Saturday, January 26, 2008

People are Weird and Balanchine's World

So I like to think of myself as a fairly easygoing audience member. If I can see and hear I'm happy. I'm generally fine with kids, whisperers, candy unwrappers, etc. But the guy sitting in front of me Thursday night was truly something else. Not content to lean forward all the time and whisper, he and his wife/girlfriend engaged in quite the PDA. At one point Wendy looked at me and said, "OK, so that was totally inappropriate right?" And when I said, "Oh, yes. That was totally inappropriate," she said, "Just checking to make sure my boundaries aren't totally out a whack." Now call me crazy but I really feel that one shouldn't have to question one's boundaries when observing the audience at a ballet. It's not a fun distraction. I swear, the most unpleasant audience members I encounter are invariably at ballets. What's with that?

But onto pleasanter things. I've only seen a couple ballets by Balanchine before: Nutcracker, of course, and Ballo della Regina at City Center earlier this year. So I was excited to see what seemed like it would be a pretty neat cross-section of his work.

Tombeau de Couperin was the first and also possibly the first ballet I've seen that doesn't involve a lead of any kind or any solos. I found it almost soothing in its logic and symmetry. There are only little moments and shapes that I remember, shifts in the geometry of the dance, but I found the experience of watching it pleasant even though I don't have much to say about it. It's one that I would like to see again because it seems to me that it's tiny small actions that make it tick and I think that requires multiple viewings.

There's a sharp contrast between that and Tarantella, which is sheer bravura and fun. I've seen Ashley Bouder and Gonzalo Garcia dance once before, in Christopher Wheeldon's witty Dance of the Hours, but this was even more enjoyable. Both dancers seem to be having such a good time that it's impossible for the audience not to have a good time as well. Bouder in particular seems to just explode with energy and delight. The ballet itself, which essentially seems a showpiece for individual dancers, forms a nice contrast to both the group dancing of Tombeau and the seriousness of the following ballets.

I can't say I liked Bugaku as much as the others. The costumes are quite pretty and I find the adoption of aspects of Japanese dance interesting. But at the same time, I didn't enjoy the music and there was something uninteresting about it. The reason for that wasn't the choreography but the dancing. Albert Evans performance felt particularly flat and somehow uninvested with any emotion. It just seemed like he was dancing the steps as they were meant to be danced but not providing us with any kind of interpretation. It was bland. I enjoyed Kowroski more because I did feel like she was dancing in such a way as created a character.

The choreography on the other hand does interest me, although I didn't consistently enjoy it. I found the blend of Japanese movements with classical ballet fascinating but, perhaps because of the wigs and makeup to also carry a distinct whiff or Orientalism. The fact that he chose to make a ballet with distinct Japanese influences erotic in nature certainly supports that view and makes watching the ballet uncomfortable in moments. At the same time there were poses and movements that were truly beautiful; I'm certainly not saying that the ballet is bad because of this Orientalism but I do wonder that it doesn't seem to be mentioned as such. Hopefully that's just a result of my limited reading on the subject.

The final ballet of the night was my favorite. I knew a bit more about La Sonnambula coming in than I did about the others because it was one of the ballets I read about in the Henning Kronstam biography I read. In that, Tomalonis wrote:
It is a Romantic and dramatic, rather than bravura, role. Balanchine's Poet, an innocent, the artist who is apart from the world, comes to a very worldly party. He is at first seduced by the Host's mistress, who is the personification of earthly love, but when left alone he sees a lovely, mysterious Sleepwalker, the wife of the Host, whom he instantly recognizes as the other half of his soul.
There's also a bit of an interview with Kronstam on the ballet here.

I'm not convinced that Nikolaj Hubbe's interpretation of the Poet is quite the same as the one Tomalonis and Kronstam describe. When Hubbe enters the party he seems an outsider, but one with a touch of danger as opposed to innocence. It momentarily seems that the other people at the party are uncomfortable around him just as he is uncomfortable around them. As he spends time with the Coquette, first talking on the bench as others dance and then dancing with her himself, he is drawn slowly into the world of the other partygoers. He is enjoying himself and having fun with the Coquette. But then, as they file out of the ballroom though, the Baron takes the Coquette's arm and the Poet is left alone, reasserting his position as an outsider. It is then that he sees the Sleepwalker and everything changes.

The encounter with the Sleepwalker is an awakening for the Poet. She pulls him fully out the world of the party and into a more otherworldly realm. The dancing here is so lovely and unusual, as the Poet becomes more and more desperate in his attempts to wake the Sleepwalker. Hubbe was wonderful in his portrayal and had a sort of beautiful dignity to his dancing even in the more desperate moments. He conveyed a sense of wonder at this beautiful apparition made flesh and it was clear that seeing her had changed his world (ridiculous though it sounds when I put it that way). Darci Kistler's dancing as the Sleepwalker was quiet but eloquent.

The time at the party is less interesting than the pas de deux with the Sleepwalker and at first I wasn't quite sure how they worked together, but thinking about it more I realize that the ballroom scene it's absolutely essential. Without contrast the dance with the Sleepwalker is lovely but not nearly as interesting on a psychological level. The scene in the ballroom is ever-so-slightly wrong--not quite a party through a funhouse mirror but off-kilter nonetheless. It's not where the Poet belongs. Then, just as his status as an outsider is affirmed, he sees the Sleepwalker and feels a spiritual connection with her. She rescues him from this world in which he will never be comfortable and in doing so awakens him into the world to which he does belong as an artist. He needs to be with her, to reach her, because of this connection they have. If we haven't first seen the mundane world of the party the Poet's desperation, the depth of his need for her, doesn't make sense. So it all builds too this beautiful connection to the Sleepwalker and the artistic awakening that brings. Quite marvelous, I thought.

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