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ABT's Production Problem


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#1 nanushka

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Posted 03 July 2011 - 09:02 AM

Over the past several years, and increasingly so this year, I’ve been troubled by a confluence of problems the company seems to be having, both in roster and repertoire. With so many absences and injuries, with so many guest artists (bringing many remarkable performances), and with so many nights this season seeming marred by a lack of engagement and cohesion on the part of the corps, the company seems increasingly in danger of losing its focus and its center as a true company. The lack (in my opinion) of a truly exceptional and exciting repertoire to showcase its artists is of equal concern, and the two sets of problems together have made me increasingly worried about the state of ABT.

So, I’d like to start a parallel discussion to the ABT principal problem—one about the inconsistent quality of new “story ballet” productions initiated in the McKenzie years (beginning in 1992). An emphasis on these ballets, at least in its spring Met seasons, is after all one thing that sets ABT apart as a New York company.

While we may all have our problems with many of the pronouncements of Mr. Macaulay, I can’t help but feel he has a point in so often remarking on how ABT’s productions do a disservice to its artists and its audiences.

Below is a (possibly incomplete) list of story ballet productions McKenzie has introduced at ABT during his tenure. (A complete list of ABT repertoire appears at http://www.abt.org/e...hive/index.html, so please add to this list if you find others I have missed.) I’ve included my brief impressions of many of these, along with occasional comments from critics. Some I have not seen and therefore list without comment.

McKenzie can be credited with bringing several important ballets not often available to NY audiences — e.g. Manon, Corsaire, The Dream, Sylvia, Raymonda — and some of these are indeed among the more satisfying and successful in this list. I find it difficult, though, to look at what’s here and feel that he has moved this company in an overall positive direction. Certainly, his own productions — Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty in particular — are widely felt by many on this forum, as well as by many critics, bloggers, dance writers, etc., to be lacking in dramatic vision and artistic weight.

I would love to hear others’ thoughts on any aspect of this topic.


The Nutcracker (chor. by Kevin McKenzie, 1993)

Manon (chor. by MacMillan, 1974; ABT premiere, 1993): a perfectly nice, traditional staging. Though not as famous as R&J, it provides fantastic dramatic opportunities for lyrical dancers such as Ferri and Vishneva.

The Merry Widow (chor. by Ronald Hynd, 1976; ABT premiere, 1997): This felt like frothy filler when it was revived for the 2008 Met season. Lots of skirts swishing around the stage. “A silly, antiquated concoction — and more a test of acting than of dancing” (Gia Kourlas, NYT, July 2008).

Othello (chor. by Lar Lubovitch, 1997): Awful plexi-glass sets, an uninspired score, and overwrought choreography. To quote Gia Kourlas’s review of the 2007 revival: “And the drama — because so much of the movement is simplistic and repetitive — is fraught with histrionics. Writhing on the floor is a common sight, leading to the biggest frustration of all: Othello gives modern dance a bad (as in dull) name.”

Le Corsaire (ABT premiere, 1998): The production has a bit of a cheap and cheesy look to it, but it’s really all about the campy, over-the-top dancing anyways. A great showcase for the once-impressive roster of male dancers at ABT.

The Snow Maiden (chor. by Ben Stevenson, 1998): A lavish, $1.2 million vehicle for Nina Ananiashvili that has not been seen on the Met’s stage since 1999.

Swan Lake (chor. by Kevin McKenzie after Petipa and Ivonov, 2000): Has some nice, innovative touches, like the ‘sexy Rothbart’ variation in Act III. Chief among its faults is the truncated fourth act, which has been mentioned several times this year.

The Pied Piper (chor. by David Parsons, 2001): Most people are probably hoping this will never be seen again on the Met’s stage.

Onegin (chor. by John Cranko, 1965; ABT premiere, 2001)

The Dream (chor. by Ashton, 1964; ABT company premiere, 2002): Along with Sylvia, this is one of the most beautiful productions to enter the repertoire in the last decade, and one that really brings the company to life (on the corps, soloist, and principal levels).

La Fille Mal Gardée (chor. by Ashton, 1960, ABT company premiere, 2002)

Raymonda (2004): There is probably no way to make this a dramatically compelling ballet, but the score, choreography, and sets/costumes were all lovely. Perhaps overdue for a revival?

Sylvia (chor. by Ashton, 1952; co-production by ABT, Royal Ballet, 2005): A beautiful production that lovingly preserves Ashton’s choreography. One of the best productions from McKenzie’s tenure. A great vehicle for some of ABT’s ‘home team’ ballerinas, such as Gillian, Michele, and Paloma.

Cinderella (chor. by James Kudelka, 2006): A dreary, unmagical ballet. One only wonders what Ratmansky, with his impressive story-telling skills, could do with the Prokofiev score.

The Sleeping Beauty (staged by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov, 2007): The word used most often to describe this production is “silly.” The garish costumes and Disneyesque sets do not help.

Lady of the Camellias (chor. by John Neumeier, 1978; entered ABT’s repertoire in 2010): A maudlin mess. Claudia la Rocco expressed it best in her review this summer, “the audience member driven to despair by the inanity before her is reduced to trivial entertainments like counting the number of times Armand Duval, the ballet’s petulant leading man, casts himself to the ground in a fit of something or other.”

The Nutcracker (chor. by Alexei Ratmansky, 2010): ABT managed to produce a vivid, distinct version of this beloved ballet, which I hope will return to BAM for many years to come. The production was for the most part elegant and understated, with a few kinks that could perhaps be worked out.

The Bright Stream (chor. by Alexei Ratmansky, 2003; ABT premiere, 2011): a fun, rollicking ballet that provides ample displays of classical technique. The sets and Communist-chic costumes are quite stylish.

#2 GeorgeB fan

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Posted 03 July 2011 - 11:45 AM

I actually admire McKenzie's production of Swan Lake. I enjoy the touches of innovations he brought to the ballet: the prologue in which we see Von Rothbart seducing and capturing Odette; in the ballroom scene I loved how he made it very clear that each divertissement actually presented the nationality of each princess; I love how he split the role of Von Rothbart in half, giving us a highly suave and menacing one in the ballroom scene as he danced with the princessess {you understood very clearly how those ladies could easily fall underneath his seductive spell}, although I have to admit I wish they would re-costume the Von Rothbart we see at the lakeside. He's too much the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Granted, Von Rothbart is an evil sorcerer and he isn't often seen in productions as human but that costume makes him look like a camp cartoon character, that you can't possibly take seriously.

My problem with the production - AND IT'S A HUGE ONE - is the absence of a full third act. I have no problem with McKenzie combning the first two acts. But the last two acts should remain separate. We need to have that final act at the lake. We need to see in full detail, Odette's heartache at realizing that she will forever be a swan. We need to see her go through the pain at being betrayed by Siegfried. We should see Odette's fellow swams helping her through this pain as she tries, for the first time, to kill herself. We need to see Von Rothbart tormenting her over his momentary victory at destroying true love. We need to see Siegfried rushing to Odette, begging for forgiveness, with her forgiving him, but realizing her time in this world is over as both she and Siegfried make the pack to kill themselves. We need to see Von Rothbart fighting against it because he knows if they die, he in turn would die himself and his spell would be broken. We need to see love triumph over evil. We get all of that in this production...but can you say "Rush Job??"

Everything is speeded up. We don't get any of the beauty, any the detail characterization through dance; the corp is barely used with any significance. We don't feel any real depth of emotions happening between Odette and Siegfried; you don't feel the struggle of Odette at forgiving Siegfried, nor do you feel the true depth of Siegfried's sorrow at condemning Odette at being a swam for life. We get none of this with McKenzie's production and we should. This is a tragic romance...but with this production...we don't get any of the tragedy nor romance. The final act should be highly emotional and powerful. With McKenzie's you feel as if you're at an auto race, timing at how fast the race would finish. McKenzie needs to give us a third act and he should pattern it after the wonderful third act production Frederick Ashton created for the Royal Ballet as shown in the 1982 video of Swan Lake as danced by Natalia Makarove and Anthony Dowell. Now that's an awesome third act!!!




La Fille Mal Gardee - At this point I'm thinking there must be a legal reason why McKenzie hasn't brought this joyous ballet back to the Met. What a fantastic crowd-pleaser and the company did a marvelous job performing it. The critics loved it, the audience loved it and you got the strong sense the dancers adored performing it. The ballet has four terrific roles in which McKenzie could probably cast from Prinicpal down to Corp de Ballet and not make a bad mistake in the casting. It needs to come back ASAP!



The Sleeping Beauty - It's a joke - YUCK!!!!!!!!

