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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.”

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.

Sleeping Beauty at New York City Ballet—When it all Clicks

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik
Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City closed its Tchaikovsky-themed winter season with two weeks of performances of Peter Martins’ staging of Sleeping Beauty. I always think of this this great classical ballet as a luminous example of the triumph of form. When all the elements come together—musical interpretation, sets and costumes, grandeur and detail in the dancing—I feel an irrepressible surge of emotion at its splendor. Watching its patterns unfold is like a visit to Vaux le Vicomte: how could something be so beautiful, so elegant, so harmoniously grand? Tchaikovsky’s music conveys this feeling with ardor and a kind of blind belief: the longing for things to be made right (just think of the cello solo in the Vision Scene), the lure of fantasy (think of the sparkle of the Bluebird pas de deux), the glorification of harmony (the horns in the wedding pas de deux), the delight of ensemble dancing (the irrepressible drive of the Garland Waltz). In Sleeping Beauty, one easily recognizes the antecedent to Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, and the luminous finale of Symphony in C.

Teresa Reichlen as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Teresa Reichlen as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Every balletomane has his or her ideal version of the ballet. I’m not sure I’ve yet seen mine, but in the absence of perfection, and despite some reservations (mainly about its rushed pace), I have great admiration for Peter Martins’ staging for New York City Ballet. The scenery, by David Mitchell, is really quite beautiful. Mitchell uses projections of châteaux and landscapes to create a sense of space, inviting the audience to envision the story from afar and then experience it from close at hand. I especially love the way the projections slowly pan out, in a series of still images, from the courtyard where Princess Aurora’s birthday celebrations take place to the exterior of the castle, the forest, and then the entire kingdom, with just a small spire in the distance to suggest the castle’s isolation from the world. Then we fly high above a long, meandering river to the forest where Prince Désiré cavorts half-heartedly with his guests. Like Tchaikovsky’s pulsing music at this point in the score, the voyage through space also suggests a voyage through time. The Prince’s hunting party occurs one hundred years after the original events, in a setting that evokes by Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes. Mitchell’s autumnal scene, with rust-colored foliage and a river glistening in the distance, is very handsome, as are Patricia Zipprodt’s deliciously detailed costumes. I especially love Aurora’s slightly faded white tutu in the wedding scene, with a fine chain extending from the bodice and around the upper arm, accentuating the épaules, one of the loveliest parts of a dancer’s anatomy. Zipprodt’s colors are muted and faintly “antique,” thankfully free of the garish Disney-quality so often used in fairy-tale productions.

The hunting scene, however, reveals one of the staging’s nagging problems: an unwillingness to allow the story to take the time it needs to build atmosphere. No sooner have the Prince’s companions arrived that they are sent scurrying off again. An entire scene, along with its mime and courtly dances, has been cut. The scene no longer makes sense, except as an elaborate excuse to introduce the Prince. (An expensive excuse, too, since the costumes in the scene are quite sumptuous.) Similarly, the fairies’ individual solos in the prologue, each of which is meant to embody a quality presented to the young princess as a gift, are danced at such a clip that meaning and cleanness of execution are inevitably sacrificed. The dancers do their best, but they look rushed and rather pained. It’s a shame, because these are wonderful little miniatures, each with its own quality and perfume.

Balanchine's "Garland Dance" in "Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Balanchine’s “Garland Dance” in “Sleeping Beauty.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Martins has left many passages of choreography untouched: the Rose Adagio, the Vision, Balanchine’s glorious Garland Dance (with its necklace of little girls threading through the patterns), Bluebird, the Wedding pas de deux. Martins’ fairy-tale divertissements—especially Little Red Riding Hood, featuring another little girl from the company school—are especially pleasing. Martins has a knack for character dances, especially those for children. I also admire his homage to Balanchine during the Wedding divertissements, a pas de quatre with jewel tones:  Emerald, Ruby, Diamond, Gold. The third variation, for Diamond, is quite tricky, with its syncopated, accented music, to which he has set complex phrases of hops on point. I always look forward to it.

