Sunday, May 30, 2010

Estancia

I loved, loved, loved “Estancia,” the new Christopher Wheeldon ballet that enjoyed its world premiere on Saturday night, May 29, 2010, at New York City Ballet. Wheeldon is a brilliant choreographer whose work I already enjoyed; this was the piece I was most excited to see all season and it didn’t disappoint.


“Estancia” was the second piece in last night’s program, so let’s go in order. We begin with “Dances Concertantes,” a Balanchine ballet that, much like Friday night’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” started in the 40s and was revisited and reworked by Balanchine in the 70s. It wasn’t quite as wonderful as “Concerto,” but it was perfectly entertaining.


While watching the ballet, I thought perhaps a better name for it might be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Ballet: There were four trios of soloist and corps de ballet dancers and one couple of principal dancers (Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia.) Each group was dressed in a different vivid and saturated color so when they moved about the stage, it looked like Bob Ross’s palette come to life.


The ballet itself was presented as if it was a show-within-a-show, like we were watching entertainers and jesters performing for the court. It reminded me of the masque performed as a wedding celebration in The Tempest - mostly unrelated to the plot and serving as a fantastical diversion. Mind you, there was no context for this stand alone ballet, but the show-within-a-show feel of it reminded me of this old Shakespearean device.


All the performances were very good. I did find that the music for each colored-pas de trois ended too abruptly for my taste - there was no musical cue to tell you that the end was near so the dance would end and before a response to clap was triggered in me, the dancers would leave the stage. The dancers were clap worthy, though, particularly the always engaging Sterling Hyltin and her pas de deux partner, Gonzalo Garcia. Garcia, in his yellow and black costume, looked like a tree frog leaping across the stage. And Hyltin danced across the stage like she owned it.


Next was “Estancia.” I can’t stop gushing about this piece. Taking place in the Pampas region of Argentina, “Estancia,” which means ranch in Spanish, tells a simple love story: City boy happens upon a ranch and falls for a country girl; this girl is a rough and tumble kind of gal, exemplified in her success at taming a wild horse; she feels the city boy isn’t up to snuff and refuses his advances; to prove his merit, he tames a wild horse, after which point she falls for him and life on the ranch continues. (The wild horses elicited this quip from a kinish sitting in my row: “Well, there was a lot of horsing around in that ballet!” Very punny old man, very punny.)


That’s the story. Now on to the dancing. “Estancia” was thrilling. It was the most exciting, skillful and joyful narrative ballet I’ve ever seen. I love how Wheeldon plays with space: filling it, dividing it, creating it - he’s just incredible. What I like in particular about this narrative was that unlike a lot of other story ballets I’ve seen, this was full of dance - not just movements and charades used to tell a story but beautiful, extraordinary dance. (Indeed, Wheeldon was aware of this potential hurdle. In an interview included in the program, he says, “The challenge is to not get bogged down with mime and too much acting, and to keep it light on its feet and very choreographic.”)


Tyler and Tiler appeared together again, as Tyler Angle danced the city boy and Tiler Peck was the country girl. Angle is long, limber and leaps like a lasso and Peck is a talented, fun and lively dancer. Their love pas de deux was breathtaking and easily rivals (and maybe overtakes) Peter Martins’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene as the loveliest romantic pas de deux to date.


I should remind readers that City Ballet’s theme this season is Architecture of Dance and sets for five of the seven new ballets were created by Santiago Calatrava. Wheeldon’s ballet was one of the five. However, Wheeldon felt that he needed the entire stage to tell his story so a structure in the middle of the stage, like in Benjamin Millepied’s, wouldn’t work. Instead, Calatrava designed two beautiful backdrops to serve as the settings for “Estancia.” The first was a beautiful abstract design; upon seeing it revealed, I thought, “I’d like to hang that on my wall!” The second drop depicted the endless ranch horizon. It was beautiful, and lighting designer Mark Stanley complemented it and the ballet with simple light cues to help us keep time.


