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.