Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Uncomfortable Triumph of Le Corsaire

Act I of the Bolshoi's production of Le Corsaire
As I discussed three years ago when I saw it in Moscow, Alexei Ratmansky’s production of Le Corsaire is luxurious and detailed in spectacular 19th-century style. The finale closes with a ship crashing and splitting into two. The Bolshoi’s dancing is stupendous. It takes extraordinary depth of talent to ensure that every dance in this long, rich, exhausting, detailed ballet is done with panache and excitement. 

The three leads were perfection. Anna Tikhomirova shined particularly well in the role of Gulnare. Flirtatious, charming, and dynamic, her dancing is as witty as her character. Igor Tsvirko performed well as the titular pirate, providing romantic bravado and jumping high enough to elicit some gasps from the audience. Sadly, the typically bravura part doesn’t really do justice to his dramatic brilliance or to his capability for unusual, dynamic movement. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the Bolshoi promoting him to starring roles, and I look forward to seeing him many times in the future. Krysanova shows off beautiful, strong pointe work, excellent turns, and charming classical balance.

Tikhomirova as Gulnare
The three stars were supported by a disciplined, graceful corps. The centerpiece of the ballet, the Living Garden in Act II was created with a dizzying level of filagree. The only dancers who failed to impress were Nina Kaptsova and her young partner (and last-minute sub) Anton Gainutdinov in the pas d’esclaves. This can be a blisteringly exciting pas de deux, an early preview for the riches of Acts II and III. But here, while the dancers got through everything, it looked like a real struggle.

The real question with Corsaire, however, is not whether or not it was performed well but whether or not it should be performed at all. Like its 19th-century cousin La Bayadère, Corsaire embodies everything that made the Imperial Russian ballet tick: hours of classical dancing, brilliant sets, a silly Romantic storyline, and, above all, exoticism. The appeal of the production to its 19th-century audience was to see the riches of the Orient, to dream of the sexual availability of the harem, to tut-tut the promiscuity of the pasha, and to laugh at the foolishness of the Muslim and Jewish characters. Alistair Macauley at the New York Times has long argued that companies shouldn’t program Corsaire because the political problems aren't mitigated by any good choreography. To me, Bayadère is the truly unredeemable work: from beginning to end, the ballet presents characters in a racial hierarchy that’s reflected in the style of dance they do and in the shade of blackface makeup that they wear. 

Corsaire is a different beast. The point is comedy over drama, and fantasy over ideology. Nevertheless I have become more uncomfortable with it in recent years. In the era of Trump and Brexit, I don’t think we can laugh off a plot in which, on multiple occasions, the white characters get the better of the Muslims by attacking them during prayer. Orientalism is presented as a joke here, but that doesn’t make it innocuous.

One of the anti-semitic scenes from Le Coraire

I would prefer to see a completely revamped, regietheater Corsaire. Indeed, I think that the work could be altered to comment on our political times in comedic fashion. Nevertheless, Ratmansky’s highly faithful production forces us to confront the seedy underbelly of the 19th-century ballet and its 20th-century descendants in a different way. Rather than other modern productions of the ballet, which sugarcoat the work’s racism by taking out only the most egregious examples, the production is scrupulously faithful to 19th-century ballet practice. It is a production I would love to show my music history students, but it is also a production that can allow an audience to laugh at racism and anti-semitism. It brutally reveals the politics of the audience members to one another: do they titter at the blackface character? Do they laugh when the Jewish man is revealed to have coins up his sleeves and down his vest? I genuinely do not know in what spirit Ratmansky staged it or in what spirit the company intends it to be taken. 

This is one way of dealing with a problematic ballet from the canon. I just wish it weren't the only way. I want ballet companies to take more responsibility for what they show. So, in the end, I can’t claim this is an enjoyable evening at the ballet, but it is a completely fascinating one. 

Le Corsaire, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet on tour at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Music: Adolph Adam, Léo Delibes, Cesare Pugni, Pyotr von Oldenburg, Riccardo Drigo, Albert Zabel, and Julius Gerber; Choreography: Marius Petipa; Revival: Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka; New Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky; Designs: Boris Kaminsky; Costumes: Elena Zaitseva based on sketches by Evgeny Ponomarev; Lighting: Damir Ismagilov; Medora: Ekaterina Krysanova; Conrad: Igor Tsvirko; Gulnare: Anna Tikhomirova; Birbanto: Denis Savin: Pas d'esclaves: Nina Kaptsova, Anton Gainutdinov. August 13, 7:30pm

Thursday, April 21, 2016

She Said at English National Ballet

The luminescent Broken Wings
English National Ballet’s new program She Said, a triple bill of new ballets by women choreographers, has gotten a lot of press because of the gender of its creators. And as well it should - most of the highly-commissioned ballet choreographers are white men, and ENB is one of the companies actually doing something to change that. The resulting program was highly charged and fascinating, though not always consistent.

