Mr. S. made his annual trek from Australia this fall to enjoy the cultural offerings at Lincoln Center including performances at ABT and the Metropolitan Opera. His visit possibly came slightly too early to enjoy some of his favorite dancers and some unique New York experiences. We wonder what he would have thought of the crazed opera lover who sprinkled someone's cremains in the orchestra pit during an intermission of Rossini's Guilluome Tell this past weekend at the Met. That's true love and devotion for opera. Haglund would opt to have his own cremains sprinkled at a performance of Giselle, but the risk of that performance being led by the likes of __fill-in-the-blank__ would be too great and might further stress his departed soul.
Mr. S. stopped by Philadelphia on the way to New York and caught the opening night of Pennsylvania Ballet's Cinderella starring Sterling Baca and Oksana Maslova. We've already printed his review of that performance elsewhere, but will reprint it with the full review for everyone to read.
We thank Mr. S. for generously sharing his observations and opinions, and are on-board with him 100% in his request for ABT to present at least one full-length classical ballet during the fall season.
Good afternoon and evening, Haglund.
Another year, another visit to New York, another ABT Fall Season.
And, if I may presume, another collection of impressions and reactions.
Before going to ABT, may I say something about the Pennsylvania Ballet?
As it happens, I was in Philadelphia for a week before coming to New York. My week included the opening night of the 2017 Season of the PB and so I had the good fortune to see the opening performance of Cinderella.
The first thing that I noticed was that the audience was thin on the ground, especially for an opening night. I appreciate that the Academy of Music, splendid auditorium that it is, needs a very substantial number of people to fill it. Even so, the view into the auditorium from where I was sitting, in the second parterre box at stage right, was one of lots of vacant seats. I found that mystifying, because the evening's performance was, at least to my amateur eye, a very accomplished one. In hoping, as I very much do, that the PB will go from strength to strength, I admit to a strong bias which can be expressed in two words: Angel Corella. I have seen Mr Corella dance with ABT. I have the ABT video on which he and Paloma Herrera dance the Don Quixote pas de deux, one of the most dazzling ballet performances that I have ever seen. I saw him dance in Madrid a performance of La Bayadere, opposite both Paloma Herrera and Gillian Murphy, a high-powered cast if ever there was one, and a performance to match. I think that it is a crying shame that his imaginative plans for bringing the great art of classical ballet to life in his own country fell apart for want of political and public support. I cannot think that I am alone in hoping that Mr Corella will crown a magnificent career in dancing classical ballet with a matching achievement in passing on, both as director and as occasional choreograper, all the things that he undoubtedly has to teach to a new generation of classical ballet dancers. Bocca di lupo, Mr Corella.
When I read the cast list, I noticed at once the name of Mr Baca. It was familiar to me from last year's ABT Fall Season and I was naturally interested to see what he might make of a real leading role in a different company. He was, in a word, terrific. He looked good and moved well. He had a presence and a stylishness that fitted his role like the metaphorical glove. His partner was Oksana Maslova, whom I had not ever seen. She was perfect in the title role. She is slender and graceful and she has, or at least had in this particular role, a fragility, an air of innocence, that were completely right for the role.
Together , she and Mr Baca made a partnership of which any ballet company would be rightly proud. In the final pas de deux they danced an action that appears also, if memory serves, in the great pas de deux from the final act of Sleeping Beauty: the danseur takes his weight on an extended leg which is bent at right angles at the knee; he holds out an extended right arm which the ballerina uses like a barre; she does a set of spins and then goes with her partner into a dramatic fish dive. The effect, on this particular occasion, was simply electrifying. All in all, a splendid evening of classical dance.
And now to ABT. This year, ABT has, in my own case, some stiff competition from the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. I have been, thus far, to the evening performance on Friday last; to both performances on Saturday last, and to yesterday's, ( Sunday's) matinee. I have yet to see the performance scheduled for the coming Wednesday evening and the matinee scheduled for the coming Saturday.
Before I began writing, I had a look at your website and noticed a long posting about the current ABT Season. I have deliberately left it unread until I finsh these notes. I am interested to see whether, and if so to what extent, my amateur impressions and reactions accord with your much more, and better, informed opinions.
SOME GENERAL IMPRESSIONS
My advocacy has not proved equal to the task of persuading the ABT Directorate to include in the Fall Season just one full-length ballet, so that those of us who cannot be in New York for the Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House have at least some chance of seeing the Company in some setting other than that of a succession of bits and pieces. Never mind. To borrow from Company B: "But I can dream, can't I?". As somebody, (I can never remember who it was), famously remarked about miracles: the only thing that is really strange about them is that they do sometimes happen.
Secondly, I have found myself thinking time and again this year how important to a ballet is the score to which it is being danced. Several of the ballets which I have seen this year have been abstract to an extent that simply doesn't work for me, and yet the music chosen for them has been great music, sufficient to carry off reasonably pleasantly what I might call the whole package.
