Balanchine’s Bait and Switch: Divertimento from Baiser de la Fée

On Sunday, at the New York City Ballet matinée, the company performed a mixed bill: Divertimento from ‘Baiser de la Fée,’ Tchaikosvky Pas de Deux, Bal de Couture, and Diamonds. As always, I was fascinated by Divertimento‘s ungraspable quality. It seems like one kind of ballet, but turns out to be something completely different. Its haunting ending makes you question everything you’ve seen before. Tiler Peck captures this transformation perfectly; she is able to transform herself, subtly, from country girl to spellbound woman, lost in a dream. You can see my review here.

Sara Mearns also performed, in Diamonds:

“Sara Mearns, back from an injury which had kept her off the stage for nine months, was in rare form, dancing with that special intensity that sets her apart from other ballerinas. One could almost hear her thoughts as she slowly zig-zagged across the stage toward her cavalier (Ask la Cour) at the start of their pas de deux. The deep arch in her back in the duet’s many backbends expressed enormous yearning; each unfolding of the leg was a momentous, slow, deliberate affair. “I am your queen, and I have suffered long.” Like a great opera singer, Mearns is able to sustain endless legato phrases, melodies that modulate and stretch and leave the viewer gasping for air.”

The Week in Dance

Looking forward to the new Justin Peck ballet at New York City Ballet, Paz de la Jolla, as well as Trisha Brown at BAM (reportedly, these are her final works), and curious about Karole Armitage’s new piece, Mechanics of the Dance Machine.

Here’s our roundup over at Goings On About Town.

Baryshnikov and his Art Collection (for DanceTabs)

In December, I went to see “Art I’ve Lived With,” a small show of Baryshnikov’s art collection. Baryshnikov showed me around himself, and we talked about the paintings. In a way, it was like leafing through a family album; each picture had a story, and captured a moment in time.

Here is the piece I wrote for DanceTabs.

And here is a short excerpt:

“He is no longer the boy with soft blue eyes that graced the bedroom walls of many a girl in the 1980’s, including my own. Somehow, he has grown wirier, tighter, more serious with age; what one senses more than anything is a sharp intelligence, an unwillingness to waste time. With a quick nod, he was down to business. This little collection, he told me, began with a simple purchase in Paris back in 1975, at the Galérie Proscenium on the Rue de Seine, on the left bank. Misha was twenty-seven then, and “the dollar was strong and I had money in my pocket,” he says, nonchalantly.”

Three Plays: Opus No. 7, Family Happiness, and The Suit

An image from Dmitry Krymov's "Shostakovich." The actress is Anna Sinyakina.
An image from Dmitry Krymov’s “Shostakovich.” The actress is Anna Sinyakina.

I’ve been feeling the itch to see more theatre. Perhaps it’s because dance and theatre have begun to overlap in so many ways. Half the time, at dance performances, the actual dance feels like an afterthought. Many choreographers no longer seem to entirely trust movement, or to want to say the kinds of things that can be said through movement. The function of the choreographer has become more like that of a director, channeling ideas through his or her performers. Dancers are called upon to speak, sing, improvise movement and text. The trend transcends geography. Think of William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the late Pina Bausch, Bill T Jones, Ralph Lemon, Big Dance Theatre. Not to speak of the multitude of experimental choreographers working on the downtown scene. So I’ve been intrigued to see what’s happening on the other side.

 In the past two weeks, I’ve gone to three plays in New York, Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 (at St. Ann’s Warehouse), Peter Brook’s adaptation of Can Themba’s The Suit (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and Piotr Fomenko’s staging of Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). It may be a case of beginner’s luck, but all three were excellent productions, in radically contrasting styles. Krymov’s Opus was a highly choreographed, very physical exploration of history and memory. The actors created the set with their own hands. They built their own onstage world, with hammers and saws and the harmony of their voices. The second half of the program, Shostakovich, was especially powerful. In it, Krymov (who wrote, designed, and directed) depicted the great Russian composer as a kind of tragic clown, a whimpering, simpering tool of the Soviet state. The subject was the struggle to create legitimate art, and even to survive, in a state that does not allow the freedom to think. Engulfed in a giant coat and quaking at the feet of a giant puppet—mother Russia—the composer took on a grotesque aspect. His seventh symphony became a ballet for metal pianos, easily interpreted as military tanks. The tanks used to defend Mother Russia, but also to crush rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I don’t altogether agree with this interpretation of the composer’s role in Russia’s twentieth century saga, but as portrayed by Anna Sinyakina (Shostakovich) and the rest of this remarkable cast, the portrait was devastating. One could feel the weight of history hovering over the audience. What was most affecting was the way Krymov grappled with his own past and with the identity of the artist, taking on his subject with an unsparing lucidity, though not without a lick of humor. A deathly kind of humor. There was very little text other than Shostakovich’s own recorded voice, spouting the inanities he was forced to proclaim as a kind of penance for writing ideologically suspect music. Fomenko called the two plays “one-act ballets.”

