Arts In LA
Dance in LA in 2018

Ballet review

The Nutcracker
American Ballet Theatre at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Kellan Hayag as the Nutcracker and Lani Mefford as Clara
Photo by Paul Rodriguez/Orange County Register

Though most ballet lovers love it, The Nutcracker is a confusing jumble of a ballet. In American Ballet Theatre’s current version, thankfully still set to the Tchaikovsky score, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has done little to untangle the jumble. By its end, we know three things about Ratmansky: He has an iconoclastic streak, he’s interested in egalitarianism, and he loves soubresauts (little jumps in which the feet tuck up).
   On the ballet’s opening night at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the ABT pros looked like they had jet lag. On the other hand, the kids onstage—students from American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts—looked like pros. This is American Ballet Theatre, for Christmas’ sake. The leads shouldn’t be hopping to finish pirouettes. The corps should stay tidily together. And all should have that star quality that says, “We are deservedly the best in the country if not in the world.”
   The children, however, shone. They dance in time. They stay in line. And those lines and patterns are sophisticated and complicated even for adults. The students display beautiful carriage and épaulement (relative position of head and shoulders) while their feet work hard.
   Ratmansky sets his first scene in the Stahlbaum family’s kitchen. The frantic staff tries to prepare for a party while the tiny mouse ensconced under the table is adorably defiant (danced by young Andrew Dove, who proves that physical comedians are born, not made).

The party swings into action, with swirling masses of kids and gifts and tipsy adults. Little Clara (Lani Mefford) and her obnoxious brother Fritz (Salvatore Lodi) mingle with the guests, until the apparently uninvited Drosselmeyer (Roman Zhurbin) arrives with major giftage: life-size dolls. Columbine (Cassandra Trenary) and Harlequin (Arron Scott) appear in black-and-white outfits, among the most-striking of Richard Hudson’s lavish costuming (he also designed the scenery here). Next comes the soldier Recruit (Luis Ribagorda), sometimes danced as a solo but here joined by the Canteen Keeper (Courtney Lavine), who shares the energetic choreography. Then, Drosselmeyer gives Clara a toy Nutcracker, which through stagecraft appears life-size and toy-size throughout the scene.
   Clara, sad to head to bed, seems to awaken to an infestation of mice. In marches a battalion of toy soldiers (the young students again) led by the Nutcracker, who turns out to be “real” (Kellan Hayag). With help from Clara, who tosses her shoe into the fray, he slays the Mouse King (Thomas Forster).
   Young Clara rejects a friendly advance from the young Nutcracker. But then we see a grownup Princess Clara and her Nutcracker Prince (ABT principals Hee Seo and Cory Stearns), and they’re in love. The younger pair find themselves snowed in. The snow frightens Clara. Those bouncy soubresauts of the 24 corps de ballet Snowflakes may frighten traditionalists. Drosselmeyer sends in a sleigh to rescue the two youngsters and propel them toward Act 2.

The Snowflakes and their soubresauts
Photo by Paul Rodriguez/Orange County Register

That act begins with byplay between four boys and four girls, trying to play it cool as the boys ask the girls to dance. Then we see the Kingdom of the Sweets in rehearsal mode. Wait, are those Bees, drawn to all the sugary morsels? Four men in black velveteen tights, black frockcoats, yellow-and-black striped vests, and yellow helmets topped by deely boppers certainly attract our attention. The young Nutcracker reenacts Clara’s shoe-throwing rescue, the moment nearly lost in the busyness, or in this case buzzy-ness, surrounding the miming.
   Then comes the traditional parade of international characters. The lackluster Spanish dancers are covered head to toe in bulky costuming. The usually droning Arabian dance gets a twist here, as four wives prove an unhappy fantasy for their husband (Forster). The Chinese couple is a socialist treat, as man and woman lift each other equally (Skylar Brandt, Joseph Gorak). But the three Russians are a bland Three Stooges, a waste of great music and good dancers (Alexei Agoudine, Ribagorda, Scott). The reed pipes music is given over to a quintet Ratmansky calls the Nutcracker’s Sisters. They look more like female leprechauns, in green-and-white costuming with jauntily cocked top hats. Thank goodness the kids return to the stage as Polichinelles who escaped from under the towering skirt of Mother Ginger (Duncan Lyle).
   Some of this ballet’s most-beautiful music is Waltz of the Flowers. The solo portion, customarily choreographed for the Dew Drop Fairy or an equivalent, here is given to those Bees. Well, in all fairness, men finally get to dance to that glorious music. So do 16 corps members as Flowers, but they appear careless, their raised legs at different heights, their jumps not in unison.

