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Harris Theater debut: "Balanchine Masterpieces" 5/5&6/12

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(Friday evening 5th May) If tempos and energy were something for someone who saw many performances of this repertory by Balanchine's own company under his supervision to quibble about, the other side of that is that these dancers brought these ballets to a level that inspired such a comparison. I see little today to match those days of old, but here the ballets had a similar kind of presence and immediacy, and brought the same kind of satisfaction. Not so much a performance of dancing, but dancing, and the although audience did not pack the Harris Theater by any means, it responded warmly to each ballet - and sometimes, during them.

Concerto Barocco turned out to include Ted Seymour instead of Kirk Henning. Seymour looked taller than necessary for the part, and I wondered if his height actually worked against him in the famous series of arc lifts in which the lone man in this ballet lowers his partner, the excellent Courtney Wright Anderson, also of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, slowly onto her toe, but otherwise this looked from first moment to last, everywhere onstage, like the eternal ballet it is, not least because the ample, good lighting was steady right through, so we could take in its greatness whole. The second girl, Ellen Green, a BC alumna lately of the Royal Danish Ballet corps, was a close match in ability though distinguishable in "flavor" from Anderson.

Jane Morgan, also of TSFB, was perfectly cast as "the tall girl" or the demi-solo in Rubies, even finding the time in the first pas de cinq to put her head far enough up for long enough that seeing her face upside down actually has an effect, a startling one, in place of the blank spot that has developed elsewhere over the years at this moment in the ballet, where we see the back of the girl's head instead, to no effect.

Matthew Renko, very satisfying as the Rubies man, could maybe phrase his energy more clearly, but he brings the right power to the role; with that control, he might bring it more of its original weight, too. As it is, his rendition was a little light to those who know the Villella original, but Renko justified the scattered applause during the times he dominated the stage. No wonder he is in demand by PNB and TSFB.

Elisabeth Holowchuk's rendition of the Rubies woman was a little uneven the first time out, going better in the allegros, especially the last one, than in the middle movement. Indeed, the tempo was a little "easy," especially compared to some old videos of excerpts I've seen recently, apparently danced to performance tape. Maybe, those more sprightly tempos are just what she needs? I don't know about that, but I do think more consistently brilliant lighting would help the sharp, clearly realized activity swarming across the stage in this complex, churning ballet a lot. It certainly deserves to be seen better. (I thought Holowchuk's appearance here was an exception to what was an exclusive affiliation with TSFB, but the program book, that indispensable resource, tells us she has appeared with the New Jersey Ballet and coached the NJ Youth Ballet.)

Finally, in the dozen numbers of Who Cares?, Seymour looked very much in his element, both alone and with his ladies, of whom Green was outstanding both in "The Man I Love" and "Fascinatin' Rhythm". And Kirk Henning, yet another Farrell dancer, finally appeared, as the middle man of the five: When they all had the same steps, he was only slightly more clear and present, while animating the part's distensions with aplomb. "First among equals" usually applies to the lead ballerina of Divertimento No. 15, but here was a comparison on a miniature scale.

Not the least contribution for a program of "Balanchine Masterpieces," the recorded music was well reproduced by the Harris's sound system.

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(Sunday matinee May 6) Before I went to the theater, I read Sid Smith's brief review of Saturday evening's performance, and I recommend it. (The accompanying picture however is several years old, not from May 6, 2012, as the caption implies.)

The second performance was even better, generally speaking, though maybe less well attended, sad to say. Most conspicuously, and most welcome, Elisabeth Holowchuk lost the reserve that had intermittently clouded Rubies last evening - it's hardly a reserved role, and the second movement especially benefitted greatly from her dancing being so much more enlivened and present. And Matthew Renko's was more clearly shaped and so, even more effective, too; and Jane Morgan was just as fine as before. So this was altogether better, except that unfortunately only the third movement was well lit again.

And the opening Concerto Barocco, superb ballet it was last night, benefitted in the arc lifts from whatever gave Seymour some difficulty last evening having left the scene, the series now clearly having its cumulative intensity.

On the other hand, the excerpts from Who Cares? - I think we got a dozen numbers out of the original seventeen in order to leave time on the two-hour program for a third ballet because Duell and Blair get too little occasion to present Balanchine, and they want to maximize their opportunity - went just differently: Ellen Green's clearly delineated "Fascinatin' Rhythm" of last night became a little aimless and fuzzy, but Susan Belles, in the von Aroldingen role, made it glow even more proudly. (The third girl, Robyn Wallace, dances well enough, but looks fairly bursting with happiness to be there. I hope so - I hope they all are - but it's a little out of proportion, though it nearly fits "Embraceable You.")

I hope you can tell I was happy to be there.

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They used recorded music. The tempo was definitely on the slow side both nights. Holowchuk's vivacity did make it feel faster on the second night.

Whoops, of course! Thanks, and I hope Farrell stages this some day.

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Balanchine Masterworks

Ballet Chicago

Saturday 5 May 2012

Harris Theater, Chicago, IL

Orchestra M110

I didn't expect a car wreck, but I did approach these performances with a(n un)healthy anticipation when I heard that Elisabeth Holowchuk would be taking the lead in Rubies. We talk of emploi mostly in reference to Russian companies, but Balanchine ballets have their own emploi*. The bottom line is that Holowchuk is not the most obvious dancer for a McBride role. She is reserved, introverted and more naturally suited at first thought (by association or style) to Farrell's repertoire and, being a member of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, can seem in danger of being cornered into those roles. I am pleased to observe that she did find a satisfying and valid interpretation of Rubies, though it did take two movements before she revved up to it. On the whole, the performance was uneven. Performers had opportunities to shine, but it wasn't a wholly cogent program.

Duell announced before this performance** that this was the 25th anniversary of Ballet Chicago and the 15th anniversary of the studio company. The Balanchine Masterworks program is designed to showcase the dancers' progress in three different "Balanchinean" moods, and it is interesting to see the company react so differently in each.

I know Concerto Barocco primarily from film (list available upon request), as I had never seen it live until now. I am pretty sure that one is not supposed to find the corps more interesting than the soloist, but the casting didn't work quite as intended.

Ellen Green returns from the Royal Danish Ballet as Second Violin. Her movements were brilliantly sharp, inappropriately so against the phrasing in the recorded music. Her port de bras was soft and blurry in contrast, but tense when posing. I wasn't sure what was going on and can only conjecture that it was two techniques, usually thought to coexist harmoniously, fighting a turf war with each other.

Courtney Wright Anderson as First Violin was, in contrast, a serene presence. She sketches out a good framework of the choreography, but needs more guidance to populate it more fully. Her dancing anticipates the recorded music and the phrase consequently looks incompletely developed, even static. Occasionally I got the feeling that she's forgotten about her cavalier, Ted Seymour, when she was not looking at him, but whether that's a valid reading on the partnership requires discussion. Seymour is an attentive partner but is too tall for her, which occasionally disrupted the geometry in the partnership.

So, as I said, I ended up watching the corps more often than not. Surprisingly, Balanchine the classicist is not in their bodies as is Balanchine the modernist or the showman. Concerto Barocco is, according to Marie-Jeanne, about a shifting of the weight, and I don't think that the corps is as yet secure enough to bring that out in the choreography. Bows occasionally do not go down*** but shrink inward like a crumpling piece of paper. No, down in this case, as Ender Wiggins would inaccurately remind us, is down. Here, the bow provides the visual anchor for up as well as the four planar directions.

The entry for Barocco in the Balanchine Foundation's database remarks that the piece "was begun as a School of American Ballet exercise in stagecraft". The corps work is true to that mission: the dancers never go off stage, and every movement is exposed as it is not in Rubies or Who Cares?. Toward the end, I noticed that one of the corps member's skirts had slipped to mid-thigh and threatened its own solo burlesque. The dancer trooped through it as if nothing happened. This is professionalism in the teaching, but has not fully stuck yet, judging by the other ballets.

I did notice that the corps's port de bras is rather more florid than the music (the bowing?) would suggest. This is stylistically correct (probably), but I found myself preferring the calmer port de bras, possibly a result of the busier floor work, in the Third Movement. That same calmness, fullness, even efficiency, in the arms should be aspired to.

