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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.

SPOILERS BELOW

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?

Monday, May 28, 2018

Balanchine's Coppelia and Makarova's Bayadere: "After" Petipa

Generations of Swanilda: Danilova, McBride, Hyltin
After a very successful three week tribute to Jerome Robbins NYCB this week returned to one of Balanchine's most charming creations: his version of Coppelia, which he and Alexandra Danilova reconstructed from their memories of the Imperial Ballet. This is Balanchine at his most "after Petipa" -- there is none of the abstract minimalism that was his calling card. His Coppelia is a full-blown three act story ballet with carefully articulated mime,  several folk/character dance numbers including a mazurka and czardas, and an unabashedly old-fashioned quality. The sets and costumes by Rouben Ter-Artunian are a shock of pastels that match Leo Delibes' lilting, gentle score. It is literally a world viewed through rose-colored glasses. Balanchine might have re-choreographed some of the steps (mostly in the third act -- the first two are very standard Coppélia choreography) but he clearly loved this ballet and that love is as important if not more so than following, say, Stepanov notations. Balanchine's Coppélia still delights audiences that sometimes sniff at anything that isn't a leotard ballet.

For this revival Mr. B's first Swanilda Patricia McBride was brought in to coach the current NYCB dancers. And what a wonderful move by the interim team because I saw a Sunday matinee performance where the mime and acting were more vivid than I've ever seen it in this ballet. Whatever words of wisdom McBride imparted worked.  The cast:

Cast during curtain calls
COPPÉLIA: SWANILDA: Hyltin; FRANTZ: Veyette; DR. COPPÉLIUS: La Fosse+; WALTZ: Villwock; DAWN: LeCrone; PRAYER: Wellington; SPINNER: Mann; WAR and DISCORD: Hod, Grant

I've never seen Hyltin's Swanilda before even though she made her debut in 2009 (???). I have seen Coppélia a number of times and there are basically two types of Swanildas: the cute, girlish Swanildas and the fierce, spunky Swanildas. Examples of fierce and spunky that I've seen: Tiler Peck Natalia Osipova and Gillian Murphy. Examples of cute and girlish: Xiomara Reyes and Megan Fairchild. Hyltin definitely fell in the cute, girlish category. Her sweet, innocent nature was established from the delicate way she wafted her arms in the opening waltz. When her fiancé Franz (a very funny if technically subdued Andrew Veyette) was mooning after Dr. Coppélius's doll Hyltin didn't go all mean girl. She just pouted and sulked. The dance with the ear of wheat looked delightfully naive.



Nellie Olsen: blond terror
Hyltin's Swanilda didn't really shine until the second act. All of sudden the nice, wholesome girl-next-door was a surreal, terrifying doll. Her hair was done in blond ringlets that made her look like a combination of Shirley Temple and Nellie Olsen. She was hilarious: she had a great sense of comic timing and nailed the doll imitation. Her flexible back allowed her to drop her torso for big, exaggerated "doll flops." Her great jumps helped: she flew around the stage in the Spanish dance.

I thought after the second act that her third act would be anti-climactic but it was not so. Her third act wedding pas and variations got stronger and stronger with each variation and she completed those menages of pique turns and series of grande battements/pirouettes en dedans with so much speed and security that she received huge cheers from a hitherto somewhat sleepy matinee audience. Although I'm bummed I had to miss Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz's performances this weekend Hyltin was a treasurable Swanilda.

Andrew Veyette is coming back from extensive injuries. His landings in the Act One variation were a bit heavy, and the difficult wedding variation with the double tours that land in second position and then takeoff from a second position plié looked effortful. But he's one of the company's best actors and comedians. He's always been very funny in The Concert and his Franz was delightfully flaky. Both he and Hyltin share a scrupulousness about articulating the mime -- it's not just about waving your hands around, but actually telling a story. Veyette's partnering is superb, and he has an uncanny ability to calm shaking hands in promenades. I don't know how he does it but a promenade can start with a mini-earthquake and end with picture-perfect security. The way he was able to turn Hyltin almost completely upside-down at the end of their pas de deux was a wow moment.

