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Stravinsky Program


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#1 Helene

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Posted 12 February 2005 - 12:15 AM

Last night, I saw the Stravinsky program, which consists of Kent Stowell's Firebird, Balanchine's Apollo (long version), and Tetley's Rite of Spring.

I think that Firebird is the most visually beautiful production I've seen at PNB. The sets by Ming Cho Lee are my favorites of the work of his that I've seen. The opening set consists of tree and pod-like hangings to create a mysterious, stylized forest; they are a bit like Faberge eggs (singles and clusters of them) with pomegranate seeds, in shades of aqua, turquoise, greens, and lilacs. Before the action begins, at the end of the intro music, they are raised and hang over the stage. In the back of the stage is a low wall and a gate, which is slightly atilt. This set is used for Prince Ivan's entrance, his meeting with and capture of the Firebird, and the scene where he meets the princesses.

The transformation of stage to Katschei's realm is almost overwhelming: a black backdrop falls with a stylized portrait of Katschei from the nose up, mostly in muted red, while a series of arcs drop and span the stage from wing to wing, like nested dolls. The drop and the arcs are raised during the transition scene during the "Berceuse." After Prince Ivan destroys Katschei's soul, the lights rise brightly on a set in which spires drop from the ceiling for the final procession.

The costumes by Theoni Aldredge are just as stunning: a short, unstructured red silk tutu for Firebird, dresses for the princesses in a range of soft pastels -- mint, lilac, seafoam, apricot, mango, mauve, periwinkle, and pink, with the head Princess in very light pink -- multicolor bodysuits for the monsters, and an cream-colored suite of costumes for Prince Ivan and the Princess, the other princesses, the eight pairs of wedding princesses and princes, four young incense bearers, and six flower girls.

I love the Firebird's opening solo: it's very birdlike, but focuses as much on the legs as on the arms, and avoids any stereotypical flapping. Firebird is alternately free, playful, and majestic -- a magical creature. Kaori Nakamura becomes the Firebird; it's a role that looks tailor-made for her quick, fluid movements and ability to transform and materialize so suddenly, that it looks like she's appeared out of thin air. I also love the pas de deux that follows with Prince Ivan, because it retains the character of the bird whose been captured -- although not subdued in any way -- but who negotiates her way out. Nakamura's exit after the pas de deux was a striking and unexpected Plitsetskaya jete, and it looked like she might have actually touched the back of the head with her shoe, so far up was her kick and so far back was her head.

In some productions, the princesses dance and the meeting with Prince Ivan can seem interminable, but not in this version. The most romantic touch in ballet happens during the opening minutes of the dance where Ivan seeks out the Princess: not only to do the princesses circle and create patterns to help the Princess elude Prince Ivan, but so does the formal structure of their group dance, with the Prince and Princess in separate lines. And when they finally touch for the first time, it is to hold hands to create a bridge for the other princesses.

It's really hard to keep up the tension in the scene with Katschei and the monsters: there's a lot of powerful music, brash and bombastic, but with none of the menace of von Rothbart. Stowell doesn't really solve that, but the choreography for the monsters is a lot of fun, and the costumes are so great that their swirls are beautiful to watch. James Moore was very striking as the "lead" monster, stalking the Prince with jump after jump.

Stowell's treatment of the "Berceuse" is unusual as well, at least among the productions I've seen. The Princess wakens the fallen Prince and they are reunited while the Firebird dances among them. She then dances alone until they return, she convinces them that it's not happily ever after until the soul of Kaschei is destroyed, and she gives Prince Ivan the sword to break the Easter egg that represents Katschei's soul, which flowers after he's killed during the eerie transitional music between the "Berceuse" and finale.

Stacy Lowenberg was a lovely princess, and her pairing with Batkhurel Bold, a beautiful man in his own right, is a stunning sight. I tend to think of the Prince's role as a bit thankless: to me, the choreography in the opening solo is a bit disjointed, he has a lot of partnering, and then he gets tossed around by the monsters for quite a while. (Good practice for being the Sacrificial One in Rite of Spring, which he also performed in the program. Kent Stowell said in the post-performance Q&A that the double-casting was due to an injury.)

If this program had been typecast, the evening's Apollo would have danced Prince Ivan, and Bold would have been Apollo. Apollo opened with one of the more easy births -- an audience member brought this up during the Q&A, and Russell said that she told the girls in the role that they looked "too comfortable," although she said it's scary being on the edge of the high platform and doing the head rolls -- with Brittany Reid as Leto. (I wonder if Balanchine dismissed Martha Graham because when he saw the contractions in her work, he thought "been there, done that: Leto, Paris 1928.") Stowell and Russell said that they were surprised when audiences laughed when Apollo was born; I think that was because the lights go up so suddenly on the juxtaposition of a fully grown dancer who is swaddled. It's such a striking moment, no matter how many times I've seen it. Stanton, normally a rather subdued dancer, was very funny as the "toddler" Apollo, but, on the whole, he slid back into self-effacing cavalier mode, and he didn't show much arrogance to be tempered. I missed some of the details, particularly in the solos, of the growth of the youth into the god.

When the muses appeared, the planets were aligned: a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead, all pretty much the same height! Structurally in the ballet, from soon after their first entrance, even before they perform their solos, the gig is up: Terpsichore is featured while Calliope and Polyhymnia are mirrors of each other, and there is the telltale moment when Apollo pushes Calliope and Polyhymnia stage left and Terpsichore stage right.

From her first entrance, Jodie Thomas burst out on stage with palpable energy. Her Calliope was so fully realized, that she became the first dancer in my mind to match Stephanie Saland's brilliant interpretation of the role. When Apollo rejects her at the end of her solo, I thought, "well, you don't deserve her anyway." Noelani Pantastico was unusually subdued as Polyhymnia, matching Stanton's energy so much that they made the more tempermentally suited pair. Which left it to Louise Nadeau to light a spark. She gave a beautiful, gentle, genteel performance of Terpsichore, teaching Apollo by example, and setting a standard for him. It was a gorgeous performance, and her dancing in the pas de deux was a dream, with the final touch being her soft arms and wrists and hands during the "swimming" scene.

In the scene that follows, with all four dancers, Pantastico raised her energy level, and the dancing among the three women was a delight. Stanton, too, seemed more energized, and the ballet ended with the beautiful ascent up the stairs and the corresponding, slow arm gesture to the heavens. I am so glad to have seen this version, and I'll never understand why this sublime ending was cut and changed to the "starburst," which when held for an extended time, looks like the AT&T logo.

After someone finally pulled the plug on the baroque trumpet music that was piped into the lobby and rest rooms during intermissions, someone decided that it was a good idea to have a live musician play that kind of jazzy piano music that is played at the fancy dress-up galas. :angry2: After the glorious music of Stravinsky, there was no place to escape this form of noise pollution except the auditorium, but I found listening to the orchestra warm up for the Rite of Spring preferable.

There was a great photograph of Edward Villella in the famous jump from Prodigal Son in which every plate of every muscle in his legs was visible. In the Rite of Spring, all of the men were dressed in flesh-colored briefs, which Stowell said in the Q&A that they were not happy about at first. Batkhurel Bold danced the Sacrifice role, and one could see every plate of every muscle of his legs, not in a close up photograph, but from the back of the orchestra. If this group was going to pick a man to sacrifice, there was no stinting: they gave up the best they had to the gods.

The dancing in this piece was incredibly impressive, and it is hard to imaging surviving the corps men's roles, let alone the Sacrifice's. I hadn't looked at the program carefully beforehand, but I was struck immediately by the two pairs of dancers that flanked the parents roles -- Jodie Thomas and Lucien Postlewaite and Rachel Foster and Casey Herd -- and when they were on stage, they demanded my attention, particularly Thomas. Watching her attack and retract, I thought she would be incredible as the Novice in The Cage.

While the dancing was amazing, I didn't think much of the choreography as a whole. It wasn't that I didn't like it, but my eye kept focusing on specific dancers, and my kept mind wandering. The choreography itself didn't grab and maintain my attention. But I was glad to see that the men got meaty roles in this program, because they weren't cast in either of the first two ballets, except for parts in the procession and tableaux at the end of Firebird.

There was an insert in the program to honor Resident Lighting Designer and Technical Director, Randall ("Rico") Chiarelli, who will join San Francisco Ballet after this season. (And SFB can surely use him, given how few ballets in Programs 1 and 2 were visible, at least from the Balcony.) There was a laudatory synopsis of the history of his career with PNB, and a lovely tribute from his daughter, who is Senior Marketing Manager with the Company. It's so easy to take the lighting for granted, but his shoes will be very hard to fill.

#2 sandik

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 12:32 AM

Some miscellaneous thoughts (since Hockeyfan has done all the hard work!)

I've seen the Stowell Firebird several times now, and although he's created a dynamic opening solo and pas de deux I think the changes he's made in the dramatic structure of the ballet don't really hold up. He's said that he wants to focus more attention on the relationship between the prince and princess, and his choreography for them is very sweet, but their desire for each other doesn't read dynamically enough to vanquish Kastchei -- that is still a job for the Firebird, but in this version she dispatches with him much earlier, leaving great swathes of the music without the dramatic action they were designed to support. The lullaby that sends the monsters all to sleep is superfluous here -- they’ve already been swept offstage with the sorcerer. The Firebird dances around contemplatively for awhile, the prince and princess go away and then return without any real motivation, and then finally the egg is flown in, rather like a pinata. The Firebird gives Ivan a sword (which she holds by the sharp side of the blade) and he strikes it, opening it up to resemble a 1960’s chandelier, and we’re back to the traditional structure as the wedding sequence starts.

This is where Stowell runs up against the same trouble that every choreographer since Fokine has battled with. I know that acres of Petipa works finish with a “happy ending” act, but in the context of a program-length ballet, those acts become small works in themselves (just look at how excerptable something like Aurora’s Wedding is). In Firebird, the wedding tableau takes maybe 4-5 minutes, but they are extremely long minutes. There is nothing happening dramatically, there isn’t anything much happening choreographically, and so the only solution is scenic -- bring on the set changes and the costume parade. Geoffrey Holder’s version for Dance Theater of Harlem even brings back the Firebird, literally flying above the wedding party. But no matter how lavish (PNB’s production is quite stunning), it can’t really cover for the fact that nothing is happening, and it’s not happening for a long time. The music is too beautiful (and too integral to the score) to cut -- like the ascending trill at the finish of Sacre, Stravinsky has created a weak ending to a dynamic score.

Nakamura does do a good job with this role -- she’s very skilled at modulating her energy, but I was impressed with Carrie Imler’s performance. She seemed very freshly coached -- all the details were polished up. She was especially good with the eccentric rhythms of the opening solo and the sharpness of some of the changes in direction. I felt she made the different stages of the pas de deux (awareness of the prince, capture, struggle and the resolution of struggle...) very clear -- in some of the twistier sections of the partnering she reminded me of pictures of Karsavina.

I agree with Hockeyfan -- it’s great to see an Apollo with a birth at the beginning and an ascention at the end. I love the finish on the stairs and I’m grateful to Francia Russell for holding on to it. I wound up comparing Stanko Milov’s performance to Elvis in a review. When he was doing the wind-up strumming of his lute towards the beginning of his first big solo it reminded me of films of Presley playing “Houndog,” and from there the images just kept piling up -- all those twisting hips just kept reinforcing the idea. Patricia Barker was a serene queen as Terpsichore, so the Milov seemed more impulsive even towards the end of the ballet, but by the final walk-around, after the sunburst, he was certainly godlike enough.

Tetley’s Rite of Spring is a grueling ballet -- I’ve seen other works that are equally punishing for their casts, but usually in companies that train for that kind of painful endurance -- this seemed extreme for PNB. I saw Jonathan Porretta twice in the sacrificial role and he seems to have turned a corner with this ballet. Although he is an ingratiating performer with great reserves of energy, he sometimes pitches his interpretation too high -- a bit of the kinetic equivalent of scenery chewing. But here he really has put himself in service to the work, which is to say that he dances himself to death, and is then resurrected. The audience around me was gasping in sympathy.

