Monday, December 12, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Nutcracker"

Prepare yourselves for a gush-fest--I loved this Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is a ballet that is riddled with problems, and choreographers who present non-traditional versions typically try to solve them, usually with intrusive, overthought "solutions" that are as bad as (or worse than) the problems they were meant to smooth over. Ratmansky sails through these difficulties without significantly altering the narrative, without chopping up the score, and with a great deal of style and creativity. The many references he tosses in, and the narrative problems he solves, are actually so numerous as to be almost dizzying, and they follow each other so rapidly that you would have to know several versions of the ballet, the book, and have a solid grounding in other choreographers' works in order to see all of them. There's no way I can list them here, but it makes for fascinating viewing if you know what you're seeing--and if you don't, it's still a beautifully crafted, entertaining, even moving story.

The ballet opens with a kitchen scene, and if you know the Hoffman story, you'll remember the bit from the Princess Pirlipat subplot in which the Mouse Queen disrupts the human Queen's sausage making. There are mice and sausages in this kitchen, too, but Ratmansky intelligently does not tell the Pirlipat story outright. It's one of many ways in which he hints at the Hoffman story without letting it get in the way. I also couldn't help thinking of Ashton's "Tales of Beatrix Potter" and his Dance of the Chickens from "La Fille Mal Gardee" when the larger mice take over the kitchen after the humans leave. Ratmansky's choreographic style is similar to Ashton's with its quick, intricate footwork and unusual port de bras and epaulement.

In the party scene, I was struck by the high quality of the acting from both adults and children. Usually the party scene has a dutiful, "let's get this over with" feeling to it, but Ratmansky keeps things moving so well that there's never a dull moment. Some choreographers go too far in their attempts to make the party lively, usually with horrible, devilish children, but Ratmansky uses children's natural frustration at the lack of instant gratification in an adult-controlled world (perhaps a lesson for our own times?) to mirror some darker moments in the music and add variety and activity to the scene without turning the children into fundamentally bad people. This scene is rich with witty and funny theatrical moments, and ABT's dancers and the JKO students perform them with real dramatic conviction rather than the cloying, rote pantomime that often passes for acting in ballet.

The transformation and battle scene includes some magnificent stage magic as Clara is shrunk down to the size of her Nutcracker and the mice. Some of the action in the battle could be timed a hair better to be more dramatically effective, but in general, it is an exciting, well choreographed scene, with amazingly well rehearsed students as the ineffective toy soldiers.

The next scene involves the Nutcracker's transformation into a boy, and it includes some touching interaction between him and Clara (as foreshadowed in Clara's sympathetic treatment of him as a broken Nutcracker during the party scene). Instead of the usual snow pas de deux, we see the adult versions of Clara and the Prince, at first mirroring the children, then dancing on their own. This could seem like a cheap effect, but it worked beautifully, with strong acting from the children and joie de vivre in the adults' dance.

The Waltz of the Snowflakes came next, and here Ratmansky displayed his talent for using a corps de ballet both choreographically and dramatically. The snowflakes' choreography had wonderful Cecchetti-inspired steps (I could easily picture the Royal Ballet performing this entire version) and the snowflakes themselves, although beautiful, had a touch of realism with their frosty attitude toward Clara. Perhaps not so different from the way dancers treat each other in person.

It was during the Waltz of the Snowflakes that I thought how beautifully Ratmansky's choreography captures ABT's historical Cecchetti base yet also moves the company forward into having its own distinct style once again. It's not so much a dogma the way NYCB's style has fossilised into a set of mannerisms that no one can join the company without learning, but rather a way of using the whole body from the center out that gives the movement richness and expressivity. ABT's dancers have not quite mastered it yet, but they are on their way.

In Act II we seem to find ourselves with 1920's Chinoiserie influences, and at the beginning you can see what happens to a ballet when the acting isn't good. There's a little interaction between the Sugarplum Fairy's attendants and pages that would be charming if well done; however, the cast I saw was hampered by a girl with an expressionless face and boys who didn't quite know what they were doing. The fantastical, Middle Eastern inspired tone of the Sugarplum Fairy's costume reminded me of PNB's setting, but Ratmansky doesn't use Drosselmeyer as a weird sort of romantic competitor to the Prince for Clara's favours here. Instead, the SPF functions as the Prince's regent (as in the Hoffman tale) and then the divertissement begins.

I have never seen a Spanish chocolate dance that I could recall much of afterward, but as far as that goes, Ratmansky's had a classic and well put together feeling. The costumes provided a creative touch, with extra wide skirts, part of which were attached to the dancers' hands so that they were able to swirl them the way one usually sees the men doing with their capes in Don Quixote. It provided a nice flair and made the dance stand out.

The Arabian coffee dance, no matter how seductively performed, usually puts everyone to sleep, but Ratmansky kept it moving and added a little plot to it so that it kept the audience's interest and even got a few laughs.

The Chinese tea dance was clever and cute, but with Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin performing it, I felt it didn't make enough use of their talents. On the other hand, there is something to be said for avoiding the usual technical tricks in favour of charm.

The Russian candy cane dance was a funny comic combination of the Three Ivans and the Three Stooges, with a whiff of the playful sailors in Fancy Free. I really enjoyed the way Ratmansky took each of these divertissements and added a little plot or characterisation in order to keep them from being the usual bland parade of tired gimmicks.

Ratmansky allowed himself a pure-dance moment for the Prince's sisters (another reference to Hoffman) in place of the usual Danish marzipan, but even in that, he added a little bit of good-natured byplay between the sisters. His choreography for them was tricky but also sophisticated, and he struck the right balance between allowing the audience some flashier dancing without giving up on the characterisation.

Mere Gigone and the Polichinelles was the usual big-skirted drag queen with little clowns, but the clowns' choreography was so lively and witty that I forgot to be annoyed by the seemingly endless cheery music that accompanies this dance. Ratmansky also threw in a little gag with a mouse (the same one that started things off in the kitchen at the beginning of the ballet) that made the dance more lively.

The Waltz of the Flowers includes a device that many people have criticised: four male bees, wearing masks with large eyes that call to mind 1920's aviator goggles. However, try as I might, I just couldn't hate them. For one thing, I loathe all-female flower corps (Petipa's original scheme called for couples) and the bees provide a way of adding men without dressing them up in powder and roses. For another, well, their choreography is just so cute and witty! Ratmansky gives them a port de bras motif that you'd swear is, in theory, too silly to ever work, but it does. The bees break up the long, tedious Waltz of the Saccharine Pepto-Bismol both via the choreographic structure, entertaining movement, and visually with their costumes.

The climax of the divertissement arrives when Clara and her Prince are seamlessly transformed into the adult versions of themselves that we glimpsed earlier, and Ratmansky does this while leaving Tchaikovsky's score mercifully intact. During the pas de deux, I couldn't help but think how good Fonteyn would have looked performing it--Ratmansky, like Ashton, uses classical structure as a base and then elaborates upon it in all sorts of unexpected ways to create a thrilling, moving pas de deux that continues the narrative. (Which is more than Balanchine's version accomplishes, with its "LALALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" attitude toward the musical climaxes.)

The ballet ends with a device that I usually dislike: Clara wakes up in her bed, wondering if it was all a dream. But this version was both staged and acted so well that it felt logical, with Clara showing genuine happiness as she picked up her nutcracker once again.

Even with all of these positive points, I am not entirely convinced that Ratmansky's Nutcracker will be a long-running classic the way New York City Ballet's is. For the present, it's excellent. I worry that, by removing the cliches to create a more intelligent drama, Ratmansky has perhaps vaguely alienated people who fear change and just want to see the same old ballet with its bad acting, plot holes, and hackneyed choreographic devices. But to me, this Nutcracker is a top-notch combination of tradition, drama, choreographic richness, fidelity to both Ivanov and Hoffman, with just an edge of darkness that throws the warmth of the story into relief, keeping it from becoming cloying without taking over or becoming seedy and nightmarish. Thank you, Ratmansky!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Final Mad Valentine!

I nearly forgot to post today--but how can one ever really forget about the great GALINA ULANOVA? Unfortunately this clip does not allow embedding, so here is the link:


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mad Valentine, Part 4 - Lynn Seymour

Lynn Seymour is our next-to-last Giselle today. This might be my favourite performance, along with Fracci and tomorrow's Giselle. Also, Seymour is the only one whose Giselle kills herself, which I think is an important part of the character.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

St. Valentine's Day Mad Scenes, 2

Next in our series of mad scenes from "Giselle", we have Alessandra Ferri's performance, with the La Scala Opera Ballet. Happy St. Valentine's week!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Singles Awareness Day

In honour of St. Valentine's Day, I am posting different versions of the Mad Scene from "Giselle". Today, we have the great Carla Fracci, in an excellent (but bizarrely filmed) performance with Erik Bruhn.

Friday, January 21, 2011

American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center: Mixed Rep Program 1/19 & 1/20

1/19 Program & Cast:

Theme & Variations (Balanchine) - Sarah Lane, Herman Cornejo

Jardin Aux Lilas (Tudor) - Melanie Hamrick, Cory Stearns, Veronika Part, Vitali Krauchenka

Duo Concertant (Balanchine) - Maria Riccetto, David Hallberg

Fancy Free (Robbins) - Craig Salstein, Carlos Lopez, Marcelo Gomes, Julie Kent, Kristi Boone

I was not sure what to expect from Sarah Lane, as I had only seen her dance once before. She was lovely--petite and quick, with sparkling footwork and clean, secure turns. I thought she could have brought a little more grandeur to the adagio--she certainly has very graceful port de bras. I could see her as a bright Act 1 Aurora, and no doubt with time and experience she will gain a more mature presence as well.

