"Heartbeats", "Rite of Spring", "Trouble in Paradise"*
National Ballet of Mexico, La Catrina Quartet, Jacquelyn Helin and Debra Ayers - pianists
Ballet Pro Musica Festival
Albuquerque Journal Theater, Roy E. Disney Performing Arts Building
National Hispanic Cultural Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
August 12 & 13, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
The music's rich body, its ripe sound throughout the program, was fundamental to this festival's purpose - providing a feast equally for the eye and ear. Henry Holth, a former dancer and a founder and the general director of Ballet Pro Musica, treats the fine musicians he presents like royalty i.e., like star dancers. They play not invisibly, not submerged in a pit, but in what he calls the musicians' loge i.e., on the orchestral platform raised high enough so that the instrumentalists can be seen infront of the dancers throughout the course of a ballet. In the Albuquerque Journal Theater it is possible to do this and only obstruct the view of the stage from a few seats. Leaving those seats empty is a minimal loss compared to the gain of seeing the music being made and hearing a fuller chamber music sound. Maurice Ravel's "F Major String Quartet", the two piano version of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Robert Schumann's "F Major Quintet for Piano and Strings, Opus 44" were played and heard with a devotion and an attention to detail rare for music at dance performances.
Two of the three quite different ballets were premieres, including the opener - "Heartbeats" by Eloy Barragan (Mexican born, now on the University of Iowa faculty). It is a piece for three women and five men with choreography easy to label "contemporary". Barragan uses some ballet steps, some acrobatic ballet lifts and, especially for the men, lots of unballetic stress-and-strain movement. His intent seems to be not just exploiting the movement ingredients but also exploring emotional relationships. Dominant are three color coded male-female couples, yet these pairings aren't totally stable. There are all male relationships also, sometimes involving more than 2 partners. The longest and most explicitly dramatic pairing is for a woman and man in purple costuming plus a prop - a wooden bench. By the end of Ravel's turbulent score, Barragan's message seems to be that there is no certainty in emotional encounters although perhaps male-female pairings are the least unstable.
To my eye, the choreographer did not meld his 3 types of movement into a coherent style. Steps seemed strung together. Barragan's stress-and-strain motions were richer than his ballet vocabulary and his inventory of holds and lifts. Especially the bench duo needed more invention and, no matter how intentionally halting, more flow.
There really is no chamber music version of "The Rite of Spring". Stravinsky's score for two pianists predates his orchestral amplification of this music but is just as earthshaking. Choreographers tackling either version of the score soon begin to feel like Sisyphus at his hopeless task. Even with the help of the big screen, Walt Disney's "Fantasia" attempt at a visual match was for only a portion of what Stravinsky had composed. Among stage versions, Bejart's comes closest to grappling with the sound; Hodson's reconstruction of Nijinsky's original approached an approximation at only one of the performances I saw. Paul Taylor sidestepped the challenge by turning his back on Stravinsky's music (the 2 pianist version) and on Roerich's concept. And so forth.
What must Alex Ossadnik have been thinking when he not only decided to take up this challenge but use just 5 dancers and base his template on the most undionysian of ballets, George Balanchine's "Apollo"? In the printed program for this festival Ossadnik assigns no names to the roles taken by his cast. However, the one male figure is, for me, unquestionably in the Olympian mode. He seems a divinity with very human weaknesses and strengths. His urge to accomplish, to create, seems boundless although his strength is not. He is susceptible to exhaustion, even to death, but has a phoenix-like capacity to be reborn. His name could be Spring, Love or Dionysus.
This god has been given 4 handmaidens, nymphs or muses. They seem to behave as his guardians, servants and critical chorus. Initially the god's dancing has a sportive noble character. The quartet of women dances neoclassically much of the time - on pointe, lining up, linking into a circle, a quadrangle and into other shapes. On occasion, the women squat and fold themselves forward in the pupal way of the females in Bejart's "Rite" or Jerome Robbins' "Cage". There is contrast between the nobility of their neoclassical style and the vulnerability of their folded, embryonic/primitive posing but not an irreconcilable clash. Fascinating motions Ossadnik uses are "fingerings" - having the dancers trill with their fingers as if playing the piano. This functions as both a "music visualization" device and to make dramatic points. The fingerings also seem neoclassically right; apparently Ossadnik has some of Balanchine's ability to make nonclassical motion seem classical. Overall, his use of "Apollo" neoclassical technique and emotional cool for this "Rite" is not copycat but rather daring and fresh, both as narrative and as design.
