Home decor is a very personal choice. It reflects the inhabitant’s personal preferences or perhaps just a desire to impress others. Designers run the gamut from traditional-oriented to post modernist-oriented to those who have no style at all except to combine elements to make something different and conversation-worthy. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, something that Haglund would never do is invest in a beautiful handmade silk antique oriental rug and then arrange Ikea furniture on top of it. That was the feeling of what was happening while watching the two new works presented by ABT during the first week of its fall season.
Benjamin Millepied set his Daphnis and Chloe to Ravel’s lush, at times hushed, at times passionate multi-hued score that conjures up a strong sense of French Impressionism from first note to last. It is Ravel’s longest work and requires some amount of patience for the modern non-Ravelomane to enjoy for its full 55 minutes; it is more often performed as an orchestral suite than in its entirety. While we admire Millepied for accepting the challenge to choreograph the full score, we think he would have achieved a better outcome by choosing to work with the orchestral suite – and perhaps ignoring the simple story altogether.
The choreography per se included inventive, pleasing patterns for the corps de ballet that were responsive to the music and at times even illuminated the music for the viewer. The PdDs for Stella Abrera (Chloe) & Cory Stearns (Daphnis) and Cassandra Trenary (Lycenion) & Blaine Hoven (Dorcon) were strongly designed as well. The artists themselves were superb and a joy to watch. Stella gave the classic lyricism a contemporary tone like few others are able to do. It made us ache to see her as Juliet. Cory’s own dancing had more weight to it than we usually see - again, very respectful of classical form without making it look archaic. Cassandra and Blaine were riveting in their PdD, solos, and dramatic connection.
Unfortunately, none of this saved the ballet from being an excruciating bore that was spoiled by its floundering narrative efforts. Adding to its problems was the obnoxious geometric scenery including a Henri Bendel-inspired B&W striped front scrim on which a large projected black square morphed into a rectangle and a circle. When the curtain finally disappeared to reveal large colorful geometric shapes hanging over the stage, that is when the Ikea connection was made. The connection was made stronger when the women changed from flowing white dresses to mustard, green, or blue dresses with our principal couple in bright red. The men’s costumes of pajama type knee-length pants and loose shirts followed the same color scheme. Let us repeat that the artists danced their choreography wonderfully; even James Whiteside as Bryaxis managed to wow with his steps.
Within the corps, Gemma Bond, Alexandra Basmagy, and Courtney Lavine were eye catchers for the sweep of their movement. Sign up old Haglund for the Jonathan Klein and Marshall Whiteley fan clubs. Whiteley was substituting for someone, perhaps Gray Davis, but holy moly does his dancing ever resonate. He’s a large man with feline grace. His turning coupe jetes had a freakish similarity to David Hallberg’s (of years ago) in their snap, trajectory, and the height of the torso. (Where is that Hallberg, anyway?! Do we have to send out a special posse for him or is he going to surrender peaceably to the ballet again soon?)
Jessica Lang’s Her Notes received its world premiere last night. Set to excerpts from Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Das Jahr (trans: The Year), it hinted at a weighty meaning related to Hensel’s difficulty getting recognition as a composer due to the gender stereotypes of her time, but never clearly conveyed it through the choreography. Instead, the narrative relied entirely on a piece of scenery – a large plate of glass through which Gillian Murphy attempted to step when it was vertical and ended up pushing through when it was suspended horizontally as the proverbial glass ceiling.
Were the steps lovely? Yes. Was the corps work interesting? Sometimes. Were the artists appealing? Always. Do we have a strong desire to ever see it or Daphnis and Chloe again? Nuh-uh, but we probably will anyway.
Trends in choreography - make that, bad trends in choreography spread like antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One of the worst trends right now is this "in-between” choreography - in between abstract and narrative where a story is hinted to exist but character development is weak or nonexistent. Instead, the audience is served up dark stage lighting to create moodiness and drama along with music that suggests importance, but there is very little character development.
There are plenty of 20th Century examples from whom to learn character development: Roland Petit, Agnes De Mille, Antony Tudor, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, John Cranko, Birgit Cullberg. This in-between abstract/narrative model is cheapskate stuff, and we wish that today’s choreographers would stay away from narrative unless they’re going to make a total commit to it. And they should stop relying on production elements to save their choreography.
The most enjoyable ballet on the Thursday and Friday programs was Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations on Friday evening. No pretense there. Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes demonstrated what it means to be experienced. They found plenty of room within the steps to create a human relationship and to communicate their own joy in dancing Tharp’s Finnegans Wake-like craziness. The exquisite Christine Shevchenko, dancing with Joseph Gorak, looked like the heir apparent to many of Gillian’s roles. Sleek, bold without being unrestrained – her dancing, not her showiness, spoke for itself. We just wish we could get a little more length out of those arms for the White Act ballets surely in her future. In the meantime, we are anxious to see her Kitri, hopefully, this spring.
The principal cast included Sarah Lane and Skylar Brandt who danced with Craig Salstein and Arron Scott - all of them as appealing as any cast we’ve ever seen in the ballet’s 17-year history. We can’t say that about Isabella Boylston and Alban Lendorf, however. We will just never get behind Boylston’s sloppy-with-style interpretation of everything or the collapse and loosening of the torso in order to throw the leg up. Lendorf - we still don't understand the point of adding him to the principal roster. He can partner and is an accomplished technician, certainly, but he has no length to his line which is distorted and densely-muscled.
Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (Brandt, Teuscher, Copeland, Salstein, Whiteside, Cirio) on Thursday looked terrible. Weird terrible. Like the-choreography-was-beaten-into-them terrible. Leaden terrible. The exception to all this was Skylar Brandt who had the springy lightness that we see when the Royal Ballet performs this ballet. Haglund watched the whole thing while wondering why Gemma Bond wasn’t dancing in this with Skylar. The men seemed better rehearsed although no less tense and leaden. Maybe we’ll like the other cast better; surely Cassandra Trenary will have springy lightness. There can be no Symphonic Variations without springy lightness. This was torture.
Oy, oy, oy. ABT should try to schedule its fall season before NYCB's season, not immediately afterward.
The HH Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Blaine Hoven for his exceptional dancing in all three pieces on Friday night and ending the evening as strong as he started. He is looking magnificent. Here’s hoping that we get to see him leading a big Petipa classic this spring with a truly Petipa-worthy ballerina.