It was a thrill to be at the world premiere of American Ballet Theatre’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” restored from historical documents by Alexei Ratmansky. It was a trip back in time, a glamorous pageant and loads of fun, and I reviewed it for Critical Dance.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, CA: March 3, 2015
American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said that he wanted to mark the company’s 75th anniversary season with an iconic new “The Sleeping Beauty”, and he meant it. ABT’s spectacular new production (its fourth since 1976) premiered on March 3 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in the lead roles—and the world hasn’t seen anything like it since 1890.
Midway through the new documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who danced with the Joffrey from 1974 to 1978, says with barely concealed pique that the Joffrey was always considered the “current events company.” Indeed, the history of the Joffrey Ballet Company reads as a history of midcentury America; along with fine dancing, it’s what makes the company unique and this documentary engaging.
McKenzie’s dismay is understandable. Wedged somewhere between Balanchine’s auteur-driven New York City Ballet and the traditional American Ballet Theatre, both geographically and in critics’ minds, the Joffrey was overshadowed by both. City Ballet and ABT hew to classicism (for all his innovations, Balanchine got no further from the academy than the prefix “neo”); their stock-in-trade is the aspiration to art rather than entertainment. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the Joffrey in New York City in 1956, paid little heed to that distinction: channeling the zeitgeist, they made and commissioned dances that interpreted the culture outside the studio doors and in the headlines, works that alternately challenged, pleased, shocked or simply delighted.
Some Joffrey/Arpino works were as classically derived as any Ashton piece. Other, Broadway-lite, pieces received audience cheers and critical jeers before quickly disappearing from the repertory. But there were also groundbreaking performances, like that, in 1967, of Kurt Jooss’s 1946 antiwar protest piece The Green Table – Joffrey was the first company to perform it in the United States as well as one of the few major American dance companies (if not the only one) to oppose the Vietnam War from the stage. And then there was Robert Joffrey’s 1968 masterpiece Astarte, an orgiastic fertility-goddess-meets-mortal-man free-love pas des deux, complete with acid-trip film projections, Trinette Singleton in a psychedelic unitard and Max Zomosa stripped to a loincloth. So radically timely was Astarte that it landed Singleton on the cover of Time magazine.
Simply linkin one Joffrey high point to the next, without conveying the depth of feeling underlying each one, would be a monumental achievement in dot connection. But Joffrey is a compelling tale well told, blessed with emotionally generous characters and infused with joy, suspense, tragedy and redemption. This is largely thanks to the storytelling expertise of the production team, led by writer/director Bob Hercules, who also directed the Bill T. Jones documentary A Good Man, and co-producer Harold Ramis, whose own artistic and exceptionally entertaining career includes Animal House, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.
Along with McKenzie, dancers, critics and collaborators like Helgi Tomasson, Lar Lubovitch, Jooss, Twyla Tharp, Anna Kisselgoff and Ashley Wheater, who is now the company’s artistic director, figure in the story via interviews, archival footage and countless photographs. Melissa Sterne deserves kudos for skillfully editing these many elements into a dynamic, yet never manic, collage. Mandy Patinkin lends fine narration.
Dashed more than once on the rocks of poor leadership and worse finances, the Joffrey Ballet has righted itself time and again. The musician Prince once intervened with cash; a series of admittedly kitschy, crowd-pleasing shows rekindled audience interest in the 1980s; and a move to Chicago, in 1995, finally got the company out of the shadows and into its own limelight.
After a generation of relative stability, a labor dispute in 2011 led to a dancer lockout and partial cancellation of that year’s season. But today’s Joffrey also has the financial strength to open and maintain its own building and, under Wheater’s able leadership, it continues to ride the currents.
Surprise Attack: FACT/SF’s Home Season 3.0
The Garage, San Francisco, April 8-10 & 13-15, 2011
Brave is the person who sits in the front row at a FACT/SF show. One has to be prepared for unsettling touched-by-a-stranger encounters, like when dancer Maggie Stack put her hand on my shoulder, then on my hand—and then on my note-taking pen!—during Entertaining Victoria, which had its world premiere during the company’s recent two-weekend run of Home Season 3.0, a retrospective on the company’s first three years, at The Garage in San Francisco.
That’s the thing about FACT/SF: they don’t let you relax in your seat watch the show; they draft you into it. The dancers might get on the floor and slither closer and closer to you, and just when you’re thinking that it’s time for them to stop or they will slide right under your seat, they indeed slide under your seat and out the other side. If you aren’t paying attention, well, who knows? No word on whether the company has a contingency plan in the event that someone doesn’t get their feet out of the way.
Artistic director Charles Slender had to get creative to adapt the in-your-face mood of the original Consumption Series, a site-specific work created for the intimate, decidedly non-proscenium (and, sadly, defunct) Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, to the Garage’s boxy space and bleacher seating. The Frog Pocket/Arvo Pärt soundrack, aggressive movement and decadent post–Marie Antoinette corset-and-tube-socks costumes remain, but this time nobody danced with a bucket on their head; instead, they caravanned down the aisle and into the lobby, and danced there for a few minutes, mostly out of sight. Was anyone wondering if the piece was over? Will those of us who couldn’t see them never understand the work because we missed that part? A few front-row sitters got the extreme-close-up treatment from dancers Erin Kraemer and Catherine Newman; was it awkward or were they into it?
And that’s what makes FACT/SF so intriguing (beyond the high quality of the balletic contemporary dance—let’s not forget that, by all means): the answers don’t matter. Resolution is boring. Wondering if the dancers are ever going to come back and, if they make it back, whether they’ll do anything but wiggle their toes (the punch line of the ultraminimalist Pretonically Oriented v.1, a work in progress that premiered earlier this year through ODC’s Pilot Program), or if they will touch you—again—now that will put you on the edge of your seat, and make you giggle, and keep you guessing.
So when the lights dim for the next piece, you say to yourself, During this one, I will be ready. And then the mood turns. In an update to his 2007 solo …is all that an(n)a sees.09 & .10, Slender dances to one of Bach’s partitas for solo violin. Slender has an intellectual bent and a sardonic wit, so one naturally anticipates unalloyed assertiveness when he’s free to have his way with a captive audience. But in …is all, he taps a vein of vulnerability, revealing something raw and guileless, such that I wanted to look away but couldn’t. Slender, like all his dancers, moves fluidly, bending and extending, twisting and falling to the floor with precision and deliberateness…but that’s not the point, either. It is simply moving when an artist trusts his audience to watch him dance, lit by only a single uplight, no makeup and no façade, to music that touches him.
The show closed with Entertaining Victoria, inspired by the waltzes of yore and set to Strauss’ Blue Danube, which Slender illustrates by interlacing all five dancers (Daniel Arizmendi and Jona Mercer, along with the three women) in arcs that trace the rise and fall of the music. Slender can’t resist inverting the contemporary vocabulary, so arms are thrown, dress hems are tugged, dancers hop hither and yon and whip out 180-degree penchées, and then crowd into each other blankly, like the band that goes up the alley at the end of Animal House. As Strauss’ iconic melody streams overhead, Mark Morris’s Waltz of the Flowers comes to mind, and at the same time one fears end is nigh. How they pull it off with straight faces, I’ll never know.
Home Season 3.0 also included the ironic Before this we weren’t here and Eine Kleine Kitschen, Nein? In the first, Slender and dancer/manager Jeanne Pfeffer slouch stock-still in chairs while Peggy Lee wonders “why don’t we just end it all?” in “Is That All There Is?” (Lee’s version was a Top 40 hit in 1969; evidently mainstream America was into existential inquiry back then.) Kitschen sends up modern-dance self-seriousness in choreography, spoken word and snotty attitude. These two pieces were amusing, but with FACT/SF’s potential for multilayered work, they could take a backseat to new challenges and new surprises.
Oakland Ballet Performs Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker Paramount Theatre, Thursday, December 23, 2010
A new dance company is like a box of chocolates: You don’t know what to expect, so you have to just give each piece a try and hope it’s a tasty one. So it was with Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, a bonbon-themed version that marked the eagerly anticipated premiere of the newly reincarnated Oakland Ballet Company. We all showed up and hoped for the best; happily, Lustig and Oakland Ballet delivered a sweet treat for all to enjoy.
Artistic director Lustig sets his Nutcracker in 1915, a time period that lends refinement to the Act I party. Hewing to tradition, the party features pastel Edwardian costumes, formal dances and buttoned-up kids who are required to wait patiently as gifts are stacked before them. Naughty Fritz torments his sister, Clara, with a dead rat and, of course, breaks her Nutcracker doll, laying the groundwork for her dream. And it’s in the dream where Lustig works some very enchanting magic.
Children dressed as rats wield forks and knives against the toy soldiers in a battle that leads not to massive rodent carnage, but culminates in an act of mercy by Clara (beautifully danced and acted by professional ballerina Stephanie Salts), who earns the esteem of all by sparing three mice from the Nutcracker’s sword. Clara’s reward is a handsome cavalier (Connolly Strombeck) and a trip to the Land of Sweets by way of the Frozen Forest, a snowy stand of birches inhabited by Snow Maidens and fluffy dancing snowballs who stole the show (surely to the great pride of the children who leapt around in those impossibly plump costumes).
Rather than a King and Queen of Snow, Lustig has Clara and her cavalier perform the pas de deux in the forest. Because Clara is played by an adult, the dance takes on a romantic sensibility and develops the theme of Clara as a girl on the edge of womanhood, which works very well—it gives Clara an arc that continues through the entire ballet, rather than making her a passive observer of the wonders of Act II.
But Lustig’s Act II is still a girl’s paradise, a brilliant and joyous world inhabited by dancing peppermints, frolicking bonbons, clowns and confectioners. Children play all of those roles, adding their natural, unwitting wit to the performance. Professional adults take on the Spanish, Arabian and Russian dances, as well as an elegant German pas de trois that substitutes for the familiar French/Shepherdess/Marzipan dance.
Complementing the festive mood Lustig has created, Zack Brown’s sets re-create a sunny garden with a stone wall (just right for the little ones to peek over and around), and his ruffled, sparkly costumes surprise and delight the eye as pastels of the party give way to petal pinks, leaf greens and baby blues, vibrant red, turquoise and gold. Music director Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony through a smooth performance of the score.
The party scene would benefit from more dynamic storytelling, but Sarah Bukowski, as Mrs. Stahlbaum, enlivened it with her lyricism and charisma, which were also put to good use in her acrobatic Arabian dance. Jekyns Pelaez squired Rachel Speidel Little as the Sugar Plum Fairy, while Oakland Ballet Company veteran Denise Schmalle was a standout in the Spanish dance and the Waltz of the Flowers.
As Clara, Stephanie Saltz was tasked with carrying the entire story, and she came through with her superb technique and equally fine acting ability. When she was onstage, the eye was drawn to her, and she projected the emotions of her character clearly without miming (which kids without ballet training wouldn’t understand anyway). Thanks to excellent chemistry, she and Strombeck conveyed delight in each other’s company, so vital to making the story fly.
It is something of a logistical miracle that the bicoastal Lustig (who has other projects going in New Jersey as well) was able to pull this production off at such a satisfying level after joining the company only in fall of 2010. As he gets to know the Bay Area dance community, he will be able to develop a company of consistently superb dancers who can bring every aspect of his production fully to life. Judging from the cheers of the audience, the community will be thrilled to see Oakland Ballet Company back on stage soon.
Contra Costa Ballet’s Story of the Nutcracker and Mark Foehringer Dance Proejct’s Nutcracker at Zeum Friday, December 3, and Sunday, December 5, 2010
Countless kids get hooked on The Nutcracker the first time they see the Snow Queen bourrée onstage in a cascade of sparkles, and we—I mean, they—face dreadful withdrawal symptoms (lethargy, pique, bitter loss of illusion) if they don’t see The Nutcracker every year for the rest of their lives. But a full-length Nutcracker is a big commitment for a tot—sitting through that tedious grown-up party is a lot to ask before delivering the queen and her retinue.
That’s where little-kid-friendly productions come in: Ballet’s gateway drug, these hour-long introductions hit the highlights of plot, costume and music, whetting young appetites for the Nutcracker habit that’s sure to follow. And Contra Costa Ballet’s Story of the Nutcracker (at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek) and Mark Foehringer Dance Project’s Nutcracker at Zeum are just waiting to turn Bay Area children into happy Nutcracker heads.
A twenty-year tradition, Story of the Nutcracker has introduced a generation of little ones to the holiday tale. Clocking in at one hour, with no intermission, this production honors the classical tradition with waltzing parents (mercifully shortening that pesky party to a few minutes), a full mouse battle, the international dances, the Waltz of the Flowers, and the grand pas de deux. The taped score is necessarily whittled down as well; musical transitions could be smoothed out here and there, but all of the famous passages are included.
Few, if any, families read E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story to children, so a guiding hand is a big help in identifying the characters and making Victorian culture relevant to today’s youngsters. Narrator Marlene Swendsen, herself dressed in period flair, ably leads children into the story (the narration doesn’t introduce the cultural dances, so parents may want to tell kids what they’re seeing) and wrapping it up at the end.
Most of the roles are danced by Contra Costa Ballet students, notably the talented and charismatic Alicia Wang as this year’s Clara. The school’s youth company performs the Ribbon Candy and Flowers ensembles, with the statuesque Kristen Isom in the plum role of the Rose. Superb local professionals play lead roles and cavaliers: this year, it’s John Segundo as King Mouse and Chinese Lion, Katarina Wester as the maid, Diablo Ballet’s Tina Kay Bohnstedt as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and from Company C Contemporary Ballet, Robert Dekkers as her graceful Cavalier, Taurean Green as Toy Soldier and Trepak, Edilsa Armendariz in a beautiful turn as Arabian Coffee, Kristen Lindsay as the Ribbon Candy lead, and Company C’s artistic director, Charles Anderson, as the mysterious Drosselmeier.
Across the Bay, Mark Foehringer Dance Project brought its Nutcracker at Zeum back for a sophomore run after a successful premiere in 2009. Fresh, colorful and inventive, this version gets a lot done with a cast of just 17 dancers, who manage miraculously quick costume changes in order to pull off multiple roles.
Condensing the story into a fast-moving 50 minutes, Nutcracker at Zeum makes a few tweaks for the sake of silliness and celerity: Mother Ginger and her rambunctious Kinder bring Drosselmeyer a gingerbread house; when the Mouse Queen sneaks in and nibbles on it, the annoyed toy maker and his nephew ship her off to Siberia. Naturally, the Mouse King comes looking for the missus, and the ensuing chaos sweeps up everyone from little girls with cupcakes on their heads to Clara in her pretty pink dress and Chinese Tea in a rainbow unitard.
The small stage at Zeum, a popular children’s museum near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, demands inventive staging, and Foehringer uses every inch of the house, including the aisles, to his advantage. Fortunately, the space is large enough to include the eight-piece Magik*Magik Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s score as orchestrated by Oakland East Bay Symphony music director Michael Morgan. As energetic as the performance, the live music enriches the show—and kids’ theatrical education—immensely.
A superb cast lays a foundation of fine dancing beneath the lighthearted fun. Brian Fisher, Chad Dawson, LizAnne Roman, Taylor Ullery, Juan de la Rosa, Jetta Martin and Jaclyn Stryker play the major characters (and some of the minor ones); as a group, they’ve danced for some of the world’s best ballet and contemporary companies, and it’s easy to see why. Young dancer Thomas Woodman plays supporting roles, and two casts of kids charm alternate as sweets and soldiers. This is just the beginning for Nutcracker at Zeum, so we may well see them in the grown-up roles someday.
Foehringer Dance Project’s Nutcracker at Zeum continues through December 19:
Saturdays 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m., 2 p.m.
Zeum, 221 Fourth Street (@ Howard), San Francisco
$25 BrownPaperTickets.com or mfdpsf.org