Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty

Consider me a fan. I loved this Sleeping Beauty.

The production is beautifully and cleverly designed and the story keeps pretty much to the dramatic arc of the Petipa version but with twists. It’s set in 1890, 1911, 2011, and Yesterday. Carabosse has a son, Caradoc, who avenges his mother’s death in the third and fourth. Prince Charming has been transmogrified into Leo The Royal Gameskeeper who appears in the birthday act as Aurora's forbidden love. The Lilac Fairy is a man, Count Lilac, who reveals himself a vampire at the end of the vision scene (the vampire bit doestn't quite hold up in the fourth act). The most compelling character in the first act (aside from the five wonderful fairies) is the cutest puppet baby since Trouble in Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly. It wins our heart as Aurora in the first act and again in the fourth act as Aurora and Leo’s baby turned fairy, flying in one of the most beautiful images of the ballet.

Bourne’s choreography (complete with welcome upper body movement very reminiscent of Cecchetti renversés, almost lost these days) lacks Petipa’s sense of logic and symmetry but has enough kinetic interest to keep the audience’s interest on pure dance terms. But more important, it never forgets to tell a story––a dramatic and fantastical one with clear and subtle human emotions throughout. How different this was from Anne Marie Holmes’s ossified production of Le Corsaire at ABT last spring. There are sly references to the Petipa conception, the best coming the vision scene when Aurora is sleepwalked over a continuing line of crouching men flanked by grounded sleepwalking women.

There’s a distinct slant towards pan-sexuality: the most feminine of the first act fairies (my favorite Fairy of the Falling Crumbs in Frederick Ashton’s 1968 production for the Royal Ballet), is danced by a man. As well, Carabosse is male, and the Vision Scene corps de ballet is both men and women (all in shoulder blade skimming long dark hair and beautifully dressed in cream colored sweats).

The music was canned, unfortunately, but the very good recording constantly confirmed and then reconfirmed again how much the score is a vehicle for narrative. And there was some pleasure in it, I suppose––beautifully played, is was much better than risking the potential aural pains of a woebegone pick-up pit band.

As a forespice in front of the actual show, 13 students from New York’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School danced a short ballet choreographed to the last act Polonaise by them under the supervision of two senior dancers from Bourne’s production company New Adventures. How charming this was––well crafted and well danced! A perfect introduction to Tchaikovsky and The Sleeping Beauty.

All in all, a great Saturday afternoon at the ballet.


Don Quixote At ABT

It’s been said time and time again, “Don Quixote has nothing to do with Don Quixote.” Nothing much to do with anything, really, except as an excuse for virtuosic ballet. 

Kevin McKenzie’s production looks worn out and wan, not because of Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes, but for the dreary timing of most of the choreography which mitigates against any energy build-up or climax. I suppose it’s hard to make a war horse like Don Q look fresh, but Nureyev did it back in the 70’s when he brought it to the City Center with the Australian Ballet (Lucette Aldous was the ballerina) and turned it into a zarzuela. But ABT’s show, led by Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev as Kitri and her suitor Basilio, certainly had more than its quota of technical pyrotechnics.

The orchestra couldn’t hold itself together for an important tempo change. (Osipova took her diagonal of single en dehors turns blazingly fast.) They must have been scolded during the intermission because they were fairly impeccable during the second and third acts.

As Mercedes, Simone Messmer faded into the ensemble in the first act but came to life in the second. Her matador partner, Alexandre Hammoutdi danced with wit and verve in the first act but was void in the second. And he sure knew how to swing a cape. They finally got in sync with each other in the third act when they were merely null.

Yuriko Kajiya, who was so good in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, danced a wonderful Amor with brio, charm, and the fastest pas de bourée couru I’ve ever seen. Misty Copeland (Queen of the Dryads) danced strongly but has no jump––a real pity in this context because she follows a diagonal of grands jetés by Osipova (who must have the largest and lightest jump of any ballerina dancing today) with a series of her own. A real anticlimax.

Osipova herself was brilliant (an adjective too often used but here truly earned). She takes real risks that always pay off. Aside from her jump she’s got gorgeous pirouettes and the most beautiful fouettés in the business (in the third act pas de deux’s coda she did 16 counts of doubles and then 16 more counts of single-single-doubles). Vasiliev partnered her with his own brand of virtuosity––not as refined as Osipova’s but terrifically exciting. They really know how to tear up the stage and eat up space with their jumps, balances, and turns.


THE ABT MIXED BILL––May 23, 2013

I saw the ABT mixed bill last night: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (Mark Morris), A Month in the Country (Frederick Ashton), and Symphony in C (George Balanchine). This was an unusually well balanced program recalling my student days in the 60s and 70s when mixed bills were the norm and full-length ballets the exception at ABT. It’s really too bad the house wasn’t full but what does ABT expect when they emphasize Don Q and Corsaire instead of the gorgeous one-acts in their repertory.

I found Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes soothing and delectable without liking it very much. The movement was lyric and accessible. The phrases were academic and contemporary with interesting and amusing references to previous occurrences in the ballet. Structurally kind of brilliant without any obviously flashy formations. Still, it satisfied. The dancers, in their flowy white Santo Loquasto costumes, seem to be able to do anything, but only Yuriko Kajiya and Joseph Gorak stood out.

