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Visiting Phoenix to see Ballet Arizona

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Helene has made a few remarks about getting around downtown Phoenix and sitting in the Orpheum Theater (scroll down the linked page - there's even advice how to shop for tickets in the Orpheum there), but now that BA is back in its main venue, Symphony Hall, for most of its performances, I'm wondering about that story, not previously discussed here as far as I can find.

(Is it really a converted hockey rink? Just curious. I think one of Carolina Ballet's regular venues in Raleigh is a converted basketball arena. Not that it matters. Whatever works, and center seats in Fletcher Opera Theater there are mostly pretty good, in my experience.)

So, where are the better/worse seats for ballet in Symphony Hall? (And how do you order them? The interactive on-line seating chart looks promising until you discover that the little squares representing the seats contain one of four colors but only two colors are explained in the lower left corner of the chart. When the technology fails us, there's still some of our fellow humans around, but I haven't tried the box office - for the upcoming Balanchine program - yet.)

And where are the better creature comforts these days? I gather downtown Phoenix has its share of huge chain hotels (and probably some urban noise, although the airport itself looks to be four miles east) but at the moment I'm considering taking that light rail up and down Central Avenue about four miles (half an hour?), to a little B & B, Maricopa Manor. Is this just off a busy intersection, though?

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Ballet Arizona performs one mixed bill at the Orpheum each season in the Spring. The rest of the performances have been in Symphony Hall for a number of years. The Orpheum is one of the old jewel box theaters, but there is no orchestra pit. I saw one performance there with a live pianist for Andersen's piece to Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, but the pianist subsequently became ill, and they used a recording for the other performance(s), like for the vast majority of ballets performed there.

The Mercer Arena was, indeed, a converted hockey rink was where Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera performed when the Opera House, renamed McCaw Hall, was being gutted and retro-fitted to meet seismic building standards in 2002-3. It has not been used since. There was a plan to convert it into offices, rehearsal studios, workshops, and storage for Seattle Opera, which is located off campus, but that never came to fruition.

I've sat all over the house at Symphony Hall. I liked the main floor seats all the way over to the far sides, because you can see between heads. The main floor is broken by a wide aisle, and I prize the first row after the break, since there are no heads in the way. I haven't loved being in the center of the main floor, because you never know how tall the people in front of you will be. I also like the first row or two of the Balcony, but it seems farther away than the Second Tier in McCaw Hall. In the Balcony for the Balanchine program, you'll likely be able to shift seats if you don't love them.

The Maricopa Manor is a block away from a major intersection and light rail stop, but Central Avenue is wide with light rail in the middle of the street. The sound tends to dissipate even at the stop.

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Hi Jack! Hope you'll come to Phoenix. The B&B you have selected is very well placed -- there are several restaurants pretty much right there, on Central: Postino Central, Windsor, and Joy Ride. Just south a couple blocks are several more, and there is one in each direction on Camelback: St. Francis and Southern Rail. All have nice patios, when the weather and the sun are right. Though it is near some main streets, it should be quiet enough. Traffic is already lessened, as our snowbirds fly north, Spring Training ends, and our vacations begin.

The colors on the Symphony Hall selection map also represent price - Gold, Silver, and Bronze, so that might be what is throwing you off. As for seats, I'm fond of the last row on the floor, in the center (I think it is 14), but I am able to sit on my legs above heads, if need be. Those who qualify for the handicapped row, just behind, have great seats! I also like the balcony -- any of the first few rows, as the rake is pretty good. On the main floor, I dislike the rows after the break -- probably just a "me" thing, but they feel claustrophobic to me. I would rather be on the sides of the main floor, on an aisle, if possible.

If you select the seat you want, it will change color, so it should be clear that you've chosen it. Good luck!

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Thanks, both of you!

A little cursor-hovering on the seating chart cleared me up on the seat-color mystery, but now I wonder whether the entire Balcony is unavailable for this program - in contrast to the Loge - or whether our computers don't like each other when that page is connected. So I can query the humans in the Box Office about this,* but I'm glad to have your comments about your favored locations and why you both favor them, and also that remark about qualifying for the accessible seats - they look like the ones I'd like to have, but although I do feel my 77 years, I don't think I'm going to get any. Not yet.

(Sitting on your legs for a whole ballet, Arizona Native? Sounds superhuman to this antique! Are you a dancer?)

Speaking of feeling far away in the Balcony, any idea what row Orchestra the front row of the Balcony overhangs?

