Jordi Savall and The Bard at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

Jordi Savall and the musicians of Juilliard415. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

I’ve been intrigued by the name Jordi Savall ever since hearing that it was he who played the viola da gamba in the 1991 movie Tous les Matins du Monde, in which Gérard Dépardieu played the part of the eighteenth-century musician Marin Marais. Mr. Savall’s interpretation of pieces by François Couperin, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Marais is what I remember most about that film. (Well that, and Mr. Dépardieu’s comical attempts to mime playing an instrument.)

The Barcelona-born Savall, one of the leaders of the early-music movement, is a prolific performer who plays over 140 concerts each year. He is also a visiting artist at Juilliard, where he works with the period-instrument ensemble Julliard415. (The name of the group comes from a particular pitch used for Baroque music.) The other night (Feb. 24), he brought the group to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in a program of seventeenth-century incidental music on Shakespearean themes. The musicians were joined by second-year students from the drama department, who acted out short scenes from The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music was by Robert Johnson (1583-1633), Matthew Locke (1621-77), and Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

Savall played the vielle—a viola-sized instrument that is held vertically between the knees rather than horizontally at the shoulder—in the first part of the evening, with music by Johnson. After that, he acted as conductor. (Yes, I was a little bit disappointed he didn’t play more.) None of the music had the plaintive quality he is famous for, but he drew a notably singing, sweet quality from his instrument. There was liveliness in the orchestra’s playing—it had swing. The players swayed and danced in their seats, visibly enjoying the music. My eye (and ear) was repeatedly struck by the melodious brio and variety of sound qualities produced by the concertmaster, the German-Argentine violinist Manfredo Kraemer. His playing was sometimes sweet, sometimes rough and fiddle-like.

Especially in the Johnson and Locke pieces, it was clear how close concert music was at the time to the dances of the court. The rhythms are dance-rhythms, strong and clear; it is the rock-and-roll of the time. The percussion—various tambourines and drums—plays a central role, with contrasting sounds (tapping, rasping, clattering, booming) and strong rhythmic shifts. The pieces included Scottish dances, a courante, a gaillard.

It was also clear how musicians of this period loved to evoke sounds in nature, and play with effects like the echo. In a section of the Locke, two musicians retired to a point outside of the theatre, responding to their counterparts onstage in a gentle conversation. In another, the recorders mimicked the fluttering of birdsong.

The fledgling actors acquitted themselves well. It’s interesting, as an outsider to dramatic training, to note that that the expectation, even for American actors, is that Shakespeare should be performed with a British accent. Perhaps the feeling is that it suits the meters and rhymes of the text. It does add a certain stagey feeling to the proceedings. Even so, the actors’ accents were convincing, the words were clear, and the situations were precisely evoked. I particularly enjoyed the argument between Titania and Oberon (played by Paton Ashbrook and David Corenswet), and the contortions of Caliban, played by Matt Malloy (I believe).

And it was fun to see how much one of the actors, Patrick Graves, was enjoying the music as he awaited his turn on the stage, bobbing his head along to the tune, just as I was.

To read another take on the evening, see here.

A Year Ago…

A year ago I got to meet one of my childhood idols, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and interview him about his art collection. My heart stopped a little bit each time he opened his mouth to say something. It was, and still is, a highlight of my writing life. Here’s the piece that came out of that conversation.

And one of my favorite works from his collection,  Nikolai Lapshin’s Novgorod.


John Heginbotham Takes on Satie’s “Relâche”


John Heginbotham, by Julieta Cervantes, from the NY Times.
John Heginbotham, by Julieta Cervantes, from the NY Times.

The former Mark Morris dancer John Heginbotham, presents his first evening-length work Dark Theater, at BAM’s Fishman Space Oct. 29-Nov. 2. Here’s a little q&a about the new piece, which is set to music by Satie, including a section of his final work, the ballet Relâche, and piano pieces.

And here, just for fun, is the film from Satie’s 1924 ballet:

Dance Impressions: Youth America Grand Prix gala, Ballet Next, Kafka’s Monkey, Degas Dances, American Bolero Dance Company

Nina Ananiashvili's "Dying Swan." Picture taken from her website.
Nina Ananiashvili’s “Dying Swan.” Picture taken from her website.

