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Sunday, September 23, 2018

NYCB Recovers After a Summer of Scandal

To say this has been a tumultuous summer for NYCB is an understatement. In late August, there was the news that three of NYCB's principal males were involved in some sort of scandal. Chase Finlay resigned, and Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro were suspended without pay for the rest of 2018. Then in September, an explosive lawsuit came out in which Finlay's ex-girlfriend Alexandra Waterbury accused Finlay, Catazaro and Ramasar (as well as a NYCB donor/patron) of exchanging nude images of her and other company dancers without their consent. The texts apparently contained such charming phrases as "I bet we could tie them up and abuse them like farm animals." On September 15 NYCB terminated Ramasar and Catazaro permanently. In addition to this scandal former NYCB principal and SAB teacher Peter Frame commit suicide. And in the larger dance world, legends Paul Taylor and Arthur Mitchell passed away.

You could almost hear the audience breathe a sigh of relief when NYCB started its fall season with its eternally beautiful and popular Jewels. This plotless three-acter has been a hit for 50 years and judging by the full audiences and enthusiastic applause it will continue to be a hit for centuries to come. Jewels' appeal lies not just in the usual complexity of Balanchine's kaleidescope-like corps patterns or the melding of dance to music. There are several male-female relationships in Jewels that remain mysterious and unknowable -- every time I watch it I think a dancer will unlock one mystery but never all of them. Jewels is an eternal drug that never loses its high. It's a testament to the depth of the company that even though NYCB overnight lost three of its most prominent principals I saw three separate casts and they all had their pleasures.

La Cour and Laracey in the "clock" arabesque, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The first cast might be called the "senior" cast. Abi Stafford, Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey, Ask La Cour (Emeralds), Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz (Rubies), and Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle (Diamonds) are all company veterans. The performance was a bit too cozy, too much of the main dancers doing what they've always done. Balanchine is never supposed to be this comfortable. The Violette Verdy role is one of Stafford's better parts, but Jared Angle was woefully out of shape in his solo. Laracey and La Cour had more of the cool mystery of the walking duet. Bouder and de Luz (Rubies) were a huge hit with the audience but truth be told I found their relentless audience-facing mugging too much. The Rubies pas is supposed to be a sexy conversation, not a "But look at ME" exhibition. Only Emily Kikta as the Tall Girl had the right energy for the ballet. The cool swagger, the nonchalant attitude as four men manipulated her limbs, the rock solid unsupported arabesque penchée as she exited to the wings. Alas, she injured herself in the process. As for Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, Angle is always a wonderful partner and Maria has great legs and looks gorgeous in a tutu. But she was entirely too careful in the pas de deux where the off-balance lunges and changes in center of gravity define the piece. She was also slow and leaden in the scherzo, just barely crawling through that series of pirouettes en dedans. I felt like I was watching a beautiful mannequin rather than a dancer. She was the same in Symphony in C -- elegant with mile-long legs, but weak on the exposed developpe balance and painfully slow in the joyous fourth movement.

Second Jewels cast
The second cast was in general superior. Emeralds remains difficult to cast. Tiler Peck is maybe the world's greatest ballerina but the Violette Verdy part eludes her. Tiler is all about nailing the steps, the role is all about wafting in the perfume. Taylor Stanley as her partner also exudes an earthy warmth rather than a mysterious hauteur. Unity Phelan (making her debut in the Mimi Paul role) and Adrian Danchig-Waring were lovely in the walking pas de deux, although Phelan is another dancer whose sheer strength overwhelms the ballet. Rubies had the very different duo of Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette as the central couple. Veyette's dancing has taken on a heavy, leaden quality but Hyltin is by far my favorite current Rubies girl -- she had just the right amount of sass and sexiness. Claire Kretzschmar (another debut) doesn't have either the height or authority for Tall Girl, and was shaky in her solos. Diamonds had the odd couple of the boyish Joseph Gordon (also making his debut) paired with the very womanly Sara Mearns. Gordon's dancing was impeccable -- his scherzo variation got loud applause for its clean beauty, and his partnering was great for a first-timer. Mearns danced with her usual strength and drama, although her posture could use some work -- she often hunches her shoulders. The audience loved them, although I thought they were mismatched in terms of size and temperament.

Lovette offstage, curtain calls of Diamonds
It was the third cast of Jewels that provided the complete experience. In Emeralds we got practically a brand new cast. Lauren King might not be the strongest technician but she has the charm and softness that Tiler Peck and Abi Stafford lacked. Daniel Applebaum was excellent as her partner. Megan LeCrone did not fare so well in the Mimi Paul role -- for one, she forgot to do the "clock" arabesque! Either that or she didn't articulate it enough for the audience to notice. I usually don't pay much attention to the trio but Harrison Ball (making his return after a long injury) impressed with his clean double tours and Kristen Segin and Sarah Vilwock were very charming.

The Rubies was also the best overall cast. Lauren Lovette and Gonzalo Garcia (who was also making his return after a long layoff) were the best mix of technique and charm. Garcia doesn't have de Luz's showboating skills but he does have the warmth, playfulness, and the light landings that Veyette lacked. Lauren Lovette seemed entirely at ease with Garcia. They were adorable. Claire Kretzschmar is still miscast as Tall Girl but she was more technically secure. After the show I ran into Lovette and she was so cute and still dressed in what she called her "offstage Rubies outfit."

But Diamonds. Oh my. I can say without any hesitation that Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen are the most beautiful Diamonds couple I have ever seen, and I'll venture to say they might be the most beautiful I'll ever see. Reichlen combines Maria's gorgeous aesthetics with Mearns' strength, and then adds her own brand of aloof magic into the mix. Janzen is her always sensitive, gallant partner. He's not the world's strongest virtuoso dancer but in the scherzo he does remember to point his feet in those turns a la seconde, something Tyler Angle did not do. The pas de deux between Reichlen and Janzen was so beautiful, so serene, that I don't think I breathed once. Reichlen doesn't include many of the "traditional" mannerisms of Diamonds -- in the scherzo she doesn't pull her neck and head backwards in the exaggerated Suzanne Farrell tradition, nor does she do the dramatic back-bends and swooning lunges of Sara Mearns, but she doesn't need to. She is one of the rare dancers that can do "just the steps" and have that be enough. And maybe because of muscle memory after several performances, or being inspired by Reichlen/Janzen, but the corps in Diamonds was the best I saw it all week. Spritely in the waltz and scherzo, and regal and uniform in the polonaise finale.

Sandwiched in between all these Jewels was an all-Balanchine program (Concerto Barocco/Tchai pas/Stravinsky Violin Concerto/Symphony in C). Some highlights included Tess Reichlen's cool authority in Barocco (miss her SO much as Tall Girl), Joseph Gordon and Ashley Bouder's geometric classicism in the first movement and Indiana Woodward and Sebastian Villarini-Velez exploding out of the third movement of the Bizet, and Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz bringing the house down in Tchai Pas. Tiler put on all the fireworks and then some -- multiple fouettes with fancy arm changing positions, huge fishdives that had the audience gasping. They got called out for five curtain calls and took some very ABT-like grand bows. But hey, when you dance like that, you've earned your right to milk those curtain calls.

And so despite the unending negative publicity this summer, NYCB has gotten off to a great start in its fall season and everything is once again beautiful at the ballet.

#SpeakingInDance | “You’re supposed to shoot out and fly,” said @indiana_woodward of her entrance in #GeorgeBalanchine’s spectacular “Symphony in C,” set to Bizet. A soloist at @nycballet, Indiana makes her New York City debut in the ballet’s third movement opposite Sebastian Villarini-Velez on Sept. 21. “It’s like being shot out of a canon,” Sebastian added. The third movement is for jumpers, and because, as Indiana pointed out, “it is really hard, thinking of just flying is a nice thing.” Many of the steps are identical for the man and the woman, which is rare and helps cement their bond onstage. “The most important part is the connection that you establish with your partner,” Sebastian said. “We get through it together.” When he learned he would be dancing the part, he had just returned to the company after a long layoff. “I went home to Puerto Rico and lounged for 5 weeks,” he said, “and came back to this monster.” And those jumps? They’re equal parts distance and height. “It’s like Balanchine always said, ‘Dance big,’” Indiana told the @nytimes writer @giadk. “And it always works.” @laurenmnolan made this video for #SpeakingInDance, our weekly series exploring the world of #dance.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

ABT's Don Quixotes Chart a Path for ABT's Future

Boylston/Simkin, Abrera/Royal, Forster/Agoudine
Handwringing over ABT's weak principal roster has come to an all-time high this season. In short: Daniil Simkin will be dividing his time between ABT and Berlin next year, Jeffrey Cirio is leaving to English National Ballet, David Hallberg after years of injuries needs a reduced workload, Roberto Bolle is aging and dancing only once or twice a season, which leads us with three full-time male principals: James Whiteside, Herman Cornejo (who also has suffered many injuries) and Cory Stearns.

Yet this week's run of Don Quixote's chart a path for ABT to become a successful company in the future. I saw three performances and at every single one there was raw new talent that made you sit up and mark down names.

The first performance (6/25) featured luminous performances by the leads Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin. Kitri plays to Boylston's strengths: her gorgeous airy jumps and her balances, as well as her simple, unaffected stage demeanor. She rocked it as Kitri. If you wanted a checklist of all the Kitri "tricks," Boylston checked every box. Plisetskaya head-kicking jumps? Check. Effortless hops on pointe as Dulcinea in the dream sequence? Check. Long-held balances in the Wedding pas de deux? Check. Big leaps in Kitri's wedding variation? Check. Finally, crowd-pleasing fouettés with doubles thrown in? Check. Boylston was always technically strong. Now she has the refinement and has become a real ballerina.

Boylston as Kitri, photo @ Renata Pavam
Daniil Simkin as Basilio was technically even more spectacular. He's sort of a freak -- his extremely flexible body gives him the impression of a mix between cat and human. I lost count of all the 540's, octo-pirouettes, tour jetés, huge saut de basques, and other gala tricks he executed. One of his favorite skills is making 8 revolutions but going from leg in passé to leg in attitude. I found out that this was actually a skill taught by the legendary 19th century ballet teacher Carlo Blasis. Usually I'd find this sort of carrying-on to be too much, but this is Don Quixote whose only existence is to show off bravura dancing, so ... carry on Daniil! Simkin's partnering was generally good except for one wonky one-handed lift in Act One. The chemistry between him and Boylston was cute and unforced. Lovely performances from both of them.

Abrera and Royal
Calvin Royal and Stella Abrera were a dashing couple as Espada and Mercedes. First of all they're gorgeous, second of all these two roles don't push them technically past the brink. Gabe Stone Shayer as the Gypsy dancer looked like a Simkin in the making with his uber-flexible back. Shayer danced the Gypsy in all the performances I saw and he was wonderful each time -- why didn't he get promoted to soloist??? One wonders.

Corps member Katherine Williams made a wonderful debut as Queen of the Dryads -- the Italian fouettés were centered and controlled with lovely epaulement. But the real joy of this performance was seeing the potential future Kitris dancing solo parts. Cassandra Trenary as one of Kitri's friends looked like she could dance Kitri tomorrow -- she has the energy, the charm, the huge jump. Catherine Hurlin as the other friend of Kitri is taller, more regal, commands the stage. And Skylar Brandt as Amour also looked like a future Kitri.

Rounding out the cast were some great character dancers. The ABT production gives Don Quixote (Roman Zhurbin) and Sancho (Arron Scott) even less to do than usual but Thomas Forster and Alexei Agoudine were very funny as Lorenzo and Gamache. Even the corps were on, as were the children from the JKO school who now perform in the dream scene. What a wonderful performance!

Shevchenko and Whiteside, from Shevchenko's IG
The following night's performance had more polish but less visceral excitement. I had never really been impressed by Christine Shevchenko but last night she showed what a technically strong ballerinas she was. Her fouettés had some fancy arm over head with a fan positions and lots of doubles, her jump was large and buoyant (her Plisetskaya grand jetés were impressive and she like Boylston chose to do the "jumping"/relevé version of the Act 3 variation rather than the fast passé variation), and she's a real beauty on top of all that.  Only real technical weakness: non-existent balances in the Act 3 pas de deux. What she doesn't have as yet is that sort of overpowering charisma that turns her performances into white-hot Events. Her Kitri smiled a lot, but there wasn't much individuality to her acting. She did less of the mime than Boylston. James Whiteside was an excellent partner (those one-handed lifts were effortless), and technically very capable (he's a good turner and fairly good jumper). He's not naturally a virtuoso dancer though and Basilio sort of demands virtuoso dancing.

Last night's Don Q cast, from Shevchenko's IG
However once again this performance showed that ABT does have a roster of talented corps members that are just begging for bigger opportunities. As the two flower girls Kaho Agawa stood out more for her lightness and charm, while April Giangusero was technically strong if a bit too forceful. Rachel Richardson was a cute Amour, needing only more height on her jumps. Zhong Ying Fang has been in the corps for years and her Mercedes was glamorous and well-danced. Fang has always been one of my favorite ABT corps ladies -- her sweet face and elegant epaulement set her apart. Blaine Hoven is perhaps one of the cleanest technicians ABT has but simply doesn't have the panache to do justice to Espada. Good dancer, wrong role.

Lane and Cornejo in curtain calls
The final performance I attended had the debut of Sarah Lane as Kitri. Overall she made a strong debut with a few caveats. First of all, there were no Plisetskaya jumps -- the grand jetés were big and bouncy but there was no back-bending head-kick. Second of all for an acclaimed Aurora her balances in the Act 3 pas de deux weren't really there. However Lane had plenty of charm in her characterization and her chemistry with Herman Cornejo was a joy to watch. Her Vision Scene was by far the best -- she seemed to float across stage in those hops on pointe . In the Act Three pas and coda her variation with those grande jetés and relevés was wonderfully light and joyful, and her fouettés were singles alternating with doubles with a fan held over the head, finished by a quadruple. There were times during the afternoon when she seemed nervous but she gained in confidence as the performance progressed. This was a very successful debut.

Herman Cornejo is getting up there in age but he's still held onto his turning and jumping abilities as well as his stage charisma. He entered, and the ladies swooned. He still has the ability to "scissor" his cabrioles and hang in the air with his amazing ballon. His partnering has improved a lot -- in Act Three the biggest applause came when he lifted Lane overhead and then dropped her in a direction reversing fish dive.

Today's Don Q had excellent supporting dancers
The Flower Girls continue to be amazing -- today it was Skylar Brandt and Betsy McBride. McBride earlier this week was an eye-catching Gypsy. She was equally strong in the jumping variation. Brandt was astonishing -- she did multiple pirouettes with leg held in an a la seconde position and then slowed them down to hold the poses, while never coming off pointe. Cassandra Trenary as Queen of the Dryads had solid Italian fouettés but needed to stretch her poses out a little more -- she's essentially an allegro dancer in an adagio role. Stella Abrera and Thomas Forster were the best Mercedes/Espada couple I saw. Forster's broad shoulders and somewhat burly build are an advantage here -- he really looked like a Matador. Another bonus was the Lorenzo/Gamache team of Roman Zhurbin and Luis Ribagorda.

This production is one of ABT's best full-lengths: it's streamlined a ballet that in Russian companies calls for the entire roster and made it manageable for a smaller company. The sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto are pretty, and it's a real crowd-pleaser that also allows for corps members to get more opportunities. And at the end of the week it was announce that Katherine Williams, Cate Hurlin and Zhong-Ying Fang were promoted to soloist. I was surprised to see that Williams has actually been with the company for 10 years and is only now getting her opportunities. Congrats ladies!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Theater Diaries: Mean Girls The Musical That's a Great Play, and Boys in the Band

Cady meets the Plastics, photo @ Joan Marcus
I saw two great plays on Broadway this week. They were funny, witty, insightful, with lines that had that sharp ring of truth that only great wordsmiths can create. Except one was technically a musical.

Mean Girls is a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie. Tina Fey (30 Rock, SNL) wrote the screenplay and adapted the screenplay into a book musical. If I were to judge Mean Girls strictly as a play, it's one of the best plays I've ever seen. Yes much of the book is recycled from the movie, but Fey has updated and tweaked the screenplay into a great stage play. Predictably social media is now a big part of Mean Girls, as are some ad-libbed lines that reflect current popular culture. There is one about J.R. Smith "stepping it up for Lebron" that had the audiences rolling. But the emotional truth of Fey's writing is what makes Mean Girls worth watching. Fey understands adolescence, and understands the terrors that are a part of any high school experience. It's that core of empathy that makes Mean Girls among the best musicals about adolescence. It's certainly better than Grease.

Erika Henningsen as Cady, photo @ Sara Krulwich
I'm a high school teacher and I recognized almost every moment in the musical. I know that in a pack of "mean girls" like The Plastics there's always one Queen Bee (Regina George) and two insecure lemmings (Gretchen and Karen). As a teacher I know that often the best strategy is to befriend the insecure ones, empower them, and thus neutralize the Queen Bee.  I've seen girls act dumb in order to make themselves "attractive" to boys (as Cady does to her math teacher's chagrin) more times than I can count. And the devastation of those "burn books" (or nowadays, usually a cruel social media account that is designed to diss anyone and everyone) is real. And the school clearing brawls because of those social media pages ... real too. I've seen it happen many times. I also liked the fact that educators are portrayed in such a positive light by Fey. Mrs. Norbury the math teacher and Mr. Duvall the principal aren't perfect but they try their best and care about the kids.

