"Giselle" at ABT: Miss Osipova Shows Us How it’s Done

I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a more brilliant performance in any role (excepting perhaps Fonteyn and Nureyev’s "Sleeping Beauty" back in the 1960s) as Natalia Osipova gave in "Giselle" for ABT at the matinee at the Met on May 19.

Osipova comes equipped with amazing technique, a huge jump (some say this is due to a high concentration of high-twitch muscles; I say its due to her talent) and an extraordinary kinetic freedom. She seems to have mastered the entire classical ballet vocabulary and could rely on her gorgeous piroutette and that prodigious jump any time, but she uses that technique in service of art at every moment. Most importantly, she dances with imagination, always true to the character and the theatrical meaning of movement.

The Ballet Theatre "Giselle" is a fine production but it was danced unevenly on this occasion. In the Peasant Pas de Deux, Misty Copeland presented many ballerina mannerisms but her dancing was hard. Her partner, Craig Salstein, was better. Myrtha begins the second act alone for the best five minutes in ballet –– but she has to actively command the stage and hold the audience’s attention. Stella Abrera didn’t. Moyna and Zulma (Isabella Boyleston and Hee Seo) were lacking in romantic spirit. David Hallberg’s Albrecht was a strong actor and partner but was fussy with his feet and cape.

But Osipva conquered everything and everyone around her, eliciting applause from the audience for many effective moments including an incredibly fast manege of piqué turns in the first act and incredibly slow and high changements in the second. Her acting was never eclipsed by her dancing nor vice versa. Spontaneity was everything. This was a Giselle you really believed. And loved, cried, hoped, and died with. 


"The Sleeping Beauty" at the Royal Ballet

I took myself out to see “The Sleeping Beauty” at London’s Royal Opera House. And a very grand affair it was.

I was pleased to see that the Royal Ballet has used the 1946 Oliver Messel sets and costumes for this production (please understand that I’ve gotten accustomed to the ABT production which looks like Disneyland painted in fluorescent magic marker) so this was a pleasant surprise. I’ve seen these designs only in books so it was wonderful to see them come to life on the stage. Full of  staircases, colonnades, and drapery, this scenery really sets a scene and lays the foundation for a real classic ballet. The costumes are fairytale-like without being cute or childish with big, bold decoration on tutus and tunics differentiating roles. Sure the first act Garland girls’ hats take some getting used to (yes, no woman in English ballet goes on stage without some sort of head gear) but the rest of the designs were sumptuous and character driven. My favorite costumes were for Aurora’s Friends in Act I: pale blue-silver skirts over a rush of peach colored tulle. Gorgeous.

The Prologue Fairies all did workmanlike jobs with Dierdre Chapman standing out as the Fairy of the Golden Vine (the Finger Fairy in colloquial terms). In one or another production I’ve seen, there was a Fairy of the Falling Crumbs and I’m always nostalgic for her to come around again. Anyway, a magnificent Elizabeth McGorian played the evil Carabosse like I’ve never seen before. I wish the same could be said for Laura McCulloch’s Lilac Fairy who couldn’t act a nickel and was stiff and tentative in her dancing. It’s all dancing, really, and if you’ve trained for at least fifteen years why do you need to worry about every heel being forward. Let go and use your imagination a little! Perhaps she was miffed by her picture and bio being left out of the program, as was Eric Underwood’s, who looked uncomfortable in his Indian Prince get up in Act I. In any case, she was no match for Carabosse and these two go hand in hand, like light and dark or good and evil. And if you believe, as I do, that the Lilac Fairy is the star of the show (she instigates everything and is at the apex of every triangle) you’re really missing something if all she can do is execute steps without much imagination.

Thomas Whitehead’s Cattalbutte was a marvelous Master of Ceremonies, both bland and officious which the English can do better than anybody, except perhaps the French.

Sarah Lamb was a lovely Aurora but also lacked imagination. God knows the Rose Adagio is the world’s most frightening first dance in any ballerina’s repertoire with its balances, pirouettes, and those damned prop roses to deal with. So my hat’s off to her for dancing it with honesty and grace. But nothing was more exciting than the four ten-year old boys in the back strumming their fake mandolins in time with the music all the way upstage. Ms. Lamb redeemed herself in the final act Pas de Deux, but it was a bit too late in the evening to begin to show some real relaxation and passion. Rupert Pennefather was a bland Prince Florimund and not much else, but he’s an effective partner. I had to laugh when at the climax of Act III’s opening Polonaise they both come out to present themselves and when they were done they left the same way they came in. Oh well, you have to take your joy where you can find it.

Nothing of course compared to my memories of my student days when I supered for the Royal. The star cast was incredible. Fonteyn was Aurora at her Nurevey-inspired best with Rudi as her Prince, of course. The Bluebirds were Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, Deanne Bergsma was a Lilac Fairy vivid in both dancing and mime, and Monica Mason (now Artistic Director of the Royal) was an incredibly dynamic Finger Fairy. Ah, those were the days. But let’s not quibble --- tonight was dancing of a very high order and it’s no small thing to pull off a production as complex ad demanding as this. The Royal Ballet has been doing it for how many years? And they’ve got it down pat.

Take your joy where you can find it.


Review: "Degas and the Ballet" in London

Today I went to see “Degas and the Ballet” at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. It’s a terrific exhibit and anyone interested in dancing, painting, or photography (I'm a fan of all three) should go.

This show makes the case for Degas being an innovative painter (and sculptor, colorist and draftsman) in the just beginning culture of the photograph. It juxtaposes Degas’s use of varied perspectives of the same subject and progressive draftsmanship suggesting subjects’ movement with the pioneering photography of  Eadweard Muybridge.

The Royal Academy has assembled a large body of work usually residing in Europe, Russia, and the United States along with pieces from its own collection. This selection, combined with photographs and films by Muybridge and his contemporaries, enables the viewer to piece together the influences of photography on Degas’s kinetic sense while showing many views of the same subjects side by side.

Degas’s paintings are beautiful, dynamic and radiant, surpassed perhaps only by his drawings and pastels. He was not a schooled sculptor and only one work, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” was shown to the public in his lifetime causing angry controvercy. Other pieces were found after his death, cast in bronze, and put on display. All of these works reveal an intense concentration representing, as Degas remarked, “movement in its exact truth.”

My father always told me “Paris is a woman’s city, but London is a man’s town.” Very true. The architecture and the street energy have a very masculine quality about them. It’s unseasonably warm for this time of year but damp and grey which results, I suppose, in the beautiful British complexions. And very polite, the English. Everyone says “please” and “thank you” and sales clerks look you in the eye when you ask a question or give you change. What a difference from New York! 


Review: Suzanne Farrell Ballet

Where should I find myself on a sunny Saturday afternoon but at the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Joyce Theater.

I had wanted to see them for a long time (full disclosure: a long-time principal dancer of SFB was Bonnie Pickard, one of the favorite dancers of my company) but this is virtually the first time they’ve performed in New York City.

I settled into the comfy matinee audience (I think I was the youngest person in the theater) to see an all Balanchine program. We started off with “Haieff Divertimento,” a fairly minor –– and short –– piece from 1947. This is a treatise on how to bend your knees on point –– relevé then bend the knee then straighten it again, hops on point, polka steps on point, and balances and promenades on a bent knee on point. Very thorough and a lot of senseless invention. But the Balanchinian economy and form holds true and one can see seeds of later, greater ballets.

The standard characterization of the Balanchine esthetic is “all arms and legs,” but “Haieff” and the other ballets on the program revealed that his choreographic basis was also strong on body positions –– either the codified ballet positions such as croisé, effacé, etc., or more modern postures including forward and backward bends, etc.

After the interval came “Diamonds” pas de deux which suffered from lack of space and live music (as did the entire program). Dressed in harshly garish costumes by Holly Hynes, Heather Ogden and Michael Cook brought out the inner drama of every gesture. I think this is where the issue of coaching comes in –– beautiful and sensitive coaching from Farrell informed by her performing experience and her relationship with Balanchine who, after all, knew quite a lot about the relationship between physicality and theatricality. The dancers don’t dance or look like Farrell, but everything they do seems to be deeply felt and informed by her. All this adds up to what I think is the real drawing card of this company –– they dance and work with integrity of ideas and of spirit. “Integrity,” as my late mentor Addison DeWitt might have said, “a revolutionary approach to the dance.”

In any case, “Meditation” was up next, a study in neo-realistic lyricism or neo-lyric realism, call it what you’d like. An almost embarrassingly personal work –– Balanchine clearly was in love with Farrell and it shows here. A pas de deux with the man in street clothes and the woman in a Greek-like tunic (read muse) dancing a dance of yearning, passion, unfocused grief and unrequited love. Momchil Mladenov was beautiful in his brown pants and blue shirt and partnered beautifully, but Elizabeth Holowchuk was frozen-faced and stiff, far from the idealized love object called for by the choreography. Turgid sentimentalism, but it still reveals his craft, and craftiness.

It was a pleasure to see “Agon” again. The wit and brash grace of this piece set the tone for a great deal of art and architecture that came after. “Agon” is built on classical canon forms and renaissance dances that make a sexy and architectural pageant. Violeta Angelova was especially beautiful and poised in the second pas de trois and the pas de deux was clean and fraught, sly and anguished.

Farrell has the pedigree and her company, after a long while, seems to have the backing to foster dancing unique in the world today. Not perfect or over-rehearsed, not even trying to be pretty and make a good impression, this is work emerging from an inner core and the belief in the esthetic which helped set the tone for modern art and architecture as we know it. 


Review: New York City Ballet's Swan Lake

Thanks to the generosity of a friend who sold me a deeply discounted ticket, I had a good seat to see New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake last night. Enough has already been written about this strange production and I can’t resist adding my thoughts to the pot.

Peter Martins’s Swan Lake is supposedly created with NYCB’s famous speed and clarity kept to the forefront. Most of the choreography is empty enough to reveal that when there is only speed, or clarity, texture and dimension are sacrificed to no good purpose. And the frenetic nature of everything –– especially in the Act I group dances –– presents giant dramatic obstacles that cannot be overcome.  Dancers literally cannot get in and out of positions and movements when everything is sped up –– correspondingly no-one (except Tyler Angle as Prince Siegfried) has a decent arabesque with the tension of its forward thrust of the body against the rear sweep of the back leg.

Martins acknowledges his story-telling debt to both Balanchine and Robbins but learns lessons from neither. Musicality is kept to a rinky-dink step-by-step level almost totally ignoring the music’s dramatic cues. This confusion is only heightened by the set and costume designs by Danish Per Kirkeby which put the Act I guests in various shades of green and orange and Siegfried in primary blue resembling the tempera paints children use complete with dry and fading patches. The swans are dressed in skimpy, dreary skirts typical of New York City Ballet’s costume culture. They don’t matter much until a whole bunch of black swans appear in Act II amongst the corp de ballet looking like so many Big Edies in dark negligees. The only character to overcome these wardrobe malfunctions are the Queen (Marika Anderson, who gives a vivid performance worthy of Norma Desmond with dresses to match) and the Act II Spanish men in black velvet boleros and britches with pink stockings and trim, a classy touch.

Teresa Reichlen, one of my favorite dancers, gave an absolutely glacial Odette but was better, somewhat surprisingly since she is a tall blond beauty, as Odile when she acted at least a little bit. She turns like a dream and anything resembling a pirouette gives her instant quality and authority. But it’s been said before and I’ll say it again, she’s like Grace Kelly without the warmth, and I really mean it this time.

All in all, an interesting evening at the ballet and I’m glad I saw it, even though I’m a way late-comer to this NYCB Swan Lake. The big event of the night was spotting Alec Baldwin lining up at the will call window for his ticket. He’s surely the most photogenic man in the world since he doesn’t look nearly so good in person as he does on 30 Rock.