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.

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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.

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.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.

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.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.  


Ballet: Los Angeles Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at Royce Hall

December 23, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

Without snow drifts, fir and spruce trees, or chilling temperatures, we, in Los Angeles, must make do with a Christmas season of brilliant sunshine, swaying palms, and stately cypresses. Happily, we have the Los Angeles Ballet to bring us a taste of the holiday with their annual Nutcracker.

With charming costumes by Mikael Melbye and pleasant sets by Catherine Kanner, this production is reimagined by artistic directors, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, and set in 1912 Los Angeles.

When Drosselmeyer, danced by Nicolas de la Vega, swept into the Stahlbaum’s living room in his floor length fur, I wondered if 1912 Los Angeles enjoyed cooler temperatures. (Also puzzling were the snow-laden trees outside the living room windows.) The fur, however, would have worked perfectly, had the production been set a few years later and Drosselmeyer been cast as a Hollywood, silent-era film director or actor, complete with camera and tripod. After all, what is a moviemaker but a magician – a perfect metaphor for Drosselmeyer? If this was the intention, then Vega had the exaggerated mannerisms of a Valentino heartthrob and the looks to match. His toymaker was all enthusiasm, hugs, and bravado – the menacing quality of the character found in most productions (and in E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale) dispensed with.

In the first act, the cast of children, beautifully coached and surprisingly natural, was a true pleasure. As the troublesome Fritz, Aidan Merchel-Zoric, was deliciously spoiled and raucous. His troop of mischievous boys let loose and enjoyed themselves without inhibition. Seventeen-year-old Mia Katz, in the role of Clara, portrayed a teen-ager on the verge of maturity and eager for new experiences. As the parents of the two youngsters, Colleen Neary and former NYCB principal, Adam Lüders, were a benevolent and touching pair.

In a nice Upstairs, Downstairs touch, two butlers (David Renaud and Brent Slacke-Wolfe) passed champagne and cavorted with Chaplinesque footwork, then partnered a pair of hip-wiggling maids (Andrea Bell and Chelsea Paige Johnston). Danced ebulliently by David Block, the Nutcracker was no passive wooden toy but a life-size doll. When poked and prodded by Fritz, in a hilarious twist, the Nutcracker swiftly poked him back.

This Nutcracker was all goodwill, the darker shades of the original story absent. Even the mice felt more Walt Disney than Tim Burton, particularly in what appeared to be a mouse Conga-line-dance as they playfully snaked around the room or perched cozily on Clara’s bed while she slept. Unfortunately, with the menace absent, the subsequent battle scene lost its power, deteriorating into goofiness and undefined patterns.

“The Nutcracker” Act Two from “Dance Me A Story: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets,” copyright 1985 by Jane Rosenberg.

The corps de ballet looked crisp and radiant as the Snowflakes at the end of Act One and charming in the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act. With Clara and the Nutcracker’s throne partially obscuring my view of the action in Act Two and the columns at the back of the stage taking up space, the dancing seemed cramped rather than expansive. Though the female corps had solid technique, I found the use of the hands, in general, rather awkward – less graceful extensions of the arms, more distracting punctuation marks. This held true for the female principals and soloists as well. As the Rose in the flower waltz, Bianca Bulle, replacing Allynne Noelle, performed admirably.

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Snowflakes Ensemble in “The Nutcracker“

Rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy, (we are in the Land of Dolls rather than the Candy Land of most productions) we have Clara’s doll, Marie, performed by a radiant Allyssa Bross. One wished for more subtlety and pathos in her performance, however. Tchaikovsky’s score, at its most melancholy in this pas de deux, is certainly a clue that this is a singular moment in the ballet when Clara is invited to witness what mature love is all about – romance, joy, and heartbreak all at once. As Marie’s Prince, Kenta Shimizu, was an excellent partner, dancing with style, grace, and subtle power.

The Land of Dolls of Act Two was a curious locale: a vaguely Persian environment with turbaned inhabitants. Though a duo of heralds, portrayed as movie cliché eunuchs, kept looking out to sea, Clara, the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer, arrived by sled. The Act Two divertissements were well danced.

The Arabian coffee divertissement is always a crowd pleaser and this one was no exception.  Alexander Castillo tirelessly partnered a sinuous Julia Cinquemani in a dizzying series of lifts and embraces. As the Harlequin and Columbine dolls of Act One and Two, Robert Mulvey and Isabel Vondermuhll were a piquant pair, and the Russian dancers led by Dustin True (also dancing the Cossack doll in Act One) were skilled, throwing themselves into the leaping, spinning choreography. Mother Ginger became Mother Gingerbread, her skirts a gingerbread house, her head poking out of a candied chimney. Her doors opened to reveal a troop of happy Hansels and Gretels – a revisionist take on the imprisoned fairy tale siblings. Nevertheless, it was nifty change of pace and a striking visual.

One has to applaud this young company, now in its eighth season, for securing a place in the ballet firmament. One would wish, however, that in future, they could raise the funds to bring live music into the equation. No matter how well the Los Angeles Ballet dances The Nutcracker, without a live orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky’s lustrous score, they cannot hope to glow as bright as their promise.

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 Art by Jane Rosenberg.  Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

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: Nederlands Dans Theater 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

October 20, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

Though “Shoot the Moon” is a small ensemble piece, it says volumes about the singular dancers and idiosyncratic vision of the Nederlands Dans Theater. The third in a trio of ballets performed opening night during the company’s run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday, “Shoot the Moon” was a gripping convergence of contemporary choreography, music, and art.

Set to the second movement of “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” by Philip Glass, this ballet, the collaboration of Sol León (resident choreographer) and Paul Lightfoot (artistic director), highlighted the troupe’s theatrical concerns by offering edgy ballet infused with twenty-first century angst. It’s brilliance lay in how that angst was communicated through dance, set design, and video.

Shoot The Moon

Shoot The Moon

Five dancers – three men, two women – paired off and explored their relationships through revolving sets depicting three empty, wallpapered rooms. Reminiscent of a dwelling Gregor Samsa might have inhabited in Kafka’s Prague, these rooms told a story of their own and became part of the psychology of the couples.

Varying aspects of relationships were explored from isolation to rage, commitment to ambivalence, longing to remorse. States of mind were sometimes made visible through stuttering, crippled motions but oftentimes were expressed through extensions of legs while dancers lay on their backs. The legs migrated off the floor, only to climb up and probe the walls. Think Fred Astaire dancing on walls and ceiling while channeling Mack the Knife in Brechtian frustration. The marvelous, elastic Nederlands dancers brought the dance drama to vivid life with poetic intensity. Even the set, designed by the León and Lightfoot, seemed alive, becoming part of the push and pull of the choreography. A window, in one of the rooms, revealed a solitary figure or, at times, a couple standing just outside, perhaps escaping the confines of domestic life. Enhancing the experience was the novel use of live video more familiar in the art installations of Bruce Nauman than on the stage. Above the back walls of the rotating sets, we were confronted with a stationary screen that displayed live video projections. What we glimpsed on the screen were the offstage movements, in character, of a given member of the five-person ensemble, reacting to his or her relationship. And so the audience became voyeurs, witnessing so-called “private” moments away from the stage, which added another dimension and odd reality to the piece.

As for the music, Lightfoot and León have created works to Philip Glass compositions on over ten occasions. Glass’s music has long been a partner to dance. His music supplies a rolling wave of sound, which allows a choreographer to run free. Given the vividness of the performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble in “Einstein on the Beach” last weekend at the same venue, one missed hearing live music rather than recording.

The second ballet on the program, also to movements from a Glass symphony and string quartet, was notable for the screams and vocalizations heard over the score. “Same Difference” was more theatrical than balletic – a surreal nightmare of what the choreographers described as “the chaotic influence the ego has on the individual” but I interpreted as a depiction of European post World War Two trauma.

SAME DIFFERENCE

The lighting by Tom Bevoort intensified the drama, creating patterns and the suggestion of a battlefield where an odd assortment of souls traversed the landscape, in particular a stricken soldier, Jorge Nazal, crying out in pain and rage. The ballet did have its humorous moments: Medhi Walerski (who created the opening ballet, “Chamber”) moving like a demented Charlie Chaplin reciting familiar French phrases such as “L’addition s’il vous plaît,” and Fernando Hernando Magadan in drag as an old matriarch. The piece, though interesting, felt as if the choreographers were inhibited, in service to the idea rather than to the dance. When finally, towards the end, the dance did bloom it was with a stirring pas de deux, the couple (Sarah Reynolds and Marne Van Opstal) moving as if with one body, becoming a two headed, four legged being. The sets were designed by León and Lightfoot, who, once again created another beautifully realized environment.