(And thanks, Helene, for clearing up that reference to a hockey rink! Something about American priorities? I'm reminded that whenever the Joffrey Ballet here in Chicago has moved on to spiffier studios, Ballet Chicago - more school than performing company, but putting on a really good show when they can - has taken over JB's old digs.)

*The Box Office confirms the technology - no Balcony seats for this program.

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Yes, Chris Bianco has both Pizza Bianco, downtown, and Panne Bianco, further north, towards "Central Phoenix," and an easy walk from that B&B. Next door is the hipster cafe, Lux. Bianca's claim to fame is topping one of those serious "best pizza" lists. With all others on the top 10 in NYC. The sandwiches are delicious. They do a great job with fresh mozerella. The menu is quite limited, which is how its fans like it. it is a bit of the proverbial "hole in the wall," with picnic tables out front.

The very best brucheta is at Postino. Especially the salmon with capers and pesto.

Good question, regarding the overhang. I'll have to pay more attention. Since I tend to avoid that whole section, I'll not hazard a guess.

And yes, some dancing, but I'm just lucky to have good knees.

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(And thanks, Helene, for clearing up that reference to a hockey rink! Something about American priorities? I'm reminded that whenever the Joffrey Ballet here in Chicago has moved on to spiffier studios, Ballet Chicago - more school than performing company, but putting on a really good show when they can - has taken over JB's old digs.)

One of the best parts of spending time in the Mercer Arena during the opera house remodel was the ceiling -- you could see all the way up to the true ceiling, which was made of long runs of clear lumber -- the backwash from the house lights just made it glow.

And it's nice to hear that there's still dancing in Joffrey's old space.

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Another reason to come to this performance, the last of the season -- there are dancers you will not see again, at least not with this company.

Ballet Arizona has broken with tradition to officially announce that Paula Hartley and Astrit Zejanti are retiring. Often paired, they will be missed. Anyone who saw their "Sinactra Stories" would not forget it. The two have both a satisfying physical match and a strong emotional chemistry. Thoughout her career with Ballet Arizona, Ms. Hartley has been a "go-to" dancer, performing any and every part, with technique you could take for granted and energy that seemed to increase with the demands of the role and the schedule. Her musicality is such that she can make an audience hear a piece in a new way. We have also appreciated her comedic talents, which put to good use her expressive eyes and her impecable timing. Mr. Zejanti, with his acting skills and beautiful proportions, has been a superb partner, as well as Ballet Arizona's male star -- very much a performer in the dansuer noble tradition. He gives attention to every detail, yet manages to appear spontaneous. While there are others to enjoy for their own reasons, to date there have been no other male dancers to take on that mantle. Wishing all the best to them.

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The news is posted on the website, with the Sunday May 3 matinee (1pm) designated as a special performance:


I first went to Phoenix to see Natalia Magnicaballi, after seeing her with Suzanne Farrell Ballet. I was not disappointed, but I my biggest surprise on the trip was falling in love with Paola Hartley, in "Theme and Variations" during the two-program Balanchine celebration a little over a decade ago. She's remained one of my favorite ballerinas.

Zejnati danced twice for Pacific Northwest Ballet before joining Ballet Arizona, but it wasn't until he moved to Phoenix that he was given the danseur noble roles at which he excelled, although he also had a great range in Phoenix. He was also a splendid match with Tzu-Chia Huang.

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Hartley distinguished herself with TSFB in Washington, DC, last Fall, and hopes of seeing her dancing some more was a major reason I decided to try this trip, along with seeing Natalia Magnicaballi, whose dancing has been a great pleasure there, and also Kenna Draxton. Three of TSFB's best.

I'm not real crazy about the program, though it's not bad either, and this Old Audience member is coming to think that seeing Balanchine's Balanchine on stage is getting harder all the time (in contrast to performances by ensembles who show Balanchine's steps and movement, or most of it, but don't seem to "get it"). Now I'm learning Hartley won't be on view here in the future! So, partly by sad coincidence, a good time to have a look.

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Another reason to come to this performance, the last of the season -- there are dancers you will not see again, at least not with this company.

Ballet Arizona has broken with tradition to officially announce that Paula Hartley and Astrit Zejanti are retiring.

I remember him from Pacific Northwest Ballet -- so glad he's had a good run in Arizona.

Any idea why the company doesn't announce retirements or relocations? PNB didn't really used to do it, but they've had a great deal of positive response to the practice for several years now.

