Live Dance: Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s “If At All” at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

November 21, 2014


By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA. We live in frightening times and the works created by many international modern dance choreographers reflect our collective fears. Jarring music, the violence of thrashing limbs, writhing torsos, and collapsing bodies have become incorporated into the dance vocabulary of our age. Offering a sixty-five minute exploration in dance of our “existence as individuals, couples, and society,” the Israeli choreographer Rami Be’er draws from this tumultuous vocabulary in If At All.

Established in 1970, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company is one of Israel’s pre-eminent troupes along with Batsheva Dance. (Click HERE to read my iRoM review of Batsheva Dance’s recent performance in Los Angeles.) But while Batsheva’s choreographer, Ohad Naharin, favors groups of dancers moving in individual patterns, Be’er opts for symmetry and synchronization.

With the latter method, patterns emerge and steps are discernible, allowing us to focus on the strong and passionate roster of dancers who form this company. There are echoes of tribal rites as men swoop in ankle length skirts; there are martial arts inferences as legs kick and fists clench. In a dramatic sequence, a row of male dancers line up at the front of the stage crouched in a version of a yoga child’s pose. Their heads bow and rock up and down, their elbows pound the floor, alternating with their hands. Are they fervently praying or burrowing into the earth?

At his best, Be’er tempers ferocity with whimsy. In a sequence of pas de deux in the second half of If At All, what at first seems like a clash between men and women becomes children at play. Are we to infer that life goes on amidst the chaos? That no matter what the disaster awaiting us, the child within us remains hopeful? Be’er says he wants his audience to go on a journey and form their own associations to his work, and so he leaves us to ponder the questions he asks.

The clues to the answers come from the aggressive music collected for If At All with sound design by Alex Claude and Be’er. Keyboard, mournful cello, dissonant sound effects incorporating sirens, gunshots, chatter, spoken word, along with the occasional song, form a tortured road map that Be’er wishes us to follow. I wonder, on this choreographic journey, whether the movements would have projected the same vehemence had not the music been so harsh. What would we have made of women dancing fervently in carpet squares of light had we heard a Bach Cello Suite instead? Though my question may have little or no relevance to Be’er’s vision, his musical decisions certainly are food for thought.

Kibutz dance men in skirtsThe dancers’ motions are coordinated with the precision of the Willis in Giselle or the swans in Swan Lake. However, the general impression is one of turning inward rather than outward, of bowed heads and rounded shoulders, rather than lengthening bodies reaching heavenwards. The exceptions are the upward leaps of the men and the lifted arms of the women.

In one striking moment a female dancer with long black hair is lifted and held above the heads of a half dozen men like the Chosen One in Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. But once again, we retreat to the earth as all the principals drop to the ground and the woman rolls over the bodies of the reclining men – a line of logs on a river.

It’s a powerful and poignant moment. One wished for a few more of these to mitigate the harsh reality of twenty-first century man in a dangerous world.

Photos by Uri Nevo courtesy of Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Live Dance: BalletBoyz Perform at the Ahmanson Theatre

November 9, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles. A troupe of all male dancers performing at the highest level, rigorous choreography, spare sets, superb lighting, and textured, evocative music – these were the ingredients for a marvelous night of dance at the Ahmanson Theatre, courtesy of choreographers Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and the BalletBoyz.

An associate company at Sadler’s Wells in London, BalletBoyz was founded by artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, former principals of the Royal Ballet. Though the name of the company brings to mind the playfulness of youth, make no mistake, this is dancing of serious intent. Hailing mostly from Italy, France, and England, the ten dancers who make up the group perform as an organic whole, moving seamlessly through the off kilter lifts, acrobatic sweeps, and heroic postures of the evening’s choreography.

Ballet Boyz  on ground andhigher

Serpent by Liam Scarlett evokes the fluidity and muscularity of the creature as defined by the serpent of ancient legend and myth. This is the heroic beast of the Greek sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, not a slithering reptile tied to the earth. And when the dancers pair off, arms meeting arms then deflecting them in quick motions, or a body is lifted upside down with legs pointing into air like the blades of a windmill, the effect is that of athletic games of the ancient Olympics. Scarlett’s choreography, as well as Maliphant’s, makes use of the troupe’s versatile dancers who have internalized the postures of the danseur noble and are able to add grace and sophistication to their performances.

Adding to the sculptural effect, the men dance bare chested and wear flesh colored athletic leggings, which create a pure body surface to act as a canvas for Michael Hulls’ beautiful lighting. In one breathtaking sequence, the white screen that serves as a backdrop for the piece is illuminated with a glowing purple, while the dancers are lit in the gold of late afternoon sunlight. Chiascuro, the use of light and dark to create volume in painting, abounds throughout the piece, as Hull emphasizes the dancers’ forms in a Caravaggio-like tour-de-force.

The Minimalist compositions of Max Richter, from his album Memoryhouse, range from sounds of dripping water to classic harpsichord. But whatever the instrument or style, the music supports and harmonizes with the dance, never threatening to overshadow it.

Much of the movement often drops to floor level – not my favorite aspect of so much of contemporary choreography. It often feels like an easy way to create drama through motions of falling, sliding, and writhing on the floor. In the case of Serpent, however, this has a purpose in line with the theme of the piece. Scarlett creates intricate, elegant choreography that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next surprise.

The second piece of the evening, Fallen, by Russell Maliphant is a work that uses all the skill, inner resources, and grace of the dancers. We are on a bare stage, no backdrop, just the raw walls of the theatre. The dancers are clad in vaguely military garb: sleeveless jackets, camouflage style pants. The percussive sounds of composer Armand Amar, with its roots in traditional world music, sets the mood with insistent rhythms and propulsive beats.

What captures me here is how Maliphant creates a human jungle gym of movement, shapes, and positions. Again we are aware of sculpture – this time it is the work of Rodin with all its solemn beauty and power. It is a dance of angles and circles, weights and measures, pressure and resistance. Male tribal rituals are evoked as men dance in circles or partners spin each other. Andrea Carrucciu and Leon Poulton dance a martial arts type pas-de-deux with kicks, thrusts, and jabs to great effect; but every dancer in the company rises to the same superb level.

If you haven’t seen Maliphant’s Torsion, created in 2002 for artistic directors Nunn and Trevitt, you can find it on YouTube and you are in for a treat. Torsion is a seventeen-minute pas-de-deux of hypnotic beauty performed in a loft-like setting. In Fallen, Maliphant uses some of the vocabulary of Torsion, enlarged and expanded for the ensemble. For example, there is an often-repeated sequence of movement for four dancers that is magnetic and almost indescribable. While in constant motion, one dancer, with no volition of his own, is lifted from a horizontal position, anchored to the knee of another, and buttressed on an angle by the arm of another. The choreography is remarkable for its subtly and complexity, and the dancers are remarkable for the sheer strength that enables them to perform the steps.

Only two parts of the evening perplex me, but both have nothing to do with the dancing. First is the extended use of rock songs while the audience is sitting and waiting for the show to begin. It has neither a relationship to the dances to come, nor to the subsequent music. The second, shown at the opening of each work, are two short videos of the choreographers talking about the creation of their pieces. Informative though it is, it underestimates the audience’s capacity to understand the work and seems unnecessary, since the dances and the dancers speak so eloquently for themselves.

Performances through November 9:

The company includes: Andrea Carrucciu, Simone Donati, Flavien Esmieu, Marc Galvez, Adam Kirkham, Edward Pearce, Leon Poulton, Matthew Rees, Matthew Sandiford, and Bradley Waller.

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Photos courtesy of BalletBoyz.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Live Dance: Batsheva Dance Company Performs Sadeh21 at Royce Hall

November 1, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA.  The opening of Sadeh21, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, appears to be about the individual – about personal inclination manifesting itself in quirks, ticks, thrusts, and abrupt changes of direction. One by one, dancers enter the stage and display their own particular brand of movement in front of a low gray expanse of wall. This segment, entitled Sadeh1 (Sadeh means field, as in field of study), could be interpreted as a catalogue of Naharin’s dance movement system called “Gaga” and the introduction to a series of twenty-one movement sequences.

As I understand it, in Naharin’s dance language, an idea is suggested to the dancer who then interprets it in his or her own way, creating an individual vocabulary of movement. Naharin dedicates Sadeh21 to Noa Eshkol, creator of a rigorous movement notation system using “symbols and numbers to define the motion of any limb around its joint.” A system that can “describe virtually every perceptible movement of the body.” While Eshkol (who died in 2007 at the age of 83) sought to find the essence of common movement, Naharin seems to embrace the idiosyncrasies of individual movement. He is aided in this investigation by the talents of an athletic and committed troupe of dancers.


During the seventy-five minutes of Sadeh21, when movements are done in harmony by the group, the results are startling and insightful; at other times, when movements are done in isolation by the individual, they become incomprehensible and grow monotonous. One dancer, twittering in a display of jerking body parts, holds limited interest. But when a line of female dancers, as in Sadeh5, engage in gawkish disco dancing to music that sounds like a robotic tango, then you’ve got my attention. The women, dressed in spandex shorts and deep in thought, dance on, oblivious to men, arrayed in black taffeta strapless gowns, who leap, roll, and lunge behind them. The meaning is vague – perhaps it has to do with listening to one’s inner voices – but the scene is forceful and compelling.


There is a vagueness that permeates the entire piece. Without context, the audience is at sea. Though the set is minimal, the dancing is complex; but there are few clues to what the movement is about. The most I could come up with is that Naharin might be interested in a kind of alternate view of our species from an animalistic, tribal, physically handicapped, or futuristic perspective. His music choices range from Brian Eno to screaming voices with some Jun Miyake sprinkled in. The screaming voices add confusion rather than context (in one arrangement a lone dancer stands at the front of the stage and cries out a continuous jumble of words as if mentally incapacitated), and since there isn’t enough music to offer rhythmic structure we are once again in limbo, unsure of where we are.

One satisfying section appears to have a political component. Linking arms, a row of men dance, moving in slow motion to what sounds like heroic film music. Their legs rotate in synchronization, carving steps out of space. When they separate, their arms, now free, go through a series of movements. The men no longer appear peaceful as their gestures assume a military aspect.

But these insights are few in an evening that seems to celebrate the anxious maneuverings of the human body. It is the close of the piece that is the most exhilarating. With the gray backdrop, now serving as a scaffold for action, a figure appears, crawling into view from the hidden side of the wall and mounts the top. Standing and facing us for a moment, the dancer then falls backwards and out of sight to the surprise of the audience. He is followed by a succession of dancers who leap off the wall (and out of view) in varying positions. Is it a euphoric investigation of flight, escape, suicide, or anarchy? Not sure, but here we have context: the wall (architecture whether literal or symbolic) and desire (for escape or joy), all wrapped up in Naharin’s individualized movement system. Now there’s a winning combination.

(To read a previous Rosenberg review of a performance of Noa Eshkol’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art click HERE.)

Batsheva Dance Company performs Sadeh21 tonight and tomorrow (Sat. & Sunday Nov. 1 and 2) in a Cap UCLA concert at Royce Hall.

Photos courtesy of Batsheva Dance Company. 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Ballet: The National Ballet of Canada’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Dorothy Chandler

July 13, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

From opening curtain to final bows, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky, along with his set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, hurls us into the very heart of a fifteenth century Renaissance painting in his Romeo and Juliet, created for the National Ballet of Canada and premiering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.

With simple yet evocative sets and exquisite costumes, this production has the immediacy of a Pinturicchio fresco. That artist had the ability to breathe life and personality into the daily doings of the contemporary characters who populated his paintings. Like Pinturicchio, Ratmansky has the unique gift of creating personality, not out of paint, of course, but out of movement. In Ratmansky’s world, legs, feet, arms, torso all speak a language, carrying within them humor, whimsy, pathos, and purpose.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

For me Ratmansky’s most formidable gift is his ability to infuse movement with wit and levity. He embraces the human spirit in his choreography by exposing our foibles, weaknesses, and desires – those qualities that make us quintessentially human. This aspect of his artistry works to advantage in the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet when the irrepressible youth of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Juliet is in full flower.

Everywhere we turn, whether in the Market Square, at the Capulet’s ball, or in Act One, Scene Two when we meet Juliet and her nurse, the exuberance and optimism of youth shines with truth. In fact, this very exuberance – this love of life and sense of immortality (so brilliantly exemplified in the dancing of Piotr Stanczyk’s Mercutio) — makes the inevitable tragedy all the more painful.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

It is in the more serious moments of Shakespeare’s drama where I felt something lacking in the ballet. Perhaps I longed for less movement, less personality, and more stillness. When Guillaume Côté’s superbly danced and deeply felt Romeo partners his Juliet – a childlike Elena Lobsanova – in the post nuptial scene of Act Three, there is a clarity of intention so vivid in the Kenneth MacMillan version that seems clouded here.

In some part it is due to the performance of Lobsanova – a charming, lithe Juliet full of winning delicacy and grace but unable to transcend childish love to give a convincing portrayal of an awakened woman, tortured by overwhelming passion and her inability to enter into her marriage with Romeo in the full light of day.

Guillaume Cote as Romeo and Elena Lobsanova as Juliet

Much has been written about the age and inexperience of Lobsanova, a second soloist at the National Ballet of Canada when Ratmansky chose her for his Juliet. Now a first soloist, she has been dancing the role for three years. But youth is not a prerequisite for playing Juliet: Alessandra Ferri, at forty, danced Juliet, and her indelible performance was the pinnacle of sexual abandon and dramatic and artistic accomplishment.

It is with the portrayal of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s friendship where Ratmansky reaches the heights, as well as with his inventive patterns and stylistic innovations in the crowd and ballroom scenes. His choreography for the three young men is full of unique partnerings, buoyant lifts, and fanciful footwork. His scenes of swordplay, whether between Tybalt and Mercutio or Tybalt and Romeo have the dash of an Errol Flynn movie minus the clichés. In fact, swords are used repeatedly throughout the ballet. In the ballroom scene’s “Dance of the Knights,” the men of the Capulet house dance without the women but with their swords – a militant note that foreshadows the violence to come and is tribal and primitive, conjuring a feudal society where death is a constant threat.

It is followed by the noble dance of the women, which has a civilizing effect on the room – a room arranged with the grandeur of Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Though Romeo and Juliet is a drama about men’s violence and its devastating effects, women are not merely passive onlookers in Ratmansky’s production. They threaten, cajole, and stand their ground beside their men. It is for them, however, to mourn the loss of their husbands and sons.

In another beautifully realized moment at the ball, reminiscent of the bride and groom lifted on chairs over the heads of the guests at Jewish weddings, Juliet is lifted by Paris, as simultaneously, Romeo is held aloft by Mercutio and Benvolio. The two future lovers lock eyes as they repeatedly soar above the heads of the crowd. Exquisite details of this sort abound in the ballet, but they are the very details that ultimately intrude on the forward momentum to the inevitable tragedy. Ratmansky has created a fully realized Renaissance world but one where the joy of daily life takes precedent over the mythic tragedy of feuding houses.

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

Romeo and Juliet illustration by Jane Rosenberg

The atmosphere of the ballet, whether choreographed by MacMillan, Lavrovsky, Cranko, Neumeier, or Ashton, owes its life to Prokofiev’s score – one of the greatest ballet scores of the twentieth century. Under the direction of The National Ballet of Canada’s David Briskin, the Los Angeles musicians gave a fine rendition of Prokofiev’s complex music. However, during some of the more percussive sections, the orchestra members under Briskin sounded as if they were keeping time rather than propelling the music forward to create Prokofiev’s explosive sound – one particularly muddy section happening at the opening of Act Three.

There is no doubt as to the quality of the corps of the NBC. And the principals and soloists are standouts in all roles: Piotr Stanczyk, as mentioned, is a pitch perfect Mercutio – so effortless in his humor and swagger that Ratmansky should consider creating a Commedia dell’arte ballet around him. As Benvolio, Robert Stephen is a delightful and potent member of the trio. McGee Maddox’s Tybalt is imposing and lethal. Lorna Geddes’ Nurse is full of fun and vigor, dressed in an abundance of white fabric, which swaddled her from head to toe. The Friar Lawrence of Peter Ottmann is more dance than mime and he deepens the role with his presence. As Lord and Lady Capulet, Etienne Lavigne and Stephanie Hutchison are elegant and moving. And Patrick Lavoie dances Paris with ardor and humanity, particularly in the welcome simplicity of his Act Three, Scene Three solo with Juliet’s four lovely bridesmaids.