Whole cast curtain call
Robert La Fosse is a treasure. His Dr. Coppelius is well-acted and well-mimed, in a company not known for miming and acting. The wedding divertissements were mixed -- Megan LeCrone was an odd choice to lead the Dawn variation as she's not naturally a lyrical dancer. Lydia Wellington was lovely as Prayer and Meagan Mann beautiful if a bit tentative as Spinner. Ashley Hod and Christopher Grant made War and Discord look both campy and fun. As this video points out Balanchine was one of the few choreographers to retain the War and Discord number. The SAB students were adorable and their corps formations were neater than Swanilda's friends in Act One. The rousing finale ended with one of Balanchine's favorite tricks: the whole stage is dancing up a storm and the Swanilda leaps into Franz's arms with a fish-dive. The SAB students in that moment are rushing downstage in a diagonal with all the speed of, say, Lebron James rushing into the paint. The performance was a real "everything is beautiful at the ballet" experience.

There are three more performances of Coppélia in the season. Don't miss it.

Lane and Cornejo, Brandt, Gorak
Meanwhile across the plaza ABT kicked off its third week with La Bayadere. Thirty eight years ago Natalia Makarova set a streamlined version of her beloved ballet with the more limited resources of ABT in mind. Like Balanchine's Coppélia this was "after Petipa" and adapted to the strengths of one particular company. I've seen her production countless times, and  I have also seen La Bayadere in different productions including a wonderful performance by the Mariinsky last fall. And I will say this: the roles of Solor, Gamzatti, the Golden Idol, etc. have all been danced successfully by dancers of different backgrounds and training. But the title role of Nikya remains extremely wedded to Russian-trained dancers. Over the years the great Nikyas I've seen: Viktoria Tereshkina, Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Uliana Lopatkina, Veronika Part, Alina Cojocaru. What did these ladies have in common? All Russian-trained.

Nikya is not a bravura role. It's a role that's more about setting an aroma, if you will. And Russian-trained ballerinas with their flexible backs, liquidy arms, and a certain tendency to wallow in onstage suffering simply fit this role like a glove. With that being said, the current crop of ABT dancers are all very Not Russian, and they all put over a lovely performance of La Bayadere tonight.

The "flame" pose by Ekaterina Kondaorova
Top honors must go to tiny, fierce Sarah Lane who made her debut as Nikya. No she doesn't quite have the Russian upper body but she does have the lyricism, the conviction, and the adagio technique to do this role justice. And while her spine may not be a pretzel she does have a pliant torso. From her very first entrance when she raised her hands to make the "flame" shape (see: picture on left) you knew that she was taking her role as the temple dancer seriously. Her mime was clear: when Solor left the betrothal party with Gamzatti she threw the antidote down as if it were a piece of garbage and expired.

There's room for improvement. With experience I expect the pirouettes to arabesque in the Scarf Duet to be smoother -- tonight they were there but too obviously choreographed with those little breaks that make the gear shifting more obvious than is ideal. Then again I once saw Viktoria Tereshkina of all people come to grief in that treacherous pas. Lane's developpés in the Shades scene occasionally were rocky, and she seemed to lean on Cornejo's body to steady her.. For a debut, Lane had a triumph. And as I said, her greatest quality is not so much her technique but her sincerity. There's no artifice in her dancing.

Skylar Brandt as the spoiled, spiteful Gamzatti showed off her more straightforward, American technique. Brandt was also making a debut and she danced the steps well (including the Italian fouettes to regular fouettes that end the Betrothal pas de deux) but she could project more personality. The catfight between her and Nikya was not as exciting as it can be. And the partnering in the Grand Betrothal pas de deux between her and Cornejo had a few bumpy moments. But still, amazing technique, great future ahead of her.

Lane and Cornejo share a tender moment at curtain calls
Herman Cornejo is an old hat at this role. It's interesting to see as the years pass and the injuries pile up what he's kept and what's gone. Totally gone: his flexibility. Leg barely makes 90 degrees in arabesque, grand jetes look like a very narrow upside down V. Still there: his incredible elevation and his open, expansive cabrioles and double assemblés, as well as the ardency of his characterization. He drives the crowd into a frenzy: He's still he's an ABT treasure: a throwback to the days when the company had the most exciting male roster of all the major ballet companies. Corella, Carreno, Cornejo, Hallberg, Gomes ... Ah, good memories.

ABT Shades, photo @MIRA
The Shades were about par for ABT corps: they'll never have the security and uniformity of the Mariinsky but a few wobbly legs aside they acquitted themselves well in the repeated arabesques down the ramp. They did less well with the exposed steps in unison after the entrance of the Shades. It's just not ABT's strong suit. The three Shade variations had a veteran corps member (Zhong-Jing Fang) who knocked her variation out of the park, and an experienced corps girl (April Giangeruso) who was also very polished and a newbie (Catherine Hurlin, who was little Clara starred in the inaugural cast of Ratmansky's Nutcracker) showing spunk and promise but lacking some refinement. Joseph Gorak seems stuck in soloist purgatory but he danced the Golden Idol variation very well. Roman Zhurbin continues to be the company's best character dancer. His High Brahmin was everything you could have hoped for.

Will Makarova's Bayadere be replaced soon by a Ratmansky reconstruction? Perhaps, and her version does streamline the ballet in intrusive ways: the Grand Betrothal Scene for example is robbed of any sense of pomp and circumstance. I particularly miss the Manu jug dance. But Makarova's reconstructed final act does give the storyline a closure that is absent in other versions of the ballet. The famous dance critic Arlene Croce once referred to Makarova's revival as "a keeper of the flame." Tonight Sarah Lane kept that flame alive.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Robbins Festival Ends, SuperGiselle at ABT, and a Hiatus

Osipova and Hallberg in very enthusiastic curtain calls, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On May 18, 2018 every single seat at the Met was sold out for ABT's eagerly anticipated SuperGiselle. The leads: Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg, whose partnership had caused such a sensation in roles like, well, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. But time and injuries had split the partnership. In this interview both dancers articulated why reuniting onstage was so important for them. In the audience was one of the greatest all-time Giselles, Diana Vishneva, who looked remarkably trim for someone who just had a baby 5 days ago.

So did SuperGiselle live up to the hype? Well yes and no. Considering how thin ABT's roster currently is it was probably the best Giselle of the entire run and the audiences loved it. About 15 minutes of curtain calls with the audience singing "happy birthday" to both of them (they share a May 18 birthday). But compared to their previous performances it was below par.

Osipova/Hallberg Giselle in London, photo @ Bill Cooper
David Hallberg's problem was understandable -- he was out with injuries for three years, and recently re-injured himself dancing Giselle with Natalia Osipova in London. He danced Albrecht rather gingerly. The steps were mostly there but that kind soaring, effortless elevation and the nobility that came from the majestic grandness of his dancing is not there anymore. He still does the entrechats in Act 2 but whereas before you felt as if there were invisible springs in his legs that led him to fly at Myrtha's command this time you felt as if he was just getting through the series of entrechats. As a result his performance was a bit mannered -- without the expansiveness of his dancing you just noticed his tricks like the way he billows his cape as he runs offstage in Act One.

Osipova's jump still a miracle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Natalia Osipova's problem is harder to pinpoint. She dances the role extremely well -- in the Spessivtseva variation she traveled across the stage effortlessly, her initiation as a Wili still has that frenzied speed, and the exposed adagio dancing of the Act 2 pas de deux held no terrors for her. But her approach to the role has changed during her time with the Royal Ballet and it shows. She's now somewhat muted. Her mad scene was a rather sedate affair. This would work with a naturally more reserved dancer but with her part of her appeal was a certain wildness and abandon and watching her carefully trace out the steps around the stage in the Mad Scene with very little expression took me out of the moment.

Osipova and Hallberg in Act 2, photo @ Andrea Mohin
In Act 2 as I said, dancing-wise she was fine, but she was never the most lyrical dancer and is even less so now. There's less holding of the famous lithographic poses, less of the beautiful backbends that are part of the Russian training, less effort to maintain a Romantic epaulement in her upper body. Don't get me wrong -- there were times when I was still gobsmacked by her dancing. Like in the entrechat series she with one plié push-off got what looked to be a good foot off the ground and stayed there as she completed those backwards traveling entrechats. But she has streamlined her approach to the point where there is almost nothing left but pure dance, and Giselle is not a Balanchine abstract ballet. Sometimes less in more but in this case less is less.