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I'm not sure if this is still true for NYCB, but the only way we used to know that a dancer was retiring or leaving if they were not a Principal Dancer with a dedicated farewell was that they got a solo bow in front of the curtain. Now it may be on social media.

Ballet Arizona doesn't even list dancers by rank on the website or, at least until two years ago, in the program.

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Mr. B.'s own practice about this changed back and forth over the years. Some thought listing his huge company alphabetically was insulting. (I doubt corps girl Sandra Zigars liked it! She couldn't win, though, regardless.) Usually, though, there were several ranks shown.

Casting for a particular program was not listed anywhere other than the printed program for a long time, either, though in the last years a small printed list was pasted to the lobby walls either side of the entrance, several days or a week in advance.

Connected to this was the idea that a "corps" member might turn up in a soloist or even a principal role if Mr. B thought she was ready; one alphabetical listing tended to suggest something of the sort could happen anytime. And there was the thought among some of us that a dancer might give more if she was reminded of this possibility, in contrast to the company next door, which rarely seemed ever to promote from within (except when Baryshnikov ran it? - I'm speaking of ABT, of course).

So Ib Andersen may have some of this in mind.

As for marking retirement, how do dancers feel about it? I'd take that into consideration. It probably depends, but it can't be a happy time for their fans. It's the last time for applause, though.

(I remember my shock and sadness at arriving in New York to find Violette Verdy gone from the list and Emeralds revised to conclude with a dirge. After a time I took it as Balanchine's own response to her passing from the scene, but that "world beneath the sea" has never been as richly rewarding a place to visit since her leaving it.)

There's something to be said for accentuating the positive, in my book.

So, listing by rank, and a dancer's just vanishing - hmm. What sort of a world is that there, on stage? Do you want the illusion to come down with a crash? Do they?

One of the things about ballet is that it makes us happy. That's what it's for, if I recall correctly the anecdote about Mr. B. explaining it to a neophyte.

We're on another thread here, I think. Still, I'm looking forward to my visit, blistering heat - not unknown to a Chicagoan - and all.

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The connection between alphabetical listing, which is quite rare in ballet companies in the US, and hierarchical listing, which is ubiquitous, is that there is a direct connection in most companies between whose retirement is announced, how it is announced, and whether there is a special celebration. At BA, it's impossible to know what the connection is. Since most of my trips to Phoenix were to see the season-ender, which was rarely anything other than the last performance of a run -- I missed the Sunday matinee just once between 2004 and 2013 -- I've witnessed the conventions of retirement for many in the last decade:the extra bows, the bouquets, the embraces. I've been very surprised to see dancers leave who were prominent, but without an announcement. Without rankings, It's impossible to know what the convention is.

Occasionally the press will pick up the news, and then there is a mention of a dancer who has been cast in the corps. I've seen a special retirement program once: in 2004 there was an early evening extra program created for a retiring dancer who had been the prominent ballerina under Andersen's predecessor and who, with her husband, had a local school. David Hallberg flew in after performing with ABT the night before, to partner her in "Theme and Variations." This year, the company announced that they'd add an excerpt from Andersen's "Mozaik" to the final performance of the Balanchine program in honor of Hartley and Zejnati, again unusual in my experience.

NYCB announces retirements of Principal Dancers and publicizes their farewell, usually in a dancer-specific program, which the company can manage because it's still a mixed bill company, although there are exceptions, like Stephanie Saland, whose last performance was during the day-long Balanchine Celebration.. People retiring in the Spring at ABT retire in full-lengths, because that's what the rep is, and there aren't many specialists in the contemporary rep who are Principals, like some POB etoiles, especially after the Tharp dancers were gone.

PNB does its Season Encores, which is a hybrid that allows the company the flexibility to create an excerpts show around all active/healthy departing dancers based on their prominence, usually, but not exclusively, from the season's rep. I don't know of a similar, regular program elsewhere among North American companies. Announcing retirements sells tickets to that program, and in some cases, to programs that come before them.

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I hadn't thought about the differences in listing casting, but that does add another element to the mix.

Over the last few years, more and more companies have been trying to engage their audience beyond/alongside the artwork itself. We've had several discussions here on Ballet Alert about marketing and promotion campaigns that are designed to personalize company members (I remember a couple of campaigns from Pacific Northwest Ballet in the early 2000s and Oregon Ballet Theater a few years later that were all about dancers as individuals, and know that both NYCB and ABT have promoted their dancers in ads that were not attached to a particular performance series or season). This intentional shift has been underlined by the nature of social media -- it's all about the personal. I know that some people are chafing at what they perceive as self-promotion with Misty Copeland, but many of the denizens here follow along on Twitter and Tumblr postings with 'backstage' content from all sorts of performers.

