Roberto Bolle and Friends
New York, New York
September 17, 2013
by Jerry Hochman
When Alessandra Ferri danced her farewell performances for American Ballet Theatre in June, 2007, she brought with her a danseur whom I had not previously seen to partner her in “Manon” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The focus of these performances, of course, was Ms. Ferri, one of the greatest Italian-born ballerinas. [Well, one of the greatest ballerinas, regardless of nationality.] But her partner, who I understood at the time to have been Ms. Ferri’s regular partner at La Scala, impressed me with the clarity of his execution, exceptional ballon, and impeccable partnering skills, despite being a little rough around the edges. Ms. Ferri’s chosen partner, of course, was Roberto Bolle.
Following his first appearance with Ms. Ferri, in “Manon,” I also described Mr. Bolle as being disgustingly good looking, with a disarming, endearing, and self-effacing charm, and that if a ballet of ‘Superman’ were ever created it should be choreographed on him.
In the ensuing years little has changed – except Mr. Bolle is no longer rough around the edges, and is well aware of his deserved stature as a world-class danseur. A principal dancer with ABT since 2009 (primarily for its annual seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House), Mr. Bolle is still a super danseur, with a commanding stage presence and a dramatic flair. And he’s still disgustingly good looking.
Last night, to a near sold-out audience that included Ms. Ferri, Mr. Bolle was the centerpiece of an evening of superb dancing. In everything but name, It was a gala – a gala to kick off City Center’s 2013-2014 season. And it was a gala as galas should be – an eclectic mix of dances (primarily pas de deux) and dancers for the evening titled ‘Roberto Bolle and Friends’ that provided something to appeal to everyone. [In order of appearance, Mr. Bolle’s ‘Friends’ were Alina Somova, Alicia Amatriain, Jason Reilly, Luciana Paris, Herman Cornejo, Elisa Carrillo Cabrera, Mikhail Kaniskin, Erika Gaudenzi, and Maria Kochetkova.] While clearly a celebration of and for Mr. Bolle reflecting the breadth of his talent, it also was a celebration of ballet – where it was, where it is, and where it may be going.
The evening’s structure – the dances that were selected and the order in which they were performed – was particularly exciting. One piece contrasted significantly with the prior and succeeding one, providing visual and dramatic variety that was inherently entertaining. However, while the performances were generally superb, the ballets themselves were a mixed bag. For me, the highlights were Twyla Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite” danced by Ms. Paris and Mr. Cornejo; a pas de deux from “Jeunehomme,” choreographed by Uwe Scholz and performed by Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Kaniskin; “Le Grand Pas de Deux,” by Christian Spuck, danced by Ms Amatriain and Mr. Bolle; Mr. Bolle and Ms. Gaudenzi in Roland Petit’s “L’Arlesienne”; and a combination live and digital celebration of Mr. Bolle titled “Prototype.” I’ll discuss the dances in performance order.
The evening opened with a pas de deux from “Excelsior,” danced by Mr. Bolle and Ms. Somova. Except as a reverential display of Mr. Bolle’s physique (his costume consisted of a loincloth that looked like a Stone Age Speedo and ballet slippers), the piece was an embarrassment, with none of the excitement of the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire,” which it resembled the way a student art work may unsuccessfully mimic the work of a master teacher. I have since learned that Mr. Bolle and Ms. Somova previously performed in the piece, choreographed by Ugo Dell’Ara after Luigi Manzotti to a score by Romualdo Marenco, with Mr. Bolle’s role identified as a ‘The Slave’ and Ms. Somova’s as “The Civilization,” and that the full-length piece is some sort of praise to scientific progress. You couldn’t tell from the pas de deux - although Ms. Somova, in a Romantic tutu, had a red cross emblazoned across her chest, which may have been intended to signal a positive electric charge. Both Mr. Bolle and Ms. Somova performed reasonably well, although Ms. Somova looked somewhat uncomfortable and traveled downstage during her series of Russian fouetes (jetlag?). Mr. Bolle looked, well, like Superman – and on that level the pas de deux was a fine introduction to an evening celebrating him, but the pas de deux itself is overstuffed kitsch that never reaches the level of satire or camp.
The second piece was the Act I pas de deux from John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet,” performed by Ms. Amatriain and Mr. Reilly, who are principal dancers with the Stuttgart Ballet. Mr. Cranko’s concept is more restrained than the pas de deux in the more familiar version by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, and although danced well, the piece never delivered the dramatic and cathartic level of the MacMillan version, and suffered by comparison. Mr. Reilly was an appropriately ardent Romeo, and Ms. Amatriain a sweet, swept-away, but somewhat bland Juliet.
What the Romeo and Juliet pas de deux lacked in energy and sexual tension, “Sinatra Suite” provided in abundance. The piece has become somewhat of a signature piece for Mr. Cornejo, an ABT principal, and Ms. Paris (impossibly, still a member of ABT’s corps). Although I’ve seen them perform the piece more crisply, even at less than 100% their performances were fabulous.
“Sinatra Suite” is highly complex choreographically, with the bodies on stage always in dynamic or dramatic motion. On the other hand, the pas de deux from “Jeunehomme”, which followed “Sinatra Suite” on the program, is straightforward and clear. “Jeunehomme” is a full length work created by German choreographer Uwe Scholz to a score by Mozart (the piece is unidentified in the program notes, but it is “Piano Concerto No. 9”), and the pas de deux is the second, andantino, movement from the larger concerto. Out of context, it is difficult to determine whether the pas de deux is consistent stylistically with the piece as a whole. Regardless, the pas de deux on its own is an abstract piece with progressively increasing emotional gloss. It was danced by Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Kaniskin, both principals with the Staatsballet Berlin.
Mr. Scholz was a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, became its resident choreographer in 1980 at the age of 22, became the Artistic Director of the Zurich Ballet at 26, and six years thereafter became the Artistic Director of the Leipzig Ballet, a position held until his death in 2004 at age 45. He was a prolific and respected choreographer in Europe, but his work is relatively unknown here and I was not previously familiar with it. That is my loss. I found the pas de deux from "Jeunehomme" to be a stunning piece reflecting emotional connection, separation, and return that said what it had to say with simple purity and the lack of any superficial emotional display beyond the inherent deep, mature emotional connection between the couple. Mr. Kaniska, and in particular Ms. Cabrera, gave unembellished and deeply moving performance that matched the purity of the piece.
The seriousness of “Jeunehomme” was succeeded by the hilarity of “Le Grand Pas de Deux.” Comic ballets that are successful on multiple levels (as comedy more than just slapstick, and as extraordinary displays of technical prowess), are rare. [Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert,” which is probably more familiar to American audiences, is one of them.] This piece, choreographed by Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart for 11 years, and now Artistic Director of the Zurich Ballet) to music by Gioachino Rossini (again, the piece is unidentified in the program, but it is the Overture from Rossini’s opera, “La gazza ladra” ), is one of them. It was the danseur and the ditz. Mr. Bolle was the danserur straightman, Ms. Amatriain, in tutu and oversized eyeglasses, the nutty ballerina. Both were hilarious, displaying impeccable comic timing.
The second half of the program began with “L’Arlesienne” , the late Roland Petit’s 1974 work based on a short story by Alphonse Daudel about a man’s descent into madness. Loosely, the protagonist, Frederi, is unable to fully love his fiancé because he is constantly haunted by the memory of a woman he met in Arles. Eventually, his inability to fully respond to his adoring fiancé and his preoccupation with a woman who is never seen onstage and may only exist in his mind drives Frederi to insanity, and presumably to his death. “La Sylphide” through the prism of Edgar Allan Poe.
However, none of this background is completely clear without program notes (which were not provided). And the limitation of this performance (there was no accompanying corps, as there is in the original version), limited the impact as well. But Petit’s choreographic distillation of the story is sufficiently gripping (and theatrical) on its own, and with performances by Mr. Bolle and Ms. Gaudenzi, background information is unnecessary. Mr. Bolle was outstanding as the hopelessly distracted Frederi, who cannot forget the woman from Arles, and who ultimately leaps to his death through a window (an image that evokes memories of “Spectre de la Rose,” but inverted and turned from harmless fantasy to tragedy) . Ms. Gaudenzi, described in the program as a ‘Young Italian Talent’, graduated from the Ballet School of La Scala, and now dances with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma under the direction of Carla Fracci. Ms. Gaudenzi impressed as a stunning, ethereal looking young dancer with stage presence sufficient to hold her own with Mr. Bolle combined with an innate warmth that made Mr. Bolle’s inability to respond to her all the more evidence of his insanity. While they do not look alike, this impression was similar that created in my mind by Ms. Ferri the first time I saw her dance. While Ms. Gaudenzi did not have enough to do in this piece to evaluate her technical ability, she looks like she was born to dance the title roles in “Giselle” and “La Sylphide,” and would be a natural Juliet, all three of which roles, according to the program notes, she has already done.
The drama of “L’Arlesienne” was succeeded by an abstract pas de deux by Mauro Bigonzetti, titled “Kazimir’s Colours,” to music by Shostakovich. [The pas de deux is in fact an excerpt from a larger work of that title created by Mr. Bigonzetti for the Stuttgart in 1996.] To this viewer, this pas de deux was the only poor choice on the program. It’s not a bad piece – it’s just easily forgettable. Excellently performed by Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Kaniskin, the piece is both overly busy and insufficiently expressive, both choreographically and emotionally. Something was going on between the two dancers, but I couldn’t decipher what it was. Perhaps something was lost by excerpting the pas de deux, but I doubt it. To me, the best that can be said of the pas de deux is that it was mercifully short.