Thirdly, I have found myself lost once again in admiration for the musicianship of the artists who provide solo accompaniment for a particular ballet. It is one thing to play an instrumental solo standing with the orchestra, with good lighting and with the guidance of a conductor. It is something else again to be a solo pianist, seated in semi-darkness at the extreme stage left of an empty orchestra pit and accompanying dancers who are performing on a stage floor that is at a much higher level, with all that must be entailed in terms of co-ordinating music and movement. There have been several examples this year and I believe that they should always be given a deserved particular cheer.
Fourthly, where, oh where is Mr Cornejo? He is still named on the ABT website as a
Principal, but he does not appear on the Principals' Pictures page of this year's programme book. His absence, with continuing memories of dazzling performance after dazzling performance in season after season, has been for me one of this year's big disappointments. He can't have left ABT, can he?
SOME IMPRESSIONS OF SOME BALLETS
1. The Brahms-Haydn Variations
I have seen, thus far, three performances of this ballet. My response to the ballet as dance theatre remains much the same as it was last year. I realise that to say that one has not been quite bowled over by a Ballet choreographd by Twyla Tharp is a modern equivalent of saying something which, in an earlier time, would have one burned at the stake for heresy. And yet, hard though I have tried, I just can't see it as great ballet. I think that it is clever as a series of snappy dance movements. I admire, (who could not?), the vitality and dexterity of the dancers. The piece continues for me, however, to miss that extra something, call it grace or elegance perhaps, that knits together disparate elements into a thing of simple and unmistakable beauty. In the end, it means no more to me than an exercise in interesting abstractions that leaves a viewer, to borrow from James Bond, diverted not stirred.
The music is, of course, another matter entirely. The Variations are a great Brahms work. When they are played as well as they have been played at my three performances, then they really do lift the spirit so that the performance as a whole becomes more than the mere sum of its parts.
Of the three casts which I have seen, i would award the palm to the Sunday matinee vast which included Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in partnership. More later of them and of other particular artists.
2. Her Songs
I have seen, thus far, two performances, the first of them on Friday evening having been the world premiere.
The score was wholly unknown to me and, I imagine, to most other members of the two audiences. It consists of a series of piano sketches composed by Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn's sister. The sketches were composed as musical impressions of experiences of herself and of her husband throughout a year spent in travel. The sketches are presented in the ballet as programme music grouped under the five headings: January; February; June; December; and a so-called Postlude.
The difficulty that I had with this new ballet was that, for all of its presentation as programme music, it was in fact not really programmatic at all but, rather, yet another set of interesting but not in any way stirring abstractions. Had I seen this ballet with no assistance from programme notes, it would not have occured remotely to me that I was hearing musical sketches of travel experiences spread over a year or, indeed, over any other temporal span.
I felt, as I watched, that it need not have turned out like that. Instead of the stark and wholly unrelated sets and costumes, might it have improved matters to have used the modern possibilities of screen projections to have given at least some pictorial clues supplementing the programme headings? I thought so.
The two casts were identical . More later about particular artists.
3. Daphnis and Chloe
This was another ABT first, with choreography by Benjamin Millepied, and it has been my biggest single disappointment to date in the current season.
This score was composed by Ravel to a commission from Diaghilev. It is a masterpiece of French Impressionism in music. But it is not an impressionistic ballet: it is a narrative ballet retelling in music and dance a story taken from the literature of Ancient Greece. The score provides, indeed, for a form of Greek Chorus.
I was really looking forward to seeing something really special in the form of beautiful action spelling out beautifully and against a setting of beautiful sets and costumes, all in tune with a line from Longus , the original author, quoted in the programme note: " for no man has been able to avoid the shafts of Love, nor will be able, as long as eyes can see AND BEAUTY REIGNS" (My emphasis).
Well, one could use any number of adjectives to describe this staging, but beautiful is among the very last that would occur to me. The costumes for the men looked to me, as soon as I first saw them, like standard issue airline pyjama suits with slightly shortened legs. The was no scenery to speak of, just regularly juxtaposed geometric forms. Principal among these was a disc representing the sun. Pan, a God of the Ancient Greeks and whose intervention is decisive in the original story of the ballet, was neither seen nor even remotely represented. When the baddies got their just desserts, Pan did not enter upon the scene, but the sun disc became ever more intensely red until the baddies simply fell down, for all the world like sufferers from a fatal overdose of sunstroke. As I suggested in connection with Her Notes, why on earth could there not have been some really imaginative screen projections bringing a classical, narrative ballet to classical, narrative life? Only asking, only asking.
Very good orchestral playing. An excellent Chorus whose members performed, I thought, herocially given that they were standing throughout, wedged like sardines in a small area at the extreme stage left of the orchestra pit. Some good dancing, of which more later.
4. Serenade After Plato's Symposium
This ballet had its premiere during this year's Spring Season at the Met. The score is by Leonard Bernstein: the title of the ballet is the title of the score. The score is played by an orchestra and a violin soloist and it was very well played by both at each of the three performances that I have seen thus far.