The supporting cast reinforces the idea that ABT right now is not a world-class company. Christine Shevchenko grimly forced her way through Myrtha's steps without any freedom in her tense body. The Wilis traveling arabesques had quite a few girls whose legs dropped well before crossing the stage. Sklyar Brandt and Joseph Gorak were lovely in the peasant pas, with Skylar Brandt holding long balances and Gorak executing clean double tours in the air. But they've been dancing the peasant pas for ages. Can't the company give them something new?

The Master at Work, photo @ Martha Swope
Over at NYCB, for the past three weeks night after night houses have been heavily sold and celebrities (Mandy Patinkin, Tommy Tune, and countless ballet luminaries from the past like Mikhail Baryshikov, Patricia McBride, Wendy Whelan, etc.) have been spotted at many performances. The Jerome Robbins Centennial Celebration was certainly a box office success. I didn't get to every all-Robbins performance but I did see three programs (Interplay/The Cage/Other Dances/Fanfare, In G Major/Afternoon of a Faun/Antique Epigraphs/The Concert, and Opus 19/The Dreamer/Dances at a Gathering/Glass Pieces) and this concentration of Robbins works was illuminating.

First of all, it confirmed why his biggest classics are staples of the repertoire -- they make their effects every single time. Dances at a Gathering never fails to draw the audience in with its mystical spell, The Concert will always be fresh and funny, The Cage shocking and brutal. Some standout performances: Savannah Lowery in her last season with NYCB as the Queen in The Cage, Tiler Peck as Pink Girl, Lauren Lovette as Yellow Girl, and Joseph Gordon as Brick Boy in Dances at a Gathering, Andrew Veyette using his comic chops in The Concert. Some not-so-inspired moments: the shaky partnering between Chase Finlay and Sara Mearns in DAAG -- in the shoulder sit exit Finlay looked like he could topple over.

Peck, de Luz, and Baryshnikov
On the other hand some of the ballets I saw don't stay a part of the regular rotation and you could understand why. Other Dances was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. There is a video that can be easily found on YT of the incredible creators of this work. Baryshikov was invited to coach Joaquin de Luz and Tiler Peck in the role. Both Peck and de Luz posted enthusiastically about being coached by this living legend on their Instagram accounts and the night Other Dances was performed Baryshikov was in the audience, talking to Suki Schorer. I wish I could say the coaching produced amazing results but alas ... de Luz and Peck are great dancers. They danced the steps beautifully. They just missed almost all the folk dance accents and without those accents there's no Other Dances.

Antique Epigraphs, photo @ Rachel Papo
Afternoon of a Faun is also a ballet that requires a very specific kind of performer to pull off successfully. Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay were good, but neither of them have the kind of trance-like self-absorption that is built into this ballet's DNA. Antique Epigraphs is one of those ballets that's interesting to watch once in awhile but fades from memory quickly. The languorous music by Debussy has its charm but Robbins' meticulous use of Grecian statue poses in the choreography makes the piece rather static. The performers (Savannah Lowery, Emilie Gerrity, Ashley Laracey, Unity Phelan) were a fine quartet. But if I never saw this ballet again I wouldn't miss it. And Interplay just isn't my thing. Nothing wrong with the dancers, I just can't get into the ballet.

Kowroski and Janzen, photo @ Paul Kolnik
More interesting was seeing the pieces that are on the edges of the repertoire. For instance, In the Night is one of those Robbins ballets that is more popular in other companies than it is in its home company. The first time I ever saw this ballet was with the Mariinsky. Why doesn't NYCB do this more often? Beats me. They brought out facets to the ballet that I never noticed when the Mariinsky did it -- for instance as the tempestuous third couple Sara Mearns and Jared Angle might not have been as elegant as Uliana Lopatkina and Andrey Ermakov but they were certainly funnier. Maria Kowroski was totally in her element as the stately, courtly couple and Janzen was a wonderful partner. Emilie Gerriy and Chase Finlay were gorgeous as the "young" couple. It's a lovely ballet that deserves more stage-time in its home company.

