Saturday, June 30, 2012

ABT—Swan Lake, Swan Song

Thanks, Angel. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor 
Angel Corella's ABT farewell, on June 28, was a bittersweet highlight during an auspicious week of Swan Lakes. The Spaniard partnered another longtime ABT principal, Paloma Herrera. Both were born in 1975; Herrera (from Argentina) joined the company in 1991, and Corella four years later. They arrived to great fanfare, both brilliant and exciting young rock stars (in the wake of Baryshnikov, who left in '90) who garnered general interest beyond ballet's avid fan base. I remember being dumbstruck by Herrera's incredible feet and perfect line. She seemed to mark a new generation of more athletic, yet more refined ballerinas. And Corella could spin like a top, literally, and his charm fairly burst from his compact body.

So it was with complex emotions that I watched them perform this great ballet marking Corella's goodbye, one they've done countless times. Corella is now devoting most of his time to his own company and school, Barcelona Ballet. Even for a man to whom it seemed ballet's riches gravitated naturally, in a country that hasn't had a national ballet company in more than two decades, it hasn't been an easy path. The troupe was relocated and renamed, and commissioned works which reflect the proud, rich Spanish culture. But the country's economy has since been on an inexorable downslide, which can't bode well for national support.

Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Corella will continue to dance with his own company, but judging from a recent run in New York (reviewed here), he is predictably dancing roles with more of an emphasis on drama than on pyrotechnics. He has at times appeared heroic in his turns and leaps, but he is human, as hard as it is to accept that. Even last night, he whipped as quickly as ever in pirouettes, his smiling face a blur, so it was easy to overlook his loss of flexibility and ballon. And yet his acting was richer, his scenes of soul-searching more believable than ever, grounded by maturity. 

Herrera was a careful, detailed Odette, giving as much attention to placing her toe on the floor as the tilt of her head. Her deliberation paid off when she extended one leg while opening her arms like a flower blooming, creating a resonant visual tension. Her coolness balanced out Corella's warmth, which hopefully we'll continue to see seasonally with his company's New York visits. His peers lay bouquets at his feet before a blizzard of mylar confetti blanketed the stage. Angel beamed, all that was needed to catch our hearts one last time.

Polina Semionova and David Hallberg. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
I also caught the cast featuring Polina Semionova and David Hallberg, both absurdly naturally gifted. Hallberg has evolved into the unicorn of ABT, that magical, too-perfect being that could only be imagined, and even though a regular throughout this Met season, has given what feel like rare and infrequent performances because each is so special. (Sara Mearns is his NYCB counterpart.) He has addressed some early soft spots, never dire because of his other plentiful gifts—he has become stronger, more passionate, more fiery, and winning in dark roles. Meanwhile, and this is going to sound weird, but he is more confident with his ethereality, allowing a more fulsome delicacy to pervade his dancing. It is this poetry that gives his sublime lines a true vulnerability.

Semionova is his physical female counterpart—long, gorgeous lines and unimpeded extensions. When Hallberg lifts her in second splits, it's dazzling. But her performance felt  surficial, lacking in psychological depth. Hallberg has channelled his great physical gifts to imbue his dancing with soul. 

In this cast, Alex Hammoudi danced Von Rothbart: The Man, with the fancy purple suede boots. He was dastardly and bewitchingly seductive, and his robust physique is a good foundation for this gem of a role. Despite his corps rank, Hammoudi has been cast in several major roles this season. He should at least be a soloist in the near future.

ABT's Met season wraps up this week with the glitzy Corsaire, another ballet that requires two leading men. Look for Ethan Stiefel (retiring as well) and Ivan Vasiliev (jumps like a kangaroo) as Ali, the slave, in head turning performances.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Falling blog update

Another big blog gone: The Local, a New York Times partnership with NYU and CUNY journalism schools, covering some Brooklyn and East Village neighborhoods. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

End of the First Blogolithic Era


That noise signified that within the past couple weeks, both and have ceased to publish new content. 

What has that got to do with me, you ask? People, we're facing and internet without endless hilarious images of animals being cute, or where you could read art reviews and columns by actual respected art historians and critics. That's all. And what kind of a world is that?

Well, the kind of world that existed 30 years ago. It was a time when we used carbon paper to make copies. (Recently someone over 20 asked me what that was.) Typewriters to write stuff. Wite-Out to correct mistakes. After carbon paper, floppy discs to transfer files, before we had email.

But seriously, it does feel like some sort of epoch has ended, akin to the Paleocene, or Cenozoic (that's ours). Those sites signified institutional funding and support that were beacons to regular old bloggers stuck in the fog, proof that we weren't wasting our time in pursuit of actually getting paid to write this stuff, even if everyone had a sinking feeling that was so.

But apparently every company has its burn-rate limit, and we seem to have reached some sort of milestone there. You can only go so long justifying a few hundred hits a day and maybe a couple of comments. Also, it's just not that simple to continually crank out new content, particularly if your goal is several posts a day or more.

Ironically, the strongest, best respected voices will likely be silenced in this ever-increasing dumbing-down and democratization of information, since they're the ones who are most likely to demand getting paid. Would the Jerry Saltz's of the world write for nothing? Perhaps, but they're in a position to demand pay, or at least occupy column inches that garner a lot of eyeballs, which these days can be a blogger's primary remuneration. In a way, not much has changed since high school. Popularity is power. (That said, I must confess I rarely visited Maybe the web isn't the most organic fit for serious art criticism...?) was a spin-off of a tv show that ended three years earlier, and was owned by VH1. I was addicted to it for its naif voice and dedication to silly animal mashups and listicles. You wouldn't be assaulted by pop-up ads or flash videos or click-throughs. It was a primitive, hideous, linear site with YouTube links and photos and nerdy writers. (However, as I'm taking a screen shot, I had to wait for a flash video of Ted to stop moving. Such is the memory.)

I feel like so many sites exist only to place these little ad opportunities. They bunch phrases and celebrity names together in order to get hits, and no writing actually needs to be done, only a little data input and captions. It's terrifying and soul-crushing. So begins the next phase of the Net. RIP, Artnet and BWE.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The tyranny of pointe shoes

Ready, aim, fire: Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in McGregor's Dyad 1929. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
There are many reasons to be infatuated with ballet, but one major element has become a double-edged sword—the use of pointe shoes. Yes, they elevate the dancer off the floor for a weightless look; they make for sleek lines and endless weaponry/spider metaphors; spinning on them looks effortless and just plain cool; and they're usually pink and shiny. But as much as I have affection for them, I think they've fostered a sort of modern day tyranny over ballet.

Choreographers seem obsessed with using them, even when there's a lot of running, or work not on pointe. (I'm always fearful that a dancer will slip; occasionally one does, and it's nearly always because of the ludicrous lack of traction from walking or running, flat-footed, on pointe shoes.) Obviously traditions within the classical repertory, such as Swan Lake (which ABT performs this week), demand their use, but it is surprising to me that so much new choreography utilizes pointe. It is the one choice that will automatically dictate many things within a ballet, more than the music or story.

For women dancers, it will implicate many of the standard steps done to emphasize the line on pointe: pirouettes, fouettés, developpés, arabesques, attitudes, and the thrilling fast chainés or piqués. Even the smaller steps are made extra refined, such as tendus, échappés, and standing on pointe. I won't deny that these lines are superbly elongated and pleasing. At the same time, it will vastly inhibit a dancer's ability to run, walk, corner, and change direction. This reluctance will be diminished as much as the dancer is able, but she will be reticent about these simple human moves.

It will induce the choreographer into more traditional role casting. For the guys, this means more partnering women in pirouettes, which leads to making very pretty poses in arabesque on relevé, with the man always behind, shadowing and supporting the woman. Which leads to dips and tilts where the toe shoe is the only point of contact between the woman and the earth, dragging the woman on the box of her toe shoe, then little lifts, then big lifts through splits, or overhead. It's a predictable menu of actions that limits artistic expression, even as it produces the desired traditional effects and predicates gender and psychological determinations.

Then there is the issue of technique. We in New York are spoiled brats, seeing the very best of the world's ballet dancers all the time, and whining about how there's too much to see. This means Osipova, Copeland, and Murphy at ABT, and Peck, Fairchild, and Mearns at NYCB as our usual fare. These women are basically superheroes, making this gritty, tough work look like swinging in a hammock. But not everyone is Tiler Peck.

The complicated process of physical selection, the mastery of dancing on pointe at a standard of world-class excellence, plus the ease of global travel and dissolution of nationalistic tendencies, has allowed the finest dancers to become our home-town heroes, but these standards are ridiculously high.

The world's leading companies make it their business, for better or worse, to prove themselves on New York stages; the Australian Ballet recently showed how excellent its dancers are. But there are many smaller companies, including local ones, that perform here regularly, and often the toe-shoed women are simply not up to expectations. But it's that omnipresent ideal—tyranny—of the pretty ballerina on pointe that provokes this backlash. It's a choice the choreographer makes, in a way reflecting the seductive gloss and promise of Ballet. 

One work presented by the Australian Ballet instigated this post: Wayne McGregor's Dyad 1929 (which I reviewed for Dance Magazine). The women changed from pointe shoes to soft slippers as the piece went on, except for one. This shift was not some major dramaturgical fulcrum: to me, it emphasized that traditional expectations need not be fulfilled in order for work to have artistic merit. And was a subtle statement on the future possibilities of dancing at times in soft slippers, which opens up so many options. Now that so many women are as athletic as the men, why not let them back down to earth once in awhile so they can show us?

Note: Here's a fascinating video on pointe shoes, featuring NYCB's Megan Fairchild. It's a reminder of the time and material resources consumed by the prevalence of the iconic shoes. They estimate that principal dancers use a pair a day, which must include breaking them in (these somewhat barbaric rituals include slamming the boxes with doors, and using files to increase friction), sewing ribbons and elastics, and getting them to conform to one's feet, or vice versa. Just the management of shoe inventory alone is a major task. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ovations for Romeos and Homers

The back of the giveaway t-shirt commemorating the No-han. The front's less graphically appealing. 
The good news
Looks like Johan's okay, two starts after his no hitter, as he led the Mets to a 5-0 win over the Orioles last night at Citi Field. If the game wasn't perfect, the weather was—still spring-cool on the summer solstice and longest daylight day of the year, in advance of a smothering heat wave. Not a full house by any means, there were still enough of us on hand to shower Lucas Duda with ovations as he circled the bases during his home run trot while banking 3 runs. 

Even better news
The Mets' two wins over the Os, dominant in their AL division, continued this season's baffling feast-or-famine streakiness, after getting swept by the Yanks, sweeping the Rays, and getting swept by the Reds. Just another chapter in a season that began if not in gloom then with indifference, but that has blossomed into a fascinating story, not the least of which is the tale of RA Dickey and his knuckleball. A mysterious pitch at the heart of a mystical and mystery-filled 2012 season, which is nearly halfway done, sadly.

Some icing on the cake
Will Dickey start the All-Star Game? Normally I pay little attention to the ritual, as much marketing vehicle as recognition for accomplishments. But with odds on Dickey to start, as well as team leader David Wright at third, I may just have to watch.

Romeos and Juliets
Speaking of ovations, on Monday I saw ABT's Romeo and Juliet, starring Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg. These two have been getting a lot of buzz, and it's obvious why: they both leap like springboks, have heartachingly beautiful lines, limitless extensions, and a charming chemistry. But a season full of similarly dazzling talent (Gomes and Vishneva on Friday were just as moving, in a more mature and grounded way) can present one curtain call and bouquet after another, in a sort of numbing repetition. 

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in their command,
post-act 1 curtain call. Photo: Ardani Artists
Ovation as remote control
But after the first act curtain came down on Monday, the applause didn't fade as it normally does after a minute or so. It lulled, then built again, and the stage manager had the good sense to round up David and Natalia and usher them onstage in front of the pulled-back curtain for an impromptu bow. It was something I'd never seen, and reassurance that the audience does indeed play an active part in performances. And it reminded me of a post-home run curtain call that fans demand of sluggers.

Ballet fans answer to practically no one
This is more obvious at the ballpark, where fans are goaded by means of ear-splitting synthetic music and beats to clap and yell as loud as possible. Well, the team has either earned it or not, in my book: a crazy video and loudspeakers aren't going to make me put my hands together otherwise. At the ballet, it's simply earned or not. Even if there were slips and bobbles (speaking of, how about bobble head ballet dancers?), if the dancers poured their hearts into it, they'll be rewarded with ovations. Some ballet fans are as fervent as Mets fans. And some of us are both.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ratmansky's New Firebird for ABT

Herman Cornejo and Misty Copeland in Firebird. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Any new ballet to Stravinsky by ABT is a major deal, as is any premiere by resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. In the face of high expectations, Ratmansky's new Firebird contains many strengths. It reflects the choreographer's charming, musical, conversational ballet phrasing; his affinity for choreographing dorky, lovable characters; and his ability to describe the essence of a role quickly and fancifully. 

Last week, I saw Misty Copeland in the title role with Herman Cornejo as Ivan. But both dancers possess an internal complexity and the pyrotechnique to add some welcome sparks. But surprisingly, or maybe not, the choreography for these lead roles hewed to a romantic, heroic, conventional route. A bit of a shame as it is another major role for Copeland, whose star is on the rise.

By contrast, sections featuring Maria Riccetto (Maiden) and Roman Zhurbin (Kaschei) were full of quirks and characteristics. The 13 maidens in emerald green dresses and matching fluffy hats, move like klutzy, faux-naif ballerinas. They were led by Riccetto, who is one of ABT's best comedians. The role of Kaschei seems to have walked out of a Tim Burton movie, with his white face, debonair tails, and practiced evil, clearly delineated by Zhurbin, a stellar character-role dancer. Clearly Ratmansky had lots of fun bringing these personages to life. 

The story is full of turns of magic that make for a head-scratcher of a synopsis. In short—the Firebird helps Ivan free his gal pal, the Maiden, and her pals from Kaschei's spell by offing him: cracking an egg containing his soul and power. The maidens' lost lovers are liberated from the vault-like trees, which open to reveal techie-looking shiny innards. Happiness for all except the Firebird, who shall never truly find peace. The freed maidens emerged wearing uniform bad blond wigs and peasant-like muslin sheaths, which didn't seem like any sort of upgrade to me. 

Simon Pastukh designed the spooky set—dead, limbless tree husks on fire—enhanced magically with projections by Wendall Harrington that layered the signature image to create the illusion of receding arcades. Special effects were used effectively, such as how the flying Firebird was represented by a shooting, pulsing red light (lighting by Brad Fields), and how the trees emitted puffs of smoke, rather than your standard-issue blanket of fog. These all contribute to the visual entertainment of the ballet, which is likely to find a regular spot in the repertory rotation even if it isn't Ratmansky's finest. There are several additional performances of it next week.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Swans and fawns

It's been a full week, but not in the usual way. I had my share of Swan Lake and an Afternoon of a Faun

But they were a pair of real swans on a bay, and an actual baby deer whose regular route ran in front of the cottage where I stayed on Long Island, and the aforementioned bay. 

The fawn knelt down and napped in a stand of shrubs just near the house. Not quite Jerome Robbins, but just as intriguing and definitely more rare to see.

As for the swans, toured the small bay twice a day, once at low tide, which made their pickings that much easier, and again at twilight for what seemed to be cocktail hour mode. In the photo, we were having a BBQ, and the swan cruised up as close as could be to check out the fire building.

They were joined by herons, geese, duck, and hawks, plus many smaller avians like red winged blackbirds and sparrows. 

Then there was the cantaloupe-sized tortoise taking a bath in the big puddle in the lane, and the raccoon that trundled past the cottage several times.

Now, back to the fake swans and fauns, which I missed, although the change of scenery was welcome and needed.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Johan's No-Hitter—Will the Devil Come Calling? Who Cares!

Terry Collins hugs Nohan Santana. Photo: AP
Anyone see a monkey run by here, the one that finally got off the Mets' back now that Johan got a no-hitter? Didn't think so, cause it was flying like it was headed toward Oz.

With that dubious marker now fallen by the wayside, that's one less badge of shame for the Mets to wear. The fences got moved in and now homers are increasing (if not exactly gushing yet), but that's not what the Mets are about anyway. It's just one less hurdle. The Madoff situation is somewhat under control. Now if Ike Davis could just manage to get his average above .200 and the shortstops would stop falling like flies... And now, with the no-no, one less. 

Back to the no-hitter, and the stories within the story. Let's start with Beltran's hit up the third base line that was called foul. In St. Louis, the headline was "NO HITTER*." You can't blame them for being bitter, but really, how many strike/ball calls does every home plate umpire blow during each game? And those decisions could certainly sway outcomes, if not as egregiously as this one. Still, that's the beauty of the game... so many intricate moving parts that build a story with each game.

Catcher Josh Thole, just off the disabled list for the dreaded zombie-land concussion, calling a no-hitter. And Baxter's self-sacrifice, throwing himself full-speed, left shoulder first, into the padded outfield wall to make a catch and save a hit. If anything sums up being a Mets fan, it's seeing him lying there, crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain, while knowing he saved a no-hitter. Pride and pain, my friends. Nothing comes easy.

And the big story, the one that perfectly embodies baseball's Faustian bargain—Terry Collins deciding to leave Santana in to pitch after his pre-game limit of 115. In the middle of the 7th, Santana left the dugout and went into the clubhouse. Would he just pack his shoulder in ice and call it a night? Heck no. When he returned with his helmet on, the crowd went wild. The bat in his hands may as well have been Gandalf's staff. "You shall not pass!" Then and there, it felt momentous, supernatural, and the happy ending would unspool, out by out, in 134 pitches.

Collins, ruminative in his post-game comments, pondered that if in five days Santana had a lot of soreness, he might regret his decision. But even given that possibility, there was no way he could take Johan out. So: facing a historical achievement for both yourself and the Mets, versus possibly overtiring or even damaging your 33-year-old, just-surgically-repaired shoulder, what do you do?

You pitch a no-hitter, that's what you do. And pay the devil when he comes a calling.

p.s. - today's game is on, bottom of the 6th, and RA Dickey's got a 3-0 lead (not a no-hitter). We've gotta be in for some serious doom and gloom soon, ammiright Mets fans? That's the spirit!

Brian Brooks: A Scientific, Sculptor's Mind Choreographs

Big City. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Brian Brooks does not lack imagination or ambition. His latest opus, Big City, premiered at the Joyce last week as part of the Gotham Dance Festival. The most prominent element is the set, by Brooks with Philip Treviño: a forest of segmented aluminum square tubes and the pulleys and weights suspending them, lit to dazzling effect by Treviño. The downstage tubes are lowered so some of their segments lie onstage, like a kneeling person's shins.

