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Flash Review 2, 10-30: Land of the Giants
Holder Tries to Hold His Own Among Balanchine, Graham

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

World premieres. The electricity in the air is almost tangible as the audience arrives at the theater anticipating something new, and hopefully, something different. Will it be a smash, a flop, or something in between? Was the choreographer making changes until the very last minute so the performance will be a surprise for the dancers as well as the audience? Or did the dancers have enough rehearsal time to fine tune their interpretations? And why am I asking all these questions?

Friday night, at City Center, American Ballet Theatre presented the world premiere of Christian Holder's "Weren't We Fools?" along with Martha Graham's "Diversion of Angels" (which was a company premiere last year at this time), and George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" and "Prodigal Son."

I've decided to leave you all in suspense about "Weren't We Fools?" for a while as I work through the program in the order that the ballets were presented. (Yes, I'm pretending you can't just scroll past all this and go where ever you want in this review.) However, if you don't scroll on through you just might feel a little residual tingle in your fingers as you anticipate the moment just as we did Friday night!

Casting dancers in an established work is always a precarious process for a stager coming into a company from the outside. The stager must take into consideration the traditions within the company. Does the company have a hierarchy? Will the stager be able to find dancers that match the physical, technical and emotional requirements of the roles for which are casting? Is the stager allowed full autonomy in casting, or does the company have its own agenda?

Obviously, ABT doesn't let hierarchy get in the way as corps members can and will partner principal dancers. So, I was a little surprised to see that, with so many dancers to choose from, ABT didn't go with the "traditional" physical and emotional attributes for the lead women in "Diversion of Angels." I say this because in 1996, Takako Asakawa (who also staged the ABT version) set the dance for Southern Methodist University in Texas, and while the work was being taught a Labanotator was also there creating a notation score. One of the responsibilities of the notator is to create an introduction for the score, which contains information about style, casting, music, lights, etc. This information is intended to accurately describe the work's stylistic and production requirements for generations to come. The primary source for this information is either the choreographer himself, or the stager. In the notation score this is what it says, in part, about the lead women. "The White Woman" (representing pure, innocent love) is traditionally tall, statuesque, and lyrical. The Red Woman (representing passion) is usually small, strong, and fiery. She needs a good technique, lots of vitality and a strong stage presence. The Yellow Woman, which is a slightly smaller role (depicts young, playful love) is small with a playful quality. She should have a young appearance and qualities of lightness and quickness." Having said all this, I will also say that just because this is what is written in the score does not mean that it is written in stone. However, information like this does not find its way into a score without reason and should not be discarded as irrelevent.

Now I will now cut to the chase. Gillian Murphy, as the White Woman, was, from where I was sitting, the most diminutive of the three lead ladies. For me, this would not have been a problem if she had made up the difference by being more lyrical than her "alter egos" öö she was not. Or, if there would have been more weight to her movement -- there wasn't. Sandra Brown, as the Woman in Red, was not the most fiery; and Yan Chen, as the Woman in Yellow (who is supposed to have the "slightly smaller role"), overwhelmed her other "sisters in love" by being exactly what she should be: playful, light, and quick. As this ballet has no plot the success of this work falls solidly on these three ladies (and their male partners) to clearly establish the three aspects of love, or three faces of woman in love. Even if the ladies were to perform in their birthday suits the audience should be able to clearly identify each aspect of love by the movement quality and not merely by the colors of their dresses!

I would also like to mention a few of the positive things I saw in "Diversion." I was impressed that the dancers weren't fazed by the floor work. They went into the classic floor dives with complete confidence. At moments, they really attacked the movement, with many of the signature Graham shapes clearly evident. The dancers seem poised on a major breakthrough in their understanding of this work. I'm not sure if it's the upright ballet training that keeps getting in the way. Or, are they are holding back because they are awed by the Graham mystique? If they would just let themselves luxuriate in the movement and not try so hard to create it through tension, who knows what new things they might discover about themselves and this work!

Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" is a lovely work, which has not only withstood the test of time, but also many interpretations over the last thirty years. Ashley Tuttle and Vladimir Malakhov were well matched physically and they were apparently in agreement as to the interpretive approach they would take as a couple. Both dancers had moments where they could have milked it for all its worth, but they chose not to. Instead they saw fit to be reserved, discreet, and gracious -- a quaint southern-type charm may be an appropriate description. In Malakhov's solo, each time he jumped the landings were so soft that the dust on the stage remained undisturbed. Tuttle was technically impeccable, and together their partnering was smooth as silk. Hats off to Balanchine that this pas de deux continues to challenge dancers both artistically and technically.

We have now arrived at the main event! "Weren't We Fools?," choreographed (and costumed) by Christian Holder to music by Cole Porter (a blend of some of his more popular tunes with some that aren't so well known). The cast consists of Susan Jaffe (The Woman), singer Lynn Halliday (Her Voice), Carlos Molina (Her Husband), Ethan Stiefel (Her Former Lover), Stella Abrera (His Mistress), and five supporting couples.

Before I can talk about anything else there's one little thing that needs to be addressed. HELLO! COLE PORTER SHOULD NOT BE MADE TO SOUND LIKE THE ROLLING STONES! Halliday may be a lovely singer but she was so over-miked (for Heaven's sake, she's a mezzo-soprano!) it ompletely distracted from the overall atmosphere that all were trying so hard to create.

While this work does not have a plot per se, it is the order of the songs selected and the lyrics they contain that drive the narrative of this work. However, as some of the songs are presented as orchestrations, the audience will only make the connection of why a particular song was used at that particular moment if they are familiar with Porter tunes. Even as the curtain is still rising we witness "the voice" separating from the body. While it remains close by it has clearly become the narrator of this story. So Jaffe is now alone and a man magically emerges from behind the backdrop and there is a brief interlude between them. As soon as he leaves another man enters and there is a longer pas de deux. Already, if you are not an ABT aficionado, you may be confused as to which man is the husband and which is the former lover. Jaffe has not given it away one way or the other, as she is equally warm towards both men. At the end of this little duet Jaffe, while looking right at the audience, puts the back of her hand against her mouth. She is clearly distraught and in pain. Maybe I missed a clue in the lyrics as to why she was so upset. To be so bent out of shape just didn't jive with the body language I had seen so far.

The rest of the story is rather predictable. Next song takes us into the social scene (gotta use that corps even though nothing they do adds to the plot) with a solo for Stiefel, which leads into a duet introducing Abrera (his mistress). However, technically speaking, if the former lover is not married is she really his mistress, or is she just his lover? See, get into predictable plots and I'm off on the first tangent available! We then have the five supporting men do their Fred Astaire thing before we get back to the plot. Jaffe and Stiefel are back again for a duet to the tune "Weren't We Fools?" Just like at the end of the first duet with her husband, Jaffe puts the back of her hand against her mouth indicating she has made a terrible error in marrying Molino and not Stiefel. We then move into the well-known tune "I've Got You Under My Skin." At the end of the song, while Jaffe and Stiefel are embracing, Molina walks in on them. Those two separate and the five corps women enter circling Molina like vultures to the popular tune "It's Alright with Me." (As this is one of those orchestrations you would need to know already that the lyrics are, "It's the wrong time, and the wrong place. Though your face is charming it's the wrong face.") At one point Molina is standing downstage with both hands in fists. However, as neither his face nor the rest of his body reflected the same kind of tension (at least nothing that reached us up in the Grand Tier), it was the proverbial the lights are on, but nobody's home. Now, we are finally getting to the fun stuff. Mistress goes after husband, wife catches them together, she turns for consolation from the lover, but the mistress is already there. Husband lets wife know she is still wanted, and here comes the corps to complicate things. In the end the wife is left alone, but no, here comes the lover to give her a flower before he leaves. There is a little more, but suffice it to say that the husband and wife are together at the end of the ballet. Is this clear? I'm too exhausted to go through it again.

