Symphony9

American Ballet Theatre has a lot to offer these days, and its one big, thrilling, ace in the hole is Alexei Ratmansky, its artist in residence. The choreographer—Russian-born and schooled, his skills expanded and fine-tuned in Denmark and Canada—treats the classical art form in an expansive way. He has a complete grounding in technique, of course, an appreciation of the theatrical toolbox, and the kind of curiosity an artist needs to break new ground. He does not reduce the classical palate in the name of self-serving innovation—he uses it all, thereby expanding it. Ratmansky does narrative, does abstraction, and philosophically and musically thematic works. He might be too classical for some. For me, he makes ballet vital and absolutely proves that it is a living art form, even for the 21st century.

The other thing he has done, and one of the reasons he has been such a boon for ABT, is he breathes life into a company that has always had dancer-talent to spare, but hasn’t effectively used them all. Because ABT is his home, Ratmansky knows these dancers and what they’re capable of. He casts them against type, so we see them  anew, too. Perhaps he even changes their own sense of self. In any event, the dancers onstage are always engaged, in the moment, and the ballets crackle with immediacy and the surprise of everyone pushing into the risky territory of truly live—rather than the safety net of the rote—performance.

This was the case Friday evening when the company danced an all-Ratmansky program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ( the closing show of the ’15-’16 season for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center).  In “Symphony #9,” to Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s Stella Abrera who shows us something else, something other than her adagio side, with saucy allegro phrases, little beats and jumps on point (there’s an ingenious pairing with Herman Cornejo, who is executing a remarkable string of etrechat six). Abrera and Craig Salstein are the lead couple of the first movement, a jaunty section of clever spatial devices, the dancers split by gender into interacting but separates “troupes.” “Symphony #9” (music from 1945) is one third of a Shostakovich trilogy, in which Ratmansky explores his own relationship, and the composer’s, to their shared homeland.

The slow second movement is led by Russian ballerina Veronika Part and soloist Alexandre Hammoudi. Here, there is sadness and love, each dancer representing and giving physicality to the “voices” of the opening clarinet and other woodwind instruments. Humans always need one another in Ratmansky’s ballets. At the section’s end, the couple lies down in jerky spurts, achieving a prone position that suggests perhaps they’ve died, making me think of the circumstances of the symphony, completed after the end of  World War II’s devastation.

Those connections are suggested in the final section (three musical movements played without pause) as the ballet now has a beige backdrop by George Tsypin with archaic drawings, including uniformed men with banners and dirigibles. The dancing is once again bright, upward, and Cornejo takes the lead here, Ratmansky using his lead’s unique buoyancy. Conductor David LaMarche led the musicians in their own stellar performance. Keso Dekker’s darkly hued halter dresses for the women and sleeveless tops and slacks for the guys were simple yet elegant. (Photo above by Rosalie O’Connor, with a different cast.)

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“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” is named after Leonard Bernstein’s five-part concerto (1954) used here as a score. This is a balletic discussion about among seven men (photo by Rosalie O’Connor) that will find additional resonance, I suppose, if you are well-versed in the source material—Plato’s “Symposium”—but which isn’t necessary to know for appreciation. Dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Daniil Simkin, and James Whiteside “banter” through gestures and steps, solos and groupings that telescope a broad range of feelings, from intimacy and companionship to painful solitude. Devon Teuscher materializes through a dramatically revealed opening in the backdrop and represents Diotima, a priestess who taught Socrates about the philosophy of love. Teuscher and Gomes embark on a duet of intense longing, and then she leaves. But the ballet ends with the men in a group, pointing urgently at Tuescher, who returns to the stage. She is Platonic ideal, or that which one aspires to.

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Slower and more cerebral than “Symphony #9,” “Serenade” makes stunning soloists out of dancers more often relegated to the uniformity of group numbers. Tall and gracious, Royal (pictured above, photo by Rosalie O’Connor) has a luxurious smoothness and pliant body. Jeffrey Cirio showed off fleet timing and soaring leaps. Shayer entertains with an infectious wit (and smile) and  bubbly personality. There aren’t enough solo parts for all of ABT’s high-caliber dancers Ratmansky puts them on the playing field, even if he can’t single-handedly level it. Brad Fields has created an understated but brilliant lighting design, helped by Jerome Kaplan’s white square scrim, positioned overhead. Kaplan’s costumes are problematic, though, with loose fabric scraps that interfere with the dancers’ steps, dangerously so.

Boylson2Rosalie O'Connor

The evening closed with Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” a magical, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately triumphant version of the Stravinsky ballet from 1910. Because I’m running long here, I’ll link here to my Los Angeles Times review of its premiere in Orange County in 2012. We saw a different cast on Friday. Among the leads, Cassandra Trenary was new to me, a standout soloist with big acting chops. She played up all the hilarious notes Ratmansky has given to the ragtag enchanted Maidens. Roman Zhurbin reprised the part of Kaschei and he continues to amaze with his reptilian version of evil. Isabella Boylston (above, O’Connor photo) was the night’s Firebird, and she brought strength and mystery to a part that feels stunted, never gathering enough steam; there are too many stops and starts, and ungainly positions. Perhaps someone will master it, but Ratmansky will tinker further.

In the meantime, bask in the unearthly imagery created by Wendall Harrington’s projections, Simon Pastukh’s unearthly trees and other scenery, and Galina Solovyeva’s fairy-tale costumes (glad the women’s wigs are back). It is an eye-popping sight.

The program repeats tonight (July 9) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (July 10) at 2 p.m. Click here for more information.

As dance fans were celebrating the local premiere of Mats Ek’s 2013 production of “Juliet and Romeo” at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa Friday night (June 10), we were simultaneously contemplating never seeing any other ballets by Ek. The 71-year-old Swedish choreographer will soon take a break from the dance studio—perhaps a final retirement, though maybe not; even he’s not sure. But he has said that once he’s done, he will not renew the performance rights to his ballets. Phewt! Just like that, all his works gone, for good.

Which had me asking: Can you miss something you haven’t seen? Ek’s modern-dance-style ballets are rarely seen in the U.S.; I don’t believe (though I could be mistaken) that any American companies perform his pieces. In 2002, I saw his revolutionary adaptation of “Swan Lake” (from 1987), performed by Cullberg Ballet at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It was an inspiring and radical reimagining and, with men cast as swans, appeared to have paved the way for better-known productions, notably Matthew Bourne’s celebrated version.

So, yes, there was a bit of mourning going on as I was reveling in the Royal Swedish Ballet’s performance of his “Juliet and Romeo.” What a shame that we have experienced such a narrow slice only of this transformative artist’s work.

For the Shakespeare classic, Ek has pared the details to two acts, and traded in the familiar Prokofiev ballet score for a select patchwork of Tchaikovsky: a little Manfred, some Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 5, String Quartet No. 1, and so on. (Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen led the Pacific Symphony musicians in mostly inspiring playing.) Tchaikovsky’s own “Romeo and Juliet” overture-fantasy is pointedly missing from the lineup. The music does not give us other references and perhaps for this reason, and for the stellar way in which musician Anders Högstedt adapted the selections, the score feels like a natural whole, rather than cemented together crumbs.

The lovers’ Verona is a dark smoky stage stripped of wings and backdrop, with corrugated moveable walls resembling boxcar sides that are shifted to create plazas, rooms, diagonal walkways and generally evoke an ominous atmosphere. The unidentified and indistinguishable citizens don’t so much fight as stalk about in formations, their heads down and legs deeply bent—something like Groucho Marx’s deep-knee gait but without the humor. Enforcers (my word) occasionally appear on Segways, and a collective shiver goes through the crowds. This is one bleak landscape.

As the ballet’s title suggests, Juliet is a more fully illustrated character than Romeo, and her proscribed life as a young female feels far more prison-like. When Juliet rejects Paris near the ballet’s conclusion, it is her Father’s rejection—vividly illustrated when dancer Arsen Mehrabyan raises his arm toward her like a rifle—that knocks her out, not any sleeping potion. Ek gives nearly equal weight, and certainly equal time to ancillary characters. Mercutio in particular is highlighted. He, not Romeo, is the leader of their gang of three (with Benvolio), and as portrayed by the bald and brawny Jerome Marchand, he is outrageous—taking a leak on the walls—but a fearsome bully, too. That “thing” between Lady Capulet, here called Mother (the excellent Nadja Sellrup) and Tybalt (a smoldering Dawid Kuinski) is made blunt and obvious. The Nurse (portrayed by Ek’s wife, the renowned Ana Laguna) is a force of strength.

Even with all this other action taking place, though, the central love story is not slighted. Mariko Kida is a perfect Juliet, and a perfect Ek heroine: earthy, emotional, sexual, fleet and technically wizardly. Anthony Lomuljo’s Romeo starts out as a naïve boy, but grows up fast when confronted with something to live for. Their two major duets are highly charged, but so different from the usual love pas de deux because Ek’s characters never interact in expected ways. When Lomuljo lifts Kida, her body sags; at another moment, she hangs onto his back in an ungainly upside down position with her legs parted like antenna behind his head. After a rush of cantering steps they finally crash into one another in a desperate hug, and this co-joining, so long in coming, becomes that much more resonant for the surprise of it.   

At the pre-performance talk, Ek said that the story’s two legs are young love and violence. The story is universal to begin with. But its the way he sticks to those themes that Ek makes it fresh all over again. This almost feral ballet cuts to the heart. It is a reflection that is at once centuries old, and of today, too.

Here’s hoping for more Ek, tomorrow, as well.

“Juliet and Romeo,” Royal Swedish Ballet, 7:30 p.m. June 11, 1 p.m. June 12; Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. $30 to $160. (714) 556-2787, scfta.org

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The men of Pony Box in a publicity photo

A self-produced concert, bringing together Pony Box Dance Theatre and Lula Washington Dance Theatre (at the Nate Holden on Saturday April 2), turned out to be a much better pairing than I had imagined.

Pony Box is a contemporary ballet company formed a few years ago by Long Beach choreographer Jamie Carbetta Hammond. It has male performers only (all of whom are wonderful). Lula Washington’s LA-based troupe, on the other hand, is one of Los Angeles’ most established companies (with an outstanding group of eight female and male dancers, with both companies sharing the talents of Jack Virga Hall). It has a diverse modern-influenced repertory, but with a focus on exploring the African-American experience.

What made these two female artistic directors good partners, I think, is their complementary artistic visions. They are humanists advocating for a better world through their art. They recognize the strife gripping the world and confront it directly in their art, and they make dances that hold up hope and righteousness as the prize.

The two pieces on Hammond’s half of the program, “The Line” (from 2015) and “The Collective” (2016), have strong similarities. Both take the viewer on metaphorical journeys of transformation. Hammond sets up conflicts that pit the individual against the group; suggesting that conformity is a lure, but also a dangerous state. She favors  a long and beautiful dance line, and complicated body positions. Her dancers are portrayed as sophisticated and Hammond emphasizes their masculinity. The men perform shirtless, enhancing the sensuality of her pieces. But this is not about selling sex, a la Chippendale’s; these men are strong but vulnerable, individuals but also symbols for humanity.

“The Line” begins with all seven dancers outside a rectangular rope that frames the stage and gives the dance, one supposes, its name. They have solos suggesting moments of prayer or spiritual searching, and then they dive into—or are sucked in, more likely—the center of the stage. Once there, they submerge into a face-less uniformity. Malachi Middleton pulls away, and tries breaking through to the others. He has a lovely, tender duet with Christian Beasley, but Beasley rejects Middleton’s efforts at connection. Middleton ends the piece by climbing a ladder, ascending, we presume, to a better place.

“The Collective” starts with a circle, the dancers dressed in two-toned stretch shorts each pair black on the behind and brightly colored on front. Hammond gives the guys cooperative movements; they are literally linked, supporting and pulling one another. A crate placed upstage, however, is the excuse for a hidden onstage costume change; when they emerge they’re wearing black and white pants, and black and white Venetian-style masks, a different one for each dancer (created by Ashley Castillo and Joseph Umali Fernandez). In this strange segment, each man  has a pole on which he awkwardly balances his head; it’s then used as a yoke across the shoulders. By the end, half the cast has changed yet again and discarded the masks; these are potent theatrical symbols yet their meaning here is murky. A collage of musical pieces, including works by Radiohead and Doug Hammond set an edgy mood, but they don’t drive the dance. This was true in “The Line,” as well, which featured recorded pieces by Doug Hammond (the choreographer’s husband), Thomas Yorke and Olafur Arnalds.

I like Hammond’s movement inventiveness but I’m not always sure what she’s trying to communicate. There are lengthy center stage, front-facing unison passages, which are reminiscent of classroom exercises. These two works are overly long. At the same time, I’m intrigued by the boldness and possibility of an all-male company, particularly one with a female leader.

Washington’s company presented three pieces, two of which featured onstage live accompaniment by Marcus L. Miller’s ace jazz quartet (he is Washington’s son-in-law). Washington’s 2015 “Search for Humanism” began the second half and it is the choreographer’s literal cry of fury over the ongoing spate of killings of African-Americans. “Stop! Stop killing! My babies are sacred!” a dancer-griot, or sage, implores and then shrieks at the audience. This is amped up, white-hot anger, and the dancers scamper at hyper-speed about the stage, fall as though shot, but then are revived with hugs. I thought of this piece as a kind of “Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece decrying the massacres of the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, “Search for Humanism” is flatly literal, and artistic perspective is sorely lacking—it’s one long scream of pain. I understand and empathize with the impulse, but it’s limiting as a dance.

Tamica Washington-Miller’s “Together” (2011) is a sweet showcase about love, and the fundamental rightness of finding one’s better half. It also showed off Krystal Hicks, a gorgeous dancer with perfect timing and rhythmic nuance. Raymond Ejiofor was her tender partner.

The evening ended on the high note that is “Global Village,” a 2010 celebration to Fela Kuti’s music. Washington made this infectious, joyous piece for the company’s first tour of China in 2011 and it is full of little touches that represent a multitude of cultures. The women’s brightly colored blouses have extra long sleeves, and waves of pigment flash over their heads every time they wave their arms. Washington has an unerring sense here for shifting groupings. It’s more than simply a fun and uplifting work—it’s enduring.   

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Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, photo by Alice Blangero

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was up at the Segerstrom Center’s international dance series, with the U.S. premiere of artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Choré,” on Friday night (Feb. 12). It struck me as 75 minutes of strange and frustrating work—occasionally engaging thanks to its theatrics; choreographically sleep-inducing (Eyelids, stay open!); and ultimately a mix of just too many weighty intellectual topics.

Let’s start with the title “Choré.” What Maillot is referencing here is also known as Syndenham’s chorea, chorea minor, and Saint Vitus Dance—a nervous disorder in which irregular, jerking movements are caused by involuntary muscular contractions, often a result of rheumatic fever. (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary.)  “Choré,” however, is not about illness. But it is about the compulsion to dance. Dancing is a natural part of being human, “Choré” tells us, and the forms that dance takes are a direct reflection of its makers and adherents, of culture and history, and how it metamorphoses over time. These are issues that the choreographer has been obsessed with throughout his career.

