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 Post subject: American Repertory Ballet - 2013-2014
PostPosted: Wed Oct 16, 2013 1:13 pm 
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Joined: Wed Jun 30, 2004 11:01 pm
Posts: 337
Location: New Jersey
American Repertory Ballet
State Theater
New Brunswick, New Jersey

October 11, 2013
“Romeo and Juliet”

-- by Jerry Hochman

When I previously reviewed American Repertory Ballet’s new production of “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by its Artistic Director, Douglas Martin, it was somewhat of a work in progress, and was presented at a venue that cramped the staging. The ballet had its formal premiere on Friday at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ, and with a larger stage, finished choreography, sets and costumes, and a live orchestra, the promise of that preview has been fulfilled.

Mr. Martin’s concept of this production is ambitious: his “Romeo and Juliet” is no different from other ‘major’ productions of the ballet presented by larger companies with larger budgets, except that it’s on a compact scale and relies as much on his dancers’ hearts as on their technical abilities. As such, it is a small miracle: a choreographic rendering of the story that is both simply-told and compelling, that inspires his dancers to, and beyond, whatever technical limitations they may have, and that moves an audience that already knows the story just by what it sees on stage.

As I observed previously, Mr. Martin is particularly adept at choreographing stage-spanning activity. When the action takes place in the Verona piazza, every inch of the stage (even the larger, State Theater stage) is full of movement, but it never looks busy. For example, the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ scene, which I find far superior to the ‘street wedding’ in the familiar production by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, is crowded, but appropriately so. More significantly, the ‘show’ put on by the players, and the interaction between the players and the townsfolk, allows for considerable choreographic variety, and is both realistic and well-executed. Particularly noteworthy are the swordfight scenes, which are every bit as accomplished now, both choreographically and as executed by the dancers, as I observed them to be previously. They’re as good as they are because they don’t look choreographed – although of course they are, and they don’t look choreographed because Mr. Martin largely restricts the fighting, at least until the culmination of the fight, to one or two pairs of combatants, so there’s no sense of a ‘mass’ synchronization of swordplay. This lack of any sense of being ‘programmed’ applies not only to the movement quality, but to variations in the story it usually unfolds. In Mr. Martin’s version, one of the villagers killed in the initial swordfight is a girl. It’s calculated to engender a greater emotional response from the viewer than to limit injury to the combatants alone, and it works.

Similarly, the ballroom scene is a model of powerful group movement on a small scale, but it allows intricate gestures that are almost, but not quite, throwaways. For example, this Romeo and Juliet do not first see each other from across a crowded room, or by one accidentally – or accidentally on purpose – bumping into the other. Here, Juliet spies Romeo, and he her, while she is dancing with her. Both react subtly, but the seed of interest has been planted and the brief encounter looks less ‘staged’ than in other versions.

Beyond mass movement, Mr. Martin’s choreography for the primary characters remains essentially as it was at the April, 2014 preview, and it satisfies the essential prerequisites for a successful performance: it is challenging for the dancers, but not beyond their capabilities, it is visually interesting to watch; and most importantly, it successfully moves the audience. For example, and as I observed last Spring, the choreography he has created for Mercutio, Benvolio, and the three ‘harlots’ is both exuberant and spontaneous, and the duets between Juliet and Romeo – in particular, the emotionally critical balcony scene – are choreographed, and were executed, with the combination of rapture and conviction, that quality of being genuine, that is necessary to make the audience feel what the dancers feel, and to respond with the cathartic release that prompts appreciative, as opposed to obligatory, applause. Even relatively insignificant dances are reimagined and improved. For instance, the dance for Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’ when they enter her bedroom to awaken her for her wedding to Paris, instead of some sort of disconnected ‘good morning’ dance, or ‘Juliet’s-getting-married-so-why-don’t-we-dance-for-her-even-though-she’s-asleep-and-can’t-see-us dance,‘ the dance as Mr. Martin displays it is clearly connected to the imminent wedding – the girls play with the dress that Juliet will wear to her wedding, and imagine what it would look and feel like on them.

I noted several differences between Friday’s premiere production and the preview. First and foremost, the larger stage allows the production to breathe, and cures many of the ills that I had previously observed. There is room, now, for the corps to move about the stage in the background without being conspicuously and awkwardly frozen. Consequently, there is no sense that dancers are marking time when the choreographic attention is focused elsewhere. And even where the dancers in last Spring’s performance were in motion, the greater performing space now allows them to move more freely and expansively, yielding a more thrilling impression. For example, Mercutio was permitted not just to dance ebulliently, but to fly.
Additionally, I had noted previously that the choreography (and acting) for certain of the featured, but tangential characters was underdeveloped. Not any more. The Nurse, the Duke of Verona, Paris, and Friar Laurence appeared to have been given more to do (or, with the larger stage, what they did became more apparent). They’re now real characters, not cardboard adjuncts.

Finally, the use of a full set (minimal though it may be) mandated other changes. For example, the ballet’s beginning (when Romeo is courting Rosaline) was forgettable. Now, however, Romeo playfully tosses stones at Rosaline’s house to encourage her to come outside, which gives the brief scene some needed context (although it’s a little too close to Albrecht and Giselle). And in the Act I balcony pas de deux, there is now a balcony onto which Romeo romantically lifts Juliet as the pas de deux concludes. It’s a perfect ending to the scene, and every bit as emotionally moving as having Juliet and Romeo reach toward each other after Juliet sprints up a winding staircase to her balcony.

But the larger stage also revealed some drawbacks. The compressed space in the previous performance I saw focused the action on Romeo and Juliet, and the choreography for them filled the viewing space. With a larger stage, at certain points the pas de deux looks lost, traveling back and forth across the stage for no reason. [Other versions of Romeo and Juliet do the same thing, but ‘cover’ it with more choreographic variety.] And in the bedroom scene, after Romeo departs, Juliet is seen looking/yearning for him with the same extended arm and facial expression repeated too many times and from too many different positions on the stage. The problem here is generated by the limitations of the set: there’s no ‘window’ from which Romeo departs, so there’s no window to which Juliet is drawn to look for him – Romeo’s just ‘out there’ somewhere. Indeed, in that regard, without clear entrance and exit points, characters are required to enter and exit via the wings or from behind a piece of scenery (e.g., Tybalt sort of wanders onto the piazza in the first scene; Juliet somehow comes down from her balcony and emerges from behind it as the balcony pas de deux begins; Romeo enters the crypt by suddenly ‘appearing’ from behind the bier).

But in the overall scheme of things, these are minor criticisms, and largely a product of budgetary restraints that limited the complexity of the sets. And although the presence of a live orchestra, as opposed to a familiar ‘fixed’ recording, may have created some relatively insignificant timing issues (for example, a critical moment in Romeo’s swordfight with Tybalt was not in sync with the music), the presence of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra added immeasurably to the evening’s success. Under the leadership of conductor Kynan Johns, the orchestra treated the audience to a quality concert that enhanced and complemented the performance on stage, but that did not overwhelm it.

Although there were a few significant cast changes, most of the dancers were the same as had performed in the preview I saw last Spring, and they danced as well or better than they did before.

Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi reprised their roles as Juliet and Romeo. Ms. Moscato, a product of the Princeton Ballet School (ARB’s affiliated school), was both appropriately youthful and technically accomplished (and demonstrated the same affinity for bourrees that I observed previously). Although I would have appreciated more nuanced acting (she still seems to be just as happy to be dancing with Paris in Act I as she is with Romeo, even after she meets Romeo, and during the bedroom scene following Tybalt’s death, Romeo’s banishment and imminent departure doesn’t register on her face until halfway through the scene), this is not critical. What is critical is to make her love for Romeo believable: that is, to convey rapture convincingly both through her execution of Mr. Martin’s choreography and her acting, and in this respect Ms. Moscato continues to shine. And her ‘scream’ upon recognizing that Romeo is dead is still spine-tingling. [There are many stage screams that percolate through this production and foreshadow Juliet’s final emotional explosion – by the Duke of Verona following the initial swordfight, by Lady Capulet after Tybalt’s death, by Lord Capulet upon losing control of his wife and his daughter (similar to the characterization given to Lord Capulet by Peter Martins in his production for the New York City Ballet) – but Juliet’s ‘scream’ is the collected culmination of them all.]

Mr. Pallozzi’s portrayal has improved significantly since the Spring performance. He’s more accomplished technically (his execution is cleaner in every respect, and the ‘rough edges’ I noticed previously are less pronounced), and he still conveys the passion, tempered by sweetness and sincerity, that he so convincingly displayed at the April performance. He’s still the ‘Romeo next door’. Mr. Pallozzi was particularly impressive in his partnering of Ms. Moscato, including his mastery of Mr. Martin’s complex shoulder lifts, twists, and turns. He (and Ms. Moscato) made everything look natural and unforced. And I must confess that I thought he was going to drop Ms. Moscato as he transported her from the stage floor onto her balcony at the conclusion of the balcony pas de deux, but he pulled it off. [The maneuver involves not just an overhead lift with Mr. Pallozzi’s body supporting the lift, but a simultaneous transport away from his body to the balcony – so when he delivers Ms. Moscato to the balcony, he has to hold her above him supported only by his arms.]

Alexander Dutko and Stephen Campanella also repeated their performances as Mercutio and Benvolio. Both gave finely textured portrayals, combining bravado with sensitivity, but Mr. Dutko made the most of his more choreographically flashy role and was particularly impressive. [My only suggestion for improvement would be that it’s ok to actually kiss the girls on the lips, rather than give them pecks on the cheek.]