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music played an important role in all three productions; all of the actors sang, and I was struck by the naturalness with which they did so, a universe away from the forced, almost aggressive singing in shows like Les Misérables or A Chorus Line. The human voice and its ability to communicate emotion, to tell stories and fill in details about a life… In The Suit, especially, songs opened a window to the realm of the senses, to pleasure, and revealed surprising new sides of the characters. The play, adapted by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne from a story by the South African writer Can Themba (who drank himself to death at the age of forty-three in 1967), is set in a suburb of Johannesburg, Sophiatown (a real place, later re-zoned for whites by the Apartheid government). It’s the story of a middle-class black woman (Tilly) who cheats on her doting husband (Philomen), and is punished by him by being forced to treat her lover’s forgotten suit as if it were honored guest in their house, and even in public. It is not until Tilly (played by Nonhlanhla Kheswa) sings her first song that she begins to come alive. Why should we care about this woman? Why does she betray a husband who treats her with such gentleness, and even brings her breakfast in bed? The answer is revealed, very simply, through her singing. Tilly is not just a victim, not only a beautiful woman and an adulteress. When Kheswa sings, Tilly becomes someone. In a way, it is her husband who wrongs her by not realizing what she is: a singer, someone who gives and receives love through her singing.

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Ksenia Kutepova as Masha and Alexey Kolubkov as Sergey Mikhailovich in “Family Happiness.” Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

Similarly, in Family Happiness, a delicate thread of music leads through the play’s themes. Masha, Tolstoy’s protagonist, is seen in her youth, then as an erratic married woman, and finally as a mature woman reflecting on her past. In all these stages of life, she is played by the immensely appealing Ksenia Kutepova, a fine-boned redhead with expressive eyes, pale skin, and pre-Raphaelite lips. Masha’s thoughts are accompanied by gently nostalgic piano melodies by Chopin and Beethoven (a sentimental touch). She ponders her life at a little table, listening to the music, plucking its final notes out of the air with her fingers. Music has a physical presence as well; two pianos dominate the intimate set, which contains little else: a few chairs, a table, some curtains and a suitcase Masha is eternally leaping over in her excitement. (One of the innovations developed by Fomenko, who died last year, was the rejection of Soviet theatre’s grand scale and his focus on the intimate, the simple, the everyday.)

For all her enthusiasm and innocent appeal, Masha’s main flaw is her superficiality, and it find its expression, among other things, in her inability to play the piano. She tinkles a few notes, but soon loses interest; for all her charm and enthusiasm, she has no real understanding of music, of life. The young Masha, depicted breathlessly by Kutepova as a kind of tourbillon of continuous motion and copious eye-rolls, grows into a still-charming but perilously erratic woman. The mere sound of the words St. Petersburg—let alone the thought of leaving her country life for that of the city—sends her into paroxysms of delight. She repeats “Pe-ters-burg….”, savoring each syllable with a half-whisper, half song, eyes filling with desire. Once there, she discovers the pleasures of dancing; laconic piano-playing is replaced by antic polkas that set her heart all aflutter. She forgets about her husband and her child, waiting back home. When her husband (the very solid Alexey Kolubkov) realizes what has happened to his once-sweet wife, he tries to lure her back to the country. “Why should I sacrifice my pleasure?”  Masha cries out in almost physical pain.

Masha’s near-disgrace is captured in a scene in which she sings a silly ballad, accompanied on the piano by two languid admirers. Here, the tone shifts from lyrical realism to a gentle satire. The foreign seducers, one of whom wears a preposterous curly wig, strike indolent poses, caress the piano, stare moonily at their prey (while saying awful things behind her back, in French). Masha’s voce is tremulous and child-like; she is not a woman of the world, just pretending to be one. Even so, her simple charm, Kutepova makes clear, has not quite faded. She replaces every high note she can’t quite reach with a little shrug of the shoulders and wave of the hand. She’s both complicit and profoundly innocent. After a failed seduction, she returns home to her husband, bruised by life, chastened. It’s a profoundly male vision of experience; the husband represents a kind of disappointed wisdom, an understanding of life’s important issues. Masha, who is kept from useful work, has only two options to choose from: motherhood and wifely devotion on the one hand, dissolution on the other. (The nanny, Katya, is more a collection of sound-effects than a human being. Galina Tunina plays her with a vast repertory of nods and tsks and sighs. Her performance is small masterpiece of mime.)

In this early novella, Tolstoy had not yet achieved the deeper understanding of human nature that would come later, in works like Anna Karenina. This one-sidedness weakens the play; in the end, one can’t help but think that it is just the story of a silly woman. Nevertheless, Kutepova’s performance is extraordinarily graceful, and touching.

Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music plays a more salutary role in Thema’s The Suit. For Tilly, music is the key to opening a secret passageway to freedom and happiness. Through it, Tilly transcends her own humiliation. As Kheswa sings a song by Miriam Makeba, the play’s three men (Jared McNeill, William Nadylam, and Rikki Henry, all excellent), begin to dance behind her. All worries melt away, at least temporarily. Tilly has found her passion. Her husband Philomen (William Nadylam) momentarily forgets his anger and humiliation. Time stops. Peter Brook holds out this pleasure to the audience like a gift. He even allows the audience to taste it from up close; during a party scene, the actors invite people to join them onstage. It is the first successful example of audience participation I have witnessed. The outsiders are welcomed, made to feel completely at home, part of the family.

The sense of community is a canny distraction from the darker themes of the play. Jared McNeill, in the role of neighborhood storyteller, fills in some of the sinister details, without piling on the pathos. One of the show’s most appealing aspects is its light touch. But the facts are not so light: we learn that Sophiatown, this peaceful oasis of multi-racial neighborliness, will soon be emptied of its black and “colored” inhabitants. We are given a foretaste of the violence to come as he tells the story of a local musician who is arrested, mutilated, killed, and left in the streets like a piece of trash. Does the joy of the onstage music-making soften the blow?  A little. One can sense Peter Brook’s enchantment with his cast, with the charm of their singing and dancing, with the beauty of Miriam Makeba’s songs: “There is something deep and special that comes form this vast unknown which is called Africa,” Brook told Pia Catton in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a very European point of view, a slightly uncomfortable one if one thinks about it too much. But it’s hard not to give in to the pleasure of such good acting, and of people making music together.

And the Winner is….Benjamin Millepied!

Talk about a meteoric rise. It’s only been a couple of years since he choreographed Black Swan, the film that raised his profile to global proportions. A year since he quit dancing and started his own company, LA Dance Projects. And now this: the Paris Opera Ballet has announced that he will follow Brigitte Lefevre in the position of Director of the Ballet in 2014. To lead the oldest ballet company in the world: it is an enormous vote of confidence in this young man, in his mid thirties. A difficult decision for Laurent Hilaire, Lefevre’s heir apparent and a brilliant former étoile formed by Nureyev, to swallow. (And for Manuel Legris, a nother top candidate, for that matter.) Millepied has proved that he certainly has the intelligence, the tough-mindedness, and the drive, all pre-requisites for the job. And perhaps the taste as well: his repertory choices for LA Dance Projects have been smart and interesting, with an eye to modern dance and to the very best of contemporary ballet. The  decision to perform William Forsythe’s Quintett was particularly canny. As was the decision to have Forsythe himself come and coach the dancers. His personal charisma and connections are certainly part of the package. (The POB will get Natalie Portman as part of the package; the whole family will move to Paris.) He has an eye for dancers and knows how to show them off in his own works. As yet, it must be said, he hasn’t revealed himself to be more than a stylish choreographer. It is possible that he realizes his own limitations—he told the Times that he will not prioritize his own choreography as director of the POB. The fact that he is a choreographer at all is a huge plus for the company—the last choreographer director there, according to Le Figaro, was Serge Lifar, though Nureyev also re-staged many of the classics. Whether Millepied’s lack of familiarity with many of the ballets in the company’s repertory will be a liability is also an open question. Also: Will he be able to handle the dense layers of  a large, French, institution? On the other hand, perhaps he will be able to identify a new generation of French ballet choreographers, an area in which the company has been rather at a loss. Millepied told Roslyn Sulcas of the Times that he wants to put the focus back on ballet; in recent years the company has been known more for its forays into contemporary dance, as if it had lost confidence in the future of ballet. Millepied is a provocative choice, but an intriguing one.

Here is Roslyn Sulcas’s piece in the Times on the decision.

And here’s a fawning profile in Le Figaro. A little excerpt:

“Despite all this, Benjamin Millepied has proven himself to be indispensable! In this world that is increasingly deaf to the unique language of dance, he has decided to dedicate his life to this art….His youth—he is 36—changes nothing; he has always been precocious. His marriage last summer to Natalie Portman, the most brilliant of American actresses, whom he met on the set of Black Swan, did not shake his determination.”
I should think not! It’s a rather romanticized view, but a bit of enthusiasm will be needed to make this transition work.

And a more balanced take, from Libération.  The article mentions that Millepied will make a new Daphnis et Chloé for the company in 2014, and that Portman is looking forward to taking on more European projects.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the decision… Comment below!

If You Haven’t Seen

…this documentary about Wendy Whelan, “Moments of Grace—Kentucky Muse,” I can’t recommend it highly enough. Full of wonderful films from when she was a little girl, interviews with her family—now we know why she’s such a straight-shooting, honest performer—and generous footage of Whelan herself, wise, modest, and thoroughly down-to-earth.

[Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace]