Monday, January 24, 2011

 

Concerto DSCH

Alexei Ratmansky is perversely funny. He must be. I can't think of any other choreographer I've seen who consistently finds way to tease out the humor in music and to translate this into motion. He seems to find endless ways to make us laugh. And like the best humorists, his funniness can teeter slightly toward discomfort.

A more accessible example would be his mice in the newly choreographed Nutcracker. Yes, it was funny to see the mice in the kitchen at the start of the ballet--but also quite disturbing and unexpected. In Namouna, which I saw last year and absolutely loved (and ought to write about), he brought out the personalities of three excellent but highly disparate dancers--Jennifer Ringer, Sara Mearns and Wendy Whelan--while also giving each a different brand of humor. Ringer was a smoking tease (dancers do smoke). Sara an off-kilter seductress. And Whelan somehow ended up as the grand ballet queen at the very end, in a ceremonial pas de deux which to me felt equal parts sincere and mocking of ballet as a medium for romantic love.

So, even though I loved the Nutcracker, I'd been wondering lately if he could choreograph with space and with complete sincerity. Does everything always have to be jam packed with intricate jumps and turns? Must everything always be so funny? Could he escape the moniker I sometimes use on a certain kind of writing and art which seems to be so popular these days--could he be anything but a very clever boy?

The answer, is yes. I've now seen two casts perform Concerto DSCH, and in both, found much to admire. Ratmansky always bears repeated viewing because of the complexity of his choreography and the sheer business of his stage presentation. But DSCH also contains real moments of potential nuance. The "leads," if we are to think of them that way, are a boy and girl who have the "serious" story and two boys and a girl who have the "playful" story. This is a very simplistic explanation of casting, but it helps me to describe the impact of what I say.

Last Thursday, Wendy Whelan and Benjamin Millepied were the "serious" couple. Both are accomplished dancers, and they whirred through the choreography. At one point, the music, by Shostakovich, featured a piano solo. The steps seemed to indicate a man and woman struggling to connect, coming together, the losing each other, then reconnecting until Whelan was led away by a chorus of women and Millpied, a group of men (who themselves reflected back the coming together-apart theme). I found this section moving, but how much more of an impact it had with Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle on Sunday. Whelan and Millepied are smaller--their turns and footwork more brisk. Mearns and Angle, however, dove into the feeling of the music and as a result, gave all the steps greater resonance. Their coming-together made me feel briefly hopeful, and their parting full of regret. Their version of the choreography was sincere, and never hammy; this is a rare thing to achieve. It's hard to fake sadness.

I don't know, though, if Ratmansky intends for us to be too sad at the end of DSCH since all the parties are back together. I sort of suspect he eschews too much tragedy. And so, when Mearns re-enters to stage to get her partner's attention again (it was momentarily diverted by the humorous girl), she did it with great comedic affect. The whole thing worked.

As for the humorous couples--the first night I saw de Luz, Bouder and Veyette, and on Sunday, Ulbricht, Scheller and Veyette. How does Ashley Bouder manage to be so funny? Yes, Scheller is an extremely strong dancer--her legs and center are really solid, as I've said before. There is never a moment where I worry about her doing, say, grande ronde de jambe on point, unassisted. But Bouder managed to find the inherent funniness of the steps and this added a real contrast to the "serious" section. In my dreams, I'd see Bouder and co on the same night as Mearns and Angle. The level of contrast--and thus the tension of the piece--would be delicious.

Like the Four Temperaments, I think of Concerto DSCH as a showstopper for anyone who can actually command the steps. It is never going to be a boring ballet with anachronistically pretty steps. But also like the 4Ts, Concerto DSCH has the potential to be a deeper emotional experience for the audience when performed by dancers who find something even more meaningful within the music and the choreography. And that alone makes it a brilliant construction--it is the kind of dance that can work on several levels, depending on who is dancing. The best kind of art always works this way. And this makes me wonder--does Ratmansky know? Does he do this on purpose?

Finally--my shallow points.



Firstly-there is something wrong with the capped sleeves on the dresses. I thought that Ashley Bouder's body looked odd in the blue dress, and Ashley Bouder does not look odd. Then I wondered if perhaps it was her costume, if the lines somehow cut her body in the wrong place. Ana Sofia Scheller also looked strange in her blue dress (though perhaps a little bit better). Then I realized--it's the capped sleeves. All the dresses had capped sleeves, but did not look as strange, because the warm, earth toned dresses (red, orange) blended in better with the skin, and the line on the sleeve was not as jarring.

It has now been a decade since Juicy Couture and Three Dot t-shirts showed us how to cut a shirt and sleeve. Even the Gap has done away with the chunky "let me show off your fat arm" t-shirts in favor of flattering capped sleeves. I would think this would be a universal law of costuming and sewing by now.



Secondly--what is it with the strange shades of green that show up in these Ratmansky productions? I don't mind green in general-I like it as a color (an early and successful poem of mine is titled "Celadon" and begins: "I could eat you"). I just think that green can really be a tricky color to wear if you don't have the right skin tone. If I remember correctly, that strange shade of green also showed up in On the Dnieper.



There are additional problems with this green color--it often doesn't really "pop" to the far back of the theater. It seems to fade away. And maybe that's the point and I'm missing something. All the same, I find it frustrating to search for the dancer's form on stage. And it seems unfair to reward those in the audience sitting closest to the stage with a crisp performance, while making it even harder for those sitting far away to see well.


 

Yama, Lord of Death



Over the weekend, my grandfather in Japan passed away. He was 97. In the space of five years, I've lost my grandmother, father and grandfather. I am not unique. We all lose people. But it is hard not to feel that I've entered this stage of life where someone is snipping away at the fabric of the past. The things that made me who I am and shaped my experiences up to this point are all disappearing. And of course, I realize I'm lucky. For some people, that sense of "snipping" begins much earlier.

Of course "no one" is snipping away at anything. This is just the natural course of things. But I also know I'm not alone in feeling this slight paranoia. The Tibet Buddhists, for example, envision Yama, the Lord of death, holding the cycle/wheel of life in his jaws. No one escapes his grip, unless they manage to escape the cycle of existence altogether (why are there no ballets--subtle or otherwise--on this subject? Or maybe, I just don't know about them).



As I was thinking about this, I also recalled the small but excellent exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art last year titled: "Remember That You Will Die." (And this, in turn, made me recall Muriel Sparks' novel, Memento Mori).



