Monday, June 29, 2015

The Royal, Ranging Far & Wide

Natalia Osipova in The Dream. Photo: Bill Cooper
The Royal Ballet was in town after a decade's absence, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation at the Koch Theater. The first program comprised The Dream, by Frederick Ashton, which is familiar to ABT audiences, who might also have felt a fleeting inferiority complex as Natalia Osipova danced Titania, as she also dances with ABT, but missed the last couple of weeks due to an injury. She fell here, eliciting gasps from what seemed like the entire Koch house, but seemed alright subsequently in this role that places fewer high technical demands on a ballerina than many of the classics. In any case, her impish charm and ethereal bearing supported the supernatural aspects of Titania. Matthew Golding danced Oberon with a compatible lightness (although he seemed confined by the stage), and Valentino Zucchetti the role of Puck, bounding into split jumps and lending the character some witty humor. 

Song of the Earth. Photo: Johan Persson
Song of the Earth, by Kenneth MacMillan, balanced out the program. This multi-part suite to Mahler, sung live onstage by Katharine Goeldner and Thomas Randle, utilizes a highly formal, inventive vocabulary that ranges from geometric to emotionally expressive. The simple costumes and lack of set elements (apart from some masks) and obvious storyline shifts the ballet's entire impetus to the dancers, movement, and music. Edward Watson (eloquent, if slightly early in his timing) danced the Messenger of Death, with Laura Morera (who moved with muscularity and great intention) and Nehemiah Kish in prominent roles as well. The exactitude of the steps and positions requires the dancers to rein in excess emotion; every carved step is meaningful.    

The second program offered a view of the variety in the Royal's repertory. Wayne McGregor's Infra is marked by a graphic set by artist Julian Opie, a horizontal video board with simplified images of people walking, hovering above the stage. The dancers below, in tops and trunks, mirrored the walkers at moments, and in between, wielded their bare gams in McGregor's brand of exaggerated balletic lines emanating from the pelvis, forced pointe shoe arches, and split developpés. The general chilliness of McGregor's aesthetic is humanized by the physical interaction and kineticism on display.

Edward Watson in Infra. Photo: Bill Cooper

An act of Divertissements followed, mixing in ebullient classical (Ashton's Voices of Spring) with its deceptively breezy looking one-armed lifts and skimming assisted grand jetés. Contrasting male solos followed—Borrowed Light (Alastair Marriott), an expressionistic romantic morsel; Le Beau Gosse, (Bronislava Nijinska), a humorous number featuring athletic poses and references; and The Dying Swan (Calvin Richardson), a robotic male interpretation of everyone's favorite ballet cliché. Wheeldon's duet, Aeternum, showcased Claire Calvert's enviable high insteps and arches, and Carousel Pas de Deux featured the charming tomboy antics of Lauren Cuthbertson and the suave, leggy Golding, looking a bit Chippendale, shirtless in a vest and scarf.

The Age of Anxiety. Photo: Bill Cooper
Most fascinating was Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety, evoking shades of Jerome Robbins Fancy Free with its musical theater underpinnings, a Leonard Bernstein score from which the dance derived its title, and a first-scene bar setting. Seemingly taking place post-war, one woman and three men drink separately in a well-worn bar, eventually gathering and moving on to a swanky modern apartment, most likely the woman's (Sarah Lamb). They mix and mingle, taking turns pairing off with the woman, and the men with each other. The finale features one of the men, apparently elated by the imminent freedoms on the horizon, rejoicing in the city's golden dawn. With the city's upbeat mood from the Supreme Court's ruling for marriage equality still prevalent, it's hard not to think of Age as somehow prescient.

The second program was gratifying as it showed unfamiliar repertory. The choice to present The Dream is somewhat mystifying; even though it is well-liked here, and is a sensible balance, both aesthetically and length-wise to Song, it is maddeningly familiar. I also wish I could have a better acquaintance with the company's wonderful dancers (who aren't shared with ABT). May they visit sooner next time.  

Program alert: This fall through spring, the Royal Ballet will be featured in ROH Live Cinema broadcasts and will include classics (Giselle, R&J, repertory) as well as premieres of Scarlett's Frankenstein and a production of Carmen by Carlos Acosta.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Polished Coolness—Polish National Ballet

Moving Rooms. Photo: Ewa Krasucka
Judging from its New York debut at the Joyce, you might think the Polish National Ballet to be one more compact, highly skilled post-classical ballet company that draws choreography from a shared pool of European choreographers, in addition to staging works by its own artistic director, Krzysztof Pastor. But the company numbers 90 (though a fraction of that performs in New York) and counts in its rep major story ballets such as La Bayadère and Don Quixote. Another case of perhaps meaning well in tuning the chosen repertory to the modern eye, but perhaps missing a chance to show its true artistic depth, which is most likely economically untenable.

