Johann Kobborg, Alina Cojocaru & Friends
Sarasota Opera House
April 26, 2014
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel
Famous names, short works and short dancers – it’s gala season, and that’s the model. Not from a height requirement, but because this kind of program is built to sell tickets with fireworks and glitz. This is not the realm of the danseur noble. Here, the demi-caractère virtuoso is king.
As a cagey prelude to the company’s own Ashton Festival a few days later, Sarasota Ballet imported a humdinger with all of the above. Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg and a few of their buddies, including Herman Cornejo, Daniel Ulbricht, and Misa Kuranaga, visited for a program of baubles and chestnuts that fit the stereotype of a special event, and even occasionally gave its nose a gentle tweak.
Tougher still, the decisions made to massage the canned soundtrack for the extended balances Cojocaru did meant that she worked with only three of her four princes. This left one poor fellow awkwardly and enigmatically ignored. It made no sense either as choreography or to the remnant of the story portrayed.
And yet, she was lovely. Cojocaru’s Aurora is one of – if not the – best around today, so it was still a chance to marvel when she stuck a balance – placing the tip of her shoe on the stage and staying suspended without adjustment – as if her balance traveled through her bones rather than via muscular strength. In excerpt, it’s harder to see that Cojocaru is far more than tricks, but she still added touching detail to her reactions meeting her suitors.
Giving her a rest, Adam Hougland’s “Freeflow,” danced by Erica de la O and Kristopher Wojtera, was a short pas de deux to J.S. Bach in sleek, simple dancewear. It was fluent, agreeable and brief, but seemed as if it had been choreographed for a competition. Academic steps were punctuated with torso rolls, skids and lifts – a laundry list of cool moves – just enough to let viewers know the work was modern without actually making them think.
This was followed by an obligatory virtuoso showpiece: the Corsaire Pas de Deux. Daniil Simkin and Misa Kuranaga made a good couple: her instincts are classy and his are a bit trashy. Still, Simkin has fought to become a good partner and he showed that off in the many overhead presses with Kuranaga. Throughout her decade-long career at Boston Ballet, she’s distinguished herself as an unaffected all-rounder: there’s very little she doesn’t look good in from Balanchine to Bournonville.
Simkin entered cranking his arabesque high in a long balance. Bad etiquette – render unto the ballerina those steps that are the ballerina’s. Kuranaga didn’t try to outdo him; instead she rose with a slow breath before dipping calmly into a waterbird penchée. She also chose not to do the Fonteyn interpolation of the Queen of the Dryads variation from “Don Quixote” but did a solo studded with step-over turns.
Kobborg’s “Les Lutins” (The Imps) is a trio seemingly meant for events like this. To virtuoso chestnuts played dexterously by Kurt Nikkanen on violin and Jonathan Spivey on piano accompaniment, Daniel Ulbricht dressed up in another caterer’s uniform and danced a quicksilver variation of clipped beats and skittering runs.
Ulbricht has always been a conundrum. He’s short and muscular with the chops to go on a five-alarm trashfest, but he’s also got a trained sense of style and taste. There’s never a port de bras that isn’t neat. If and when he’s crass, he knows it, and his career has been a persistent question of whether to fight or play into the stereotype of his physique. Even though he’ll sell “Tarantella” or any other exhibition number, he has the instincts of a classicist. But perhaps that what was what a great demi-caractère dancer was before it became the guy who cranked up and did 20 turns.
More people would think of Herman Cornejo as the prince cruelly robbed of his kingdom by a height requirement. He showed up in “Les Lutins” and competed with Ulbricht – mercifully in beats rather than turns. Cojocaru then entered in a similar black and white outfit to the men, but accented by a red neckerchief – perhaps to make her look less like a caterer and more like a waitress at the Olive Garden. The guys fought over her; she made an unexpected but logical choice.
In the bedroom duet from “Manon” Kobborg showed off his impeccable partnering and questionable toupee. Cojocaru doesn’t have much whore in her, and if the dancing was as good as the rest, the two looked like a married couple rather than an eloping one. They were at their best with sweet kisses or as she leaned over his shoulder, caressing him with tender familiarity.
Ulbricht is from St. Petersburg, about a half hour’s drive to the north. He squired Shelby Elsbree, another native gulf coast daughter who went on to the Royal Danish and Boston Ballets, in “Coppelia.” Elsbree was strong and acquitted herself well; Franz is a smart role for Ulbricht that extends his range without snapping it. Instead of showcasing his jump; he exhibited his clean upper body – and his gallantry. Ulbricht kept his attention on Elsbree and put her first.
Would it really be a gala if Daniil Simkin didn’t perform “Les Bourgeois?” A short, comic solo to Jacques Brel, Simkin shot off all the tricks he does so well, including the tilting revolve-and-a-half air turn nicknamed a “540.”
The Act 3 pas de deux from “Don Quixote” isn’t Cojocaru’s métier, but that didn’t stop her from giving as showy a performance as if it were. She recast it to emphasize her specialties – one Look Ma, No Hands! balance after another, including a ridiculously long attitude balance closing into retiré that ended by smirking while acknowledging the crazy applause. Yet Cojocaru can’t be vulgar even when she’s being vulgar. She’s always calm and never overheats. Kobborg stole another kiss from her in the entrée, then lifted her high overhead in a one-arm press as she lifted her leg even higher straight to the sky.
Variations from Acts 1 and 3 were stitched together discreetly to obviate the need for Kobborg to dance the solo. At the matinee, he danced a trio with the flower girls that got left out in the evening. Cornejo came out and danced the actual solo – it’s his specialty and it looked it.
Cornejo, Ulbricht and Simkin each returned for a quick crossing in their favorite trick, but then they all came out together, and let on that they were in on the joke. Noticing one another, they stopped and blustered to see who did what, where and when: a wry moment and you laughed with them.
We can giggle at the conventions of the portable miniaturized ballet extravaganza, but this one brought dancers of an extraordinary level all under one roof – and that roof wasn’t in a major dance capital. Quite a treat.
copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel