Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bolshoi Ballet—the drama moves onstage

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus. Photo: Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Ballet
The Bolshoi Ballet was in town recently as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, in the wake of the scandalous acid-throwing incident suffered by artistic director Sergei Filin, who watched from the audience and is looking in better condition than I had feared from all the news reports. It was a relief to see the drama move onstage.

Spartacus, a historical ballet choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich to swashbuckling filmic music by Aram Khachaturyan, is a genre that is rarely produced in New York, with reason—there's a fine line between a historical costume dance and spoof. In the first scene's demonstrations of Roman military might, I had to stifle the giggles and adjust my mindset. Athletic bombast became the norm throughout the three-hour ballet, as the large cast's many men stomped and punched their expressions of prowess while carrying shields and swords, and wearing armor including shinguards and helmets. Many of the women, on the other hand, wore hand scarf-sized stylized togas with pointe shoes. Well, why not?

Mikhail Lobukhin chomped heartily into the title role, flexing his tanned muscles and flinging his lank hair in rhythm. He literally flew across the stage in jetés and even a rivoltade (a fancy, floor-stabbing tour jeté), flinging his arms wide and thrusting his chest out in extreme confidence. Simon Virsaladze's costumes for the principals, despite their mixed messages on veracity and a tendency to over-weaponize, were flattering, including Spartacus' red, one-shouldered obi/loin cloth over grey tights.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina in Spartacus. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Svetlana Zakharova, glamorous and conspiratorial, gobbled even more scenery as the courtesan Aegina. Dripping with rhinestones to complement her mini toga, she used her fabulous forced arches as lethal weapons, repeatedly brandishing them at anyone nearby. You could practically hear her purring as she minxed her way through the ballet, slicing the poor air with her ferocious developpés, upturned palms, and in one scene, a floral staff. In the less gratifying "good" roles, Alexander Volchkov as Crassus, leader of the Roman Army, and Anna Nikulina, as Phrygia, Spartacus' gal pal, fared as well as could be expected. 

While Spartacus reads as kitsch much of the time, it has entertaining pre-battle pep rally scenes and bacchanales, although a little goes a long way, and many of Grigorovich's choreographic inventions—duly repeated, again and again—are artless and bone-jarring. Virsaladze's expressionistic scenery—columned stone temples—is modernized by an evocative, hammocked scrim raised up and down to conceal and reveal stage elements. This ballet may not be one that you'd want to catch repeatedly, but as a staple of the Bolshoi's repertory, it was a fascinating glimpse into the Russian cultural canon.
Alexander Petukhov (Sancho Panza in Don Quixote) in flight. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Last week, I saw the company perform Don Quixote. There are few surprises since it's comparable to the ballet that ABT just performed earlier this summer. The Bolshoi's production, by Alexei Fadeyechev after Petipa and Gorsky, goes for busily milling crowd scenes, Cubistic painted flats by Sergei Barkhin, and a sultry Flamenco number, although in this scene both the pace and the leg-hiding floor-length dresses drag. 

Kristina Kretova, a leading soloist (the rank below principal) danced Kitri, flashing huge smiles and fanning her ruffled skirt with fervor. Lobukhin was her Basilio; despite its broad comic strokes, the role requires far more restraint than Spartacus, not to mention more clothing (the black tights tend to make Lobukhin's legs look skinnier than they are). But the bold, joyful attitude of Don Quixote is well-matched to the Bolshoi's nature. 

Random notes:
The orchestra sounded bright and lustrous; Pavel Klinichev conducted.
The Koch Theater is perhaps slightly small for these productions, but the closer proximity than the Met (where ABT performs its spring season) makes it easier to read.
Some of the technique looked slightly ragged, especially in Don Quixote.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mortal Davids

Herman Cornejo in The Dream. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Ballet and baseball seasons coincide, and deep into both seasons, key players are suffering wear and tear, and that has a ripple effect on their colleagues and fans.

Namely, the Davids have been waylaid—Hallberg (ABT, foot) and Wright (Mets, shoulder). I got a hefty, overdue dose of Hallberg in recent weeks, seeing him in Cinderella and then twice in Giselle, the second time when he substituted for an ill Herman Cornejo. Then Hallberg succumbed to an injury last Saturday—perhaps from overwork?—and Cory Stearns stepped in for a performance of Swan Lake. Stearns again replaced Hallberg last night in Frederick Ashton's The Dream (1964) in a double bill of Shakespeare. It was a good opportunity to see him dance, and one I wouldn't have had otherwise.

The best news of last night, however, was that Cornejo had recuperated and danced Puck in The Dream, among his finest roles, and one which he originated with ABT in this production in 2002. It fully displays all of his strengths—his utter naturalness (complemented by his woodland creature costume) in a highly unnatural art form, suspended leaps, a lovely musicality both precise and organic, and dashing wit. And while he is among the most romantic and sensitive of dancers, and is now in the regular rotation in white-tights roles, he remains legend in such spritely  characters.

Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak in The Tempest. Photo: Marty Sohl
His compact body type is of course not a first in ballet's principal ranks, though it is still the exception. It serves as a fine example for newly-appointed soloist Joseph Gorak, who on this program reprised the romantic duet with Sarah Lane in The Tempest, by Alexei Ratmansky, to music by Sibelius. Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin portrayed Prospero and Ariel, and James Whiteside the beast Caliban (with a fright wig and patchy fur); Cornejo debuted that role last year, although I can't say it entirely rewards such accomplished dancers. Gorak has also been cropping up with regularity in lead roles including in Ashton's Cinderella and Ratmansky's Nutcracker. As previously noted, he recalls Hallberg in his innate nobility and épaulement, elegant line, superbly arched feet, flexibility, and composure. And since there are several gifted smaller women in ABT, he should be busy.
Gillian Murphy in The Dream. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Seeing The Tempest in its sophomore season and transferred to the Met from the Koch, it still reads as overly prop-heavy, which forces the staging into a flat, narrow horizontal area, and it is visually over-busy. Gomes is given solid geometric movements to underscore Prospero's gravity. Ariel is an ideal role for Simkin, freeing him to flit and spin, and fly in one of his signature moves, a low arabesque sauté in which the torso is kept perpendicular. (He is another principal who distinguishes himself best in solo character roles.) As Prospero's daughter, Lane is convincingly girlish and devoted. The corps comprises the ocean, most effective when spilling downstage in a crashing wave, although Santo Loquasto's overly embellished costumes distract.

(In addition to Gorak, other ABT promotions are the buoyant and pristine Isabella Boylston to principal, and new soloists are Christine Shevchenko, who acquitted herself so well in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, Devon Teuscher, and ABT's resident actor par excellence, Roman Zhurbin—all deserved and made from within the ranks.)

Back to The Dream, which is such a prime casting vehicle. Gillian Murphy danced Titania with a proper mix of fortitude and flourish, and her auburn ringlets somehow reinforce the fairy tale setting. Stearns seemed more at ease as Oberon than ever, again, finding the right balance of petulant and regal, and properly savoring the moments of technical braggadocio.    Blaine Hoven was Bottom, and while he needs to hone his pointe shoe work, he captured the charm and innocence of his furry, long-eared avatar. The star-struck lovers were Adrienne Schulte, so comically expressive; the plastic-faced Grant De Long, Stella Abrera, convincingly puzzled at being spurned, and Jared Matthews, who once more showed his acting chops, which we will miss as he departs to Houston Ballet with Yuriko Kajiya. 

Heal, shoulder of David Wright.
And as for the other David, over at the Mets (and not the Met)... fortunately, it's just a bruised rotator cuff on his non-throwing left shoulder. He should be back in the line-up this weekend, which is fortunate, as the Mets need him, his bat, his shoulder, and his rally towel. • Frank Cashen, Mets GM during the team's late 1980's golden era, passed away recently. He put together the 1986 world championship team which, in retrospect, was miraculous. Mex, the Kid, Doc, Nails, Strawbs, Mookie, Backman, Knight, Darling... while their fates have mixed to say the least, at least we have the privilege of hearing commentary by Keith and Ronnie, even as they twist in the wind as they cover the lackluster current team.