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Drew

"Black Swan" Program

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I saw the Saturday matinee performance of the "Black Swan" program. When I realized how much I had written I decided to wait to post, but then after waiting a day thought what the heck...I am very interested in reading the impressions of others though. This is the first year in quite some time there have been several people posting about Atlanta Ballet!

Saturday afternoon, when the curtain went up on Jens Jacob Worsaee's designs for the "ballroom" scene of Swan Lake I was at once rather delighted and puzzled. These designs are an old story for San Francisco ballet goers, but Worsaae's name and designs were new to me. I did do a search for Worsaae on the San Francisco Ballet forum and saw that in 2006 BalletNut described his sets and costumes for Swan Lake as "very easy on the eye" but "too light and airy for a tragic ballet such as Swan Lake." I guess that probably describes my first reaction, but I can see what might be the idea behind them too. 

 Atlanta Ballet was presenting Act III only – that is, the ballroom scene. When the curtain goes up, the ball appears to be located in a grand eighteenth-century ‘salon.’ The back wall is covered by paintings that to me suggested Boucher and Fragonard and in color palette maybe a touch of Watteau as well. Costumes for the courtiers include pastel colored wide-skirted eighteenth-century style dresses though in softened fabrics that move gracefully. One almost expects Camargo to be part of the evening's entertainment. The character costumes are in richer, stronger colors but consistent with the softer sensory prettiness of the whole. Altogether, it rather changes one's idea of just what Siegfried must be trying to escape. No regimented Medieval pageantry, no Kirkeby-style northern Protestant austerity, and no reactionary late 19th-century autocracy—just to mention approaches I’ve seen in other Swan Lakes. Even Rothbart is an eighteenth-century gentleman if a rather decadent-looking one. Siegfried and Odile are in black with glittering golden embroidery decorating their costumes, making them both seem from another world—or another ballet. So, instead of Siegfried running from an airless world of duty, protocol, and international alliances—or running away from marriage and normative heterosexuality...it seems as if he is running away from a surfeit of civilization or even just running away from the enlightenment salon intellectuals doing away with the myths and fairy tales of earlier centuries. Does it work? Well, at all events, it is, as BalletNut wrote all those years ago “very easy on the eye.”

Nedvigin staged the choreography in traditional fashion albeit rearranging things a little so that the action begins with the Neapolitan dance. I assume he wanted to begin the Act with something lively and perhaps also break up the sequence of character dances. I thought it looked throughout as if the dancers had been coached/rehearsed with care. A few even stood out. But the learning curve with Swan Lake remains steep. The Odile, Emily Caricco, projected nicely (I was sitting upstairs) and hit some effective and secure poses, but I think she will make more of an impact when she can dance with more speed. She managed 23 fouettes, sort of fell out of the last one, and wisely stopped. As Siegfried, Moisés Martin brought elegance and experience to the proceedings--I liked his performance. There was a bit of a partnering mishap in the adagio, and he calmly and unobtrusively got his ballerina back over her pointe when she almost seemed to be falling backwards off of it.  And, speaking of "easy on the eye," I assume there is a phrase dictionary somewhere that has a picture of Martin next to the words "tall, dark, and handsome."

Also...bravo to the work ethic of dancers in small and mid-size companies like Atlanta Ballet. Nikolas Gailfullin and Jessica Assef who were dancing Siegfried and Odile at both of this weekend’s evening performances, appeared in the Spanish dance Saturday afternoon (I assume they danced in it Sunday as well). Watching Gaifullin’s upper body in the Spanish dance, one could see the extra bit of fluidity and flexibility that gives this dance a needed bit of dash. Plus Francesa Loi in the Hungarian dance looked to-die-for gorgeous in her rich blue costume with its stylish feathered hat. Hope I have that name right. The cast sheet fell out of my program on the way home, so I’m going from memory.

The program concluded with a premier by Craig Davidson. When this was announced,  I did various google and youtube searches to learn something about him. He is from Australia and has had an international career as a dancer appearing with the Finnish National Ballet, Semperoper Ballett, and the Royal Ballet of Flanders. He seems more or less just underway with his career as a professional choreographer—his “Creative Arts Davidson” website gives the date of his first professional commission as 2016—and he attended  the New York Choreographic institute in 2014 and 2017. The premier, Remembrance/Hereafter, is set to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet and addresses themes of loss, death, and transition albeit in a plotless, non-narrative fashion. The ballet was preceded by a video feature in which the choreographer talked about Schubert dying when writing the music and his own father’s death. Would I have gotten these themes from the dance alone? Very loosely perhaps, but likely that's all he was aiming for.