The god's ceaseless steps require power and simplicity to such an extent that his death becomes inevitable. The chorus not just mourns his demise but tries to revive him. It is hard work. After a long time, he is reborn but not as his former Olympian self. Now he moves violently, primitively, embryonically although on a big scale. Once more he dies. End of ballet. Left unanswered is the question whether Spring, Love, Dionysus or whoever he is will be reborn again.
In the printed program, the choreographer alludes to somewhat different scenario specifics for his "Rite" than what I imagined, yet the dynamics of the stories are similar. Mostly these dynamics suit the music, with only the bringing back to life scene being excessively drawn out. Ossadnik, who was trained at the Palucca School in East Germany and is currently ballet master in Boise for Ballet Idaho, premiered "Rite" in 1999 for Santa Fe Festival Ballet. It is a "Rite" worth reviving.
The program closed with a second premiere, "Trouble in Paradise"*, Vladimir Angelov's take on the Schumann quintet. As the music strikes up, the lights swell on a grouping of dancers. There are 10 of them in a florid bouquet pose that begins to unravel almost immediately as the individuals take off on buoyant paths. The initial bouquet is this ballet's only elaborate image and it reappears just once. All the other dancing has a simple, pristine impetus, a lyrical flow that seems spontaneous and natural. Whether the moment calls for bravura joy or moody soliloquies or mimetic flashes of drama, Angelov (trained in the school of Bulgaria's National Ballet and at American University in Washington, DC) is so much at home with ballet that he uses its riches without fuss. He has a tale to tell, one about ideal love and its realistic course as it encounters and overcomes jealousy.
The dancing's ingredients are romantically tinted classical movement and declarative pantomime. The classical passages satisfy ones cravings to see substantial dance and yet are shaped musically, with a modern sensibility so that even virtuoso solos never become mere divertissements. The old mime is deployed wittyly by itself and in combination with dance for narrative. Perhaps the combination is a novel form of the pas d'action - the balletic happening.
The trouble Angelov discovers in paradise runs its course pointedly and is in accord with the music's different pacings. What's not explored is whether there may be deeper furrows in Schumann's score. The division of the cast into a pair of principals and a corps of couples is bridged by deploying some of the supporting dancers prominently at times. "Trouble" is skillfully, seamlessly crafted. It is capped by a surprise ending, one which turned out to be a test of the audience. Schumann starts to wrap up his quintet but then has an afterthought. Angelov choreographed curtain calls for his cast to the preliminary ending and then went on to give us a danced encore which terminates in the bouquet grouping. On opening night, the audience caught on and applauded the choreographed curtain calls. The second night's audience did not applaud until everything was over and so spoiled the false ending's effect. Such is life and art!
The dancers of the National Ballet of Mexico were admirably sensitive to the differences of the program's three choreographies. For Barragan's "Heartbeats" they mustered a collective spirit and, when needed, emphatic phrasing and doses of muscularity. For Ossadnik's "Rite" there were clean neoclassicism and a primitivism that matched. Aaron Cuellar as the male figure came close to satisfying this killer role's demands but perhaps only the Bolshoi's Ivan Vasiliev could dance the part big enough at full steam throughout. Mayuko Nihei had the right delicacy and determination as the loved and then discarded lead girl in "Trouble". Damian Zamorano, replacing an injured dancer, stepped into the role of her jealous partner. His dancing went without a hitch but he wasn't consistently in character when not specifically acting. In other roles Mahaimiti Acosta, Anton Joroshmanov and Jesse Inglis caught the eye.
Helin's and Ayers' pianos thundered with clarity in the Stravinsky, and Helin brought a thoughtfullness to her collaboration with the resonant La Catrina foursome for the Schumann. Burke Brown's lighting of both the stage and the musicians' loge was finely balanced. His floral projections for Angelov's ballet suited its moods of bliss, trouble and reconciliation. I didn't attend the festival's third and final performance and am wondering whether the audience passed or failed the false ending test. There were pre-performance seminars moderated by Professor Judith Chazin-Bennahum of the University of New Mexico.
* The original title of Angelov's ballet is plural, "Troubles in Paradise", but he is changing it to the singular.
Dance grouping from Vladimir Angelov's "Trouble in Paradise".
A mimetic moment from Vladimir Angelov's "Trouble in Paradise" with Mayuko
Nihei and Damian Zamorano.