Monday, October 30, 2017

The Red Shoes—Devilishly Entertaining

Photo: Johan Persson
If you're familiar with Matthew Bourne's theatrical productions, you expect a story told without text, only through movement, gesture and music. Oh, and scenery. In fact, the sets, by regular collaborator and designer Lez Brotherston, are so key that they virtually become another character in the cast. This is certainly true for The Red Shoes at City Center, in which a proscenium-within-the-proscenium seems to have a clever mind of its own by the end of the production, and even more possessed with spirit than the eponymous toe shoes.

The story, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, revolves around a love triangle between Victoria, a young dancer, the object of affection from both struggling composer Julian and impresario Boris Lermontov, who gives Vicky a pair of red pointe shoes when she is cast as the lead in his new ballet, The Red Shoes. The set design for the ballet is a modern, all-white construction of nesting arches which together comprise a surface to catch video projections (by Duncan McLean). All of the costumes and set elements for this sub-show are in striking black and white except for Vicky's red shoes, which represent the blurring between reality and fiction. While Vicky's success as the lead in the ballet is celebrated, Lermontov becomes jealous of her relationship with Julian, and drives Julian to quit, taking Vicky with him. Although torn, she ultimately chooses to return to the ballet, and in a delirious state, is struck by a train.  

Tackling the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with music by Bernard Herrmann, is an ambitious task. Obviously, film is without limits as far as settings and editing go. But Bourne and Brotherston do amazing things with Proscenium, spinning it to take us back and forth between Covent Garden in London, and Paris, flipping our points of view between watching the stage, and watching the audience and foregrounded backstage antics. With other scenic changes, we jump to Monaco, the south of France, a dance studio, a salon. At one point, the proscenium's curtain is pulled half open, revealing Lermontov's study (with a kitschy bronze statue of a foot in a toe shoe); it rotates simply and brilliantly to reveal a shabby flat where Vicky and Julian restlessly pace.  
Ashley Shaw and Dominic North. Photo: Johan Persson
I caught the cast with Ashley Shaw and Dominic North as the young couple, and Sam Archer as Lermontov. (In some celebrity casting, Sara Mearns alternates as Vicky in New York shows, and Marcelo Gomes as Julian throughout the show's tour.) Shaw impressively evokes the spirit and bearing of the film's star, Moira Shearer. Perhaps more than most of Bourne's past productions, The Red Shoes demands ballet technique of its female lead, although I had to remind myself that most of the ballet is a caricature. It also requires Broadway worthy charisma and projection through physical means alone. And, unlike film's ability to show a close-up (and therefore emotion), we are never very close to Vicky's face, so her body must do the talking. 

While it is greatly entertaining, there are some weak spots. Character development is hasty and somewhat shallow (in part due to the lack of language), which provides the audience with less reasons to become as empathetic as when watching the film. The front of a locomotive is ferociously frightening in the end scene, if somewhat tonally jarring. And City Center's stage felt somewhat too small for the production, but Bourne is a master of creating high-impact movement with limited breadth. Dancers perch on furniture and stamp, clap and twist, which is echoed in spots around the stage. He uses vertical space as much as lateral, compressing a huge amount of action into a compact cubic area.

Bortherston also designed the costumes, flattering 1940s influenced fitted and flared dresses and high-waisted trousers. But it is his Proscenium that steals the show—swiveling, sliding, revealing and hiding the cast members, who dart through it and around it to unravel the story. The Red Shoes is another entry in Bourne's sui generis canon, one that we New Yorkers can only wish to see more of.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

ABT's Fall 2017 Season—the Farm Team Flourishes

Roman Zhurbin and Hee Seo in Elegy Pas de Deux. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
ABT continues its evolution into a home-grown company with fewer and fewer international guest artists, and lots of talented young dancers who’ve come up through the ranks. In the two shows I caught during the brief 2017 fall Koch season, there were some memorable appearances by dancers I’ve watched for years, but who are now being given, and seizing, the spotlight. It was also the first season in memory when Marcelo Gomes did not perform; he is on tour with The Red Shoes, by Matthew Bourne, although the ABT season did include David Hallberg, who I managed to miss.

