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!"

Comments

  1. Sorry that you won't be blogging anymore as I think you are better than more of the critics past and present. As d for some of those Robbins that have disappeared, when I first attended City Ballet as a youngster, in the night, G- Major, fanfare, dreamer Optus 19, and afternoon of the Faun were constant staples. There was also another piece of Ribbons that I missed, piano pieces. That was Dance at Gathering a la Tchaikovsky. I thought was a better ballet and much less pretentious then Dance at Gathering. It might be pulled off the repertoire because Maria Calegari was no longer there to dance it. As for Dance at Gathering and Goldberg Variation, I always thought they were overlong and boring.

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    1. One Robbins ballet I wish they'd revive is Mother Goose. It was apparently a big hit at the Ravel festival.

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    2. I saw Mother Goose quite often in the 80's. Along with Fanfare, interplay, it was one of those ballets that features promising soloists and young members of the company. From reading your review, I was amazing how many Robbins' ballets are no longer the staple repertoire. It would be unthinkable back in the 80's, not to see afternoon of the fain or in the night season after season.

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  2. I will miss your reviews and your enthusiasm. Thanks and fare forward!

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  3. I am sorry you won't be blogging anymore, Ivy, but I also admire your courage to stop for the reasons you mention. I have read and really enjoyed many of your 'scribblings'. I will continue to enjoy your Ballet Talk posts. Thank you for all your fun, interesting, knowledgeable thoughts and your sincere and passionate love of music,
    opera, theatre and of course, ballet. Regards, Karen

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  4. Sorry your not blogging here anymore, Ivy. I've always enjoyed your 'scribblings' and felt they helped me organize my own jumble thoughts and responses to these productions I feel so privileged to attend. I admire your courage to stop blogging, temporary or not for the reasons you stated. I hope you will continue to post on Ballet Alert, as I look forward to reading them. Warm regards, Karen

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    1. Thank you Karen. Right now I think I need a break from the blogosphere and message boards in general. But hopefully some recent upsetting events will fade over time and I can blog again.

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  5. Please don't stop blogging! I enjoy reading your reviews and opinions of dance and theater so much more than any other professional reviewers. I hope you reconsider!

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  6. I, too, will miss your blogging. I've earned that as a professor emeritus, I'm free to say and write anything I'll put my name to. Keep a diary. The day will come when you will find a way to let us enjoy your insights and your writing.

    I missed the Chopin night and the program with the Prokofiev but caught the other three programs. I second your comments about the Britten. That should be standard repertory. (BTW, have you seen dancers in unitards in any other NYCB works?)


    I don't want to comment on things you didn't see but two general things stood out to me. First, NYCB has not been able to maintain the style of Robbins' works as well as it has maintained the Balanchine repertory. Shame on them for that. Second, we often talk about how opera singers often come to grief when they do crossover, singing popular songs. Watching NYCB dancers trying to do Robbins' Broadway choreography persuaded me that ballet dancers are at least as bad as opera singers when it comes to doing crossover.


    Please stay in touch. Private me if you don't have my e-mail address.

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    1. Ken,
      Actually there are quite a few unitard ballets in NYCB's repertoire. There's Ulysses Dove's Red Angels, Robbins' Glass Pieces, Peck's Pulcinella Variatons comes to mind. As for Robbins rep they always say it's harder to maintain than Balanchine bc Robbins brooked no alternate interpretations in his lifetime. Each performance was to look exactly the same as the previous one, regardless of who was dancing. Balanchine was more like Petipa, and changed or altered ballets as he worked with new dancers. But Jerome Robbins wanted his ballets set in stone.

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