Helene

All Wheeldon Program

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It's always interesting to notice how differently folks see the same work of art. There is no "right" and "wrong" to it, just differences. I'm struck by how differently Jayne and I see this program. I too was there last night (I just couldn't stay away.....this was the 4th performance I saw).

If 10 seconds were to be cut from Polyphonia, I'd probably lead a protest demonstration :). For me, Polyphonia is a masterpiece -- sheer genius I'd say. In the past 10 days, I've seen Polyphonia 4 times, and I swear I could see it 30 more times over the next 2 months before I might have my fill. Each time I see it, I love it more (in the interest of full disclosure Agon is my favorite ballet of all time). Some of the Ligeti music is tough at first (especially the first of the ten segments), but like Wheeldon described his experience with this music, each time I hear it, I understand it better, and I am increasing fascinated by it (not to mention some segments that are just flat out gorgeous in anyone's book).

Yes, there is a moment in After the Rain where the audience laughs.....but it is not an awkward moment, it is simply a bit funny when you first see it. It is the moment when the woman does a back bend with her hands over her head on the ground and she is like an arch (belly side up); the man picks her up in this unusual position and rotates her in the horizontal plane. I can't totally explain it, but there is something humorous about this move. I think the audience's laughing reaction is quite appropriate....altho some are no doubt laughing nervously since they are probably not quite sure if it's OK to laugh. One thing is certain, like Balanchine, there is a great deal of humor in all of Wheeldon's choreography....sometimes in the most unexpected places, and sometimes with great subtlety (Polyphonia abounds with humor...sometimes clearly, sometimes more subtly).

Indeed one's eyeballs may burn from the "pepto bismol pink" costumes in Variations Serieuses, but this was quite clearly by design. The entire ballet is obviously a spoof of every imaginable ballet stereotype....and that includes the costuming. The men wear these totally ridiculous breast plates and gaudy tights (yes, in that awful color). The women have ridiculous little "bug wings" pasted on their back as if they just stepped out of Mr B's Midsummer's Night Dream. Every thing was over the top including this ghastly orange color.

At the risk of offending, I must take issue with characterizing Laura Gilbraith's acting as "perhaps....growing". From where I sit, one of Laura greatest strengths has always been her acting ability. She certainly was superb in the role of the "over the hill" prima ballerina last night (altho she is no match for the magnificent Carrie Imler in this part), but this is nothing new for Laura, she is always a suberb actor ....especially in comedic roles (who could forget her in West Side Story Suite a couple of years ago??).

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I missed this five-minute video from Wheeldon's Lecture Demo that took place a few days before the program's opening:

It includes rehearsal footage, including Korbes and Orza in "Carousel: "A Dance".

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What was the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote about "knowing art when I see it"? The other one is "there's no accounting for taste". For me, Polyphonia wasn't my favorite. Yes, I "got" all the comedic references, and my pepto bismol comment was meant to be sardonic. Regarding Laura Gilbraith's acting, I've seen her in several performances take to the stage looking like a deer in headlights, particularly as Myrtha last season, but also in a Balanchine pas de deux where she should have had the ice princess serenity on her face. Perhaps her comedic talent is developing faster than her dramatic abilities.

I think the Balanchine baby companies may suffer the same lack of opportunities to regularly develop and perform dramatic roles, because Balanchine really calls for the "tall glass of water" women without the subtle acting skills required at a more classical company. Just look at the reviews of NYCB's recent Swan Lake.

To each his/her own.

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....as Myrtha last season

I agree that was not Laura's best outing. Of course her opposite number in that role once again was the incomparable Carrie Imler who commands the stage regardless of what she does (with a couple of exceptions perhaps). I would also concede that Laura fares better against the impossible Imler if the role is comedic instead of dramatic.

Allow me another example. Remember Laura in the PdD middle section of Robbins "Glass Pieces" about a year ago? That part is so exposed, requires superb adagio technique, and a presence (acting) in order to pull off the extremely sensual feeling of the PdD. IMHO, Laura excelled at acting in that part. OTOH, I found Laura's performance disappointing a month later in Tharp's "Afternoon Ball".

Like you say "to each his/her own".............that's what makes it all interesting.

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I think the Balanchine baby companies may suffer the same lack of opportunities to regularly develop and perform dramatic roles, because Balanchine really calls for the "tall glass of water" women without the subtle acting skills required at a more classical company...

This would be an interesting topic of discussion outside this thread -- while PNB most certainly has a strong NYCB affiliation in its history, I'm not sure that, looking at the current repertory, we're really a "Balanchine Baby" company anymore.