One notable revelation was the casting of Roman Zhurbin with Hee Seo in Elegy Pas de Deux, by Liam Scarlett. Zhurbin, a soloist, has long been the go-to guy for berobed male power-character roles, such as paternal or kingly figures, the monster version of Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, etc. Here, he bares his usually covered muscular torso, and is allowed to simply dance. While that involves lots and lots of lifts and overhead presses of his Seo, it was a revelation to see his confident, sensitive performance purely as a dancer. The standing ovation he received shows that others felt the same way.

Seo has proved remarkably diverse as a dancer, too, although she excels in abstract roles rather than dramatic ones. Her line is always perfect and elongated. Gillian Murphy has become perhaps the most reliable and versatile female principal. I saw her featured in Robbins’ Other Dances, a duet with Cory Stearns; both were superbly nuanced and tender in this romantic work. And as the lead in Her Notes, Jessica Lang’s 2016 ode to Fanny Mendelssohn, she was paired with Thomas Forster and articulated each pose perfectly. Forster was also cast in numerous highly visible roles, including Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions. While Forster has been steadily rising through the ranks (he is a soloist), his strengths have been his shapely feet and his height, but he has been filling into his tall frame and has developed his partnering.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III in Songs of Bukovina. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Newish principals Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland, and Christine Shevchenko have taken on their fair share of lead roles, with great success. Shevchenko led Songs of Bukovina, the Ratmansky season premiere, dancing with Calvin Royal III. I still have yet to get a full sense of her style, but she is so fundamentally sound technically, and clean of line, that no doubt many her assured future roles will bring that into focus. Royal, now a soloist, has such gentle confidence and fluidity, and is given to heartfelt smiles now and then. The two were also matched in Symphonic Variations, a fascinating 1946 Ashton opus on form, line and detail. Soloist Joseph Gorak was born to dance such works by Ashton, and he shone in a repeat role in Plato’s Symposium as well. Another outstanding performance in that work was given by Tyler Maloney, a corps member; he acquitted himself wonderfully in Bukovina as well.

Other corps dancers caught the eye. Gabe Stone Shayer's exuberant personality and love of dancing distinguish him in everything, which included Bukovina and Her Notes paired with Misty Copeland. Catherine Hurlin has shown great range for a youngster, with remarkable polish and magnetism. Zhiyao Zhang danced with clarity and vim in both Plato’s Symposium, and subbing for Alex Hammoudi in Thirteen Diversions.

Ratmansky produced Songs of Bukovina for the 2017 fall season, to live piano music by his frequent collaborator, composer Leonid Desyatnikov. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a half hour or so, if not breaking new turf for the prolific Russian choreographer. After a section of divertissements by the four couples, one pair is featured—Shevchenko and Royal, who acts as a sort of emcee, gesturing to individual dancers to begin their solos and duets. Dynamics range from allegro, skipping and darting, barely touching the stage, to grand gestures such as pirouettes with the leg in second. Details such as wagging heads and flexed feet feel somewhat disconnected to the primary movement. But it’s a decent vehicle for 10 dancers, and with just one pianist needed to produce the music, it’s sure to be included in future seasons. Ratmansky has thus far spoiled us with one dance after another, producing such gems as Plato’s Symposium. But it would be wise to remember that even Balanchine couldn’t produce a creative breakthrough every time. We are thankful for every dance we get from Ratmansky.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

NYCB's Fashion Gala 2017

Pulcinella Variations. Photo: Paul Kolnik
When costuming dance nowadays, rehearsal type clothes are becoming fairly common. And why not? The price is right, the dancers can move freely, and really, we usually watch for the movement or story more than anything. But New York City Ballet’s fall “fashion gala” shines the spotlight equally on the fashion designers for the premieres, in this season’s case, of four ballets. Some of the costumes succeeded wonderfully, in addition to some of the dances. The premieres were unveiled at the gala, devoid of intermission as well as Peter Martins’ Chinoiserie study, The Chairman Dances (memorable for the wrong reasons), which will precede the four premieres in repertory in the coming weeks.

With 11 ballets now in the company’s repertory, and a number for other companies, Justin Peck could be excused for running out of ideas in such a short time. But his Pulcinella Variations demonstrates further artistic growth. Other than Alex Ratmansky, there is perhaps no classical ballet choreographer making such musical, flowing phrases organic to the vocabulary. If you think of ballet as a language built of letters, words, and phrases, these are full-blown paragraphs, properly punctuated. He knows the company’s dancers in and out, as well as their capabilities. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Variations is a delightful choice, offering seven movements in which to showcase the varied skills of his peers. Most notable are Indiana Woodward, Anthony Huxley, and Tiler Peck (dancing with Gonzalo Garcia). All dance lucidly, imaginatively, and expand and collapse time with their superb command of technique. Tsumori Chisato designed the surreal, eye-popping costumes with huge eye and floral motifs, and while these are among the most memorable couture in recent seasons of NYCB's fashion galas, the dance itself is just as notable.

The Wind Still Brings. Photo: Paul Kolnik
When young choreographers receive big commissions, it’s not a surprise that their tendency is to use all the amazing talent they have to work with in big, showy ways—kind of like flooring the Ferrari to see how fast it accelerates. But as a viewer, that can be wearying; it’s good to see Troy Schumacher taking a deep breath and infusing his new work with some contemplative moments.

Schumacher (recently promoted to soloist), with his premiere The Wind Still Brings to music by William Walton, shows artistic maturity and emotional generosity to augment his usual youthful, athletic style of movement. There are large group passages (he employs 14 dancers here) in which bodies pour on and offstage, coalescing and dispersing, with the requisite duets and solos. But it’s the dreamlike middle section that makes an impression. The dancers spread out over the stage and lie down. A woman wanders on and lies down beside another, who rises seemingly in response; the first woman then also stands. The pair moves to another pair, and thus all four are on their feet, and so on, like a message spreading steadily through whispers. It’s quiet, thoughtful, and feels like many private moments strung together. Jonathan Saunders designed the varied, striking peach and blue costumes; each design is worn by a man and a woman, including skirts and tunics, and the mens’ hair is slicked back, lending a fascinating overall feeling of androgyny.

Composer's Holiday. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The 18-year-old Gianna Reisen, an apprentice at the Ballet Semperoper Dresden and a graduate of School of American Ballet, choreographed Composer’s Holiday to music by Lukas Foss. Although 12 dancers perform, there’s an intimacy to the proceedings that makes it feel like a smaller group. There are striking pictures: a woman is carried aloft in the opening scene; a couple leaps over a line of dancers, trying to touch; another woman walks on mens’ backs like stepping stones. The classical style contains challenging flourishes and quirks (a woman is carried off, slung over a man’s shoulder fireman-carry style). Virgil Abloh designed the costumes; the womens’ tutus evoke Degas’ above the knee length skirts, the men wear dark patterned tops.

Not Our Fate. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Not Our Fate, by Lauren Lovette, features a pairing between Taylor Stanley and Preston Chamblee, in addition to eight others. All the men wear timeless white t-shirts and slim black pants, designed by Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim. The women sport fitted black jackets and voluminous white scarf skirts that show movement, but overpower their bodies and lines, in addition to feeling archaic, especially in contrast to the men. The score, by Michael Nyman, is typical of his flowing, repetitious phrasing, which after awhile feels like the relentless noise from a jackhammer down the block. Nonetheless, Lovette creates inventive formations, such as when the group forms perpendicular lines around a featured soloist, moving to each stage quadrant. And a motif is memorably repeated in the final scene, when Stanley alights on Chamblee’s shoulder. We're not quite used to seeing same-gender couples, but we're well on our way. And how refreshing is it that including a female choreographer or two is no longer newsworthy.

New York City Ballet's season runs through October 15.