Another charmer: Fanfare, a fun, unstuffy ballet that was made for the stuffiest of occasions: Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.. It requires a huge cast to "play" the different sections of the orchestra. There's the Majordomo Aaron Baker calling out the Woodwinds, Strings, Brass and Percussion. The cast I saw was a bit ragged and looked under-rehearsed but it was one of the funniest, most joyful ballets I've ever seen and Joseph Gordon, Troy Schumacher and Sean Suozzi totally stole the show as the "Percussion."

  

Suzanne and Peter In G Major, photo @ Fred Fehl
Then there's In G Major, which features maybe the loveliest pas de deux Robbins ever composed. The whole ballet has a French Riviera beach atmosphere and in the central pas de deux the woman and man step closer to each other and then back away, like the ebb and flow of ocean waves. But as the duet progresses the woman's limbs start to resemble sunrays. The duet ends with a lift in which the woman is lifted overhead, and holds an arabesque penchée position as she's carried offstage, in Robbins' version of the "sunburst" pose. Maria Kowroski was stunning in this ballet. Earlier this season I saw her struggle with a single pirouette in Concerto Barocco. Robbins allows her to show off her best qualities -- her lyrical presence, her sweetness, those to-die-for legs and feet. Tyler Angle partnered her absolutely beautifully.

Another "wow why isn't this played more often" ballet was Opus 19/The Dreamer. Prokofiev's violin concerto sounds like difficult music to choreograph but Robbins creates a surreal atmosphere where a single man (Taylor Stanley, making an excellent debut) tries to follow an elusive muse (the ever-lovely Sterling Hyltin, whose fast skimming bourrées and natural warmth made her seem like the woman of every man's dreams). In fact, I mused aloud that I would love to see Hyltin dance Giselle. There's some highly stylized arm and hand gestures in Opus 19 that recall Balanchine's pas in Symphony in Three Movements. As I said, deserves more airtime.

de Luz and Peck, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Having all these Robbins ballets played, back to back, program after program, reconfirmed his genius. His "Chopin series" (The Concert/In the Night/Other Dances/Dances at a Gathering) might have spawned a priceless spoof from the Trocks (Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet) but just as Balanchine could create so many diverse pieces from Stravinsky the same could be said for Robbins and Chopin. The Concert is as far away from Dances at a Gathering as, say, Apollo is from Symphony in Three Movements. Robbins also knew how to do "cute" better than any choreographer past or present. Today Alexei Ratmansky has some of Robbins' cheeky humor but he doesn't have Robbins' impeccable timing and versatility ... yet. And NYCB did the famously difficult and demanding Robbins proud. Not every performance was perfect but their love and respect for his ballets shone through the festival.

Topham and Hollander, photo @ Sara Krulwich
ETA: On Sunday afternoon I went to see the Roundabout's revival of Tom Stoppard's Travesties. The premise of the play is that Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) during WW1 has a series of discussions about art with James Joyce, Tristan Tzara (the founder of Da-Daism), and Vladimir Lenin. It was a puzzling play -- no plot, no character development, just a Socratic seminar on the meaning of art, viewed through a comic, absurdist lens. I think I must have missed half the puns/jokes but the ones I did get were hilarious. I don't want to give away too much about the play because it really has to be experienced live. The production is excellent -- for such a talk-heavy play, interest and energy rarely lags. Director Patrick Marber adds some song-and-dance numbers to liven up what could have been an extremely talky 2.5 hours. The acting is anchored by Tom Hollander but my personal favorites were Seth Numrich doing a hilariously over-the-top version of Tristan Tzara, and Sara Topham as Cecily the librarian who gradually becomes a strong voice in her own right. Go see this before it closes. You might not get all of it or even most of it, but you will not be bored.

Now, for something a little different. I will be taking a hiatus from blogging. Hopefully not permanent but probably so. Don't really want to get into the reasons. But overall I think it will be a good thing. I admit that I've been getting a swelled head as I've occasionally been recognized at performances and my readership has gone up. But at the end of the day I'm just a fan. This blog started out as something fun and therapeutic but over time I've realized how unqualified I am. I have no background training in music or dance or acting.  This is all based on love of the art form, but there are professional critics way more qualified to give an opinion. I take a look at most blogs and there's an element of conceit in most of them, and conceit is never a good look. I do not want to become just another conceited unqualified blogger. So as Bugs Bunny would say, "That's all, folks!"