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Back to Basics–Balanchine “Black and White” at NYCB

Sterling Hyltin in "Symphony in Three Movements." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Sterling Hyltin in “Symphony in Three Movements.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

New York City Ballet went back to basics this week with its “Black and White” program. All Balanchine, all modernist ballets performed in pared-down leotards and tights: The Four Temperaments, Episodes, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. Here’s my review of the evening for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt: “The program, a compilation of modernist ballets set to music by Webern, Hindemith, and Stravinsky that span three decades (1946-1972), is a kind of compendium of the choreographer’s most radical, game-changing esthetic. Its distinctive mix of courtliness, mystery, and eroticism still surprises. Not to mention its musical intelligence, which can make sense of a work as impenetrable – and as seemingly undanceable – as Anton Webern’s pointillist Opus 21 symphony.”

The “Black and White” program repeats on Sept. 28, Oct. 1, Oct. 4, and Oct. 13.

Onward, Ballet

Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley in Troy Schumacher's "Warehouse Under the Hudson"
Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley in Troy Schumacher’s “Warehouse Under the Hudson”

After a little hiatus, here’s my first review of the pre-season, for DanceTabs. It’s a roundup of the second half of the so-called “Ballet v6.0 Festival,” a showcase of young choreographers working outside of the large ballet institutions (presented by the Joyce Theatre).  I caught the work of three choreographers: Olivier Wevers, Troy Schumacher, and Jessica Lang. Been wondering what the up-and-coming generation of ballet choreographers is up to? Well, here’s a peek.

A short excerpt: “There are lingering questions in people’s minds about ballet’s validity. Mainly, these tend to focus on the academicism of its forms, on the question of what is suitable content for dance, and, inevitably, on the stark gender division implied by the pointe shoe. What are the ethics and esthetics of dancing on pointe in 2013?”
I welcome comments, complaints, corrections, in fact reactions of any kind.

An Ongoing Conversation with Alexei Ratmansky

Ratmansky demonstrating a step to Luciana Paris, of ABT. Photo by Andrea Mohin.
Ratmansky demonstrating a step to Luciana Paris, of ABT. Photo by Andrea Mohin.

This q&a, for DanceTabs, is a composite of various interviews I’ve done with the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky since 2009, when I wrote my first profile of him for The Nation, “Ratmansky Takes Manhattan” (2009). Through his straightforward, thoughtful answers, I think one gets a tiny glimpse into the way he thinks about dance, music, and the creative process. Here’s a short excerpt:

“I sense a big support from history. You can’t really go to the university and learn choreography. I guess you can be an apprentice, but I never had that luck. So for me it’s the only way to learn the craft. Staging another choreographers’ ballets is a great, great school. I discovered that when we did Le Corsaire at the Bolshoi. We had about sixty minutes of original Petipa steps. My co-choreographer Yuri Burlak and I really wanted Petipa’s part of it to lead us. So everything that we knew had come later we got rid of…I’ve also re-staged ballets by Massine with new choreography, like Scuola di Ballo [for the Australian Ballet], as well as Lopukhov’s Bolt and The Bright Stream, and Fokine’s Golden Cockerel [for the Royal Danish Ballet].”

Here’s my recent piece on the Shostakovich Trilogy, “Running Like Shadows”.

 

Edward Villella, Unplugged

Edward Villella at a café in his new 'hood, Hamilton Heights. Photo by yours truly.
Edward Villella at a café in his new ‘hood, Hamilton Heights. Photo by yours truly.

Edward Villella is back in town, unbowed by his Miami City Ballet experience and ready to begin the next chapter of his life. I sat down with him recently at a café around the corner from his Hamilton Heights brownstone to talk about his life in dance, Balanchine, his experiences in Miami, and his plans for the future. You can read the interview here, in DanceTabs.

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.”

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.

Gala x 2: American Ballet Theatre

Opening Night Gala 2013American Ballet Theatre held its spring gala at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 13, kicking off the season. It included the usual mix of excerpts, but also full performances of Balanchine’s Symphony in C and Ratmansky’s Symphony No. 9. You can read my review for DanceTabs here.

And here’s a short excerpt:

“[Students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and members of the Studio Company] performed…a charmingly formal demonstration of classroom technique (Cortège)… Each dancer had a moment to shine. The students’ port de bras, soft and beautifully shaped, was a particular pleasure. It was funny to see the contrast between this formal demonstration and what followed: a display of just how un-classical today’s dancers can be. I wonder if the faculty shielded the young dancers’ eyes as Ivan Vasiliev tore across the stage like a panther and planted himself behind Xiomara Reyes, placing his hands on her waist with workmanlike focus….Vasiliev is no paragon of elegance, that’s for sure, but his sheer exuberance, and the power of his jumps and lifts, makes him an undeniable presence onstage. No-one does an overhead lift like Vasiliev; he seems to want to propel his ballerina into the stratosphere. If he could dislocate his shoulder to get her even higher, he would.”

Carla Körbes Gets Ready for New York—an interview for DanceTabs

Carla Körbes in the studio at PNB. Photo by Angela Sterling.
Carla Körbes in the studio at PNB. Photo by Angela Sterling.

I spoke with Carla Körbes of Pacific Northwest Ballet as she prepared for the company’s New York visit, Feb. 13-16 (at City Center). She’ll be dancing the role of Terpsichore in Balanchine’s “Apollo” and Juliet in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version of Prokofiev’s ballet. Körbes was just as I had imagined her: laid-back, quick to laugh, warm, completely unguarded. These are some of the qualities that make her such a compelling dancer.

You can read the review here.

Q: What’s Terpsichore’s secret?

A: As Peter Boal says, the Muses have trained a lot of gods. I think she’s very wise and cool and looks down at Apollo like, “oh, he’s a baby,” but they do have a special connection. You know sometimes you meet someone and it’s just different. A special connection. I love Suzanne’s interpretation; she looks so cool, sort of like “ok little boy, here we go.”

Nutcracker x 2

Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky's Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Seeing Balanchine and Ratmansky’s Nutcrackers back-to-back, one can’t help but compare their two. Yes, both are filled with tenderness and magic, but the overall style and approach could not be more different. Beneath the surface jollity, Balanchine’s Nutcracker is, unsurprisingly, much more formal. More of the story is conveyed in pure dance terms. Except, when it isn’t. In fact, the emotional heart of his ballet, I realized the other day, contains no dancing at all. And it is set to music from another ballet, the entr’acte from Sleeping Beauty. This yearning violin melody takes you straight to the heart of the story: a little girl encountering her first powerful emotions, which are a mystery even to her. She runs out, tiny feet flickering under her white nightgown, clutches the Nutcracker doll to her heart, and falls asleep on a couch in the cold living-room. From then on, all is mystery and magic.

The opening of the gifts. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
The opening of the gifts. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre is less radical in its design (he does not alter the order of the music at all), and at the same time more layered and fussy. His is not a pared-down sensibility. (In the same vein, Richard Hudson’s designs are also loudly-colored and voluminous.) The ballet’s power lies in details, images that seem to come straight from the heart and to tap into a limitless reserve of memories.  Little scenes like a private moment shared by the family’s two maids after the Christmas party; they titter and gently mock the dancing of the guests, but then stop to clean up a spot on the floor. Or the way Clara suffers when her brother Fritz shoves the Nutcracker to the floor; she drags the life-size doll to safety, pulling with all her strength, alone in her private struggle. (The other toys come to the rescue, but run off as soon as they see her.) Ratmansky’s imagination teems with little stories that illuminate the ballet’s throwaway moments, especially in the stronger first act. Columbine and Harlequin’s little commedia dell’arte romance for the gathered guests is a jewel of dance theatre. As is the little courtship ritual for Sugarplum’s attendants at the beginning of the second act—they approach each other shyly, run away, gather up their courage again, bow, giggle, and walk off in pairs with nervous formality.

The snowflakes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
The snowflakes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

There is no coup de théâtre in ABT’s productionequivalent to Balanchine’s awe-inspiring tree, or the sudden replacement of reality with abstraction that precedes the battle of the toy soldiers. Ratmansky’s transformation is more domestic, more tame; the tree is a disappointment. His battle, however, is terribly clever, with lines breaking and re-constituting themselves in different permutations. (Another touching detail: the toy soldiers quake with fear when they are overrun by the mice. They don’t want to die. They have souls.) Similarly, the Snowflake Waltz is a dizzying maelstrom of shifting patterns, sharpened by a frightening malevolence. The doubling of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince with adult versions of themselves is a powerful idea; the children see themselves in the future, and the two couples dance together, sharing a stage but divided by expanses of time. However the adult pas de deux at the end of the first act is rather amorphous, with the exception of a striking moment in which the male dancer turns and turns with the ballerina on his shoulders. Not so the rapturous pas de deux at the end of the ballet, which bubbles over with emotion; the adult Clara, especially, uses her torso and shoulders with great eloquence.  Exciting turns morph into lifts. The choreography is quite challenging, and not all the dancers can pull it off. (Ratmansky likes to push his dancers.) Perhaps it’s a bit over-literal to finish the ballet with a wedding, like the end of Sleeping Beauty. Ratmansky’s girl-woman is a universe away from Balanchine’s poised Sugarplum, who is less a woman than a symbol of womanly poise and grandeur. Ratmansky’s view is humbler, more human.

Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the Chinese Dance. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the Chinese Dance. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

There are imperfections in the ABT Nutcracker: More of the music in the first act could be used for dancing; the Spanish dance in the second act is uninspired and engulfed in taffeta; and it seems a shame to have the women in the Waltz of the Flowers merely frame the action, most of which goes to a group of male bees. It’s a funny conceit, but the music demands more, with its melodic waves catching in the throat like sobs. Tchaikovsky buried a private drama in the petals of a pretty waltz, but you don’t see it here. But, on the other hand, there is the adorable Chinese dance, a frisky pas de deux that ends with a Charleston, and the delicious dance of the Mirlitons with their top hats, doing dainty tendus and gliding forward in a funny sliding walk that looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. And the tiny polichinelles! They skip and kick and form a snaking conga line, bobbing their heads, and then drop to the floor and slide back between each other’s legs. The entire company looks engaged, challenged, and happy. It’s not a perfect Nutcracker, but when it’s good, it’s really really good.

Xiomara Reyes and Eric Tamm as Princess Clara and the Prince. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Xiomara Reyes and Eric Tamm as Princess Clara and the Prince. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

An Interview with Herman Cornejo (for DanceTabs)

I recently sat down with Herman Cornejo at a café downtown. We discussed everything from the cruelty of the artform, to the excitement of working with Alexei Ratmansky, to his love of drawing. Here is a link to the interview.

And a short excerpt:

“Well you know, it took a long time for Kevin [McKenzie, artistic director of ABT] to give me the principal roles in the classical ballets, even when I was already a principal. And yes, sometimes it was frustrating, but you know, now that I think about it, I feel like things happen when they are supposed to happen. I’m ready, I feel different about them now. Also, coming back to the Met after having been injured for almost four months I felt very different. Maybe it was because I was so happy to be back there, but I had rested, I’d had time to think about things.”