Review: Misty, Calvin & ABT’s ‘Harlequinade’

abt harlequinade 2018-stella abrera & carlos gonzalez, blaine hoven & misty copeland
Sarah Lane, Carlos Gonzalez, Blaine Hoven and Misty Copeland. All photos by Doug Gifford

“Les millions d’Arléquin” was a fluff-ball of a ballet, popular with audiences from its debut in 1900 until its last performance in 1929. It had a goofy comedic story, a lovely score by Italian composer Riccardo Drigo and unvarnished yet gracious choreography from the French-Russian ballet master, Marius Petipa.

Now, American Ballet Theatre has staged a revival and renamed it “Harlequinade.” ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky dug into written notation to reconstruct Petipa’s steps and added his own at points where there were gaps in the historical record. The result is seamless—and delightful. It premiered in New York last year and came to the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa for the first time Thursday through Sunday.

Friday night’s performance marked a different kind of first: Misty Copeland and Calvin Royal III portrayed Pierrette and Pierrot, making them the first African Americans cast as a couple in leading roles at ABT. Even though Pierrette and Pierrot are the ballet’s secondary duo, this rare presentation of black dancers in principal parts from the classical repertory was a milestone, and the show felt weighty with importance.

abt harlequinade 2018-misty copeland as pierette@doug gifford
Copeland in the final act, as Pierrette

Ballet has been slow to diversify its ranks. With the exception of Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is majority African American, you will have to hunt for black Americans at the major classical companies, particularly in the upper ranks. This has the effect of negating even the idea of black dancers in signature parts, such as Odette and Siegfried or Aurora and Prince Florimund. And the rarity of black couples invalidates them as a symbols of love and excellence. Far more than being merely symbolic, though, it was important to give Royal and Copeland the opportunity to dance together. It’s well past time for this to be a regular occurrence.

Both dancers made promising debuts in their respective parts. But I have to admit that the despicable history of black caricatures in entertainment was like a cloud hanging over Royal’s debut as Pierrot. The reason: the character is a clown, a servant, and his demeanor is servile. He is the object of audience laughter. He walks bent over, and flaps his arms exaggeratedly, making his long white sleeves soar about in confusion. He traditionally wears white face makeup. Royal decided to forego the makeup; instead Royal had rouged cheeks and eyes affixed with glitter and blue shadow. On the one hand, I can understand how it is completely unacceptable for a black man to put on white face, and it is certainly up to Royal to make that decision. But I also wonder if the makeup would have “finished” his costume, thereby undercutting the impression that we were watching a poisonous portrayal of African Americans—even though the role has nothing to do with that. (I wish I had a photo to post of Royal in costume. ABT provided these images from a dress rehearsal and I was told that because Royal was not in complete costume, an image of him was not available.)

I hate to think that a black dancer should want to forego portraying Pierrot. The character is, after all, a regular figure from commedia dell’arte, a storied theatrical form. (Ratmansky made a ballet for Diana Vishneva in which she portrays Pierrot.) Royal, perhaps, might experiment with different ways to play Pierrot’s buffoonish gestures. On Thursday night, Thomas Forster, who is white, made Pierrot slightly bolder, more his own master; at one point he attempted to avoid detection by pretending to flatten himself against the set’s buildings. Back to Friday, Royal relaxed and had more fun as the ballet progressed. Lean and lanky, he excelled at the character’s pratfalls. At the ballet’s conclusion, when Pierrot was able to straighten up and partner Pierrette, Royal’s natural elegance and princely demeanor shown through.

Pierrette is jovial and sly, and a master at manipulating her husband. Copeland had fun with the part. She grinned a bit too much, but character nuance and shading should come. Her point work and timing were confident and playful. Her upper body had softness and she was expressive and sweet-tempered.

abt harlequinade 2018-carlos gonzalez as harlequin@doug gifford
Carlos Gonzalez, expressing his joie de vivre

Also on Friday, Carlos Gonzalez was a high-flying Harlequin, strong and witty. Sarah Lane, as Columbine, excelled in her first act solo with its hops on point and smoothly executed rond de jambe—much harder than it looks. Keith Roberts gave a hilarious portrayal as the narcissistic Léandra and Alexei Agoudine was Columbine’s frumpy father.

abt harlequinade 2018-sarah lane as columbine@doug gifford
Sarah Lane as Columbine

Thursday’s cast delivered some memorable moments. Skylar Brandt, as Columbine, defined the part with her rock-steady balances on one leg. Daniil Simkin, as Harlequin, beautifully shaped his leaps, making it look as if he had stopped mid-air. His mimed gestures were easy to read. As mentioned, Forster brought an extra dimension to Pierrot. Stella Abrera, who is Filipino American and was promoted to principal dancer the same time as Copeland, continues to grow and delight. Her Pierrette was a glamorous comedienne.

Ratmansky’s wife Tatiana was a most perfect Good Fairy, her smile glowing almost as bright at the Chopard ruby and diamond necklace she wore on Thursday. (With 93 separate stones of more than 53 carats, it’s safe to assume there was an armed guard for it backstage.)

Robert Perdziola’s sets and costumes are ravishing, worth every penny. The Pacific Symphony brought sparkle to a score I was unfamiliar with, and was led by ABT conductors Ormsby Wilkins (Thursday) and Charles Barker (Friday). The violin soloist and what I believe were mandolin players were outstanding. (They were not identified.)

The ballet is fast-paced and entertaining. It came across as a precious bit of history, lovingly preserved. There’s no other ballet currently performed where a character opens the action by walking downstage and “talking” to the audience through mime. Twentieth century choreographers stripped out the mime from the old ballets. Putting it back means performers have to act as well as dance, and every scene is fuller, more lively, because of it.

Ratmansky puts a premium on style and subtlety, on the tilted head, and shoulders shifting in opposition to hips. Through his coaching, he has given ABT’s dancers the skills to pull off the 100-year-old style. It’s a more delicate means of expression but still transporting.

Finally, if you thought only “Nutcracker” had scads of children, “Harlequinade” surprised you with its parts for more than 30 little scamps. These mini-Harlequins, Pierrots and Pierrettes waltzed and swayed just so, just right.

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