Duell commented before the second performance that the middle piece in any program (as formulated by Mr Balanchine) should be the most 'challenging' work for the audience. This company ate up the challenge with large dessert spoons, presenting sense of commitment to the choreography that I wish was more present in the other works.

Digressing a little, we bandy about the term "black and whites", but I wonder if we should invent a category for Balanchine's "red" ballets, so unimaginatively labeled for the prominence of red in the ballerina's costumes. Candidates here include Tarantella, Rubies, Tzigane, with more nominees welcomed at my inbox (and vetted by a fully blind peer review process). Many (two, anyways) were McBride roles, and often gives of the vibe of, to paraphrase the late popularlibrary "a classy lady in a party dress who goes slumming with the local bad boy", which usually meant Villella.

As I mentioned, Holowchuk is counterintuitive casting. She appears reserved and occasionally (and visibly) retreats into herself while dancing. We did get half a pas de deux that looked like it would turn into a production of "Diamonds in Rubies". The pas de deux is demanding, and she looked like she was worrying through the choreography instead of dancing it. However, she had relaxed sufficiently by the Third Movement that what had been flashes of wit ignited into amusement and vivacity. This was an elegant lady letting her figurative hair down, and the effect was marvelous.

Her cavalier, Matthew Renko, is more the neighborhood Quarterback than the local bad boy. His musical intelligence complements Holowchuk's in creating a story. Lady delicately sashays toward him. How about a tour of the wild side, she coos. Hubba hubba, reply his shoulders, all anticipation of hijinks. First night energy could have been better channeled into precision, but however unfocused, nowhere is Matthew Renko barreling downstages at the audience not a terrifying sight. Maybe tonight's the night that the boy decides to turn bad and dive at someone in orchestra.

Jane Morgan was pitch perfect casting as the tall girl. Whatever lushness she lacks in physique, she makes up for in her dancing. As a hostess, Morgan reminds me of Gypsy Rose Lee, all vivacious cheekiness, holding court for some salon of notables. She occasionally needs more attack, but the performance was utterly musical and always deliciously in character.

This was on the slow side for a performance of Rubies, and the company looked like it couldn't quite keep up. At one point, Renko waves a hand at his boy posse. It is meant to be a gesture of inclusion, but it looked like he was urging the boys to catch up instead. With more bodies on stage, Rubies is not as exposed in the corps choreography as other pieces on the program, and that invites a certain amount of fudging. One of my cardinal rules of performance is to always look like one knows what one's doing. In this case, when the choreography is faster than the dancer, the dancer must stay where she has landed. Otherwise the eyes are led immediately to where the dancers are trying to sneak back into place. It's nothing several million more Rubies can't fix. I would volunteer to watch them. It's an entirely disinterested motive on my part, of course.

And in the same vein, I want to give a giant discommendation to the lighting design. It did not trust in the choreography to do its job and made the dynamics obvious and a little cheesy. We didn't need more narrative when the dancers have already created their own.

Surprisingly, the Balanchine the pop showman was the hardest to perform. I've seen Ballet Chicago do it to greater effect a year ago, but they did not have to contend with Rubies and Barocco on the same program. Specifically, the corps and the soloists look mismatched. The corps sold their energy hard enough to reach nosebleed and looked hungry for more, but the soloists didn't convey enough drama or character. Over all, the piece was the most uneven out of the three and felt flat.

Miss Green was in Who Cares? last year and I remarked favorably on her potential to make more of the role. McBride's role should smolder in a deep and dark and wonderful way (a conflagration that one would gladly walk into, my brain supplies on the train home); unfortunately this performance only looked like a fire. It was technically correct but emotionally absent, and almost all of the accents were missing. Ted Seymour's ardent partnering covered some of the problems, but his absence underlines the weaknesses in her solo.

Robyn Wallace in Morris's role looked generally delighted to be there. Unfortunately that delight wasn't a function of Ted's presence. She gave a very able performance of the My One and Only solo with that same stage demeanor. Who needs Ted Seymour if you've got pas de chat en tournant****? Somehow I don't think the choreography is meant to work like that.