One would imagine that if Ratmansky lingered in Canada with his creation, time would season and deepen this Romeo and Juliet, a stunning addition to the pantheon of memorable versions that have gone before.

Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada. 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Opera: LA Opera’s “Thaïs” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

May 30, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Orientalism, sin, sex, and religion: Jules Massenet’s opera, Thaïs, has it all (and a thrilling Placido Domingo to boot). A lavish production, now on stage at the Los Angeles Opera, revels in the nineteenth century fascination with extravagance versus asceticism but is oddly bereft of sexual content. The story, taken from Anatole France’s 1890 novel, Thaïs, features a courtesan turning from a life of lust in Alexandria to the chastity of a convent in the Egyptian desert through the ministrations of a fervent monk.

Nino Machaidze as Thais

Nino Machaidze as Thais

The Thaïs of the beautiful Georgian soprano, Nino Machaidze, however, seems chaste throughout – more like a noble presence who trades worldly riches for a simpler life, rather than a woman who accrues wealth and position through her obvious charms and then gives it all up for the Christian promise of eternal life. The result is not uninteresting: less an abrupt turnaround from Eros-inflamed goddess to pious innocent as is typical of most productions. But though director Nicola Raab has made Thaïs’ transition more believable, in the process she has sacrificed the extremes of behavior that make for a fascinating portrait of a courtesan. The result is a tepid Thaïs, not in voice, for Machaidze gives it her all, but in manner.

Placido Domingo as Athanael

On the other hand, Placido Domingo’s Athanaël is a powerhouse of tormented passions: in turn pious, angry, jealous, loving, and lustful. Making a transition in his seventies from tenor to baritone, Domingo is ageless, singing with an expressive warmth that envelops the house. In monkish long hair and dressed in rags, he inhabits his own world – true to the opera and distant from the oddly populated environment created by the scenery and costumes of designer, Johan Engels.

There is no doubt that this is a sumptuous and gorgeous staging, but it has problems. We open on cenobitic monks in a monastery outside of Thebes, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Instead of the banks of the Nile, we are in what looks like the suggestion of a three-story library in an indeterminate place during the Industrial Revolution. Instead of monks dressed in the manner of Domingo’s Athanaël, we have men who seem to be Oxford University dons, outfitted in academic robes. The scenery and props originated with the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden and favor a nineteenth century look. The set revolves for the second scene of Act One and, instead of the Alexandrian estate of Nicias, Thaïs’ current lover, we are in a French theater, populated with all manner of “actresses” dressed in flamboyantly beautiful costumes culled from nineteenth century opera and theater posters.

Thais Act One

Thais Act One

It’s dazzling but perplexing, unmooring us from any scenic cues as to where we are. And when Thaïs makes her grand entrance, she wears a golden dress weighed down with trim and jewels and laden with bird plumage – a twenty-first century version of a nineteenth century version of an Egyptian queen’s costume. The outfit inhibits her movements – she is no lithe and seductive courtesan – and because she never touches her lover, Nicias, when singing of their shared passion, the moment falls flat.

Queenly rather than sexy, Machaidze’s first act gets off to a shaky start – her voice lacking in subtlety and nuance. It is in the second act “Mirror Aria,” in the beautiful jewel-box set of her boudoir, when we begin to hear more delicate shadings of tone and texture, which culminate in her ravishing duet of Act Three with Domingo.

Paul Groves as Nicias

Paul Groves as Nicias

As Nicias, tenor Paul Groves was a likable presence, whose voice also gained in luster as the evening progressed. As the slave girls, Crobyle and Myrtale, Hae Ji Chang and Cassandra Zoe Velasco chirped and laughed as required and were adorable in their Scheherazade-like outfits. Milena Kitic proved an elegant and creamy voiced Albine, the abbess who takes Thaïs into the convent.

Portraying the old monk, Palemon, bass Valentin Anikin lacked compassion as spiritual advisor to Athanaël, his voice rather remote and aloof. Putting Palemon and his monks in dusty tuxedos with top hats for the monastery scene of Act Three was a baffling choice. And again, instead of a monastery, they idle for nearly the entire act in the ragged seats of a broken down theater in the desert with a backdrop of sand dunes, which are obvious depictions of a woman’s breasts.

Athanaël, more dead than alive, languishes in the monastery, possessed by his desire for Thaïs and haunted by a vision of her death. Rushing to the convent, now in the same desert set where the monks had idled, he finds a dying Thaïs.

Placido Domingo as TK and Nino MachaidzeTK aS Thais

Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais

Athanaël, however, doesn’t find her on her deathbed or, as in the 2008 Met production, enthroned like a Byzantine Madonna. Instead, on a raised platform, dressed in a satin wedding gown and jewels, she awaits her apotheosis. Though an interesting interpretation, she stands apart from Athanaël who grovels below her, isolating the two in physical space (a metaphor for their psychic isolation from one another). However, one longed for their parting to have a more intimate connection before Thaïs’ soul rises to heaven, leaving a suffering Athanaël behind – an Athanaël who has now come to crave worldly love for Thaïs above all else

Though the plot, as handled by Massenet’s librettist, Louis Gallet, greatly abridges the novel, omitting details that would make transitions and characters clearer, Massenet fills in the gaps with his lovely and beautifully lyric score. The LA Opera Orchestra under the direction of conductor Patrick Fournillier brings out both the tenderness and urgency of the music. And Robert Cani, the solo violinist responsible for playing the haunting symphonic intermezzo known as “Meditation” does so with a stirring simplicity.

This is an opera of contrasts: earthly passion versus spiritual calling, voluptuousness versus severity, the here and now versus eternity. Massenet’s music balances these extremes with a graceful score that lingers long after the production ends. We are fortunate in Los Angeles to have Thaïs performed here for the first time and with the incomparable Domingo at its heart.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  



Ballet: The Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

April 13, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg
Joyful, uplifting, poetic – three words that describe Paul Taylor’s choreography in one of his signature works, Airs, and the first dance on Friday night’s program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Created in 1978, Airs encapsulates much of what is so satisfying about Taylor’s work: expressiveness at the service of intellect, the perfectly calibrated repetitions that reinforce the choreography but never overwhelm it, the gestures that never feel arbitrary or overly manipulated.

The eagerly anticipated return of the Paul Taylor Dance Company to Los Angeles after a ten year absence was marked by a deeply satisfying trio of dances commenting on the nature of man and civilization: from the power of civilization to shape man’s better nature in Airs, to the loss of humanity through the tyranny of war in Banquet of Vultures. And finally, the humor inherent in seeing our own foibles reflected in the insect world in Gossamer Gallants.

Paul Taylor's "Airs"

Paul Taylor’s “Airs”

Scored to an array of selections from Handel, Airs makes reference to man’s higher nature where happiness is in reach and light shines on our endeavors. From adagio to allegro sections, the choreography dazzles with arms sculpting air, bodies tilting in space, and legs and feet beating in rapid-fire succession. The dancers are extraordinarily adept at Taylor’s demanding choreography – one of his most balletic of dances – and though they glow with a free and easy spirit, the precision, strength, and control required for the complex choreography is immense.

The cast of four women and three men (I loved the asymmetry here), featuring Laura Halzack, Jamie Rae Walker, Robert Kleinendorst, and Michael Trusnovec, was splendid. Whether putting one in mind of classical Greek sculpture, wrestling moves, circus stunts, or folk dance, the lyricism of the music and choreography was captured by these seven highly musical dancers.

If Airs is about man achieving the heights, then Banquet of Vultures is focused on the depths. Where Airs soared, Banquet felt anchored to the floor, earthbound and rooted in the degradation of war. Premiered in 2005, Taylor famously commented that it was George W. Bush’s pseudo-military body language, which first inspired the creation of the central malevolent character.

Michael Trusnovec

Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and red tie, Michael Trusnovec, with his imposing stature, created an iconic tyrant/ bureaucrat, himself little more than a puppet of the relentless war machine. With staccato marionette movements, he swaggered, threatened and abused. Prisoners, dressed in generic camouflage-style uniforms, cowered and ran.

What distinguishes this anti war work is Taylor’s minimalist aesthetic. His music selection and the sculptural qualities of the lighting design served the piece well. Morton Feldman’s 1976 work, Oboe and Orchestra, with its piercing sounds, created the backdrop to this commentary on torture. Feldman’s music never lapsed into sentiment or sensuality, which would have lessened the power of Taylor’s creation. Jennifer Tipton’s extraordinary lighting became the entire set. Sculptural cones of light illuminated bodies in the darkness, angling from the side or defining space from above.

In one of the most stirring images of the piece, a shaft of light defined a circular space that imprisoned three victims. As they writhed within the confines of light, they became as heroic as the ancient figures of the Laocoön. In a stirring sequence danced by Trusnovec and Jamie Rae Walker, Taylor created a macabre pas de deux for predator and prey, which ended in the violent death of the prey (Walker). And in the closing moments, a second figure in a suit and red tie (an iconic uniform created by Santo Loquasto) replaced the first tyrant, only to flap and flounder like a fish on a line. Perhaps another politician inevitably inheriting a corrupt war that he can neither control nor stop?

Though Taylor makes reference to George W. Bush, there is a timelessness to the piece – at moments it has a German Expressionist feel, at other times the Iron Curtain looms large. Like Kurt Jooss’ 1932 ballet, The Green Table, no matter who the politicians or battling soldiers, any and all generations at war can be seen in this shattering dance drama. The evening was capped with a delicious confection called Gossamer Gallants created in 2011.  Insects cavort on stage to village dances from the Czech opera, The Bartered Bride, by Bedrich Smetana. I will never be able to hear Smetana’s music again without imagining dopey, lovesick bugs mooning over predatory females in all their wiggling, vamping glory.

Against a backdrop of a ring of stone towers, insects enacted their mating rituals to hilarious effect in the setting of a Czech village. Particularly engaging was the choreography for the male bugs, helplessly enthralled by the females. Drunk on love, the men’s movements were quirky and unpredictable. The dances for the females, though charming, seemed to draw on a more standard range of typically girlish behavior. When finally the boy bugs realized that the end of romance meant disaster, they moved from interest and enthusiasm to terror and exhaustion. All the nuances of the comedy were deftly handled by the exuberant and accomplished company of eleven dancers.

With Loquasto’s adorable costumes: black and iridescent blue superhero insect suits for men and lime green sexpot suits for the women, the effect was complete. Wings flapping, hands probing, antennae bobbing, the dancers inhabited their characters with unmitigated joy. In the process, they reminded us of the preciousness of all life and the sheer breadth of the body of work born from the inexhaustible mind of Paul Taylor.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children


Ballet: Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Giselle” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

February 2, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Whether it’s Wilis, bird, sylph, or sprite, nineteenth century ballet is replete with woman as enchanted creature. And it’s no wonder. Place a willowy beauty on point and earth’s gravity faded as the imagination of such choreographic giants as Petipa, Perrot, and Bournonville soared.

Even in the twenty-first century, the fate of jilted girls and bewitched princesses created in the long-ago age of romantic idealism still resonates. In a production of “Giselle” from the Royal New Zealand Ballet performed in Los Angeles last night, we were given a poetic window into the minds and hearts of that romantic age. Fashioned by Johan Kobborg and RNZB artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, after Marius Petipa, this “Giselle,” though produced on a smaller scale, was a deeply felt and intelligently executed addition to the pantheon of world-class productions.


.Gillian Murphy as Giselle and Qi Huan as Albrecht

Led by a superb Gillian Murphy (guest artist from American Ballet Theater) as Giselle and partnered by Qi Huan, the company met the challenges of both acts, from the exuberance of Act One to the solemnity of Act Two. Whether dancing with the youthful abandon of peasant girls or the controlled power of the Wilis (ghostly maidens who punish wayward suitors), the female corps, in particular, impressed with their timing, precision, and musicality. This was no small feat – at only fourteen Wilis instead of the approximately thirty dancers of larger productions, they somehow managed to create the feel of a full ensemble.