#3 Helene

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 06:41 PM

He's said that he wants to focus more attention on the relationship between the prince and princess, and his choreography for them is very sweet, but their desire for each other doesn't read dynamically enough to vanquish Kastchei -- that is still a job for the Firebird, but in this version she dispatches with him much earlier, leaving great swathes of the music without the dramatic action they were designed to support.  The lullaby that sends the monsters all to sleep is superfluous here -- they’ve already been swept offstage with the sorcerer.  The Firebird dances around contemplatively for awhile, the prince and princess go away and then return without any real motivation, and then finally the egg is flown in, rather like a pinata.  The Firebird gives Ivan a sword (which she holds by the sharp side of the blade) and he strikes it, opening it up to resemble a 1960’s chandelier, and we’re back to the traditional structure as the wedding sequence starts.

This is where Stowell runs up against the same trouble that every choreographer since Fokine has battled with. 

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Firebird is a tough one, because, as you pointed out, there are three looooong stretches of music that are so difficult to fill -- Prince vs. Monsters, Berceuse/Transition to Ending, and the Wedding Sequence. The fourth, the Princesses' entrance and dances, was, in my opinion, well solved by Stowell, but I think your point about how the sweetness of the romance between Prince Ivan and the Princess doesn't explain how they could defeat Katschei is right on target. The music of the Berceuse is as gentle as the music when they meet, so that they don't even grow in majesty before they destroy Katschei's soul.

It's also very hard to have one man fight all of those monsters for so very long. At least in the Nutcracker, the initial 2/3 of the battle are fought by the mice and the kid soldiers, leaving the Nutcracker and Mouse King (or his surrogate) to duel it out. One needs special effects to pull off the One Man vs. the Hordes that are so common to Martial Arts and Bollywood movies. I've always thought this scene would make a better film, set in a forest, where the Prince could evade and pick off monsters one by one, while the monsters spring out from behind trees, caves, rocks and hills, alone and in groups. That's what I "see" when I hear that music.

#4 sandik

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 10:57 PM

It's also very hard to have one man fight all of those monsters for so very long.  At least in the Nutcracker, the initial 2/3 of the battle are fought by the mice and the kid soldiers, leaving the Nutcracker and Mouse King (or his surrogate) to duel it out.  One needs special effects to pull off the One Man vs. the Hordes that are so common to Martial Arts and Bollywood movies.  I've always thought this scene would make a better film, set in a forest, where the Prince could evade and pick off monsters one by one, while the monsters spring out from behind trees, caves, rocks and hills, alone and in groups.  That's what I "see" when I hear that music.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


This is a good point about the balance of the fight -- it's often compounded by the scenic and costume elements in the ballet, so it's an extra battle for our attention.

It would be interesting to see a Firebird set in a real forest, rather like the recent film of Midsummer Night's Dream with the fairies actually in the woods, but I'm afraid it would undercut the power of the bird herself, at least as a dancer on pointe.

#5 pnbfan

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 05:24 PM

I have been attending the ballet in Seattle for many years, but am new to Ballet Talk. I saw the Sunday afternoon, February 13, performance of PNB’s Sravinsky program with a somewhat different cast from the performance hockeyfan had seen the previous night. I thought the Rite of Spring was absolutely mesmerizing: powerful, demanding and brilliantly danced. The sheer intensity of the performance seemed to draw me into the rite itself. There were so many wonderful things happening on stage that I wished I could have multiplied myself in order to absorb all that was being offered. Jonathan Porretta as the Chosen One was amazing - as were Christophe Maraval and Patricia Barker in the other lead roles. Porretta’s superb dance capabilities seemed unleashed in a marvelous way - his movements are always precise but here they also demonstrated an explosive freedom. Miss Barker, who minutes before had danced Terpsichore, seemed several times to erupt from the earth, leaping backward into the supportive arms of Christophe Maraval, whose beautiful performances always leave me wanting more. The audience rewarded all the dancers - and PNB’s accomplished musicians - with one of the longest and most enthusiastic standing ovations I have witnessed. I am thrilled that this work is now in PNB’s repertory.


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