The ballet uses a blend of contemporary and classical vocabulary--the line seemed a little blurry to me, so I guess "eclectic." It opens with the central figure, a woman who is, I infer, the dying/departing and also remembering/celebrating or, perhaps, remembered/celebrated figure. She is surrounded by an ensemble from which periodically a single dancer or couple emerge to be featured in some way. The choreography deploys the ensemble in uneven asymmetrical groupings, rushing across the stage, occasionally freezing the action so one’s eye can take in the way different interconnected groupings take form. This community (they seem a community) envelops the central figure—Jessica He (?). But she has other more intimate partners as well. The middle section opens with four bare chested men approaching her—walking upwards from a staircase that leads from the orchestra pit. She dances a pas de trois with two, while the other two partner two other featured women in pas de deux meant, according to the program, to represent the central figure's memories of relationships in her life—there are also some brief solo bits.  I believe I was seeing Airi Igarashi and Erica Alvarado in the other featured women's roles. 

This central section was, for me, the place where the choreography started coming into clearer focus. The partnering was  acrobatic and yet worked through very sharp, precise shapes so that it didn’t seem formless or merely gymnastic--and the women seemed to have agency, not just to be manipulable cyphers. And while the choreography was not always up to the full emotional force of Schubert's music, it was at least sensitive to its shifts in texture and tone. I also thought the celebratory finale seemed well crafted and I loved Jacob Bush’s featured dancing in this section. The finale is supposed to be a kind of celebration of the central figure's life – something one does not need the program to understand --and Bush seemed to express one joyful impulse in his featured moments. Though there were some showy steps, he made them look like dancing... But the whole company looked very energized and engaged here. (Was that apprentice Mikaela Santos in the ensemble?? I found her flower girl in Don Quixote very charming and hope to see more of her.)

Internet searches suggest this ballet builds on earlier work Davidson created to this music for NRW JuniorBallett. In any case, commissioning works from relatively unknown quantities can be risky—though I suppose a company like Atlanta Ballet makes for a good testing ground for less experienced choreographers. I would say this commission payed off reasonably well.  Though I probably would not seek out this ballet again, I wouldn’t mind seeing it one more time either--which isn't always the case with new work. Admittedly having a live string quartet playing Schubert doesn't hurt. The ballet was warmly received by the audience, and no wonder—the dancers had a freedom and strength that they can’t yet muster in Petipa.

Edited by Drew
punctuation....clarification...grammar

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Great report, Drew. It's worth posting these descriptions and musings since they 'mark history' and give our unreliable memories something to refer back to in later years.

So, does the one act Swan Lake seem to hold up on its own? Or do you feel there are too many missing elements and unexplained happenings?

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5 hours ago, pherank said:

Great report, Drew. It's worth posting these descriptions and musings since they 'mark history' and give our unreliable memories something to refer back to in later years.

So, does the one act Swan Lake seem to hold up on its own? Or do you feel there are too many missing elements and unexplained happenings?

I do in fact write in part for my memory's sake. Partly out of a desire to share my excitement/interest. Partly because dancers in companies like Atlanta Ballet tend to be known to very few people. Plus now, I want to show support for the company sort of on principle--more than ever after recent announcements. Adding more dancers next season? and more performances? I can't help but hold my breath a little remembering that Sarasota for example--a huge "success" story--recently started contracting its budget, and locally the Atlanta Symphony has been through lock-outs when the musicians were fighting to maintain the size of the orchestra (successfully in the end). I take for granted I won't love all the repertory choices every performance, every season. Heck, that's true when I travel to see New York City Ballet!

Regarding the Swan Lake Ballroom scene on its own: before it got underway, the company projected a short synopsis onto a screen (and of course a synopsis was in the program) -- so, in theory, people knew what was happening. But the drama is still de-contextualized emotionally. I personally am also not the biggest fan of the "black swan" pas de deux. So, for my taste Act III as a stand alone will never be a favorite, but I allow that if you had sensational dancers in the pas de deux other objections might fly out the window.

Edited by Drew
companies not company's...

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4 minutes ago, Drew said:

I do in fact write in part for my memory's sake. Partly out of a desire to share my excitement/interest. Partly because dancers in company's like Atlanta Ballet tend to be known to very few people. Plus now, I want to show support for the company sort of on principle--more than ever after recent announcements. Adding more dancers next season? and more performances? I can't help but hold my breath a little remembering that Sarasota for example--a huge "success" story--recently started contracting its budget, and locally the Atlanta Symphony has been through lock-outs when the musicians were fighting to maintain the size of the orchestra (successfully in the end). I take for granted I won't love all the repertory choices every performance, every season. Heck, that's true when I travel to see New York City Ballet!

Regarding the Swan Lake Ballroom scene on its own: before it got underway, the company projected a short synopsis onto a screen (and of course a synopsis was in the program) -- so, in theory, people knew what was happening. But the drama is still de-contextualized emotionally. I personally am also not the biggest fan of the "black swan" pas de deux. So, for my taste Act III as a stand alone will never be a favorite, but I allow that if you had sensational dancers in the pas de deux other objections might fly out the window.

I hear you - there are no guarantees for the performing arts. An expanding budget can become a contracting budget within a year. Atlanta Ballet needs a "buzz" about the company to really grow. What you post may well help - it certainly won't hurt.

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