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Ballet West at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago

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This was a good performance marred by some silly choreography and ballets. The Auditorium Theatre is of such beauty and opulence that it contributes to and gives distinction to any performer or company appearing in it.

The Balanchine ballets ('Rubies' and 'Diamonds' pas de deux) shone most brilliantly. Elizabeth McGrath as the Tall Girl (the soloist) in 'Rubies' was superb: athletic (her first pirouette was an effortless triple), sexy, and FUNNY--one of the wittiest Rubies tall girls I have ever seen. Her inflections rippled with humor and delight in dancing. Beckanne SIsk, who is on the rather cheesy Ballet West reality show called 'Breaking Pointe' and is being heavily pushed by the director as The Next Ballerina, is a good dancer but she appeared preoccupied with correctness here; her smile is fixed and rigid and she does not show enough freedom, range of movement, angles, relish, or Broadway-baby sex appeal, not to mention pure charm (the 'Rubies' ballerinas are both showgirls of different sorts.) She is very young (about twenty-one) and will doubtless improve. Her partner Christopher Ruud, not quite up to the technical demands of a totemic Villella role (which puts him in the company of most men who have danced this since Villella) was charming and roguish. The corps was fun throughout the ballet.

Christiana Bennett, another star on 'Breaking Pointe' and the current company prima, danced 'Diamonds' pas de deux with Beau Pearson (strong and a tactful partner.) She is clean, exact, precise, and honest in steps; she was in this performance also cold and rather uninvolved. Balanchine ballerinas should not emote nor should they work the room, but this icy delivery is too far in the opposite direction. Suzanne Farrell could be described by many diverse adjectives, but 'cold' would not be one of them; a regal presence such as the magnificent Deanna Seay, late of Miami City Ballet, can also be (as Seay was in this role) overwhemingly warm, gracious, and enveloping.

The new pas de quatre (a premiere) by Nicolo Fonte, a current darling of the ballet world, had excellent dancers (Katherine Lawrence, the almost too handsome Tom Mattingly, Adrian Fry, and Jacqueline Straughan) dancing to u-g-l-y music by Ezio Bosso, for string quartet. Even with the atrocities of modern 'string playing' this is some of the ugliest grinding and mashing I've ever encountered, and to hear such 'sounds' in what is supposed to be string quartet playing is beyond jarring. The choreography was typical of some current trends in ballet--gymnastic, slightly outre, attempting to be showy and 'dramatic.' Lawrence appears to be a terrific and serious dancer, and I would love to see her in real choreography; Straughan has legs and line for days and seems a foot taller than her actual height on stage. All the dancers would be excellent in a better, more interesting ballet.

The Lottery, which is, help me, to the famous and frightening Shirley Jackson short story, has a Big Schtick: seven couples all draw the lots to determine who the murder victim will be (the 'sacrifice' of the rite) and the dancers do not know who will dance the final (fairly taxing and difficult) solo until then, so they all must know it (there is a boys' and a girls' version) and be ready to dance it at every performance. The dancer who 'won' at my performance was the young, talented demisoloist Katie Critchlow, who is an excellent dancer and on whom the female solo version was originally made. Something which occurred during her solo epitomizes what's wrong with this story as a 'ballet'--she did a difficult multiple pirouette flawlessly and the audience burst into applause. She DESERVED her applause and then some, but not in something intended to be a DANCE OF DEATH! This ain't Odile's (or Medora's, or Kitri's, or any other ballerina's) fouettes, and such cognitive dissonance in the midst of what is intended to be 'high drama' vitiates the intention. The ballet, of course, just as do all 'problem plays' and 'issue plays' in theater, steals all its 'intensity' from the grim theme, and although the dancers again distinguish themselves the work itself is unsuccessful. Val Caniparoli, the choreographer, has done some excellent ballets (Lambarena in particular) but there is no plausible reason to make this great story into a 'ballet.' Also, having the chosen victim scream 'it isn't fair' three times before starting the final solo is a Grand Guignol gesture in the worst possible taste. What ballet dancers do not do is talk. Or scream. They do everything else.

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It's great to hear about the actual dancing by this company and not just what we can glean from the all-to-short glimpse from the TV show.

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And in as good an account as this one. It's clearly the same performance I looked at (from Row U in that beautiful place), although I was somewhat less taken with Rubies, which seemed tame, perhaps because having gorged on the original cast and lively tempos decades ago, though this was still a credit to everyone involved, including Sandra Jennings, who staged it. We seem in agreement that things went more or less downhill from there. More in the case of the novelties, for the reasons jsmu elucidates, less in the case of the "classic" Diamonds pas, here in such a colorless rendition and in easy tempos too, that, listening, one could get a sense of possibility of great drama more indicated than realized here, in spite of staging by Maria Calegari, no less. (My companion thought this Rubies might better have concluded the program.) The corps that contributed so much to Rubies also gave The Lottery much of what life it had, in the few moments when it erupted into dancing.

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Ballet West on Tour
6 October 2013, 3 PM matinee
Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Illinois
Orchestra U 405

Feeling disappointment is one thing, but actually writing a negative review is quite another. For days, the only thing I could think to put down was, "Well, it happened and I saw it."

Of course, prior to achieving that particular non-reaction, the whole experience had me feeling like Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz, eyes widening and head tilting back in horrified incredulity as the village panto imploded under the weight of its own well-intentioned obliviousness.

For reference's sake, feel free to see for yourself.

With that said, I don't want this to stand as a condemnation of the company itself. Ballet West's intentions and the foundations (especially their corp de ballet) are good, but the matinee program, both the choreography and the company's presentation of it, threw up sufficient barriers to enjoyment that left me to mark time until I could escape for vodka and pierogi*.