You're dead on, though, when you imply that acting skills take time to develop just like more abstract technical chops do. And one of the challenges of working in a repertory company like PNB is getting the consistent opportunities to practice those skills. I remember watching Noelani Pantastico's first go at Sleeping Beauty -- I wouldn't characterize her performances as a deer in the headlights, but her dancing certainly had a kind of precarious caution -- she knew this was important stuff and she was a little wary. The next time the work came up in the repertory, she did a lovely job with the very delicate characterization of a young woman on the verge. Maria Chapman had a similar expression on her face when she danced her first lead in Symphony in C (yikes!), and like Pantastico, has truly deepened her expressive skills over time. We've been seeing Gilbreath in a big bouquet of "firsts" lately -- she's acquitted herself quite well in most of them (Serenade), and I'm looking forward to seeing her development.

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I'm afraid this is where I off-load extra thoughts I couldn't fit in a review -- just scroll down if you've already had enough.

At the top of the show, the people sitting in the balconies see the conductor enter the orchestra pit before the people in the spendy seats on the main floor, so the pre-show hush starts upstairs and makes its way down to the rest of the audience. I usually sit on the main floor (I sit where they put me -- as a solo person I’m easy to move around) so when I hear things settle down I look to see the conductor’s head pop up when he steps onto the podium. Kershaw had a mane of white hair, while Dameron’s frizzy halo surrounds his bald spot. de Cou (aka the new guy) is a brunette, but that’s all I know so far.

Carousel - I know that everyone is excited about the carnival effects and the merry-go-round at the end of this work, but honestly, that’s the least interesting thing for me. Wheeldon has made a ballet here, with the same kind of personnel that St Leon and Petipa used, and it’s very interesting to see what he does and doesn’t do with that heritage. This isn’t the highly structured kind of work that Caniparoli made a couple years ago. That work used a pre-existing score that had divided the project up into discrete sections (very Petipa-like) while this piece is more through-created. There are distinct sections in Carousel as well, mostly delineated by songs from the original musical -- it’s not strictly an orchestral version of the R&H score, but it does tend to keep each song separate. And since so many of those are keyed specifically to events in the original book, Wheeldon does “tell the same story,” but it isn’t as literal as the source material. The lead couple are Billy and Julie, and their big duet, which culminates in “If I Loved You” reflects those characters, but doesn’t act them out per se.

The rest of the cast are more generically part of the community -- we see more of the two soloist couples, but they aren’t really specific -- no Carrie and Mr Snow. Some of their movement has a bit of character attached to it -- some task-like gestures for the ensemble and the tumbling cartwheels that resemble carnival rides, but for me, the interesting stuff was his use of more standard vocabulary. He knows what to do with women on pointe, uses some very inventive partnering and in general seems happy to own his heritage as a ballet choreographer.

I saw Korbes and Orza in the main roles, and they were well suited to the style and to each other. He’s got an excellent vibe as Billy -- there’s a note of aggression in his dancing that really works with this part, and she was very clear about the transition between wariness and abandon -- you could see where her character chose to commit to him. Elsewhere, it was great to see Kiyon Gaines as one of the soloists -- I missed his presence on stage for much of last year. Ben Griffiths was the other solo man, and the two of them were very in sync. They’re close in stature, although they’re not really twins, but there were a couple of moments where they were just identical --same line, same initiation, same follow-through. It was very effective. Later in the program, Griffiths dances with Lucien Postelwaite (the male duet in Polyphonia) -- they do a fine job, but in some ways I think his duet here with Gaines is better matched. They were partnered with Margaret Mullin and Kylee Kitchen, who were both very flowy, and made good use of the waltz rhythms in the piece.

After the Rain - This is one of those works that is open to all kinds of interpretation. It has a gentle and methodical quality to it, and for all that the vocabulary choices are far from classical it doesn’t feel tricky to me the way that some of Polyphonia does. When I first saw it here a couple years ago, I thought it was mostly about endurance, that this was a couple who had fought a long and taxing battle, and that we were seeing them at the end, where they may have been victorious, but you couldn’t really tell through the exhaustion. At the very end, when he picks her up and turns around with her in a deep back arch, and then puts her down in a kind of back-bend bridge, I thought of a dog that turns around itself as it gets ready to sleep, so that when he slides under her and then gently pulls her down on top of him it was as if he was getting to bed and she was his safety blanket. This time around there was something about the way she leaned forward while standing on his thigh, like a bowsprit, that made me think of sailing and of travel. They were on a journey, and found their destination in the end.

I got two casts -- Chapman and Cruz are very well matched physically, but he seemed more of a support than an equal partner this time around. Rachel Foster and James Moore felt like an even-handed pairing. They’ve both had big success with the more contemporary parts of the repertory, and it shows well here -- they don’t editorialize on any of the steps -- they just do them.