That said, the company doesn’t always dance Sleeping Beauty with the sparkle it deserves. The mime passages are rather vague, and the courtiers often look stiff and lost rather than noble and engaged. NYCB’s dancers are not trained to act, and the ballet’s extreme classicism can leave them looking rather exposed. For all these reasons, especially toward the beginning of the run the ballet  didn’t quite cohere. Tiler Peck, who had been so wonderful in her début as Aurora a few years back, now looked like she was trying too hard to “sell” the character. Aurora isn’t really a character anyway, more like a series of essences: child-like charm, dreamy longing, womanly grandeur, joy.

The final tableau in Peter Martins' Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The final tableau in Peter Martins’ Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

But the Feb. 21 performance fulfilled the ballet’s promise. Perhaps, after a week-and-a-half of shows, the style had cohered. The conductor, Andrews Sill, brought out the lushness and colors of the score, and for the most part, did not rush, though the tempi remained brisk and bright. The lilting violin melody during Aurora’s wedding solo was particularly well played—bravo to the violinist.  Sterling Hyltin’s Aurora was wonderfully fresh, skittish, delicate, and un-mannered, though she seemed a little bit nervous at first. Hyltin is one of the company’s most charming, feminine dancers. She has an innate sophistication and taste, but also a wonderful friskiness and light, happy jump. And she is appealingly free of airs, almost modest, despite the radiance of her dancing. Robert Fairchild, her Prince, danced with his usual ardor, to which he added a greater polish than I had ever seen from him. His partnering was, as always, devoted, impeccable.

There was an air of happiness onstage. Everyone seemed to be dancing his or her best. Lauren Lovette was a delicious Ruby, sensual and vivacious and lush. Ashley Laracey’s Fairy of Generosity was confident and lyrical, with gorgeously stretched lines. Teresa Reichlen, stepping in for Rebecca Krohn, radiated energy with her back, her head, her milky arms, one movement melting into the next. Lauren King, as Princess Florine, broke through her usual cheerful but slightly tense demeanor, arms fluttering, eyes engaged, chest and shoulders suggesting a fluttering heart. It was a charmed evening.

Shortly afterward, it was announced that eleven dancers had been promoted just as the performance was about to begin. Perhaps this explained some of the exuberance to be seen onstage. Hard work, form, perseverance, precision, belief: it all pays off. A brilliant way to finish the season.

Here is a list of the promotions:

From corps to soloist: Lauren King, Ashley Laracey’s, Megan LeCrone, Lauren Lovette, Georgina Pazcoguin, Justin Peck, Brittany Pollack, and Taylor Stanley.

And from soloist to principal: Adrian Danchig-Waring, Chase Finlay and Ask la Cour.

ABT Will Undertake Exchanges with RDB and Royal in 2013

The New York Times has announced that American Ballet Theatre will engage in dancer exchanges with London’s Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. An intriguing prospect. Two of ABT’s most promising young dancers, Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns, will take part. Boylston, who recently had a very auspicious début in “Swan Lake,” will perform in RDB’s Nutcracker next December, and Cory Stearns will go to the Royal Ballet, where he was once a student. (Stearns, a handsome, tall dancer—and excellent partner—has danced roles by Ashton, like Oberon in “The Dream,” with some distinction.) In return, ABT will get Steven McRae, a prized principal in London, and the very promising young  Alban Lendorf from Copenhagen. McRae gave a scintillating performance at Fall For Dance in New York two years ago; from that, and several sightings at screenings from the Royal, I can say that he seems like a very exciting dancer indeed: quick, a bit cheeky, noble when he needs to be, and full of wit. (He was excellent in a screening of Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée last year.) He will dance the role of Lankendem in Le Corsaire at ABT next spring at the Met. Not a terribly interesting role, I should think, though it must be said that the company will be presenting a new production of Corsaire this year; I wonder if he’ll be in the same cast as Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev? Lendorf, prized for his buoyant jump and affable demeanor, will dance Prince Désiré in Sleeping Beauty, also during the Met season. It is hard not to think that such exchanges are a way to discourage  defections, which seem to be on the rise within the ballet world. Keep the dancers happy, help them grow, but also offer the audience new faces and a reason to come back to see ballets they’ve seen a million times already. Something for everyone, except of course for the younger dancers who might want to get a stab at the big roles. Nothing new there.

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.