To start out with the absolute best: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s fascinating Broken Wings, a balletic exploration of disability contemplated through the life of Frida Kahlo. In the opening scene it looked like it might be dire on the music front, as the orchestra wheeled through some passages that brought to mind Copland’s El salon mexico - essentially the tourist’s engagement with Latin America. But it turned out that this was simply the naive music of Frida’s naively happy childhood, before the trolley accident that caused chronic pain and injury for the rest of her life. At this point both the choreography and music took off. Ochoa gave Frida a series of small, uncomfortable movements that clearly communicated her pain. They weren’t the soap-operatic contortions of MacMillan’s Lady Capulet, because they weren’t meant to glorify the artist’s suffering. Instead they demonstrated her struggle against illness. Begoña Cao, who I saw in the role, was mesmerizing in these dark, personal sections. Peter Salem’s music, as well, became haunted and broken, only slowly building back up into the rhythms of the earlier section.

Over the course of the ballet, as Frida began to express herself through art, those injured movements became more and more integrated into her dancing. I appreciated that the ballet didn’t reach for the tired tropes about achieving transcendence through disability, choosing instead a more complex narrative about the relationship between Kahlo’s pain and her art. The ballet explored the surreal space of Kahlo’s paintings and was particularly mesmerizing in the section in which a dozen men of the corps came onstage dressed in spectacular colors as the many Fridas of Kahlo’s self-portraits.

Mukhamedov and Tamara Rojo in Broken Wings

The other ballets on the program were disappointing in comparison. In the middle work, M-Dao, choreographer Yabin Wang retold the story of Medea through a rippling style of classical movement. The middle section of the ballet, however, in which Medea summons her rage, can only be described as hokey, particularly in relation to its overblown musical score by Jocelyn Pook. 

Yabin Wang's M-Dao
The final ballet, Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, used Mason Bates’s post-minimalist score Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. And there was the start, though sadly not the end, of the ballet’s problems. Bates’s music attempts to recreate the sounds of electronica using live musicians. Originally performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the music relies heavily on the virtuosity of the musicians - allowing the audience to take delight in their physical accomplishments. Other than that, it is very long and somewhat directionless. And while the English National Ballet has a great orchestra, they weren’t capable of mastering the technical challenges. Which makes sense. The music was written for a full-time symphony orchestra, who probably had at least an entire week of rehearsals for this one piece alone. The English National Ballet orchestra is working under much greater time constraints and learning three new scores for one program. These conditions drew attention to how grating Bates’s minimalist passages can be. There were some moments of relief in the slower sections of music, but those were few and far between. Aszure’s choreography did not help matters, meandering where Bates’s music was also directionless. And like the music, the choreography tried to rely on its dancers’ athleticism to provide the thrills. The ENB dancers are wonderful, but they need something real to work with, particularly when the ballet clocks in over thirty minutes. 

English National Ballet is one of the most diverse ballet companies I have ever seen, but even more importantly, one of the companies most dedicated to embracing diversity as part of its aesthetic. I admire this program, and while I only truly loved the first ballet, I am eager to see more daring and inventive programming coming from artistic director Tamara Rojo. I have no doubt that she will deliver.

English National Ballet, She Said, April 15, matinee. Broken Wings: choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, music: Peter Salem, Scenography: Dieuweke van Reij, Dramaturgy: Nancy Meckler, Frida Kahlo: Begoña Cao, Diego Rivera: Max Westwell. M-Dao: choreography: Yabin Wang, music: Jocelyn Pook, set and costume design: Kimie Nakano, Medea: Ksenia Ovsyanick, Husband: Fabian Reimair, Young Wife: Alison McWhinney. Fantastic Beings: choreography: Aszure Barton, music: Mason Bates, Stage and Lighting Design: Burke Brown.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bolshoi Balet, Episode 6, Part 2

This is a continuation of part 1, which can be found here.
Nadezhda Batoeva and Ernest Lаtypov
“Do Not Look Back”
music: Ezio Bosso
choreography: Anton Pimonov

Pimonov created this duet specially for this tv program, which is a part of Bolshoi Balet that I always enjoy - although we learn in the interview that the choreographer is Batoeva’s husband, so I guess it’s not too surprising that he was willing to stage a tv-ballet for her. Both the dancers have really gone for Pimonov’s almost gumby-like body and arm movements, but only Batoeva makes them look natural, as if that’s just how her body moves. I do wish, though, that her performance was more musical.