Bryan Strimpel, who has become prominent in recent seasons as a collaborator and duet partner with Nicholas Leichter (catch their show at Joe's Pub next weekend; they're astonishing together), steps on another dancer's body like he's rolling a log, and makes intricate spiraling motions with his arms. The movement proceeds through his arms and upper body (Brooks has done entire dances with just the upper body), like a complex sign language. He engages Brooks in a roiling, intriguing bout of contact improvisation, but it loses steam when it grows to include a larger group. 

The dancers pull on the ropes so some of the sticks levitate, straightening in the process. Their facades catch the light, glinting hypnotically. The dancers wear brightly-hued orange or maroon suits or dresses designed by Roxana Ramseur, another sign of the title's setting. Jonathan Melville Pratt wrote the score of cascading guitar and cello lines that builds in dynamic and volume. 

Brooks seems to think as much like a scientist or visual artist than as a choreographer. He conceives of a kinetic experiment involving the body, and works through it to the point of exhaustion. We see gorilla-inspired knuckle walking, and partnering riffs where the suspended one bounds on his/her toes. Brooks performs the most grueling tasks himself, allowing a woman to  step only on his hands or other body parts in a perverse co-dependency. But these exercises hold somewhat fleeting interest, and don't quite hold together as a coherent choreographic statement. It's the magnificent set and lighting that give Big City its engine.

Speaking of, also of note on the program was Motor (2010, excerpt). Brooks and David Scarantino reprise some of this punishing duet in which they only hop to get somewhere. The facility (and I won't say "ease" because it ain't easy) with which they move this way is impressive, positioning their arms and suspended leg in various ways. They eat up space, hop backwards, and make loops and other formations. The original work was performed in another elaborate set of braced cables radiating from a blindingly lit center. Without that set impeding space, they were more free to travel, and we could better see the oddly engaging obsessiveness of Brian Brooks.

Friday, June 1, 2012

ABT's Bright, Light Stream

David Hallberg. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
The Bright Stream, by Alexei Ratmansky to Shostakovich, is a big cream puff in the serious, jamon laden banquet of ABT's spring season. That's not to say that La Bayadère doesn't have lighter moments... it's just that the characters don't seem to realize it. But in The Bright Stream, everyone performs with a wink and a nod, and it looks like the dancers are having a blast. Ratmanksy has created an ensemble vehicle that in theory is led by four stars, but the limelight is often stolen by a shaggy dog or a milkmaid. It's all part of the fun, amid Ilya Utkin's etched-effect sets.

Marcelo Gomes, Paloma Herrera, David Hallberg, and Gillian Murphy are the headliners. Herrera and Murphy are both solid, technically outstanding dancers with picture-perfect proportions. Herrera's got killer feet, and Murphy is a spinner. But I have to admit that I have seen less of them in recent seasons with what seems to be an increasing number of fancy-pants guest ballerinas like Osipova (now apparently a regular principal), Cojocaru, not to mention resident Russian star Vishneva. It is a lucky fool's errand, trying to decide on one or two casts to see, but that means I invariably miss others.

There were a few seasons when Herrera (Zina) was perpetually paired with Gomes so that they moved as one. That feeling resurfaced in this performance, especially with Gomes' "aw shucks" demeanor as the Pyotr, the country bumpkin. Hallberg of course stole the show dressed as a sylph, alternating between convincingly feminine affectations and a galumphing guy. His height and long limbs increase the comical impression. Murphy is perfect as the Ballerina, masquerading as a man, bursting across the stage in flat-out split leaps. Supporting, yet key, roles were danced by Craig Salstein, Misty Copeland, Maria Riccetto, Jared Matthews, Martine van Hamel, Victor Barbee, and Roman Zhurbin.

As refreshing as this ballet is, I find the choppy pacing a bit distracting, as well as the plethora of mime. And I know it's all part of the joke, but the extent to which hiding one's entire identity behind an eye mask stretches the limits, especially when the ballerinas have black, blonde, and flame red hair. Still, it's hard to recall the dancers looking as happy while performing, and for that we are thankful.