There were carefully considered modifications by Stiefel and Kobborg to the “Giselle” first imagined by Perrot and Coralli and later revised by Petipa. The first was a wraparound to the plot supplied by an older Albrecht, who is first seen behind a scrim of painted tree roots, mourning the tragedy of his youth. Thus we see the action unfold in flashback. Though an interesting notion, it was not necessary for comprehension. Albrecht’s maturation and understanding of his folly is inherent in the structure of the role and was poignantly conveyed in Qi Huan’s excellent performance. The replacement of a harvest festival by a peasant wedding celebration was, however, an interesting change of pace, adding another layer to the story. Witnessing a happy, young bridal couple at the festivities contrasted eerily to Giselle’s fate – the rejection of an appropriate suitor, Hilarion, for the love of a man who, unknown to our heroine, is beyond her station and engaged to another.

Gillian Murphy, often seen in the role of the Queen of the Wilis with ABT, here portrayed a fully realized Giselle – transforming from shy, fragile village maiden to ennobled spirit in the course of the two acts. As in the dual role of Odette/Odile of “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” requires the same high level of acting and performance so critical to both ballets. From Romantic arabesques, to pirouettes in attitude, to ronds de jambe en l’air, Murphy supplied us with the technical mastery, the musicality, and the acting chops to give us a convincing Giselle. Only in the mad scene, did I wish for more fluidity and pathos. Without Bathilde’s locket around Giselle’s neck, which functions to unhinge her hair, there were distracting manipulations with the hairdo by Murphy and Maree White, playing her mother, Berthe. Though an adequate portrayal of the onset of madness, Murphy never surpassed adequate here. One longed for a hint of the confusion so poignantly realized in Natalia Makarova’s portrayal: unhinged limbs moving like a marionette, voices unheard by others, and deep physical pain – all contributing to a defining moment in the history of the role.

As Albrecht, Qi Huan shone as the elegant count in disguise as a peasant. From youthful rake to tragic, remorseful lover, Huan seamlessly handled the transitions. In the push and pull of their partnership, Murphy and Huan created suspense and an exquisite tension, particularly in Act Two, when Albrecht dances with Giselle, not yet realizing that the ghost of his beloved is really there. As for Murphy, her fragility in Act One gives way to the heroic in Act Two, as she saves her beloved Albrecht from the fury of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Abigail Boyle proved an able queen, negotiating the demands of the role with a commanding presence. The role of Myrtha presents a difficult challenge: how to act the part of an ethereal specter and at the same time, convey the authority of a queen and executioner. Though more commanding than ethereal, she still convinced.


.Abigail Boyd as Myrtha and Jacob Chown as Hilarion

As Hilarion, Jacob Chown had the right blend of earthiness, swagger, and helplessness. He was able to meld technical proficiency with a loose and easy portrayal of the jealous gamekeeper. As Giselle’s mother, Maree White was unfortunately cast, since she was too young for a role usually reserved for an older, character dancer. Clytie Campbell as Bathilde and Martin Vedel as her father, the duke, were appropriately aristocratic; and MacLean Hopper as Albrecht’s faithful subject, Wilfred, cut a fine figure. Lucy Green and Rory Fairweather-Neylan were delightful as the wedding couple of Act One, and as Myrtha’s two handmaidens, Green and Mayu Tanigaito danced with both strength and refinement.

The large orchestra of local musicians, many from the LA Opera, under the baton of Nigel Gaynor, brought out both the piquancy and turbulence of Adolphe Adam’s score. Traditional sets by Howard Jones and nineteenth century style costumes by Natalia Stewart were enhanced by the lighting design of Kendall Smith.

When finally, Albrecht was forced by the Wilis to dance to his death, we witnessed a series of entrechats that startled and amazed. Huan took to the air with his standing jumps, throwing himself into the act with utter abandon. In this moment, the reality of his deed and its aftermath hit. When dawn broke and he was saved from annihilation by his constant Giselle, we felt, with a sharp pang, the power and pathos of this iconic ballet. His later return, as an aged Albrecht seeking death, added emphasis to an already fully realized production.

Photos by Evan Li courtesty of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.  


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