In Mr. Martin’s version the three harlots are specifically identified as companions of one of the lead men. [Perhaps in the future he might consider identifying them not as harlots, with all the unnecessary baggage that that word carries, but as friends (particularly since they’re not characters in Shakespeare’s play).] Samantha Gullace and Shaye Firer repeated their roles as Romeo’s and Mercutio’s companions, and Nanako Yamamoto (replacing Euphrosyne Avery, who danced the role in April) played Benvolio’s. Each of them danced with appropriate exuberance and flamboyance, and Ms. Yamamoto should be commended for dancing the role as well as she did on relatively short notice. As was the case in April, however, Ms. Firer was the most naturally vivacious of them all. Whatever the role, her performances look natural, rather than artificially pasted-on. Ms. Gullace, Ms. Firer, and Ms. Yamamoto also did double-duty as Juliet’s ‘Girlfriends’, together with Alice Cao and Clair van Bever.

Aside from the referenced lead dancers, those who were given most dancing to do were the Commedia dell’Arte players, who were in virtual constant motion during their performance within the performance: Ms. van Bever, Cameron Auble-Branigan, Ms. Cao, and Edward Urwin repeated their roles as, respectively, Columbina, Arlecchino and the Inamorati, and Marc St.-Pierre danced Pantalone. If anything, they were even more accomplished and effervescent than they were in the preview performance.

Whether a result of changes in the choreography or improvement in execution (or perhaps because the larger stage enabled a more expansive presentation), Andrea D’Anunzio gave a performance as Juliet’s Nurse that was considerably improved from the preview. It was a polished, engaging portrayal. Also improved was Mr. Urwin’s Paris, who appeared less bland and showed more character than he did previously. Jacobo Janelli reprised his fine low-decibel performance as Tybalt.

Taking over the roles of Lady and Lord Capulet were Trinette Singleton and the choreographer. Ms. Singleton, whom I had not seen on stage since her performances with the Joffrey Ballet in New York (and who doesn’t look much changed) delivered a powerful but relatively controlled performance. By that I mean that her response to Tybalt’s death was more than hysteria – there was inner turmoil beneath the surface, and this inner turmoil exploded when her husband attempted to intervene in her ‘private’ grief. [As I noted previously, Mr. Mr. Martin has made Lady Capulet’s response to Tybalt’s death a clearer reflection of some relationship, other than familial, between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. Here, as Lord Capulet approaches his grieving wife, she rises from Tybalt’s body and forcibly pushes Lord Capulet away, as if to say ‘you don’t belong here; you don’t know anything about how I feel; this is my private agony’. Very nicely done.] As her husband, Mr. Martin was an imposing human volcanic mountain, boiling over with frustration and pain as he loses control of his wife and his daughter.

The role of the Duke of Verona in this production is limited – he appears only at the end of the opening scene to respond to the carnage. But Gary Echternacht’s rage and frustration at the continuing violence between the Capulet and Montague houses and the deaths before him, reflected in his bone-curdling silent scream, could be felt in every corner of the theater. His was a brief, but outstanding performance. As Friar Laurence, Ken Samoil delivered a fine, low-key performance that was perfectly appropriate for the role.

The cast was completed by Tullio Cata as one of the Capulet servants, and Ball Guests Michelle Amor, Elisabeth Hekmann, Valentina Palladino, and Allison Piccone.

But as fine as the choreography, cast and orchestra were, what ultimately may be the most significant aspect of Friday’s performance was the audience. From my vantage point, the house was packed. And it was filled with people who were there not to see ‘culture,’ or because they were committed to an art form, but simply to be entertained. This was not a New York audience – there was little in the way of overt sophistication (pseudo or otherwise), reverential deference, conspicuous displays of opinion, or sense of entitlement. Although there was a smattering of company personnel (teachers; students), relatives of dancers, and a vocal block of fans of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, this was largely an audience comprised of 'ordinary people', including parents and grandparents escorting children, local dancers (and would-be dancers), and teenagers. To me, and except for the children, the audience seemed similar to the audiences that reportedly sat, or stood, through performances of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theater. Many in Friday's audience seemed not to know what to expect, and for them this performance was a special event – a stretch. That they were enthralled by what they saw was clear, and the standing ovation that greeted the cast and orchestra at the performance’s conclusion was enthusiastic and genuine. Consequently, at the very least, Friday’s audience, and its reaction to ARB’s performance, demonstrates that there’s an audience out there that is open to seeing dance performances that are crafted with expertise and danced with passion, that don’t require a small fortune to attend, that are local, and that speak to them.


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 Post subject: Re: American Repertory Ballet - 2013-2014
PostPosted: Sun Mar 16, 2014 7:15 pm 
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Location: New Jersey
American Repertory Ballet
McCarter Theater
Princeton, New Jersey

March 12, 2014
“Firebird,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Rite of Spring”

-- by Jerry Hochman

One of the advantages of a relatively small company is its ability to take risks that larger companies cannot afford to do. Princeton-based American Repertory Ballet has taken such risks in the past, to considerable success, and continues to do so.

Last Wednesday at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, ARB presented a full evening of dance ‘inspired by’ Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The ambitious program featured the world premiere of Artistic Director Douglas Martin’s “Firebird,” the company premiere of former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Kirk Peterson’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” and a repeat performance of Mr. Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Like “Rite of Spring,” the two new pieces represent risks taken. And like “Rite of Spring,” they’re different and audacious.

The myth of a magical, god-like bird with bright gold, purple, scarlet or peacock-like plumage that is aligned with a sun god or that possesses heat, light, or fire of its own, is common to many cultures. In Greek mythology, the bird was called a Phoenix, and was associated with the sun and light. [I’m not an ancient Greek scholar, but I suspect that the root ‘phoe’ means ‘fire’.] Related ‘birds’ can be found from India and Egypt to Persia, China and Japan, from Eastern Europe to Central Europe.

In Russian folklore, the Firebird is known as Zhar-Ptitsa, and myths surrounding the Firebird have spawned several related fairy tales, the most famous of which are “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” In ridiculously broad strokes, the Firebird brings hope to the oppressed masses, defeat to oppressors, and humiliation to hapless old tsars, and its shed feather has magical powers that can lead the feather’s finder on a quest for happiness, immortality, the tsar’s daughter, or some combination of all of them, and that can be used to summon it when help is needed.

Diaghilev and choreographer Michel Fokine mined Russian fairy-tale sources to create the ballet “The Firebird” for the Ballets Russes, which premiered on June 25, 1910 in Paris, with Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird and a score by a 28 year old composer named Igor Stravinsky. Among other incarnations of the ballet, George Balanchine created a version for the New York City Ballet, featuring extraordinary artwork by Marc Chagall, which is presently in NYCB’s repertoire, and Alexei Ratmansky choreographed a version two years ago for American Ballet Theatre. Both these ballets are big. And spectacular. And except for the Chagall art for the NYCB version, I don’t like them very much. Maybe smaller is better.

Mr. Martin’s new “Firebird” is smaller. And I found some of it to be impressive. And perhaps I’ll grow to love it on repeat viewings. But for everything about it that’s good, and there’s lots of that, there are also things that are confusing and disappointing.

Just as there are different versions of ‘Firebird’ fairy tales/myths, there can be different choreographic versions of the story. Mr. Martin’s version is certainly different from others I’ve seen. Most significantly, the Firebird is male, and Kaschei has been reconfigured as a female character called ‘The Immortal’, who appears to be part bird, part Carabosse (the evil fairy from “The Sleeping Beauty”), and part Wicked Witch of the West. That’s fine. Shakes things up.

The opening of Mr. Martin’s “Firebird” is fabulous. ‘The Immortal’ and her black-outfitted minions (that’s their name: ‘The Immortal’s Minions’) jump and slither around for awhile in what appears to be a forest clearing (by the projection of trees on the back wall of the stage), and then, gradually, most of the minions gather together and form a multi-branched, gnarly, and magnificent tree. A minion tree. The Immortal then attaches golden apples to each branch/minion’s hand. It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted visual accomplishment that had me silently cheering.

Then things became perplexing.

Instead of usual narrative story notes, in the program Mr. Martin has inserted a frequently referenced and beautiful poetic excerpt from “A Winter’s Journey,” a classic 1844 children’s story by Russian writer Yakov Polonsky, which scholars say was the first time that the myth of the Firebird was combined with that of Kaschei the Immortal, the ‘sorcerer’ referenced in the Polonsky poem. But the story Mr. Martins tells on stage doesn’t quite fit the poem. That’s fine – it doesn’t have to. But it’s confusing.

In most versions I know, and in the poem, the princess (here called the ‘Sapphire Princess’) is confined by Kaschei to an area near her castle and is not free to roam. I didn’t sense any confinement in this version – we just see her and her friends in a forested area. But this is common to other versions (e.g., that of Balanchine). As the story unfolds, Kaschei is already supposed to have the maidens (here ‘Silver and Gold Princesses’) under his spell (in the Ratmansky version, they look drugged). But here, when the Silver and Gold Princesses first appear, there’s nothing to indicate that. They dance some very pretty dances across the stage and around the minion tree, and then gobble the golden apples ‘planted’ by The Immortal. Ok, maybe the audience is supposed to assume that this isn’t the first time the princesses have eaten the apples, that The Immortal has been drugging them with these apples for eons, or at least a few weeks, and that the princesses are addicted. But since the apples contain a drug-like ingredient by which The Immortal controls them, this must be why, in Mr. Martin’s version, the princesses turn to stone after they devour them. All this is fine, if a little strange.

Then the Sapphire Princess appears. In disguise. But why should she be in disguise if she’s confined to that garden area of her castle? Maybe she’s not confined, and this really is happening in a forest clearing. Fine. How she escaped is another issue. She finds a feather. A black feather – so she knows that The Immortal has been there and is responsible for her companion princesses turning to stone. Ok. And she explains through mime to Prince Ivan, who has wandered into the garden/forest clearing, that she’s really a princess from yonder castle. Ok. But at some point the Sapphire Princess removes her disguise, and voila, the princesses awaken from their stone stoned stupor. At that point, I got hopelessly lost.

So even though this is a story ballet, let’s just ignore the story, or consider it as a general background, and concentrate on the choreography and staging, which is more important anyway.

In addition to the initial lovely series of dances for the ‘Silver and Gold Princesses’ which nicely segue from one part of the stage to another to vary the images, with a lyrical, flowing quality to each dance, the princesses are shown dancing around the minion tree while motor-mouth chomping on the golden/poison apples to the beat of the score. Strange, but also weirdly funny. The choreography for the Immortal One was both appropriately serpentine and aggressive-looking, and Samantha Gullace was a dominating and fiendish evil force. I found the movement quality for the Firebird, commandingly portrayed by Alexander Dutko, to be particularly interesting. Changing the Firebird’s gender allows an opportunity to present not just a beautiful, regal bird, bit a powerful one, and this Firebird was stronger than any previously seen. For example, in most versions the Firebird is captured (and subsequently released) by Prince Ivan. Here, however, capturing him required the efforts of both Prince Ivan (portrayed by Stephen Campanella) and the Sapphire Princess (Alice Cao), each using ropes to restrain him as if they were taming a wild mustang – or, perhaps more appropriately, ‘Toruk, the Great Leonopteryx’ (the big red bird), from James Cameron’s film “Avatar.”

But although they were danced warmly by Ms. Cao and Mr. Campanella, the duets for the Sapphire Princess and Prince Ivan were too similar and blended together. Similarly, from the time they were released from their stone state, the dances for the princesses suffered the same fate. Prince Ivan isn’t given much to do here – but that’s a consequence of giving the Sapphire Princess more to do. And curiously, the act that ends The Immortal’s tyranny appears almost as a staging afterthought: The giant egg that is the source of The Immortal’s immortality is almost hidden upstage left and not really noticed until Ivan moves forward and breaks the egg (thereby allowing The Immortal’s power to escape) – but this momentous event is reduced to the sound of air escaping from a seltzer bottle. Better to have just shattered the egg.

However, regardless of the merits of individual parts of the piece and any storyline confusion, its conclusion is as much visual dynamite as the beginning. With the threat from The Immortal gone, the Princess and Ivan wed, the princesses are free, and the Firebird watches over the entire event with his blazing red wings gradually spreading and spanning the width of the stage. This Firebird is no pretty little red bird, regal or otherwise – he’s a benevolent god.

Kirk Peterson’s “Afternoon of a Faun” is also a different take on ‘standard’ versions of the story. This is not your father’s “L’apres midi d’un faune.”

It begins in a forest area, with five young fauns prancing around like the hyper-active half goats they are, and there’s a lot of playful but aggressive athleticism and competitiveness. Soon a gaggle of nymphs happens by (or are invited/persuaded to join the party – it’s not clear). And then one of the fauns discovers that there are more fun things to do than chest-bucking.

Essentially, this is not a story of sensual arousal or temptation unfulfilled, whether of a faun for a nymph (the Nijinsky original) or one dancer for another (Jerome Robbins’s reimagining for NYCB). Nor is there any auto-eroticism. Rather, it’s lust in the afternoon; a chance encounter between a small herd of pubescent fauns, hormones raging, doing the equivalent of just standing in the forest watching all the nymphs go by. The alpha faun and an aroused nymph hook up, explore their budding sexuality, and maybe consummate (though it’s not clear). Then the other nymphs return from whatever they were doing with the other fauns, tell the featured nymph that she has to leave (perhaps her curfew is up), and the lead faun, happily spent, collapses in the arms of his fellow fauns.

The sexuality in Mr. Peterson’s piece is refreshingly different and considerably more ‘real’ – there’s no artificial or emotionally camouflaged posing; the carnal desire is mutual and unrestrained. And the lead couple, Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi, made the youthful eroticism believable. While I didn’t find the choreography particularly unusual or extraordinary, it successfully conveyed the mood – aided by the diaphanous outfits on the nymphs (the costumes were designed by Mr. Peterson). To me, the remnants of Nijinksy-esque, fragmented choreography that Mr. Peterson maintained (predominantly for the four supporting nymphs) clashed with the ‘contemporary’ style of the fauns and the couples’ erotic dance, but this wasn’t an inappropriate nod to the original.

The program was completed by a repeat performance of Mr. Martin’s “Rite of Spring,” which was every bit as enjoyable on second viewing – perhaps more so, since I knew what was coming and was able to more fully appreciate Mr. Martin’s unusual approach and intelligently fresh choreography. It’s different without being different for difference’s sake. It works. And the dancing by the entire cast, again led by Shaye Firer as the ‘Chosen One’, Joshua Kurtzburg as ‘The Boss’, and Mr. Campanella as the failed ‘Ad Man’, was thrilling to watch.

That the two new pieces on this program weren’t quite unqualified successes is an inevitable consequence of taking risks. But not everything can be an unqualified success, and these two new pieces, coupled with “Rite of Spring,” demonstrate this company’s growing maturity and capability, and show what an evening that is ‘inspired by’ Ballets Russes productions, but that doesn’t replicate them, can look like.


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 Post subject: Re: American Repertory Ballet - 2013-2014
PostPosted: Wed Mar 26, 2014 8:05 pm 
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Location: New Jersey
American Repertory Ballet
Union County Performing Arts Center
Hamilton Stage
Rahway, New Jersey

March 21, 2014
“Fantasy Baroque,” “Dreams Interrupted” (world premiere); “Afternoon of a Faun,”
“Tears of the Moon” (‘Moonlight Sonata Pas de Deux’), “Confetti”

-- by Jerry Hochman

American Repertory Ballet returned to the Union County Performing Arts Center last Friday for an evening of dances collectively named: “Signature Duets: Dances of Daring and Devotion.” The ‘Signature Duets’ part of the title wasn’t quite accurate: many of the pieces weren’t duets. But this mattered less than the quality of the dances, which was generally quite high, and which included one world premiere and a piece by Joffrey Ballet co-founder Gerald Arpino, which I had not previously seen the company dance. Both were the evening’s highlights.

ARB has many connections with the Joffrey Ballet, New York’s third major ballet company until it moved to Chicago in 1995. Aside from the company’s Artistic Director, Douglas Martin, and its Resident Choreographer and Ballet Master Mary Barton, both of whom had lengthy careers as leading dancers with the Joffrey, these connections include Trinette Singleton, another former leading dancer with the Joffrey, who staged Mr. Arpino’s “Viva Vivaldi” for ARB (“Viva Vivaldi” was one of the Joffrey's staples), appeared as Lady Capulet in Mr. Martin’s “Rome and Juliet” this season, and choreographed a dance for ARB two years ago. She has now choreographed another ballet, “Dreams Interrupted,” which was given its world premiere on Friday. The piece is not without flaws, but it’s very interesting.

“Dreams Interrupted” is a pas de trois that might well be a pas de deux, or vice versa. By that I mean that the woman who is the focus of the piece has two distinct ‘fantasy’ lovers with whom she dances, sometimes together and sometimes individually. One of them is a ‘good’ man (‘the stereotypical ‘nice guy’ who also happens to be physically appealing to her), the other a ‘bad' man (dangerous-looking; edgy; Taylor Swift’s ‘trouble’). But her fantasy can also be seen as having one ‘fantasy’ lover who may have a Jekyll and Hyde personality, with each personality portrayed separately by two dancers. Regardless, the ballet is a vivid portrait of a woman torn between competing desires.

The central focus of “Dreams Interrupted” is the battle within the woman’s mind as she dances first with one vision, then with the other, and at times with both. The woman, passionately portrayed by Alice Cao, is first seen walking alone, in what appears to be evening (it’s dark), on her way somewhere from work, a meeting, a gathering of friends, or perhaps a bar, dressed casually, but neatly, in a skirt and blouse. She’s somewhat pensive. Suddenly, a T-shirted, animalistic man, danced by Jacopo Janelli, emerges as if from nowhere, and is practically on top of her. Their dance is mutually aggressive, he being strongly demanding, she resisting his advances with all her power. Then another man, played by Cameron Auble-Branigan, approaches the woman. Dressed in business attire (shirt and tie), he is warm and gentle but no less virile, and she welcomes his advances. The action progresses to the point where the two men alternate, and the woman is at once being assaulted, and then romanced, back and forth, and then the three flee offstage, and the scene ends.

In the subsequent scene, the woman is on her bed, wearing what passes for a nightgown. Again, suddenly, the ‘bad man’ appears (as a physical representation of her mind’s vision), succeeded shortly thereafter by the ‘good man’. The individual pas de deux continue, seguing into a threesome and at times she’s torn between them as if she’s a rope being pulled at both ends. It’s obvious at this point that these ‘men’ represent her yearnings both for excitement and danger, and for romance and security. Eventually, the ‘bad man’ is forced aside, she dances lovingly with the good man. He then leaves, she returns to her bed, only to have the ‘bad man’ suddenly reappear from behind her, ready to pounce.

It all sounds somewhat trite and simplistic, but it isn’t. It’s a tight, dark, psychological fantasy, filled with uncomplicated but fiery dancing. My only criticism is that the opening scene is unclear – indeed, it takes awhile before one realizes that the action isn’t a street mugging that might lead to a more violent act, with a knight in shining business attire coming to the woman’s rescue. But perhaps that’s the point. And if the full 11 minute piece took place in the woman’s bedroom, that would create a sense of choreographic repetitiveness that using two discrete scenes avoids. The accompanying music, apparently of the same name (by Pierre Bohemond, a contemporary composer based in Easton, PA), is rapturous, eerie, and compelling, and Ms. Singleton’s choreography brings out the best in it. It’s a very fine little piece, superbly performed by all three dancers. Mr. Janelli, a company trainee, merits particular praise for his dominating, feral performance.

