A Dancing Bear, a New Swan, and Three Dubious Memories
Yes, there is a dancing bear in Bedřich Smetana’s charming opera “The Bartered Bride,” but unfortunately we don’t get to see him do a can-can, fun as that sounds, at least not in the cheerful production presented by the joint forces of Juilliard’s Institute for Vocal Arts and the Metropolitan’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program this past week (Feb. 15. 17, and 20). That said, there is quite a bit of dancing throughout the opera, more even than planned by Smetana, who, in his quest to create a truly Czech opera, included several popular dances in the score: a polka in the first act and a furiant—a Bohemian folk dance in 3/4—in the second, topped off by a Skočná—a fast-paced Slavic folk dance—in the third. All are performed with folksy gusto, and awkward grace, by both the fine dancers of the Juilliard Dance program and the rest of the cast; several of the principal singers dance challenging solos, meant to give physical expression to their mental states—frustration, confusion, glee.
The staging, which is the first to come out of the recently-announced partnership between Juilliard and the Met, is blessed with a top-notch artistic team, including the director Stephen Wadsworth, James Levine, the costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, the set designer Thomas Lynch, and the rapidly rising choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Wadsworth, who stepped in at the last minute last season to direct the Met’s powerful new production of Boris Godunov (with René Pape in the fall), is also active in theatre—he will direct the Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Master Class”— and directs dramatic studies at the Lindemann program and as well as in Juilliard’s opera program. Pakledinaz, whose costumes here are both colorful and attractively pedestrian, has designed for the Met and Broadway and for a variety of dance companies—he made the witty, stylish outfits for Mark Morris’s “Hard Nut.” And Millepied, of course, is the highly visible choreographer of the goth/slash thriller “Black Swan,” starring la belle Natalie.
Lest you roll your eyes too much, Millepied is in fact a choreographer of some repute and extensive experience, having made ballets for New York City Ballet, American Ballet theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, and numerous others. He seems to be endlessly productive, creating roughly one ballet per season, the most recent of which (“Plainspoken”) is being performed at New York City Ballet this week. A kind of, casual, post-minimalist romp for eight set to a jaunty, percussive score by David Lang, “Plainspoken” is a clever and attractive dance, not earth-shattering, but ingenious and well-constructed. It gives off the air of having been created for his friends, showing off their laid-back, playful rapport, with sporty walking patterns and frequent bouts of teasing. And they are his friends; Millepied is a principal at the City Ballet, though lately his appearances there have been few and far between.
With his choreography for “The Bartered Bride,” Millepied shows once again why he is so consistently called upon to make dances; he is nimble in his choreographic choices, able to work effectively and stylishly with both trained and untrained dancers, and always finds ways to move people about the stage in a satisfying way, making pleasing, interesting patterns that serve the spirit of the music. At City Ballet, he has danced the works of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Alexei Ratmansky, and it shows; he understands music and knows how to evoke a mood and a style, without being slavishly concerned with authenticity. Is his second-act dance a real furiant? I doubt it. But it feels sufficiently Bohemian, and folksy enough, with its little waltz and jumps with legs extended into the air, while clearly using a more contemporary vocabulary that includes an extensive use of the floor. Millepied is also able to weave in a hint of a plot, one that does not distract from the greater story going on onstage. Two dancers waltz, a third forces her way into the mix; then they switch places and do it again. And Millepied negotiates space well, even when, as in this case, his dancers are confined to a shallow ribbon at the back of the stage, or, at the best times, a small space amid tables, chairs, and multitudes of people. The main dancers, Craig Black, Paul Busch, Julia Eichten, Alexander Hille, and Haylee Nichele, were all excellent, and blended in well with the singers.
The singers in the production are all good and well-cast (though sometimes overwhelmed by the excellent Juilliard orchestra under the baton of James Levine), especially the limpid-voiced Layla Claire as the heroine Mařenka and the theatrically-astute Alexander Lewis, who was both extremely funny (what comic timing!) and profoundly touching in the role of the stuttering Vašek, spurned and gently ridiculed by Mařenka (pronounced Mashenka) but eventually matched up with someone even more enticing, the sexy Esmeralda, a Spanish dancer who comes to town with the circus. Good for him, the buxom Esmeralda looks like she could really help a guy overcome his stutter. Lewis, whose character catches the theatre bug as soon as the rag-tag troupe enters the scene, is also quite a dancer, as he proved in the third act, when he joined the circus folk and showed himself to have excellent rhythm and an enviable jump. He’s Australian, and has performed extensively in musical theatre at home. It is Lewis who all-too-briefly steps out in the costume of the dancing bear.
Just as some of the most infectious music in “The Bartered Bride” is sung by the chorus (the second-act hymn “To Beer” is particularly wonderful), some of Millepied’s most felicitous dancing is for the non-dancers: the quick, easy social dances in the café and the cartoonish bits for the circus performers (I loved the bearded ballerina, danced by Miles Mykkanen, and the contortionist). The whole opera is great fun, though the third act begins to drag a bit as the resolution becomes painfully clear. It helps that it was sung in English (in a very plain, and sometimes witty, new translation by the poet and literary critic J.D. McClatchy); the singers really knew what they were saying, and poured themselves into the text.
Words are not required when telling the story of “Swan Lake”; in fact they merely get in the way. The challenge with this ballet is to really feel the story, rather than admire the ballerina dancing the role of Odette and Odile. Tchaikovsky’s score, an elegiac masterpiece, transports us, but it is only through a ballerina’s power of imagination that we can break through to something deeper, a turbulent undercurrent of fate and looming disaster, tinged with hope. The love between Odette and Siegfried is doomed from the start: she is not human, and he, a melancholy prince, is all-too-much-so, easily duped by black magic and his desire to find true love. The trick for the dancer playing Odette is to capture our minds from her first appearance in the lakeside act; we stare at her in wonder, just as the astonished Siegfried does: what is this magical creature standing in the moonlight, ruffling her feathers like a bird and yet expressing the yearning of a woman? The secret, of course, is that she is neither human nor animal; she is not a living creature but an essence: fear, beauty enslaved, and longing, all bundled into one exquisite form. Like “The Firebird,” such a creature awakens irrepressible desires; Siefried must have her. From her first appearance, our eyes never leave her. A ballerina must trust her instincts and use this rapt attention to create something that feels utterly unique and in-the-moment. It’s not easy. The young Sara Mearns managed it from her first performance, even before she had mastered the technical aspects of the role, but that is highly unusual. Most dancers have to work to create this illusion, with the help of someone who truly understands the role, honing their interpretation, developing an affinity with the character, allowing the music to speak through them. One day it clicks; I saw just such an occasin last year at A.B.T., when the sometimes icy Michele Wiles dove into each turn headfirst like a bird in flight.
On Feb. 17, Teresa Reichlen danced her first “Swan Lake at New York City Ballet.” Her warmth onstage, and the radiant, un-forced quality of her dancing are both a boon and a disadvantage. She looked beautiful, and had clearly studied many a ballerina in the role; the shapes she made with her body, head, and arms were often breathtaking. In the brilliant third act, her “Black Swan” was regal and emanated a sense of complete control, without becoming a parody of seduction. All good. But her first encounter with Siegfried lacked that mix of fear, urgency and desperation that makes the ballet matter; she is still more of a “Sugarplum Fairy” than a swan maiden. The musicality is there, the softness and femininity are there; the supple shoulders and torso are there (each swoon into the prince’s arms felt like molten chocolate); she just needs to find the creature within. Coaching will help, as will time. The intensity she exhibited in the final lakeside act (after she has been betrayed by Siegfried) bodes well. She and her prince, Tyler Angle, were ardent, almost frantic, as they realized they had lost each other forever. Peter Martins’ modified ending, in which Odette and Siegfried do not commit suicide, but are simply separated by fate, has a modern bleakness which in a way speaks clearly to modern dancers; this is not a mythic bond that will live on in the spheres, but a very human loss. Angle’s ardour, expressed so clearly on his face and in his fervent partnering—as well as in his beautiful, pillow jetés that rise from a deep plié—spurred Reichlen to open up and dance with more abandon. Angle, too, will fill out his interpretation over time; in the first act, he appeared to enjoy himself too much—and with a touch too much self-satisfaction—for a melancholy prince who feels alone in the world, searching for his soul mate. And a note on the music: Fayçal Karoui, the company’s musical director, conducted Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score as if rushing to the finish, robbing some of the key moments (especially in the first lakeside scene) of their due weight.
The company’s final performance of “Swan Lake” will take place on the afternoon of Feb. 26, with Sterling Hyltin in the leading role, which she débuted last week, and Robert Fairchild as her prince.
Speaking of soul mates, the Paul Taylor Dance Company is back in town, at the City Center, with two works new to New York audiences: “Three Dubious Memories” and “Phantasmagoria.” On opening night (Feb. 22), they performed the first of the two, a Rashomon-like account of the vicissitudes of a romantic triangle. There are two men (Robert Kleinendorst and James Samson) and one woman (Amy Young); in each version of the story, an idyllic relationship between two is disrupted by the third. The emotions depicted are somewhat unsubtle: placidity ruptured by violence. Taylor tends to deal in contrasting extremes rather than the middle ground of ambiguity. Often, the contrast works well, as in the glorious “Esplanade” (1975), which opened the program, or the elegiac “Beloved Renegade,” from 2008. Here it feels a touch forced. The most interesting, enigmatic dancing is actually for the “Choirmaster,” danced by the tall, grave James Samson, and his seven “Choristers,” all dressed in gray. Mahoney and his followers comment on the action in shuffling, flat-footed, somewhat “Japanese”-looking movements. They file in on bent legs, holding out one palm; samson performs a kind of invocation to the gods in slow motion, palm forward, in a shaft of light; he tries to stop one of the main characters from barging in on the other two, but his stylized movements reveal a kind of impotence, as if fate were involved. The interventions of the gray chorus lend gravity, and a sense of ritualized grace, to this simple tale. The company will be performing at the City Center until March 6. The programs will contain many pieces from Taylor’s lengthy oeuvre, including “Orbs,” a major work from 1966 being revived this season. It will be seen for the first time since 1981 on March 3. Keep your eye out for Michael Novak, a new company-member, who dances with a particular joy and sense of wonder; he was recently interviewed by Gia Kourlas in TimeOut.
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