The Rubin exhibit was organized around western and eastern attitudes toward death--the western attitude was quite severe, often emphasizing that death is the great equalizer for us all, while the eastern attitude demonstrated that death was simply part of a cycle which, as I've said above, one could ultimately escape.

Sometimes I feel that I have been thinking endlessly about the nature of grief. I was thinking about it again after the shootings in Tuscon, and how, after a few days, the media began, in its earnest fashion, to harp on "healing" and "closure" and the much maligned term "normalcy." Last night I looked through the recommended steps one is to take in order to integrate grief, because of course, psychological healing demands that we integrate and move forward. There are the usual things one must do--but most of all, one must form new relationships and focus on the future.

And so, I have this idea of Yama chomping away at the past fabric, and me, furiously trying to knit up a new one. Of course, we all know who will ultimately win. Still this made me think of the Norns, or the Fates in Nordic mythology, weaving together loose strands to put together a tapestry of the world.



In the opera Gottedamerung, the ropes the Norns are using, snaps. They can no longer weave. They've lost access to their wisdom. They, too, are subject to the eternal chomping of Yama.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

 

New York City Ballet: Mozartiana, Concerto DSCH, Cortege Honaire

I think that Kim Jong Il would like the ballet. I'm not completely sure about this, but he does, every year, put on the Airang Games, which sort of looks like it could be a kind of ballet.




(Those flashing "pictures" you see behind the gymnasts--that's thousands of school children holding up colored pieces of paper. They practice every day. Dancers dance every day-why is there no ballet in North Korea?)

I mean, at a certain point, the ballet looks like gymnastics. People see a ballet, like the one below, and wonder how on earth it could ever be considered an art form.



(That would be Alina Somova, of the Kirov, "dancing" the role of Sleeping Beauty)

Cortege Hongrois, which I saw on Thursday, could be a nice sort of Balanchinian Airang Games kind of piece. The dancers wear hats and boots and tassels--all things that are a challenge to dance and move in. The costumes are meant to evoke a "Hungarian" look. Why? Why indeed. I don't know. This is the kind of Balanchinian thing that used to confuse me--this "we are dressing up like it's the 19th century in Europe, even though it isn't, and we aren't in Europe, and there's no story to explain why we are pretending that we are." In other words, this is the kind of piece that might look more like gymnastics and pagentry--it's certainly set up for a pagent.

I've remarked before that I find some Balanchine works hard to understand--they feel untethered to me, and mannered as a result of self-consciously looking back at an earlier period. And I suspect Cortege Hongrois would have been that kind of experience--except Sara Mearns was dancing. Sara Mearns dancing changes everything. She is a conjurer, turning the stage into a world. And you, in the audience, are lucky enough to get to see her world for a little while. Isn't that why we go to the theater--to get to go somewhere other than where we are?

At one point did a series of bourrees with her arms in second, gradually upping the tempo of her turns and drawing in her arms. The effect was thrilling. Later, she repeated the step, with her arms out in second, keeping the tempo steady, so the music seemed to breathe differently. I thought: "Wait. What just happened?" I hadn't expected the change in atmosphere.

Later I thought about the difference in these two sections. Were they choreographed to be handled differently? Were they the choice of the dancer? The overall effect was one of surprise--she didn't do the same thing twice. And it also felt appropriate. I've seen people dance who seem to have calculated every moment--and you feel that conscious calculation and it's disappointing. Vishneva in ABT's production of Sylvia a couple of years ago comes to mind. With Mearns, there was this sense that she was just spontaneously responding to music, drawing out its color, and thus enriching the experience. As with all great artists, she seemed to work both from a place of command of the language of her discipline (dance), but also from a deep and undefinable place.

In his review, Alastair MacCauley remarked in Mearns' luster--and this is a good word. Because of the way that Mearns shone, the rest of the dancers shone too. This, I think, is why the performing arts fasten on the word "star." A great artist shines, of course, but how much more magnanimous is her art when she can shine on others around her and make them better.

I also began to think that at some instinctual level, Mearns must understand what makes Balanchine great--the fact that as soon as she steps on stage and commands it (boy, does she ever command the stage)--whatever she is dancing makes sense. It is never anachronistic. This made me think that she must also just understand *dance* down to her bones--nothing she does is ever a series of steps, but always is suffused with her personality. The dance, in whatever form, comes to life. With Mearns, you are seeing ballet and not Airang Games pagentry. But if she weren't there? I'm not sure the piece would work so well. And this runs counter to one cornerstone of NYCB's philosophy.

New York City Ballet surprised loyal subscribers this year when it announced it would not produce cast listings until a few weeks before performances--the dances, they declared, were the stars and not the dancers. Veteran attendees were miffed. I didn't care at first--I'm still learning about dancers and repertoire, and I'm willing to explore the idea that the dance is the star and not the dancer. Except now I've see Sara Mearns in Cortege Hongrois and now I don't think I can ever discount the dancer.

The evening also included performances by Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht and Tyler Angle in Mozariana. The dancing was preceded by a talk from Faycal Karoui, who explained the origin of the title; the music is by Tchaikovsky, who reorchestrated pieces by Mozart. Karouis demonstrated such concept as "syncopation" to the audience, and highlighted passages he thought were references to Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. I, of course, am a sucker for learning new things, especially as they pertain to dance, and greatly enjoyed the lecture.

Mozartiana itself, however, felt not quite ready. I love Kowroski's dancing--but here she felt underpowered and tentative. I would love to see her when she has the chance to dance this piece a bit more, although that may not be possible. This article by from the Guardian includes quotes from Wendy Whelan, who points out it would be nicer for dancers to be able to perform a piece 10 times, though the reality is that casts are always rotated. I also enjoy Daniel Ulbricht, except he seemed to be dancing ahead of the music and I wondered if he was really listening to the orchestra.

Tyler Angle, on the other hand, is an absolutely exquisite dancer in nearly every sense. He makes a beautiful partner--and I realized how rare it is that you see someone really excel as a partner. But he is also a wonderful dancer in his own right, with gorgeous feet, legs and turns. I hope to see more and more of him in the years ahead.

We were also treated to Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. I would say more about this piece, except that I will see it again on Saturday, with a different cast and want to save my thoughts until then--and see how they change.

And now for my shallow, gossipy observations.

Firstly, yes, Natalie Portman was there. Yes she is very pretty and very small and has gorgeous hair and skin.

Secondly, I wonder if there is a piece of music composed for socialites and all their buzzing, busy, self-entitled glory. One ran up to Alastair MaCaulay and asked: "So, they've allowed you back in spite of your Nutcracker review?" He handled it with class. Actually, I thought to myself that he handled the whole thing with this kind of grace that only an English--perhaps British person--would. He somehow made her feel like her comment was actually funny, while also managing sound self-deprecating and to not at all put down either NYCB or any of the dancers. After the second act she was in another corner of the audience. And again, somewhere else at the start of the third.

All this made me think of my father in law and our trip to LA. We were at the Getty Museum, getting in an elevator to try to access one of the many disjointed galleries that stretch out across the hillside. We held the door open for another man to get into the elevator too. "There's room," we said.

"That's all right," he said. "I'll wait for the next one."

As the doors closed, my father in law called out: "No, no. It'll be the same elevator."

This is the kind of joke that people in LA might very well not find funny. I tried to explain this to my husband. "To some people, that might sound mean. Like we were making fun of the man."

"Nah!" my husband roared. "It's witty!"

All the same, when my 97 year old grandfather died over the weekend, it was my father in law who sent me the most thoughtful and beautiful email--succinct, but so heartfelt and appropriate.

Language is so imperfect across continents and oceans. Dance, however--good dance--always communicates.

Finally--a special shout out to Taylor Stanley, a new member to the corps, who blew me away Sunday afternoon in NY Export: Opus Jazz. One to watch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

 

New York City Ballet: Winter Season Begins--Walpurgisnacht, Duo Concertant, Valse-Fantaisie, The Four Temperaments




The story of ballet, according to Jennifer Homans' magnificent tome, Apollo's Angels, includes this bit of history from the French Academie de Poesie et de Musique, established under Charles IX and influenced we are told, by neo-Platonists:

"If he danced, so the men of the Academy believed, man might break some of these earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels. The movements of the body, disciplined with poetic rhythm and meter and brought into accord with musical and mathematical principles, could tune him to celestial harmonies. . . . this sense of perfect mathematical proportion . . . led the Abbe Mersenne, in a moment of high inspiration in 1636, so refer to the 'author of the Universe' as 'the great Ballet-master.'"


I sometimes, in my overly brainy--or dare I say, melancholic-- way wonder what dance is and why it moves us. This quote has now been lodged in my brain as I read Homans' book slowly--anything I read these days, I read slowly--and as I went to see the New York City Ballet last night, the first night of the Winter season.

There were four dances, all Balanchine choreography and by the end of the evening, I was really struck by the breadth of his ambition and the range of his work. That's one thing about an artist--I'm always more impressed by people who try a variety of things, even if some fail, than someone who sticks to a tried and true recipe.



The first performance of the evening, Walpurgisnacht, takes its title and music from the opera Faust. You've heard of the expression: a Faustian bargain? In both the opera and the play, the very learned doctor Faustus is bored; his life of books hasn't made him happy. So he makes a deal with the devil to obtain and experience the love of Marguerite, a beautiful woman, unparalleled among her peers. At one point, Faust is taken to watch Walpurgisnacht, a kind of "springtime Halloween" in the pagan-meets-Christianity world, which takes place on the Eve of May Day, when the souls of the dead run wild and free. The holiday is still celebrated in parts of Europe in particular and is, of course, associated with springtime, the end of winter and fertility. Some parts of the world celebrate with bonfires; you can be sure there is also plenty of drinking and general merriment.



Even though the Balanchine ballet isn't intended to be a direct representation of Walpurgisnacht, the music and the title do inform the piece. The women begin with their hair tidily kept in buns.


(Photo-not City Ballet)

By the end, their long hair streams across their shoulders and they dance with abandon and joy. In the performance last night, I was struck by the quality of the corps. I'm not sure I've ever seen such strength, or such a virtuosic use of women dancing together like this--not in the so-wounded-we-might-kill-you Willi of Giselle, or among the tortured-feather-ex-princesses of Swan Lake. What power the women displayed, right up to the climax and ending.

Wendy Whelan, City Ballet's veteran ballerina, danced the lead. Alastair MacCauley, the lead dance critic at the New York Times, has never been a fan of Whelan's, often describing her shoulders and arms as stiff. I love Whelan. It's true--in the past couple of years, I do feel that her strength is diminishing, but in a way, I love her even more on stage because she is able to give performances where she seems even more stripped of any artifice. The point of Whelan's dancing is not all the things she isn't--ethereal, or super limber, or super loose necked. The point is that Whelan is an artist. Everything she does has commitment, speed, virtuosity and a point of view. She's an intelligent dancer. And while Walpurgisnacht is not my favorite kind of dance for Whelan's gifts (I love her in Wheeldon's works, for example), who can forget the sight of her whirring across the floor in mad-cap bourres, her long hair flailing around her? Whelan always commits herself to the music and it is precisely because of her individuality that she is able to pull new and different shapes out of space, thus stretching what dance can do. No wonder she is Wheeldon's muse.

I was impressed by Ana Sofia Scheller--this is the second time I've seen her dance. I don't know if I can think of anyone off the top of my head who has such command of legs, feet and torso. She is so secure in her extensions and turns. And yet for me, there is something missing in the way she uses her upper body. It's as though her feet and legs are solid, but the music doesn't completely flow up into her arms--they move more like an afterthought.

But the net effect of the Walpurgisnacht last night was of a very kind Charles Askegaard, rather outmatched by the wild women turning and jumping around him. Balanchine loved his women strong.



(Photo here: the sublime Alina Cojocaru)

We were then treated to an entirely different work--Duo Concertant, with music by Stravinsky. When the curtain opens, a piano and violinist are on stage and begin to play together. A man and woman--last night, Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild--stand nearby and appear to listen to the music, before finally taking to the stage and interpreting the music. I've seen Hyltin twice before, and while I've always liked her, I've always found there to be something a little slight in her dancing--the full impact (unlike Wendy) of her presence hasn't come across to me. Last night she thrilled me. Her entire body was alive--down to her fingers. There is a moment, toward the end of Duo Concertant, where the stage light highlights just Hyltin's hands. Her fingers seem vibrantly alive. One reason her performance worked so well, though, is because she was beautifully matched by Fairchild, who was given a series of steps in which he needed to keep his center of gravity low, while still maintaining an air of insouciance, and even off-the-cuff improvisation as he moved through very precisely determined steps. He was effortless and beautiful. And the two of them together--Hyltin and Fairchild--brought forth the playfulness of Stravinksy's score.

As the piece ended, however, the dancing took on a poignancy--Fairchild seemed unable to truly "capture" Hyltin though he tried. In a series of steps, he would freeze her body into place, then try to place their hands together to dance with her. But, like Marguerite does to Faust, Hyltin disappeared, just slightly out of reach. Inspiration, of course, works like this--seizing us, playing with us and disappearing. In last night's performance, both Fairchild and Hyltin were able to embody these moods, and able to use their bodies so beautifully, from toe to finger. For me, these two were probably the highlight of the evening, in pure "dancer" terms--I hope to see them again.



(Photo here with Tiler Peck--she looks like a princess, right?)

In Valse Fantasie, we were treated to Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette, who stepped in as last minute cast change (not his best night, but I do love him as a dancer). Bouder has been heating up the dance world for a while now, and I was eager to see her perform on stage. Bouder is a true artist, inhabiting steps and music with her entire being. Oddly, MacCauley--who seems awfully focused on the eyes and mouths of ballerinas--has this to say about Bouder:

The main problem for this terrific virtuoso is her excessive need to project prepared facial expressions. It occurs only when she looks directly out front, as if addressing the rehearsal mirror; an element of calculation seems to enter her upper body.


I found this an odd but interesting comment--and I'll look at Bouder's dancing again to see if I agree. Most of the time I was watching, I found myself cheering for Bouder for being that rare dancer who dances with every fiber of her being including her face. She's a marvelous, sprite-light performer, bringing to life a piece I might otherwise not have liked so much. I often find Balanchine's wholly neo-classical pieces--the "I'm looking back at the Romantic period of ballet, but creating a romance without any princesses even though everyone is dressed like a princess"--to be a let-down. In the past, I have found such pieces almost farcical--they are the kind of thing that, in the hands of the wrong dancer, can seem untethered, overly mannered, and embarrassingly too pretty. Not so with the enchanting Bouder in the lead. She convinced me, via her presence and carriage, of the sheer joy of the music and the steps, stripping away anything that might make the choreography seem slight and insignificant.

I thought again about Bouder's use of her face during the final piece, The Four Temperaments, while watching Sebastien Marcovici dance the role of "Melancholy." Yes, his face registered lots and lots of melancholy and no small amount of torture. But for me, the expression didn't match the movement of his body. It was odd and felt like a trick to me--he seemed to be telegraphing that he felt the music, and yet his body didn't seem committed to the action or the drama. As a result, I found his dancing insincere. With Bouder, it was the complete opposite. Her face glowed with good-dance-happiness, because she was dancing.



As for The Four Temperaments--what a monster of a piece of dancing. The title owes its origin to a medieval school of thought which posited that human character was the result of a balance--or imbalance--of four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. As a result, you were phlegmatic (content, kind, "at rest"), melancholic (overly reflective), sanguine (cheerful and social) and choleric (energetic, passionate and fiery).

The Four Temperaments, the ballet, is an astonishing display of theater and psychology. Watching the surprising shapes and twists and jabs, all executed from these strong, neat and powerful bodies, I couldn't help but think both of the Homans' quote at the start of this blog post, and of the aspirations of the ancient Greeks, which I wrote about after visiting the Getty Villa in LA. The choreography had both a searching, yet declarative quality, as though to say: "this is how we are as people," and at the same time, "look at all the things we can't do--we don't know everything yet." The universe--the possibilities for people, music and art--are vast.

I suspect that for me, the Four Ts is also a piece that will need repeated viewings, with different casts. While I appreciated the angular jabbing and thrusting of Theresa Reichlen's Choleric--how completely the Balanchine ballerina she seemed last night--I didn't see a marked difference in her delivery than I did from the Sanguine section, danced by Jennie Somogyi. Aren't Choleric and Sanquine supposed to be different humors? They can't both get to be the strong, unstoppable Balanchine ideal. I've written about Marcovicci above. And while I liked Ask de la Cour's Phlegmatic, there was a part of me that wanted him to do more. I wanted him to inhabit the piece even more--I couldn't help but wonder what David Hallberg might have done with a similar solo. I was left feeling that many of the dancers were doing the steps, but that the choreography wasn't fully elevated.

I don't have anything to base this on--this is my first viewing--though after I mentioned this feeling to a friend who has seen the piece before, she told me that more intensely. She also commented that she had seen other companies give stronger renditions. All the same, the striking, searing and searching power of the choreography and the music impressed me greatly.



I'll close just by saying that I read recently that Rupert Thompson's novel "Divided Kingdom" is set in a world in which people are divided according to their temperament. The Japanese, of course, have their whole "blood type prejudice system." I need to read this book. Finally, just above, a clip of the Four Temperaments, danced by the Dutch National Ballet.

 

Art and Dynamism: Le Page's Das Rheingold, Don Carlo and La Traviata



(Photo)

A number of years ago, I took some family members to the Japan in the winter to watch an eight hundred year old Shinto ceremony, that takes place over four days. There's the midnight procession of the god as he is transferred from his usual shrine to a temporary one. He's moved in the middle of the night, so the evil spirits have less of a chance of seeing him and getting at him. To ensure that things to smoothly, priests drag a burning log across the road in front, dripping bits of fiery coal, so the walkway is literally burned clean. The god is surrounded by people wearing face masks and dressed in white carrying sakaki branches, which they wave while moaning like goblins.

The highlight, though, are a series of dances which start in the evening and continue late through the night. It's cold and there are four bonfires around the outdoor "stage" where the action takes place. It's all in service of the god, now in his new home. The deeper into the night you go, the wilder and more dramatic the dances become. But it's also a long, long night.

"You have to think," I said to my cousins, "of a different sense of time."



(Photo)

It's odd. A festival that is 800 years old really does come from a time when people moved at a slower pace. People also had a shorter life expectancy--but they also moved more slowly. And here we are, with our long life expectancies, and our concomitant desire to be entertained by things that move.

I was thinking about this when I went to see the entire Ring Cycle at the Met in 2009--you know the operas that clock in at like 5 or 6 hours per performance? Does anyone sit that long for anything any more? I guess some people do, if it's, say, to see all the Star Wars movies back to back. But in general, this kind of long-term performance viewing doesn't really fit in with a modern approach to life. You would probably only do this if you were really passionate about something enough to live and breathe it for a good portion of the day.

Still, people go to see the Ring. People like me. The new production, by Robert LePage was much hyped last fall--it's rumored to cost around $40, and while that doesn't make it as expensive as the much discussed Spider-Man musical, it's a heck of a lot to spend on an opera. Rheingold was to feature pulleys and acrobatics, and a never-before-seen contortable stage, and motion-response video screen. In recent years, the Met has become *a* if not *the* place to see new and innovative set and theater productions--the Ring was going to be a new step in this direction, as the old and beloved Otto Schenk sets were dismantled, along with the numerous Zeffirelli productions that are now stuffed with mothballs.



The good news--for me--the singing was divine. I was a little disappointed by Bryn Terfel, after having loved so many of his recordings over the years. On stage, his voice seemed too small and underpowered. I don't know if this was age or an off night, or just the size of his voice. Stephani Blythe as Fricka gave a remarkable performance. Her voice soared, her brow furrowed as she fretted over the good-for-nothing head-in-the-clouds men in her life. The star for me, however, was Eric Owens as Albericht. I felt he stole the show. Not only was his voice beautiful and full, but he gave his character so much humanity that I actually felt sorry for Albericht for the first time--a measure of how a performer can change the way you view a character you thought you knew. Like a fan-gurl, I went and signed Eric Owens' "fanbook" on his website.

And then there was the set. I believe it was Opera News which, in reviewing the production, actually used the term "park and bark," which I had never heard before. But apparently, once upon a time, this is what singers did at the opera. They parked and they barked. They howled at the moon. They didn't move around the stage. I remember these days. I remember when "The Dance of the Seven Veils" was, um, suggested and not danced because the singer couldn't . . . move. There was simply too much of her. In recent years, the tendency has been for singers to be fitter, and to be physical actors and not just vocal ones. I haven't minded this change--as long as the singing was good.

In Das Rheingold, however, the staging meant that the singers had very little room to move. Here is a scene where the gods convene.



See that middle slab that looks like a slide? The characters--the gods--entered the stage by sliding belly-first down this slide and into the crevass below. The sliding was done by a body double. Once in the "crack," as my friend and I kept referring to this crevass, the body double would exchange places with the actual singer, who would pop up and assume character. The sliding was tiresome after a while. What god enters the stage sliding? Just because something has not been done before does not mean it's a terrific idea--and just because you need a body double also doesn't mean it's a great idea. Originally, LePage is said--and this is hearsay--to have wanted to use more pulleys and suspend his actors. This idea was jettisoned after it was noted that opera singers are often heavier than actors. So we get the sliding.




Actually, this crack in the floor was immensely distracting. It cut the stage and gave the actors little room to move. And as a result, they did in fact park and bark. This is not to say--and here is where the whole idea of timing and dynamics comes into play--that I think it would work to have a super dynamic Wagner set in which actors regularly trot from one end to the other. For one thing, this would exhaust singers who have to power through a long evening (though Das Rheingold is a comparatively short opera). But there does need to be some kind of movement--just as in the 800 year old ceremony I wrote above, the dancing does become more intense, even if it takes an entire night-time and moonrise to do so. Action, in a story or a show, has to go somewhere.



In another example--the opera opens with the Rhine Maidens singing and frolicking in the water of the river Rhine. Here, the maidens were actually suspended. As they flicked their tails, the motion sensitive stage/screen behind them rippled and the video-projected stones "moved," as though teased by the water. But after a while . . . this grew old. The maidens, when "fighting" off Alberich, couldn't really do too much because their pulleys would not allow them to. The water kept rippling in the same way. What was initially thrilling became static. The scene didn't visually develop along with the music.



I found this an odd contrast to the old set (above) which was essentially static--it was a fixed and physical set--but which allowed the maidens to move around. No, there weren't suspended and the "water" didn't look as real as it did in the video projection. But the scene was able to physically unfold. As a result, the physical action of the production actually went somewhere, whereas in the LePage production, the show moved forward for a moment with the aid of some dazzling effect, only to stall. Thank God for the glorious music and singing.




Later in the production, Wotan ventures down to see the dwarf Mime to try to get the Ring. In the previous production, the "descent" was managed via a set which lowered slowly, simulating the descent through the earth to the world of the Niebelungs. In the LePage production, the entire set straightened, then twisted into the shape you see here. Body doubles, suspended from cables "walked" across this twisted platform. And then, in a bit of stage direction that made me giggle, the two "walked" back the same way they had come. I realize that I was supposed to assume that they weren't really "walking back" but were walking deeper into the underworld. Instead, the image felt incomplete.

As I watched the LePage production, I couldn't help but think of another theatrical "descent,"--the Phantom of the Opera (don't laugh), another show which was criticized for its expense, until the thrills a minute and the plot and music so captivated the public's attention that Andrew Lloyd Weber was vindicated. There is a moment where Christine and the Phantom "descend" to his lair. They cross a platform stage right to left and exit. The platform then reverses its angle, and Christine and the Phantom cross it again. The audience knows it's the same platform. But because the platform is lower each time, the abstraction works, and the descent feels "real."

Repeatedly in the LePage production, I felt let down. I was let down that actors slid on their stomachs. Loge sort of suspended felt like he was "sort of suspended." The actors crossing "down" into the Niebelungland felt like a compromise. I saw good ideas that were not complete. I felt jerked around by the timing--at some moments, we were supposed to be in a show that was going to move quickly--and then it didn't. A new staging detail that was interesting would show up, and then stall. The dynamics ended up uneven.




The only exception would be the last few minutes, in which the set folded up and displayed a vibrant rainbow and then the cosmos. Then I felt thrilled. Then I felt the set was able to act on its own, to its full capacity and actually complement and elevate the music and story. I don't doubt that video at some point is going to be integral to thrilling modern staging. I just don't see it yet with this production. Curiously, I found myself thinking about a show that is more than 20 years old--another musical: Chess (again, don't laugh). I only saw the London version in 1988, but I remember a Chess board that doubled as Tirolian mountain, a Bangkok street scene and a serious chess match room. I remember the use of video and how this amplified the show. All these elements I remember working extremely well together, even if the design was nowhere near as sophisticated as the multi-million dollar set for Das Rheingold. But each element was integrated. I tried very hard to find a video clip to include to show you, but none seems to exist (ditto for any stills from the original London production).

A few more notes to complete this post--I also saw the new Don Carlo production and La Traviata. Don Carlo is a long opera--it clocks in at just over 4 hours. The staging here was also new, this time by veteran English director Nicholas Hytner. The Times called the production "Cautious but Winning." I disagree. I thought it was superb. Because no definitive version of Don Carlo exists, the director often gets to make up his mind as to how the opera will end or unfold. And this of course impacts staging and direction. At over 4 hours, we are back in "800 year old Shinto ceremony" time. To match the pace of the show, Hytner carefully orchestrated lighting and sets, so that actors moved and set pieces were introduced to give the opera a slow by appropriate feeling of "unfolding." At one point, a couple of columns simply floated down to divide a space in two (diagonally). The room--a church--felt transformed. We the audience of course knew that the stage was still the same stage, but with just this move, the director was able to suggest that we were somewhere else. For me, these kinds of measured changes really worked--the opera felt fluid, unfolding and surprising us in a way that worked with the music and singing--until the very end.

