Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet

10 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH premiered in 2008 and was the second ballet Ratmansky made for New York City Ballet. In the introduction to this digital stream (which is of a production filmed in 2018), Ratmansky talks briefly about the music, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F; the origins of that music; the double reference arising from the use of DSCH in the title of the work;* and a little about working with the dancers. All that he says is interesting, but nothing compares with the movement itself.

Concerto DSCH follows the three movements of the concerto and is danced by five soloists and a corps de ballet of fourteen dancers. The soloists comprise a trio of a woman and two men (Ashley Bouder, Joaquin De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia), and a duo of a woman and a man (Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle). The trio dominates the first movement. De Luz and Garcia show us expansive jumps and stretched legs, and virtuosic turns both on the ground and in the air. Bouder also stands out for her fast and perfect turning steps, and for a personality that shines throughout. As a group the three have a definite relationship but it is not exactly clear what that relationship is, other than it is a changing one. The corps de ballet often seems to be commenting on the actions of the trio but their dancing also demonstrates Ratmansky’s constant and always fascinating use of the stage space to arrange and rearrange groups of dancers.

The second movement is for the most part a pas de deux. Although Mearns and Angle appear in the first movement, the second is theirs even though the corps de ballet is also involved to a certain extent. Sometimes the corps mirrors what is happening in the pas de deux, at one stage they enclose Mearns and Angle in a circle, and sometimes they simply sit and watch what is happening.

The pas de deux vocabulary is liquid and filled with draped poses and sliding movements, with of course some thrilling lifts. Again there is a relationship, a definite emotional connection, between the two dancers, and at the end of the movement they part, each leaving via a different side of the stage, and each with a backward glance towards the other. Do we attribute this to a breakdown in a relationship? They often reach out to each other during the pas de deux, but scarcely touch on those occasions. But then in his introductory remarks to the streaming Ratmansky says he tells the dancers he is working with in this section to imagine they are young students out walking in a Russian city during the Winter Nights. So it is not really clear just what the connection between the two actually is.

The third movement speeds along in the manner of the first with an opening in which the five soloists engage with each other before the corps comes back in various combinations. The whole becomes like a choreographic coda.

Concerto DSCH is an astonishing work. It has virtuosity in spades, a sprinkle of humour, and those interpersonal connections—this latter a little surprising, and certainly cause for speculation. On the one hand the work is largely an abstract one, yet there is that definite emotional connection between the dancers. It might not be specific but it is there and indicates Ratmansky’s apparent interest in layering meaning and abstraction.

Ratmansky’s choreography never ceases to amaze, thrill and regularly surprise. I wondered, however, about the impact on his choreography of his interest, which I just recently read about, in Petipa and the Stepanov notation of Petipa’s works. In a review of Nadine Meisner’s relatively recent book on Petipa (Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master), the reviewer (Simon Morrison) writes:

The resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre, Alexei Ratmansky, has studied the Stepanov notation of Petipa’s ballets. ‘You can’t remove a step without destroying the whole structure,’ he has said. But ‘so much small footwork’ has been lost; the hop between fouetté and the arabesque in Paquita for example. **

Ratamnsky’s choreography is filled with small ‘between’ steps and, while it is his own remarkable work, I can’t help wondering about his use of what he has noticed has been lost over the years from Petipa’s choreography. But then those ‘between’ steps also indicate the musicality that imbues Ratmansky’s work. Let’s hope we see more of his choreography in Australia in due course.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2020

*DSCH forms and abbreviation of Shostakovitch’s name when written in German. It also refers to a musical motif.

* *Simon Morrison, ‘The bedroom of a sorcerer.’ London Review of Books, 2 April 2020. Review of Nadine Meisner, Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master (Oxford, July 2019).

Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Ballo della Regina and pas de deux from After the Rain. New York City Ballet

4 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

For me the two works on this New York City Ballet digital program are worlds apart. I have loved Ballo della Regina, choreographed by George Balanchine especially for Merrill Ashley in 1978, since I first saw it years ago now. On the other hand, After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in 2005, has never been a favourite for me, especially when only the pas de deux is shown rather than the whole work.

The production of Ballo della Regina that was streamed on this occasion was filmed in 2016 and featured NYCB principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the leading roles. I was interested to hear, in the introduction to the program, that Merrill Ashley handed down the ballet to Fairchild for her graduation performance from School of American Ballet in 2002. A graduation performance! And from the astonishing performer Merrill Ashley! Well the film was made around 14 years or so after that graduation and Fairchild has more than lived up to Ashley’s belief in her.

Ballo della Regina is probably not the most intellectually demanding ballet in any repertoire but it must surely be on of the most technically demanding. The female lead needs such fast and precise footwork, incredible musicality to keep the footwork in time with the music, and extraordinary energy. And the steps themselves are beyond the ordinary with unexpected changes of pace and direction and extraordinary use of the pointes. The male lead is also pushed technically, again with unexpected additions to standard movements. Both Fairchild and Huxley rose to the occasion and gave a performance that equalled any I have seen before and surpassed most.

Like most streaming programs Ballo is only available for a short time, but here is a short excerpt from the ballet with commentary by Fairchild, which should be available for longer.

The ballet is such a wonderful example of Balanchine’s choreography. We expect to a certain extent the fast footwork (although perhaps not always as demanding as we see in Ballo della Regina) but in Ballo we also see his particular use of arms and upper body (unusual inclines of the body and again those unexpected combinations). Then, when the whole cast is on stage, we notice so clearly his particular use of space along with the way he places the dancers in that space. Ballo was a great addition to the many available lockdown programs.

As for After the Rain, I have never liked what to me are awkward poses—upturned feet, parallel positions, crouching and collapsing bodies, back views of the dancers and manipulation of bodies using the feet, for example. They sit uncomfortably alongside those parts of the pas de deux that are anything but awkward. Still it was interesting to see Wendy Whelan in the role that was made on her. She was partnered by Craig Hall and the performance was filmed in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2020

Featured image: Promotional image for Ballo della Regina and After the Rain pas de deux. New York City Ballet, 2020

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. April 2020

  • Digital streaming

There has been much to watch via digital streaming over the past few weeks. The Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of New Zealand, and others have all provided some excellent footage of works from their repertoire. Some of the works I have seen via digital streaming I have already mentioned on this site, but there are two impressive productions I have just watched that I have not yet written about (except in relation to previous live productions).

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s filmed version of Bennelong is outstanding. I have been impressed with the work on the occasions when I have seen it live—my review is at this link. But it was exciting to see it on film as well. What I liked especially was being able to see Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up. Her leafy outfits for the dancers in the opening movements were just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see close up the textures of the fabrics used for the women in Bennelong’s life, who appear towards the end of the work. I also loved being able to see Beau Dean Riley Smith’s facial expressions throughout. He was such an impressive performer in this role. The film was (and still is at the time of writing) available via the Sydney Opera House website.

The second film that I really enjoyed was New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Apollo. It has been a while since I have seen Apollo live and I was staggered by the performance and interpretation of the title role given by Taylor Stanley, NYCB principal. He danced with such athleticism and displayed precision and strength throughout. He saw himself as a god and was determined to act accordingly. It was an eye-opener. This film was available on nycballet.com but finishes on 1 May. But … next up from NYCB is Ballo della Regina. I’m sure it will be worth watching.

  • International Dance Day

Wednesday 29 April 2020 was International Dance Day. But much (if not all) that had been planned was not able to come to fruition. Some of the Canberra dance community did, however, put together a short video, Message in Motion. It centres on a speech by South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and is spoken by Liz Lea. The opening movement sequences are from James Batchelor, who is currently confined in Paris where he has a residency.

  • George Ogilvie ((1931-2020)

I was sorry to hear that George Ogilvie, theatre director, had died in Braidwood, New South Wales, on 5 April 2020. I especially regret that he did not live to see the Kristian Fredrikson book published, although he knew that it was on its way. Ogilvie was one of the executors of the Estate of Kristian Fredrikson, and so I had some dealings with him as a result of his holding that position. He and Fredrikson enjoyed a productive and close collaborative connection beginning in the 1960s when Ogilvie was working as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company. They then went on to work together in productions by various theatrical companies including the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera (as it was then called).

Ogilvie also taught mime for the Australian Ballet School in its early years and in his autobiography, Simple Gifts, he recalls his time there, mentioning in particular his recollections of Graeme Murphy.

Vale George Ogilvie.

  • Chrissa Keramidas

In a previous post I mentioned an oral history I had recorded with Chrissa Keramidas for the National Library’s oral history program. That interview now has a timed summary, which is online together with the audio, at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2020

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019 Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. Photo: © Erin Baiano

All Robbins. New York City Ballet

3 March 2019. David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

It was Joan Acocella who wrote of Jerome Robbins in The New Yorker in 2001 that ‘…onstage his dancers act young, have young emotions, passing infatuations, passing sorrows. The picture is never adult, never this-is-what-life-is.’ Two works on the All Robbins program, Interplay and N.Y Export: Opus Jazz, fitted this categorisation. They were fun to watch and were very nicely danced. They were colourful in design and the music—Morton Gould for Interplay and Robert Prince for N.Y Export—made for interesting listening. Of the two perhaps N.Y Export was the more entertaining, with vibrant, jazz-infused movement that reminded me a little of West Side Story. But neither had much intellectual depth.

In fact, the highlight of this triple bill was the middle work, In the Night. Consisting of three pas de deux, each quite different in terms of the interrelationship between the dancers, In the Night did enter into an adult world of emotions. The first, danced by Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon, gave us lyricism and a soft, romantic quality. The second, with Maria Kowrowski and Russell Janzen, was more formal and even stately as it unfolded. The third, performed by Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, was the most dramatic. Mearns threw herself at Angle, angry and petulant and then pulled back, repeating this kind of action over and over. A highlight throughout was the exceptional way Robbins took the dancers off stage at the end of each pas de deux. He choreographed those exits, usually as lifts, to match the mood he established in of each pas de deux. Every exit was stunning. Then, in a coda, the six dancers reappeared, met, mixed, performed briefly with different partners, and then finally left the stage after a gentle waltz with their original partners.

In terms of dancing, there was little to fault in this program, which augurs well as the company begins a new era with recently appointed leaders Stafford and Wendy Whelan, who were appointed Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director respectively. But, personally, in this particular program I would have preferred just one work that was characterised by an interest in youth, and two that had more adult aspects to them.

Michelle Potter, 5 March 2019

Featured image: Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Erin Baiano

In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019 Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. Photo: © Erin Baiano

Tanaquil LeClercq

A documentary on one of New York City Ballet’s most luminous dancers, Tanaquil LeClercq, was shown last year at the New York Film Festival and is at the moment being shown at festivals in Germany, notably Berlin. Called Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and made by Nancy Buirski, it has just been released commercially. The trailer gives a tiny glimpse of what we might expect on this documentary, which is about 1½ hours long. There is some footage of LeClercq, partnered by Jacques D’Amboise in the Robbins Afternoon of a Faun, which indicates what an extraordinary interpretation these two gave to the role. But there is much else to admire, even from the trailer. What a fabulous performance in the very brief look we get at Western Symphony! and so on … The still photographs are just incredible too.

I can’t wait to see the full documentary despite the fact that some critics have suggested it is ‘flawed’ in parts. The footage is archival of course and so, sadly, a little blurred but even with the lack of high definition LeClercq is staggering.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq

Michelle Potter, 16 February 2014.

George Balanchine’s Nutcracker. New York City Ballet on film

New York does December in its own inimitable way and one annual and memorable event is a season of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet. This year, however, you didn’t have to be in New York to see the production. It was filmed live on 13 December and relayed in a high definition cinema broadcast across the United States. Just before Christmas it was screened in movie houses in Britain, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Australia.

While we all know that there’s nothing like being there, I loved the way this Nutcracker was so carefully filmed, especially Act I. I even liked the way the camera selected close-ups and never felt I was missing out on the action by having a close-up cut into the full stage view. I mostly liked the views shot from a side box too, especially in the Snowflakes scene where a high view accentuated the enclosed space of the snow-covered forest without taking anything away from the dancing. From a filmic point of view, Act II was probably less successful. But I suspect that this had something to do with Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s somewhat overwrought set of sweets and candies. Its visual complexities detract from the dancing at the best of times and, when seen on screen, the limitations of the two dimensionality of the medium are accentuated. However, I never once wished it had been shot in 3D!

One aspect of Balanchine’s version that I find especially enjoyable is the way in which children are incorporated into the production and the way the adult performers never treat them as anything but an integral part of the narrative. In Act I the children dance with the adults as well as with each other and have roles as soldiers, while in Act II they have their own roles as angels and as the children of Mother Ginger. In Act II they dance in the opening section and in the coda with all the panache of their adult counterparts. The coda in particular is quite fast but they are in there, totally unfazed and dancing beautifully.

The roles of Fritz and Marie, or Clara as we more commonly know her counterpart in Australia, are also children’s roles, rather than roles for smaller company members as often happens. The children from the School of American Ballet, who fill all the children’s roles, are professionals-in-training and it is hard to fault the way they conduct themselves on stage. In the role of Fritz, Maximilian Brooking Lendegger was captivatingly naughty and almost stole the show from the rather more placid and appropriately well-mannered Colby Clark as the princely child hero and nephew of Herr Drosselmeier. Marie was danced by a very composed Fiona Brennan. I was also mesmerised by a dark- haired child aged about eight, the youngest (or at least smallest in height) of the Polichinelles who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II. She grabbed my attention immediately with her innate understanding of how to use the space around her to achieve maximum effect from her movements.

Of the adult performers Megan Fairchild danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was partnered by Joaquin De Luz: lovely techniques both of them but on this occasion not much of the radiance that should accompany these roles. They are after all the roles of a prima ballerina and a premier danseur. The standout performers among the adults were Teresa Reichlen as a glamorously slinky Coffee, Tiler Peck as the leading Marzipan (in a tutu that I found clumsy and unattractive though) and Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop, the leading dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers. Bouder’s technical skills were electrifying. In Act I Adam Hendrickson gave a strong performance as Herr Drosselmeier. He captured every bit of the fantasy and mystery of this character.

The film was introduced by Kelly Ripa, who hosts a popular television series in the United States, and she also hosted several backstage interviews during the intermission. They included some interviews with excited child performers and a discussion of some of the technical tricks asociated with the production – the Christmas tree that grows during the transformation scene, for example. They were all interesting, even fascinating at times, but I could easily have done without some of Ripa’s comments. They were no doubt meant to appeal but often dumbed down what was happening.

Years ago now the American dance writer Edwin Denby remarked of Balanchine’s take on Nutcracker: ‘It’s Balanchine’s Oklahoma!’ This particular production, with sets by Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska, dates back to 1964 and it is indeed a very American production, right down to its flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh that carries Marie and her Prince across the stage in the closing scene. At Christmas its glitz, even when it’s a little over the top and even when Ripa behaves a little too ingenuously, is irresistible.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2011

A clip on YouTube is brief and promotional (but professionally shot) and gives an overview of what the production is like.

Jewels. New York City Ballet

27 February 2010, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

What a pleasure and a luxury it is to those whose home is not New York to see the full length Jewels. Made by Balanchine in 1967, each of its three distinct sections—’Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’—is set to music by three different composers, Fauré for ‘Emeralds’, Stravinsky for ‘Rubies’ and Tschaikovsky for ‘Diamonds’. Many have suggested that Jewels is also in homage to three different countries—’Emeralds’ to France, ‘Rubies’ to Balanchine’s adopted homeland, America, and ‘Diamonds’ to Russia. But in the end, Jewels is an evening of delicious and diverse dancing.

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. Diamonds is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

The structure of ‘Emeralds’ calls for two leading couples. On this occasion Abi Stafford and Jared Angle were a gracious couple, transcendent in their pas de deux, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford showed breathtaking expressiveness and expansiveness of movement. Robert Fairchild was impressive as the male member of the pas de trois of soloists, showing his courteous partnering without losing his own strong presence.

‘Rubies’ showcased a pert and prancey Janie Taylor and a boisterous Benjamin Millepied. They were more than ably supported by Savannah Lowrey and a strong corps de ballet whipping off the clean, fast footwork, flicking wrists and eye catching head movements of this section.

The big disappointment, however, came with ‘Diamonds’. There were some uplifting moments—a polonaise for the corps de ballet that was just joyous Balanchine, for example. But Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal lacked attack in their pas de deux and so the brilliance and strength that should characterise this act was lost. And Whelan seemed hugely uncomfortable in her 1960s style ‘powder puff’ tutu.

New York City Ballet’s Jewels could well do with a redesign in my opinion. While choreographically it remains as modern as today, as the French ballerina Aurélie Dupont has remarked, both Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s scenery for New York City Ballet are fussy and look outmoded. Christian Lacroix and Brigitte Lefèvre have made the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging of Jewels a cut above that of New York City Ballet. Lacroix’s scenery verges on the minimalist and his costumes, while they recall those of Karinska, have a more contemporary feel (especially the tutus for ‘Diamonds’), which to my mind allows the choreography to maximise its ‘as modern as today’ image.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2010

Two by Balanchine. New York City Ballet

20 February 2020, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Liebeslieder Walzer; Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,

This double bill of works by Balanchine had two highlights for me: Teresa Reichlen’s performance in the leading female role in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 and that of Wendy Whelan in Liebeslieder Walzer.

Teresa Reichlen, whom I remember admiring in a variety of solo roles in 2007, was promoted to principal dancer in 2009. Her dancing is still a little coltish but her limbs are beautifully proportioned in relation to her trunk and she is technically self-assured. But more than anything else she is an artist who understands how to maximise her technical ability and physical capacity. Her dancing shows in particular the expansiveness that can characterise balletic movement. In Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto her grands jetés en tournant provided a breathtaking example. Each time we watched this step unfold on stage, as Reichlen thrust the second leg into the air her chest opened, her neck stretched and her head lifted. Here before our eyes was the broadness of scale, the open and communicative nature of classical ballet.

I continue to think, however, that this ballet, which in an earlier manifestation was called Ballet Imperial, would have more impact with the female dancers in tutus, as was earlier the case. Despite any changes that may have been made to the original 1941 version, the ballet is still structurally and in its vocabulary a Petipa-style ballet and begs to be costumed in the Petipa tradition. Those floating chiffon ‘night-dress numbers’ do nothing for it.

Wendy Whelan, in contrast to Reichlen, has been a principal since 1991 and her maturity as a dancer and an artist is clear. But again she is one of those dancers who is able to use technique as a means to an end. Liebeslieder Walzer, like the Tschaikovsky, also contained some breathtaking technical moments. Perhaps the most moving occurred in the very last pas de deux for Whelan and her partner when a series of posé turns by Whelan suddenly and unexpectedly gave way to a promenade in arabesque with her partner deftly moving into place to take Whelan’s hand and lead her into the promenade. The surprise of this movement was of course partly Balanchine at work, but it took Whelan’s fluid dancing to bring it so beautifully to life.

Both Reichlen and Whelan have that knack of showing an audience what artistry is about. They both are able to take ones breath away with what so often in the hands of lesser dancers looks like just another step.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2010

New York City Ballet’s Australian tour, 1958

A recent comment posted on this website spoke of the differences between the styles of three major ballet companies visiting Australia in the mid-decades of the twentieth century: de Basil’s Ballets Russes, Ballet Rambert and New York City Ballet. The comment went on to note that perhaps the most enthusiastic attendees at New York City Ballet performances when that company first visited Australia in 1958 were those interested in stage and film musicals. The full remark about the attendees can be read in the comments section at the end of the post at this link, and it prompted me to post the small picture gallery below.

Images top row: (left) Symphony in C, (right) Stars and Stripes
Bottom row: (left) Concerto Barocco, (right) Serenade

Most of the repertoire brought to Australia by New York City Ballet was by Balanchine although works by Jerome Robbins and Todd Bolender were also included. But even looking at the small number of  images in the gallery, it is clear that the range of works was diverse. The gallery includes images of some of Balanchine’s works that might be seen as redolent of musical theatre, along with others from some of his most glorious pared-back, abstract creations.

New York City Ballet did not receive the attention in Australia that it deserved and the company was disappointed with its reception, according to Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie was a close friend of several of the dancers as a result of her decade of dancing in the Americas. She believed that New York City Ballet’s repertoire and style of dancing were way ahead of Australian audiences’ expectations at the time. Tweedie also noted that there were financial issues that caused the dancers some unhappiness. She has remarked in an oral history interview that the dancers were not able to take their salary, paid to them in Australian dollars, out of the country but had to spend it in Australia. It was the reason, she maintains, that Andre Eglevsky came but stayed only a week or so. He had a family to support in America and could not afford to spend his money on frivolous items such as souvenirs.

All the images in the gallery were taken during performance by Walter Stringer, an enthusiastic amateur photographer based in Melbourne. His photographic record of almost every dance company that performed in Melbourne between about 1940 and 1980 is of inestimable documentary value, especially given that his archive is now in public hands and so available to all for research.

Further comments, including identification of dancers in the Stringer images, are welcome. All photos are reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2009

Featured image: New York City Ballet in Western Symphony. Melbourne, Australian tour, 1958