I saw the final 3 of 4 performances performed by American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company this past weekend at the new Skirball Center. All performances included Anthony Tudor's "Continuo" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Scott Rink. Evening shows also featured William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" as well as "SpringScape" by Peter Quanz while the family matinee on Saturday included "The Nutcracker" pas de deux.
* ABT's Studio Company has performed "Continuo" at a few different venues this fall. Staged by Donald Mahler, it had a wonderful silken softness and started off each of the performances. Caitlin Seither and Matthew Murphy were noteworthy out of the 3 couples in the piece. Ms. Seither had a comfortably confidant presentation, her controlled technique was consistent in each performance. During the matinee, Sandra Brown's brief prologue pointed out a lovely lift that the dancers executed called a "ribbon lift". I had never noticed it in any ballet prior to this. Melanie Hamrick, Matthew Golding, Jennifer Lee and Roman Zhurbin gave fine examples of the move.
* Less classic in Stephen Galloway's costumes with velour for all and platter tutus for the ladies, "Vertiginous" was a slight gear shift in the evening performances. Balletomanes that braved the blizzard were thrilled and received Jacquelyn Reyes, Lara Bossen, Ana Sophia Scheller, Blaine Hoven, and Arron Scott with enthusiasm. The five crafted their way through the intricate latticework of steps as a tightly woven group as well as careful individual strands. It was generally the best received piece each evening, truly outstanding Saturday evening but I am told that Thursday's performance was even more solid and exact.
* It being a story ballet, I feel more comfortable sharing my opinions on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I had many preconceived images of which I am still trying to let go so that I might give this work fair merit.
Having premiered in New York on this run, it is an edgy thoughtful piece with many layers. The music collage by Paul Marshall based on Paul Dukas' "L'Apprenti Sorcier" gave it a contemporary "techno" feel that would strongly appeal to the very limited crowd of the 20 something year old theater goers. It was mixed in a way that occasional phrases of the well known theme snuck through then blended with some very unearthly vocals. The music tended to keep me off balance in a good way but the awkward audio transitions for each scene were so abrupt that, at the conclusion, made me question if the ballet was over or if should I be waiting for another jarring scene change.
The costumes, designed by Tracey Christensen, were effective in creating a menacing 10 foot Sorcerer (carefully introduced in a non-threatening way to the family matinee audience) and his very human Apprentice. Impressive were the wood-grained and knotty unitards united with crutch-like appendages to create the surreal dancing Broom(s). I did overhear some comments that they looked like trees or characters from "The Lion King."
The Sorcerer was convincingly danced by Jacquelyn Reyes, Roman Zhurbin and Matthew Golding. The form of the magician glided and shape-shifted before my eyes with just a few of the movements a bit contrived to accommodate the length of the costume and the partnering holds that were required. Arron Scott brought heart and human nature into the virtuosic role of The Apprentice. Casting a spell with a series of complicated and well executed jumps and turns, Mr. Scott introduced The Broom, brought to life by Melanie Hamrick. Ms. Hamrick's robotic gestures and countenance projected a chilling and beautiful performance of an inanimate object come strangely to life. The couple's playful pas de deux expanded into a deeper appreciation mostly on the side of The Apprentice. Hamrick and Scott rose to the challenge of showing that they could connect despite the cumbersome broom extensions that, because of choreography or inability, kept The Broom a more grounded than I would like to have seen.
As goes the story, The Broom can not break free of it's original purpose and goes overboard in cleaning thus requiring the Apprentice to horribly destroy it into what becomes a band of eerie broom duplicates. Hamrick along with Lara Bossen, Jennifer Lee, Jacquelyn Reyes, Caitlin Seither, and Ana Sophia Scheller gave remarkable performances as a corp of brooms gone bad. Most impressive were their piqué turns and chaînés with four foot long arms whipping around. Leaping his way through the twirling brooms and buckets of water while trying to right things gone wrong and reunite with the original Broom, Scott's Apprentice was overtaken by the army as they forced him to spin out of control. The Sorcerer's climactic and shocking appearance demanded things returned to a more nearly normal state. In the blink of an eye, The Apprentice's consequence of sporting broom arms allowed The Broom to retain the life wrongly given to her. Hamrick, admiring her new lovely arms, lightly and innocently danced off leaving behind Scott's gravely tormented Apprentice.
The performance would have had felt more polished and less like a work in progress if the set and lighting could have been tweaked. White cloths representing the overwhelming magical water could have been colored. Dancers' facial expressions were occluded by large dark areas on the stage contributing to the overall disconnected and disjointed feeling. These things undermined the integrity of the ballet.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was received in a manner similar to the reception of American Ballet Theatre's production of "The Pied Piper", a politely cool. Some people did not know what to make of it, some did not like that it wasn't an original story ("If you are going to do a new ballet, why not make it an all new story to all new music?"), some were just uncomfortable with the disturbing ending and I have to suppose some were unimpressed with everything including the dancing. I liked the many layers of this ballet but I know I could appreciate it more completely if it were somewhat modified. I enjoyed the dancers and felt that they were cast very well but I would have liked to been able to compare the roles on different dancers. When a company is limited to 12, it limits who can dance each role.
* Evening performances concluded with the New York premiering "SpringScape." Created during the company's three-week residency at the White Oak Plantation in Yulee, FL, it reflected the easy grace that this intimate company shares. Caitlin Seither, Blaine Hoven, and Matthew Murphy were featured in a series of solos, pas de deux and trois. Exceptional performances were given by Mr. Hoven and Mr. Murphy in a sportive dance that progressed into a more introspective and familial interaction between the duo. Ms. Seither's contributions were a sweet counterpoint. The lighting by Brian Sciarra should be mentioned as it clearly communicated the mood shifts along with Benjamin Britten's music. The ensemble of Melanie Hamrick, Jennifer Lee, Jacqueline Reyes, Ana Sophia Scheller, Matthew Golding, Arron Scott, and Roman Zhurbin showed all of what ABT's Studio Company is comprised of this season.
It was surprising that the family matinee was attended as well as it was with the winter weather raging that afternoon. Those who made it to the warm and beautiful theatre were treated to Sandra Brown's tidbits of ballet information between each of the pieces. She shared the secrets of how pointe shoes made the young ladies look like they were floating and gliding, encouraged attendees to cheer a hearty bravo at appropriate times and pointed out specific steps to be watching for in each dance. The set change for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was done with the curtain open and Ms. Brown's informative dialogue assuaging any fears that youngsters might have of the somewhat spooky visual effects. This thoughtfulness unfortunately lessened the theater magic in general by allowing a peek at all of the costumed brooms placing their "arms" upstage. Some young audience members still had to leave during the 20 minute piece but it was due less to fear than lack of a needed intermission.
* Melanie Hamerick put in a marathon day appearing in the matinee's performance of "The Nutcracker" pas de deux. She and her attentive partner Blaine Hoven shared a taste of the season's favorite for this family oriented audience. Mr. Hoven was as steadfast as a young Nilas Martins and Ms. Hamrick danced an abbreviated Sugar Plum variation, both were a bit careful and tired but their performance was sure.
ABT's Studio Company is a talented company that clearly works well together. I was glad to have seen them and look forward to seeing the only member who did not dance, Grant DeLong, perform in Kirk Peterson's "The Nutcracker" in Hartford CT.