Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On the Dnieper, etc.

I was at BEA Saturday and am very grateful that my job doesn't actually require me to spend time there, because I find it pretty overwhelming. Also, someone tried to hard-sell me these weird insoles for my shoes. What's with that? Are people at BEA really all about the gel-filled insoles? Somehow I doubt it. Then on Sunday I got all hardcore with my backpacking training and walked about 8 miles. Shock of shocks, I gave myself blisters. So by the time I found myself at the Metropolitan Opera house on Monday night I was very ready to spend an evening off my feet in a darkened theater.

The real draw of the evening was the premier of Alexei Ratmansky's first ballet for ABT, On the Dnieper, which was also the last ballet. I so enjoyed this ballet and, while it wasn't perfect, thought it was very good. The plot is neither awful nor inspiring: A soldier (Marcelo Gomes) returns home from World War I and finds that he no longer loves his fiancee (Veronika Part), but instead wants another girl (Paloma Herrera) who is herself engaged to someone else (David Hallberg). Tragic and not terribly subtle, it's exactly the sort of material from which you expect ballets to be made. But what Ratmansky does with it is often fantastic.

Apollinaire Scherr has a review up on her blog, and I basically agree with her criticisms--the score was too short for the female characters and situations to be fully developed. At times the plot itself seems to rush forward, which goes hand with the previous. "Wait," I wanted to say, "how can they be in love already? They should fall in love longer. This tension should build more." 

But the score is what it is, and the work has so much to recommend it that I can easily overlook those flaws. Both major male characters are fully developed and both have wonderful solos. Alice Munro writes short stories in which she creates an entire world and characters that feel so real you think they must exist, just as they are in the story, somewhere in the world, in just a few pages. They're small miracles of writing; it seems like it should be impossible to get things so exactly right, and yet there the story is in front of you. The solo for Gomes that opens the ballet, and the solo for Hallberg in the second part of the ballet are like that. These characters are real individuals and watching them dance you feel that you understand them; you know who they are. And the community of which they are a part feels genuine in the same way. Ratmansky's characters don't exist in a void: they're interconnected parts of a community.

The great gift of the ballet though is the fact that unlike so many things that ABT dances, particularly the new ballets that are made for them, in On the Dnieper Ratmansky gives the dancers choreography that genuinely utilizes their prodigious abilities. Gomes and Hallberg, who are so frequently fantastic, were as wonderful in this as I've ever seen them (Gomes throughout, Hallberg in that great solo). Ratmansky told Robert Hilferty of Bloomberg that Gomes was, "very inspiring," and it's not hard to understand why. And although their characters were less clearly sketched Herrera was lovely and Part does despair as beautifully as anyone. 

I also thought that, though the lighting could stand to be brighter, the sets were beautiful. I like the cherry trees and loved the fences that were moved around to redefine the space. 

In addition to Apollinaire Scherr's review, Alastair Macaulay reviewed it for the New York Times, Tonya Plank has a post up, and Robert Johnson reviewed it for the Newark Star-Ledger (and hated it to a degree I find utterly baffling, but he also thinks that Ratmansky isn't a "genuine choreographic talent" so we're clearly on very different wavelengths).

And one more note before I move on: I don't know who writes the synopses for ABT's program, but "the villagers enjoy lively dancing and boisterous cheer"? Really? I have every confidence that it's possible to do better.

The evening had started with Balanchine's Prodigal Son, which I was excited to see but found that I didn't love. In retrospect it's not so surprising. When it comes to art movements, I've really never liked Primitivism and I can't say Constructivism drives me wild either and there's an abundance of both in the ballet. And then there was the fact that I forgot my opera glasses and we were sitting so far away (Family Circle). Being closer and able to see more detail would surely have helped, particularly for a ballet like this. 

Michelle Wiles--who I really wish I enjoyed more than I do--just didn't work for me in this role. She's certainly commanding. Particularly so when towering over Herman Cornejo (the size difference there is something else). But I felt like she should also seem alluring and predatory and that really didn't come across. The connection between Wiles and Cornejo seemed awkward but I imagine that will get better in subsequent performances. Cornejo was dancing in place of an injured Ethan Stiefel, and I expect that he and Wiles will polish their performance as the week goes on.

One thing that did help me to appreciate the ballet more than I otherwise would have, was Nancy Goldner's essay on Prodigal in her Balanchine Variations. She writes:
The desire to bring industry and art, the functional and the decorative, under one tent extended to making an amalgam of beautiful and ugly movement, and high and low art--that is, dance and circus.
Thinking about the pas de deux between the Siren and the Son as a circus-like performance, and the drinking companions as grotesques helps me to understand this decidedly unclassical ballet.

About the second ballet of the evening I really have very little to say. Desir was one of those ballets where you can see why it was made but it's awfully hard to figure out why it's being revived or picked up by other companies than the one it was made for. The costumes are pretty, the music is pretty, a good bit of the dancing is pretty (and also pretty repetitive). And that's just about all there is to it. It's theoretically about relationships and desire, but it doesn't feel particularly human or individual. Ultimately it was kind of inoffensively boring. 

The photo for On the Dnieper was stolen from this Wall Street Journal article and the the photo from Prodigal Son from the New York Times review.

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