Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's with 'Her'?

We went to see the movie 'Her' this afternoon and I must admit that I am completely puzzled by it's inclusion on the list of nine movies nominated for a best picture and four other Oscars.  It makes 'Nebraska' and 'Inside Llewyn Davis' look like masterpieces (which they're not).  Joaquin Phoenix gives a very low key (nearly somnolent) performance as a recently divorced ghostwriter of other peoples' personal correspondence who falls in love with an operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  Every time he went to bed (very often) I wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep. The entire film flat-lined in the first 15 minutes and then went on for another 2 hours.

'Coppelia' at NYC Ballet

After a five year absence 'Coppelia' returned to the New York City Ballet repertory on Valentine's Day.  We have seen this ballet many times since the company first staged it -- including at it's premier in Saratoga Springs in 1974.  The choreography by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova is based on their recollection of the version by Petipa that they had seen at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg as youngsters.  Balanchine and Danilova both left the Soviet Union for Europe in 1924 and each soon joined Diaghilev's Ballet Russes.

Mme. Danilova went on to a distinguished career as a prima ballerina in the various companies that arose out of the Ballet Russes after the death of Diaghilev in 1929.  Among her most illustrious roles was Swanilda in several productions of  'Coppelia' that were derived from the Petipa production at the Mariinsky.  
Alexandra Danilova & Frederic Franklin in the Sadlers Wells production of 'Coppelia'

In 1964, sometime after the end of her performing career, Balanchine invited Mme. Danilova to join the faculty of the School of American Balle.  At SAB she became a beloved teacher and in 1965 she staged the first of the annual student workshop performances.  One of my regrets as a dance lover is that I was never able to observe one of her classes at the School.

Alexandra Danilova in 1979, photo by Tom Buck

Balanchine supposedly convinced Lincoln Kirstein (who had always been in favor of presenting only new work at NYC Ballet) to stage 'Coppelia' by pointing out how many family members and friends of each of the 24 little girls in the Act III divertissements would fill the seats at each performance.

Balanchine created and reworked the choreography for the ensembles in Acts I & III, while Mme. Danilova recreated the entire Act II and the pas de deux for the central couple in the opening and closing acts from her memory of the productions she had danced in.  The stellar original cast included Patricia McBride as Swanilda, Helgi Tomasson as Frantz and Shaun O'Brien as Dr. Coppelius.  
Mme. Alexandra Danilova working with Helgi Tomasson & Patricia McBride in 1974,
photo by Martha Swope for NYC Ballet
The production was designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.  The sets are in a 
faux-naif style that was fresh and charming in 1974, but has become rather shabby and dated now.  In researching for this post, I noted that San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet have mounted a joint production of the Balanchine/Danilova version of 'Coppelia' "beautifully designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno in shimmering pastels and whimsical patterns" according to Moira Macdonald in the Seattle Times.

Roberta Guidi di Bagno's designs for Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Coppelia', photo by Angela Sterling for PNB

The cast we saw last weekend should have sparkled in these roles:
WALTZ: *Lovette; DAWN: *Isaacs; PRAYER: *Smith; SPINNER: *Pazcoguin; WAR and DISCORD: *Kikta, *Ball
(Guest Conductor: Litton)
* First Time in Role

Andrew Veyette's punkish athleticism should be ideal for the loutish, two-timing Frantz and Tiler Peck's solid technique and ingenue sparkle seem ideal for the irrepressible Swanilda.  Robert LaFosse's experience as both Drosselmeier in 'Nutcracker' and as Dr. Coppelius should allow him to work magic.  Instead, we saw confused, almost incoherent story-telling from all three principals.  Andrew didn't convey Frantz's ardor for both Swanilda and the doll, Coppelia.  Tiler couldn't decide if Swanilda was curious or downright malicious in her treatment of Dr. Coppelius.  LaFosse seemed to be torn between creating a daft old codger or a much darker character of Coppelius.  Finally, in the pas de deux of Act I and Act III there wasn't enough chemistry between Tiler and Andrew.  Certainly all of the steps were brilliantly in place, but there was not really much reason for them.

Tiler Peck as Swanilda in the Act III Wedding Pas de Deux from 'Coppelia'
 photo by Andrea Mohin for the NYTimes
Fortunately, the rest of the company looked wonderful -- well rehearsed and enthusiastic.  In the Act III divertissements, Lauren Lovette was musical and enchanting in the 'Waltz of the Golden Hours' -- even though she had to compete with 24 adorable little girls from SAB for attention (didn't W.C.Fields say something about never performing with children or animals?). Gretchen Smith was lovely and solemn in 'Prayer'. Emily Kitka and Harrison Ball even salvaged the kitschy 'War and Discord' from total disaster (it's got to be one of Balanchine's least inspired pieces of choreography).  