A Month in the Country is a beautiful ballet marred by a very few silent-movie histrionic gestures. Based on the play by Ivan Turgenev, this is a large scale but domestic ballet  with an impressive set and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman. Hee Seo began as a sumptuously detailed Natalia. David Hallberg is not a natural Beliaev but he offered some telling details of youth and inexperience. The pas de deux flagged at the end with the famous floating bourées not working quite right. And Seo’s final solo revealed the need for a more experienced, expressive dancer. She was no Lynn Seymour.

Symphony in C’s costumes (Karinska) make the ABT corps girls look thick in the waist and heavy of bosom. Not the ideal silhouette. So we start behind the eight ball. Stella Abrera was behind her music in the first movement (sacrilege in Balanchine). In the second, Polina Semionova was beautiful and correct but lacked the serene abandon of a Suzanne Farrell. Osipova and Vasiliev were brilliant in a rather Soviet way, so it was left to Simone Messmer, leading the fourth movement to infuse the ballet with authentic Balanchine brio. David LaMarche ably led the orchestra but took the fourth movement at such a clip that movements had to clipped. A bid for the Balanchine speed we hear so much about, I guess.


The Paris Opera Ballet's "Giselle"

Last night I splurged on a ticket to see the Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle” at Lincoln Center.

The Paris Opera Ballet has a long history (this was their 770st performance of “Giselle”) and homogenous style. It’s tempting to say that they are chic––they are Parisians after all––but that would demean their integrity of training and depth of performance. This was a “Giselle” where everyone believed in the story––the wilis, the peasants, the royalty, everyone. 

One can deduce from the printed program that the Paris étoiles are promoted only when they are well into the maturity of their careers. Dorothée Gilbert (Giselle) joined the company as a corps de ballet dancer in 1988 and was named étoile in 2002. And this maturity pays off––the Parisians are very believable playing youngsters with a profundity rarely seen in dancers half their age. 

The Paris Opera Ballet School takes mime seriously which is continued in the company. Berthe and Giselle’s Mother (played by the same person, Amélie Lamoreux), usually throwaway roles, were especially vivid due to this care of mime and story. Myrtha (Laura Hecquet) and the wilis told a tale of vengeance (yes, Alistair Macauley, wilis can dance with staccato accents) without hamming it up and Giselle and Albrecht (Josua Hoffalt) were dedicated to their characters without exaggeration. And what a pleasure it was to see a premier danseur walk or run without self-consciously pointing his feet with every step (David Hallberg, I hope you’re reading this).

Ms. Gilbert’s Giselle was girlish in the first act and lovingly single-minded in the second. She danced with dimension and devotion, not only to her Albrecht but to the tradition of performance ingrained in the company and school’s training. And she was more than met by Mr. Hoffalt who partnered her beautifully without making a big show of it. Her mad scene included a progressively large balloté, balloté, grand jété sequence which culminated in a beautifully time fall, but a man sneezed behind me and spoiled the effect. 

It was wonderful to hear Adam’s score without John Lanchbery’s somewhat Disneyfied reorchestration which ABT uses. Koen Kessels conducted the New York City Opera Orchestra from the first notes with unusually theatrical dynamics. The music sometimes sounded thin and clunky but it always supported the dramatic action on stage enabling heightened emotional effects.

The Lincoln Center Festival audience was hugely distracting, applauding every moment of obvious virtuosity no matter how incidental (Alex Ibot  hit an accidental, extended  balance in the Peasant Pas de Deux eliciting thrilled applause but, for the record, his partner Héloise Bourdon had beautiful pliés on point which, being less showy, did not). The famous arabesques voyagés of the wilis won immediate applause out of proportion to the moment although, granted, they were done with real rhythmic hops rather than the dead scuffs that the ABT corps does––very impressive. Equally impressive were two quiet double tours tossed off by Mr. Hoffalt with his arms in fifth position en couronne and landing en couronne––enormously difficult but not superficially bravura enough to be recognized by the audience.

This was a spectacular performance made all the more special by its devotion to the tradition of live performance. Bravi, les Parisiens!


"Onegin" at American Ballet Theatre

Monday evening saw the New York City premiere of American Ballet Theatre a new production (sumptuous sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto) of John Cranko’s “Onegin” with a mostly all-star cast including Diana Vishneva (Tatiana), Marcelo Gomes (Onegin), Natalia Osipova (Olga), and excellent soloist Jared Matthews (Lensky).

“Onegin” is hobbled by muddy music (bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky from anywhere and everywhere but the ballets and his opera of the same name) arranged by Kurt Heinz Stolze.

The plot is fairly simple: girl loves boy, boy rejects girl, girl marries another, boy comes back only to be rejected by girl. Cranko makes you know exactly who the characters are through well placed but boiler-plate hand gestures (we know Tatiana is an intellectual dreamer because she holds a book and that Onegin is a brooder because he puts his hand to his forehead a lot). The actual choreography is generally leaden in spite of many complicated lifts that often work against the dramatic flow. Sometimes the kinetic invention results in real embarrassments –– one ludicrous little push pull push pull pas de trois has Tatiana and Olga tugging at Lensky, begging him to come to his senses. This repeats itself almost verbatim just before the duel scene; I had to half close my eyes to get through this passage. But this is a theatrical mind at work –– there are imaginative uses of scrims, scenes-in-one, and dramatic entrances and exits that make us want to know what’s coming next.

Everyone danced beautifully (although the men’s necks were rather stiff; they could learn a thing or two from the Vishneva and Osipova) considering “Onegin” is such a hollow vehicle. Maybe someday the choreography that ABT presents will be of the same caliber as its dancers.