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 Post subject: The New York Fringe Festival: To Dance, The Musical
PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2015 5:34 pm 
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To Dance, The Musical
New York Fringe Festival
The Theater at the 14th Street Y
New York, New York

August 18, 2015

-- by Jerry Hochman

How quickly we forget.

In another lifetime more than 40 years ago, I became interested in ballet as a result of reading reviews written by then New York Times ballet critic Clive Barnes. Rather than focusing on technical details, his reviews made ballet sound accessible and interesting to a layman like me.

Barnes also did not hesitate to involve himself in what then might have seemed controversial causes. I recall reading many articles he wrote in the early 1970s detailing the oppression of Russian dancers Valery and Galina Panov – essentially, how they had been virtually imprisoned and unable to practice their art solely because they were Jewish and wanted to emigrate to Israel. The real story is a bit more complicated than that, but there is no question that Panov was dismissed from the Kirov (now the Mariinsky), barred from dancing, and not allowed to emigrate – and that the instrument of their art suffered with each passing day. Barnes, whom I briefly met shortly before his death, was not the only member of the arts community to speak up on behalf of the Panovs, who eventually did emigrate to Israel, but his platform added significant weight to the cause. I remember Barnes’s pleas vividly, but the Panov affair is known to few today.

Now come Kyra Robinov and Tibor Zonai with a fledgling musical that attempts to bring the Panovs and their plight back to life. To Dance still got a long way to go before it graduates from the New York Fringe Festival to a more establishment venue. But the Fringe presentation is a promising start.

To Dance begins with Panov confined in his apartment, trying to exercise with a makeshift barre as the muscles of his body are gradually weakening. It then proceeds, somewhat linearly but with occasional flashbacks, as young Panov enters the Kirov ballet School (the names “Mariinsky” and “Vaganova” are not mentioned) and joins the Kirov ballet, continuing through to his success in principal roles, a successful tour to the U.S. that the Soviet authorities end prematurely, his failed first marriage (from which he adopted the surname ‘Panov’ to replace his father’s Jewish surname, ‘Shulman’), his meeting with, and ultimate marriage to, the Kirov’s prize-winning young ballerina Galina Ragozina, his ostracism and imprisonment, and their final emigration and arrival in Israel.

Perhaps because of the undeniable suffering that Panov and his wife were forced to endure, Panov the man has been mythologized. But as his autobiography, also called To Dance, reveals, and as To Dance, the Musical does not seriously try to camouflage, it was Panov’s independence, arrogance, and egotism that got him into trouble with the Soviet authorities in the first place (and which led to the failure of his first marriage) – but his being Jewish (actually, half-Jewish) made him an easy target for ingrained Russian anti-Semitism. It is this ingrained anti-Semitism that in To Dance is the root of the Panov’s plight. Indeed, the libretto skillfully interweaves a reference to the Soviets finally allowing Russian Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky to emigrate after suffering years of harassment attributable to his Jewish heritage, and under circumstances that roughly parallel that of Panov.

Panov is portrayed by Jesse Carrey with appropriate vanity and arrogance, but nevertheless as a magnetic and reasonably sympathetic presence. Carrey’s voice rings with determination whether he’s speaking or singing, and his acting is more than adequate. But what I found particularly impressive about his performance was his ability to fairly portray a dancer during those moments when he actually had to dance. Although Carrey’s profile indicates some dance training (at the Ailey School, on scholarship) and experience with a variety of regional musical theater productions, and even though he probably would concede that he’s no danseur, he did a fine job with the ballet choreography he was required to dance. If he was faking it, he faked it reasonably well.

His Galina, Kathryn Morgan, didn’t need to fake the dancing. Morgan is a former soloist with New York City Ballet, who retired prematurely to battle a debilitating illness. In a review of the premiere performances of Peter Martins’s NYCB production Romeo + Juliet in May, 2007, I observed that she was a sweetheart of a Juliet, and that she displayed a simple warmth, as well as accomplished technique, that proved the wisdom of Martins’s casting her in the role (at the time she was still in NYCB’s corps).

Morgan still comes across as a sweetheart, and that quality of simple warmth still permeates her stage presence. And even though her body has matured since she left NYCB, she can still dance like a ballerina – particularly during a modified excerpt from the finale of the pas de deux from Don Quixote (for which the Panovs were justifiably renowned) which was used in the musical to exemplify the Panovs’ touring success. She wowed the audience with consecutive fouettes and, in that and other ballet choreography that was included in the production, handled the pointe work with ease. That her face bears an uncanny resemblance to photographs I’ve seen of the young Galina Panova (who attended the performance) was a bonus. However, Morgan has no background in theater, musical or otherwise, and the contrast between her vocal abilities and those of the show’s other actors was unavoidably apparent.

Of those other actors, Rick Roemer added essential gravitas to counter Carrey’s necessarily dominant performance. Roemer is a retired professor of theater and a veteran of many regional, off-Broadway, and touring plays and musical productions (I’m sure I’ve seen him in something or other before), and he provided a measure of mature credibility to the production. And considering that his role as Rachinsky, the Kirov’s official in charge of Soviet orthodoxy (his specific title is not indicated) is cardboard and generates not an ounce of sympathy – he’s Panov’s Javert – I found myself admiring his professionalism and stage viciousness.

Most of the other actors filled multiple roles. Although they all did fine jobs, the following performances were especially noteworthy. As Panov’s first wife and as part of the ensemble, Lydell Higgins brought the production a touch of class, both with her nuanced acting and her dancing facility. A veteran of many regional productions, Higgins made Liya both a sympathetic and thoroughly credible character, with an unexpected nobility. But Higgins also looked particularly comfortable as a Kirov dancer – not surprising, since, according to the program notes, she’s artistic director of her own Los Angeles dance company (Stretch Dance Company) as well as an award-winning choreographer. Hannah Zimmerman’s portrayal of Panov’s teacher, Mme. Sergeyeva, was the most mild-mannered and sympathetic rendering of a company ballet teacher that I can recall seeing. It could use some venom. But as Liya’s mother, Zimmerman’s depiction of a sour and spent female Russian Archie Bunker was spot on.

In a variety of ensemble roles, Joey Ama Dio stood out not only because she’s a pint-sized dynamo, but because she has a face that can convincingly register different emotions, and change from one to another in the blink of an eye. And initially I was concerned that Joshua Rees Hopkins’s Yuri (the show’s construction of Panov’s ‘best friend’ from his earliest dance school days who ultimately betrays him to Rachinsky) would be too lightweight to carry it off. But not only did he ultimately succeed in being a sheep-like Judas, he also delivered what to me was the show’s most startling and dramatic song, one that provides a back-hand view of one of prejudice’s roots – envy. Hopkins delivered “He Gets the Girl” with unexpectedly virulent passion, which added immeasurably to its impact. To me, “He Gets the Girl” came out of nowhere, and provided one of the show’s finest moments.

Generally, the piece needs more texture and characterization. The libretto and lyrics by Robinov (who has a ballet background), as well as the music by Zonai, are serviceable, but not particularly inventive. Aside from “He Gets the Girl,” the most emotionally nuanced of the songs were the duets by Valery and Liya. The romantic duets for Panov and Galina are ok, but not memorable. “Piece of Glass,” delivered by Rachinsky, is a very strong song, but it simply matches the character in one-dimensionality. Although this may have been the artistic team’s intent, and not every song need be as complex as Javert’s “Stars,” it might have been more realistic to give Rachinsky’s character some depth.

And at times the words and song lyrics are overly cute. For example, words like ‘freaky’ (by Galina) and phrases like ‘well goody for you smarty-pants’ (by Young Valery) may seem appropriate for the characters, but they sound inapt in context; and lyrics that rhyme ‘toilet,’ ‘spoil it’ and ‘oil it’ are particularly sophomoric (though I’ll grant that in context that may have been intentional). And the notion that the main reason that the Kirov dancers want to travel to the United States is to shop (“Stroke of Luck”), while it may or may not be true, I found unnecessarily demeaning.

My greatest disappointment with the production is its failure to specifically reference or build on the contribution of Barnes, and others. to the Panov’s ultimate release. Barnes is a character in the production, but his presence is relegated to one scene where he visits Panov in an apartment he shares with other dancers (I vaguely recall Barnes writing that he had indeed visited Panov’s apartment). And although there are general references to the condemnation of the Panovs’ treatment (the utilization of a ‘chorus’ of protestors; reference to the world-wide uproar that was instrumental in forcing the Soviets to let the Panovs go), there’s nothing specifically attributable to Barnes. I suppose that somewhere along the way it was determined that such a secondary focus would dilute the impact of the main story, but to me, the contribution of Barnes and others is an indelible part of the main story – and why create a role for Barnes and then limit him to one scene that, though not inconsequential (it leads to further Soviet disapproval and another dancers’ denigration), is relatively insignificant?

For a very small-scale production, the sets and staging are reasonably inventive, making the most of the limited available space. Standalone wooden frames that look like narrow versions of the old fashioned moveable school blackboard, but with the blackboards replaced by removable dowels that hold constantly changing ‘flags’, and which double as weapons, or curtain rods, or ballet barres. The wood frames also do double-duty as room perimeters and dividers. The imaginative sets, as well as the costumes, are by Brian Dudkiewicz. The overall direction and choreography by Donald Garverick kept things moving consistently and coherently, and the musical direction by Evan Rees (who also accompanied on piano) was top notch.

Even though it’s been in incubation since 2011, To Dance still needs work if it’s to expand beyond the Fringe Festival. That being said, the groundwork is there, the story is compelling and there’s a waiting audience - I understand that all the Fringe performances of To Dance are sold out. I don’t doubt that this Fringe appearance will be the springboard for something more – and that it’s now unlikely that the Panovs’ story will be forgotten again anytime soon.


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