The evening opened with “Fantasy Baroque,” a piece for three couples choreographed by Ms. Barton to music by J.S. Bach. As “Dreams Interrupted” is dark, “Fantasy Baroque” is light. But unlike “Dreams Interrupted,” “Fantasy Baroque” isn’t a fantasy in the sense of a dream. It’s a play on words – ‘fantasy’ in the musical sense (as in one of Bach’s Baroque Fantasies – the specific music used isn’t identified), and ‘fantasy’ in the sense of something that’s happily imagined or pretended, that may or may not be real. The subject matter is simple: there was a lot of hanky-panky going on in the presumably starched Baroque era (just as it is known there was in the equally straight-laced Victorian era). Three couples costumed in Baroque-inspired attire meet, perhaps for an outing at the beach, and do what young couples do when they go to the beach. So I’m told. But given that this is the Baroque era, they have to keep their real motivations under wraps – thick, artificial-looking, heavily made-up, bewigged (for the men), bloomered (for the women) wraps.

The piece is bright and cute and frothy and frisky, like a day at the beach. And the choreography is pleasantly varied – that is, there’s a lot of it, and there’s considerable distinction to the solos and duets as certain characters get to ‘show off’ in front of their partners, or in front of their friends (who, at the time, may be preoccupied with more amorous pursuits). But as fun as it is intended to be, at times it looks forced, as if the fun were pasted on rather than emerging from the characters naturally – although this may have been Ms. Barton’s intent. Monica Giragosian, Shaye Firer, Nanako Yamamoto, Stephen Campanella, Mattia Pallozzi, and Marc St-Pierre all did a fine job transmitting the coy humor.

Following a repeat performance of Guest Choreographer Kirk Peterson’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” which was previously reviewed, the company presented an excerpt from Mr. Peterson’s “Tears of the Moon” (which premiered last October, and which I have not yet seen). Called the Moonlight Sonata Pas de Deux, the excerpt shows a relationship on the brink, he pursuing, she needing, and wanting, to be convinced. It’s remindful, on a smaller and less complex scale, of portions of Antony Tudor’s “Jardin Aux Lilas,” with elements of yearning and forbidden love, but it begs some context – which perhaps the complete ballet would have provided. The piece was danced and acted ardently and with muted passion by Samantha Gullace and Edward Urwin.

The evening concluded with a rousing performance of Mr. Arpino’s “Confetti,” a three couple piece staged by another Joffrey alumna, Charthel Arthur. Last year, after seeing the company assay Mr. Arpino’s “Viva Vivaldi,” I noted that it was a stretch for them. “Confetti” is a similar stretch for the three couples – Karen Leslie Moscato and Joshua Kurtzberg, Ms. Grigosian and Mr. Campanella, and Ms. Cao and Mr. St. Pierre – but they handled the piece’s technical demands well, and transmitted its effervescence with natural ease.

I must also credit the costumes and lighting for each of the company-generated pieces, respectively by Michelle Ferranti and Lauren Parrish. Those for “Fantasy Baroque” (which also featured masks and head pieces by Gina Ricca), and the Mooonight Sonata Pas de Deux were particularly impressive.

Seeing the Joffrey Ballet when it was located in New York and performed at City Center was a regular constituent of the mix of dance that I saw when I first started to attend ballet performances in the Stone Age. It presented an eclectic combination of newly-created ballets by Robert Joffrey and Mr. Arpino, as well as classic revivals (Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table” and “The Big City,” Leonid Massine’s “Parade,” Nijinsky’s “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune”) and ‘new’ choreography by emerging artists (Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe” and “As Time Goes By”). I liked the Joffrey a lot, and its absence from the New York area is a loss. If ARB is trending toward filling that void, that would be a good thing. And if they’ve presented “Viva Vivaldi” and “Confetti,” can “Suite Saint-Saens,” one of my favorite Arpino pieces, be far behind?

Edited 4/9/14 to correct a spelling error


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 Post subject: Re: American Repertory Ballet - 2013-2014
PostPosted: Sun May 11, 2014 6:28 pm 
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Location: New Jersey
American Repertory Ballet
Crossroads Theater
New Brunswick, NJ

May 2, 2014
“Our Town”

-- by Jerry Hochman

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning depression-era play, “Our Town,” is not the type of play that one would believe might translate into a good ballet. I saw it many years ago, and recall thinking that it was more wordy than most, and took too long to get to its emotional detonation. But I was younger then – ok, I was still in high school – and maybe more impatient. Even then, however, it was apparent that “Our Town’s” brilliance was in its insidious, matter-of-fact simplicity; its tranquility masking the turbulence that is life. But a ballet? To capture all those words?