Susan Belles wasn't in full control of her legs during her duet, but she was demurely sweet and danced with great delicacy and mental presence. From start to finish, and not just in Who Cares?, Ted Seymour was a thoughtful dancer and an attentive partner. He builds his solo in Liza from introspection to a rousing finish. Is he searching for or remembering love? His partners do not give any hints, but his dancing invites the speculation.

*subject to discussions yet to come

**Please have your people talk to my people about flattering stage attire thnx

***What made put me in mind of it was a comment by Marie-Jeanne and John Taras, who noted that bows by the corps were originally flat backed, not round.

****That whooshing sound you hear is Your Critic raising her hands.

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Balanchine Masterworks

I didn't expect a car wreck, but I did approach these performances with a(n un)healthy anticipation when I heard that Elisabeth Holowchuk would be taking the lead in Rubies. We talk of emploi in reference to Russian productions, but Balanchine ballets have their own emploi*. The bottom line is that Holowchuk is not the most obvious dancer for a McBride role. She is reserved, introverted and more naturally suited at first thought (by association or style) to Farrell's repertoire and, being a member of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, can seem in danger of being cornered into those roles. I am pleased to observe that she did find a satisfying and valid interpretation of Rubies, though it did take two movements before she revved up to it.

I love your thoughtful and detailed reviews, emilienne. But I'm surprised you think of Holowchuk as introverted. Did you see her in Ragtime (click on the 2nd and 6th images)? She had a playfulness there that to my mind would translate very well to Rubies.

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I had to look through my reviews, but I did see her in it in 2008, and I'll shameless quote:

"The dance archeologist in me wonders what the first concert version of Ragtime looks like (with Diana Adams). This version with its demi-caratère gestures and the loose-limbed choreography can only connect in my mind to Farrell and her little eccentricities. Elizabeth Holowchuk (sic) did admirably, but she filled the Farrell mold - is it possible for her to exceed it? Actually the first thought I had when they began dancing was, "My God, it's Rubies with Suzanne Farrell!" But it wasn't, not quite, she was perhaps a less cynical jazz baby, before she had acquired quite the verve and edge of Rubies."

That being from the beginning period of my public opinionation, it's unfortunately one of those pieces that I don't remember very well, especially as I was mentally wrestling with the music. Her playfulness didn't project well into the cheap seats upstairs. I've seen her in things since, but I had never really experienced that playfulness (and even poutiness!) until her Rubies. I'll expand these impressions in more detail in my review for 6 May.

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... I hope Farrell stages this some day.

I second that! And after all, Holowchuk, Renko, and Morgan are all her dancers. (At least part of the time. *sigh*)

It's nothing several million more Rubies can't fix. I would volunteer to watch them. It's an entirely disinterested motive on my part, of course.

Ready and eager to watch a million more? It must have been a real bummer of a performance to provoke a response like that! Yeah, and count me in.

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Balanchine Masterworks

Ballet Chicago

Sunday 6 May Matinee

Harris Theater, Chicago, IL

Orchestra O109

Balanchinean first nights seem to invite overbearing scrutiny. I plead in part excessive caffeination while trapped on a slowly moving train, but the other half of the argument is that first performances of Balanchine works often resemble dress rehearsals (I'm paraphrasing from someone, but whom?) and the dancers often haven't fully worked out how to relate to the audience. Perhaps the strategy for greater commercial success and/or artistic acceptance for me (insert laugh here) is to post the second night's review first, then post my initial querulousness when no one is looking*.

There's a moment in Barocco's Second Movement when the cavalier carries the First Violin across the stage on, her legs surging into the air like waves. The corps mirrors their journey in waves of bodies, surging and subsiding, to the opposite shore; it intensifies the impression of distance, and brought strongly to mind the Act II Panorama from Sleeping Beauty. The closeness of the camera, along with the forced narrative that it imposes on the proceedings (which may or may not be in sympathies with the choreographer's intentions), really cannot not prepare a viewer. This was my favorite discovery of the night.

Courtney Wright Anderson continues her excellent dancing. She is generally very 'correct' in her Balanchine performance, but I think recorded music make dancers complacent. In this case, Anderson finishes her choreography before the music does and then poses until the music catches up. I still don't see much awareness of Ted Seymour. I did wonder whether the choreography (or just my very finicky aesthetics) could support such an interpretation. After all, Seymour is not given an instrument but is an auxiliary of the First Violin; his function is to help her in developing the singing lines in the Second Movement. However, I ultimately don't find unawareness interesting to look at. While the partners moved together beautifully, they were ships passing in the night emotionally, even despite Seymour's careful attention and increased security in the lifts.

Ellen Green continues to perplex me. She obviously has the idea of the choreography (as I had mentioned, the shifting of the weight), but she sticks out stylistically and musically, especially against the other two soloists. I've admired quite a few Danish men in the Balanchine repertoire but have not had that pleasure for the women. Is this endemic to the current company or just a quirk of the dancer?

The curtain began to come down before dancers got into position in the final tableau, cutting off any suggestion of expansiveness in space that the dancers' open arms would suggest. I have already noted previous problems with the lighting, but allowing the house to determine when the dance ends instead of the reverse seemed like a serious misjudgment.

A drive-by perusing of Wikipedia tells me that Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra was begun on Christmas Day, 1928, with the Third Movement begun first. Some call it wit, but Your Critic finds it to be the musical equivalent of laughing gas. Mr Stravinsky's tossing off epigrams on champagne and I'm giggly on the effervescence alone.

That said, I would recommend that dancers warm-up to the Third Movement before attempting to perform Rubies on stage, so that they can firmly fix the humor and wit and fun in their minds before going on for the whole thing. Holowchuk on Saturday night visibly perked up during the Third Movement, as if she had finally stopped worrying over the choreography and decided to have a little, which carried marvelously into the Sunday matinee. While Holowchuk initially couldn't figure out how to make some of the posing work, her dancing gave us some elegant mischief. She isn't quite the lady who goes slumming with the local bad boy (Renko was too wholesome looking for that!), but I can easily see her dazzling the catering staff into doing her bidding, possibly to create a manmade river of champagne in the salon. And if she and the hostess convinces everyone to dive in and take a swim, so much the better.

Matthew Renko's energy was better focused than on opening night. He still appears too wholesome, but I think that looking the paragon suits him, especially in getting out of scrapes that his devilish energy gets him into. Who, me? says he as he runs away, while the women shake their heads in fond exasperation. His troupe of men were noticeably sharper in their marching precision today, trailing behind him in admiration and emulation.

After an excellent Saturday performance, Jane Morgan needed half a movement to get into character Sunday, as if our hostess had just woken up and hadn't quite got her face on before going downstairs. But a cup of coffee later and her amused worldliness was back in force. As with Saturday night, her shaky adagio technique drew attention to itself instead of keeping our attention on the character. But then again, it is a nervewracking sequence of slowly unfurling arabesques after an already difficult movement. The hostess exits, slightly disheveled by the fun she's orchestrated, but golly, even that is rather fetching.

My karma likes to bludgeon me with whichever ballet I don't particularly care for until I capitulate into at least detached appreciation. The candidate for my recent reconsideration has been the excerpted Who Cares?, courtesy of Ballet Chicago. To be honest, the work is pleasing mostly due to its musical familiarity, but it can rather trying to sit through, especially as a program closer, for someone not raised in Americana,. To paraphrase from Miss Austen, too much of Who Cares? is rather too light and bright and sparkling. The corps looks thrilled to be dancing on stage and seemed like such nice hardworking cityfolk in their variations. In general, the work wants shade, which the soloist choreography provides much too late in the sequencing.

I didn't see much difference in the soloist work between the Saturday night and Sunday matinee performances. Ted Seymour was his usual excellent self*** and I wish that I could see him in more roles to stress test that thoughtful musicality. Susan Belles seemed more in control of her nerves/legs today and built on her previous performance. The other two soloists (Ellen Green and Robyn Wallace) were technically secure but intellectually perplexing. Who are these women, and what is this man to them? These dancers have not yet found the narrative within their dancing to engage us emotionally.

*The other option for fame and fortune, that of writing stream of consciousness commentary to endless after-Petipas à la Russe by third-rate touring companies, make me long for a lobotomy.

**Case in point, Union Jack. I'll invite the Wrath of Karma and mention it if it means that I get to see it live, at least once.

*** Excellence is not boring, but finding new ways of describing it can be.

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