Quick first peek at the triple bill
Pur ti Muro
I really liked Elo's piece for the Royal Danish Ballet, and again here he shows off a nice touch for working from the music and blending classical with modern nuances. Yet, as in Denmark, Elo seems to take 30 minutes to do what could be done in 15. It's as if he is trying to cram several ballets worth of ideas into one piece, and it stumbles under the weight. The comparison of this ballet to the equally long Opus 19/The Dreamer makes the point clear - Robbins doesn't try to throw the whole phone book at you in thirty minutes, and creates a much stronger piece.
With five couples, the piece ranges from a humorous solo of dancer and his 'misbehaving' hand, to full cast movements. The music - Beethoven and Monteverdi - and the costumes - tutus and white tights n' tunics, are as stereotypically classical as one can get. However, while Elo grounds his movement palette firmly in the classical, he doesn't use tutus and tights as en excuse to move into the modern. The stand out was clearly Sonia Rodriguez, who flows seamlessly from classical to modern and back again. There's also a wonderful section of all, out joyous bravura for the men. I thought it was Keiichi Hirano in the stunning solo, but he appears to be second cast, so I will need to check back to find out who exactly was so impressive. There's a bunch of high flying, leg twisting turns and the pin-wheel fast as lightning turns across stage that are reminiscent of Puck's choreography in "The Dream". As a whole the piece felt under-rehearsed with at least two obviously falls off of pointe and one wince inducing slap of a foot on the stage. There's no doubt that Elo is a masterful talent, but he needs to be challenged to do more with less. I'd love to seem him get a chance to shave 10 minutes off this ballet.
Opus 19/The Dreamer
Opus 19/The Dreamer is one of Jerome Robbins mid to later ballets (1979), and reflects a Robbins who had lived, learned and experienced in both the Broadway and ballet worlds. Set to a sumptuous, wonderfully danceable score by Prokofiev (again with stunning solo playing by the outstanding Benjamin Bowman), it's a ballet of exploration for a lead couple and 6 couple corps de ballet. It reveals both Robbins' ability to focus on simple building blocks of classical ballet, and to layer in the grandeur, showmanship, folk danciness and even comedy when the music calls for it.
Ben Benson's costumes, tights and tight tops for the men, and leotards with simple skirts for the women, fill the stage with a range of just slightly varying deep blues, only the lead man's pure white standing out. He is perhaps a dreamer, but not a true part of the dream world. One can't help being reminded of Serenade, only here the man is central. The ballet was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, and some would suggest that the ballet reflects Baryshnikov's brief tenure at the New York City Ballet; he was a star dancer in company that did not have stars, a relationship that was uneasy for all involved. Thus, perhaps one could say that he danced with the company, but not as a part of the company.
Some of the most beautiful moments are the most simple - 5 or 6 dancers raising their hands together gracefully upwards with a slight bow the arms; the corps in one long line, arms flowing in and out to create different sunburst patters. And the lone man, the dancers lined up behind him, stretching out into arabesque then slowly bringing his working leg around to second, then to the front, bending it as he does. It's a feat requiring extreme strength, and control, and any break in form is completely exposed.
I often think that strong choreography lends itself to strong performances, and the corps was as poised in this ballet as they were off-kilter in the first. Robbins' demands much of his dancers - from the almost ghost-like fluidity of the opening movement to the strong, driving folk like movements in the last - and the corps did not disappoint. Yet, it was Zdenek Konvalina and Sonia Rodriguez who drove the powerful performance. Konvalina was perhaps not as his absolute best, though as a much taller dancer performing a role created a for short, compact powerhouse, one can understand the occasional bobble. Especially since he must be rehearsing this ballet, West Side Story and Onegin all at once, all while creating a brand new ballet with Guillaume Cote. But Konvalina never wavers in partnering, nor in the fluidity of his dancing. And is matched by the ever-stunning Sonia Rodriguez. She seems to grow with every performance, lending a welcome maturity to the central female role. The man seems drawn to this woman from the moment she enters, but even though they end dancing together, there's no sense of finality.
It's fascinating to see this ballet again after so many years, as one can see how it relates to older and newer ballets of Robbins (and other). It's hard to believe that he wasn't influenced by Serenade or Cortege Hongrois, and there are elements reminiscent of Les Noces, Interplay and Piano Pieces, to name a few.
West Side Story
The evening ended with Robbins' classic West Side Story Suite. Looking back through my old programs, I realized that I'd first seen the piece just two weeks after the world premiere, and almost exactly 15 years ago to the day (June 2, 1995 and June 4, 2010, both Fridays). It's a timeless piece, even with slightly problematic condensation of the full musical story, but despite the energetic performance, I wonder how well it works outside the United States.
It seems to be, based on the tonight's performance and what I've heard about recent performances at the Royal Danish Ballet, that the story doesn't have the same resonance to people who don't know West Side Story from the musical or the movie. Since the ballet cuts out much of the story, and in fact, changes the ending, the storyline can be confusing for novice audiences. Which is a shame because the story, which reflects the battle for identity between new immigrants and older immigrants who perceive themselves as the real Americans, speaks to issues that we still face today.
My perception is that in this production, judging from the amount of audience laughter - the ballet has lost some of it's hard edges. Certainly there are lighthearted moments, but West Side Story is a tragedy, just like Romeo & Juliet. The ending does provide some hope, but only after three teenagers lie dead on the street. So, if the audience is laughing a lot, then something is not quite right. It likely has much to do with the lack of familiarity with the story via the musical or movie, compounded by major cuts to the storyline for the ballet. However, Torontonian audiences may also not have the same understanding of the context of story and New York City as would New York audiences. The gangs and the fighting were real - this was the gritty, dirty, claustrophobic, rapidly changing New York of the late 1950s.
It's certainly not to take away from the dancers, who gave a solid performance. There were no debuts in the lead roles, but I suspect most of the corps is new to the ballet and still settling into the style. Especially in the Prologue and Something's Coming, while the dancing is stylized, the dancers have to throw themselves - sometimes literally - into the choreography to make it look real. Here the corps didn't look entirely comfortable with the steps, hesitating slightly where abandon is needed. Also, several of the corps guys were sloppy in the iconic one leg in high second 'pose' in that they bent their knees to get their working leg higher, destroying the lines. It's better to lower the leg than break the line.
Pitor Stanczyk is in looks, body type and power, ideal for Bernardo, but I did not feel the chemistry between him and Cote's Riff in the opening scenes. It's important that the bitter rivalry between them be palpable, because it sets up the violence to come. But even here there were, I believe a few titters of laughter. At NYCB, I remember seeing Jock Soto as Bernardo and Damian Woetzel as Riff confront each other, and the silent pause was so intense that it made the hairs on the back of your neck rise and there was not a noise in the entire NYS Theatre until the dancers broke the silence. It right away set up the tension which drives the story, and it's this tension that seemed lacking at NBoC. However, in the rumble, the fight scenes were spot on and the brought the gritty reality back to the ballet.
Zdenek Konvalina and Elena Lobsanova were excellent in the pure dance roles of Tony and Maria, lending a tender chemistry to the somewhat lost-in-the-shortened-shuffle leads. The real meaty roles in this version are for the demi-leads, who not only dance, but sing. Thought he's really much more the Tony type, there's no doubt that Guillaume Cote can sing and sing well. His performance of Cool stands out among those I've heard, his voice never showing the strain of the dancing that is interspersed between the singing. Stephanie Hutchinson had a little trouble with the higher notes, but recovered masterfully from a slip on her high heels and created a dynamic character. Jordana Daumec was a game Rosalia, though both she and Hutchinson might benefit from slightly better diction and remembering to sing up and out so the end of a phrase doesn't trail off. But I am always very impressed by the guts and performances of the dancers who come onstage and sing.
The leads were augmented by an enthusiastic, dynamic corps, who were energized in the Dance at the Gym, powerful in more than one way in the rumble and sang impressively in the finale. They looked thrilled to have a chance to 'let loose' (which may be a relative term as Robbins was known for being very exacting, and Jean-Pierre Frolich, who staged the ballet, is a brilliant, but demanding stager.). It's an intense ballet, and I suspect after a few performances, the dancers will get much more comfortable with the steps and raise the intensity a notch. Future audiences have much to look forward to.