That said, I confess that I was lured to see PNB in by Emanuel Gat's Rite of Spring. Its five dancers move through Gat's simmering, undulating salsa steps in crimson light that enhances a red rug defining the action hotspot while adding a note of domesticity. Robert Bondara and Kurusz Wojenski lack the feral quality of Gat and Roy Assaf (Gat's original cast), but with Marta Fiedler, Aleksandra Liashenko, and Karolina Sapun they weave the movement crisply and fluidly to the recorded orchestration of Stravinsky's score. It remains a hypnotic, inexorable ritual driven by primal instincts. 

Moving Rooms. Photo: Ewa Krasucka
There's no doubt that the company's technical skills are topnotch, as seen in two works by Pastor. Adagio & Scherzo (2014), to Schubert, is danced in front of Rothko-like painted designs by Malgorzata Szablowska. The vocabulary favors ballet steps pushed to the extreme—thwacked split extensions, straight arms with broken wrists, forced arch tendus,  tensile with angst. Moving Rooms (2008) features a light-carved checkerboard and other geometric shapes by Bert Dalhuysen; the dancers stand like chess pieces, and unfortunately give off about the same emotion. The chosen music, by Schnittke and Gorecki, included violin and organ passages that swelled to a cacophony, underscoring the extreme seriousness of the proceedings. Even a tango-inspired passage did little to alleviate the building sense of oppression. The movement by these dancers is inarguably beautiful, but in its repetition came to feel like a gymnastics competition, with little nuance or dynamic shift.

The run raises a perpetual question—how can an out-of-town company such as Polish National Ballet show its full wares in New York? It might have brought two programs, including some classical fare, or substituted a classical dance for one of the two by Pastor. Even adding a short pas de deux might have provided some depth for those of us new to the troupe. It is certainly clear that the dancers are impeccably trained and physically gifted. Perhaps their next trip to New York will provide some depth.

Monday, June 15, 2015

ABT's New Sleeping Beauty—A Fresh Look from the Past

Gillian Murphy as Aurora. Photo: Gene Schiavone
ABT recently had its New York premiere run of Alexei Ratmansky's grand, ambitious new production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Met Opera House. As traditional as it is—with powdered wigs, knee-length tulip tutus, and pantaloons—the most radical element, other than anarchist knitters, is the choreography, which evokes royal court dance of centuries past rather than the full-out athletic style to which we've become so accustomed. Ratmansky drew from Petipa's choreography as recorded in Stepanov notation for an authenticity so outmoded as to appear radical. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have brought new audiences to early music, but such a rediscovery has been rare in ballet.

Part of the radicalism is that the steps don't always default to a dancer's maximum range, as is often the norm. (As stunning as the Mariinsky and Bolshoi can be, freakish flexibility is now standard.) The women wear pointe shoes (even the girls wear them in the garland dance) but when they chainé, it's nearly always on demi-pointe. Many of the preparatory and closing positions of moves feature broken lines and coyly angled arms and heads; pirouettes are executed with the foot poised near the ankle. The biggest partnered lifts feature Aurora's legs forming a taut diamond shape, or a series of compact fish dives. I imagine that the dancers had to fight everything reflexive and had to re-learn Ratmansky's particular syntax by rote repetition. No six o'clock developpés or mindless strings of filler steps here. 

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Photo: Gene Schiavone

The lavish costumes and sets (by Richard Hudson, inspired by Léon Bakst) set a royal tone. Elaborate hats, headpieces, and wigs—to my eye, distracting at times—reinforce the idea that no expense was spared in this co-production with Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Only the artificially garish hue of the Lilac Fairy's satin dress and gown hints at the 21st-century origination.  

Gillian Murphy (Aurora) and James Whiteside (Désiré) led one performance I caught, with Stella Abrera as the Lilac Fairy. This is a forceful cast with more edges than softness. Murphy is so competent that it would indeed take some kind of toxin or witchcraft to keep her down. Craig Salstein was Carabosse, swathed in pewter lamé and matching makeup, and squired by huge rats. 

In the June 13 evening performance, the more finely burnished pair of Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes danced the leads. They are becoming our era's superstar duo if they aren't already. Gomes manages to make Désiré more impetuous and thoughtful than impatient. Vishneva opted to do some chainés on pointe, whereas Murphy consistently performed chainés on demi-pointe. (Piqué turns were performed on pointe throughout.) Principal Veronika Part, rarely seen this season, danced the Lilac Fairy with graciousness, and Nancy Raffa, a company ballet master, Carabosse; interestingly, both men and women past and present are cast in this juicy character role.

The legend has been fleshed out to include commonly excluded elements. The Act I fairies include not only characteristics, but allegories: Wheat Flower and Breadcrumb, presumably representing abundance and resourcefulness. In Act III, gemstone fairies make appearances at the wedding, in addition to the fairy tale characters such as Princess Florine and Bluebird (with a proper pas de deux), an ogre couple and a gang of boys, and Cinderella and her prince. (Others don't even dance.) It's an exercise in traffic control, as is the Garland Dance; one can only imagine what it must be like backstage. But the all-hands-on-deck casting, which allows casting principals in supporting roles, also provides a substantial opportunity to gauge the talent and resources of this major company. That this is the second Sleeping Beauty production in the span of eight years not only acknowledges the shortcomings of the last production, it also speaks to the strength of the company's development department, and is a confident bet on Ratmansky by the executives. 

Photo: Gene Schiavone
For my taste, The Sleeping Beauty is one of the more trying traditional romantic story ballets still regularly staged. It's thin on overall plot, thick on allegory and bodies, and demands a great deal of patience not required of viewers by most contemporary ballet productions. (Short attention span?) While some musical themes by Tchaikovsky are lovely and evocative, many of the variations end abruptly, necessitating the steps to also end bluntly. And yet there is the accompanying textural richness and depth of tradition. 

It is in fact disorienting to see the archaic form when we're so accustomed to seeing the hyperextension of every line. But it gives this production a unique, genteel style that looks forward by looking to the past. Interestingly, over the course of the run's last week, the style rebounded somewhat away from the archaic and shifted toward the modern, or the second time around, it wasn't so shocking to my eye. (It could also have been Vishneva's reluctance to fully embrace the archaic style.) What will it look like next year or in five years? No doubt we'll find out.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Philippe Parreno at the Armory—Ghosts of Broadway

There are many worse ways to spend a half day in New York than absorbing Philippe Parreno's multi-faceted installation at the Park Avenue Armory, on view through August 2. The idea that it's a love letter to the city crept up on me, despite the city's monogram being embedded in the title—H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS, 2015. (It's pronounced "hypnosis.") Indeed, the exhibition's power has grown in my mind during the days after seeing it.

The drill hall is divided into a nave-like space by two columns of Parreno's marquee sculptures, suspended works that mimic the portal fixtures above Broadway and smaller theaters, collectively entitled Danny The Street. Where the apse should be stands Bleachers, a rotating accretion of stepped seats, evoking similar casual step seating at Times Square and the Highline. On the three sides of the apse hang huge screens, which move up and down, onto which New York-themed films are projected. (The films were not screening while I attended a preview. Subsequent photos show their importance in the environment.)

Ann Lee. Photo: Susan Yung
An LED panel work, Ann Lee, sits among the marquees. It—she—comes to life periodically in an animated manga avatar, whose words are eerily parroted by human girls performing throughout the space. The character was purchased several years ago and "employed" by various artists, notably Tino Sehgal, co-credited on this piece. Ann Lee is a symbol of collaboration—programmed, at rest, or animated.

Photo: Susan Yung

Yet another important dimension to the installation is music, at a preview performed player piano style by Mikhail Rudy on three grand pianos. The selection includes pieces by Scriabin, Wagner, Feldman, and Ligeti. Other sound/music was composed by contemporary musicians for the marquees, which pulse on and off in rhythm with the compositions. It is worthwhile to park yourself on one of the many benches or chairs and observe as the environment's components sync and the lighting increases and diminishes, as daylight does. When the space is at its darkest, a haunting evocation of the bygone city emerges, like a lively and twinkling Broadway ghost town that operates on its own; people are merely observers.

Admission to the exhibition is $15, which is in keeping with the going museum prices, but high when compared to the thousands of galleries in the city which charge no admission. Still, there is more than enough content in the Parreno show (the artist guessed that it might wind up at five hours) to justify the cost and time invested. And the Armory continues to mount work unlike any in the city—more along the lines of an installation at a bienale, and with great thought given to the complex context.