If only Fey had found a musical team that could have elevated the "music" part of the musical. The score is by her husband Jeff Richmond, and it's, well, mediocre. The songs are pleasant but forgettable. It's often a form of loud and charmless pop-rock, with none of the subtlety and nuance of Fey's book. Even more mundane are the lyrics by Nell Benjamin. From Fey's now iconic witticisms ("Stop trying to make fetch happen, it's not going to happen!" "Is butter a carb?" "Irregardless, ex-boyfriends are just off-limits to friends. That's just, like, the rules of feminism." "Halloween is the one night of the year when you can dress like a slut and no other girls can say anything about it") we get such inspired lyrics as:

So I will not act all innocent
I won't fake apologize
Let's just fight and make up, and not tell these lies,
Let's call our damage even
Clean the slate till it's like new
It's a new life for me
Where I'd rather be me
I'd rather be me than be with you
"Stop," the big tap number, photo @ Sara Krulwich
There are some good moments in Richmond's score. Casey Nicolaw is the director so you know that he'd include some fun dance production numbers. The best is maybe "Stop," a tap number that also has some witty lyrics like: "Stop/When you're babysitting kids/So you can take their mom's oxy/Stop/Stick to vodka and stop." The song "Apex Predator" is probably the best song of the entire score and it's probably the only melody I could remember. The lyrics for that are killer too, as Cady describes what Regina is in the jungle food chain. For once that pseudo-Katy-Perry musical style is appropriate.

I saw Mean Girls on a night when both Regina (normally Taylor Lauderman) and Gretchen (normally Ashley Park) were out. Their understudies were fine, although Becca Petersen as Regina had slurry diction and Zurin Villanueva came across as too knowing for the innocent Gretchen. As for the regular members: Erika Henningsen (Cady) lacks the winsome charm of Lindsay Lohan (the movie Cady) but has a nice voice. Kerry Butler however was great in the role of both Mrs. Norbury the math teacher and Mrs. Heron and Mrs. George (the moms of Cady and Regina). I also enjoyed the incredible dance skills of Grey Henson as "too gay to function" Damian Hubbard. Kate Rockwell is a bit too mature looking to be believable as the dimwitted teen Karen, but she does act well. However most of the cast was so loudly miked as to be ear-splitting, and almost all of them sing in that nasal Broadway belt that is so abrasive to hear for two and a half hours.

As I said, this was a great play with music that one sort of had to tolerate. I kept thinking what Tina Fey and a reincarnated Cole Porter could have done together. As is, Mean Girls is a cute and enjoyable musical that misses greatness by a large mark.

Playbill signed by Mart Crowley and cast
Two days later I saw the seminal gay play Boys in the Band.  This is the year of seminal gay play revivals. There was Torch Song and Angels in America.  All we need is Normal Heart. Mart Crowley's 1968 play is very much a product of its time. This is the pre-Stonewall era where gays in America did not have a voice. So as you might guess there's a lot of self-loathing, booze, and unpleasantness in the tightly directed two hour play. However there's also a ton of humor, and the audience laughed as much as any audience I've ever seen in a theater. A bonus: Mart Crowley himself was in the audience, came out the stagedoor and signed my playbill.

The OBC made a movie in 1970. I've seen the movie but the live theater experience was so much better, as the audience response to the deadpan humor enhanced the experience. (Sadly, most of the OBC died of AIDS).

Michael's apartment
The production is mostly wonderful. David Zinn's costumes are so on-point period style. The set is a hilariously opulent Manhattan apartment that only Michael Bloomberg could afford. Joe Mantello (who also directed this season's amazing Three Tall Women) is very skilled at bringing the best out of his actors. One thing about Mantello is he doesn't try to shoehorn actors into a uniform acting style, This cast of nine had actors who preferred an extremely naturalistic style (Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchinson as Alan, Matt Bormer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Andrew Rannells as Larry) and those who preferred a studied, artificial performance art (Zachary Quinto as Harold, Jim Parsons as Michael, Robin de Jesus as Emory, Charlie Carver as Cowboy).

The birthday party before it turns south, photo @ Joan Marcus
Of the performances I enjoyed Robin de Jesus's Emory, Andrew Rannells' Larry, and Tuc Watkins' Hank the most. de Jesus is a pocket-sized ball of energy who also brings so much heart to a role that can seem like a collection of offensive stereotypes. His excruciating phone call to a childhood crush was the part of the play that touched me the most. I also appreciated Watkins' understated but believable Hank and Rannells' surprisingly low-key but charming Larry. And Brian Hutchinson stuttered admirably in the thankless role of Alan, the ambiguously heterosexual (???) roommate of Michael's. Michael Benjamin Washington also did the most with maybe the worst material out of the 9 characters. It's a weakness of the play that Bernard never comes across as more than the "token" person of color. Charlie Carver as Cowboy the Rentboy that was rented for Harold for his birthday delivered his one-liners with convincing vapidity. Matt Bomer sure was pretty as Donald but he disappeared into the background as the play progressed. He simply couldn't compete with the other actors in terms of stage presence.

A dance party, photo @ Joan Marcus
Unfortunately the weakest links of the cast are maybe the most central: Jim Parsons as Michael and Zachary Quinto as Harold. Parsons as the unemployed writer is great in the "sober" part of the play. He's funny, and his experience in sitcoms makes him great with the one-liners. However once Michael falls off the wagon and becomes a cruel drunk you realize that Parsons simply doesn't have enough depth as an actor to pull this sort of thing off. He delivers his lines well but he just doesn't exude the right level of self-loathing and malice. Zachary Quinto as the "32 year old, pock-marked Jew fairy" on the other hand is too one-note: his Harold starts off nasty, snide and condescending and stays there. There's no reason why anyone would want to spend 5 minutes in his company, much less throw a birthday party in his honor. It would have been better if he started off with a sort of dry wit and gradually put on more and more bitchy airs.

The play is flawed. There's an artificiality to the premise of the play that becomes more intrusive as the evening progresses. The birthday party where no one likes each other is too obviously a plot device. So is the telephone game. So even when the big emotional moments arrive the audience is always too aware of the gears turning. However Crowley like Fey has natural wit, and the humor and sharpness of the writing keep the audience's interest. (One line: "There's one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don't have to look your best.") And either way, this seminal gay play deserves to be seen in the theater, warts and all. Compare 1968 to 2018. You see how the LGBT community has more agency and acceptance in America, but how much of the play still rings true. There's still "great work" that needs to be done.


The ending is very ambiguous. Alan ends up calling his wife, instead of "Justin Stewart" whom Michael said Alan had an affair with in college. However Michael's devastation over Alan's phone call made me think: is Michael "Justin Stewart"? Was the whole point of the telephone game so Michael would get a call from Alan?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Hamilton: The Great American Musical

Michael Luwoye as Hamilton, photo @ Joan Marcus
June 8, 2018 is the day that I will always remember as the day I became a "rich person." Not because I make a lot of money, but I became one of those people who saw Hamilton on Broadway. And short of actual income bracket, I'll take this bump up of my social standing.

So ... how was it? Was it worth the three year wait? (Seriously, it took me 2 years just to get that Ticketmaster pre-sale code that allowed me to buy tickets). The long and the short of it is that Hamilton is a very, very entertaining, well-crafted musical. Lin Manuel Miranda mixes contemporary hip-hop with R&B, jazz, and classical musical theater styles and crafted a musical that is intelligent, funny, and thought-provoking.

Lawson and Gonzalez as the Schuyler sisters, photo @ Joan Marcus
Hamilton is not without its flaws. The most obvious one (and the one I can't believe people haven't mentioned more) is that it's a backloaded musical. The first act is clever, with that classic transition from an "I Am" opening (the now-iconic "Alexander Hamilton") to the "I Want" song ("My Shot"). But the first act got bogged down with the business of the Schuyler sisters, who despite several songs and a love triangle storyline ("The Schuyler Sisters", "Satisfied") never really interested me. Maybe that's because the Eliza and Angelica Schuyler were sung by Lexi Lawson and Mandy Gonzalez, who were in my opinion the weak links of the cast. Lawson in particular struggled with the high notes and also made Eliza rather dour. I thought the Peggy/Maria Reynolds (Joanna Jones) had a stronger voice than both Lawson and Gonzalez. But even if they were sung by more interesting actresses it is a weakness of the musical that it remains so male-dominated. The best song in Act One besides the opening song and "My Shot" belongs to Aaron Burr. "Wait For It" is an R&B-like ballad that is probably the song I came out of the musical humming. (By the way this is one of the things about Hamilton -- Burr gets the best music).

The second act was given a jolt of energy by the arrival of Thomas Jefferson (who is played by an actor who doubles as the Marquis de Lafayette in Act One) and then the musical moves inexorably towards Hamilton's demise. Act Two is so much stronger than Act One in every way -- dramatically, musically, structurally. For one, the debates between Jefferson and Hamilton on Washington's cabinet are the most thought-provoking parts of the musical. Their arguments still resonate today. The best songs are also in Act Two -- the insanely catchy "What'd I Miss" from Jefferson, Aaron Burr's big dance production number "The Room Where It Happens," "It's Quiet Uptown," the heartbreaking song after Hamilton's son Philip dies in a duel, and finally, "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" is an exquisitely quiet finale.

Daniel Breaker as Burr, photo @ Joan Marcus
I obviously never saw the OBC but have seen a widely circulated bootleg video that shows that they were all unicorns who deserve their legendary status. Replacement casts in huge hit shows often become careless, like, hey, we're making $3 mil a week, who cares about the cast? But besides the disappointment from Lexi Lawson and Mandy Gonzalez I felt like this replacement cast is mostly strong. The two main characters Hamilton and Burr are well-cast. Michael Luwoye's Hamilton was incredible -- he quickly got great word of mouth when he played Hamilton on tour. His voice unlike Lin Manuel Miranda's is a strong, resonant baritone. He plays Hamilton as aggressive, ambitious, neurotic -- Burr's advice to "talk less, smile more" is apt. Daniel Breaker (Burr) is very different from Leslie Odom Jr., the originator of the role. In the videos of the OBC and Odom gave Burr a kind of arrogant villainy. Breaker is much more earnest. His Burr doesn't have the charisma of Odom but he does make Burr sympathetic -- as he implores, he just wants to be in the "Room Where It Happens."

Iglheart as Jefferson, photo @ Joan Marcus
James Monroe Igleheart is an odd choice for Lafayette/Jefferson -- the characters are written as smarmy, flamboyant and over-the-top and Igleheart is a good comedian but he's more of a teddy bear and can't really pull off Jefferson's dancing in the Act Two opener. The video clips of the OBC's Daveed Diggs shows him singing Jefferson's opener and  dancing up a storm. Igleheart just doesn't have the same mobility. I enjoyed Anthony Lee Medina a lot as Philip, Hamilton's son. Euan Morton was very funny as he daffy, dandy King George III although I heard that the OBC's Brian D'Arcy James and Jonathan Groff were even funnier. Bryan Terrell Clark (Washington) and J Quinton Johnson (Madison) rounded out the Founding Fathers. They were both fine without being really memorable.

After it was all over I contemplated why this musical became such a smash hit. It's not perfect. Besides the issues I already mentioned the choreography by Andy Blankenbeuhler is often way too fussy and frantic, especially for the ensemble. Sometimes I wanted the characters to just sing without the interruption of 10 ensemble dancers weaving in and out of the turntable set. The score is great -- full of catchy earworms. But there's many musicals with great scores. And then I realized that all the characters of Hamilton are keenly intelligent. The rivalries between Burr and Hamilton, Hamilton and Jefferson, etc. arise not because one side is wrong and the other is right but because both sides are right. People like to see smart, likable characters onstage and that's what LMM gave us. He didn't dumb things down. The Compromise of 1790 gets more playtime than the typical love triangle stuff of musicals. Of course LMM slightly tips his hand in favor of Hamilton, as is shown in this lyric that is Hamilton's response to Jefferson:
“Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor, “We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting”
The other part of its appeal is that Hamilton is that it captures a very Obama-esque zeitgeist. The racially diverse cast, the value placed on thoughtful civic debates, leaders who despite personal and political flaws acted for the good of the country -- that's Obama-era thinking that disappeared on November 9, 2016. If Donald Trump saw Hamilton I can only imagine his tweet: "Three hours of a musical where no one Wins? And no mention of how immigrants are killing Americans and taking their jobs? Boring, overrated, Sad!" So in 2018 it's more important than ever that a musical like Hamilton remains a hot ticket. It's a reminder of the country the Founding Fathers knew we could be, rather than the country we currently are.

I mean watch Lin Manuel Miranda's acceptance speech at the Tony's. Gracious, intelligent, and uplifting. And he created a musical with as much class as himself. That is the appeal of Hamilton.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ratmansky's Harlequinade: Petipa in the House

Boylston and Whiteside, photo @ Alan Alejandro
Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Marius Petipa's Harlequinade had its premiere in the fourth week of ABT's spring season. For dance historians this was the event of the spring season. After all, although there have been occasional revivals of Harlequinade this is one Petipa ballet that is mostly relegated to excerpts at a gala. Perhaps the most complete version was Balanchine's adaptation that he set on NYCB in 1965. There is a grainy video of the complete Balanchine here. So as the lights went down I wondered, so what does Petipa's version look like?

Act One scene design, photo @ Rosalie O'Connor
The short answer is: hard. Cruel. Commedia dell'arte where humor is conveyed by slapstick (literally -- Harlequin's magical weapon is a hard stick), and a man being thrown down a balcony, "dying," and his body parts thrown around the stage is supposed to be funny. Harlequin wins his bride by beating up all his opponents and then finally paying off his bride's intractable father. It's no wonder this ballet didn't really take after Petipa was gone -- there's no Lilac Fairy beckoning forgiveness, no divertissements like Dawn and Prayer as there are in Coppélia that hint at a brighter future.  There is a Good Fairy but she only gives Harlequin power in the form of a stick and money. In the world of commedia dell'arte, might (and $$$) makes right. There is something quite fascinating about seeing this Harlequinade compared to Balanchine's version. You can see where Mr. B made the story more palatable to modern audiences, and to see the actual thing is eye-opening.

Pavlova and Fokine. Look at that hat of hers.
For one, in Petipa's version the story is about class. Colombine and Pierrette's high status is conveyed not just by the balcony they stand atop but by their costumes -- they are both wearing big fancy fascinator hats in Act One, the ones that were on display during Harry and Meghan's wedding. And Petipa's choreography makes it clear that Colombine and Pierrette are soul sisters in every way. You know the famous "Harlequinade pas de deux"? Turns out it's actually a pas de quatre for Harlequin, Colombine, Pierrette, and one of Harlequin's friends (uncredited, but it was Alexandre Hammoudi who danced the part). The two couples' movements mirror each other.

Colombine and Pierrette's solo variations all involve long sequences (often complete stage diagonals) of hops on pointe. This shows their bossiness, their take-charge personalities, their toughness. One solo for Colombine has her do a complete backwards diagonal with hops on pointe in different directions -- first with her free leg facing the left, then hops in arabesque, etc. Those hops on pointe after awhile was giving me anxiety blisters by proxy. The fact that they do it all night means they are women not to be trifled with. The choreography also reveals how technically strong the dancers in the Imperial era were.

I also admired the way Petipa structured his ballet. The first act has as much mime as dancing -- the Good Fairy is a pure mime role, and Harlequin's mandolin solo also starts off with a long mime sequence. The second act after the resolution of the conflict (spoiler alert: Harlequin's magical slapstick also can create money out of thin air) is all formal academic classical ballet. It starts with throngs of adorable children dressed up as mini-Harlequin/Colombine/Pierrette/Pierrot sort of making a pure-dance cliff notes of the first act drama. The JKO students were neat, clean, crisp, with tight fifth positions, except for an unfortunate spill the second night. Bodes well for the future of ABT.

The larks in the Wedding pas d'action, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Up until the wedding pas d'action the Balanchine version and Petipa had few actual differences. Yes in Petipa the first act pas de deux is a pas de quatre and the Good Fairy is a pure mime role, but everything else is obviously based on the same choreographic DNA. The act one finale even had the same balcony lowering magically and the children's dances were also very similar-looking, down to the concentric circle patterns that Balanchine would put into his ballets repeatedly.

The biggest revelation choreographically is the wedding grand pas de deux. Here the choreography turns into stuff I've never seen before. It features a corps de ballet made up of feathery "larks" and the major theme (maybe the most beautiful of the night) has Harlequin repeatedly carrying Colombine in a "flying" lark lift over a bird's nest formation from the corps. It is stunning in its abstract beauty. Harlequin's solo for this pas de deux should be very familiar for those who know the Balanchine's version -- basically lots of petit batterie and beats followed by sudden fast turns a la seconde that of course acted as a big applause machine. It's basically identical to the solo that is at 6:56 in the video below. (I should add that Harlequin's solo variations in the ballet are so similar between Petipa and Balanchine as to be almost identical.) Colombine's variation is beautiful -- gentle backwards hops on pointe accompanied by exquisite bird fluttering arm and hand gestures. It's very different from the famous Serenade Balanchine made for Patricia McBride which ends with her blowing a kiss to the audience (see below). Petipa's version is less audience facing, more abstract. The final very formal ballroom quadrille was jarring -- it seemed less commedia dell'arte than Imperial Russia.

As to the actual production, Alexei Ratmansky has become (in)famous for how much rehearsal time and commitment he demands for his projects. But whatever he does, he gets results, because the ABT corps that can look so sloppy in Giselle and La Bayadere truly dance as one in his productions. Their arms are in the same positions. They are musically in sync. Their legs are raised to the same height. In other words, they actually dance like a world class ballet company. Ratmansky has eased his insistence about dancing in the style of the Imperial Ballet -- this time, passé/relevé are allowed to go high, all the way up the calf. Arabesques can sneak a few degrees above 90. Pirouettes no longer have to be done with the leg so close to the ankle. These allowances for modern technique and aesthetics don't take away from his achievement -- the cohesion he's able to get out of the company is something to be treasured.

Boylston and Whiteside, photo @ Andrea Mohin
He's also known as an exacting taskmaster for his principal dancers, and once again, it gets results. The first cast had Isabella Boylston (Colombine), James Whiteside (Harlequin), Gillian Murphy (Pierrette), Thomas Forster (Pierrot) as the leads. Boylston can often look a bit sloppy. Not tonight. She managed all those circular hops on pointe while maintaining the elegance in her upper body. James Whiteside not only executed all the petit batterie with aplomb but he got all the sad, mournful gestures of the Harlequin jester.

 Gillian Murphy was also more dramatically engaged than I've seen in a long time -- her shrewish Pierrette provided many of the evening's laughs and wow at her hops on pointe. Forster was an appropriately pathetic Pierrot, although his role is maybe 95% mime.

Forster and Murphy at curtain calls
The minor characters were obviously coached to the bone by Ratmansky -- Roman Zhurbin as Colombine's father, Duncan Lyle as Leandre, Colombine's rich suitor, and the Good Fairy (played by Tatiana Ratmansky, Alexei's wife). Their mime, their characterization, their storytelling was 100% on point.

Cirio, Lane, Ratmansky, Abrera, Hallberg, from Sarah's IG
The second night cast was unfortunately a bit weaker. Jeffrey Cirio (Harlequin) and Sarah Lane (Colombine) are strong technicians with that kind of tiny build that you would think would make them look so right in these demi-character roles. However Cirio is a cipher onstage and commedia dell'arte is all about the over-the-top mime and gestures. His partnering was also a bit labored -- those bird lifts are supposed to look effortless, like flying, not like Harlequin struggling to carry the partner across the nest formation. Other than a spill in the second act Lane had some lovely moments but I don't think she's a natural comedienne either. The comedy was supplied by Pierrette (Stella Abrera) and Pierrot (David Hallberg). Hallberg in this mime role was hilarious -- when not asked to do 24 entrechats one forgets what a comedian he can be. Hallberg made for a sadder Pierrot -- those hangdog expressions touched the heart. Abrera didn't have the absolute security of Murphy but she did make Pierrette a slightly gentler character.

From Hallberg's Instagram
The amount of care lavished on this production was evident in both the beautiful costumes and designs by Robert Perdziola and even how well the ABT orchestra played Drigo's charming score -- Ratmansky's solution to the eternal "ABT doesn't dance as a coherent company" problem seems to be preparation, preparation, preparation. The program book acknowledged the help of Edward Villella -- Villella was Mr. B's original Harlequin. This makes sense -- Villella learned the ballet directly from Balanchine, who was famous for his incredible memory. During the second performance Villella was sitting right in front of me and I asked him what he coached and he said the mime and characterization for the lead couples. The applause at the end was extremely enthusiastic during opening night when Ratmansky and his team appeared for curtain calls.

Is Harlequinade on the level of Sleeping Beauty or La Bayadere? No, but it doesn't make the reconstruction any less valuable. Since Petipa's death there's been a heavy emphasis on reviving his huge, grand spectacles. It's instructive to see Petipa's smaller, more intimate efforts (the ballet is very short -- about an hour and a half of dancing). A century from now it would be a shame if all that was left of Balanchine was, say, his leotard ballets, and it was totally forgotten that in 1965 he had created his own "reconstruction" of Petipa's Harlequinade.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

SAB Workshop Ushers in New Stars while NYCB Ends Season

View from the 4th Ring for Concerto Barocco
Sunday June 3 was a bittersweet event for NYCB fans as three senior members of the company gave Long-time soloist Savannah Lowery and senior corps members Cameron Dieck and Likolani Brown all retired today. It's a happy occasion: all three dancers are headed towards
second careers but for dance audiences when senior members of the company leave it's always a loss.
Lowery as a farewell present was given two assignments -- the second violin to Ashley Laracey's first violin in Concerto Barocco, and the Agon pas de trois. I will miss Brown, who often led the Flowers in Nutcracker. You could always pick her out of a crowd with her dark hair and sweet face. I will also miss Dieck, who was one of my favorite Bottoms. Dieck's final turn onstage was as Theme 3 in Four Temperaments. He was dancing with his off-stage girlfriend Unity Phelan and the orchestra actually slowed down the tempo considerably, probably to allow Dieck to savor his last moments as a dancer. The crowd cheered loudly for Lowery during curtain calls. I wish she had been allowed a solo bow but oh well.

Farley and Laracey, photo @ Erin Baiano
The performance also ushered in the new. Ashley Laracey made her debut as the first violin and Silas Farley as the lone male in Concerto Barocco and they both gave the kind of clean, unmannered performance that NYCB diehard purists love. Agon also had some fresh faces -- I know Miriam Miller has danced the central pas de deux but so infrequently that today was my first time seeing her and she was impressive. Her core has become so much stronger and she could hold those sculptural poses. She always had a beautiful face and figure. Now she has the strength as well to become a Balanchine dancer. Tyler Angle was a solid partner but the central pas de deux needs a male with more charisma. I also really enjoyed Sebastian Villarini-Velez's debut as Melancholic in The Four Temperaments.

Western Symphony Cast in SAB Workshop
Thankfully as we say goodbye to the old the annual SAB workshop was a way to anticipate tomorrow's stars. These workshops are so much fun -- to hear the screaming parents, to see the throng of ballet stars past and present, to discuss who has real potential ...

Last night's workshop had a couple dancer standouts. The entire Western Symphony cast was filled with tall, leggy female stunners and short male dynamos. The smaller auditorium allowed audiences to see little nuances in the choreography that get lost in the larger D*v*d K*ch Theatre. For instance I've been watching this ballet over many years and never noticed the comical waving between the male and female in the adagio. Mary Kate Edwards in the Allegro impressed with her cool, regal presence -- already she reminded me of Tess Reichlen. Maybe the most charming pairing was the Adagio's Mia Domini with the pocket-sized Victor Rosario. In the Rondo Cainan Weber wowed the crowd with his huge cowboy leaps while Juliane Kinawsiewitz was that high-kicking high energy girl that Western Symphony needs but often doesn't get.

In Creases cast with Craig Hall
Justin Peck's In Creases was an awkward fit for the SAB students. This ballet set to Phillip Glass music needs dancers who are much more used to the ultra-modern style of choreography. The students tried but they kept reverting back to fifth position and they couldn't quite keep up with the propulsive Glass score. With that being said it was interesting to see one of Peck's earliest creations already have many of his later trademarks -- the dancers lying on the floor and then moving one by one, the seamless mix of male-female, female-female, male-male and whole group partnering. And one immediately noticed the tall, self-possessed Naomi Corti in the group of 8 dancers.

Anderson, Weber, Hong
In Balanchine's very pink charmer La Source was staged by SAB's most senior teacher Suki Schorer. As is always the case with any ballet staged by Suki Schorer the skill with which the dancers execute Balanchine's petit batterie and the on-the-note musicality stood out over any individual dancer's accomplishments. I loved the soloist girl Isabelle Anderson -- besides the beauty of her legs and feet there was the smoothness of her execution. The lead couple Amarra Hong and Cainan Weber had good moments (Weber is an awesome jumper and Hong a strong technician) but there were a few partnering blips (I could see one lift crash as soon as the dancers hit the wings). Still, lovely performance.

Bouder and Gordon and the rest of the Coppelia cast
The SAB Workshop made a fitting bookend to another Event -- on Friday June 1 there was a Coppélia cast where EVERYONE was brand new, including the Dr. Coppelius (Giovanni Villalobos). Villalobos doesn't have Robert La Fosse's experience in this role (how could he?) but he was funny, pitiful, sad -- everything needed to give this ballet a beating heart.

Senior ballerina Ashley Bouder was making her debut as Swanilda after 18 (!!!) years in the company. On the surface she doesn't seem like a natural Swanilda -- she's always been a technical wonder but often short on charm. And indeed she was a very different Swanilda than the sweet, cute Sterling Hyltin from last week -- Bouder's Swanilda had sharper edges, fiercer attack, and a broader interpretation. And yet the portrayal worked. Bouder did some of the most appealing dancing I've seen from her in ... a long time. What was it? Patricia McBride's coaching? Her explosive pas de chats are always astonishing, as are her long-held balances. But for once Bouder didn't let her technique overpower her characterization. Her doll imitation in Act 2 was very funny and delightfully mean -- at one point the audience gasped as she "accidentally" slapped poor Dr. Coppelius in one of her doll arm movements.

Bouder and Gordon
Joseph Gordon also made his debut as the callow, foolish Franz. I already loved Gordon's clean lines and soft landings on jumps. But with this role Gordon proved he could also carry a ballet dramatically. He was funny and charming, his miming crystal clear. His partnering of Bouder in the Act 3 wedding pas de deux was solid. His variation with those double tours that land in second position and take off from a plié in second position were squeaky clean. During curtain calls the two dancers beamed at each other, aware that their triumph was total.

Adams, Boisson, Sell, Jones
The variations in Act 3 were all very strong (and all debuts)!. Mary Elizabeth Sell was a much more lyrical Dawn than Megan LeCrone from last week, Sara Adams technically secure as Spinner, and Unity Phelan a strong Valkyrie in War and Discord. Spartak Hoxha's partnering in War and Discord needed major work. But the standout was Olivia Boisson as Prayer. Beautiful adagio technique, long lines, stopped the show. As Mr. B would say, "she's ready." Baily Jones led the 24 SAB girls that Balanchine uses as a full-blown corps de ballet in Act 3. He has them do as much as Petipa might have had 24 corps girls do -- different formations, meticulous changes in port de bras, those 24 little tutu'ed girls had to do it all. What a great revival this has been.

So that's a wrap for NYCB's 2017-18 season that weathered the huge crisis of Peter Martins' sudden dismissal, the leave of Amar Ramasar, Justin Peck and Brittany Pollack to go do Broadway, the usual share of injuries (most distressing: Adrian Danchig-Waring), and the pressure of reviving all those ballets for the Robbins Festival.

And now, in no particular order, some random highs from the season:

Best Farewell: Robert Fairchild's last dance in Duo Concertant with his frequent partner Sterling Hyltin. Heart-melting. Sublime. Unforgettable.

Most Revelatory Interpretation: Adrian Danchig-Waring's raw, powerful, very un-pretty Apollo. Over the years this ballet has lost its demi-character roots as Peter Martins' stamp became more and more engrained into the ballet's DNA. Danchig-Waring brought it back.

Best Robbins' Revival: In G Major. I don;t know why this isn't revived more often but it's an absolutely beautiful ballet that brought out the best in Maria Kowroski, who can struggle in Balanchine ballets.

Best Rising Stars: The phenomenal Roman Mejia and the appealing energetic Harrison Coll, both of whom are still in the corps but dancing more and more soloist roles.

Best Improvement from the Martins Era: NYCB alumni being invited back to coach. Mikhail Baryshnikov came back to coach Suite of Dances and Other Dances. Patricia McBride came back to coach Baiser de la Fee and Coppélia. Jacque d'Amboise coached Apollo. Who's next?