And oftentimes the audience is encouraged to be a direct participant in this. I don't know that any ballet company has moved to the 'live tweeting' strategy that I've heard of from a few symphonies (designating a section of the theater as a social media zone where audience members are encouraged to tweet during the event itself) but I've certain been exhorted to "tell all your friends -- use your social media" by everyone from marketers to artistic directors. It seems like the standard pre-show direction "turn off your electronics" has been expanded to "and turn them back on at the end of the show to tell your friends."

I suppose that whether Ballet Arizona makes a formal announcement about roster changes or not isn't the big issue -- it's more than likely that they will very soon, or will need to have a specific reason why they do not. If we continue to emphasize the personal aspect of the company, it makes sense to acknowledge milestones in a career, including job changes or retirement.

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PNB does its Season Encores, which is a hybrid that allows the company the flexibility to create an excerpts show around all active/healthy departing dancers based on their prominence, usually, but not exclusively, from the season's rep. I don't know of a similar, regular program elsewhere among North American companies. Announcing retirements sells tickets to that program, and in some cases, to programs that come before them.

I don't just want to flak for my local company, but I've come to think that this Encore program is a very smart idea -- I know it makes some extra work for the dancers, but it brings a bunch of people back to the theater at the end of the season to see something or someone they really liked "one more time." It's a great hook for a season-ending review or essay, and it can, as they're using it this year, also be a promotion for a work coming in the next season. Most of the ones they've done so far have been built around the retirement of a significant individual, but if I remember correctly there were a couple that were more about the end of the season than the end of a career, and they worked just fine as well.

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NYCB used to sell out (or be close to selling out) Sunday night performances by scheduling them as special retirement performances. Off the top of my head, I remember seeing McBride, Tomasson, and Farrell retire that way. Luders' (Divertissement) and Horiuchi's (Oberon) joint retirement performance was in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Peter Martins retired with a performance "Nutcracker" with Suzanne Farrell. (I saw the second-to-last one.)

It makes sense to publicize and announce retirements/departures. The audience has had a stake in dancers long before social media. Many of us would like to pay tribute to dancers who have enriched our lives through their performances, regardless of rank. It's a win/win for the companies and the audiences.

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Ballet Arizona sent a mass email dated April 27, 2015, which states the following:

Casting has been announced.

All Balanchine

Last chance to see your favorite retiring dancers perform at Symphony Hall. Join us to celebrate the careers of Paola Hartley, Tzu-Chia Huang, Ilir Shtylla and Astrit Zejnati.

Previous emails have referrred only to Ms. Hartley and Mr. Zejnati.

With regard to the discussion above -- Ballet Arizona's practice has been to present flowers and make an announcement at the bows for the dancer's final performance, which was quite upsetting to a lot of the lot of the audience. The only exception within my memory, in the Ib Anderson era, was for Yen-Li Chen, many years ago - the 2004 performance referred to in a post above. There was a special retirement performance, with a packed house for it.

Ballet Arizona does have a new Executive Director, as well as new folks in other key administrative positions. As Helene notes above, retirement announcements can lead to sell-out performances. It is quite possible that the announcements reflect changes on the business side.

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Tzu-Chia Huang and Ilir Shtylla have been major dancers with the company, giving many beautiful performances. I'm glad the company understood what a shock and disappointment it would have been for them to leave without letting the audience know ahead of time.

For much of the time I saw the company, Magnicaballi and Zejnati were often cast together, but in Balanchine, at least, her partnership with Shtylla was at a different level. Huang and Zejnati were also a wonderful pairing: they looked more harmonic together. The audiences on April and the May 2 matinee will see them in "Stravinsky Violin Concerto." In 2012 their performances together in this work are among my greatest ballet memories.

Hartley dances with Zejnati at the final performance. The "Mozaik" excerpt will be danced by Huang and Zejnati according to the casting .pdf.

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Today's newspaper adds Michelle Mahwald Vagi to the list of retirees, and notes that there will be a video montage honoring Ms. Hartley and Mr. Zejnati. Ms. Vagi is a graduate of Indiana University, with a major in English, if I remember correctly. She was an especially lovely Dewdrop, with her small frame and delicate, lovely presentation.

The Ballet Arizona website has not yet been updated to reflect additions.

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