The evening opened with a newly commissioned work by NDT dancer, Medhi Walerski, and composer Joby Talbot, entitled “Chamber.” Inspired by Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” this piece loosely referred to both the music and choreography of the original. After an unclear introduction with a man in full dress and cane (perhaps a reference to the impresario, Diaghilev), the dance opened on the corps at the back of the stage, gliding forward mechanically like a line of comatose Rockettes. It was a riveting opening to an intriguing ballet that at times soared, but occasionally treaded water when it veered into posing rather than sustained movement.

Chamber

Chamber

The lighting by Jordan Tuinman in combination with the bare costumes, suggesting nudity, created startling effects – a chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio. The light seemed to create a two-dimensional world on stage resembling a German Expressionist woodcut or the flickering universe of Expressionist cinema. It may have been the ravishing beauty of the dim light, which, though effective in painting a picture distanced me from the dancing.

Chamber

Chamber

This evocation of spring seemed more about individuals struggling to make a personal space outside the group than about rituals that bind people together. While the percussive score referenced Stravinsky, the dancing bodies were insect-like in their posturing. Chests caved in or heaved forward, an individual tried to “dance” out of his skin like a moulting cicada, arms beat like wasp wings. Though the dancers did justice to the choreography and there were breathtaking moments, one longed to see the incredible grace and athleticism of this world-class company featured in all its power. Unquestionably accomplished, NDT once again challenges the audience with its rigor and vision.

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

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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.

 

 Photos courtesy of the Nederlands Dans Theater.


Dance: Lucy Guerin Inc. at Royce Hall

October 6, 2013

by Jane Rosenberg

Elemental forces were at work on the stage of Royce Hall on Friday, October 4 when Lucy Guerin, the Australian choreographer, presented her North American premiere of “Weather” in a CAP UCLA concert.

Nature’s seasons have long been a romantic lure for choreographers and composers – Petipa, Robbins, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi, to name a few – but this fascinating piece by Guerin lives, not in the idyllic realm of dewdrop fairies and snow queens, but in the ominous present of twenty-first century weather.

In spite of the formidable terrain – climate change never being far from the mind while watching the piece – Guerin and her skilled dancers achieved a poetic evocation of the elements. Under a ruffled canopy of clouds by set designer, Robert Cousins, the programmatic dance unfolded:

A lone figure undulates to the faint sound of wind, his body tossed by an ever-increasing gale. The sound rises and we discover it’s the whistling breath of the dancer. A man and woman enter and without touching, perform a mechanical dance, a kind of robotic tango. They slowly spin as a cacophony of sounds rise: are they weather vanes rotating in circles or hapless victims? We feel as if something cataclysmic is about to happen.

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Three dancers rush on stage, their arms slicing the air like wind turbines. There is an imperative to the dance and its “music” – an urgency driving the piece.

The electronic minimalist score by Oren Ambarchi rumbles through the floorboards of the theatre. Suddenly the ruffled clouds brighten and, in the space of a breath, the sky sends down tufts of white.

 

The tufts dance for a moment in space and we realize they’re plastic bags – hundreds of them. As they float towards earth, we experience a moment of pure poetry, as reflective and magical as a Japanese brush painting. The dancers collapse into the snowdrifts of bags and rise and fall from the midst of the debris, then playfully romp like children during a first snowfall. But is it snow, or is it waste – the refuse of an ecologically damaged planet?

And then thirty-five minutes into the piece, the dance loses its drive and hovers.

Unable to resist the lure of what could be mined from a single plastic bag, Guerin allowed two of her dancers to explore the bag and its possibilities. Unfortunately, with the music paused for too long and the duo’s movements better suited to a vaudevillian pantomime, the forward dynamic of Guerin’s dance drama lost its momentum.

After what seemed like ten minutes, the dance resumed and equilibrium was restored. Bags were pushed around the stage by reclining dancers, arms moved in intricate, inventive patterns, figures shook and shuddered.

Though in need of trimming down from sixty minutes, there’s no doubt that Guerin, in “Weather,” created movement that was wholly organic to a dancer’s body – movement that arose out of some inner necessity. She has a seasoned intellect, which was deftly communicated through dance, and she raised questions in need of answers.

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

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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.

 

 Photos by Heidrun Lohr, courtesy of CXAP UCLA.


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