Cornejo's dancing was as spectacular as expected, with soaring jumps, brilliant beats, and clean, controlled pirouettes. He, too, is very fleet, and therefore a perfect match for Lane. They led the ballet together very well.

I was surprised and excited to see Melanie Hamrick, still a corps member, cast as the lead in Jardin Aux Lilas. She has the large, expressive eyes, dark hair, long lines, and sense of fragility and vulnerability that are so right for Caroline. While hers is not yet a fully realised interpretation of the role, she gave a lovely, poetic performance, and all the right elements are there. I hope we will see her in this ballet often.

Veronika Part brought her trademark plush port de bras and long, sweeping line to An Episode in His Past, bringing vividly to life the worldly former mistress of The Man She Must Marry.

Cory Stearns was the picture of romantic desperation as The Man She Loves, using his calm stage presence to quietly illustrate his yearning for Caroline.

In Duo Concertant, Maria Riccetto and David Hallberg reminded me why I enjoy watching non-Balanchine companies dance Balanchine ballets. Free of mannerisms, the choreography seems fresh and new, and dancers used to performing expressively bring the more Romantic aspects of the piece to life with immediacy rather than merely relying on the choreographed poses and steps. Hallberg especially used his fluid upper body to beautiful effect. Although he is normally praised for his feet and legs, a dancer is born with those. The art is in arms, head, and torso.

I'd forgotten how un-PC Fancy Free is, but even so, it's a cheerful, amusing romp through 1940's New York City as three sailors meet and compete for the attentions of two women. All three men acted and danced their roles well, but Marcelo Gomes was particularly in character in his pas de deux with a lyrical Julie Kent, who acted her part with delicacy and subtlety.

1/20 Program & Cast:

Theme & Variations - Michele Wiles, Cory Stearns

Jardin Aux Lilas - Julie Kent, Kristi Boone, Thomas Forster, Roman Zhurbin

Duo Concertant - Maria Riccetto, David Hallberg

Fancy Free - Craig Salstein, Sascha Radetsky, Jose Manuel Carreno, Isabella Boylston, Maria Riccetto

Michele Wiles danced Theme & Variations with great technical skill--she makes every challenge look easy. However, her upper body is not very graceful or refined. She would benefit from studying Lesley Collier and Antoinette Sibley, who had very dignified, yet polished port de bras and épaulement.

Cory Stearns calmly and musically sailed through his tricky variation. He has a grand stage presence because of his height, and he inhabits it comfortably. Based on this performance, he seems like a fine cavalier and a secure technician.

Julie Kent gave an extraordinary performance as Caroline in Jardin. Tudor's very stylised choreography can look stiff and mannered if the dancers don't fully inhabit their roles and make every gesture a natural expression of the character's emotions. Kent imbued every movement with exactly the right tone. She is a skilled actress, and her technique appears undiminished from ten years ago. Due to her age (which one would not at all guess from looking at her) it is possible that she is coming toward the final years of her career, but her dancing does not show this, and I hope she continues to perform and then coaches younger dancers. She is a valuable asset to ABT.

Riccetto and Hallberg gave a similarly excellent performance as the previous evening in Duo Concertant.

In Fancy Free, this time it was Radetsky who stole the show with his fully committed acting. He danced the pas de deux with Isabella Boylston and the second solo (a change from the night before, when Gomes danced the pas de deux and the third solo). Carreno did not quite match Gomes' flair in the third solo, but it was nonetheless a skilled rendition. Salstein, though not quite as engaged in his role as Radetsky, also gave a solid performance.

Frequently on mixed repertory programs, there is at least one ballet that I just do not like, but that was not the case here--these were all winners. I congratulate ABT on its excellent dancers and tasteful, sophisticated program. I hope they realise how well received Jardin was and that they will bring it back frequently, as well as other Tudor works. I also wonder what an extra week or two of rehearsal might do for some of the ballets--a slightly more cohesive core, acting that is a little more nuanced, perhaps. The performances were very good, and I think with just a bit more time they could be excellent. I am looking forward to The Bright Stream, and in fact I am even looking forward to whatever mixed bill ABT brings on its next visit!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Real Black Swans, Part 4

This will be my final post in the Real Black Swans series, and who better to end with than Margot Fonteyn? I've heard her portrayal of Odile (who is, I feel compelled to state once again, not a swan) described as a glamorous woman in a little black cocktail dress, and I think that fits perfectly. Odile is a rather one-dimensional character, and often she is played as merely sexual, but she can be so much more, as Fonteyn shows us. Enjoy!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Real Black Swans, Part 3

Ok, so I haven't been posting these daily--sorry! But today we have a top-notch Odile: Cynthia Gregory! The adagio is rather dimly lit, but you can see her quite clearly in her variation and the coda. Enjoy!