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Miami City Ballet in New Yorkreview of MCB Program 1 and 2 at City Center, 1/22 and 1/24/09


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#1 flipsy

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Posted 24 January 2009 - 08:17 PM

For those of us ballet lovers who are also sports fanatics, it’s hard to see the City Center debut of Miami City Ballet as anything but another round in the New York – Miami rivalry, as loaded with emotion as any playoff between the Jets and the Dolphins. Especially when the Miami challengers are led by a New York expatriate, a Prodigal Son returning to his original turf. To see Edward Villella strutting through the City Center lobby this week like the welterweight champion he was, is to see a man who feels he has regained his championship, by a knockout.

What has he done? After 23 years of labor, he has brought back a company to dance the Balanchine legacy in its original City Center home, and dance it as well or better by nearly every measure, from Authenticity to Zing, than Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet in its bigger, plusher home ten blacks north.

Want proof? A picture is worth a thousand words, so just take a look at page C1 of Saturday’s New York Times. Here is Jeanette Delgado executing a grand pas de chat surrounded by three corps dancers in Balanchine’s “Square Dance.” I have not seen a grand pas de chat like this at NYCB in many years. Look at the point of contact of the toe with the extended leg – two-thirds of the way up the inner thigh! Look at the perfect equilibrium in the air, the thrust of the extended leg through the toes, the stretch of the arms, the softly articulated fingers. Finally, look at the face – a smile of exhilaration and delight.

Want more? Turn to page C5, where Jeanette’s sister Patricia flashes another calm, ecstatic smile in a fully extended, classic pose from “Symphony in C,” in front of three leaping men – Jeremy Cox in front, with his legs flying like a javelin. The fully stretched jete may be Miami’s signature look – in six ballets over two days, I saw not a single lazy limb.

The Delgado sisters are Miami’s own and the superstars of their present and future. Jeanette in particular packs a punch worthy of Villella in his prime. But this first New York season was not an individual triumph. In programming six ballets with full casts, Villella was clearly showing off his ensemble, and forcing a comparison with the often disorganized, dispirited look of the NYCB corps. Opening with “Symphony in Three Movements” was a case in point. The last time I saw NYCB do it, the opening diagonal thrust looked tentative and confused, like a bunch of girls at an audition. Miami’s had the precision and savagery of an infantry attack.

As for Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” this was as punishing for some of us in the audience as it must have been for the dancers. To me, it looks like Molissa Fenley times fifty – a largely empty, showy test of endurance. I don’t like the slavish look of the costumes, the hellish look of the smoke-belching set, or the stuck-in-a-groove banality of the music. But it made its point – that these dancers are a formidable force, and they are ready to lay themselves on the line and sacrifice, individually and as a group.

“La Valse” made the same point in its morbid way -- a dance of death, willingly and totally embraced by a company that’s taken a vow to go wherever its art requires. The final swirl of the ballroom around the lifted corpse was intoxicating, even scary.

Program 2 -- “Square Dance,” “Rubies,” and “Symphony in C” -- was not as fierce and aggressive as Program 1 – maybe a reminder that in the end, this is supposed to be fun. And it was. But there was serious drama in the Prodigal Son's return to City Center, that will reverberate in the ballet world for years to come. My card says Round One to the challenger.

#2 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 24 January 2009 - 08:23 PM

The Delgado sisters are Miami’s own and the superstars of their present and future.

Cheers for my cubanitas!!! :wink: :) :) (Didn't I predict this a while ago...ah? )

#3 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 10:03 AM

I went to last night’s (1/24/08) performance fully prepared to embrace Miami’s dancing as The Return of Authentic Balanchine©. I had a mighty fine time, but that’s not what I saw. Some things were "authentic" (I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this way of thinking about how people dance Balanchine) and some -- e.g., the upper bodies -- not so much. (Which is not the same thing as saying that they weren't good.)

Let’s take J. Delgado’s Square Dance pas de chat: it was an awesome display (and in last night’s performance it looked exactly like the picture Flipsy cites, so it’s an awesome display Delgado can apparently repeat at will, not just a fluke), but authentic Balanchine? I’m not so sure – I think I have to differ with Flipsy on this one. I’ve been watching NYCB for 30+ years, and I’ve never seen a pas de chat done quite like that, even by Merrill Ashley. In order for her toe to cross her thigh, Delgado has to keep the knee of her trailing leg below the knee of her leading leg at a point where they should in theory be on the same plane. Personally, I think sacrificing the line of the knees to get the toe that high both muddies the forward trajectory of the step and takes some of the openness and air out of it -- but your mileage may vary. Would Balanchine have liked it? I can’t say, of course, but it’s not what I’d look to first as a marker of authenticity. (Delgado is nonetheless a delight and I loved her in the role.)

