Ballet Across America III
Richmond Ballet's “Ershter Vals”, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Almost Mozart”, Boston Ballet’s “Symphony in 3 Movements”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 4, 2013
by George Jackson
copyright 2013 by George Jackson
The question isn’t which of the companies dancing for Ballet Across America III is the fairest, but whether programs involving rather different companies can be as satisfying or challenging as mixed bills chosen from the repertory of a single artistic organization. Program #1 of this Ballet Across America series was more challenging than satisfying. Ideas were prominent in all three works. Emotions were major only in Richmond’s entry. Stellar performing ought to have burst forth in more of the proceedings throughout.
“First Waltz” was choreographed for dancers of Virginia’s Richmond Ballet by Ma Cong, who comes to the international ballet scene from Chinese traditions. Despite the title, forget your romantic notions, abandon any memories of lilt and sway, and douse all melodies tumbling in your head. The curtain rises on 8 separated bodies crouched or bent over in gloom and silence. At first these somewhat isolated figures form two short rows, a male line and a female line – 4 and 4. The dancers pair off stoically as the scene grows less dim. Still, the atmosphere is harsh and remains a rather bleak stagescape. The first sound heard is a slap. Eventually music starts, klezmer music of the stringent sort. Partnering begins to take place. Technically some of it is acrobatic, some balletic, and some even involves derivatives of the waltz embrace. Emotionally much of it is hesitant and hostile, some of it even brutal. This “waltzing” is far from the etiquette of Biedermeier ballrooms or the ballet stages of old. It is the war of the sexes a la Pina Bausch.
Cong’s solution to gender battles is stalemate, compromise – a wary jollity appears in the final stages of these klezmer waltzes. This is the closest thing to love and trust that the men and women of “First Waltz” achieve. Richmond’s cast – Cecile Tuzii, Phillip Skaggs, Lauren Fagone, Fernando Sabino, Shira Lanyi, Thomas Ragland, Valerie Tellmann, Trevor Davis – conveyed the transformations of feelings with finesse. Commendable was Tuzii’s solo. She brought ballerina authority to her role and one could, despite the long skirt, picture a richer use of the body than Cong seems to want.
Tightrope walking is, figuratively, what choreographer James Kudelka does in “Almost Mozart”, his experiment for 5 of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers. Kudelka kept his balance for the most part but lost it a couple of times. On those occasions, daring turned into gimmickry. The ballet opens on a pair of figures highlighted against a dark stage. They are men standing at arm’s length like wrestlers, clad in shorts. Moving dynamically around the stage, they continue to generate a sports image – one that includes the sport of ballet. They carry no emotional baggage although they are brimming with potency and gamesmanship. The movement, despite its dynamism, is highly controlled. It is not lubricated by music. Nor is it doused in utter silence. The phrases of Mozart that were played as overture have left an echo and also one hears breathing as well as other sounds made by bodies in rapid motion. For a blackout following the men’s duo, there is a little more Mozart (Niel DePonte conducting the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra). Again, the same two men (Brian Simcoe, Lucas Threefoot) appear, this time engaged with a woman (Alison Roper) who wears toe shoes, shorts similar to the men’s plus a bra. They become Kudelka’s instruments for exploring the balletic trio, developing its interactions, tensions and resolutions. While he is building the movement, Kudelka is deconstructing it too. Again, there is no music. The movement is spare. It is executed in a very deliberate, extremely focused way without reference to outside meanings or undercurrents of feeling. Towards the end of this trio (or series of trio etudes), Kudelka stumbles the first time. It is then that the absence of music during the dancing and its presence just for blackouts comes to seem too much of a device.
Music accompanies some of the subsequent dancing but the pairing of eye and ear should have come sooner. A second stumble is the choreographic repeat of the ballet’s most climactic moment. At the conclusion of a trio section there is a pose in which the woman is squeezed into a high lift and held there by what seems to be the opposing pressure of the two men supporting her. When she slips down and out of the lift, her partners collapse. This implosion is effective the first time round but not the second time, even though slightly varied.
The duet to music is danced by a female/male pair (Grace Shibley, Bruce Bauer). As in the work’s previous portions, these partners are permanently in contact with each other but their constant touching seems more standard, a balance of holdings and leanings. Sometimes this pas de deux has a two dimensional aspect. In conclusion there is a woman’s solo (Roper). The strongest dancing was the opening male duo. What if it had been placed at the end?
Boston Ballet had the advantage and disadvantage of performing a well known entity, George Balanchine’s Stravinsky “Symphony in Three Movements”, originally made for New York City Ballet’s 1972 festival in honor of the recently deceased composer and still in that company’s repertory. The dancing Boston did on this occasion to match Stravinsky’s big blocks of sound wasn’t as sharp or clean as has been that of the New Yorkers. Also, Balanchine seemed to be having serious fun with some of the music’s tripping, streaming, winding passages but Boston’s take on these lighter moments was too caricatured at times, at other moments too genteel. Yet one could see the big picture in Boston’s performance – how the great group formations build and are changed by impulse. This was the only piece on the program in which music and dance mesh in expected, satisfying and yet surprising ways – the diagonal file of pony tailed Amazons prancing, the unexpected entrances of three temperamentally different solo women (Lia Cirio, Rie Ichikawa, Misa Kuranaga) each wearing her own shade of blush and their men who aren’t dressed as distinctly but in this cast (Lasha Khozashvili, Bradley Schlagheck, Jeffrey Cirio) weren’t built alike. The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan McPhee, was exemplary. Originally, intimations of Europe on the brink of World War 2 could be found in this ballet – in the lineups and semaphore signals. Those, though evaporated long ago.
The evening added up to an odd mix of ballets. Like a good, old-fashioned menu - soup, main course and desert - this triple bill wasn’t.
Richmond Ballet's Shira Lanyi, Jess Bechard, and Kirk Henning in "Ershter Vals."
Photo by Sarah Ferguson
Oregon Ballet Theatre's Damian Drake, Paul DeStrooper, and Alison Roper in "Almost Mozart."
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert
Boston Ballet in "Symphony in Three Movements."
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor