16 October 2011

Ballet in Cinema, 16 October 2011: That’s how the Soviets do it, Comrade

Class Concert/Giselle Double Bill
Bolshoi Ballet
Ballet in Cinema rebroadcast
Champaign Art Theater, Champaign IL
16 October 2011, noon

After a while, Class Concert blurs together to leave the singular impression of a body suspended three feet off the ground, its legs contorted in some fantastically (and anatomically) improbable configuration. I do not object to the display of Soviet air superiority (and in fact adore it as I do a Comintern speech in Pravda), but I do feel that any exhibition of this graduation exercise should probably come with a surgeon general’s warning for the attendant risk of elevated blood pressure.

As do other pieces – most notably Études – in the genre, the choreographer promises a slightly enhanced look at a class at the Moscow Choreographic Institute. The beginning students pay attention to their placements and occasionally forget their combinations; the advanced students try to convince us that they still remember the basics as their battements come unhinged at the hips and swing uncomfortably close to their ears. Really, I don’t understand the modern Vaganova arabesque, which now exceeds 90 degrees by a wide margin, and in fact I will prefer to call everything penchée until someone can demonstrate a clear difference between the two.

Anyway, things progress quickly from barre demonstrations to center and allegro work. The progression reminds me of the Soul Train Line: featured dancers saunter down the diagonal, unleashing their best tricks for the folks at home. The petit and grand allegro steps look great in isolation, but Messerer’s choreography doesn’t leave much time (if any at all) for integrating the steps into a performance for anybody. All in all, the first half of this double bill left me feeling as if I had been pleasantly blindsided by a Mack truck.

An exhibition of Grigorovich’s Giselle followed after a very short pause. I had not sat through a full length Giselle in several years (my last was the 1977 Makarova/Baryshinov at the ABT), and I regret the refresher being a Soviet production*. I was tempted to do a stream of consciousness commentary, but that would have required more brainpower than I had at my disposal, and anyway, Act I can be adequately summarized as “Giselle’s best scenes as recounted by someone with nonlinear recollection and can only see in the red and yellow parts of the color spectrum”.

Lunkina is a limpid ballerina and perpetuates a quiet madness – what Joan Fontaine in Suspicion would call a Born Victim (BV): methinks any intense concentration and then dispersion of strong emotion would have done her in, eventually**. Gudanov, the cavalier, alternated between lunkheaded ardor and (microseconds of) genuine tenderness. Hilarion (casting unknown) was yet another BV: he existed to glower ineffectually until he is tossed off a cliff by a bunch of ghostly brides.

The White Act fared better, if only because there were fewer rearrangements and cuts. Allash was a stern but utterly ineffectual Myrthe. She had no power in her jetés and any sense of command came through primarily as indifference. Perhaps I am spoiled by the expectation of the Bolshoi ballon (see: Alexandrova), but this Myrthe seemed too earthbound and petty to pose a threat. And while a Vaganova-trained corp is always a pleasure to behold, the classical posture clashed mightily with ghostly afterimages of the Romantic choreography, and the ‘plonks’ of their rock-like pointe shoes in traveling forward arabesques sounded like the Wilis were putting down horseshoes***.

When not strangled by prop trees when dropping lilies at Albrecht or wobbling in adagio, Lunkina was a wisp of a spirit, perpetually a little out of focus to Albrecht and the audience. Even when prompted by love to save her lunkhead lover, this was a Giselle who was done with life and finally at peace with it. Gudanov improves in the second act: his line is gorgeous and he dances the hell out of the choreography. In fact his acting improves, possibly because of it. I wonder if the choreography takes his attention away from the need to sell everything to the audience (thus appropriately centers his acting within the dancing)…or perhaps I just really love his accelerating brisé volées as he pleads his case. The second act rescues my reaction back to a respectable ‘meh’, but merciful Zeus, I’ll not seek out this production willingly anytime soon.

This was my first time watching a Ballet in Cinema production. The sound quality was good but was occasionally overmiked, something that was particularly noticeable when a whole corp de ballet lands at once. The video quality was variable. Class Concert was adequately photographed, by which I mean the whole body was satisfactorily filmed and feet and heads were not lopped off. While the cameramen correctly anticipate the entrances, occasionally they miscalculate the speed at which the choreography moves and have trouble transitioning between dancers. Giselle was filmed like a Lifetime drama, and the less said about that, the better.

And in the final score: Class Concert 1, Giselle 0, your Critic 13.75 USD.

*In fairness, my friend C tells me that the Vasiliev ‘yellow tutu’ version is worse, but I haven’t had the happy privilege of viewing it, thus far. Here I request that the reader desist from offering it to me…unless they also have the travesty that is the Vasiliev Swan Lake for my full enjoyment.

