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.


An image from Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1.” Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

As American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at the State Theatre comes to an end, I put together some thoughts for DanceTabs about some of the seasons’ high points, especially a dramatic performance of José Limon’s Moor’s Pavane (with Roman Zhurbin in the role of the Moor), a very touching Month in the Country, and the return of Piano Concerto #1 from last season.

Here’s a short excerpt: “The Nov. 7 cast of Month in the Country was particularly felicitous. Julie Kent’s portrayal of Natalia Petrovna is touching, unstinting in both her vulnerability – her heart seems to literally skip a beat as Guillaume Côté, the handsome tutor, takes her hands in his – and her histrionic, conniving nature….Gemma Bond, as young Vera, is equally multi-hued, if not quite so profound: sweet and eager in the opening scene, desperate and determined to get her way in her pas de deux with Beliaev, and furiously righteous – as only an adolescent wronged can be – when she discovers Petrovna’s dalliance with Beliaev. Côté, on loan from the National Ballet of Canada, was débuting in the role of the tutor, and yet he seemed to instinctually capture the character’s mix of innocence, heedless sensuality, and ardor.”

Twyla’s Bach Partita Returns

Sterling Baca, Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, and Blaine Hoven in Twyla Tharp's "Bach Partita". Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Sterling Baca, Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, and Blaine Hoven in Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Partita”. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

This season, ABT brought back Bach Partita, which it hasn’t performed since 1985, two years after it was created for the company. It’s a big, brilliant piece, with thirty-six dancers, who animate the stage with in constantly changing patterns for thirty minutes. The music is Bach’s second partita for solo violin, a monster of a work, played in the pit by the young violinist Charles Yang. Here’s my review for DanceTabs. (It also includes thoughts on Mark Morris’s Gong and Alexei Ratmansky’s new Tempest, which I saw again this week.)

And a short excerpt: “Throughout the ballet, Tharp’s movement is technical, precise and highly articulated. As with Balanchine, the bodies are always distinct, framed in space….It’s not unusual to have three pas de deux going on at once, independent of each other. In these cases the eye is forced to jump from one to the other, and it’s virtually impossible to catch everything.”

A New Tempest for ABT

Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin in "The Tempest." Photo by Andrea Mohin.
Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin in “The Tempest.” Photo by Andrea Mohin.

Alexei Ratmansky’s new Tempest premièred at American Ballet Theatre’s fall gala, held at the old State Theatre. Because of the departure (and now closure) of New York City Opera, the theatre is now becoming a magnet for dance companies. ABT is appearing there for the first time since the seventies, and it looks quite at home on its stage. It’s a great space for dance, with excellent site lines.

Anyway, the program consisted of of three works: Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, The Tempest, and a trifle by Marcelo Gomes. Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt: “As the note in the program points out, ‘the ballet is at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.’ It is both those things, but even more, it is a series of psychological portraits of its central characters. Each (Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand) dances a kind of aria. Most also have a duet with Prospero; he is the hub of the play’s network of relationships.”

Susan Jones, or, the Art of the Ballet Mistress

Susan Jones cooaching "Paquita."
Susan Jones cooaching “Paquita.”

Here’s my interview with Susan Jones, a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre in charge of the corps de ballet. Jones joined ABT in 1970 and stayed for nine years. In that time, she danced every corps role in the rep, plus Lizzie in Fall River Legend, Cowgirl in Rodeo, and a few other choice parts that suited her dramatic side. She quickly showed a skill for remembering steps, which became handy when working with Twyla Tharp on Push Comes to Shove. Baryshnikov made her a ballet mistress, and she never left. This fall, she is re-staging Tharp’s Bach Partita, which hasn’t been done for almost thirty years.

This Insubstantial Pageant: Crystal Pite’s “Tempest Replica” (DanceTabs)

I reviewed Pite’s “Tempest Replica” for DanceTabs. Pite is an intriguing choreographer, with a great stage sense. But her interepretatin of the play is cold, distant, over-simplified to my eye. You can read my review here.

And here is a short excerpt:

“The artist and his creation; it’s a theme Pite has treated before, in Dark Matters. In that production, one of the main characters was represented by a bunraku puppet. Does she see the stage as a kind of elaborate marionette show? Perhaps.”