I had a different experience watching La Traviata, which starred Marina Poplavskaya, recently the subject of a very interesting and not altogether flattering article in the New Yorker by Gay Talese. The production here was staged by Will Decker. The production is challenging. Violetta, the main character, is on stage nearly the entire time and does not get to "park and bark." She must ride a sofa held aloft by men in black, writhe on a clock, and play hide-and-go-seek under upholstery. At the start of the second half of the opera, Violetta is traditionally out of the room and her lover, Alfredo, sings of their love. Decker has her onstage, mimicking Alfredo and miming that she does not want him to go to Paris when he declares that he will go and take care of her debts.

For me, this bit of new direction did not work. Why would Violetta just "mime" that Alfredro should stay by her side? Why does she then seem surprised when he comes back? I understand that the new staging was meant to avoid the very kind of "park and bark" that I was making fun of earlier--in this production Violetta runs around. It's a very physically demanding role. And yet, in her dress, bright red against a set that is otherwise black and white, Violetta's limitations as a physical actress become apparent (speaking of which--did no one read "What Not to Wear?" A woman with a small bosom, muscular arms and short neck should not wear a sleeveless, square necked dress. Christ-at least give her a V-neck. Consider redesigning the dress depending on the build of the singer, please). Singers aren't necessarily dancers. And movement isn't why we go to see opera (at least I don't).



What was more, the sets and harsh lighting and color scheme for me did not elevate or even match the lush music. La Traviata has parties and dancing--and then sadness and gaiety. The Decker production seemed to be some sort of Germanic comment on mobs and sex and, at least in tone, seemed more appropriate for, say, Don Giovanni or even Boris Godunov. If Das Rheingold felt bizarrely static, then La Traviata felt overly dynamic.

Dancers--and athletes--talk all the time about "follow through." When I shot archery, I was constantly told to think about "follow through." Ditto for tennis. Ditto for any action in ballet. Ditto for any kind of story, which begins in its own universe and inherent dynamics. You must complete an action when you begin it. The audience--and the action itself--will know if you do not.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

 

Lypsinka and Black Swan





In the movie Black Swan, there is a moment where the tortured ballerina Nina, played by Natalie Portman, insists on rehearsing the night before her big debut. She is in a studio with a pianist who, we are to assume, is fatigued and annoyed to have played Tchaikovsky's score hours on end. "I'm going home. I have a life," he huffs. And strides out.

When I saw this scene--a brief flicker of life in an otherwise mordent movie--I sat up. I recognized the pianist. Unlike Portman, who is not a dancer, the pianist was real. I had seen him around Steps, where I take ballet class. I waited patiently for the credits, found his name and cross-referenced the list of musicians at Steps. His name, John Epperson.



"Yeah, so?" said my dance teacher. "He used to play for me. So what?" (Oh, you hardened New York ballet-types).

"Did you know," I pressed, "that he is Lypsinka?"

Now *this* was interesting.



It's also a measure of how fascinating New York is, that someone can be the rehearsal pianist of choice for ABT and for the Steps pro-classes, while also having an unusual an interesting talent of his own.

In New York (and, yes, other world-class cities), people are many things, all at once. You might be a bank teller, but you might also be a comedian who is reviewed by the NY Times or the New Yorker or Time Out. You might work at a cheese shop, but have a devoted cult following for your CDs, and sell out the room every time you perform at the Time Cafe. I've known "famous" punk musicians who earned extra money by moving furniture. Lots of performers teach--which is less stressful on the joints than being a "man with a van." But the reality is that most true and dedicated artists don't live inside a protective coating of money and celebrity, in which a shopping trip doubles as a "outing" for the paps. Most artists work and work hard, and are acutely aware of the distinction between the grind of earning a paycheck and the imaginary space where art and magic are made. As I get older, I sometimes think that this division is harder to maintain. When we are younger, ambition and a belief in a better tomorrow casts a romantic pall over a bed-bug infested apartment. Over time, these things change. It can be harder to make magic.



Which brings me to Black Swan. Friends have been asking me for an opinion--I get to so few movies these days, but a babysitter helped me out so I could go. Much has been made of what real ballet dancers think. Here, for example, is Daniil Simkin's Tweet, which I carried in my head as I watched.

Black Swan was a fascinating sensationalistic exaggeration of 'our' ballet world, though in its essence shockingly accurate. Loved it. #fb


Well, yes. The movie was a stereotype and awfully exaggerated. Later, I kept wondering--because I'm a writer--how the the script was written in the first place. If you were to look at the surface of a dancer's life, then Nina's story might seem possible. Here, for example, is an NYTimes article on NYCB dancer Kathryn Morgan. The article was published in 2006, when Morgan joined the company as an apprentice--she's a soloist now (and such a lovely dancer!). The article notes that Morgan: lives in a one-bedroom with her mother, and:
"wore a pale pink leotard and tights, the color emphasizing her youth. As always, her dark hair was swept into a French twist. She wore no jewelry. The apprentices’ deer-in-headlights expressions were offset by the gum-chewing nonchalance of veterans like Carrie Lee Riggins, who joined the corps in 1997."


The article continues. Morgan was plucked from the apprentice ranks to play Juliet--a fresh approach--not unlike the way Nina is plucked from near obscurity to play the Swan Queen.

“The intimidation factor is still so high,” she said, while acknowledging how welcoming the company was. “I don’t want to mess up and have everybody think, ‘Why is she here?’




Unlike Nina, however, the real life ballerina Morgan nails the performance, and nearly everything after, and continues her ascent. She continues to be a favorite among balletomanes, who love to look at dancers in the corps and predict who will one day be a star.



But unless you care about ballet as ballet, this might not be interesting. What might be interesting instead, is something more . . . lurid, like Gelsey Kirkland's best-selling memoir "Dancing on My Grave." There, you will find lots about the dark side of dance, about abusive choreographers and male partners and bulimia--all distractions from work and art. She writes:

`How was it possible that Misha's resources as an artist, so evident in performance, were different from those of his basic personality?'


That's Misha as in mikhail Baryshnikov. As in--she's naming names! Gossip!