And the orchestra under the direction of the guest conductor, Andrew Litton, provided nuanced and lilting musical support.  The Delibes music is among the loveliest in the classical ballet canon and it was brought to robust life in this performance.  Maestro Litton is one of the better 'guest' conductors who have been in the pit since the departure of Fayçal Karoui nearly two years ago.   When will Peter Martins and the NYCB board hire a new music director for the company and bring this conductor 'audition' process to a close?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Valentine's Day at School of American Ballets

I would normally avoid writing about classes I've observed at the School of American Ballet, but this is a place I love and the Valentine's Day open house is a wonderful event.  Both the students and the faculty are by every measure extraordinary.  This year, I observed the Adagio Classes taught by Darci Kistler and Jock Soto to the advanced men and D and C-2 girls (i.e., the top students at the school -- I use the School's terminology of 'girls' for the advanced women and 'men' for the advanced boys which I believe is an anachronism carried over from the early days of the School).

Darci and Jock have been teaching these students Balanchine's pas de deux from the Act II divertissement of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' which was first staged in 1962.
Wendy Whelan & Philip Neal in the Act II Divertissement from Balanchine's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
photo probably by Kolnik for NYC Ballet
This is a pinnacle of Balanchine choreography, an idealized love duet performed as part of an entertainment at the wedding of the three dysfunctional couples reconciled at the conclusion of Act I (which contains virtually all of the action of Shakespeare's play).  It was created for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow. Ludlow was a rather stolid performer, but a terrific partner and Verdy was a beloved French ballerina who had joined the company in 1958 at the height of her powers.  After her retirement from NYC Ballet in 1977, she went on to a distinguished career as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet and as a teacher.  In recent years she has been a frequent guest teacher at the School of American Ballet.

The duet that Balanchine created for Verdy and Ludlow to the Andante from Mendelssohn's  'Symphony #9 for Strings' looks deceptively simple, filled with promenades, bourrées, and low lifts.  It is clearly the predecessor to the duet Balanchine created for Verdy and Ludlow in 'Emeralds' in 1967.

Watching Soto and Kistler patiently coax an approximation of this pdd from the advanced students at SAB on Friday afternoon was fascinating.  The steadiness and strength required of the men is astonishing.  And the ability of the girls to trust their partners and allow themselves to be guided through the choreographic complexities seems to be an even bigger challenge.  There is no question that the students learn an immense amount from Darci and Jock in these classes.  The student couples compete eagerly to be the first to perform at the beginning of each class, knowing that they will get the most attention and hands-on coaching from the teachers.  Because they do receive so much attention during the first run through, the latter part of the class becomes more chaotic as each student couple struggles to have enough time and space to practice what they are learning.

The students will have a chance to see the finished product as part of the full 'Midsummer Night's Dream' to be performed by NYC Ballet during the final week of Spring season.

Tiler Peck & Tyler Angle in the Act II Divertissement from Balanchine's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
photo by Kolnik for NYC Ballet

Monday, February 10, 2014

Jenifer Ringer's Farewell Performance

(Conductor: Capps)
DANCES AT A GATHERING: Ringer (in pink), Krohn (in mauve), M. Fairchild (in apricot), Kowroski (in green), A. Stafford (in blue), Garcia (in brown), J. Angle (in purple), Ramasar (in green), Carmena (in brick), Catazaro (in blue) [Solo Piano: Walters]
SCOTTISH AND CANADIAN GUARDS REGIMENTS: De Luz, T. Angle, A. Stafford, J. Angle, Hyltin, Lowery, Bouder; 
ROYAL NAVY: Bouder, T. Angle, J. Angle, Lowery, Schumacher, Villalobos, De Luz, A. Stafford, Hyltin

Yesterday, we said 'farewell' to a lovely ballerina who had graced the New York City Ballet's stages with warmth, humanity and humor.  Jenifer Ringer's final performances were in Jerome Robbins' masterpiece, 'Dances at a Gathering', which marked his return to NYCB in 1969 after more than a decade as a Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director, and in Balanchine's 'Union Jack', his 1976 U.S. bicentennial tribute to Great Britain.

We first encountered 'Dances at a Gathering' as a work-in-progress in the company's summer home in Saratoga Springs. There, the dancers all sat on stage throughout the work and simply rose and joined the dance as they were needed.  It seemed charming and nonchalant.  Balanchine famously told Robbins, 'More, make more!' as the work was in development and Jerry certainly took him up on it.  With Chopin's gorgeous piano music and danced by the stellar original cast (Allegra Kent, Sara Leland, Kay Mazzo, Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy, Anthony Blum, John Clifford, Robert Maiorano, John Prinz and Edward Villella) the audience loved having more.  But over the years with changing casts, more has become much too much.  Following 'Dances' Robbins created several ballets which further demonstrated his inability to edit his own work.