Grown Clara and the Nutcracker Prince dance the pas de deux traditionally the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy (hard to find here, but embodied in an Act 1 program credit). Ratmansky leaves intact some of the original 1892 Mariinsky version, including a concluding fish dive, safe and uninspired here. The two pas de deux solos seem not to go with, let alone enhance, the music. Ratmansky takes symmetrical music and makes it seem asymmetrical, which is intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. The best to be said of maestro Ormsby Wilkins and the Pacific Symphony is that they don’t overwhelm the dancing.
   Someone needs to make American Ballet Theatre great again. The company would be wise to eventually bet on some of the kids.
December 15, 2018
Published with kind permission of Orange County Register

Ballet review

Swan Lake
Los Angeles Ballet

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Swan Lake is undeniably a world-famous ballet. Ask people across the globe who know a bit about ballet to hum a few bars of the Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky score, and they’re sure to come up with Act 2’s main theme, if not more. Or show them an image of the Swan Queen, in her white-feathered headdress and feather-flocked tutu, her arms undulating, and they’ll quickly name the ballet.
   But what does it take to mount a world-class production of it? Any company, even without its own stellar prima ballerina and premier danseur, can always hire guest stars. Or, more impressively, it can lean on its own corps dancers. At the opening-night performance of Los Angeles Ballet’s Swan Lake, at Glendale’s Alex Theatre, the corps came through.

With choreography here by co-artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the story centers on Prince Siegfried, who for his 21st birthday is given a party but told by the queen that he must choose a bride. The queen then gives him a jewel-encrusted crossbow, and he and his inebriated friends head lakeside to hunt birds.
   In Act 2, Siegfried comes across a flock of women who, under a spell from the immutably evil Von Rothbart, appear in the form of white swans, led by the swan queen Odette. Siegfried falls in love with Odette and promises her his eternal fidelity, which can break the spell.
   In Act 3, Siegfried is at his birthday ball the next evening where he must find a wife. But the pretty princesses from other nations can’t take his mind off Odette. Suddenly, in bursts Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile, who looks exactly like Odette but clad in black. Siegfried, deceived, asks his mother for permission to marry Odile. He then discovers his fatal breach of promise.
   In Act 4, the prince returns to the lake to face the betrayed Odette.

Kenta Shimizu and Petra Conti
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

LAB’s production begins with a Jester, and Akimitsu Yahata sets the bar high, with bounding technique and comedic chops. But the male corps of six, dancing in exact unison, starts to establish the pattern of corps excellence here. The peasant trio is performed satisfyingly cleanly, if somewhat cautiously, by Laura Chachich, Jasmine Perry and Tigran Sargsyan (who also serves as Siegfried’s friend Benno). Kenta Shimizu dances the role of Prince Siegfried, and Petra Conti dances Odette and Odile. These two principals are technically clean and proficient. Neither is particularly exciting. That could be because the story is muddy here. The prince starts out as a relatively contented soul. The swan queen starts out as not particularly distressed. And so not much character arc is available to them. However, Conti certainly sizzles as Odile in Act 3. Also troubling, even in other productions, is why the queen (Neary) shows no alarm when her son’s potential father-in-law Von Rothbart (Zheng Hua Li, an excellent dancer-actor hidden here under overwhelming costuming and dim lighting) is clearly so Machiavellian.
   LAB’s curtain rises on each act to reveal a different set (scenery and costumes courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre). And those sets are elaborate. Apparently that explains the three 20- to 30-minute intermissions between acts. No matter. This production has one stellar asset that’s rare to find and more than worth waiting for.

It takes dig-down-deep grit and hours upon hours of discipline to move in unison as the women of the swan corps did on opening night. It also takes a sharp eye and firm but not terrifying hand to coax dancers, trained in schools across the nation and the globe, into thrillingly identical musicality and lines. Los Angeles can be rightfully proud that this unison—this understanding of musicality and subjugation of individual egos, this utter presence and intelligence to fix spacing on the go without benefit of mirrors and second chances—lifts this production into world class.
March 5, 2018

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News

Ballet review

Modern Moves
Los Angeles Ballet

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Petra Conti, Tigran Sargsyan, and Kenta Shimizu in Les Chambres de Jacques
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Two steps forward, one step back. That’s a dance pattern, but it’s also a pattern of history. Los Angeles Ballet titles its current production Modern Moves. The company takes two daring steps forward, staging two company premieres of contemporary pieces. Then it takes a retrospective step back, reviving a piece by the undisputed grandfather of modernist ballets, George Balanchine (1904–1983).
   The evening begins with excerpts from Les Chambres des Jacques (translatable as The Rooms of the Jacks), choreographed by Aszure Barton in 2006. Perhaps the full work would have explained more, but the 25 minutes of these excerpts only hint at possible meanings. And so we watch, eyes magnetized to the stage. The choreography is as eccentric as the piece’s music—by Gilles Vigneault, Antonio Vivaldi, Les Yeux Noirs, The Cracow Klezmer Band and Alberto Iglesias. And yet it feels rooted in classical dance forms. Solos, duets and full ensembles provide the structure. From there, Barton deconstructs basic human movement, which she apparently finds endlessly interesting and inspiring. And because the company dances the work with full joyous commitment and strong technique, the audience finds it interesting and inspiring.
   Clad in jacket and slacks, Clay Murray opens the show and sets a high bar with his fiendishly difficult solo. He flails, he distorts, he torques in perpetual motion. Murray soon will be stellar. He’s not there yet. Kenta Shimizu is stellar. His solo displays dancerly maturity. His movements are finished: They end purposefully, they are polished. He knows which ones to emphasize, which to make subtle. Unusual for programming, the piece closes with a solo, here by Tigran Sargsyan, who moves with velvety athleticism. When he emits a silent scream, we hear it. And here we realize perhaps the piece has been about the flirtations and frustrations of romance.
   Barton creates a strange yet strangely familiar world. The men sniff the women, the women wriggle provocatively. Costume design by Robyn Clarke after Anne-Marie Veevaete’s originals puts the women in a shortened version of 19th-century undergarments, the men in various styles of outerwear. These might not be the most modern of moves. One step back.

In 2006, Alejandro Cerrudo choreographed Lickety-Split to music by Devendra Banhart. Romantic love again seems at the heart of this 20-minute piece. Cerrudo focuses more on the visuality of movement, less on conveying specific ideas to us, though, like Barton, he captures our interest, also thanks to the dancers’ intensity. Jasmine Perry and Dallas Finley enchant as a serene couple, perhaps newly attached, certainly young. Leah McCall and Joshua Brown display remarkable dynamics as a frenetic couple, McCall repeatedly wringing her hands over her head. Bianca Bulle and Sargsyan seem to be the couple who stay together through humor: Memorably, she lets him bonk his head on her bum. Though the dancing is again flawless, and though the dancers clearly relish the opportunity to break ballet rules, the piece leaves the impression of 1950s pairings and partnerings. One step back.

Bianca Bulle and the corps in Western Symphony
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Perhaps Balanchine wanted a respite from his serious, abstract works, so he looked to the American West for inspiration, choreographing Western Symphony in 1954. Its music, by Hershy Kay, orchestrates familiar folk tunes, including “Red River Valley” and “Good Night Ladies.” But around the time Laura Chachich and Eris Nezha enter and she’s dressed in lilac (color-coded costuming by Laura Day “after” Balanchine’s famed artistic partner Karinska), we begin to catch on to Balanchine’s game. He balletically deconstructs French and Russian ballets, to giggle-inducing effect.
   After Chachich and Nezha’s bounding “allegro” (here Balanchine names sections after musical movements) comes the wonderfully steely Petra Conti, wearing pewter, and Sargsyan, with impressive partnering, in the “adagio” that seems to gently mock Giselle and Swan Lake. The “scherzo” of the original, rarely seen since 1960, remains absent here. Bulle and Shimizu get their hilarious digs in during their “rondo,” though most notable is her Ascot-worthy hat, most of which is removed backstage before she re-emerges for her fouettés (the whipping turns on one leg), so obligatory in the classics. No wonder the humorless French and Russian critics lambasted Western Symphony when it arrived on their stages. Here, the entire evening is two steps forward and promenade home for Los Angeles Ballet.
October 18, 2018
Reprinted courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News

Ballet review

The Nutcracker
Los Angeles Ballet

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Petra Conti and Tigran Sargsyan
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

In resetting the traditionally European story in Los Angeles and reorganizing Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, Los Angeles Ballet muddies rather than enhances The Nutcracker. But the Christmas ballet nonetheless remains a joyous extravaganza. Fortunately, we still get that gorgeous, lushly orchestrated and memorably melodic music, danced by performers who look genuinely happy to be onstage and giving joy.
   Let’s commend choreographers Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary for keeping the score’s overture unadorned—no dancing, no visuals, just time for the audience to settle into the seasonal magic. Then we see young Clara (Cleo Taneja), playing with three dolls as she imagines being a ballerina. Her friends don’t get this girl with big dreams. But dream she does.
   Her parents host a party in their spacious drawing room (scenic design by Catherine Kanner). Mrs. Staulbaum (Chelsea Paige Johnston) is as pretty as expected, but Mr. Staulbaum (Eris Nezha) is an unexpected hoot as he reacts to the many goings-on around him.
   Tots in the audience will watch the envy-inducing children onstage, in Edwardian party attire and performing pretty little dances. They’re led by Fritz (Zachary Li), who’s Clara’s little brother and ballet’s youngest miscreant. Maids and butlers dance alongside snooty guests—which we know from Julian Fellowes wouldn’t actually happen in those days. Speaking of Downton Abbey, milliners must have been working in fevered states to create hats for the Staulbaum guests to rival those of Maggie Smith (Nutcracker costumes designed by Mikael Melbye).

Uncle Drosselmeyer (Zheng Hua Li) arrives. In most versions he troublingly creeps around the younger guests, but happily here he casts his flirtatious eye on the pretty moms as he sweeps by in his long grey fur coat. He presents three life-size dolls he has magicked to dance. Harlequin (Akimitsu Yahata) and Columbine (Alyssa Harrington) are sweet. But jaws drops when the Cossack Doll (Jeongkon Kim) takes center stage. Kim has huge, light jumps—unexpected for a man of his height, more associated with stocky dancers.
   And then Drosselmeyer gives Clara a life-size nutcracker, who fascinates Clara. The guests depart. Clara is put to bed with her favorite doll, Marie. The Nutcracker is propped up nearby. The lighting darkens (Penny Jacobus and Tyler Lambert-Perkins), the music darkens, and giant mice creep out, one daring to perch on Clara’s bed. Fortunately, Fritz’s toy soldiers (the children from the party) come to life and battle the mice.
   Honestly, who throws a shoe? Clara does, helping her Nutcracker vanquish the Mouse King (Joshua Brown). The Nutcracker is in fact a sweet-faced boy (Joshua Schwartz). Schwartz shows well-schooled technique, crisp clear mime, and perhaps the kindest, most genuine, most heartfelt smile ever seen on a ballet stage.
   Drosselmeyer now wears a floor-length white fur coat, turning him into a blend of Winter Warlock and Liberace. He takes Clara and the Nutcracker to the Land of Snow. He’s pushing their sleigh, so it’s probably no farther than Angeles Crest Highway. But we forget practicalities while 12 corps members display refined musicality and immense discipline in creating the clean lines and dizzying patterns of Waltz of the Snowflakes. So far, the story pretty much hews to traditional Nutcrackers.

Bianca Bulle as the rose in a garden of sunflowers
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Then comes Act 2. The red, white and black color scheme of the first act gives way to warm adobe tones, and we’re in a palacio, or perhaps on Olvera Street. Seated around the stage are Russian, Arabian and Spanish dancers, life-size sunflowers, and the Harlequins from Act 1. Clara’s beloved doll Marie has come to life (classically flawless Petra Conti), substituted for the more traditional Sugar Plum Fairy. She and her Prince (Tigran Sargsyan) watch as Clara and the Nutcracker recap Act 1’s grand battle.
   Two Heralds (Ugo Cirri, David Renaud), or pashas, or peons, host the festive dance-off. Without reference to other Nutcrackers, it’s probably hard to tell what’s going on. Few of the dances acknowledge Clara and the Nutcracker watching from the sidelines.
   But we have the hoped-for return of the spectacular Kim as the head Russian Dancer, accompanied by two agile, bounding comrades (Dallas Finley, Costache Mihai). Music for The Chinese Dance, or Tea, is given over to the Harlequins. Is this a political boycott, or are the customary Chinese characters more racist than the Russians, Arabians (Jasmine Perry, Brown) or Spaniards (Laura Chachich, Magnus Christoffersen, Madeline Houk, Clay Murray)?
   The original Sugar Plum choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov remains, though Christensen and Neary moved the two solo variations from the pas de deux to the top of Act 2, keeping the Adagio in its place near the ballet’s end but omitting the vibrant Coda. Also excised is the Dance of the Reed Pipes, along with any of the ballet’s subtext, leaving it scrupulously sanitized.
   The corps of sunflowers, though dancing Waltz of the Flowers beautifully, looks pallid behind the Rose (traditionally the Dew Drop Fairy), who actually looks more like a sweet pea (sturdily elegant Bianca Bulle).
   Still and all, this Nutcracker is bound to satisfy our need to annually hear the glorious score and watch the panoply of fine dancers, from tiny through veteran, who graciously welcome us into this ballet, ultimately about our biggest dreams.
November 26, 2018

Published with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.

