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Saratoga


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#1 Manhattnik

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Posted 16 July 2001 - 04:15 PM

Saratoga, Part I

Sitting here in beautiful, sunny (when it's not raining) downtown Saratoga, and observing the endless pedestrian and automobile traffic up and down Broadway, I can't help but remember when this was a sleepy former resort town, quietly going to seed and collectively dreaming of long-lost glory days. Now, sitting here on the terrace of the Border's, and feeling unutterably cool typing on my PowerBook, I can't shake the intense feeling that I'm sitting in a shopping mall with a really, really big skylight and a quaint historic theme, watching processions of mall-walkers, riders and drivers. Of course, such commercial quaintification isn't the unique province of a place with a colorful name like "Queen of the Spas," as a stroll around the enormous Disneyland that was once Times Square is enough to make one long for the return of the hookers, crack dealers and druggies. Well, almost. While I'm not old enough to remember the late, lamented Grand Union Hotel, it's still a shock to see the enormous retail building that's going up on the parking lot/shopping strip that took the hotel's place. (For years, this spot was long occupied by a Grand Union supermarket. It wasn't until years after I left town -- yes, I grew up here -- that I realized that the supermarket chain hadn't, in fact, been named after the hotel. So now Saratoga will have a Gap and a Banana Republic. Whoopee.) Almost as much of a shock as it is to realize that every square inch of the downtown area that can house a bar and a loud, crummy band at night seems now to do so. Perhaps next time I return, in the name of efficiency, they'll just cordon off the entire downtown area at night and collect a cover charge from anyone who enters. Surely that would be more efficient than the various and sundry (yet ubiquitous) cover charges inflicted by every lounge, bar and restaurant whose owners get the bright idea of deafening customers (as well as passersby) with overmiked renditions of top twenty hits of the past few decades. Certainly the zombie-like throngs of kiddies lurching from fleshpot to fleshpot look as if they'd hardly notice (I was never so young -- honest). Heck, you can ride all day for one price at Astroland, why not at Saratogaland?

I seem to have digressed a bit, and in the first paragraph yet, from what I meant to write about, which is yes, NYCB is up here, and yes, Virginia, there is a Monique Meunier, in case any constant readers were wondering whether she'd vanished altogether. City Ballet was doing A Midsummer Night's Dream up here, and how could I resist? With apologies to the State Theater, there really is no better venue for this ballet than the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, that beautiful semi-outdoors theater that was one of Nelson Rockefeller's gifts to the Capital District. (SPAC and the Northway are probably responsible, for better or worse, for the reawakening of Saratoga.) It had been a long time since I saw Dream at SPAC -- my parents took me to one of the very first NYCB performances in 1966. (They conveniently saved the program: Titania, Suzanne Farrell; Oberon, Eddie Villella; Puck, Arthur Mitchell; Butterfly, Suki Schorer; Divertissment, Melissa Hayden and Conrad Ludlow.) Of course, I had no idea what I was seeing at the time (I remember Villella seeming to hover in the air -- there had to be wires for him just as there were for Mitchell's hovering as Puck -- and Titania's cute pink seashell), and it wasn't until 1975, with a few years of artsy stuff under my belt, NYCB returned to SPAC with Dream, and Farrell. I went back for old time's sake, and I was hooked on ballet as I hadn't been when I was a child. But that's another story.

Anyway, seeing that City Ballet would be doing Dream at SPAC again, I arranged my vacation schedule so that I could catch a train up the Hudson from NYC, and get into town in time for the last Dream on Friday (the 13th, of course). I was hardly dissappointed. It was hard for me not to smile, well, grin like a fool, as the houselights dimmed, but not the beautiful summer evening around the theater. I was sitting close to the stage and orchestra pit, and I'm willing to forgive Andrea Quinn for all her quick tempi after the sparkling manner in which she conducted the overture. It was a rare and lovely treat for me to listen to that heavenly Mendelssohn, gaze out at the glowing sky, clouds and pine trees, and wax nostalgic. My eyes kept returning to Quinn, though, and the show she was putting on in the pit. She looked to be practically singing and bouncing along with the orchestra, and I'd like to think that the delight I saw wasn't just a projection of my own feelings. Whatever the reason, she certainly coaxed more brightness and charm from the NYCB orchestra than has been their wont. Now she just needs realize that dancers need a chance to inhabit the music, not just heroically keep pace with it. Perhaps she is already realizing this -- although this Dream was appropriately sprightly (and spritely), it wasn't quite as neurotically fast as her first Dream at the State Theater.

I think the tempi could've been twice as fast, and Ashley Bouder would've still gambolled through the tricky Butterfly role just as easily as she did Friday. When I saw her debut the previous week at the State Theater, she seemed too much in her grand ballerina mode, which she used so exquisitely in Firebird. At SPAC she was more relaxed and playful, especially, and appropriately, with Albert Evans' magnificent Puck. But playful doesn't mean slapdash, and there was nothing casual about Bouder's large and powerfully shaped dancing. As much as her happy smile I'll remember the perfect diamond her legs and feet made, hovering for a second or an eternity in a pas de chat.

Another interesting difference between SPAC and the State Theater (besides the pine trees, fireflies, barn swallows and citronella candles) is in the effect all that evening sunlight has on the staging of Dream -- the many blackouts aren't quite so black, so we get to see Titania and Oberon and their entourages posing quite prettily with their backs turned to Bottom and friends in the first scene, and all the entrances, exits and scenery changes we'd otherwise. Well, losing some magic to gain other magic is a fair trade, in my book.

Although I'm always saddened to miss an opportunity to see The Divine Wendy, it's hard to be terribly disappointed when she's replaced with Maria Kowroski, she of the mile-long legs. I didn't have a chance to see Kowroski much this past season at the State Theater, and it is gratifying to see how strongly she's pulled herself together as a dancer, both technically and psychologically. Blessed with a magnificently long and dramatically shaped physique (you'd probably need two French Curves to draw her legs, and sometimes I think even her fingernails must be hyperextended), Kowroski's center, at last, holds it all together. You don't see only the amazing extremities, but their strong and steady center in her spine and back. Kowroski certainly knows her strengths -- her legs are loaded for bear, and she's not afraid to use them. Her fearless plunges into arabesque penchee are among the Seven Wonders of the ballet world, much as were Suzanne Farrell's before her, and perhaps this is one reason she's often accused of imitating Farrell, a charge I always answer with, "So what?"

Frankly, I don't think she consciously mimics Farrell -- she just has some, and only some, of the gifts Farrell had, and an ability to aquit herself well in Farrell's inimitable repertory. And if she is, or was, imitating Farrell, well, God bless her. She could have chosen a lot worse as an ideal, and her very success shows the wisdom of her choice. Besides, she's well on her way to being the first Maria Kowroski. I would very much like to see some of the drama and excitement of her dancing reflected in her visage -- she tried mightily, and commendably, to act as Titania, but mobility of limb comes much more readily to her. Regardless of such quibbles, Kowroski was appropriately grand in her long adagio with her Cavalier, Charles Askegard, a Jolly Green Giant if ever there was one. I've called this pair NYCB's Twin Towers before; they're each quite wonderful alone, but together they're just plain gorgeous. (Of course, any NYCB pairing which includes Askegard will always be more than the sum of its parts.)

Kowroski was also quite appropriately grand and loving in what has become my favorite part of the ballet, after the Sherzo (well, after the Scherzo and the Divertissement pas de deux), Titania's love duet with Bottom (James Fayette) and his donkey head. What I find more and more moving about this duet is how Titania, rather than being diminished by her magic-induced love for Bottom, becomes ennobled by it. It would have been so easy for Balanchine to turn this duet into a cruel slapstick, but while the duet's not without humor, the jokes are quite gentle. I'm always struck by Titania's kindness and radiance here, and, while her love is clearly misguided, it's no less genuine for being so. A well-danced Titania really glows here (I remember Kyra Nichols glowing up a storm in this duet at NYCB's opening night gala last November). And, again, here Kowroski used her gifts with appropriate grandeur, particularly in her backwards flutters on pointe while leading Bottom with a handful of grass, or in the utterly unreserved way she threw herself against him in that beautiful, comic fall backwards that prompts Bottom to favor the audience with his bemused donkey-glance.

Having seen Damian Woeztel phone in many performances over the past few years (usually a very long-distance call), it's hard for me to give him the benefit of the doubt when he turns in a flat performance, as he did Friday. Is he having an off night? Is his heart just not in it? Am I just seeing what I expect to see with him? His acting was acceptable, but he didn't take over the role the way Peter Boal or even Benjamin Millepied does. Moreover, in the Scherzo Woetzel's batterie seemed sketchy, almost an afterthought. I'm used to Woetzel's anomie affect his acting and partnering, but never before his solo dancing. Sure, Woetzel is one of the best turners of our time, and he was appropriately brilliant in his pirouettes, but those magnificent, skimming solos left me cold. I was happier watching Bouder's indefatigable Butterfly share the stage with him, or should I say, steal it?

Albert Evans' Puck was, as usual, brilliant, and he certainly owns this role -- it's hard to see anyone else do it these days. Unlike Woetzel (and Nilas Martins, for that matter), Evans looks thrilled to be onstage. Am I the only viewer who cringes at the fact that the most important role in the repertory of this wonderful black dancer has him grimacing and popping his eyes at his foolish, if amusing, mistake with the magic flower, and then being helped offstage with a kick in the derriere by Oberon? It's not that Evans' Puck is a Step'n Fetchit minstrel-show character (although there are certainly echoes there), and it's not the role, or Evans' performance I find offensive, but the fact that Evans could be an equally brilliant Apollo, and he'll certainly never get the chance (but we'll get to see Nilas Martins sleepwalk through it forever, it seems).