**Probably a good thing that she hasn’t had much to disturb her life until now!

***Michael Somes uses this expression when he rehearses the ABT in Symphonic Variations (see: Frederick Wisemen's documentary Ballet). I found this expression so succinctly apt that I have stolen it for my very own.

20 May 2011

Ballet Chicago Studio Company, 15 May 2011: A Balanchine Celebration

Serenade/Rubies/Who Cares?
15 May 2011, 3 PM
Athenaeum Theater
Orchestra Row K Seat 9

I think I like watching Serenade with students, or at least young dancers, best of all. When the curtain first opens, one can spot the little gestures of nervousness, small disagreements about where to arrive in the beat, heads in disharmony, etc etc. What I love about this work is that in the most satisfying performances, we can observe the dancers lose their self-consciousness and their nervousness in the escalating music and choreography until they are wholly absorbed in movement.

A few particulars:

The "Russian" couple (an always impressive Hamilton Nieh and Ellen Green, BC alumna) partnered well, but it wasn't always clear whether Ellen Green was dancing for her partner or for the audience. That outward projection of self was jarring after the mesmeric rush of corp bodies before it. I couldn't take my eyes off of Rachel Seeholzer's beautifully expansive dancing but was struck by her determinedly neutral (and sometimes almost pained) expression. She has a delightful smile in Who Cares?, performed later, and I wonder if there could be some acceptable medium between the two, particularly as expression (even in a Balanchine work) is an integral part of one's performance.

I think there was too much artifice in the lighting design in Serenade (and really throughout the performance). At times it was uncomfortably murky and at others it deflated the theatrical tension by calling our attention to particular dancers. Who matters? Why not let the audience determine that through the dancing on stage? This was unnecessarily heavy-handed stagecraft.

Rubies started off rather slowly, and I was actually concerned that the corp had run out of energy since Serenade. Jane Morgan is a coltish demi-soloist and shows promise in the role, but dances small without encouragement. Fortunately everyone got a shot of adrenaline from Matthew Renko in the Villella role. Unlike Villella, who rules with charisma and attack, this guy rules because his kung fu reigns supreme. Woe betide the man who tries to challenge him in a dance-off, because he'll never keep up. Rachel Jambois in the soloist role danced with wit and humor, does not quite hold her own when standing still. I've always read McBride's pose as compelling the audience to pay attention to _her_ even when Villella is dancing, Jambois tells us to look at Renko.

After seeing Who Cares?, I can honestly say that I've now met the nicest bunch of New Yorkers. This was a gentle performance, but one danced with dedication and humor. Ellen Green was more effective here than in Serenade, though she does not yet smoulder in stillness as the role has potential for. Seeholzer was delighted in the jumping girl solo and Morgan danced clearly but has room to project more effectively. Ballet Chicago wisely united the cavalier roles for one danseuse (as was originally performed at NYCB), and in the process magnified the Apollon imagery for at least this one observer.

28 January 2011

Russian National Ballet Theatre, 20 January 2011: Cinderella

Russian National Ballet Theatre
20 January 2011, 7 PM
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Orchestra Row T Seat 22

Music from the eponymous ballet by S Prokofieff
Choreographed by Elena and Sergei Radchenko

Cinderella: Marianna Tchemalina
Prince: Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev

To my relief, the over-reliance on previous knowledge of the plot in Romeo and Juliet has been replaced (mostly) with clearly choreographed sequences of events. None of it seems to match the printed libretto, but no matter, I am not tempted to post stream of consciousness recountings of the action today.

Overall, this was a pleasantly danced performance accompanied by a badly edited soundtrack. The stepmother (danced en travesti) lusted after any available men and the stepsisters preened as best they could under over-large wigs. Cinderella (Tchemalina) was appropriately pathetic at home but was fortuitously rescued by a lushly danced Lilac Fairy Godmother (Ekaterina Egorova) and her seasonal attendants, who unfortunately seemed to clothed in tutus spackled with marshmallow bits from Lucky Charms cereal.

Mukhambetkaliev's bravura actually served a point today and didn't look inappropriate, particularly with the requisite Soviet Court Jester at his side. His partnering of Cinderella also looked harmonious today against the Classical instead of Romantic setting of the plot. I was especially taken with the court's performance of a mazurka to the Grand Waltz, which shows the depth of their character work*.

Instead of the typical sequence of the Prince traveling the land, ambassadors of exotic lands brought their prospective princesses to court for footwear inspections. Here I break into the narrative again to note that the action thus far seems a pastiche from everything else: Cinderella was presented at court in a SB-esque pas de quatre, and now an inspection of the Princesses a la Swan Lake (oh what next?). The Prince luckily caused no diplomatic incidents and here I run out of steam, but not before adding that the story ends happily enough in the expected manner.

My production line of reviews continue sooner or later with a traveling production of the Nutcracker, seen in Durham, North Carolina.

Some discussion questions for aspiring librettists:

1. Is Cinderella's father actually dead?
2. Why does the dancing master bring the invitation to the ball to the house? Was this an informal tete-a-tete?
3. If you make the clock a drably-clothed dancing scarecrow, can anyone figure out what he's there for when the moment comes?

*To be honest, I would have preferred 1.5 hours of character dancing to much of the production. It was much better danced and (perhaps my gentle readers can tell) much more memorable.

Russian National Ballet Theatre, 18 January 2011: Chopiniana/Romeo and Juliet

(I've seen about seven performances since I last posted. Will try to whittle at backlog. Nothing to do until TSFB next performs anyways.)

Russian National Ballet Theatre
Chopiniana/Romeo and Juliet
18 January 2011
Tryon Festival Theater, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Orchestra Row R, Seat 6

(lead couple: Marianna Tchemalina and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev)

From what I saw of this program (mishaps - both weather and a fundamental inability to keep time), it was a rather politely danced program. It was academically sound but pallid. Where is the mystery? Mukhambetkaliev tried for bravura (in a ballet blanc?) and Tchemalina projected beauty. They danced well separately but together gave the impression that they were dancing two different ballets. The corp couldn't decide whether they were grabbing ears or chins as they indicated the necessary port de bras with their fingers.

Romeo and Juliet
music from the Tchaikovsky suite
choreographed by Elena Radchenko

Juliet: Ekaterina Egorova
Romeo: Dmitri Schemelinin

I couldn't bring myself to write an actual review, so here's what happened in my head during the performance, more or less.

(Tableau for the Capulets)
Juliet: Oh woe, oh arabesque en attitude, oh parents.

(Tableau for the Montagues)
Romeo: I'm too cool to have parents, just a posse.

lighting technicians: Let's play with the red colored gels!

(Scene opens upon the party at the Capulets)

Paris (Samat Abdrakhmanov): My hat is substantially bigger than my head.

(A bunch of poorly masked people burst in - Mercutio taunts everyone and is quickly found out. For some reason not made clear on stage, they are allowed to stay. General revelry ensues. Somewhere in here Juliet wanders onto the stage with her girlfriends, sees Romeo, falls in love very quickly. I think there was a love duet but I may have fallen asleep during it. Suddenly Tibault becomes angry. He seems a very volatile fellow. He and Mercutio fight. Predictably, Mercutio dies.)

Lady Capulet: I have taken off my fake curls and will now perform the Mad Scene from Giselle. Oh whiplash. Ow.

(Romeo finishes the job, looks confused but then appropriately devastated. Gives solo in front of the curtains that involves much bravura jumping. Suddenly realizes that it is not a good idea to linger and runs away Somewhere)

Scene 2:
(Romeo bursts into Juliet's room. Juliet greets him joyfully. They roll around on the floor. No, really, they Roll Around on the Floor.)

Parents Capulet: Oh good morning there, Paris will marry you!

Juliet: Um, okay. Oh, wait a minute. No. NO!

Parents Capulet: Death by drawing and quartering! Well, this is a family performance, so we'll just drag you around the floor for a while.

Juliet: Heave, Cry, Woe. (Parents stomp off stage, nearly treading on each other's hems in the process.)

(Suddenly a Robed Man appears behind a colored window, waves his arms and makes the cross several times)

me: Didn't anyone ever tell you not to take unidentified bottles from strange men?!

(Romeo wanders in again, sees Juliet prone on the floor, pointedly not rolling around this time.)

Him: (in the style of teenagers everywhere) OH NOES.

(Suddenly women wearing translucent curtains wander in en pointe. This wakes up Your Critic in a cloud of befuddlement. Apparently he is now reliving their very short Acquaintance. It was a very fondly remembered time with lots of lifts. They exeunt, pursued by no bears.)

Romeo: I fumble around my back for MY poison!

(He drinks and he dies. Juliet wakes up.)

Juliet: I'm alive!

(She makes a circuit around the stage before realizing that Romeo is prone directly behind where she had been sleeping.)

Juliet: (gasp) Romeo! You're not dead! (picks up an arm) You are!

Romeo: (FLOPS audibly on stage)

Your critic: (completely loses her composure into her elbow)

Juliet: Oh well. (stabs self and Dies)

(Your Critic manages not to kill herself on the performing center's steps afterwards and staggers home to write this Account of Events.)