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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
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!
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
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
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
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
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