I’ve seen “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” which followed “Kazimir’s Colours,” many times (including the first ballet performance I ever saw), and consider it to be one of Balanchine’s masterpieces. However, this performance, by Mr. Cornejo and Ms. Kochetkova, did not compare favorably with these prior performances. Mr. Cornejo and Ms. Kochetkova displayed sparkle and pyrotechnics in abundance, but they were working hard and showed none of the effortless élan and electricity that NYCB’s principals routinely bring to the stage. Ms. Kochetkova also maintained a pasted-on smile throughout the piece that made the smile look like a nervous affectation rather than a show of exuberance and technical dominance.
Balanchine’s neo-classicism and the Tchaikovsky score was followed on the program by “Mono Lisa,” a contemporary pas de deux by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili. The piece looks and sounds like a combination lunar landscape and primeval forest clearing (electronic music by Thomas Hofs), with the dancers costumed as if they were Adam and Eve transported to some alien planet. Although I found the repetitive scratchy sounds annoying and the choreography repetitious, the piece was almost rescued by the performances by Ms. Amatriain and Mr. Reilly. But as good as they were, the piece was more about athleticism and showcasing Ms. Amatriaian’s rubber bones and propeller legs than artistry. Even with a ballerina as talented as Ms. Amatriaian, there’s a limit to how many times you want to see her spread-eagled or punctuating movement phrases with hip-thrusting 190 degree arabesques. [The title is spelled as it appears in the program notes. But this may have been a typographical error, with the correct title being “Mona Lisa.” Either way, the title bears little relationship to the piece – unless there is a connection between Mr. Galili’s concept and the image of a woman’s face in a mosaic tiled floor found in the ancient Israeli city of Tzippori commonly known as “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” with the characters in the ballet being wanderers in the Galilee (as opposed to the moon or the Garden of Eden). But I have no basis on which to assume any such connection.]
Mr. Galili’s contemporary piece was succeeded by a classic solo: Fokine’s “Dying Swan.” Ms. Somova executed the piece perfectly. However, to this viewer more is needed than perfect execution. In order for the piece to be more than just an opportunity to watch a ballerina costumed as a swan die, an emotional quality is required to make the viewer feel the swan’s plight. I’ve seen this quality of tragic pathos transmitted by, for example, Nina Ananiashvilli and Diana Vishneva; but Ms. Somova conveyed only technique.
The evening ended, as it began, with a tribute to Mr. Bolle, but where the “Excelsior” pas de deux is without any semblance of substance, “Prototype” is an ambitious, innovative, and complex work of artistic invention. The piece is an integrated live performance and computer-generated performance and effects – but that description alone is insufficient. In a sense, “Prototype” reminded me of the creativity and audacity that was a routine component of Disney animated films – including having an extensive creative team that reads like the credits in a Disney animation film: concept and choreography by Massimiliano Volpini; original music by Piero Salvatori (realized by Fausto Dase); costume by Roberta Guidi di Bagno (realized by Sartoria Farani), co-directed by Avantgarde Numerique and Xchanges Vfx Design; and visual effects by Xchanges Vfx. The piece is somewhat incoherent choreographically, but coherence is less important here than impact, which “Prototype” has in abundance. If it is ‘about’ anything, it is an invitation to watch the creation and perfection of a super dancer.
A screen is centered upstage. We see, on the screen, the digital creation of a human body, a superman with computer-generated parts. The computer-created man becomes Mr. Bolle, who is present both live on stage and as an image on screen. Mr. Bolle dances with himself. He recreates classic ballet roles. He morphs into multiple Bolle clones, analogous to the computer-generated robot armies in Hollywood sci-fi epics, except these ‘Bollebots’, like an army of Gene Kellys or Fred Astaires, can dance. Then Mr. Bolle (the live one) plays with the screen, creating light responses on the screen by the movement of his arms. It was a series of beautiful images, somewhat similar to lighting ‘tricks’ I recall seeing in “Avatar” – but Mr. Bolle here was not a character on screen – he was, or seemed to be, crossing the barrier between stage and screen. I have no idea whether the light images on the screen were actually prompted by Mr. Bolle’s arm movements, or just clever designs on the screen timed perfectly to correspond to Mr. Bolle’s live movements (like his dances with the Bollebots), but it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter whether “Prototype” was an exercise in artistic ingenuity, or a celebration of one dancer’s narcissism. “Prototype” takes ballet as a performance art in a different direction, perhaps toward performances of the future, and took the evening from the ridiculous (“Excelsior”) to the sublime.
While not entirely successful, “Roberto Bolle and Friends,” as an evening’s entertainment, was never less than interesting, and Mr. Bolle himself was never less than exceptional. And the evening also brought my images of Mr. Bolle full circle. As I described at the outset, on my first viewing of him I saw Mr. Bolle as looking like a ballet superman. In “Prototype,” Mr. Bolle was, not inappropriately, portrayed as exactly that.
Last edited by balletomaniac on Fri Sep 20, 2013 12:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.