"A Dancer's Dream"
New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York
June 28, 2013
By Tom Phillips
Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
Typical New York street dialogue:
Q: What is all this about?
A: Oh, they’re making a movie.
Making a movie is just one of the things they were doing at the New York Philharmonic this weekend. (Scheduled for release in September, it won’t be a Hollywood-style blockbuster, more like a an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) They were also humanizing the orchestra, shaking the audience out of its doldrums, showcasing the ringmaster skills of music director Alan Gilbert, putting on a puppet show and by the way, a little ballet.
Set to two famous ballet scores by Stravinsky, “A Dancer’s Dream” is a fantasia on
“The Fairy’s Kiss,” followed by an unpredictable romp through “Petrushka.” The two acts are very different in tone, and barely connected by plot. It all takes place in a crowded, sometimes chaotic Philharmonic stage: the orchestra in its place, dancers on a shallow stage in front, puppeteers and cameras off to the sides, and a big screen overhead.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns plays the little-girl heroine of “The Fairy’s Kiss” and also (on film) the Ice Maiden who blesses/curses her with the gift of balletic genius. Act One should be recommended for parents who want to dissuade their daughters from a career in dance, because it presents ballet as a ruinous obsession. Mearns loses her childhood, her home, and then her first love, danced devilishly enough by Amar Ramasar. All she gets for it is the role of the puppet ballerina in "Petrushka."
Tragedy is succeeded by multi-media farce in Act Two. Humanizing the orchestra is the main project here, and the Philharmonic gets into it in the spirit of Petrushka and the Shrovetide Fair. Filmed live and projected on a screen above, the musicians don funny Russian hats and babushkas. The French horn section shares tea from a samovar. Musicians stand up, sit down, change seats, and stomp their feet to Stravinsky’s rhythms. A violist steps out front, juggles handkerchiefs and then breaks into a Russian dance. Her enjoyment was infectious, but most of the humor was stagey. When a puppeteer enters in a bear suit, Gilbert cues the audience to let out a well-rehearsed blood-curdling scream, and the harpist pretends to swoon. The music ends with Gilbert halfway up the aisle, chucking the lifeless Petrushka to the floor.
“Very enjoyable,” grunted a dour-looking husband on the way out. “Entertaining.”
Ballet review: Mearns worked hard, but was ill-served by her little-girl costume, the small, cluttered space in front of the orchestra, and the rudimentary ballet choreography by Karol Armitage. She wasn’t helped either by the icy plot, or the cirque-ish style of overacting. Mearns can act, but she is more of a Garbo type, much cooler and subtler than a Columbine. Broad, giddy expressions of delight and dismay just don’t suit her.
Another drawback was the absence of a corps de ballet. Mearns stands out in a crowd. She is a Balanchine dancer, the crown jewel in the formal elegance of say, Emeralds or Diamonds. There, her maximal gestures provide a focal point, they energize the whole structure. Here, mostly alone in the spotlight, it just looked like she was trying too hard to make something of the uninspiring steps.
Amar Ramasar had less to do as her partner, and seemed to enjoy it more. Abbey Roesner was sharp and menacing as Mearns’s shadow – the dark force that bonds her to ballet. This is a kind of doomsday theory of dancing, reminiscent of Giselle or the recent movie Black Swan. It’s true, ballet can be dangerous to your happiness, your health, even your life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a bit unsettling to see it presented that way to a non-dance audience.
-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips