30 September 2014

I've finally finished the impressions of TSFB's performances last year just in time to head to Seattle for PNB's Jewels. Flipping through my backlog, I have got quite a few performances that I saw but never wrote up, either due to general orneriness or (at the time) depression about the general state of my degree-seeking career. While I am not known for brevity (and am infamous for burying the lede), my goal for the end of the year will be to publish short impressions about everything missing from my blog, including

1 traveling Nutcracker at DPAC
3 TSFB performances, probably from 2009 or 2010, when they did Monumentum/Movements
2 Ballet Chicago performances (that I don't even remember going to)
2 Moscow Festival Ballet performances in Urbana
1 Chicago Dancing Festival (that I do remember)

More as I find my box of programs.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, 9 November 2013 (evening): Program A, the Costumed Complaint

As promised in my last entry, here is (more) whinging about costuming. For actual performance impressions, scroll to the end and read my meager conclusions.

Program A: Mozartiana/Episodes/Romeo&Juliet
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington DC

Saturday, 9 November 2013, 7:30 PM Evening Performance
Orchestra U120

As I remarked to someone recently, I never knew that I had such a wellspring of vitriol for poor stagecraft. Of course, I once stopped a period movie because one of the actresses wore a dress without sleeves (infuriatingly inaccurate unless you were Russian and several decades later), so perhaps it wasn't that unexpected.

Balanchine created Mozartiana for the Tchaikovsky festival. Both the NYCB and the Balanchine Trust tells me that both composer and choreographer pay homage to Mozart in it. The music is texturally lighter than most of Tchaikovsky's usual chamber output, and both casting and costuming evokes an earlier European sensibility rather than the Franco-Russian hodgepodge of the late 19th Century.

The closest historical analogue for lead ballerina's costume is the robe à la anglaise, featuring a narrow bodice and a very full pleated skirt in a bell shape. The Eisenhower Theater exhibits TSFB costumes, including one of the original Mozartiana ballerina costumes with its bodice rendered in  black velvet bodice with long narrow sleeves ending at the wrist. I could complain (slightly) that more accurate sleeves should end at the elbow with frilled or lace-trimmed sleeves from one's chemise, but it is a better example of the aforementioned robe than the revision, which has moved those needed frills to the neckline, flapping like a string of flags on a naval ship. While Ter-Arutunian's original costumes were also sleeveless and had lace at the necklines (a design copied by most other companies mounting this piece), the results are restrained, appropriately boudoir rather than vulgar.

N Magnicaballi in Mozartiana. Image taken from but not linked from the Kennedy Center.

Ian Grosh (and unnamed female performer) in Mozartiana. Image taken from DanceTabs, sorry!
Once again, poor Ian Grosh gets the brunt of my exasperation with his sartorially anachronistic jester.  Slashed sleeves and hip-length garment equals doublet, which fell out of fashion over a century before the women's costumes in this ballet. Louis XIV certainly contributed to its decline by codifying court dress that included nothing of the sort.

When I watch a ballet, I expect all of the parts to work in harmony in supporting the illusion that the dancers create. In this case, it was like watching Esmeralda shaking it at court with Flouncy Shakespeare. The illusion is broken, and I cannot simply excuse the disjunctions because the costumes are "pretty enough".  

Anyway, onto impressions. 

Heather Ogden continued to be amazing. The expansive dancing on Wednesday night looked like a mere dress rehearsal compared to the lush textures and shapes that she leaned into tonight. She was an earthbound spirit, dancing to create a path between worlds. I would have been more awed, except I was highly caffeinated and my nerves too deadened to summon that particular emotion. The marathon performances seemed to have got to her a little as well, as she lost her legs during the final pirouettes and fell into her closing pose. Michael Cook also improved, handling his ballerina and the choreography with more confidence than his earlier outing. 

The other parts, Grosh and the four attendant ballerinas, proceeded on course and I remained unmoved. My complaints about the Jester (Grosh and everyone else) is a general complaint about the transmission of choreography, or rather the prioritization of what to teach. In contrast, I treat choreography of the four attendant ballerinas like I do the first movement of Diamonds, as an exercise in patience before more interesting stuff happens. This performance was better than Thursday's exercise in incoherence, but the ending movement (Theme and Variations) did not exceed its choreography and ended tonally as one of "general revelry" rather than of celebration.

As to Episodes, I've posted my conspiracy theories and have all but stood on my head trying to find my way in. Looking at it has increased my understanding of the other black-and-white Balanchines, but neither the choreography or the music is as coherent or as interesting as those pieces. It's not a doodle like Haieff Variations, but it is definitely not a masterpiece either. 

I don't have much to say about Episodes during this performance besides that it was tautly danced. in the Ricerata, Natalia Magnicaballi and Pavel Gurevich made the choreography personal but did not dip into tragedy as they had done on Wednesday. However, the lighting technicians seem to have thrown subtlety right out of the window in the second movement (Five Pieces). Jordyn Richter and Ted Seymour were now fluorescent under the harsh full lighting, making them hard to look at directly. Whether a result of audience complaints or emanating from "artistic improvements", the changes sucked.

Making stink bombs out of expired eggs (or would readers prefer lemonade out of lemons), the slightly enhanced look did put Richter and Seymour's attempt at a pas de deux strongly in mind when I watched Agon again recently. Whereas Agon is a courtly competition between dancers, the juxtaposition of purpose in Five Pieces seems to suggest that the competition hasn't even started. Seymour was game, wrangling with a passive-aggressive Richter who seemed to prefer that the competition will never happen. She was always a hair too far from his hands, crouched down when he points up, hiding behind his back and making rude gestures with her legs, in general plotting sabotage by attrition against an oblivious nice guy. 

I don't have anything new to add to my impressions of Romeo & Juliet. There is only so much that commitment can do to mitigate ineffective choreography. At its best, the dancers helped me to ignore the unmusical choreography. At its worst, I was incredulous that this was actually happening.

13 September 2014

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, 8 & 9 (matinee) November 2013: Program B, Tempi/Agon (3/3)

Program B: Pas de dix/Duo Concertant/Tempi de Valse/Agon
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington DC

Friday, 8 November 2013
Orchestra S105

Saturday, 9 November 2013, 1:30 PM matinee
Orchestra Q106

The Waltz of the Flowers stalked me from coast to coast in 2013. I would blame somebody, but it's choreographic catnip and I'm too busy gorging on it to formulate paranoid conspiracy theories.

TSFB presented it as Tempi di Valse, or to be absolutely correct, an excerpt of the same, as only one tempo was given at these performances and four of the five original components in the suite were missing.  The program claims that its unadorned setting makes the viewer more acutely aware of the geometry in Balanchine's vision. To repeat the paltry text thus far, I cheerfully partook of the revisions, but I also spent half of my time missing the traditional setting in an appalling display of orthodoxy.

Tempi presents the Waltz of the Flowers without sets or costumes. We got a stage, some orange lights, and dancers attired in the "modern Balanchine" school of dancewear: minimally decorated leotards attached to wispy skirts, or vice versa. However, the crisscrossing bust detail on everyone reminded me not so much of Allegro Brilliante as much as Amazons waiting to go on stage for some Soviet dramballet.

It's a minor detail, but as with movement 2 of the Brahms-Schoënberg Quartet that TSFB put on in 2008, Waltz doesn't work as well without the triple-tiered poofy dresses . The modern Balanchine skirt is filmy and slices through the choreography when I want weightless froth to float above it, a distraction rather than a complement to the music.

I don't have much to say about the dancing except that the corp danced exuberantly. At the Friday performance, Paola Hartley was competent but does not sufficiently differentiate herself from her companions. In the same role at the Saturday matinee, Heather Ogden suggested full-bodied delight about thirty minutes after cranking out the lead in Pas de Dix, even in (slight) panic as she threw herself at her mark after missing an entrance cue.

The Eisenhower Theater is so small that the corp fills it without allowing for even the imagining of scenery or bigger skirts. At one point, what had been two lines of revolving girls, originally designed to hide Dewdrop's exit behind them, now looked like two panes of a very large and heavy door swinging shut. Yes, program, this production did allow me to more clearly see Mr B's geometry. The increased prominence of the dancers as (womanly) bodies and not flowers also made me fear for my life a little. One flying leap from stage, and there will have been a flattened ex-blogger in row Q.

After almost ten years, I've finally reached the point when I can speak carelessly about a piece of choreography through the years, or even across companies. Like my Ph.D., it is a highly specific—though slightly more useless—sort of expertise.

I first saw the Dance Theater of Harlem perform Agon in 2004. My ears wrestled with Stravinsky and my eyes unsuccessfully tried to uncross themselves at sight of the highly incomprehensible action. TSFB last put on Agon in 2010, and that time I had the good taste to enjoy it.

I'll save readers the agony of reading a summary of the action, and myself the effort of having to write it. TSFB's Agon perpetually looks on the verge of being finished but never achieves that promise, and the impression solidified over the three performances that I have now seen. I had wondered in Duo whether sameness became an issue when I mainlined performances, and the concern reappeared with Agon. Well, I'm about to go see Jewels four times in one weekend in Seattle, so stay tuned for the twitching.

In the first pas de trois, Kirk Henning frivoled languidly, which provided a surprising contrast against the music; Jane Morgan was alertly lissom (I wonder if this combination of words had ever been said before) while Amy Brandt danced well and courteously but occasionally mugged for the cheap seats. In the second pas de trois, Ian Grosh found the dignity that he was looking for in Mozartiana, while Matthew Renko (listed for Friday and Sunday but performed Saturday as well) appropriately restrained his Tigger-ness; I want to use some other word besides competent to describe Paola Hartley, but the synonyms all sound like faint praise when I simply mean that she can do better in this highly excellent company. Fatigue did become an issue at the matinee, as the men nearly dropped her at the end of the Bransle Double.

Michael Cook and Elisabeth Holowchuk danced the central pas de deux in both performances that I saw. Their dancing tended toward adversarial and passionately arctic—I hate you, but we dance well together, so I'll let you live today if you don't miss any steps—which suits the competitive aspect of Agon. Cook was sharper on Saturday afternoon to match his foe.

Agon is Greek for "contest". This is repeated ad nauseum in programs, often without the annotation that the movements are named for French court dances. The cold adversarial competition seems to be a trend, but having received volume 2 of VAI's series of NYCB in Montréal, I think that companies who program this piece have gone too far in pushing that interpretation. Violette Verdy can still smile at both of her partners in acknowledgement in the second pas de trois and wallop them both with her execution of the choreography. Instead of studied disdain, Brandt acknowledged that she was dancing with someone on stage, and I didn't know why it pleased me until I saw Verdy.

As always, I cringed over the finger snaps in the Double Pas-de-Quatre, cringed over my anticipation of that silly moment, and cringed over why Balanchine ever thought the overt mickey mousing of the music was a good idea. The orchestra smeared themselves all over the score on Friday and all but the mandolin and strings redeemed themselves on Saturday.

More whinging about costuming in Mozartiana next.