#3 bingham

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Posted 03 July 2011 - 03:20 PM

I actually admire McKenzie's production of Swan Lake. I enjoy the touches of innovations he brought to the ballet: the prologue in which we see Von Rothbart seducing and capturing Odette; in the ballroom scene I loved how he made it very clear that each divertissement actually presented the nationality of each princess; I love how he split the role of Von Rothbart in half, giving us a highly suave and menacing one in the ballroom scene as he danced with the princessess {you understood very clearly how those ladies could easily fall underneath his seductive spell}, although I have to admit I wish they would re-costume the Von Rothbart we see at the lakeside. He's too much the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Granted, Von Rothbart is an evil sorcerer and he isn't often seen in productions as human but that costume makes him look like a camp cartoon character, that you can't possibly take seriously.

My problem with the production - AND IT'S A HUGE ONE - is the absence of a full third act. I have no problem with McKenzie combning the first two acts. But the last two acts should remain separate. We need to have that final act at the lake. We need to see in full detail, Odette's heartache at realizing that she will forever be a swan. We need to see her go through the pain at being betrayed by Siegfried. We should see Odette's fellow swams helping her through this pain as she tries, for the first time, to kill herself. We need to see Von Rothbart tormenting her over his momentary victory at destroying true love. We need to see Siegfried rushing to Odette, begging for forgiveness, with her forgiving him, but realizing her time in this world is over as both she and Siegfried make the pack to kill themselves. We need to see Von Rothbart fighting against it because he knows if they die, he in turn would die himself and his spell would be broken. We need to see love triumph over evil. We get all of that in this production...but can you say "Rush Job??"

Everything is speed up. We don't get any of the beauty, any the detail characterization through dance; the corp is barely used with any significance. We don't feel any real depth of emotions happening between Odette and Siegfried; you don't feel the struggle of Odette at forgiving Siegfried, nor do you feel the true depth of Siegfried's sorrow at condemning Odette at being a swam for life. We get none of this with McKenzie's production and we should. This is a tragic romance...but with this production...we don't get any of the tragedy nor romance. The final act should be highly emotional and powerful. With McKenzie's you feel as if you're at an auto race, timing at how fast the race would finish. McKenzie needs to give us a third act and he should pattern it after the wonderful third act production Frederick Ashton created for the Royal Ballet as shown in the 1982 video of Swan Lake as danced by Natalia Makarove and Anthony Dowell. Now that's an awesome third act!!!




La Fille Mal Gardee - At this point I'm thinking there must be a legal reason why McKenzie hasn't brought this joyous ballet back to the Met. What a fantastic crowd-pleaser and the company did a marvelous job performing it. The critics loved it, the audience loved it and you got the strong sense the dancers adored performing it. The ballet has four terrific roles in which McKenzie could probably cast from Prinicpal down to Corp de Ballet and not make a bad mistake in the casting. It needs to come back ASAP!



The Sleeping Beauty - It's a joke - YUCK!!!!!!!!

La Fille...was a critical success and was loved by the people who saw it but somehow it was not a box office hit. Maybe, with well-known"stars" and better marketing it will attract more people. I think that's reason why it has not been revived lately.

#4 Raylene

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Posted 04 July 2011 - 12:02 PM

What jumps out at me when I read all the ABT posts is how passionate people are about the company, the dancers, the repertoire, etc. This might be a ridiculous question. But has there ever been any opportunity for focus group discussions with ABTís artistic management to share ideas, hopes and dreams for the company?

#5 nanushka

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Posted 04 July 2011 - 01:02 PM

What jumps out at me when I read all the ABT posts is how passionate people are about the company, the dancers, the repertoire, etc. This might be a ridiculous question. But has there ever been any opportunity for focus group discussions with ABTís artistic management to share ideas, hopes and dreams for the company?



As a teacher, I can totally sympathize with the groans and shudders a suggestion like this would provoke among the creative team -- it's generally important not to let such work become too "democratic," to maintain a certain professional integrity and creative control. On the other hand, such a relatively closed system depends upon a certain degree of excellence or at least competence among those "in control" (whether they be teachers and school administrators, or choreographers and artistic directors). Unfortunately, based on the results in recent years (in terms of both roster and repertoire), I just don't have much faith that Kevin McKenzie possesses the degree of excellence that ABT truly deserves, and that its audiences are justified in expecting.

#6 Raylene

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Posted 04 July 2011 - 01:39 PM

Just seems a shame not to positively engage such an incredibly knowledgeable, loyal and committed fan base in a dialogue about future challenges and opportunities. Respectful dialogue can be healthy and energizing.


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