Bolshoi Balet Episode 6, Part 1

Episode 6 is all 21st-century choreography, and I love it. There’s a deeply-held belief across American, British, and German writing that Russian ballet is divided into two camps: those who want to modernize by looking to the West and those who want to hold on to the Russian tradition. One of the things that I enjoy about Bolshoi Balet is that it quickly explodes that argument, demonstrating how complicated these categories can be and how much people who believe, for example, that ballet companies should commission from foreign choreographers can still believe that ballet is inherently Russian. Or that people who want to hold on to tradition also want to incorporate French or American traditions. It’s not that these tensions don’t exist in Russian ballet - of course they do - but that it’s far to simplistic to claim that modernization inherently lies on the Western side (and who said Western ballet was one monolithic influence anyways?) and that tradition and Russianness lie on the other.

The judging panel is the same this week as it was last week, which is such a relief because Edur and Vasiliev are the best judges that the competition has had thus far.

Inna Bilash and Nikita Chetverikov
duet from Variations on a Rococo Theme
music: Tchaikovsky
choreography: Alexei Miroshnichenko

Bilash and Chetverikov have a lovely sense of connection here, despite the fact that they’re not always in contact. I wonder if they took into consideration the criticisms from the judges after their Peri duet. They are very sensitive at following the musical phrasing. Bilash’s lines are beautifully flexible, soft, and always subtly-shifting. Chetverikov is an excellent partner. Choreographically, I have to admit that I don’t really understand all the upside-down lifts in this piece. They seem a little abrupt, in contrast to the long, elegant lines in the music (and the rest of the choreography). Maybe Miroshnichenko had something else in mind when he staged them, or maybe they just always look this awkward.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A New Kind of Sylph

Gregory Dean in Hübbe's La Sylphide
The Danish Royal Theater in Copenhagen has staged what is (to my knowledge) one of the first and only attempts at Regietheater ballet. For decades, opera companies have been staging canonical operas in unusual places and time periods, with sets and costumes and movement that emphasize some theme rather than the plot. Ballet companies, however, have avoided the practice. Depending on who you ask, that’s either because ballet doesn’t suffer from opera’s contemporary repertoire problems or because ballet audiences crave the traditional productions they already know and love.

So when I heard that the Royal Danish Ballet had a Regie version of La Sylphide, I was intrigued (the production premiered over a year ago, but this was my first chance to see it). I can understand why they’re interested: this is the Danish theater’s most canonical ballet; they have to perform it about as constantly as other theaters perform The Nutcracker. And, moreover, northern Europe is the epicenter of Regie opera productions - the other Regie ballet that I know of is Munich's Illusionen nach Schwanensee. But I didn’t know how it would work out. Would the director be able to say anything new about the ballet when his hands are essentially tied to the steps laid out in August Bournonville’s text?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bolshoi Balet, Episode 5, Part 2

Midori Terada
Columbine solo from Harlequinade
music: Drigo
choreography: Petipa

Terada is kind of boxing herself into a corner these days - this is the latest in a long string of performances in the same style. At the same time, much like Kimin Kim, it is a style that she does very well. She has lovely pointe technique, and beautiful gestures, and she demonstrated the playful nature of her solo.

Koya Okawa
variation from Don Quixote
music: Minkus
choreography: Gorsky

Okawa is quite simply my favorite dancer in this competition, perhaps tied with Igor Tsvirko. Like Tsvirko he has impeccable technique, extraordinary athleticism, and a sense of how to use movement to create a character. Here, the focus is generally on the athleticism, but he has lots of details that make this part definitively Basilio. The flared hands on his gestures, the more flexible back, the way he drags his back leg along the ground (I think this is the “heaviness” that Edur wanted to see in Latypov’s performance).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bolshoi Balet Episode 5, Part 1

The theme of this week’s episode is the solo. Unsurprisingly that means that the contestants are performing solos rather than duets, so there are twice as many points available in this week’s episode than in the previous ones.

We have two guest judges this time. Toomas Edur steps in for Farukh Ruzimatov, and Vladimir Vasiliev is the guest judge. As Ilze points out during the interview with Batoeva and Latypov, this changes the entire atmosphere in the hall and particularly at the judging table. Vladimir Vasiliev is considered one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, and he had a lot more to say about artistry and choreographic style to the dancers. And his comments certainly galvanized the other judges to say something interesting, which I appreciated. At the same time, they were all a lot harsher towards the dancers, and the dancers seemed to be really feeling it - perhaps because in previous weeks they were treated so differently.

Ekaterina Bulgutova
Russian dance from Swan Lake
music: Tchaikovsky
choreography: Sergei Bobrov

My impression of Bulgutova as a dancer remains the same as in previous weeks. She moves beautifully - smoothly and proportionally (no garish leg lifts). But she gives very little accent or character to her dancing. In the little intro to this number, her teacher even talked about how much contrast there should be in this solo between the lyrical sections and the happier ones, but I don’t see that in Bulgutova’s performance. Her legs and arms are always moving in the same way, with the same amount of accent, no matter what’s going on in the choreography or music.