The high point of the evening was getting to see Monique Meunier again, in all her glory. She's a natural Hippolyta -- a big gal with a big jump, and a strong and compelling attack. I found her grand jetes breathtaking as watching a 747 take off over one's head. But I also saw here a certain tightness that sometimes sneaks into her dancing (it wasn't there at all in the amazing Walpurgisnacht Ballet I saw her dance in New York), particularly in her otherwise commendable double fouettes. Meunier is a hungry dancer (no, I'm not talking about her physique here!). She devours the stage, and even the distance to the audience. It's not just that she is large, but that she dances large, and she just seems closer to us than many others, and, I think, she craves that connection. It's no wonder audiences adore her. Would that the Powers That Be at NYCB felt the same way. I will say that I've seen Meunier more svelte, and her Hippolyta costumes didn't help (especially the Smurf hat and "armor"). Perhaps Martins has been sitting her down because of this. I do think there's nothing wrong with Meunier's dancing, either her physique or the occasional nervous tightness, that couldn't be cured by a vote of confidence, and a lot of performing. Dear God, we get to see Yvonne Bourree attempting to exorcise her own personal demons night after night at the State Theater, why not let Meunier set herself to rights onstage? Audiences love her, and, for that matter, I do, too.

There was a time when I thought Kathleen Tracey the more interesting of the Tracey sisters, particularly after her dreamy and poetic performances in Emeralds years ago. Perhaps it was after recovering from the freak accident in which she broke her arm here at SPAC in that ever-risky ballet, Union Jack, that she seemd to subsume herself into a kind of aggressive competence. She was strong, versatile and possesed of the highest-voltage stage smile since Eleanor d'Antuono, yet she often seemed to be phoning it in, albeit from not quite as long a distance as Woetzal. Yet since Christopher Wheeldon used Tracey for the wonderful stage-manager role in Variations Serieuses (her impromptu dance with the four broom-wielding stagehands is a gem), she seems to have woken from her slumber. In Dream, her Helena is a delight, a gal who's spent so much of her life weeping and pining away one suspects that, on some level, she actually enjoys it.

I've written before about the roseate glow which seems to surround Pascale van Kipnis, who danced Hermia whenever she sets foot onstage. Doubtless the only reason we didn't see robins and swallows alight on her shoulders at SPAC, and squirrels, rabbits and other woodland creatures emerge from the shadows to bask in her presence is because, shy creatures that they are, the preferred to confine their attentions to the wings. Either that, or they couldn't get their union cards. In any event, she and Kipling Houston as Lysander (it is great he has this gig to supplement his Social Security) were delightfully sappy in their first scenes, with so much mimed billing and cooing I, for one, began to look forward to their imminent discomfiture with more than a little evil delight. The growing horror and misery on Van Kipnis' face, as her Hermia realized that Lysander was now in love with Helena, was both moving and comic, and she turned her solo into a small masterpiece, a vignette of a woman who can't quite believe that her world has crumbled in front of her eyes. It was so clear that this Hermia was desperately certain that if only she reached out in the right direction she could touch her former life and bring it back, and her grief at the solo's end, when this was clearly not the case, became all the more poignant. There are some women whom the camera simply loves. Clearly, the stage loves Van Kipnis, if, currently, the same can't be said about NYCB's management. It's a tribute to Van Kipnis' grace and professionalism that, unlike Hermia, she never gives less than her all, and never gives way to despair.

Last, but certainly not least, Darci Kistler danced the second-act divertissment she'd been scheduled to give a week previously in New York, but had cancelled. Although Wendy Whelan is indeed heart-stoppingly magnificent in this role, Kistler brought her own brand of, yes, radiance (there was a lot to go around on Friday, it seems). Like City Ballet's other senior ballerina, Kyra Nichols, Kistler has the gift of living in the interstices of steps and music. I loved the many subtle nuances of movement and hints of meaning in her performance, as well as her marked joy. This is a dance with many seemingly-endless promenades and balances, and Kistler was always perfectly centered and still, even at the breathtaking teeter-totter conclusion. She was ably partnered by Nilas Martins who, I believe, smiled once. Such things are worth noting.

#2 Giannina

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Posted 16 July 2001 - 05:05 PM

Green Green Green! Thanks, Manhattnik; not just a great review but much insight along with a tad of your personal history.

Giannina

#3 Katharyn

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Posted 17 July 2001 - 02:14 AM

Thankyou Mahattnik for posting that. Your reviews are always a pleasure... and a good chuckle, which is excellent value for money.

#4 Autumn7

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Posted 17 July 2001 - 06:11 PM

I've never been to Saratoga but thanks to Mahattnik's post I feel as though I've spent a pleasant evening with NYCB there. Thanks for the review and for letting some of us live vicariously through your post! Always enjoyable.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 17 July 2001 - 10:28 PM

A slightly belated thank you -- that was beautiful, Manhattnik :)


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