A Rollicking Night at the Symphony

One of the puppets in A Dancer's Dream. Photo by Christ Lee.
One of the puppets in A Dancer’s Dream. Photo by Christ Lee.

On June 27, I saw “A Dancer’s Dream,” at the new York Philharmonic. The program was a collaboration between the orchestra and the production company Giants Are Small and included two Stravinsky ballets (Baiser de la Fée and Petrushka) and a piece for piano four hands by Louis Durey. Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, of New York City Ballet, performed, amid puppets, projections, and cameos by the orchestra players. And while the concept didn’t completely work (especially in Baiser), the rendition of Petrushka was so vibrant that the evening came alive. Here’s a link to my review, for DanceTabs.”Toy toboggans careened down miniature mountains, onion domes danced, a Russian toy chicken pecked its wooden platform…The musicians too got in on the action, performing little cameos for the camera (like drinking tea from a samovar). At one point, a violinist lay down her instrument and proceeded to juggle colored scarves, perfectly on the beat, and did a Russian dance to boot.”

The Return of Sylvia

Margot Fonteyn in Sylvia in 1952. Felix Fontayn, Royal Opera House Archive
Margot Fonteyn in Sylvia in 1952. Felix Fontayn, Royal Opera House Archive

ABT is performing Frederick Ashton’s pseudo-classical fantasy “Sylvia” this week. It’s a marvelous ballet, taken on its own terms. Full of stylish detail, tender scenes, and ravishing music, it is also completely silly and over-the-top, with more than a whiff of the music-hall.

Here’s my review of the June 26 cast, which included Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova. And a little excerpt:

“The designs are intentionally old-fashioned, quaint, many-layered, full of drapery and chiaroscuri that turn the stage into a lavish popup book. The first tableau, a sylvan glade with a stony outcrop, reveals a little bridge in the background and a three-tiered fountain topped by a statue of Eros. The statue later turns out – surprise! – to be a dancer slathered in white body paint. The second act takes place in a kind of orientalist fantasy-land, Cairo by way of the the Moulin Rouge.”

Of Princes and Swans

Herman Cornejo's curtain call on June 21. Photo by Leena Hassan.
Herman Cornejo’s curtain call on June 21. Photo by Leena Hassan.

There were several débuts in ABT’s Swan Lake this week. I caught two: the soloist James Whiteside (dancing with Gillian Murphy) and Herman Cornejo (alongside Maria Kochetkova, of the San Francisco Ballet). Cornejo danced to the manner born–he was put on this earth to play Siegfried, it seems. The only thing that has kept him back this long is the everpresent problem of finding a partner of his size who dances with the same panache and scale. Originally he was scheduled to perform with Alina Cojocaru, who just retired from the Royal Ballet. But she pulled out at the last minute (because of an injury, they say), and was replaced by Maria Kochetkova. In many ways, Kochetkova is just right for him, though she doesn’t seem to have the same open-heartedness or warmth. But who does?

Here is my review of both casts, for DanceTabs. 

And a short excerpt:

“Cornejo is in the flower of his career, and it was clear from his first steps on the stage that he was more than ready for the challenge. In fact, it was as if he had been dancing Swan Lake all his life. In the first scene, he flirted boyishly with one of courtiers (Luciana Paris), kissed her hand with budding ardor as if wondering, “could she be the one?” Just as clearly, one could read the disappointment in his eyes. His first-act meditation solo, full of aching arabesques and slow swivels with one leg curving behind him (renversés), was delivered as one long thought: “where is my true love? How will I find her?”

Maria Kochetkova and Herman Cornejo at their curtain call. Photo by Leena Hassan.
Maria Kochetkova and Herman Cornejo at their curtain call. Photo by Leena Hassan.

How Fares My Juliet?

Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is back in town, with multiple casts taking on the roles of the star-cross’d lovers this week. I saw two: David Hallberg and Polina Semionova on the 11th, and Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle (replacing an injured Alexandre Hammoudi) at at the June 12 matinée. I was sad not to see Hammoudi; I have a feeling that he would make an intriguingly vulnerable, passionate Romeo. Hopefully, the opportunity will arise again

Here is my review for DanceTabs. And a short excerpt:

“It was Semionova’s New York début in the role, which she has danced just twice before, on tour with ABT. She’s not a natural Juliet…butnew opportunities seem to awaken a kind of freshness and curiosity in this surprising dancer. In her short time with the company she has begun to blossom in unexpected ways. She was a softly glowing Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo. And earlier this season danced the adagio movement of Symphony in C with a stirring legato and musical understanding.”

David Hallberg and Polina Semionova in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
David Hallberg and Polina Semionova in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Ojai Dispatch No. 2

Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez in "Jenn and Spencer" at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.
Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez in “Jenn and Spencer” at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.

…In which the Mark Morris Dance Group steals the show…

The company performed two programs, separated by a concert for toy piano (at dusk). It was an exciting evening of dance. Here’s a link to my review, for DanceTabs.

And here is a short excerpt:

“As always, Morris’s ability to shape the sounds coming from the pit through a combined language of gesture and seemingly simple movement is a constant source of surprise and almost primal satisfaction. Why does the swishing of a hand set to a two-note figure in the strings or a carving of the air to a line of melody feel so right? Who knows.”

An Interview with Cheryl Yeager, Isabella Boylston, and Yuriko Kajiya

A little while back, I sat down with Cheryl Yeager, a former principal with ABT, along with two current soloists, Yuriko Kajiya and Isabella Boylston. We talked about how the company and the profession has changed over time, the role of the internet, the evolution of technique, and the importance of coaching. The Q&A is out in this month’s Playbill at the Metropolitan Opera House. You can check out a pdf here.


Dispatch from Ojai

Mark Morris at the opening Talk at Ojai. Photo by yours truly.
Mark Morris at the opening Talk at Ojai. Photo by yours truly.

Mark Morris is the music director of the Ojai Music Festival this year, which is an anomaly of course, since Morris is not a composer or a conductor or a musician of any kind but rather a choreographer. It is the first time that the sixty-seven-year-old festival has been led by a dancemaker. But then, it also makes perfect sense, since Morris’s dances are made with such close attention to the music that he chooses that some people like to call them “music visualizations.” It is, in part, a derisive term—akin to the accusation of “Mickey Mousing” the music—but one which he, in turn, wholeheartedly embraces. What is wrong with visualizing music, he asks, since music is what makes us want to dance in the first place? At a talk on the first day of the festival, Morris states his manifesto in no uncertain terms: “My dances are music-based, so my life is music based.” Musicians love his work. A pianist friend recently said to me, off the cuff, that Morris is a “musician stuck in a dancer’s brain,” as if the two were musically exclusive.

At Ojai, in the role of chief enchilada, Morris is completely in his element, Pasha-like with a handsome beard and a mane of half-silvery hair, dressed in wrinkly cargo shorts and red socks to match his red polo shirt, a sweater tied jauntily around his broad shoulders like a cape. At fifty-something, he moves with more energy than just about anybody else. He has a literal bounce in his step. His voice is certainly audible above anybody else’s. And he is everywhere at once: at every talk, at every rehearsal, kissing passers-by, sitting in the audience with a satisfied air at the opening concert, a performance by the jazz trio The Bad Plus.

Morris is using the ensemble’s rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for a new dance, entitled Spring, Spring, Spring, premièring at the Ojai North! Festival in Berkeley next week (June 12-15).  Yes, yet another dance set to the Rite of Spring, but, Morris insists—and one almost believes him—that its was in no way inspired by the centenary of Stravinsky’s revolutionary work. “I accidentally forgot it was the one hundredth anniversary,” he says at the talk. Oops! Not only that, but he gave himself only three weeks to make it. “I timed it so it would be an emergency,” he says. He put together three teams of dancers so each group could concentrate on learning one part. (Rite is a daunting forty minutes long.) The rhythms are notoriously difficult to memorize. The dancers will get a lot of help from The Bad Plus’s rendition, which is as crystal-clear as if the band had placed the score under a microscope and tweezered out each of its elements, cleaned off all the gunk, and put it all back together again.

The Bad Plus perform Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.
The Bad Plus perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at Ojai. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Morris certainly hasn’t mellowed with age. Opinions fly. “Nijinsky was a terrible choreographer,” he lets rip, à propos of nothing, and this despite the fact that there is almost negligible evidence to go on but a few photographs and sketches and marked-up scores. (The very polite, very engaged audience visibly blanches at this statement, or maybe that’s just my impression.) Nor does Morris suffer from any bouts of false modesty. In answer to the question of why he was chosen for the job of music director of the festival, he says, with total aplomb: “they weren’t looking for a choreographer, they were looking for me.” He’s so outrageous that the outrageousness turns the corner to become endearing. (We’ll see if the good humor lasts through the weekend.)

Such chutzpah—combined with profound musical knowledge—comes in handy at such events as the opening party, where members of his company (lithe and beautiful) mingle with the rest of us (mostly middle aged, at best, and not so lithe). “OK. Form three concentric circles,” he orders the assembled guests, loudly. “Join hands with the people next to you. Now turn to the person on your right, look into their eyes, and greet them. Without irony.” He teaches us a short combination of steps: “toe, heel, toe, heel, now chassé chassé chassé to the right, then chassé chassé chassé to the left. Clap your thighs three times. Hook arms and go around. Then move on to the next person in the circle.” The guests clumsily comply, laughing at their clumsiness or conferring with each other for mutual support. “Stop talking,” Morris scolds, getting a little irritated, “that way maybe you can hear the music, which is what we’re all here for, isn’t it?” He means it, too.

Getting ready to learn the "Pennsylvania Polka" at the opening-night party.
Getting ready to learn the “Pennsylvania Polka” at the opening-night party.

The band begins to play the Pennsylvania Polka, and the human machine rumbles into motion, with a few glitches. Afterwards, we do a waltz. I whisper under my breath to my slightly befuddled partner (a complete stranger): right-two-three, left-two-three, now turn-two-three. He looks grateful. Then his face breaks into a slight smile. He gets it. The music carries us along. We exchange names. As usual, Mark Morris is right. Dancing to the music is simply glorious.

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”

Diana Vishneva and Cory Stearns in "Piano Concerto," the third section of the "Shostakovich Trilogy." Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Diana Vishneva and Cory Stearns in “Piano Concerto,” the third section of the “Shostakovich Trilogy.” Photo by Gene Schiavone.

This ambitious new tripartite ballet, set to two symphonies and a piano concerto, all by Shostakovich, had its première at ABT over the weekend. It’s a fine work, sprawling and intense, abstract and full of stories and vivid stage pictures. An huge gift to the company, which shows itself in superb form. Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt:

“What is most remarkable about the Trilogy is its range, combined with the interweaving of elements from one ballet to the next. Here is a world, Shostakovich’s world as seen by Ratmansky. Each piece has a distinct character, and yet the three clearly come from the same mind, and echo each other in various ways.”

And another striking image:


Part of the final tableau in "Chamber Symphony," the second part of Ratmansky's trilogy. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Part of the final tableau in “Chamber Symphony,” the second part of Ratmansky’s trilogy. Photo by Gene Schiavone.