Although the program was chosen long before her retirement was announced, it was a wonderful platform to showcase Ringer's many charms.  She has been a dancer who has excelled at relating to fellow dancers as well as to the audience.  In 'Dances at a Gathering' she had the opportunity to interact with nine fellow dancers.  Her two pas de deux - first with Jared Angle and then with Gonzalo Garcia were miniature master classes in the art of partnering and being partnered.  Jared is the more natural partner, nurturing and sustaining his ballerina and matching her with beautiful line of his own.

Jared Angle & Jenifer Ringer in Robbins' 'Dances at a Gathering'; by Kolnik for NYC Ballet
Gonzalo is a less assured partner, but Jenifer seemed to enjoy the challenge of making them both look wonderful together. Elsewhere in the ballet, Jenifer listened and watched her fellow dancers intently, ever attentive to the nuances of their bursts of dance and whimsical couplings and uncouplings.

The rest of the cast was uneven.  Maria Kowroski was delightful in the humorous role Robbins created for Violette Verdy.  She was the only cast member who had no opportunities to interact with Jenifer, but her interactions with the three men (Jared, Amar and Antonio) in the 'speed dating' segment were sly and charming.  Abi Stafford, Rebecca Krohn and Megan Fairchild are varying shades of pallid.  Amar Ramasar's partnering of Rebecca in their early pdd was wonderful, but she seems to have difficulty adapting to the romantic nuances of Robbins' choreography.  Megan and Antonio Carmena caught the humor of the two-against-three waltz, but also made it look rushed and airless.  The central pas de six with Abi, Rebecca and Megan, Jared, Amar and Zack Catarazzo failed to give the thrill of most casts.  The men were all stalwart partners, but the acrobatic lifts, carries and throws all somehow seemed routine.  There was no dance crescendo building to the final series of throws of the three women from Jared to Amar to Zack.

The cast seemed to have been chosen to make Jenifer stand out in relief -- two wonderful partners and no serious competition from the other women.  It was her afternoon and she really was the dancer at this gathering.

'Union Jack' is a work about quantity.  The opening tattoo features 70 dancers in seven regiments of 10 each, moving in precision formations.  Here again there seemed to be some casting 'errors' among the four lead women.  Abi Stafford doesn't have the chops to lead 'Green Montgomerie' which as the first female regiment needs to be lead in with a certain swagger and style.  Sterling Hyltin looked lost under the 'Dress MacDonald' hat and also lacked any specific sense of style, but at least had Jared Angle from 'Menzies' to offer some support and distraction.  Savannah Lowery had the right strength and percussiveness for 'MacDonald of Sleat'. Ashley Bouder is simply miscast in the swaggering 'R.C.A.F.' role which Balanchine created for the off-centered bravado of Suzanne Farrell.  Ashley is a very centered dancer who probably can't handle and doesn't attempt the exaggerated loose-jointed swinging hips that Suzanne used to make the role so distinctively her own.  I would have cast Sara Mearns or Teresa Reichlen or Lauren Lovette to bring some panache to this role.

Jenifer Ringer and Amar Ramasar made the 'Costermonger Pas de Deux' a delightful interlude with appropriate mugging for the audience and great comic timing. Unfortunately, the pony threatened to steal the show in a tug-of-war with his very young handler, finally charging off stage before the pearly princesses could reboard the cart.

The 'Royal Navy' section is always a romp for the cast and the audience.  The seven leads from the opening tattoo augmented by Troy Schumacher and Giovanni Villalobos have great fun with nautical motifs that Balanchine cleverly adapted for ballet.  Here again Bouder was woefully miscast as the leader of the Wrens, another Farrell role.  Ashley at least needs to learn the semaphore flag sequence for 'God Save the Queen' during the bombastic finale.  BTW Ashley is a favorite dancer but her stiff, small-scaled performance here is just wrong.

Jenifer Ringer accepting the ovation from the Company & the audience; photo by McClure
Of course, the afternoon ended with an extended ovation for Ringer and the presentation of many bouquets from the principal men of the company, individual roses from the principal women, and finally bouquets from Damian Woetzel, Peter Martins, and her husband and former principal dancer, James Fayette.
Jenifer Ringer's final bow, February 9th 2014, photo by McClure
Here's a link to an appreciation of Jenifer Ringer in Oberon's Grove: