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Ballet West

'Three Musketeers'

by Karen Webb

November 2, 2007 - Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City

Very few works of theater feature a death scene that has you rolling in the aisles, but Andre Prokovsky’s “The Three Musketeers does. Given life by Ballet West November 2-10 at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City, the production also featured swashbuckling action, passionate double work, multiple strong leads, and male dancing. Lots of it.

For Dumas purists, the work departs a bit from the novel, although Prokovsky’s original vision included the deaths of two characters chronicled by Dumas. The ballet turns on the well-known episode from the book in which the Musketeers and the young hopeful D’Artagnan retrieve the diamond necklace given by Anne of Austria to her English lover, the Duke of Buckingham. In the book, however, only D’Artagnan makes it to England, and Buckingham survives till much later in the story. D’Artagnan also has a clueless husband to work around, as his love interest, Constance, is married. “After Dumas” might be a better way of describing the plot line.

But that doesn’t prevent the libretto from being a workable scenario full of great characters and opportunities for the company to display both comedic timing and technical finesse. This is one of Prokovsky’s stronger conceptions, full of the verve and texture that make his shorter works like “Vespris” so appealing. The dramatic flow has wonderful pacing. Although there is corps work, Prokovsky has very few moments of the “Here are Giselle’s friends; it is now time for them to dance” sort. Instead, he goes for a sense of continuous overlapping fluidity complete with entrances and exits that make brilliant use of the depth and breadth of the stage. Variations come off as part of a cogent whole rather than sequential excuses to interrupt the story.

Like “Vespris,” “Musketeers is based on the music of Verdi (and, yes, you will flash on parts of Verdi’s music for “The Sicilian Vespers” here and there). The sets, by Alexandre Vassiliev, are a great example of the “less is more” school of design. It’s amazing what a platform, several well-designed scrims and flats, and a few set pieces can do when utilized intelligently.

Principals Christopher Ruud and Christiana Bennett and soloist Michael Bearden did double duty, Ruud and Bearden alternating as D’Artagnan and Buckingham, and Bennett portraying both the villainous Lady deWinter and the tragic Queen Anne. If the work were to be filmed by someone who favors psychological twists (think Erik Bruhn’s Swan Lake), it might be interesting to see at least the Queen Anne/Lady deWinter dyad be danced by the same ballerina, especially one with Bennett’s dramatic talent.

The two casts made for two very different views of the ballet. The cast led by Ruud as D’Artagnan was all forceful dynamic. Ruud and Jason Linsley, Porthos in this cast, have both struggled with ankle injuries, yet in performance, they just went for broke: huge, soaring, jaw-dropping leaps from Ruud, and overall great attack from Linsley. Hua Zhuang’s Athos had the same raw force of nature quality that made his Mercutio so charismatic. Jason Chinea, who seems to have inborn audience appeal, was all hopeless romantic as Aramis. His multiple turns are a study in geometric precision and are especially eye-catching when he remains perfectly positioned even as his speed winds down.

Likewise, the pas de deux in this cast were notable for their dynamics. Like the rest of the choreography, the duets are classically based, but tweaked — a leg turns in here, a hip rolls off center there. The major duets — Ruud with Katherine Lawrence as Constance, Bearden with Annie Breneman as Queen Anne — came off as a study in the intensely lyrical punctuated by sudden turns of sudden staccato briskness.

Very different, then, was the alternate cast in which offstage partners Bearden with Victoria Lock and Ruud with Bennett took these roles. You just got the feeling that the two couples went home and practiced — and practiced and practiced. Some of Prokovsky’s partnering is very tricky: the danseur gets to extend his arms only incompletely in a lift, or the ballerina is placed inconveniently off her center, or a partnered move like a press relies almost totally on strength rather than integrated body mechanics. With these two couples, you saw less of the percussive/legato dynamic and more of a flow that rippled like water: smooth, seamless, and utterly entrancing. Lock, who is just beginning to collect featured roles, acted her heart out, even when she wasn’t in the spotlight; Ruud and Bennett created a sense of abandon that made you feel both the passion and the despair of their doomed romance.

Of course, a play about the Musketeers can’t be done convincingly without swordplay (and lots of bravado), and Prokovsky gives us plenty of that. This is less the technically precise, intensive fencing of, say, Michael Smuin’s “Romeo and Juliet.” While very tightly choreographed — what is comedy without tight timing, after all — the one really big fight scene (between Our Heroes and the Cardinal’s Guards) is played largely for laughs. A hapless John Frazer can’t approach one of the Good Guys without inadvertently getting poked in a major bodily organ; Ballet West II’s Aidan Diskin gets to show why fighting with two swords is half as effective rather than twice. In another less-is-more moment, one of the feats of legerdemain has D’Artagnan pulling out three knives and simultaneously nailing three different opponents on different parts of the stage. 

These are not the only comedic moments. The death scene features deWinter waiting for Buckingham to die, alternately tapping her foot impatiently (“Die, already!”) and using the knife with which she stabbed him to preen. In a later scene between her and a disguised D’Artagnan, the two strike a classic fish dive pose — during which D’Artagnan uses his free hand to check on the status of the diamonds, which he has stuffed into his shirt. Even the coda is an engagingly quirky blend of humor and bravura: Buckingham gets resurrected only to be stabbed again, and the necklace changes hands a number of times, but we’re also treated to a brilliant series of fouettés. 

Other moments that stay in the memory: Peggy Dolkas, who alternates as deWinter, had moments in her motif quarter attitude turn where she seemed to hang suspended in space. Prokovsky seems a master of the four-guys-and-a-gal pas de cinq: pairs of men turning Dolkas and Bennett balanced on pointe in a penchée arabesque is a sight hard to forget. One of the four, Nathaniel King, has such an extraordinary jump that you could spend an evening just watching his feet articulate as he sautés. And, amid a field of great comedic bit parts, Beau Pearson as a thieving innkeeper and Ed McPherson as yet another hapless guard were standouts.

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