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Flash Review, 5-23: A Regal Farewell
Strasberg Goes Out on Top

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

BOSTON -- Kyra Strasberg performed for the last time with the Boston Ballet Sunday afternoon, ending a fifteen-year career with the company. It was the first time I've seen a dancer's final performance, and for me watching Strasberg's family and friends and teachers and fans pay tribute to her on stage was by far the most moving moment of the afternoon. It felt almost inappropriate to be watching something that seemed so intimate, like spying on a stranger's family. But Strasberg's final performance was stunning, and left me wishing I had known her work better and sooner.

Strasberg's final performance was as Cleopatra in the latest of Ben Stevenson's Blockbuster Ballets. Like Dracula, "Cleopatra" was created jointly for Boston Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Houston Ballet. Strasberg epitomized queenliness, drawing attention to herself merely by walking to her bit of stage and standing still. It can only sound cliched to call the final performance of a ballerina "mature," but the emotional and physical subtlety Strasberg brought to the role could not help but stand out in a production that in all other ways embraced spectacle and melodrama (the murder of Caesar practically featured spurting blood and guts). Technically, she gave a flawless performance. But it was her commanding presence and depth that really made this ballet worth seeing.

That, and the special effects. Like "Dracula" before it, Cleopatra is a ballet that successfully competes with the most extravagant Disney musical, for better or for worse. That means that scenic design by Thomas Boyd and costumes by Juliana Lyn managed to inspire audible oohs and ahs from the audience, and rightfully so. The production -- scenery, costumes, effects -- was magnificent, and magnificently coordinated for a complete experience: everything a top-notch company like Boston Ballet deserves. It should be clear that they evoke a Western European's (at times Orientalist) fantasies of Egypt -- the drawings of 19th century European artists were a primary inspiration. And in the 19th century such depictions of the exotic "east" were a primary means for Europeans to define themselves as "civilized westerners" vis-a-vis the exotic and at times savage East. "We used a conventional perception of ancient Egypt as a starting board and expanded upon it," Boyd commented in the program notes. But the fantasy world they create -- from Cleopatra's throne room to the desert to Caesar's Senate, to Cleopatra's magnificent barge -- is stunning, one surprise after another, and threatened to steal the show.

Cleopatra's high moments choreographically came early on, with a sequence featuring the evil duo Ptolemy and Pothinus (Ilya Kozadayev and Robert Moore). Their height imbalance enabled a luscious, but playful pas de deux filled with interesting weight shifts and effortless gymnastic handstands and lifts. The choreography for the corps and other lead players also seemed promising at first, but eventually seemed to lapse into Theme and Variations. Stevenson seems to have discovered every possible ballet step that can be performed with arms in the stereotypical Egyptian swastika positions: elbows bent, palms flexed and facing upward. There must be more to Egypt. The story itself was complicated, and difficult to follow without either a debriefing on Ancient Egyptian history or frequently squinting at the program in the dark (creating the unpleasant choice between understanding the story and watching the dancers).

Finally, why does Stevenson seem to treasure the sexual politics and gender politics of the Victorian age? One would think that nothing could spoil the feminist potential of Cleopatra's story, but Stevenson found a way. It's a credit to Strasberg that nothing ruined her dignified rendition of the queen (it was evident in her climactic pas de deux with Simon Ball as Marc Antony that she pulled the strings), but one scene in particular might as well have been sponsored by the Christian Coalition. Right after Ptolemy and Pothinius (who seem, after their pas de deux, to be much much more than the "confidants" they are said to be in the program) send Cleopatra out to the desert to die, they celebrate, with (you guessed it!) an orgy in the court. Any pleasure I might have derived from hearing the audience titter at the sight of mock threesomes on the stage was negated by the implications of the scene: revelers in metallic, reptilian costumes, wearing tight blue wigs evoke serpents copulating in the Garden of Eden. So the evil gay male promiscuous couple hosts an evil promiscuous bash to celebrate their evil deed (and these serpents certainly were not using condoms) and get their just desserts. Disney could have done better. That's not to mention the all too typical tradition of making the Queen's handmaidens (the female corps) skip around the stage holding hands and gather in groups to giggle about hairstyles. Does ballet have to be this way? When will we get a fairy tale for our times?

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