French author and librettist Jean Rouaud approached Maillot with a proposition: Make a ballet that looks at the developments of dancing in light of the American movie musical and, oh yeah, throw in major world events, including the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so on. That is “Choré.”

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I have to say that Maillot is more sophisticated than Russia’s Boris Eifman, who attempts to tackle some of the same issues but turns all his ballets into the dance equivalent of a melodramatic nightmarish scream-fest. Still, Maillot was not able to present any insights into the woven threads that connect life and art.

Rather, Maillot, with the essential collaboration of costume designer Philippe Guillotel and stage and lighting designer Domique Drillot, created some striking stage pictures. Not original, but eye-catching nonetheless.

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They present a world that is first sepia-toned and then black and white. Amid a group of elegantly attired couples—stand-ins for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—is one faceless masked duo in coal black, very eerie. A Gene Kelly character and his surrogates enter later, in polo shirts.  The second scene, a stereotypical look back at Hollywood movie-making, concludes with the dancers performing on a painted flooring of M.C. Escher-like stairways, which when reflected in the giant mirrored backdrop made for an ingenious recreation of a Busby Berkeley routine. Quite fabulous.

The “war” sequence places most of the cast in head to toe black-and-white convict-striped unitards, shades of Alwin Nikolais’ breakthrough designs. Dancer Mimoza Koike, the efficient secretary harassed by her superiors on the movie set, is now in shredded skirt, alone and horrified, the audience’s representative to war’s disasters. The aftermath is a surprisingly still, a denuded landscape of two couples on platforms, the women flying on aerial harnesses. Perhaps they are angels.

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Mimoza Koike, photo by Alice Blangero

The ending is an incongruously and abruptly happy sequence of boogeying and shimmying. And there is color for the first time, the entire cast walking on with punctuation marks of orange, green, and yellow jackets, shoes, and so on.

For his score, Maillot commissioned music from Bertrand Maillot (the choreographer’s brother), Yan Maresz and others, and used various existing compositions from John Cage and Danny Elfman.

The irony, I suppose, is that the actual dancing in “Choré” was the least interesting part of the production. Maillot has given his highly accomplished and enthusiastic dancers  run-of-the-mill group phrases, a chirpy solo here, a string of fouettes there. Koike was the night’s standout and it was lovely to see Bernice Coppieters (who has otherwise retired from the stage) come back; unfortunately her part as the “star”  was largely forgettable.

Next up at Segerstrom Center: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 7 through 10

  

Liam Scarlett was in the corps de ballet at England’s Royal Ballet when he made his first major work, “Asphodel Meadows,” for his home company. The ballet was a big hit; the year was 2010. A string of important commissions followed from Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among others. For a fellow in his 20s, his was an astoundingly precipitous rise.

Fast forward to Jan. 27, 2016. His second work for San Francisco Ballet premieres, and I saw it this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. Called “Fearful Symmetries,” it is set to John Adams’ orchestral work of the same name, which, with its pulsing beat and urgency, is a logical draw for choreographers; NYCB’s Peter Martins has his own “Fearful Symmetries.”

Scarlett approaches the music with a feral, throbbing lustfulness. The 16 dancers, clothed in skimpy black by costume designer Jon Morrell, stand face front and shimmy their shoulders with a dare-me-to confidence; or their backs are to us and they wiggle their butts. Or they face one another and rub against each other in the manner that would get you taken to the high school principal’s office.

I don’t want to mislead: Such provocations are a kind of a tease. The dancing is thrilling, full of bravura partnering and blatant classical athleticism. But it’s also simplistic. The dancers enter and exit mostly from the back. They appear and vanish into a cloak of black lighting (designs by David Finn), which intensifies the piece’s fever and mystery. Whole sections unroll in ordered group unison. At the end, as Adams’ music gets softer and slightly more gentle, a couple in balletic white (or pale blue) enters, and embarks on a brief, more traditional partnering adventure. What was this? The antithesis of the stalking gangs we’d just been watching? A duo who merely dreamed up the previous 25 minutes and we were witness to their thoughts?

“Fearful Symmetries” was the final ballet on a program that also included George Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies,” one section from the full-length “Jewels,” and 1988’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” Mark Morris’ brilliant take on quirky, folk-like piano works by Virgil Thomson. The three ballets made for an amazing evening, even if you didn’t happen to like everything. Here were strong choreographic statements from different generations of dance-makers, to music by innovative composers, and performed with focus and power by first-rate dancers.

“Drink” is a clever, cerebral, and visually stunning piece that is a playful mind-game of joyful complexity (the antithesis of Scarlett’s piece). Led by Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, the dancers attacked “Rubies” with joyful and calibrated abandon. Both pieces were memorably served. Other standouts were Pascal Molat (stepping in for Gennadi Nedvigin in “Drink”), and in “Symmetries,” Joan Boada, Lorena Feijoo and Zahorian, again.

All I want to know is why aren’t Southern California’s presenters bringing San Francisco Ballet here to dance for us? We need them.

 

L.A. Dance Project has, indeed, proved to be an L.A. company, performing locally more often than any other company that I know of. Here’s my review of their latest show, this past weekend.

 

Now 10 years old, Contra-Tiempo is one of Los Angeles’ most ambitious and accomplished home-grown dance companies, but your average resident would be hard-pressed to know about this striking group. It gets most of its gigs on the road, away from L.A., which is a loss for us. Artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez gives her company a distinctive mix of urban, Latin, Afro-Cuban, and contemporary movements; salsa dance was a part of her family’s life and she has integrated this vernacular form into her concert-dance language, which would seem a perfect blend for multicultural Los Angeles.

So the fact that Contra-Tiempo is in the midst of an eight-performance run (through Jan. 24) for the premiere of Alvarez’s latest work, “Agua Furiosa,” is a development worth applauding. Thank you to its presenter, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, for making it happen.   

In “Agua Furiosa” (literally, “raging/angry water”), it is Alvarez who is raging, and she has leveled her fury at a long list of social injustices: racism, immigration policies, gun violence, and environmental degradation being the most prominent in the 90-minute work. The five women and three men act out various themes—pointing pretend guns and “killing” each other, for example. Alvarez uses symbolic gestures, too, such as when the dancers form an old-fashioned bucket line to put out a pretend fire—except they don’t have any water. Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and an Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms called Oya served to inspire Alvarez, too.

She isn’t telling any particular story, though. Different dancers do take on the role of the enslaved half-human Caliban; yet, he is mostly a symbol. I felt that what Alvarez most wants the audience to take away is that we are all Caliban, in the sense of the “other.”

There’s a lot going on in “Agua Furiosa,” too much, frankly. The piece’s five acts play like disconnected scenes, and there isn’t the kind of cumulative growth that carries the viewer from beginning to end. I wish that Alvarez had either pared down her laundry list of grievances or gathered the various threads together for a final catharsis. I also wished I could turn off d. Sabela grimes’ sound score, an instrumental and vocally sampled track of grating, ad nauseam repetition. It was a case of aural assault distracting from my visual enjoyment.

And there’s the rub, the one consistent motif: the dancing in “Agua Furiosa” is furiously gorgeous as are her dancers—Isis Avalos, Christopher Cuneza, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Golden, Samad Guerra, Diana Toledo, Bianca Medina, and Francisco Herrejon. Galdamez opens the piece with a shimmying, torso-rippling solo that resembles the natural flow of water. Alvarez’s signature salsa is performed only briefly as a couples dance. African-inflected moves are sprinkled throughout, as are fearless break-dancing solos. Avalos has an extended solo of leaping, crawling, and gripping intensity. Singer Pyeng Threadgill promenades through the space, dividing the acts with haunting a cappella numbers. These are the moments from  “Agua Furioso” that will stick with me.

The piece continues through Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater on the UCLA campus. Click here for ticket information.

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