08 November 2013

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Program A, 7 November 2013

Program A: Mozartiana, Episodes, Romeo and Juliet
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Thursday, 7 November 2013
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington DC
Orchestra Left, S3

Everything was a little off-kilter in Mozartiana tonight, as if the energy hoarded for last night had bursted at a few seams. We were left with some interestingly conceived dancing that didn’t seem to belong to the same ballet.

Natalia Magnicaballi has a luscious rubato and uses it intelligently. While I liked Ogden yesterday, she anticipates the music too much and that occasionally comes off as a lack of confidence. Magnicaballi allows her phrasing to flow through the music, never hurrying her movement for the sake of the next beat. Part of that power comes in her calm upper body, extending her head, back and arms so that the movement always feels completed to its full potential.

Perhaps it’s part of Magnicaballi’s emploi, but there’s always a sense of fragility in her dancing. Today it colors the Preghiera (as it did in the Riccercata yesterday) as tragedy. It was not an invocation as yesterday, asking divinity to use her as instrument; it was instead a sacrifice and she was the courtly victim, Andromeda on the rocks as appeasement or intercession.

There was a new cast of girlish attendants, attendants to the doomed bride. These girls are older than yesterday’s cast, and there is not enough physical contrast between them and the womanly attendants, nor between them and Magnicaballi.

It was yet another interpretation from the four (or five) that I have seen, and I was looking forward to how that theme would be developed. Unfortunately, the Gigue happened.

Kirk Henning has elongated limbs that seemed more suited to the geometry of petit allegro. While still not quite satisfactory, it was an improvement over Grosh. However, his usual musical intelligence seemed to have failed him today. This was a frolic worthy of the Soviet clown out of Swan Lake. I won’t say that he simpered, but the uncomplicated cheeriness made the fine music insubstantial. It did not follow what has come before and made me wonder whether I had sleepwalked into a different ballet between movements. Once again, as with Grosh, he was most effective while standing still in the Menuet. His leave-taking was flirtatious and seemed oddly inappropriate for a courtly jester, whose dreams of dignity exists only on my soapbox.

Again, not much to say about the Menuet. Once one sees the shepherdess curls, one cannot unsee them.

In the Theme et Variations, Magnicaballi gave a command performance of the solo variations. It was a masterclass in phrasing. Again, like Ogden, the execution seemed spontaneous and yet endlessly complex.

Pavel Gurevich is Magnicaballi’s cavalier today. While the two are long-limbed and seem physically suited, their dancing was less harmonious than what was promised by their promenade. Gurevich moves well for his size and build, but his upper body lurches oddly upward when jumping. The partnering looked curiously underrehearsed. Their spacing was off, and there were a few parts in which he looked like he was manhandling Magnicaballi in the partnering.There was one turn en attitude in which I could only focus on his hand gripped around her wrist, while her hand trembled above like an autumn leaf. Magnicaballi looked visibly off-center after the pas de deux, and all but staggered off the stage. It was more than a little disastrous, and the whole thing made me think longingly of Momchil Mladenov, one of Magnicaballi’s former partners of a similar build, since retired from the company.

The Finale was an uncomplicated relief. Henning and the girlish attendants came together in joy, Gurevich and Magnicaballi tried to remember the distance between their respective limbs, and the whole thing came to a triumphantly relieved end.

Allan Lewis conducted the orchestra. As with last night, it was a finely textured rendering, marred only by the clarinetist, who seemed to have forgotten his fingers. The reed also seemed suspect in the higher notes. The lighting changes were more noticeable than tonight. I started to squint during the pas de deux and realized that my eyesight was not in error. It is a modern intrusion and was unappreciated. Also as with last night, I tried very very hard to ignore the flouncy flounces on Magnicaballi’s gown. It was easier today with all of the other bewildering things that were happening simultaneously.

I mentioned last night that black-and-whites are hard for me to digest. Unlike the gentleman sitting next to me, I cannot follow the tone rows without sheet music. I spent most of yesterday’s performance sorting the bodies on stage so that I can match the action to the music. It’s a cheat, of course, but repetition and a perverse appreciation for arbitrary musicality yields enough amusements to make the endeavor equitable.

Last night I ranted on the opacity that is Episodes. Episodes of what indeed. My growing suspicion, planted last night, that these were episodes of episodes. In other words, it’s a sequence of events that loop back upon themselves in reference. It is much like the Four Temperaments, except the repetition is not both melodic and choreographic. Instead, it is only choreographic, integrating thematic ideas and the choreographic conventions that came before in tighter and more enclosed rounds.

At intermission today, I mentioned that the whole thing reminds me of PDQ Bach’s Art of the Ground Round (Opus 3.19/pound). That was a tour de force of parody upon the convention of the round (think row, row, row your boat). The idea of rounds is something that keeps popping up in this piece, and the whole thing makes me wonder whether Balanchine has constructed one hell of a joke.

Symphony, Movement 1, is a masterclass on rounds. The opening tableau is even vaguely circular, as are the opening arm isolations. The dancing starts with simple rounds, in which one couple does a movement, the next couple replicates two beats later, repeat until finished.

The dancers then start a second round, escalating the complexity as dancers find rules to play with. First, the corp chooses to replicate the main couple in the same direction, in the next round they choose to replicate in contrast. Then the corp decides that moving in unison among themselves is boring and that they should move in tight contrast to each other even as they are still moving in counterpoint to the leads.

The pairs then get tired of each other, and suddenly it’s time for rounds with genders. First it’s straightforward rounds with men and women, but then for added complexity, the lead man and woman extract themselves to create two more layers of moving bodies. I felt like a giant game of choreographic Twister and I was a little cross-eyed, trying to keep score.

Valerie Tellmann and Matthew Renko were the leads today. Both the music and the dancing were more confident when compared to yesterday, which also made it easier to keep track of the action.

Webern is difficult, and the dancing can be obscure. I heard one audience member behind me muttering in dismay. She was advised to “try to take a nap, if she could”. Disappointment is to be expected, but I wish it didn’t have to be so loud during the dancing.

Jordyn Richter and Ted Seymour were the leads again in Five Pieces today. At first glance, they seem like anecdotes that seem to to have nothing to do with rounds, but they provide thematic material for integration later.

I labeled these as “episodes of unreadyness” in my head. The woman and the man are never in the same physical or mental place. Richter plays it straight. Her acrobatic antics are tools to befuddle poor Ted even further. He wants to look up, she looks down. He looks for her, she hides behind him, legs in the air creating the ballet equivalent of bunny ears (antlers!). Ted wisely does not overact, letting the absurdity of the choreography enhance his guileless expression.

Concerto, the third movement, puts elements of the first two movements to work. The dancers start in a simple round, but as they escalate in difficulty as in movement 1, the lead couple incorporates the juxtaposition of purpose seen in movement two into their dancing.

Michael Cook and Elisabeth Holowchuk danced again today (Holowchuk substituting for the scheduled Paola Hartley). I hadn’t particularly liked his dancing with Magnicaballi, as their reciprocal comfort often looks like complacency, but he’s working out quite well with Holowchuk, who seems to to have an adversarial relationship with him on stage.

The last movement of Concerto made me laugh, as it was literally a round of women surrounding Cook. Just to make sure that we haven’t missed it, we also start with Holowchuck tightly encircling Cook with all the limbs she could find. It’s got to be some sort of a joke, but the final choreography for Cook is that of a man desperately looking for a way out of a round.

Last night, the preceding contrast of bodies stood in counterpoint to the physical homogeneity of Riccercata. Tonight, the preceding fugue of choreography was startling when we arrive at the conventional choreographic voicing of the Riccercata, an orchestration of Bach’s Fugue in 6 voices from Musical Offering (BWV 1079). Webern’s orchestration adds instrumental texture even as it preserves the (dare I say) conventional harmonics of Baroque music. It was a weird return to normalcy after the stringent compositions that preceded it. (I felt the audience members behind me stir in interest, and then in appreciation. Nicely done, Mr B.)

Six groups of dancers, five corp groups and the lead couple, represent the six moving voices, though the lead couple retains the singing melody at all times. It is a moving tableau of bodies, exploring permutations on a motif. Heather Ogden and Ian Grosh were the lead couple tonight. She was majestic in contrast to Magnicaballi’s restrained melancholy, and Ian Grosh found the dignity and simplicity in movement that should have gone into Mozartiana. When they finally bade the curtains to go down, Ogden gestured with authority, imbuing her hands with weight. Here endeth the masterclass, they say.

I don’t have anything to add to last night’s observations about Mejia’s Romeo and Juliet. Holowchuk and Henning make it work despite the choreography, though they were less spontaneous in performance tonight. Despite some sour flourishes by the french horn, Tchaikovsky got another elegant performance, its floridity sufficiently subdued to keep it on this side of parody.

07 November 2013

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Program A, 6 November 2013

Program A: Mozartiana, Episodes, Romeo and Juliet
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington DC
Orchestra U 107, V103

Mozartiana was the first ballet that I ever saw live. I love the solemn pageantry, the evocation of French courtly manners, and best of all, the feather light displays of petit allegro.

What continues to amaze me is the range of emotion that different ballerinas call forth in the same choreography. Suzanne Farrell, in her 1983 televised performance, was joyfully spiritual, even triumphant; Whelan, the first woman I saw in the role, evokes dignity and command even seen years apart, though the initial imperiousness seems to have melted into a calmer self-reflection; and Veronika Part, an earthly Dulcinea, warm and loving.

Heather Ogden in the same ballet called forth serenity. Her dancing brought to mind teachings from the taoist canon, which emphasizes naturalness, simplicity and spontaneity. It was not a static performance; there was always the sense that we see only those bright facets that the ballerina chooses to show to us, that there is more of the enigma hovering just out of reach.

Preghiera is an invocation, but last night my mind veered off of Christian prayer to that of invocation of the Muse at the beginning of the Iliad, asking for divine inspiration to guide his hand in dance. It's rather appropriate: his first surviving masterpiece is a celebration of Muses (Apollo, 1927), while what is more or less his last work calls on them for their favor.

Ogden sets the stage with four girl attendants. Despite the mismatch in size, as some attendants were visibly and bigger than others, their solemn dignity complemented Ogden's prayer well. Ogden has a very lovely and calm bourrée, and she uses it well, though I would have liked to see Ogden utilize her back and head more fully to match.

Ian Grosh was the courtly jester in the Gigue. He is not yet comfortable in the role, more concerned with the fiendishly difficult footwork than the proper conveyance of manner. However, this is a complaint not unique to this performance. I continue to scream (in a vacuum, it seems) that this jester should be the most dignified person in the room. He is not a clown, and nobility bearing should permeate his upper body. I have yet to see sufficient consideration and weight given to the sparse simplicity of the port de bras. In this respect, Grosh was more effective in the Menuet, as he remembered to give proper attention to his carriage as he took his leave of the audience.

On that note, I would like to give a discommendation to his execution of the petit allegro. The dancing should give more consideration to distance covered rather than the height attained during steps. What I saw last night was all up-and-down and flattened the choreography to an unhappy extreme. 

I continue not to have much to say about the Menuet. From memory, I think it's a piece better seen straight on than from above. It was excellently performed, but it is the choreographical weak link in Mozartiana and thus hard to make much of. Despite the suggestions of Dresden Shepherdesses in costuming and hairstyle, these women are courtly attendants. I wanted the women to demonstrate solemnity that their girlish counterparts had displayed to great effect, as I think the elegance would keep the pastoral portrait from imploding in triteness.

Mozartiana is a ballerina's ballet, and Michael Cook very intelligently recognizes this, devoting himself to displaying Ogden like a shining treasure. Occasionally his bearing is too ardently yearning, but that is a slight correction.

Despite the disparity in petit allegro — that is, Cook demonstrates an understanding of its execution and goal (that of clean, fleeted footwork that hovers over and across space rather than simply measuring its height) — the casting demands that we compare he and Grosh as doppelgängers. They are sufficiently similar in coloring and build, calling back to the mirroring of girl and woman attendants, and who are ultimately refracted shadows of the ballerina herself.

Cook initially tries for sharply etched movements in his solos, calling equal attention to the choreography as well as the occasionally blurry execution of it. I think I (and he) enjoyed it more as he relaxed into the music, and it showed in his increased ease (and ironically, clarity) of movement.

I wish that I have other Farrell stagings of this ballet for comparison, especially when it came to the final tableau. What came to mind was not of the ballerina ascendant, but a sense of reconciliation, of disparate parts reaching rapport, celebrating a harmonious oneness in purpose. It was joyous enough to make this perpetually grumpy observer burst into discreet tears.

Allan Lewis is the new(?) conductor this year, and he lead the orchestra in giving a finely textured performance. However, I will note that like cowbells, one can never have too much glockenspiel in the variations.

Holly Hynes's costumes worked well for the female attendants, but the fringes on Ogden's bodice detracted from its elegance. The swooping excess seemed more appropriate for a gypsy dress meant for the tavern scene in Don Q. Similarly, Michael Cook's vest was too low cut. The objective is courtliness, not Eurotrash.

Ballet Austin provided the corps for my first and last experience with Episodes in 2008, which incidentally was my first experience with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. I find that I rather miss them in this iteration. I miss the full-bodied physicality that their dancers brought to the round. It is too refined this time.

I won't bore my gentle reader with too many wild theories about the name. After all, Episodes? Episodes of what? They could be called "anecdotes", but episodes imply repetition and continuity.

Episodes is a weird, dreamlike echo of Four Temperaments and Agon. We see quotations from both works, some weirdly abandoned in the middle of its execution. When I first saw it, I stared at blankly and wondered if perhaps Balanchine was having me on. Who, what, antlers?!

On a more serious note, if we were to talk about progressions, we could talk about the progression of womanly bodies from the petit, short-waisted Paola Hartley in Symphony, to the statuesque but long-waisted (shades of Aroldingen!) Jordyn Richter in Five Pieces, to the shapely but humanly sized Elisabeth Holowchuk in Concerto, to the Balanchine archetype that is Natalia Magnicaballi in the Riccerata. The juxtaposition of soloist and (where available) corps bodies in the first three movements is especially piquant when compared to the physical homogeneity of the Riccerata.

But then, I could be reading into it too much.

I don't do too well with black-and-whites on my initial viewings, so I will save more detailed choreographic comments for the second night. The first movement (Symphony) was tentatively performed, though it settled down as the orchestra grew in confidence. Jordyn Richter was all cool nonchalance in contrast to Ted Seymour's guilelessness. He is a very intelligent dancer and carefully rations his theatricality to delicious effect. Holowchuk and Henning  (substituting for Cook) performed the Concerto. Holowchuk never makes the same movement twice, and she coolly twists Cook into knots of bodies and limbs. I really appreciated Cook's ability to make the choreography look natural rather than silly (which did happen later in the program, but more on that later). Magnicaballi and Guervich were the courtly leads in the minor-key Riccercata, conveying a sense of subdued personal tragedy into the moving tableau. Their downward sweeping gesture at the finale is done with great delicacy; it is equal parts request and reminder that we must now leave them.

(I moved to V103 for this portion of the program)

While I enjoyed Mejia's Eight by Adler, I didn't hold much confidence for his Romeo and Juliet, if in part because I have no confidence that anyone can overcome the musical cliché of the Tchaikovsky suite. I am sad to say that my suspicions were mostly confirmed. Holowchuk and Henning did marvelous acting (poor Ian Grosh had a thankless job as a thrashing Tybault), but it wasn't enough to save the brawny and sometimes anti-musical choreography, by which I mean that the action on stage clashed against the musical mood. Mejia does have a fine sense of theater, and I liked his neo-German Expressionist staging, especially in the costuming. Some of the action made me think (rather uncomfortably) that the choreographer had a series of striking tableau in mind, but not the steps to fill and link them. At the end, I remarked to my friend that I liked it better when they weren't dancing, and I still can't bring myself to retract that statement.

17 October 2013

Ballet West, 6 October 2013: On Tour in Chicago

Ballet West on Tour
6 October 2013, 3 PM matinee
Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Illinois
Orchestra U 405

Presto (world premiere)
Diamonds pas de deux
The Lottery (Chicago premiere)

Feeling disappointment is one thing, but actually writing a negative review is quite another. For days, the only thing I could think to put down was, "Well, it happened and I saw it."

Of course, prior to achieving that particular non-reaction, the whole experience had me feeling like Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz, eyes widening and head tilting back in horrified incredulity as the village panto imploded under the weight of its own well-intentioned obliviousness.

For reference's sake, feel free to see for yourself.

With that said, I don't want this to stand as a condemnation of the company itself. Ballet West's intentions and the foundations (especially their corp de ballet) are good, but the matinee program, both the choreography and the company's presentation of it, threw up sufficient barriers to enjoyment that left me to mark time until I could escape for vodka and pierogi*.

When performed in isolation, Rubies is an appealing choice with which to open or close a performance. I compared the third movement on my previous viewing to choreographic champagne, chasing after the piano as it burbles along on double speed. However, there were two movements before that and the soloists complete them shakily.

In general, the soloists looked competent but not personable. This may be a function of my row U seats in Orchestra Left, but I was hardly at the back of the auditorium. Experience and coaching in these roles (not that I know how long they have already danced these roles) will help with projection, but in the meantime it didn't make for very memorable watching.

Elizabeth McGrath was uneventful as Tall Girl. There were too many limbs flailing in the beginning, as if her torso was not fully engaged in the dancing, but she eventually settled in. Showgirl, hostess, or some permutation of both, she does not have enough authority in her stage presence to stand out sufficiently against the corps.

Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud were the main couple. Ruud has an eye-catching languidness in his jumps that contrasted intriguingly with the quicksilver choreography. I did notice that there were a few spots during his romp with the gang where movements looked like they were performed 'as choreographed' rather than towards the intended party, but on the whole he was closely attentive. Sisk in the McBride role faired slightly less well. Sisk dances gently, which can be used to great effect but made this role look slightly blurry. Occasionally the geometry of her choreography looked off. In one particular moment in the pas de deux, Ruud pulls her arms stage right, and what I expected to see was the ballerina's working leg extended parallel to the floor, as if someone else is pulling that limb from the opposite side. Instead, we see Sisk in a full split with working leg pointed to the ceiling. The opposing force has disappeared and instead the moment just looks vulgar.

The corp were a treat to watch as they scampered through the choreography. I did want to commend one particular corp artist (by her coloring, most likely either Sayaka Ohtaki or Jenna Rae Herrera — I regret not being close enough to identify her). There is a moment where two members of the corps women pose downstage, facing the audience. This artist did so with notable assurance and sex appeal, rare enough to make me take note and speculate on the prospects of expanding that quality into McBride's role.

I group Rubies and Diamonds together as they exhibit similar insufficiencies of performance. Unlike Rubies, however, Diamonds is not as dancer-proof and is particularly exposed during the pas de deux; its success hinges on the couple's ability to convey their understanding of the music and choreography to the audience. Beau Pearson was an ardently attentive cavalier, with what I would say is now a very standard and Russian portrayal.

There's a saying that the object of one's regard reflects something intimate about one's own self-image, or at least the image of his ideal woman. If I take this as given, then his regard for Christiana Bennett in Suzanne Farrell's role would suggest that he, like Franz in Coppelia, longs for an uncomplicated automaton as partner. There were no dynamics to contrast one movement from the next. While all of the shapes were carefully and correctly placed, the ballerina did not demonstrate that she understood what the choreography, both in the beauty moments and in the transitions between them, were meant to do. At the moment, this is not her role.

Presto, the world premiere, was performed by four dancers to slashing violin music. There are pieces that are fun to dance, and there are pieces that are fun to watch. The two intersect somewhere, but this piece was not it. Like Douglas Adams's bowl of petunias, my only reaction was to gird my loins, think 'oh no, not again' and prepare for the long drop ahead.

As the inaccurate paraphrase goes, put a man and a woman onstage and you've already got a story. As with countless contemporary ballets before it, it is a relentless battle of physicality between men and women in shimmering leotards as they dance at each other. If there exists a relationship between the dancers, the closest comes in the duet challenge as the former pose the latter into a variety of shapes in a bonus challenge round. At one point, one of the principal women (possibly Jennifer Lawrence) slipped and took an audible fall. There was palpable concern from her fellow dancers, and I would argue that it made the dancing better as the dancers seemed more aware of each other than they had been. The choreography, however, soon overwhelmed that.

The dancers were well-rehearsed and danced very well, but it's difficult to make anything out of the ugly music and the flashy but empty choreography. Truly, it is a piece fit for the CW.

I understand why the Chicago premiere of The Lottery merits the closing position by virtue of prestige (and logistics). I would have wished for greater clarity to accompany prestige, however. The Lottery, as I am told by the program, is by Shirley Jackson is evidently a famous short story. It is so famous that my home state (infamous for having the lowest public school teacher salaries in the country) does not teach it to its students. I very intelligently inferred that there was a lottery from the obfuscating liner notes and read Wikipedia for the plot at the first intermission**.

The piece's fidelity to the story's structure was problematic both for its pacing and structure. I very intelligently remarked to my friend that this piece aspires to de Mille-ian drama by way of Tharpian obfuscation. Really what I mean to say in that piece of snooty name-dropping is that it aspires to a very American melodrama through interminable and idiosyncratic port de bras.

What is possible and even engaging in writing made for tedious and confusing viewing when the same actions were rendered in dance. Similar costuming made it impossible to identify different characters without a working knowledge (as well as good opera glasses) on the dancers themselves. The victim (who jsmu on BalletAlert had identified as Katie Critchlow) danced well, but I had no idea who she was beforehand and was unimpressed with the gimmick of her screaming.

The Lottery gives all of the dancers multiple somethings interesting to do, and they all dance well, but as a ballet, it fails as good dance drama. Like a Soviet Swan Lake, it demands too much foreknowledge from its audience (knowledge that was not augmented by the program), and in this case (possibly intentional, though not wisely), the staging does not augment one's understanding of these characters sufficiently to sympathize with the losers.

The program sponsors were able to provide live music from the Chicago Sinfonetta for most of this performance (Presto was prerecorded). The Lottery's percussive score was performed very well, but Rubies and Diamonds sounded under-rehearsed and Rubies very sluggish and careful. The woodwinds in particular needed tuning help.

*In the interests of getting to my train on time, I did not get the vodka.

** I have seen many analogues in the popular media, but the story was not immediately clear to me by title and reputation.