It might be useful for any reader of these notes to take the measure of this piece by referring to the following excerpt from the programme notes:
" .... .... ....(A) group of men convene (sic!) and deliver speeches on the topic of love, with each man bringing a unique perspective to the proceedings. They explore how love can help the soul to understand truth in the pursuit of wisdom and beauty".
Actually, they do no such things. A cast of seven men and, briefly, one woman, dressed in variegated but rather uninteresting costumes, jump here and whirl there, occasionally touching hands, occasionally draping arms languidly around shoulders, and occasionally resolving into groups of bystanders who reminded me, ( my fauly entirely, as I must confess), of the groups of male dancers in the "Working for the Yankee Dollar" sequence in Company B last year: emotionally challenged frat boys.
The sole female appears twice. On the first occasion she dances an obtuse sequence with her male colleagues. On the second occasion she appears standing alone up against the extreme stage left , while the seven men arrange themselves into another Company B tableau. For me, one of the highlights of the performances was to watch, not the expressions of the seven men, but that of the sole woman, Miss Seo on two occasions and Miss Teuscher on the third. Both, but Miss Seo in particular, looked to me as though she was thinking, with every justification as it seemed to me, some such thought as : " I don't really think so"; or "Why don't you boys just grow up?"; or " You can't be serious - give me a break!"
After one of my performances, the husband of a couple in the two adjacent seats said audibly enough for me to hear: " I didn't get it". I did not catch his wife's reply, but I did summon up sufficient self restraint to refrain from leaning over and telling him that I entirely understood and felt exactly the same.
This time, the score was not equal to the rescue. It was not exactly atonal, but it struck me as uneven and unmelodic.
5. Symphonic Variations
A one off, slotted in on Saturday evening between Plato and Daphnis and Chloe. Choreograpy by Sir Frederick Ashton. Music by Cesar Franck, the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra.
The ballet was, as such, something of a mixed bag for me. I always think of Ashton as one of the greatest choreographers of narrative ballets ever to emerge from the Royal Ballet. This is certainly not that kind of ballet. It is, rather, an example of a great narrative choreographer trying his hand at something abstract and different.
Does it work? In the end, not for me. It is redeemed to some extent by Ashton's exceptional touch in the matters of that cool elegance and fundamental beauty to the eye that are the hallmarks, at least as it seems to me, of his great works choreographed for the Royal Ballet. And, once again, the score made the whole something greater than a mere sum of the parts.
SOME IMPRESSIONS OF SOME DANCERS
Miss Murphy, Miss Murphy. What is there left to say about this outstanding artist? Whenever she is on stage, however unpromising the material with which she has to work, she is a class act -class as in masterclass, I should perhaps add in this Age of Grievance, Real or Imagined.
Mr Gomes. To my eye, very good indeed in the current season. Not only does he have height and bearing; he has experience to burn, and it shows. His partnering of Miss Murphy during the performances which I have seen to date, has provided some of my most enjoyable moments of the current Season.
Mr Simkin. The stand out solo in Saturday evening's Plato. It required great agility and precision. This time, Mr Simkin made it work, as he does, at least for me, generally but not inevitably. He dared mightily and he brought it off excitingly.
Mr Gorak. Still one of my favourites, because, for me, when he takes off he really does soar. Very good work in Plato. Twice announced to dance one of the three principal male roles in Daphnis and Chloe and twice replaced. Does Haglund know why? His dancing in other demanding roles does not suggest injury or illness. In any event a distinct disppointment for me. But repaired in large measure by:
Mr Hoven. There are several good things to say about Mr Hoven in this Season, but for me the great achievement is that he sunstituted for Mr Gorak at both the Saturday performances after having danced the same role on the preceding evening and he turned in a fine performance on all three occasions. Great dancing; great stamina; great professionalism.
Mr Lendorf. New to me and interesting because, according to the programme booklet, he joined ABT last year as a Principal, no less. Having watched him in works as diverse as Brahms - Haydn, Plato and Symphonic Variations, I think that I can see why. Great agility, great poise, great polish. Great expectations.
Miss Abrera. One of Haglund's favourites, but I had never been fortunate enough until Friday last to see her in a major role. On Friday she danced Chloe opposite a very good Mr Stearns and I believe that I can see what Haglund finds so attractive. She has a fine overall classical style, with poise and grace to spare. And a final word for
Miss Lane. I have not seen her during this Season in anything where, at least to my amateur eye, she has had a real chance to shine. In anything that I have seen her dance this Season she has been, of course I would say, as good as I thought her to be last year. Why am I not seeing her in more and more prominent roles? Only asking.
Well, Haglund, there it is for ABT 2017 thus far. Please forgive the length of this posting. There is always, may I say in mitigation, so much that the ABT Fall Season, with all its ups and downs, leaves one fired up to say.
I trust that you are well, happy and flourishing.