Two Dying Swans in a week might seem like two too many—it probably is—but I’m surprised at how my outlook changed when one of the two happened to be a performance by Nina Ananiashvili, making a brief, characteristically self-possessed appearance at the Youth America Grand Prix gala. This year’s gala—“Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”—was held at the Koch Theatre, on April 18. And yes, Mr. Koch was there, in the flesh, surveying the theatre renovated with his money and the crop of young dancers before him. What does he think about as he sits there in the dark, I wonder? Was he privately gloating over the defeat, earlier in the day, of legislation calling for expanded background checks for gun-buyers?

But I digress. The gala followed its usual format—kids in the first half, international stars in the second—but felt more polished than in previous years. There was a lively host (Mark Wahlberg, of the television series Antiques Road Show), a lighter lineup of acts, and live music. The pieces were introduced by well-edited filmed interviews. Various commissioned pieces were sprinkled between the obligatory ballet chestnuts. The opening number was an impressive—and diminutive—violin prodigy, Elli Choi, just eleven or twelve, dispatching the showy Carmen Fantasy. Not only did Choi play a dizzying number of notes, extending to the very limit of her instrument’s range, but she created an impressively rich, confident sound, surprising in someone so tiny. And her party dress! It was brick red and had an enormous silver bow in the back. These prodigies are such a mystery. Where does the confidence and physical prowess come from? Has she ever seen Carmen? Does she know what it’s about? Does she care?

The Grand Défilé. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
The Grand Défilé. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

As usual, the first part of the show was both impressive and slightly depressing. The kids, all medal-winners in the YAGP competition, ranged in age from ten to nineteen, and were, as always, very accomplished. Technically, they were, if not flawless, near-perfect. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone land in a perfect fifth position after every jump with such regularity as Joo Won Ahn (age nineteen, gold in the senior division) from South Korea. Jorge Barani, a Cuban studying at the Magaly Suarez school in Florida, nailed his solo from Flames of Paris, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree barrel-jumps and all, staring at the audience all the while. The few wobbles in the routines came as almost a relief, a sign that even with constant rehearsal, some things are still subject to the randomness of the moment. I hope all of these kids will go on to marvelous careers and have the chance to discover the joy, and freedom, of real dancing, of communicating emotion and expressing music through movement in the company of other dancers. The three most touching moments of the evening were Lada Sartakova’s charming “Clown Variation” (set to the music Ashton used for the coda of his “Pas de Quatre” in the third act of Swan Lake), Lou Spichtig’s solo from the first act of Giselle, and the grand défilé, put together by the in-house choreographer, Carlos dos Santos. Sartakova, because, despite being slightly behind the beat the entire time (in the Russian manner), this ten-year-old silver-medalist was so leggy and gleefully child-like, with her lopsided hat and long spindly legs, that you couldn’t help but be won over. Spichtig (gold medal), because, at fifteen she showed inklings of a real emotional response to the music and an all-too-human fragility, the very qualities that draw one to the character of Giselle. And the grand défilé because, well, how can one not be filled with joy at the sight of hundreds of kids (some incredibly tiny) dancing in near unison, arms and legs filling every centimeter of the stage?

Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

Then, came the stars. The ever-dapper Clifton Brown, accompanied by a jazz quartet, did a suave little number (by Fredrick Earl Mosley) to Paul Desmond’s Take 5.  Svetlana Lunkina, from the Bolshoi, a somewhat dour (and out of place) rendition of Nikiya’s pleading dance from the betrothal scene of La Bayadère. (But where was the rubber snake?) The winning duo of Viengsay Valdés and Osiel Gouneo—the highligt of National Ballet of Cuba’s stint at BAM a few years back—danced a cutesy, pseudo-Latin number by Peter Quanz set to monotonous, vaguely syncopated music by David Lang. (But when is Lang’s music not monotonous?) The hit-or-miss young female ballet choreographer Emery LeCrone created a pleasant, free-flowing pas de deux (on pointe, for once) for the luminous Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, both of New York City Ballet. The musical accompaniment, a Bach partita, was played live, by the pianist Vassily Primakov.  Chase Finlay of City Ballet, who looks more authoritative with each performance, performed a solo created for him by Marcelo Gomes, Tous les Jours, a self-conscious meditation on the torments of the dancer’s lot: daily class, the barre, exercises, etc. It was like a cross between The Lesson, Études, Prodigal Son, and Apollo, with a healthy dose of explosive jumps mixed in with crouches and crawling on the floor. In any case, Finlay, who performed bare-chested (the better to see his torment), gave it his all. The kids in the top tiers of the theatre nearly blew the roof off.

Dorothée Gilbert and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.
Dorothée Gilbert and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Liza Voll Photography.

One of the best moments of the night, to my eye, was Kenneth MacMillan’s balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, danced by Marcelo Gomes (beyond ardent as Romeo) and the gloriously unmannered Dorothée Gilbert, of the Paris Opéra Ballet. She danced with a purity of line and lack of melodrama—clearly delighted to be partnered by Gomes—that made the scene look newly minted. A low point: Wayne McGregor’s acrobatically unflattering “Borderlands Pas de Deux,” with sentimental music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney. It wasn’t the dancers’ fault. They, or rather she (Maria Kochetkova) did not stint on the hyper-extended, raw, contorted poses and relentless, flailing steps that flow unabated from McGregor’s imagination. (Lonnie Weeks, her partner, had less to do, but acquitted himself admirably in the impossibly knotty partnering.) Unfortunately, I will not soon forget the final image, of Weeks grasping Kochetkova’s thighs in a suspended pas de chat in front of him, as if trying to pull her groin in half. McGregor’s relentless dislocation for the natural line of the body is something I can never quite get used to.

The closing number was the compulsory slave pas de trois from Le Corsaire, with Misa Kuranaga (rather dry), Alejandro Virelles (an effective if unexciting Ali), and Herman Cornejo (Conrad). Cornejo was not quite on his game, but no matter. The high point, for me, was one of the slightest items of the evening, a cameo by Nina Ananiashvili in The Dying Swan, alongside the Jookin’ master Lil Buck. It was a gimmick, for sure, meant to highlight the strange convergence of two completely different dance styles. Both went for maximum effect: Buck hovered on the toe of his sneakers forever, Ananiashvili rippled her arms like a snake in heat. It was fabulous. Ananiashvili still has that wonderful combination of qualities that always made her such an appealing dancer: warmth, intelligence, a sense of humor, crazy musicality. Her dancing reveals an absolute confidence and self-knowledge. She knows Dying Swan is a cliché, and she embraces it for all it’s worth, and lets us in on the joke. But it’s not so completely tongue-in-cheek that it’s not moving. In fact, a surge of real emotion surprised me as she raised her creamy, moonbeam arm one last time. Buck, upstaged for once, was nonetheless a willing partner in this tour-de-force. Both are generous, musical, completely natural stage animals, and the rapport between them was evident. Of course they would get along.

And just for fun, here is a video of Nina Ananiashvili performing the infamous thirty-fouettées from Swan Lake:


Georgina Pazcoguin and Charles Askegard in "Stravinsky Divertimento." Photo by Paul B Goode.
Georgina Pazcoguin and Charles Askegard in “Stravinsky Divertimento.” Photo by Paul B Goode.