I wonder if any company really can claim to dance “authentic “ Balanchine at this point? I’ve seen Balanchine ballets danced by NYCB, ABT, the Kirov, San Francisco, and now Miami and while each one of them captures something that I remember from Balanchine as it was danced by NYCB in the 70’s and early 80’s, none of them dance it exactly as it was then. And I suspect that NYCB in the 70’s didn’t look the way it did in the 50s & 60s, and that at least some portion of the audience found that troubling.

As an ensemble, Miami’s dancers did some things I really liked (and that I hope the NYCB dancers I saw in the audience took note of and will think about). 1) For starters, they danced in all three dimensions; all too often (although less often now than in the 90’s) NYCB’s dancers appear to be trapped between two panes of glass, scurrying along hither and thither in one plane as if State Theater’s stage were an ant farm. (This is what dancing Martins will do to you, I think.) 2) They danced with real clarity, but also with forward momentum. I’ve seen other companies (ABT for instance) pull steps out of Balanchine’s choreography with equal clarity, but also pull back on the momentum while doing so. 3) They made something out of the transfer of weight; one of the things that’s bugged me the most about NYCB since about the early 90’s has been the devolution to a style of movement I think of as “skittery” – the women sometimes flit across the stage with all the impact of water bugs on a pond. 4) They moved their feet by moving their legs – i.e., where the foot went was a function of where the thigh went, if that makes any sense. 5) I liked the way they used their upper bodies, but it struck me as Not Authentic Balanchine. The corps danced with equal energy and musicality, if not with equal finish and facility; that's fine by me.

Some individual performances taken as a whole didn’t seem as successfully “Balanchinean” as the ensemble overall. Andrea Spiridonakos’ soft focus attack as the Tall Girl in Rubies just didn’t work for me in that role (NYCB has a couple of dancers who can deliver it better at the moment) and Haiyan Wu was too pretty and too careful in the second movement of Symphony in C to convey the special perfume of that role. The dancers were definitely musical, but not necessarily rhythmically subtle: I can imagine this company producing a Tiler Peck, say, but not a Miranda Weese or a late-model Janie Taylor.

Despite my carping about the pas de chat above, I loved J. Delgado and I liked Square Dance best of all. She’s a terrific dancer and a ray of sunshine all rolled into one and I hope I get to see her again. I really liked Jeremy Cox, too. He didn’t approach the great male solo in the Sarabande in any way like its originator, Bart Cook, nor like its other great interpreters, Boal and Hübbe. It kind of looked like Balanchine filtered through half-speed Kylian, but I liked it all the same.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 11:55 AM

Interesting observations, and thanks to both of you.

I'm glad I saw program II - I'm most fond of MCB in Square Dance and wished that they had opened program I with it, instead of Symphony in Three Movements, which I think was the wrong choice for the venue. The funny thing is Symphony in C fits City Center's stage better - even though it has a huge cast, until the finale there are fewer dancers onstage. Miami does the bigger, later version of the finale when Balanchine added dancers for the State Theater - but MCB would need to do that version at their home theater to fill it.

What I found interesting watching MCB is that it's the opposite of San Francisco Ballet in its strengths. SFB has invested the bulk of resources into its soloist and principal dancers; they're the strength of the company and the corps de ballet is the weak link. SFB does (if this is possible) a lumpen Symphony in C. MCB's corps are extremely well rehearsed for things more elusive than just being together on steps - their accenting is excellent. I don't know this from first hand experience, but I'd make a strong bet that Roma Sosenko is a very good ballet mistress.

MCB does have some interesting soloists (Kronenberg, Jeanette Delgado, Jeremy Cox and Alex Wong all come to mind) but I thought the casting and coaching was often odd. I've never seen a Kabuki version of second movement Symphony in C before. It depended on how you looked at it, one friend found Haiyan Wu ethereal; I found her too artificial and we're both right.

That said, I'm glad to see MCB and want to see more of them.

#5 flipsy

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 12:22 PM

Kathleen's points are well taken. I'm sure I've seen a picture of Merrill Ashley doing the same step, and the angle of the bent leg wasn't as extreme. So actually I've never seen anything like that grand pas de chat at NYCB. But what I meant by "authenticity" was something deeper -- an honesty and commitment, a selflessness and boldness in the dancing that I remember from the days when Balanchine was there, which I'm afraid has given way at NYCB to a sketchy, smudgy reproduction of his style: e.g. "whatever" pas de chats where the toe never even rises to the thigh, gargouillades that give up after one leg, etc. Miami has definitely added a Latin touch (especially in that upper torso) to the traditional neo-classic style, so its authenticity is its own, not a museum-like reproduction of NYCB in the fifties or sixties. But that's how art develops.

NYCB certainly has the talent to match anything Miami does. Contrary to their publicity campaign, MCB's dancers are not "Superhuman." They're just winning because they want to dance more.

#6 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 03:43 PM

But what I meant by "authenticity" was something deeper -- an honesty and commitment, a selflessness and boldness in the dancing that I remember from the days when Balanchine was there, which I'm afraid has given way at NYCB to a sketchy, smudgy reproduction of his style.


Flipsy, I am totally with you on the honesty, commitment and boldness front. I just got back from today's NYCB matinee: there was plenty of boldness and commitment on display, but it was in Preljocaj's La Stravaganza, alas, not Balanchine's Theme & Variations. I've seen people mark a ballet with more engagement.

#7 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 04:32 PM

:clapping: Next task: Giselle-(if only! :beg: ). But back to Balanchine...

#8 Helene

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 02:31 AM

This is a fascinating thread to read -- thanks everyone!

#9 bart

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 05:38 AM

I want to second Helene's comment. A fascinating thread, indeed. It's especially wonderful to get a chance to learn from people who really understand the technical basis of what these dancers are doing. :P

It would be fascinating to be able to look at key segments of Balancine choreography as performed by a variety of companies, comparing, dissecting, and trying to compare what each is doing to the Ideal Type that exists in most of our brains and/or memories. With the proliferation of Balanchine around the world, it should certainly be possible.

I hope I'm not throwing this topic out of alignment, but I was especially intrigued by Leigh's comments on what seem to him to be less than ideal casting choices. Casting itself is an art. It relies, however, on many objective factors that make it especially difficult for those "smallish" big companies with 30-50 dancers, many of whom are in the early stages of their professional careers.

The problem is compounded if you are stuck with a "program I," "program II," kind of schedule, which demands multiple performances of programs in a very short period of time. Four performances of difficult and often quite varied ballets -- in three days -- would seem to make casting compromises inevitable.

Typically, 3 casts of soloists prepare a shorter ballet. At some point or other, all are given the chance to perform -- and to grow -- which involves a risk. If you want to "give dancers a chance," keep them interested, and experiment with casting in order to let younger dancers expand their range, you may not always send up with the best choices. When this works, it's called a triumph.

When you have a many of ballets in rotating rep for any given season -- as NYCB does -- there are of course casting issues, but they are quite different.

I suppose that all of the above reflects two of my own prejudices:

(1) great choreography is generous and (within limits) rather forgiving: it allows for a certain amount variation in approach, style, and "look".

(2) while casting is important, coaching and helping the dancers prepare after they are cast are even more important. Even, sometimes, for principals.

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 07:12 AM

Bart, I think you've touched on one of the main differences between the largest companies and the others. In shorthand, when you hear some people discussing a good smaller company, they'll say, "but they don't have two casts." They may have the personnel, but not the right personnel to field two casts.

Not that this doesn't happen with the big companies either - there are those dry periods when NYCB didn't really have someone to do Ballo, for instance, even though it was programmed.

#11 bart

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 07:18 AM

Question regarding the Ballo example. When you are maintaining a great rep like NYCB is reposnible for, and you don't have a dancer really up to doing the lead(s) -- what should you do? Let the ballet languish? program it anyway and do your best? Focus on identifying and training a dancer or dancers capable of doing it at the highest level of The Possible?

#12 kfw

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 08:14 AM

Question regarding the Ballo example. When you are maintaining a great rep like NYCB is reposnible for, and you don't have a dancer really up to doing the lead(s) -- what should you do? Let the ballet languish? program it anyway and do your best? Focus on identifying and training a dancer or dancers capable of doing it at the highest level of The Possible?

Bring in a guest who's up to the role?

#13 richard53dog

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 09:51 AM

Question regarding the Ballo example. When you are maintaining a great rep like NYCB is reposnible for, and you don't have a dancer really up to doing the lead(s) -- what should you do? Let the ballet languish? program it anyway and do your best? Focus on identifying and training a dancer or dancers capable of doing it at the highest level of The Possible?

Bring in a guest who's up to the role?


I think this becomes for the AD (or whatever they might choose to call themselves) to determine IN SOME WAY. There isn't a fixed solution i.e. not programming the piece, programming it with less than ideal casting, or bringing in a guest, etc.

It's a matter of balancing the alternatives to end up with the best possible solution. You don't want to let the piece languish but you don't want to put in on in a substandard performance. You also want to weigh the developmental opportunities for the company. Might it be a chance for dancers to stretch and grow to match the demands of the piece?

This is where the AD earns their salary, theoretically coming up with the solution that best serves the audience, the dancers and the work itself. Each call is going to be a bit different, depending on the nature of the variables for that particular situation. Obvioulsy it's real easy to second guess the outcome!

#14 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 11:49 AM

A work should never be dormant or in danger of ceasing altogether due to lack of performers able to dance them. That's a sin, and still...it has happened a lot in the past and it still happens. MCB's dancers are great, and they have proved that they can dance Balanchine, but they still need to be exposed to the more variety...

"Forward toward Petipa"
Lopukhov. (can't remember where I read this...)

#15 Hans

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Posted 26 January 2009 - 02:03 PM

I'll bet I know where you read it. :wink:


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