Ballet review

Romeo & Juliet
Joffrey Ballet at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Photo by Cheryl Mann

To see astonishingly good dancing, one need go no farther than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this week, where the Joffrey Ballet brings its latest incarnation of Romeo & Juliet.
   Many choreographers have taken on Shakespeare’s text to create a ballet about teen love and age-old hatreds, about heated violence and icy intransigence. Most if not all these choreographers have used Sergei Prokofiev’s lush, textural, programmatic score, as does this one. In the mid-1980s the Joffrey, then of New York, danced choreographer John Cranko’s version of the ballet. Now of Chicago, the Joffrey has taken on Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography.
   Though the women dance en pointe, in toe shoes, the style is contemporary, only occasionally dipping into classical ballet steps. This should give Pastor much more movement to work with. But somehow all the characters seem to “speak” in the same vocabulary. So, with one exception, it’s up to the costuming and to the dancers’ acting skills to let the audience in on who’s who and what’s what.

What Pastor tells the audience about Juliet’s parents, the Capulets, is fascinating. Lord Capulet is chillingly controlling and, danced by the very tall Fabrice Calmels, is brutishly threatening. Lady Capulet, here called “His Wife” as if mere chattel, is almost certainly abused by him; danced by April Daly, she pours her love into dressing her infantilized daughter. (Juliet’s Nurse doesn’t appear in this version.) This family dynamic, perhaps better than even Shakespeare’s text, explains why otherwise brave little Juliet, given irrepressible self-confidence here by Christine Rocas, can’t talk to her parents about Romeo Montague, danced with an almost genteel shyness and dignity by Rory Hohenstein.
   The remainder of Pastor’s narrative is muddled and confusing. Further, Pastor uses no mime, removing the traditional ways the story is conveyed to balletomanes.

Rory Hohenstein and Temur-Suluasvhili
Photo by Cheryl Mann

Pastor’s first act takes place in 1930s Italy. Of course that’s Mussolini’s era and the decade in which Prokofiev wrote the score. Across a crowded plaza comes a tall, stately man in a black waistcoat and tails. Surely he must be the Prince. It takes awhile to realize he is Lord Capulet.
   Act 2 takes place in the political unrest of 1950s Italy, though the characters haven’t aged and wear the same clothes. Romeo and Juliet marry, though the audience is clued in only by the Friar Lawrence’s (Dylan Gutierrez) sign of the cross.
   Costuming (Tatyana Van Walsum, who also designed the sparse but visually striking sets) includes taffeta dirndl skirts for the townswomen and suits for the men in the first two acts, then briefly introduces grunge for the third-act 1990s. But the set relies on the audience’s knowledge of the play, particularly that Juliet is left in the family crypt, where Romeo finds her. And then the Montagues and the Capulets carry their dead son and daughter off in different directions, and no one seems to have learned a thing.
   The choreography includes hand-to-hand combat, including arm bars that, if not perfectly rehearsed as they are here, could go wrong. Indeed, most of the fighting looks real and rough. The dour Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili) needs a blade to kill the impish Mercutio (Yoshihisa Arai); here Lord Capulet slips him a knife.

So it’s left to the dancing to thrill the audience here. And thrill it does. The ensemble is uniform in skill and style and looks as if any of its members could be a principal dancer elsewhere. The principals here are steely strong yet have gorgeously fluid technique, clearly schooled in Pastor’s style. See this production for the dance technique. But if you’re at all interested in story and storytelling, other choreographers’ versions of the “story of woe” are far more compelling.
March 12, 2018

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News


Fitzmaurice Voicework
with Lisa Pelikan


* Scissorhands at Rockewell; dance reviews from 2018

On our sister site, ArtsInNY, reviews of Choir Boy and Slave Play; To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lifespan of a Fact, and Clueless; Network and The Hard Problem; The Cher Show and American Son

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