Bourrée Girl

Now with more italics

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on July 22, 2010

Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva (courtesy ballet.co.uk)

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.)

What say you to . . . Thursday?

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on July 8, 2010

Four performances already! If I’m not dismissive, I’ll never get this done.

Tuesday night

David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

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.

Wednesday night

Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes (© Gene Schiavone)

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

Hee Seo (company head shot)

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.)

Cory Stearns and Hee Seo

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.

First night: Juliet is the sun.

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on July 6, 2010
Photo courtesy DanceWorld.com

Julie as Juliet (photo courtesy DanceWorld.com)

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.

Please explain.

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on July 1, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Heather Powers (humbleartsjournal.blogspot.com)

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.