Polyphonia - I wish I could see this a couple more times -- there’s so much going on that I have to keep myself watching the piece as it unfolds rather than taking a moment to puzzle out a particular step or relationship. It is indeed the most “Balanchine-y” of the works on the program, and some people might think it’s almost too derivative, but I think he makes excellent use of his adopted heritage, quotations and all.

When I saw the lec-dem during the first week of the run, I thought that seeing this work next to After the Rain might undercut the two pieces -- that they might seem too much alike, but that wasn’t the impression I got in performance. They may have real similarities in their vocabulary, but the time out of time quality of the duet doesn’t really have a match in the Ligeti.

The opening section, where the four couples take the main phrases apart and put them together again, does look like Balanchine in his Stravinsky mode, but the pattern games seemed more front and center here, and made me think of Wheeldon as a part of the post-modern dance generation as well as a neo-classicist. But then, at the end of the section, when the front lights started casting shadows on the upstage scrim and the eight dancers on stage looked like part of a larger, more noir-ish crowd, the piece took on an emotional weight it didn’t have before. That sense of mystery kept reasserting itself through the ballet, particularly in the next duet, with its creaturely images.

So for me things seem to alternate between games with patterns and more emotionally evocative material. Thinking about it in those terms, I was most struck with the two duets in the middle -- Nakamura and Griffiths dancing like furies with windmill arms, and Griffiths again, with Postelwaite this time, in a tag team dance that looks like Bournonville’s Jockey dance and Balanchine’s male duet from Agon. The more mysterious stuff really came to a head for me with the Allegro con Spirito (Sarah Ricard Orza and Jerome Tisserand in the performances I saw) The contemplative feeling of the side-to-side shifting at the top of the duet played out through the whole of that dance and into the following solo for SRO. Towards the end of her solo she does a series of chaine turns with her arms descending from a high fifth position, her hands holding onto an invisible something. It’s a moment you can interpret a hundred ways, and each of those ways becomes a story about who she might be and what powers she might invoke, and then it’s over and we launch into another section of the ballet. I’ve seen Polyphonia maybe five times now, and would line up in less than a minute to see it five more.

Variations Serieuses - This is such a smartypants work. Between the snarky takes on backstage behaviors, the references to 42nd Street and The Red Shoes, the sharp observations in the faux-19th century choreography, and the skewed stage space, this is Wheeldon offering up something for everyone in the audience. I could bring my most hide-bound dance friends to this and sit them right next to colleagues who eschew the slightest reference to classical dance, and put them in the laps of people who know nothing at all about the art form and they would all be having a grand time. Strangely enough, that’s the same kind of thing I say about Twyla Tharp’s choreography (that it’s full of multiple references from disparate parts of the dance world) but I don’t see Wheeldon and Tharp making similar works.

He got my ‘loves an arcane moment’ self from the opening of the curtain with the ghost light on the apron of his fake stage and from there it was ‘name that reference’ all the way though. I spent a big chunk of time trying to figure out who he was basing his ballet-inside-a-ballet on. When the aspiring dancer first tries out some steps when she thinks she’s alone, it looked a bit Balanchine-y to me, like a fourth muse in director’s-cut Apollo. Later on, the twitchy ballet master made me think Massine, and his rehearsal felt a bit like one of his symphonic works, but once the women started filing in wearing their costumes, romantic-length skirts with wings on their backs and wreaths on their heads, a la Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, I thought it was more like an homage to Fokine, a post-modern variation on a neo-romantic evocation of a Romantic era ballet..

There are lots of aphorisms out there about how hard it is to do comedy, and I think it must be even more challenging to do it in dance. We have very few comedies in the ballet repertory, compared to theater and music we seem like a noble and dour bunch. Most of the humor in VS come from its references to existing concepts or stereotypes: we already know the fussy director, a conductor with his head in the clouds, the self-absorbed diva and the winsome ingenue -- we’re familiar with those types even when they appear in contexts other than a ballet company. When the diva is working up a head of steam to retaliate against the doofy chorus boy who knocked into her she literally paws the floor with her pointes -- she looks like a bull in that old Bugs Bunny cartoon about bullfighting. It was fascinating to see Imler and Gilbreath in the role during the first weekend. Imler’s diva is right in line with what I think of as her Edith Wharton parts -- the Queen Mother in Swan Lake and the Matron in The Concert -- women who know their place in their community and wield their power. With Gilbreath, it’s easier to see her as the result of the same life cycle we follow in the ballet -- she was once an aspiring ingenue herself and replaced whatever ballerina came before her.

The ballet is stuffed with fun details -- I loved the Barbie pink costumes for the men with the slashed doublets (very Ballet Russe) and the little wiggle for the Diva when she walks through a cloud of perfume. And the cast embraces them all with relish -- this is the most relaxed I think I’ve ever seen Seth Orza, and the most nuanced. He was attracted to the ingenue, empathetic and familiar with the diva, businesslike with the ballet master -- a rounded human being. And Ezra Thompson was an excellent Jughead, snoozing in the wings, chatting with his colleagues, and coming in at just the wrong time to catch the diva as she hurtles into the orchestra pit.

But what makes VS really special to me is that alongside all this charming fun, Wheeldon is making some very tricky choreography. I spent one performance trying to visualize what I’d be seeing if I was sitting in the fake audience over on the real stage right, and as near as I could tell, it was a very interesting and stylistically consistent ballet. It made sense on two sides simultaneously, and that’s a difficult thing to accomplish with an art form that is very wedded to the geography of the stage space. Peter Anastos made a series of works for the Trocks that were funny because they took on the structural themes of the ballets they referenced (rather than only satirizing the characters), and Wheeldon has done the same thing here. Like I said, what a smartypants he is.

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I'm afraid this is where I off-load extra thoughts I couldn't fit in a review........

I, for one, am very glad you take the time to do this. Frankly, I look more forward to these "cast offs" than yor printed reviews because you have the space here to make so many interesting observations. Keep 'em coming!

....and the tumbling cartwheels that resemble carnival rides

I absolutely loved those moves in Carousel. As you say they invoke the carnival, but what I liked about them even more was the way those moves reflected the sharp change in the music from somewhat serious to whimsical. Indeed, my overall reaction to Wheeldon is how, like Mr B, his choreography springs so naturally and so completely from the music. For me, that tendency defines dance -- particularly ballet. Wheeldon succeeds like few others in making this vital connection fresh at every moment.

This is one of those works that is open to all kinds of interpretation........They were on a journey, and found their destination in the end.

I very much like how you say this. After the Rain also invokes in me many cascading emotions and "in my head" stories. But your idea of traveling and finding a destination is very thought provoking. Well said indeed.

It is indeed the most “Balanchine-y” of the works on the program, and some people might think it’s almost too derivative, but I think he makes excellent use of his adopted heritage, quotations and all.

I can see folks calling Polyphonia "derivative", but IMO, they'd be missing the point. Clearly Wheeldon meant this as a homage to one of his main inspirations: Balanchine (furthermore to Agon in particular). That being the case, I would say "derivative" can't apply. Then when you see how Wheeldon is also using his own voice here, and that Mr B is only a departure point, I can only imagine someone using "derivative" if they had but a mere superficial look at the ballet.

The more mysterious stuff really came to a head for me with the Allegro con Spirito (Sarah Ricard Orza and Jerome Tisserand in the performances I saw) The contemplative feeling of the side-to-side shifting at the top of the duet played out through the whole of that dance and into the following solo for SRO.

I was absolutely blown away by Sara Richard Orza in this solo on the first Saturday evening performance. She did it extremely well every time I saw her dance the part, but she seemed on another plane that night. My thought is that she sort of became pure dance that night since she did little but dance from dawn to dusk. She danced 3 major parts that afternoon in the matinee, and then returned with only a few hours rest to dance this difficult solo in Polyphonia (not to mention doing the ingenue role in VS immediately following Polyphonia). Putting it all on the line like that can transport an artist (or an athlete, or anyone really) into what is often called the "zone". For me, that night, in that part, Sara did her finest dancing ever. What a treasure she is.

And Ezra Thompson was an excellent Jughead, snoozing in the wings, chatting with his colleagues, and coming in at just the wrong time to catch the diva as she hurtles into the orchestra pit.

I'm becoming a big fan of Ezra's. Watching him I feel he is not "doing dance", but he is dance. He's relatively new and has a long way to go, but when he's on stage, I tend to spend way too much time watching Ezra whatever he is doing. I look forward to his future with anticipation.

I spent one performance trying to visualize what I’d be seeing if I was sitting in the fake audience over on the real stage right, and as near as I could tell, it was a very interesting and stylistically consistent ballet. It made sense on two sides simultaneously, and that’s a difficult thing to accomplish with an art form that is very wedded to the geography of the stage space.

I too was fascinated that Wheeldon somehow pulled this off. I can't say I actually tried to visualize myself sitting in the faux-audience like you so clevely did, but I was continually amazed that the dancing "made sense" from BOTH these angles. I guess in such things lies genius.

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