When performed in isolation, Rubies is an appealing choice with which to open or close a performance. I compared the third movement on my previous viewing to choreographic champagne, chasing after the piano as it burbles along on double speed. However, there were two movements before that and the soloists complete them shakily.

In general, the soloists looked competent but not personable. This may be a function of my row U seats in Orchestra Left, but I was hardly at the back of the auditorium. Experience and coaching in these roles (not that I know how long they have already danced these roles) will help with projection, but in the meantime it didn't make for very memorable watching.

Elizabeth McGrath was uneventful as Tall Girl. There were too many limbs flailing in the beginning, as if her torso was not fully engaged in the dancing, but she eventually settled in. Showgirl, hostess, or some permutation of both, she does not have enough authority in her stage presence to stand out sufficiently against the corps.

Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud were the main couple. Ruud has an eye-catching languidness in his jumps that contrasted intriguingly with the quicksilver choreography. I did notice that there were a few spots during his romp with the gang where movements looked like they were performed 'as choreographed' rather than towards the intended party, but on the whole he was closely attentive. Sisk in the McBride role faired slightly less well. Sisk dances gently, which can be used to great effect but made this role look slightly blurry. Occasionally the geometry of her choreography looked off. In one particular moment in the pas de deux, Ruud pulls her arms stage right, and what I expected to see was the ballerina's working leg extended parallel to the floor, as if someone else is pulling that limb from the opposite side. Instead, we see Sisk in a full split with working leg pointed to the ceiling. The opposing force has disappeared and instead the moment just looks vulgar.

The corp were a treat to watch as they scampered through the choreography. I did want to commend one particular corp artist (by her coloring, most likely either Sayaka Ohtaki or Jenna Rae Herrera — I regret not being close enough to identify her). There is a moment where two members of the corps women pose downstage, facing the audience. This artist did so with notable assurance and sex appeal, rare enough to make me take note and speculate on the prospects of expanding that quality into McBride's role.

I group Rubies and Diamonds together as they exhibit similar insufficiencies of performance. Unlike Rubies, however, Diamonds is not as dancer-proof and is particularly exposed during the pas de deux; its success hinges on the couple's ability to convey their understanding of the music and choreography to the audience. Beau Pearson was an ardently attentive cavalier, with what I would say is now a very standard and Russian portrayal.

There's a saying that the object of one's regard reflects something intimate about one's own self-image, or at least the image of his ideal woman. If I take this as given, then his regard for Christiana Bennett in Suzanne Farrell's role would suggest that he, like Franz in Coppelia, longs for an uncomplicated automaton as partner. There were no dynamics to contrast one movement from the next. While all of the shapes were carefully and correctly placed, the ballerina did not demonstrate that she understood what the choreography, both in the beauty moments and in the transitions between them, were meant to do. At the moment, this is not her role.

Presto, the world premiere, was performed by four dancers to slashing violin music. There are pieces that are fun to dance, and there are pieces that are fun to watch. The two intersect somewhere, but this piece was not it. Like Douglas Adams's bowl of petunias, my only reaction was to gird my loins, think 'oh no, not again' and prepare for the long drop ahead.

As the inaccurate paraphrase goes, put a man and a woman onstage and you've already got a story. As with countless contemporary ballets before it, it is a relentless battle of physicality between men and women in shimmering leotards as they dance at each other. If there exists a relationship between the dancers, the closest comes in the duet challenge as the former pose the latter into a variety of shapes in a bonus challenge round. At one point, one of the principal women (possibly Jennifer Lawrence) slipped and took an audible fall. There was palpable concern from her fellow dancers, and I would argue that it made the dancing better as the dancers seemed more aware of each other than they had been. The choreography, however, soon overwhelmed that.

The dancers were well-rehearsed and danced very well, but it's difficult to make anything out of the ugly music and the flashy but empty choreography. Truly, it is a piece fit for the CW.

I understand why the Chicago premiere of The Lottery merits the closing position by virtue of prestige (and logistics). I would have wished for greater clarity to accompany prestige, however. The Lottery, as I am told by the program, is by Shirley Jackson is evidently a famous short story. It is so famous that my home state (infamous for having the lowest public school teacher salaries in the country) does not teach it to its students. I very intelligently inferred that there was a lottery from the obfuscating liner notes and read Wikipedia for the plot at the first intermission**.

The piece's fidelity to the story's structure was problematic both for its pacing and structure. I very intelligently remarked to my friend that this piece aspires to de Mille-ian drama by way of Tharpian obfuscation. Really what I mean to say in that piece of snooty name-dropping is that it aspires to a very American melodrama through interminable and idiosyncratic port de bras.

What is possible and even engaging in writing made for tedious and confusing viewing when the same actions were rendered in dance. Similar costuming made it impossible to identify different characters without a working knowledge (as well as good opera glasses) on the dancers themselves. The victim (who jsmu had identified as Katie Critchlow) danced well, but I had no idea who she was beforehand and was unimpressed with the gimmick of her screaming.

The Lottery gives all of the dancers multiple somethings interesting to do, and they all dance well, but as a ballet, it ultimately fails as good dance drama. Like a Soviet Swan Lake, it demands too much foreknowledge from its audience (knowledge that was not augmented by the program), and in this case (possibly intentional, though not wisely), the staging does not augment one's understanding of these characters sufficiently to sympathize with the losers.

The program sponsors were able to provide live music from the Chicago Sinfonetta for most of this performance (Presto was prerecorded). The Lottery's percussive score was performed very well, but Rubies and Diamonds sounded under-rehearsed and Rubies very sluggish and careful. The woodwinds in particular needed tuning help.

*In the interests of getting to my train on time, I did not get the vodka.

** I have seen many analogues in the popular media, but the story was not immediately clear to me by title and reputation.

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