s performance at all.
Julie Kent is a beautiful woman, and the Times’ photos suggest that up close, one might be moved at least by the tiredness and anguish in her pale face and delicate sinews. Perhaps her physical limitations, the brittleness of her particular physiognomy (for this is the impression her performance leaves, despite her being so much less brittle, less limited, than the general population), even contribute a certain realism to the portrayal. Her Marguerite is a lovely, exhausted, and decidedly finite woman, with problems that are ultimately personal.
Diana Vishneva’s Marguerite is another thing altogether: the employment of an ideal, possibly boneless, instrument to create a portrayal with universal resonance. She is a pure and sorrowing spirit whose exquisite lyricism projects pathos to the standing room at the very top of the house. Believe me, I was there. She is a soul on legs—possibly your soul—and looking uncomfortable might be the only thing she can’t do. Proving Neumeier’s choreography to be not only possible but inspired is well and happily within her powers.
But is the choreography appropriate, readers of the Times review may ask. Is the ballerina asked to do too much—to go out of character, in fact—by steps that fail to respect Marguerite, or woman, or love? So Macaulay suggests. But complaints about the athleticism of the lifts (as inappropriate for a dying character) are unfair. As the critic certainly understands, dancers in a dramatic ballet must dance to express their passion. The ailing young lovelies in Tales of Hoffmann and Giselle, though strenuously enjoined to refrain, are ultimately permitted to sing and dance themselves to death respectively; and of course the tubercular Mimi and Violetta, for all their supposed difficulty in breathing, sing, in some cases quite vigorously, on till the bitter end of Bohème or Traviata, because in that medium singing equals being, as dancing equals being here. And, as Verdi’s Violetta clutches at life with renewed energy when the possibility of love, once lost, returns, Neumeier’s Marguerite twines herself hungrily around her lover, knowing their time is brief and unbearably precious.
For a taste of the différence Macaulay craves when things get rough, only watch the scene between Marguerite and M. Duval, as she acquiesces to his demand that she renounce his son, the beloved for whom she has already renounced everything else. The incredible gentleness of their contact, the total vulnerability of Marguerite in her surrender, the manifestation of tenderness greater than you dared believe was possible, will make you gasp.
But yes, such revelations depend on having the right cast, which may be harder to assemble for this ballet than for many others. This would not make the ballet itself any less great, though it risks disappointing more audiences. After seeing Vishneva, I was afraid to see anyone else (and should have been), even Marcia Haydée, who originated the role and (like Agnès Letestu of the Paris Opéra Ballet) can be seen performing it on video. Perhaps Haydée achieved an ideal expression of the choreographer’s intentions. Or perhaps even she failed to reach Vishneva’s transcendental heights. Unfortunately, video can so flatten a performance that it won’t be fair to judge by it. What we do have is one more chance to see Vishneva, tonight, until ABT or another company gives it to her to dance again.
Working where I work means sometimes you’re lucky enough to be in the theater when great things happen. Sometimes you even get to watch. Other times you’re stuck outside reading the Atlantic’s special fiction issue or opening doors for Kevin McKenzie.
The luckiest last night saw Natalia Osipova dance Kitri with Jose Manuel Carreño as Basilio and Daniil Simkin as the Gypsy. The others only heard the music, and the audience response. The former indicated that Osipova’s jumps were extremely high and her turns were extremely fast. The latter was long, loud, and pretty much overjoyed. Osipova and Carreño are performing the third act of the same ballet Thursday evening at Alicia Alonso’s ninetieth birthday celebration, sharing the bill with Herrera (must we? I know, the feet are lovely, but the truth is that’s not everything) and Gomes (dancing the same roles in Act I) and Reyes and Cornejo (thrills! Act II).
Balletgoers at the Met last night were heard to observe that there was nothing about Osipova in the program (there was nothing about anyone, really, though the company’s principal dancers got head shots; guest artists must be as magical sylphs flitting through the season who cannot be captured on film); to vow to Google her; and to speculate, correctly, that she had come from the Bolshoi.
The Googlers have some inspiring YouTube sessions ahead of them (I like, for starters, this competition clip from her teenage years). But, as long as we’re thinking about the Bolshoi, I’d also like to share another video I watched yesterday, about Joy Womack, an American student at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (i.e., the Bolshoi school).
Womack herself supposedly found the Bolshoi on YouTube and fell in love with their unmistakable style. (Bolshoi means “big”; the company is big and its dancers (though not to my knowledge bigger than ballet dancers generally) dance big: bold, brilliant, and dramatic.) Through a summer program in America (that of course has the advantage of attracting paying students to the school; Russians attend for free), Joy won an invitation to continue her studies in Moscow and left Texas, at fifteen, to enroll.
Poor girl, it’s been rough. Seriously. We all liked to think we were living a tough life going through our training, and even loved the idea of it getting tougher—challenge me! push me! believe I’m worth the effort! just give me a shot at some glory! just like A Chorus Line! But that doesn’t mean we were all equipped to stand up to the pressure. This girl, who has left her entire support system behind her to drive herself mercilessly and, of course, learn Russian, in what is basically the biggest shark pool you can possibly imagine—over seven hundred ballet students—seems to be among the strongest—that is, if her foot isn’t permanently damaged from the injury she was forced to dance on in the school performance.
Her parents must be going crazy. It’s hard enough, I would think, watching your child go through something like this and wondering when it’s too much, when to step in and set some boundaries for what can be done to her and what she can do to herself for the sake of a passion that seems all-powerful. To do it over Skype, and at apparently crushing expense (Joy’s family had to tell her mid year that they couldn’t pay to keep her at school through the term, or even pay for the surgery she needed), is surely more painful still. And to be the girl in the middle of all this, who is doing her best and just wants to be Russian, and an artist . . . you have to be impressed with her for holding it together. Tunnel vision helps, but I promise you it can only do so much.
Check out the video; Joy has had her surgery thanks to a benefactor in Russia and is back in class, a beautiful dancer and full of hope. I hope her body proves as strong as her will. But she has my admiration no matter what she ends up doing with her life.
Until I’ve managed to type up at least some of the stuff that’s been waiting to go here, let me just say this: You want to see Daniil Simkin. Some of you may know this. If you don’t, trust me, you still want to. You like ballet, you don’t like ballet, whatever. This means you want to see Fancy Free on June 9 and 12, and The Dream on the 10th; the calendar on ABT’s website lists these and other performances, though it doesn’t list little roles like the gypsy in Don Quixote, where I was just lucky enough to see him. If for some reason you do not live in New York City, there is YouTube, and you want to go there.
Later this week: More adventures in the second person.
This April 9–11, New Choreographers On Point presented the annual Ballet Builders showcase at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Since the program’s inception in 1990, choreographers have auditioned before a panel of judges to have their works presented to a wider audience, including potential funders, colleagues and supporters. But the prize may be more of an acknowledgment than a launching pad: all of this year’s five winners have built substantial résumés in North America and Europe, and some of the featured works (which could be up to three years old) had already had their New York premieres. Since I had missed Harlem E-Stage Moves 2008, Dance on Camera 2009, and a lot of other things for reasons I’ll go into another day, this was my first look at all of them.
Most of the ballets were set on New York dancers, but one choreographer, Deanna Carter of the University of Iowa, arrived with eight of her own dancers from Ballet Quad Cities. (Can you name the Quad Cities? It might be worth your while.) In Ash to Glass, to music from Garry Eister’s Quintet for Glass and Strings and Ezio Bosso’s Io Non Pura, Carter’s Midwesterners took on the air of magical beings. Costumed in pale blue-green and lit by underwater shimmers, they seemed at first to be merpeople guided by the flow of the tides. Later they manifested the effortless beauty of a sculpture park come to life: embodied spirits of classicism, pure but never cold.
Carter showed full mastery of space and numbers, always giving us more dimensions to look at, more dancers bubbling up out of nowhere or somehow melting away as our eyes were diverted to the next entrancing moment. Most admirably, without conscious virtuosity or intrusion of personality, the cast achieved the spellbinding effect of service to a single ideal. They danced from necessity, as if being breathed by one spirit, serenely independent of any observers’ gaze. It’s not the kind of effect that draws violent applause (I was sorry to observe); it just created a world, a time, and a Way.
For his Triptych, John-Mark Owen set Bouzignac’s Salve, Jesu Piissime, a section of Biber’s Violin Sonata in F, and “Blazhen Muzh” from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on a single pair of dancers, Ramona Kelley and Adrian Silver. After an awkward start (introversion is hard to choreograph attractively, or so I gathered from Kelley’s hunched shoulders), the couple, dressed in simple practice clothes, performed a short evocation of a baroque dance, walking forward, hand in hand, then drawing complementary shapes by dancing the same steps in different directions. From there, they moved into the tender, more intimate partnering of twentieth-century ballet—soft turns and falls, leans and carries. As the choir came in behind the boy soprano, Silver carried Kelley posed over his head like an angel, and they seemed to dance in mourning for the fall of man.
As Bouzignac gave way to Biber, the dancers continued their interplay between the human and the divine. I’d just complained that another baroque ballet by Owen hadn’t done justice to the music; this piece, though, suggested that Owen has as much beauty in his arsenal as the virtuoso Biber. The music escalated and finally erupted in a frenzy as Kelley slowly brought her partner’s hand to her heart, creating an enchanted stillness. As the Rachmaninoff began, she leaned trustingly into his hands, then tipped onto his back. Feet parallel, she bourréed softly backwards—the best I’d seen all month in any direction.
In the final moments, after the vespers choir had tuned our collective pulse to a low, serene vibration, a shock: Silver left the angel and the stage. Why? They’d seemed so close. Had he exhausted her reserves of compassionate sorrow? Was she going to lie there on the floor, recharging her angelic batteries, until someone else came along to ask for guidance? Was he just going on a break from lifting people? There must be more to this story—and if Owen saw fit to put it in another ballet, I’d buy a ticket.
In the dimness, a string quartet set up chairs and stands in the back stage-left corner. (“Are those musicians?” I heard on my left, then “Yeah, what’s the matter, you have a cataract?”) And so began the only live-music ballet on the program, The Hour Before . . ., by Ja’ Malik, to Joby Talbot’s String Quartet No. 1 and No. 2. It was also the only piece not presented in its entirety, and no doubt we lost some context this way. One extravagantly gifted couple, NaTalia Johnson and Leyland Simmons of Ballet Noir (“Sunset”), was followed by another, Devon Teuscher and Jose Sebastian of American Ballet Theatre (“Sunrise”), in a very busy pair of pas de deux. The result was a fine showcase for the dancers’ brilliance—and delivered no message or meaning that I could discern. Perhaps the ballet in its entirety (apparently premiered two years ago at Harlem Stage E-Moves and titled The Hour Before I Loved You) offers something more.
After the intermission, lighting designer Ted Sullivan gave us night lights on a rain-washed street for Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, by David Fernández, to Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam. It began with a solo for the powerful Ask la Cour, then introduced Georgia St. Onge Lathrop, Katie Moorhead, Carolyn Taconi, and la Cour’s NYCB colleague Savannah Lowery, all in turquoise tops and black shorts.
There was no need to ask (as I sometimes do) why such accomplished dancers had accepted this gig. The ballet created a wonderful tension, a palpable pull the dancers exerted on each other across the space. Fernández used the small corps de ballet expertly to enact the fretful music and frame the soloist; and each woman’s solo choreography seemed distinctly matched to her personal style—graceful, brittle, joyful or elegant. (Even in this constantly shifting vision of unease, everyone’s bourrées were exemplary.)
The ballet might have been more brilliant still without the reprise of la Cour’s opening gestures toward the end; yes, the music repeated, but surely the several minutes of urgent dancing we’d just seen had changed something about the world, calling for new speech? When the dancers fell to the floor, then rose in unison to look at us, we were pinned to our seats by their intensity. As a final gesture, the back wall got the same treatment, which may have been only fair, but I did wonder what they were looking at.
After this dazzling display, Tempo Rosso, a workshop ballet for the Ailey School by Pedro Ruiz, was an attractively packaged letdown. Ruiz may have won (or at least mentioned) the most awards of all the choreographers on the program, but this romp for fourteen energetic but unformed young dancers was basically inexpressive, relying on the warm, woody sound of various sonatas and concertos; velvety, autumn-toned costumes with gathered chiffon skirts; and even tiny candles to create a pleasing effect. Ruiz deserves commendation for keeping the corps busy and happy, and for featuring Jake Warren, who stood out in the third section as one to watch. But mostly the ballet was a blank. Its being such a populous blank, I suppose, made it the inevitable closer.
Touchingly, the program listed all the dancers who have participated in Ballet Builders since it began twenty years ago, and all the choreographers who have been presented. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one pleased to spot old friends on that list, such as repeat offenders Rick McCullough and Lonné Moretton, and the great Mark Diamond.) It also included bios for every dancer, musician, choreographer and lighting designer who had contributed to the performance—and, unlike the other concerts I’ve reviewed here so far, gave titles, and even the occasional movement or opus number, for musical works. Choreographers, new and old, take note; we can almost always use more here (Biber wrote a lot of violin sonatas. Was it the “Scourging of Jesus,” which might have been significant, or the other one in F?). “Details, details,” Mr. White used to remind us at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. They’re where professionalism shows.