Philip Jerry, a former Joffrey Ballet principal, made it a mission to do just that. After retiring from dance, he attended Princeton University, graduating with a degree in art history. While there, he was Ballet Master for American Repertory Ballet. Concurrently with his studies and his work with ARB, he fine-tuned his ballet adaptation of “Our Town,” which he’d been working on for many years since his retirement from dancing. ARB premiered the ballet, in its final ‘official’ form, in 1994 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton (where Wilder’s play also premiered in 1938) shortly before Mr. Jerry’s death, at 41, in 1996.

In conjunction with the 75th Anniversary of the play, ARB presented Mr. Jerry’s “Our Town” for a special one-time performance (the play itself is being presented next door, at the George Street Playhouse, until May 25). The ballet and ARB’s performance of it were both wonderful. My only argument with the production is that it was only performed once for this occasion. Once is not nearly enough.

Mr. Jerry took certain liberties with the play, removing some characters (of particular significance is the elimination of the ‘Stage Manager’, the story’s narrator and surrogate ‘God’s messenger’) and some secondary plotlines. But he maintained the play’s simplicity, its emotional upheavals, and its message – in short, he maintained its essence by distilling it to a smaller cast of characters and focusing attention on the two leads: Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and die (Emily) in little more than 75 minutes.

Where the play had words, the ballet, of course, has movement. Choreographed to excerpts from compositions by Aaron Copland (including his “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which provides the ballet’s well-chosen opening musical panorama), the movement is as straightforward and simple as its story – but, like the story, there’s more complexity to it than meets the eye. Each supporting character’s limited time on stage must include movement that tells the audience who that character is, and these limited moving portraits are on the mark – particularly with respect to Stephen Campanella’s Joe Crowell (the Paper Boy), Marc St.-Pierre’s Mr. Stimpson (the town’s alcoholic choirmaster); Edward Urwin’s dual role as Dr. Gibb and Joe Stoddard (The Undertaker), Alice Cao’s Mrs. Soames (the town gossip), Andrea D’Annunzio’s Mrs. Gibbs, and the characters of Mr. & Mrs. Webb, portrayed by Joshua Kurtzberg and Samantha Gullace. The piece is performed on a relatively spare stage, but it never looks spartan. On the contrary, the ballet is abuzz with energy, moving with a steady pulse and vitality with all the cast members rotating on and off stage individually or in groups as the landscape of characters take their turns as temporary focal points.

But the ballet comes to life whenever Emily and George are on stage – which is most of the time. Like everything else in the ballet, it’s the simple things, the beauty in the ordinary, that make their relationship moving. One unpretentious, lovely duet follows another. Of course, meeting, loving, marring, bearing children, and dying, are inherently dramatic events. But in this ballet, it’s not just the procession of life episodes: it’s the little things. When they meet, he carries her bags; later, as their love progresses, she falls from a ladder into his arms. Still later, they dance a delightful little pas de deux, in the rain. [One wonders if Mr. Jerry saw “The Fantastics,” and its “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” segment, which I thought of as I watched that scene.] Through it all, the townsfolk observe, support, and silently comment.

As George, Cameron Auble-Branigan is the boy next door, the reluctant groom, the loving husband, the excited father, and the grieving widower who moves on. He acted, and danced, each life experience and each emotional quality clearly. But the piece’s moving force was Monica Giragosian. She was a delightful, believable, extraordinarily compelling Emily.

The key to any dancer’s performance where characterization and some semblance of a story is presented is for the dancer not just to dance the steps, but to successfully communicate his or her character’s feelings emotionally to the audience; to connect. Ms. Giragosian did. In a previous review of her performance as the “Snow Queen” in ARB Artistic Director Douglas Martin’s “The Nutcracker,” I described Ms. Giragosian as a bundle of energy, but a little flyaway. With her Emily, Ms. Giragosian harnessed her energy sufficiently to let all facets of Emily’s character and life-changes, even in death, come through, and the necessarily more understated choreography produced a more controlled performance. Her joyous and heart-wrenching portrayal prompted both tingles and tears.

Ballet masterpieces come in many flavors. Some are found in themed works of emotional complexity; some in abstract works that move an audience simply by the quality of the movement on stage. Or sometimes they just portray a simple story perfectly. Time will tell whether Mr. Jerry’s ballet, which fits in the third category, qualifies as a masterpiece, but that’s not really important. What is important is that his “Our Town” successfully distills into movement what Mr. Wilder created in words, and in the process, has not only matched the play’s impact, but enhanced it. His ballet, and ARB’s performances, made the play come alive with new energy. And had the ballet been around in the Stone Age, when I went to high school, and had it been required viewing to supplement the required reading of the play, I probably would have loved “Our Town,” the play, a lot more than I did. I understand that “Our Town,” the ballet, will be presented again in October 25, 2014 at Theater at Raritan Valley Community College. It should be seen…more than once.


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