Was I expecting too much from this work? Did my own expectations of what I was hoping to see get in the way? Yes, the music was great, the costumes lovely, and the lighting effective. However, even while there was a lot of emoting going on there was no character development. I admit that I'm a fan of Ms. Jaffe, however, in this work she was over-the-top emotional. Molina seemed to be a kind husband, but a wimp, and Stiefel was not someone that I would ruin a good marriage over. Was Holder relying too much on the lyrics to carry the narrative, or was I not paying enough attentions to the words, thereby missing the key element which would have pulled this all together for me? The choreography did not explore new movement possibilities, but relied on the same type of movement we all grew up on in those classic movies with Fred, Ginger, Gene, and Cyd.

I love Cole Porter, and I have the greatest respect for Mr. Holder. However, I'll take Antony Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas" over this work any day. Not only is it better constructed he does it in half the time. (For a review of "Jardin aux Lilas," please see Flash Review 3, 10-30: ABT, Exposed.)

"Prodigal Son" was the last Ballets Russes work to be produced before Serge Diaghilev's death in 1929, and with the exception of "Apollo" (created in 1928 also for the Ballets Russes) it is the oldest Balanchine work still performed in the West.

It was Boris Kochno that suggested the piece to Diaghilev based on the parable told in Luke 15:11-32. Naturally, the parable was a little boring and needed to be modified to meet the dramatic needs of the stage. The elder son was understandably left out as there was no dramatic interest there. (He stayed home and obeyed his father -- trying to fit that in would only complicate the plot.) Also, the details about where the Prodigal went and whom he met along the way were invented.

Prokofiev wrote the music score and the French religious painter Georges Rouault designed the sets and costumes. As Balanchine was the baby of this collaboration (he was all of 24-25) he was pretty much presented with every aspect of the production already in place, including his lead dancer, Serge Lifar, and told to just fill in the blanks. Balanchine chose to not stick to his Russian ballet training and used gymnastics, acrobatic and vaudeville tricks, and any other device that would shock the audience while advancing the plot that included lust, sex, depravity of every kind, and in the end -- redemption.

In the first scene all the characters did their part to set up the rest of the story. The father was patriarchal (although he looked a little too much like Charlton Heston as Moses in the "Ten Commandments" for my taste); the sisters were respectful towards their father and worried about their brother; and the son (Angel Corella) was just looking for any excuse to explode.

The second scene begins with the entrance of the Drinking Companions (also referred to as "goons" or "skinheads"). These dudes are scary even by today's standards. They are evil, demented, and seem to be sexually dysfunctional. When the Siren enters trailing her blood red cape she is like a queen to them. The pas de deux with the Siren and the Prodigal is blatantly erotic and the Drinking Companions contribute to the sexual escapades.

The third scene finds the son literally returning home on his hands and knees after having lost everything. Even though dad doesn't make it too easy on the boy, the curtain comes down on a father gently cradling his son in his arms back into the house.

Corella in the title role did a wonderful job. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and told his story with his whole being. A moment that was especially poignant was when he dragged himself into the wing after everything that he owned was stolen from him. After the performance I heard several animated conversations where Corella's performance was being compared to Edward Villella's -- so I would say he's in pretty good company. I also felt for Paloma Herrera but not for the same reasons. She seemed so uncomfortable manipulating the cape that there was nothing suggestive, or seductive about her movement. Balanchine (in his book "Balanchine's New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason) says, "She [the Siren] handles the cape as if it were part of her own body -- an animate object obedient to her will." It seems that Herrera needs to spend some more time in the studio (without mirrors) and work on getting that cape to look like a second skin.

This particular program will not be repeated. However, each of these ballets can be seen with in combination with other repertory during the company's two-week run. For more information, please visit the ABT web site.


Sandra Aberkalns is a certified Labanotator who has staged ballets around the world for many companies.

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