The evening before (April 17), I had seen an example of just how tired this swan number can look. BalletNext held two performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space. (The small theatre was half empty.) The good news is that most of the ballets were accompanied by an excellent musical ensemble. The troupe’s commitment to live music is a real rarity, to be celebrated. But of course the music is only half of the story. From what I saw (I had to leave at intermission because of a coughing fit) the choreography did not hold up its side of the bargain. What really weighed things down was the feeling that BalletNext is not yet an ensemble, but rather an assortment of part-time collaborators. Each of its two founders, Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles, seems to be on his or her own trajectory. There’s the New York City Ballet contingent and the American Ballet Theatre team. Askegard (formerly of City Ballet) danced in one work, which he created for himself and Georgina Pazcoguin (of NYCB), a sprightly Balanchine-esque scherzo set to Stravinsky. Wiles danced in everything else, except the aforementioned Dying Swan, which was performed by a guest, Misty Copeland, of American Ballet. Another guest, Alexandre Hammoudi (also ABT) filled in as Wiles’ partner in Mea Culpa, a pretty, but insubstantial pas de cinq by a young choreographer (Tobin Eason), set to a Mozart piano sonata. An excerpt of Brian Reeder’s “Different Homes”—a pas de deux for Wiles and the very intense Jens Weber set to a suite for cello by Benjamin Britten—was the most substantive, and most musically interesting, piece of the evening. I’d like to see it in its entirety. Reeder shows off Wiles’s still impressive technique, her almost preternatural balance, easy turns, and beautiful arms. Why did she retire so early from ABT, I still wonder? Perhaps no choreographer ever managed to awaken her imagination. She dances as if trapped in her own world. Copeland’s rendition of Fokine’s avian solo was studied and filled with forced touches that made her look uncomfortable. It made absolutely no case for why Dying Swan is still such a constant in the ballet repertory. BalletNext’s dancers are all good, but is that enough? I wish Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard well, but for BalletNext to survive and thrive they will need to figure out what, exactly, they want their company to be.

The original dying swan, Anna Pavlova:


Kathryn Hunter in "Kafka's Monkey," at BAC.
Kathryn Hunter in “Kafka’s Monkey,” at BAC.

Earlier the same day, I watched an extraordinary performance by Kathryn Hunter in the one-woman-show Kafka’s Monkey (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). Hunter, who has performed such cross-gender roles as Richard III and King Lear (and collaborated often with Peter Brook), here plays the cross-species role of a chimpanzee who has learned to imitate human behavior and speech. The monologue, based on Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, a short story published in the German magazine Der Jude in 1919, is the bildungsroman of an ape hunted down in Africa and brought back to Europe by ship. Along the way, he learns to ape human behavior, drink rum, even speak. This education allows him to live freely among men, performing in music hall shows and becoming, in a way, the toast of the town. The monologue describes the psychological process behind the transformation—motivated by the desire for freedom—but also, quite transparently, satirizes the brutal nature of the human beings he imitates. Red Peter has been shot at, prodded, and turned into an alcoholic by his fellow men. The consciousness of his degraded state is a source of both revulsion (for humans, for himself) but also of a kind of wounded pride. (The story, which has been interpreted as a parable of Jewish assimilation, reminds me of a moment in the musical Cabaret. In If You Could See Her, a man sings to his sweetheart, a giant gorilla, ending his ballad with the words, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Creepy, yes? Assimilation and its discontents.)

Kathryn Hunter.
Kathryn Hunter.

Kafka’s Monkey is a total bravura performance. Hunter, a tiny woman, not young, is able to completely transform herself—her gait, the way she carries her arms, her face—into something not quite human, filled with an energy that is almost frightening. She dangles her right arm from her shoulder with a range of motion more suited to swinging from trees than to walking upright. She climbs up a ladder on the side of the stage and hangs from it by one leg. She crouches and leaps and screams chimpanzee noises, scratches an ear. Demonstrating Red Peter’s vaudeville exploits, she tap dances (another reminder of Cabaret) and lifts one leg to her ear, then slides down into a split. She also interacts—with disarming spontaneity— with the audience, prodding a few of the spectators for reactions. On the day I went, a woman in the first row refused to play along (out of shyness or reticence, who knows), but Hunter would not let her off the hook, keeping at it until she got a reaction. Later, she referred back to the incident: “she doesn’t like anything, that one.” Despite the datedness of the material—the idea that humanity is rotten inside does not feel that revelatory these days—Hunter gave a performance that was completely alive, of the moment.


Mia Potter in "Degas Dances" at the Frick. Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
Mia Potter in “Degas Dances” at the Frick. Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.

It seems like every museum is trying to come up with ways of integrating dance into its activities. The latest is the Frick Collection, one of my favorite spots in the city, housed in the Beaux Arts residence of Henry Clay Frick, legendary financier of New York’s Gilded Age. On April 18-20, the museum hosted “Degas Dances,” an evening inspired by Degas’s The Rehearsal—the painting hangs in the East Gallery—in which four Paris Opéra dancers stretch their legs to the side while a violinist accompanies their efforts. As we entered the gallery, a woman (impersonating Mary Cassatt in another Degas painting, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre) sat on a banquette reading a guidebook. Ms. Cassatt (played by the Frick employee Olivia Powell) looked extremely fetching in her black flounces, narrow waist, and wide velvet hat. (The dress could have come straight down from the Metropolitan Museum’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” show, but was in fact from TDF Costume Collection.) In the museum’s small, round music room—walls lined in faded yellow silk damask—a ballerina (Kristen Stevens) in nineteenth-century gauzy tutu and velvet choker stretched at an old-fashioned barre, accompanied by a violinist (Michael Roth). Roth played bits from Sylvia, Coppélia, and Bizet’s L’Arlésienne; she did her tendus. Then, Clinton Luckett, a ballet master from ABT, entered, dressed impeccably in white, tapped his cane, and gave a few instructions. He was meant to represent Jules Perrot, the choreographer of Giselle.  A blonde waif (Mia Potter), dressed like Degas’s Little Dancer, observed and asked questions. “Can I be a ballerina?” Then Luckett and Stevens danced a few excerpts from ballets of the late nineteenth century repertory. At moments, it was magical, like waking up in a Parisian ballet studio, circa 1870, or, better yet, in a Degas painting. The illusion was broken, however, by the somewhat clunky text–composed, with obvious didactic intent, by the museum staff with input from the performers. Still, it’s a charming idea, worth developing.

Mary (Olivia Powell) and Lydia Cassatt (Katie Steiner). Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.
Mary (Olivia Powell) and Lydia Cassatt (Katie Steiner). Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.


Gabriela Granados (in green), Juan Siddi and Aurora Reyes of American Bolero Dance Company.
Gabriela Granados (in green), Juan Siddi and Aurora Reyes of American Bolero Dance Company.

Last but not least, I attended a flamenco tablao presented by the American Bolero Dance Company, at a social club, the Chian Federation, in Queens. As usual, it was an informal affair, put together through the efforts of Gabriela Granados, dancer, teacher, and tireless impresario. The first half was devoted to her students and an energetic salsa duo, Karla Choko and Franklin Liranzo (Liranzo’s plunging neckline was, itself, a showstopper).  But it was after the intermission that things really got going. The excellent young cantaor Félix de Lola, sang a slow, brooding seguiriya, accompanied only by the guitar of Basilio Georges. Granados, dressed all in black, head covered with a mantón (as if in mourning), gave a dramatic recitation of García Lorca’s “Romance de la Pena Negra,” eyes flashing as she intoned “¿Y a ti qué se te importa? / Vengo a buscar lo que busco, mi alegría y mi persona.” Then she danced an earthy soleá, dipping and turning, fearless in her sadness. Aurora Reyes, a force of nature, sang an upbeat number about toreros in her strong, brazen voice, while also dancing, her small, solid frame exploding with vigor. (One of the great things about flamenco is that it’s not just for the young and lithe. In some ways, the dancing improves with age, as all inhibitions melt away.) The final number was for La Conja, an eagle-eyed master of rhythm, whose syncopated footwork and claps carved their way into the interstices of the music. The momentum of her solo (a soleá por bulería)  grew and grew, until the whole stage was swept up in the flame of her dancing. This was not a night of virtuosos, but something far more rare: real people, masters of a specific tradition, really dancing.

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.

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.

Malavika Sarukkai: Dancing with the Eyes (DanceTabs)

The bharata natyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai came to the Baryshnikov Arts Center this week to present her rescheduled performances, part of the White Light Festival. She presented a remarkable evening of dance, divided into four extremely long, varied solos. She is an extraordinary story teller, able to bring out details with great clarity. You can read my review here.

And here is a short excerpt:

“Like a master story-teller she is able to change registers and points of view in the course of a single solo, offering a variety of perspectives, from microscopic to sweepingly vast. She may not have the nimbleness or sheer pliancy of some younger dancers (judging from previous press accounts, she’s in her late forties or early fifties), but the sophistication of her dancing – and the complex structure of her choreographies – is awe-inspiring.”