Remember Nina's relentless search for something beyond the safety of technique in ballet? Here is what Kirkland Tweeted (somewhat recently).

Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of the dancer.


Now with these two bits of information--if we extrapolate out--we have the story of the tortured life of an artist. This is what we want artists to do and be, if we are honest--to live darkly, to demonstrate that a life spent living for art is really not easy, that it might be better to remain a bank teller after all. Put all these things together, and you have a movie like Black Swan.

Except . . . most dancers don't kill themselves. The movie is an exaggeration. And as time goes by, I like it less. I think Aronofsky did a wonderful job of using Portman's flat-toned voice and presence to create a character who seemed repressed and anxious. I enjoyed the special effects, which went a great way toward transforming Portman into a black swan. But I didn't love the movie. It didn't show me why anyone would ever want to dance at all--there was little of the beauty of dance (which Winona Ryder's character is said to embody). The world of dance looked like torture and camp. And I found the rather one-note atmosphere tedious after a while. Thank god, then for Lypsinka.

And yet . . . (I change my mind again) . . . as time goes by, I do think the movie did capture something about making art. Wendy Whelan (principal with NYCB) wrote this about Black Swan.

No performance is a perfect performance but some performances allow for the feeling of perfection. Achieving this moment of ecstasy easily validates all the pain and struggle of the art form by taking us (and possibly our audience) for a moment to a world beyond our own.


Most art, the saying goes, come from a place of play. There was a young girl in ballet class this week, who you could see just loved to move. After class, the teacher and I talked about this young girl. Would she advance? Would she put up with the hours of work, the criticism, the injuries? The subjecting herself to judgment?

"You have to have a thick skin or be really lucky," said my teacher.

"Or stupid," I said.

She laughed. "Or stupid."

I would say that in the year after my novel was published, I spent most of the time in this weird purgatory. It didn't help that I was pregnant, and still extremely upset over the loss of my father. But these things are incidental. When you go from taking something--dance, a book--from a place of play, to the marketplace, in which you are judged, in which you are challenged to find some kind of self-worth, while others are deciding if you have any worth at all, it can be brutal. This is why I find myself admiring and feeling very forgiving of artists who are known for their diva-like behavior. It's a wonderful kind of blind, self-protective behavior. I wish I had it.

Occasionally, an artist gets it all--mental health, wonderful family and friends, plenty of money and just enough struggle to continue to grow and develop in constructive and not destructive ways. But this is so rare and the human psyche--in fact the world--isn't set up to support art or artists in this way.



And in light of this fact, I did find that Black Swan did reveal something quite profound about the cost of making art, of submitting yourself *on faith* that years of training, of writing, or practicing, will actually matter in a way that is public. Because by the time any of us are adults, we rarely paint or compose just so our mothers will pin our accomplishments on the refrigerator. We want you to care. We are afraid that you might not care. And in this tension--the personal struggle and the struggle for acceptance--there is a very, very deep abyss in which a sensitive mind could easily become trapped.

This reminds me of an interview I heard on NPR with Aronofsky. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something about how when he was younger, he used to encourage students to follow their dreams etc. Then he spoke movingly about how hard it had been to make Black Swan--despite the success of The Wrestler. Now, he said, (and I'm paraphrasing) he found it hard to be quite so idealistic and encouraging. Hearing this, I thought: "Et tu?"

"It ought to be enough in life to be a good person," my Aunt once said to me.

"It isn't for me," I said. And she looked very concerned for me. And now I know why.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

 

Tragedy, Comedy, the Getty, Babies



In high school (and the first year of college), I had this extremely nice boyfriend, and we wore tragedy-comedy rings to signify our relationship. I went to lots of theater on Broadway-tickets were cheap for students-and saw a lot of tragedy and comedy, and felt very inspired and romantic all the time.



But it wasn't until I went to the British Museum, and saw actual representations of tragedy and comedy that I sort of understood how profound these symbols are. Like--there was a point where people did not represent sadness and happiness, and then there was a point where suddenly they did. What's more, there was a point where culture suddenly involved not just showing some god flying off into the sky while the little humans looked on expressionless or with some archaic smile, but re-enacting things that were sad and happy for people.

If you stroll through the halls of most museums and look at very old art--the Egyptians--you will see a lack of personal expression. And then, with the Greeks, the expression and representation and pathos suddenly leap out at you from inside glass cases. People become people.

What happened?



I had forgotten all about ancient culture, and my early obsession with it, until this past December when we took a family trip to the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. It is a true villa. JP Getty apparently wanted to recreate the Villa dei Papiri, which dates from the first century, and was buried under Vesuvian ash and lava.

The next time someone tells you that delusions of grandeur are, well, deluded, send them to the Getty Villa. I can't think of anything more deluded than trying to recreate a two-thousand year old villa. And yet, what a gift to be able to see Roman and Greek artifacts in their "natural" setting.



Here--one of the Muses. I think this might be the Muse of philosophy. I looked for the Muse of Poetry, since that would be the closest thing a writer today would need to turn to for help, but she was absent.

All the same, you get this extraordinary feeling about this old culture that, as I said, suddenly started to represent comedy and tragedy--the whole human condition--as a world separate from the gods. It's interesting. It's not a surprise that the Getty also includes an outdoor ampitheater, which occasionally performs plays. If I lived in LA, I would absolutely go see a performance.



Here is a fragment of papyrus, with a little piece from the Illiad--one of our oldest stories. Looking through the many rooms of the Getty, and examining the representations of heroes, I was reminded again of the power that a heroic individual exudes on us, even as we seem to be (or I seem to be) increasingly jaded. It's not an easy thing to come to terms with--this notion that we still want heroes to serve and save us, even as heroism seems so fleeting.



And then I came home to New York and sat down for my obligatory reading sessions with Ewan. He is good at holding a book and looking at the pictures and understanding that "something" is happening on those pages.

But the most popular book? The one that generates the most interest and that is universally acknowledged as the one that holds the attention of babies everywhere? It's this series of baby faces--babies smiling on one side, and babies crying on the other. The official title: Mrs. Mustard's Baby Faces.

Over and over Ewan turns the pages, examining the happy babies and the sad babies. I see all this concentration on his face. He seems to understand that half the babies are happy and that the other half are suffering. He turns to the book over and over, as if to try to come to terms with these dual emotions. Sometimes he looks at me, as though he wants to ask me a question. Then he goes back to the faces, until I put the book away and start up Dr. Seuss.

It is said that we have to learn to empathize early, or some of us will not learn to do so at all. Then there are the children who have difficulty reading human expression. When I think about this, then I think that these books--which struck me as terribly inane when I looked at them while pregnant--contain in them a wealth of instruction and information. And that my high school sweetheart romantic rings were not so cartoonish after all.


Sunday, January 02, 2011

 

ABT and Ratmansky's Nutcracker



(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)


I am back in New York just in time to see the very last performance of the new Nutcracker with Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes in the leads. I wish very much I'd been able to see more casts, because this production and interpretation of the Tchaikovsky score and Nutcracker story was sheer magic and virtuosity.

First, Ratmansky proves he is an intensely musical choreographer. There's a moment early on in the first act when the happy, major key music slips into something that sounds vaguely sinister. As a child, I was always bothered by this musical section, and wondered what it meant. Ratmansky's answer is to show us mice and rats in the kitchen, a harbinger of things to come when Clara and her Nutcracker will face off against the Rat King. In moments like these--and there are many--you can feel a sensitive and musical mind at work, probing the music, and reinterpreting the story as necessary. And the reward for the audience is great because you too have the joy of hearing the music anew.



(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

There is, for example, the much discussed "snow scene" in which Clara and the Prince start out laughing in the snow, only to discover that they are cold and that the snow, while beautiful, is also menacing. Balanchine die-hards have complained about this section on message boards as being "out of character". But if you listen to the music--really listen to the music--it does not have a purely "happy" quality to it; it sounds like snow. That is, the music is changeable, playful, and at times, dangerous. Ratmansky hears this, deliver the scene accordingly, and thus gives us the snow scene anew.

This reimagined snow scene does something else; it gives us a moment in which Clara and her Prince play and laugh--something we will see them do later as adults. It also gives them a further adventure. The Nutcracker can often feel static after the death of the Mouse King. Not so in this production--Clara and her prince continue on their journey. All does not simply come to an end because the Nutcracker has been transformed. It also cements the relationship between Clara and her Prince. They will protect each other and help each other from dangers other than the Mouse King; it tells us what their future will be.

There are numerous other moments like this--the point at which the children enter the Christmas party is another example. The pas de deux's which, not danced by children, take on the depth of adult emotion and love. Then there are other unexpected moments. The Arabian dance, always so serious and sexy that companies choose it as a set piece, is turned on its head with a male dancer who is *so* serious he can't decide which woman he loves best, thus losing them all.

Then there is the storytelling. I went on and on in an earlier post about my feelings that the Nutcracker is a romance; it's in the music. Ratmansky delivers us a romance, but preserves the early portion of the ballet for children, giving us the adult versions of the prince and Clara as "visions." For me, this compromise worked. In fact, it didn't feel like a compromise because we learn early on that this story is going to depend on a child's magical point of view. Ratmansky explains his decision in the Playbill that accompanied the performance; to paraphrase, he said something about how adults pretending to be children is never fully convincing.

Is it clumsy to have children "see" adult versions of themselves? Not when the choreography incorporates childlike motions, so we know we are seeing adults who are still tied to their childhood selves. In the production I saw, Xiomara Reyes laughed and smiled as her childlike self might have done, while simultaneously dancing with adult bravura and precision. At one moment, the choreography required her to become overcome with shyness and scamper offstage, only to re-enter and finish her combination. We don't lose sight of who she once was. In a way, it's a reminder to the audience that they too will have an adult and child version of themselves.

In writing, it's important to try to "teach" your audience how your story will be told early on, so they are adjusted and so the story will unfold naturally. Ratmansky does this, albeit via the medium that is dance. In most ballets the Nutcracker is introduced as a doll, who only becomes life-sized after midnight. Ratmansky neatly introduces the Nutcracker to the audience as a boy--because that's how Clara sees him. At various points in the Christmas party, Clara either interacts with the Nutcracker as a boy or a doll on the stage. But the direction is clear: to her, he is a boy and to the grownups, he is a doll. We, as the audience, get to see both. And this changeable, mutable quality, so much a part of childhood, sticks with the ballet until it is midnight, and the mice and the Nutcracker and the other dolls do battle.

Who are the other dolls? The ones who appear in Act 1--in the Balanchine version you know them as the soldier and the pretty dancing girl. These dolls appear throughout the first act, to try to protect the Nutcracker when he is injured by Fritz, and later, in the war against the Mice.

The overall effect of this production is one that is cohesive, the product of a singular vision and that is not simply a series of set pieces. I felt immersed in a world and as an audience member, I want to be immersed in a world. The theme of sweets and eating sweets starts from moment one, and carries on to the second half of the ballet in the Kingdom of the Sweets (which otherwise seems untethered). The mice appear early on and reappear and reappear (even at the end). It makes sense. Mice and sweets go together. And then there are the various lovely couplings in the Kingdom of the Sweets including flowers and bees.



(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

Visually, the production was stunning--I loved the house askew, the entering and exiting through doors and the colors. But I also loved the precise and complex choreography. I would need to see this production again and again to dissect all the different steps--suffice it to say, Ratmansky seems to have never seen a turn, turn, turning-jump combination he didn't love. Ditto for every version of assemble known to man and woman. At one point, I worried for the bees, varying their turns and jumps and direction, so like a jazz dancer might. And the timing required for the corps section to at once stay together, but dance in their respective "groups" made for scenes that were beautiful, but constantly in motion. Each party guest had clearly received direction. At one point, I saw the butler flirt with a guest . . . only to be reprimanded by her husband. This drunken, slightly corrupt adult flirtation was in contrast to the sweet and cheerful romance of the flowers and bees in the second half of the show. And then there were the costumes--having danced with props, I don't know how Mistly Copeland and others managed to perform with those hats askew.

And then there were the dancers themselves. I loved the "leads"--Cornejo and Reyes. There was I think a slight slip in which Reyes seemed to lose her balance. Blink and you missed the tumble, though, as these pros continued to dance right through the performance. Cornejo is certainly one of the best dancers alive today, as he demonstrated. Everything he does is so fluid, effortless and just beautiful. It wasn't hard to imagine him as a prince. Reyes I've only seen dance a couple of times and it was a pleasure to see how radiant she can be in a role that requires girlishness and virtuosity.

This was not an easy ballet. The timing and the intricate steps give very little space for breathing. I'm thinking, for example, of how much takes place at the end of the kitchen scene, of how quickly we go from the mice, to Drosselmeier, to the start of the party. It's not a lot of bars and a great deal of information, which means choreography, must be delivered on time. Given the complexity of the ballet, I'm really impressed by the production and can't wait to see it again next year.

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