12 June 2010 (matinee and evening)
by Helene Kaplan
copyright 2010 by Helene Kaplan
To see a program with the range and depth of "Divertimento No. 15", "Prodigal Son", and "Four Temperaments" in a single evening is a rarity; to see each piece performed in a way that emphasized its originality, yet was clearly part of a whole, is a rare privilege, and that is what was on view in Phoenix last weekend.
In the the opening movement, the women are introduced before the two male soloists establish the themes; from the Balcony especially, where Balanchine's patterns were easily visible, the opening was spectacular in energy and clarity of movement. In the afternoon performance, Russell Clarke danced the First Theme with fine sweep and line. Ilir Shtylla, who performed the fifth variation in the matinee and who was over-stretched in that role, looked more comfortable as First Theme in the evening. Slawomir Wozniak danced the Second Theme in both performances; he showed promise and danced with sharpness, but he needs more finish. The themes set the stage for the solo variations to follow.
Jillian Barrell danced the opening variation brilliance, clarity, and musical intelligence, and her fleet feet, easy head on open shoulders, gaze that encompassed the entire stage, and distinct phrasing that revealed the internal dance logic were a portend of things to come. Especially fine were Tzu-Chia Huang's witty rendition of the fourth variation, created for Tanaquil Le Clercq, and both performances of the super-human sixth variation, choreographed for Patricia Wilde. Paola Hartley danced it in the evening, and she had the extraordinary quality of appearing to start at the highest level and somehow increasing strength and speed as the role got harder and harder. Chelsea Teel in the matinee did something equally amazing: a longer-legged dancer, she danced with a flow and ease that made the phrases appear, paradoxically, to slow down; phrases poured out one after another. Astrit Zejnati performed the fifth variation with grace and aplomb.
With her ardent legato phrasing, Ginger Smith was ravishing in the opening pas de deux. While the other ballerinas were generously inclusive, Natalia Magnicaballi was cool and inscrutable, keeping her partner guessing where she'd next be. If Tzu-Chia Huang's partner followed it was because of the physical space she covered, but he was always graciously in her orbit. Ilir Shtylla was a sensitive partner in the pas de deux in both performances. Kanako Imayoshi in the Diana Adams role was demure both in her solo and the pas de deux.
The corps was fleet and polished in the interweaving Minuet section, and the duets showcased the strength of the next echelon of women. In the finale section, they exploded onto the stage. The entire cast maintained the tension and energy in the slower sections until the rousing ending. Michelle Mahowald looked particularly fine there, and Chelsea Teel showed wonderful chemistry with Russell Clarke in their short partnered passage.
I've often seen "Prodigal Son" performed on sets with murky lighting and where the narrative is presented with big, broad strokes, relying mainly on the the two leads for details, with the Drinking Companions as an undifferentiated collective. In Ballet Arizona's production, Atlanta Ballet's brightly painted sets of the Prodigal's home were illuminated by Michael Korsch's sun-drenched lighting; this ballet took place in the desert. Here, "Prodigal Son" is a true story ballet, where every character is essential in creating the Prodigal's world. A look at the cast of the Drinking Companions and Servants shows that, unusually, most were cast prominently in other ballets. Typical for the company is how the men created individual, detailed characters in every scene in which they appeared, whether background or foreground. By differentiating themselves, they were as vivid and live as a Bosch painting in depicting Balanchine's rare, but biting commentary on the ugliness of human mass behavior, and because of this, while the ballet looked period, it did not look dated.
Roman Zavarov danced the Prodigal, and his Prodigal was a boy, and a soft, motherless one at that. Even in the opening scene, which was beautifully danced, dramatically, he wasn't fully confident in his rebelliousness, as if he were trying to convince himself as much as his family and his servants. It was in his second scene that Zavarov's dramatic interpretation became gripping, as he reacted alternately to this alternate world with fear, bravado, anxiety, longing, dismay, lust, and terror, until his final scenes of devastation and repentance. He was especially riveting in the scenes after the Prodigal's humiliation and return home.
Two ballerinas, Tzu-Chia Huang and Natalia Magnicaballi shared the role of Siren. hile Huang was occasionally shaky, this looked like a result of a new sense of risk-taking, and she showed more confidence than I've seen before. While always a beautiful dancer, her choices are now more reaching; here she was tough and pitiless and she toyed with her prey. Magnicaballi's persona as a dancer is cool and distant in general; her partner is almost dared to capture her attention. This worked well with Zavarov's combination of skittishness and desire. In the Servants' scene, where the Siren chats up the Prodigal at the table upstage, Magnicaballi was uncharacteristically gentle, as if not to scare him off, and it had a virgin's-first-time-at-the-whorehouse feel. When the slide from the knees at the end of the pas de deux collapsed, and she fell into his lap, Magnicaballi got up, dusted herself off, and there was a moment of tension about what the conclusion would be. The Prodigal's backbend bridge could have been as much an apology as an invitation and a surrender. It was an impressive way to handle a stage mishap that could have broken the spell completely.
Typically, when the Father enters at the end of the ballet, he is a distinctly Old Testament patriarch: that he is as all-knowing as he is blind is indicated by keeping the head stock still, conceding not an inch, and demanding contrition by his refusal to acknowledge or budge. Instead Sergei Perkovskii entered and moved his head and shoulders gently as if they had antennae to feel his son's presence. When he did feel it, he gave the Prodigal the time and space to come to approach him on his own, contrite terms, a decidedly New Testament father, and it was a true reconciliation.
The final ballet on the program, "The Four Temperaments", opened with a combination of old (from 2008) and new Theme casts. While the emphases were different between casts, the temperamental differences were clear, and they foreshadow the Temperments that followed, as the music does. Experience made a difference in these performances: Jillian Barrell again showed fleetness and snap in the opening Theme in which she was so impressive in her first year with the company; this time it was she who set the standard for what followed. In the evening cast Kanako Imayoshi and Ian Poulis used their height and full movement to energize Theme 2; Michelle Mahowald and new partner Slawomir Wozniak were bright and witty in the matinee. In Theme 3 Joseph Cavanaugh partnered Heather Haar (matinee) and Ginger Smith (evening) with plush ease, showing each to her strength: Haar's clarity and fearlessness into the rocking off-tilt arabesques towards the end, and Smith's creamy legato.
If Zavarov's Prodigal was soft, his Melancholic in the matinee could have been the agony-ridden Prodigal as he struggled home through the desert. In the evening performance Astrit Zejnati was more distant, as if he were having an intellectual argument with an invisible adversary, with each gesture clear as a bell. I found both equally convincing. The two women who flanked Melancholic were cast from unusual strength: Chelsea Teel in the matinee and Michelle Mahowald in the evening, each paired with Tzu-Chia Huang, and in the quartet, the very tall Jessica Phillips was cast against height type -- usually, she'd be Phlegmatic corps -- and stood out for her power and space-eating movement.
Chelsea Teel and Paola Hartley both showed crisp attack in Sanguinic. Hartley danced the role more squarely, with much less of the jazzy tilts, but she her pelvis was live nonetheless, and she emphasized the turnout. She whipped her legs up with great energy, yet the down was controlled and soft, almost stealth. Zejnati partnered her and danced the solo with clarity. Teel, with Elye Olson, danced with sweep and emphasized the elliptical and off-center quality of the movement.
Phlegmatic was a pleasure to see in both casts. Russell Clarke danced with quirky elegance. Shea Johnson's approach to space was fascinating, emphasizing the diagonal and creating more surface and dimension in a role that is blocked horizontally and is usually forward facing. The corps was energized and subtly wry; kudos to Beau Campbell, Sasha Edelman, Jennifer Ham, and Chelsea Saari. Kenna Draxton's Choleric was as much a puzzle as it was in 2008: while her legs whipped with Amazonian energy, especially in the eggbeater turns, her upper body was remarkably placid, and not angry at all (or even cranky), a temperamental mixed marriage.
The payoff was in the finale, where all of the preceding pieces fell into place, and danced with energy, clarity, and a fierce joy in movement to the swelling piano played by Alex Foaksman and Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Russell. The real triumph of the program is that in each ballet, while the dancers maintained their individual movement quality, they danced as if they had drunk from the same source of kinetic energy and musicality and inhabited the same world with the same purpose and the same goal in sight.