Ballet Across America III
Sarasota Ballet’s “Les Patineurs,” Washington Ballet’s “Wunderland”, Pennsylvania Ballet’s “The Four Temperaments”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 6, 2013
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2013 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Paintings are luckier than ballets. If a museum wants to have an exhibition of art works that have been in storage for a few centuries, the paintings can be retrieved, hung in a gallery, rediscovered and pronounced lost masterpieces. In contrast, ballets without a company to take care of them can vanish in a season, and reviving dead ballets is an almost hopeless task. Unless, it seems, a ballet is lucky enough to wander into Florida, where the Sarasota Ballet has not only been building a repertory of ballets by Frederick Ashton but making them look extraordinarily fresh.
“Les Patineurs” is one of Ashton’s earliest ballets, created in 1937 for the then-tiny company that would grow to become Britain’s Royal Ballet. It was a commission by Ninette de Valois, who needed an opening ballet, and Ashton took it on, although, having grown up in Peru, he’d never seen skating. The ballet is astonishingly well-structured (it reminds me of Léo Staats' “Soir de Fête,” created in Paris the decade before, which would have been a good model for a young classical choreographer), with a small ensemble as well as several pas de deux and solos for a couple, four female skaters, and the famous Blue Boy, who shows that the technical level 75 years ago was very high indeed.
I’ve never seen a British company dance “Patineurs,” but watched many performances by American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s and ‘80s, and there are subtleties in the choreography this production shows I’d never noticed before. For one, the pas de deux for the White Couple often seemed like something to fill time between the virtuoso turns of the soloists. But this was one of the first roles created for Margot Fonteyn, and there must have been more to it than that. There was. One of Ashton’s many gifts was his ability to create an invisible drum roll for the ballerina’s entrance. Here, he empties the stage at just the right time in the music so you know that something magical is about to happen, lets the ballet breathe for about 20 seconds, and then brings on the young couple (Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano last night) from the surrounding woods. They’re more elegant, more lyrical than their friends, and very much at the center of the work. I also had never noticed how precise the choreography is for the friends, especially one duet for the two girls in blue and another for the two girls in red. These are mini-ballets, the women’s movements complimenting each other to make designs: they’ll move, in arabesque, say, in a mirror image, always keeping exactly on the music (an excerpt from Meyerbeer’s opera “La Prophete,” intended for dancing) and beautifully in sync.
Sarasota Ballet’s dancing was as subtle and exciting as the staging. The dancers certainly didn’t look old-fashioned, but they didn’t overstretch, because that wouldn't be Ashton. Logan Learned was a very charming Blue Boy, taking Ashton’s famous “’twas nothing” pose at the end of his variations as though he’d invented it. His dancing was sharp, especially the beats in his first solo and the turns at the end, when he has to keep dancing as the curtain goes down and quickly comes back up, showing him still spinning. Kate Honea and Nicole Padilla managed the Blue Girls’ very fast, tricky turns; Sareen Tchekmedyian and Christine Peixoto were very graceful Red Girls. The Brown Couples (Abbey Kay, Alex Harrison; Anais Blake, Sam O’Brien; Kristianne Kleine, Juan Gil; Emily Dixon, Ricardo Rhodes) handled the built-in slips, falls, crack the whips, and spirited dancing beautifully. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led by conductor Ormsby Wilkins, made Meyerbeer sound as new as the dancers had made the ballet look. The company’s Artistic Director Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri (a very fine Ashton ballerina in her dancing days) were the stagers. Maybe Ashton will be safe for awhile.
One of the things that’s especially enjoyable about being able to take a whirlwind tour of American ballet, courtesy of Ballet Across America, is that we get to see so many smaller and mid-sized troupes confront works from the past that may no longer interest dancers in larger companies, but set young dancers new to them challenges they obviously find exciting. Pennsylvania Ballet has long been known, and celebrated, as a Balanchine company, and its production of “The Four Temperaments,” which closed the program, shows why. The dancing of the corps women, especially, was exceptional. One had the sense that the dancers had grown up with the work, yet were still challenged by it.
The ballet started strongly, with very sharp, clear dancing by in the three Themes (in order, Evelyn Kocak and Andrew Daly; Caralin Curcio and James Ihde; and Lillian Di Piazza and Lorin Mathis). In Melancholic, Ian Hussey seemed comfortable with his melancholy, as well as his would-be comforters; they were all of the same world. But then the air went out of the ballet a bit. Perhaps it was opening night nerves, but Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric were a bit flat. The dancers seemed over-careful at the end, but they still showed this very difficult ballet clearly. Beatrice Jona Affron conducted, and Sandra Jennings Eshima was listed as Repetiteur.
In between these two masterpieces was a new work, Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland,” a big hit at Washington Ballet, not only at its premiere in 2009 but at subsequent performances as well, and last night’s audience was very enthusiastic. Intermission chatter I overheard was of two views: one, that the ballet was exciting and athletic, the other that it was too repetitive. Take your pick.
Set to several pieces by Philip Glass (conducted by Scott Speck; Lisa Emenheiser was the pianist), the ballet struck me as a son-of-Balanchine work that had a brush with contemporary dance as well as the gym. It’s very hard on its dancers and, although Washington Ballet has many excellent dancers, in the spirit of the times, “Wunderland” doesn’t individualize them -- something one could never say about Balanchine. The dancers, especially the women’s beautiful lines and feet, and some of the poses, might recall his work, but not the anonymity.
There are two ensemble sections and two pas de deux, the second of which Jared Nelson (with Sonia Kharatian) brought to life. They would dance, then part, with Nelson seeming desolated by the separations. In the ensemble sections and the first pas de deux (danced fearlessly by Maki Onuki and Luis R. Torres) the partnering was very virtuosic – a man would grab a woman by her leg, hoist her, and fling her over his shoulder or slide her around his body. If the women had to take and hold extreme poses (the opening pliés on point by five women were stunning), the men literally got a work out.
When snow began to fall at the end of the second pas de deux, the ballet lost me. Where were we? The women were in red leotards, the men in what looked like desert camouflage gear without the camouflage spots. The stage was bare, and it didn't seem like winter. Falling snow is a popular ending for ballets these days; several works at the recent Nordic Cool Festival ended that way. “Wunderland” has two sections with falling snow, which seemed a bit snowy. It’s not Liang’s fault that his work immediately followed “Patineurs,” where the snow falls for an obvious reason (it is winter and they’re skating) but it was an unfortunate juxtaposition.
Ballet Across America is a grab bag – that’s its strength and its weakness. You never know what you’re going to see, but there is usually something for everyone, and last night’s program was a good example of that.
Sarasota Ballet's Danielle Brown and Richard Graziano in "Les Patineurs." Photo by Linda Spillers.
Sarasota Ballet's DLogan Learned in "Les Patineurs." Photo by Linda Spillers.
Principal dancer Amy Aldridge (center) with Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in "The Four Temperaments," choreoraphy by George Balanchine copyright The George Balanchine Trust.
Washington Ballet dancers Corey Landolt, Jarde Nelson, Nicole Haskins, Morgann Rose, Sonia Kharatian, Maki Onuki and Emily Ellis in "Wunderland." Photo by Linda Spillers.