What was perhaps most exciting about being there to see “Estancia” last night was that it was its world premiere. That's right, it had never been performed publicly before but if the audience’s reaction was any indication, it will be performed over and over and over again for many years to come. The ballet ended to an ecstatic outburst of rousing applause that held steady for at least a solid five minutes. (Try clapping for even one minute straight - five minutes is a long time!) The principals, Tyler and Tiler, were given flowers and then Christopher Wheeldon himself came out on stage for a well deserved curtain call. The audience (and I) loved this and applauded even more heartily, with hoots, hollers and thundering “bravos” raining down. I truly feel like history was made last night. Already a successful choreographer (and former City Ballet dancer,) it is now safe to say that Wheeldon is a modern master, and that “Estancia” is one for the canon. (Bonus fun: When the evening was over and I was exiting the theatre, I spotted Christopher Wheeldon in the lobby so I ran over to gush to the brilliant Brit for a moment!)


"Estancia” was a hard act to follow and “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was a huge let down after such an exciting and thrilling piece. I really wish “Estancia” had closed out the night but instead, this too-long, pretty but drab piece held that honor. Other than the length, there was nothing particularly wrong with or objectionable about the ballet, it just paled (literally - the costumes were all pastels and the sets were in muted colors) in comparison to “Estancia,” and even to “Dances Concertantes.” Even the great Benjamin Millepied and Jared Angle jumping around the stage couldn’t save this piece. They say timing is everything and I think that’s entirely apropos here. If this had been the first or even middle piece of some other program, it still might have felt too long but it would have been enjoyable. Instead, I just kept replaying “Estancia” in my head and waiting for the program to be over so I could go home and take off my heels!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

NY Export: Opus Jazz

Though the New York City Ballet 2010 spring season largely celebrates new works, on Friday night the program was three classic ballets by City Ballet’s founding choreographers. On the bill were Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and Robbins’s “NY Export: Opus Jazz.”


"Donizetti Variations” was nothing to write home (or on a blog) about. The corps de ballet looked sloppy and their sloppiness was all the more apparent when principal dancers Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz took the stage. The second movement featured only Fairchild and De Luz, and served as some fun fluff to watch. It actually reminded me of “Stars and Stripes” (a Balanchine ballet inspired by and featuring John Philip Sousa’s music, which will be part of City Ballet’s 2010-2011 season); Fairchild and De Luz basically took turns coming out on stage, jumping around and thrilling the audience before engaging in a feisty pas de deux. Their skill and sharpness made clear the difference between principal dancers and corps de ballet members. Or so I thought.


As I watched the next two pieces of the program, both of which prominently featured corps members, I came around to the conclusion that the sloppiness of the corps in “Donizetti Variations” was perhaps purposeful - that the choreography was meant to be more free form and less Rockette-like. While that may have been the case, I didn’t care much for the piece. But the next two more than made up for it.


Next up was “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” This ballet represents Balanchine’s second pass at choreographing to this particular piece of music. The repertory notes say that Balanchine made a dance to the music in 1941 for the Ballet Russe. Three decades later, in 1972, he returned to the music but couldn’t remember his choreography so he started over. Of course, I have no idea what the original choreography was, but I thoroughly enjoyed this piece so I say, “Here’s to forgetting!”


This piece showed both skill and passion, a combination I usually find lacking in Balanchine’s ballets. Going in, I was inclined to like it because Robert Fairchild and Sterling Hyltin were dancing and they didn’t disappoint - but neither did anyone else. The first movement, Toccata, was fun and flirty. It began with each principal dancer, Fairchild, Hyltin, Maria Kowroski and Sebastien Marcovici, taking a turn coming out on stage, backed by four corps dancers of the opposite sex. Next, both pairs of principals -Fairchild and Hyltin, Kowroski and Marcovici - came out for a mini pas de deux before reemerging with the corps, guys backed by guys and gals backed by gals.


After Toccata were Arias One and Two. This is where it got really interesting. Each aria was a pas de deux with Aria One featuring Kowroski and Marcovici and Aria Two featuring Hyltin and Fairchild. Both had a beautiful, languid feel to them - almost as if the dancers were moving underwater as the literally wrapped themselves around one another.


I enjoyed the second aria most because I really like watching Hyltin and Fairchild dance. Hyltin always looks like she’s having a good time dancing, and there’s little that I like more than watching someone enjoy what they’re doing. And Robert Fairchild is just such an incredible dancer. He moves about the stage with undeniable precision - there’s no hesitation in his movements - and he bounds across the stage with such ease and air you’d think he was on strings. He is one of the most exciting and engaging dancers in the company. The two each have wonderful energy on their own and their chemistry when dancing together is amazing. I’d like to see these two continue as a pair as they grow with City Ballet.


Completing the piece was the final movement, Capriccio. This was reminiscent of Toccata and featured the entire cast leaping all over the stage with great skill and energy to spare.


The final piece of the evening was the reason I came: “NY Export: Opus Jazz.” Next to “The Four Seasons” (which is part of the 2010-2011 season!) this is probably my favorite ballet. You may remember from previous Reviewing the Drama posts that this was the first City Ballet I ever saw; you may also remember that not too long ago a film adaptation, produced by and starring City Ballet company members, was aired on PBS. That film brilliantly captures the spirit of the ballet and is 100% worth seeing. However, there’s still nothing like seeing it live on stage. (It’ll be a part of the 2010-2011 season; if you can’t make it to the State Theatre, or you just can’t wait to see it, fire up your Netflix queue. There’s no release date for it yet, but you can save it to you queue so when it is released, you won’t miss a beat.)


What I love about “NY Export: Opus Jazz” is that it beautifully captures a youthful exuberance. The dancers snap (literally,) crackle and pop across the stage, and clap and stomp their way through the city as they express the love, rage, confusion, passion and dynamite determination coursing through young people. This is not unlike the choreography in American Idiot. In both pieces, you clearly see the emotions of the characters shining through the affecting choreography. In the original program notes from the ballet’s debut it says, “Feeling very much like a minority group in this threatening and explosive world, the young have so identified with the dynamics, kinetic impetus, the drives and ‘coolness‘ of today’s jazz steps that these dances have become an expression of our youths‘ outlook and their attitudes toward the contemporary world around them.” This sentiment is unmistakable in “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” a classic ballet that feels ever present and totally modern and contemporary in 2010.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Media Morsels 5.28.10

  • Award Season Update
    • Tony Award Show Promises a Good Host
      It was announced early this week that Tony nominee Sean Hayes will host the Tony Awards, set to take place on Sunday, June 13. This isn’t the first instance of a nominee hosting the ceremony, as Hugh Jackman hosted the year he won for The Boy From Oz. My best guess, though, is that Hayes will not pull a Jackman and win the year he hosts: Among the nominees, I’m pulling for either Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!) or Chad Kimball (Memphis).

    • In other Tony news, the first slate of presenters was announced this week. On hand to present Tony awards on June 13 will be, among others, Cate Blanchett, Michael Douglas, Lea Michele, Helen Mirren, Matthew Morrison, Chris Noth and Denzel Washington. (In case you’re wondering how some of these folks are connected to theatre: Cate Blanchett starred in a critically acclaimed mini-tour A Streetcar Named Desire; Chris Noth is no stranger to the stage: I saw him in Farragut North (opposite one John Gallagher, Jr.,) at the Atlantic in 2008; and Mrs. Michael Douglas (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is currently making her Broadway debut (and nabbed a Tony nom for it) in A Little Night Music.)

    • I’ve mentioned in previous Tony-themed posts that I would like to see an ensemble award added to the fray. Playbill.com recently ran an article exploring just that, offering pros and cons from industry folk.

    • Late this week, word was leaked that the opening number for the Tony broadcast would be a medley of pop songs currently in Broadway shows. This would include songs from American Idiot (Green Day,) Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis, Johnny Cast, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) and Come Fly Away (Sinatra.) I don’t think this will be in lieu of full on and solo performances from each of the nominated musicals, but it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser and, at least, will get some viewers to tune in.

    • Drama Desk Awards
      The Drama Desk, which is comprised of theatre writers, handed out their awards this past weekend, honoring excellence in theatre, both Broadway and off. Highlighted winners include Michael Mayer, Outstanding Director of a Musical, American Idiot; Alex Timbers, Outstanding Book of a Musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Viola Davis, Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play, Fences; Christopher Fitzgerald, Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Finian’s Rainbow; and a tie between Montego Glover, Memphis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, A Little Night Music, Outstanding Actress in a Musical. Visit Playbill.com for a full list of winners. And check out Broadwayworld.com’s photo coverage of the arrivals, parts one and two.

    • Broadway.com Audience Awards
      Broadway.com voters, I’m disappointed in you. Yes, you voted for Johnny Gallagher as Favorite Leading Actor in a Musical and the Idiots as your Favorite Ensemble, but The Addams Family as your Favorite new musical? Fickle folks, you are. You’re slightly forgiven for your foolhardy votes by virtue of Johnny and American Idiot’s wins, along with voting for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as Favorite New off-Broadway Musical; Brian d’Arcy James as Favorite Featured Actor in a Play; and Kyle Dean Massey as Favorite Replacement, but still – four awards each for The Addams Family and Promises, Promises? I hope you’ll redeem yourselves in Broadwayworld.com’s awards (for which voting is still open!)

    • Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
      Tina Fey will receive this prestigious award in November. The ceremony will be taped, and broadcast on a date still to be announced, though my guess, based on airings in years past, is it’ll air in late December. Like Twain, Fey is a whip-smart satirist, shining a light on the funny little truths about our society. Last year’s award was posthumously presented to the late, great George Carlin. In response to the announcement, Fey quipped, “I am truly thrilled to receive this honor. I assume Betty White was disqualified for steroid use.”

  • American Idiot in the Media
    Whatsername – that is, Rebecca Naomi Jones – recently invited Broadway.com into her dressing room to share some of the touches that make the St James her home. Take a peek at her mementos, including notes from director Michael Mayer and a bag full of sartorial options for any occasion! In addition, check out the June issue of Vogue for photos of the casts of American Idiot and Fela!, Benjamin Walker in full-on Bloody Bloody gear and Matthew Morrison out at sea.

  • Matthew Warchus-Directed Revival Gets a Home
    Last week I mentioned that the upcoming revival of La Bete, which is to be helmed by the brilliant Matthew Warchus and will star the equally gifted Mark Rylance (Tony winners both) set an opening date. This week, their home was revealed: La Bete will play at the Music Box Theatre, which will be available following Lend Me a Tenor’s August 15 closing. (Fun side note: The Music Box is where Aaron Sorkin’s plays, A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention, both played. While I never saw A Few Good Men on stage, I did see The Farnsworth Invention on its first Saturday night preview. Also in the audience with me? Bono.)

  • Glee Scoop
    • Good news, fellow Gleeks: Glee has been renewed for a third season – before the first season even finishes airing! No details on the details yet – which is fine, really – we’re still watching the first season, but I’ll be sure to bring you any and all dish as it’s served up.

    • Also, Glee dreamboat Matthew Morrison recently stopped by the Subway Series to sing the National Anthem for Saturday night’s Yankees-Mets game. I love a guy who loves baseball, I just wish Morrison were wearing pinstripes instead of blue and orange. (Viewers with sensitive stomachs, be warned: This amateur video is very shaky (and doesn’t include a close up of Matthew) so it’s best to close your eyes and listen to the smooth stylings of Matthew Morrison.)

    • While browsing the iTunes stores this week, I noticed that yet another Glee soundtrack is coming out. This one looks like it’ll be the “regionals” songs and will be released on June 8, to coincide with the season finale. In addition, the complete first season – i.e., The Road to Sectionals and The Road to Regionals – will be released on DVD this September. Gleeks who bought the “The Road to Sectionals” DVD set can send away for a $10 rebate after purchasing the full season. Details to follow.

  • Stage Actors’ Day Job
    Currently, if you look at a stage actor’s bio, chances are there will be a credit for one, two or all of the Law & Order series. I once read an anomaly of a bio that specifically and proudly stated, “Never appeared on Law & Order.” With the recent cancellation of Law & Order, is there a New York-based show to fill the void? Absolutely. The New York Times recently noted that the new go-to TV show for theatre actors is fast becoming the excellent The Good Wife (which, incidentally, is set in Chicago,) as well as 30 Rock. I would add that other shows filmed in New York that employ stage actors include Bored to Death, Royal Pains and White Collar. I love watching these shows and spotting all the theatre folks popping up in each episode. It’s a fun little theatre-themed version of Where’s Waldo!

  • Sex and the City 2 Premiere
    Sex and the City 2 opens this week and the New York premiere was held on Monday night. Braodwayworld.com has full photo coverage of the red carpet (which was actually blue,) including photos of a glowing Sarah Jessica Parker (literally – she was wearing neon green,) Newark mayor Cory Booker (naturally…) and Liza with a Z.

  • Hair: People Who Care About Social Injustice
    The cast and creative team of the revival of Hair is no stranger to taking up a cause. (In October, the producers canceled a performance so that the cast, crew and other creatives could participate in the Marriage Equality Rally in DC.) Now, they’re selling some green merch: Instead of dumping the vinyl used for their Times Square billboard, they’ve repurposed the material into 260 tote bags that are now on sale at the Al Hirschfeld theatre. Visit Playbill.com for more details and a photo of the tote bags.

    In other Hair-cut news, the London production of Hair will close on September 4, when the OBC’s contracts are up. The production was originally booking through January 2011, but sales have (according to rumors) been sluggish. Hair continues to play here in NY at the Al Hirschfeld, but maybe not for long: Looking at the weekly Broadway grosses, Hair is dead last in capacity. Generally, the two biggest indicators of a show’s health are its gross and the percent of seats it fills. Hair is last in the latter category. It’s not quite last in gross, but the show is only selling about 55% of its seats each week. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a closing notice after the summer.

  • Bringing Normal to a Theatre Near You
    Alice Ripley and Brian d’Arcy James will play their final performance of Next to Normal on Broadway on Sunday, July 18. Ripley will head the touring company, which kicks off in LA on November 23. As previously mentioned here, d’Arcy James will rejoin his Times Stands Still clan in the fall. Replacements for Ripley and d’Arcy James, who play the parents, Diana and Dan Goodman in this Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning show, have not yet been announced. I may or may not go to see their final performance, but I definitely plan to see it at least once before they leave, since I want to see d’Arcy James back in the role he created off-Broadway at Second Stage. Visit nexttonormal.com for details about the tour.

  • Musicals on TV
    In other Next to Normal news, the current cast was on Good Morning America on Thursday. On air, Alice Ripley, Brian d’Arcy James and Kyle Dean Massey performed an abridged version of the excellent “You Don’t Know” and “I am the One.” The talented actors also taped a bonus performance of “I’ve Been” for exclusive online viewing, which Broadway.com has on their site. The cast of Memphis was also up early on Thursday, performing on the Today show. Broadwayworld.com has that clip.

  • Damn Yankees Preview with Jake Gyllenhaal?
    As I’ve previously mentioned in Media Morsels, a new movie adaptation of Damn Yankees is somewhere on the horizon and the versatile (and ridiculously handsome) Jake Gyllenhaal is rumored to have snagged the role of young Joe. On Wednesday night’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Jake and Jimmy treated audiences to an original song, giving us a preview(ish) of what we might expect from young Jake as young Joe. Check it out on nbc.com.

  • Welcome to New York, Super Bowl XLVIII!
    I figure that the impending arrival of Lombardi on Broadway gives me clearance to talk about football. So, start spreading the news: Super Bowl XLVIII (that’s 48, and it’ll happen in 2014) is coming to New York! Well, technically it’s coming to New Jersey, the Meadowlands to be exact, where two of New York’s NFL teams, the Giants(!) and the Jets play. Of course, if either team makes it to the Super Bowl that year, the game will be played at an alternate site so that neither team can boast home-felid advantage. New York, are you ready for some football?

  • Creepy, Kooky Nails
    Bebe Neuwirth has teamed up with Essie Cosmetics to develop a limited edition line of Morticia-inspired nail polish, which is being sold as a benefit for the Actor’s Fund. Ms. Neuwirth had a hand in creating the colors and named them Midnight Tango (a deep blue – not unlike the color currently on my finger nails,) Bone Chilling White and Blood Curdling Red. You can pre-order your polish now at theaddamsfamilymusical.com or stop by the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, starting on July 19, to pick up “Morticia’s Nails.”

  • A Little [More] Night Music?
    While it was previously announced (and reported here) that the current revival of A Little Night Music would close on June 20, when stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury’s contracts run out, rumors surfaced this week that it may, in fact, continue with two Broadway legends: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. In reporting on the rumor, Playbill.com mused that “their pairing should ignite the box office,” but I disagree. Peters and Stritch aren’t Catherine Zeta-Jones famous, and her presence has been what was driving sales. To wit: The weeks that CZJ was on planned (and publicized) vacation, sales slumped considerably. It’s possible that Peters and Stritch may be enough of a draw to sustain the musical through the summer tourist season, but I doubt they can carry the show through the lean fall months and into the holiday season. I’ll keep you posted!

  • 2010-2011 City Ballet Season Announced
    While the New York City Ballet 2010 Spring Season is still in full swing, subscription renewals were sent out this week, thereby announcing the next season. The company is changing their seasons so that there are now three seasons each year: A fall, September/October season; a winter, January/February season; and a spring/summer, May/June season. (Until now, there were only two seasons: winter and spring, leaving a five month hiatus between the end of the spring season and The Nutcracker, which unofficially kicks on the winter season.) This upcoming season is full of great, classic pieces – like The Four Seasons, my favorite ballet – as well as several world premiere ballets – including one of Benjamin Millepied – and lots of pieces from new and emerging choreographers – like Christopher Wheeldon. There’s so much I want to see; I’ve mapped it all out on a huge, floor-spanning calendar, and can look forward to ballets in all four months of the newly extended season. Single tickets are not available yet, but if you’re a subscriber you can renew now!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

City Ballet - Why am I not where you are


At my second ballet of the NYC Ballet spring season, I saw three pieces: One was new to me, one was a world premiere and one was an old favorite. Overall, all three combined for a very nice afternoon of ballet.


Unfortunately, I didn’t get to enjoy the first piece, Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet,” as much as I would have liked thanks to the evil forces that are the MTA. The trains were running on a different schedule on Saturday, which would normally mean that I would be delayed by five, maybe ten minutes. This time, I was delayed by 40 minutes. I practically ran from the train to the State Theatre, in my snake-skin peep toe heels, flew up the stairs to the fourth ring and made it to my seat just as the curtain was rising. Not at all ideal. I was catching my breath and trying to settle into my seat while the performance began. Fortunately, “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” was just the perfectly pretty and innocuous piece to help calm me down after the MTA ordeal. When I finally settled down, I noticed that the dancing was really quite lovely, very fluid and celebratory. I later read in the repertory notes that “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” was an excerpt from Gounod’s Faust and that the ballet is meant to impart a sense of “joyful revelry.” This is one piece I’d look forward to seeing in future seasons, hopefully after a not so dramatic entrance!


Next up was the piece I was most excited for: The world premiere of Bordeaux-born City Ballet principal dancer (and accomplished choreographer) Benjamin Millepied’s latest ballet, “Why am I not where you are.” As I mentioned last week, the theme of this season is the Architecture of Dance and as such renowned architect Santiago Calatrava designed the set for five of the new ballets debuting this season, including this Millepied ballet. The set consisted of a spoked, curved arch, that looked something like a piece from a DNA double helix. That may not sound visually appealing but it was and it definitely worked with the piece. The structure gave the dancers another "doorway" and helped to define spaces throughout the stage. It had a rather soft, fluid feel to it, which was an interesting juxtaposition to the architectural, angled and aggressive choreography. (It was in the angles of the movement, like flexed feet, that you could see Millepied embracing the challenge of creating a piece of art with an architect.)


"Why am I not where you are” is ultimately a story of missed connections - of two lovers trying to find one another. There are two couples, soloists Kathryn Morgan and Sean Suozzi as the lovers and principals Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar as their “guides,” and 16 corps de ballet dancers filling the stage at any given moment. The menacing tone of the music (a newly commissions score from French composer Thierry Escaich) and the aggressiveness of the choreography played well off each other, combining to show what can happen in a relationship when others meddle in it. It also spoke to the masks we wear as we try to hide ourselves or change for someone else. At the start of the ballet, Suozzi is dressed entirely in white; everyone else is in color. Throughout the ballet, the guides slowly dress him in colors and with each addition, he and his lover become closer. However, at the end, just when Suozzi is fully color-clad, Morgan is stripped of her colored garb, left wearing a white dress and she and Suozzi, once again, cannot locate each other. It was a stirring ballet and definitely a sign of great things to come from this talented dancer-choreographer.


The final piece of the afternoon was certainly the most fun: “Fancy Free.” You may remember from last season that I thoroughly enjoy this piece which follows three sailors looking for a good time in New York City. “Fancy Free” is the first ballet Jerome Robbins ever choreographed and marked the start of “a beautiful friendship” with then up-and-coming composer Leonard Bernstein. (“Fancy Free” was ultimately the precursor to the successful Broadway musical, On the Town.) This is a fun, whimsical piece with great, athletic dancing, replete with claps, snaps and stomps. Last season Robert Fairchild danced my favorite part of the ballet; on Saturday, that part was danced by his fellow new principal dancer, Amar Ramasar. Ramasar was good, but I missed Fairchild’s charisma and stage presence. Still, this funny little romp had plenty to thrill over, including the pas de deux between Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck. (Tyler and Tiler - kind of cute, huh?) “Fancy Free” has long been one of my favorite pieces in the City Ballet canon and it was such a treat to get to see a seminal piece from an old master right alongside an exciting piece from a new one.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Aliens

Sometimes a playwright will hit you over the head with “the message.” Sometimes a director will bombard you with gimmicks and distractions. Sometimes actors will ham it up and bring the schtick. But sometimes none of that happens and instead you end up with a beautiful, naturalistic play that takes its time and is funny, poignant and touching That is the case with Annie Baker’s new play, The Aliens.


The Aliens marks Baker’s second collaboration with director Sam Gold and the two seem to work really well together. Like in Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens is paced so wonderfully: Everything happens in due time, and not a moment before; the writing and directing allows the moments to happen - allows the actors to explore each moment and not rush something just to keep the audience engaged. (The audience does remain engaged, anyway!) Slowly but surely, an emotional story reveals itself out of what seemed like nothing. I applaud Annie Baker, Sam Gold and other young artists who are rebelling against our A.D.D. riddled culture in favor of telling a story with care and patience.


In this new play, Jasper (Erin Gann) and KJ (Michael Chernus), two wooly looking Vermonters who are in their 30s but seem to be in a state of arrested development, hang out behind a local coffee shop - in an area that is supposed to be for employees only. It is there that they meet Evan (Dane DeHaan), the shop’s newest employee and a young, impressionable teen. The two men, who clearly deeply care about one another, develop a bond with Evan as they - subtly - teach him about life. None of this is predatory: In one moment, Jasper, looking perfectly disheveled with a cigarette in tow, is asking Evan about himself; Evan stumbles and stammers to answer, all the while Jasper is looking him over, not in a threatening way, but rather in a way that suggests, “It’s okay, you’re safe here. I’m just trying to figure you out.”


My favorite moment of the play came at the end. KJ gives Evan a guitar and asks him to play something. Evan starts playing “If I Had a Hammer” and KJ stops him, asking him to play something original. Evan responds that he doesn’t know anything original - he doesn’t write music. KJ asks why not and Evan says, “I never thought I’d be any good - I’m not a musical genius or anything.” KJ smiles knowingly. He says, “How do you know? Jasper’s a genius. I’m a genius. Maybe you’re a genius. Play that ‘Hammer’ song.” With nervous energy to spare, Evan begins playing the song. As he does, he becomes more and more comfortable and really gets into the song. The smile that washes over him as he clutches the guitar and sings his heart out - as his world suddenly opens up - moved me to tears.


Had it not been for the careful pacing and the unobtrusive way each layer was peeled away up to that point, this moment could easily have felt forced and heavy handed - like the writer and director were trying to get me to cry. Instead, they just let it happen. In a theatrical landscape in which the mainstream offers too much glitz, glam and schmaltz, I love little slice-of-life treasures like this. And I’m very much looking forward to Annie Baker’s next masterpiece!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Media Morsels 5.21.10

This week’s Media Morsels will be more links, less commentary since I’ve been keeping pretty busy with a whirlwind week of theatre going. See below for a round up of everything I’ve seen this week, keep checking back for reviews of The Aliens and Benjamin Millepied’s new ballet and stop by next week when regularly scheduled Media Morsels will return!


  • 2010 Fall Television Line Up
    • NBC
    • Fox
    • ABC
    • CBS (I can't seem to find the definitive schedule, but this is an article about what to expect.)

The Metal Children



Look out Aaron Sorkin, Adam Rapp is fast becoming one of my favorite modern writers. The Metal Children is Rapp’s latest fully produced work and is currently playing at The Vineyard Theatre. And it’s superb.

In The Metal Children, we follow author Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup) as he defends his young adult novel, The Metal Children, against a school board in a “small community in the American heartland,” which has banned the book after deeming it inappropriate for the children. (His name is Falmouth - get it?) We first meet Toby in his West Village apartment, which scenic designer David Korins made perfectly cramped and dressed with such detail, right down to the books scattered about Toby’s floor and the bong sitting high atop a shelf. It is here that his agent informs him of an upcoming school board meeting in the small community, to which the English teacher, Stacey Kinsella, has invited Toby. Toby travels to the community and finds that not everyone is as welcoming as Kinsella. He also finds that some of the teenagers have taken to copying and recreating the events in the book, much to his dismay and disbelief. This is all loosely based on Rapp’s own experience: He, too, wrote a controversial young adult novel that was banned by school boards. (Read Rapp’s first person account of what happened with his novel, The Buffalo Tree, and how it inspired The Metal Children.) This set up allows Rapp, and the audience, to explore the meaning of art, if any, and the artist’s responsibility, if any, to society.

During the school board meeting, Vera, a 16 year old, fervent Tobin Falmouth champion, defends the novel by saying that an artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society. She argues that the “town elders” who’ve banned the book didn’t read deep enough into it to glean its true meaning - what it says about society. (This artist-as-mirror is an argument I’ve made before, particularly when praising American Idiot.) Toby, though grateful for Vera’s support, responds by telling a rather sad and touching story about how the novel was written. He wraps it up by saying he didn’t mean all the things Vera and others are inferring from the novel; he didn’t write it as a comment on anything - he wrote because he had to. I found this to be an incredibly poignant moment in the show.

On the one hand, Toby is saying there’s no hidden meaning in his book. I often argued with my English teachers in high school when we were discussing symbolism in whatever we happened to be reading. Being a bit contentious, I would ask, “Really? Did Joseph Conrad really think, ‘Oh, Kurtz is going to mean this or that‘ when writing Heart of Darkness, or was he just writing?” And despite the damning evidence, did L. Frank Baum write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory and is the cowardly lion actually William Jennings Bryan, or is this just a fantasy novel? Who knows, but what Toby quickly learns is that, on the other hand, he can intend to write one thing, but once the art is out there, it is entirely open to interpretation and that’s the risk the artist takes. I saw an example of this a while back. I was at a Gavin Creel concert (in addition to being a great actor, he’s also a recording artist and is currently working on his second album.) He was introducing his song “These Four Walls” and said that the song is about how these two lovers “need these four walls to survive” - they can’t take their love out in public and so it’s actually a very sad love song. He mentioned this because, as he told us, several friends said that they wanted to use that as their wedding song and Gavin would always respond in shock, saying, “Do you know what the song is about?!?” At that moment, I thought, “Gavin, that’s the thing about art. You create it and it can mean one thing to you but the brave thing the artist does is put it out there, leaving it open to interpretation.” Once the artist shares his art, he can’t control the reaction to it - and this is a lesson that Tobin Falmouth learns throughout the course of The Metal Children, that his words do, indeed, have meaning.

Rapp explores this motif in beautiful, natural dialogue. He also directs the piece with a thoughtful and expert touch. In the last few years, Rapp has taken to directing his own work and the results have been fantastic. My favorite directing choice in The Metal Children was the way act two, scene one played out. This was the school board meeting scene. During intermission, a red curtain closed on stage; an American flag was set downstage right; a podium was placed beside it and beside the podium were several metal folding chairs. One by one - and unobtrusively, I might add - the actors came out and took their seats. It was clear we were in an auditorium and the meeting was about to begin. But the best part was that the action began and the houselights stayed on: We were attending the school board meeting; we were making the choice about whether or not this book was appropriate. This directing choice really drove home the point that we are a community and we must decide what value art has in our lives.

In addition to the great writing and directing, the performances were all very strong - not a weak member among the group. Connor Barrett, a big solid tree of a man, was terrific as the English teacher Stacey Kinsella, a jittery little ball of nerves. Phoebe Strole, who was very affecting in Spring Awakening, was pitch perfect here as Vera, an assured believer; a young woman who truly felt passionate about her beliefs and about sharing them with society. And Billy Crudup (a Tony winning stage vet who you know from movies like one of my faves, Almost Famous) was brilliant as Tobin. There is a moment at the end of act one where Tobin has to make a decision and to watch the struggle going on in his face and behind his eyes is to watch a master at work.

Adam Rapp is a strong, important and honest voice in American theatre and literature. If you’re in the area, I urge you to run to see this production. And if not, The Metal Children is available for purchase so you can read it and pore over this extraordinary new play.

Bonuses:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fences


One of the things about going to see anything, whether it’s a movie, a concert or a play, out in public is that your fellow audience members can shape your experience - for better or for worse. In my years of theatre going, this was perhaps never more clear than when I saw Fences on Wednesday afternoon.


August Wilson’s Fences has never been one of my favorite plays. I read it in college and got through it because I had to, not because I found it particularly compelling. Watching it come to life, and especially with the expert performances this current revival boasts, I came away with a greater appreciation for the work - but I think I would have enjoyed it more, or connected to it more, had the audience behaved differently.


Throughout the play, audience members were vocally reactive to the story. And I’m talking about more than just hooting and hollering with entrance applause for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (both of whom were terrific.) And I’m also talking about more than laughing - though I did have a problem with the timing of some of their laughter, but more on that in a moment. Many audience members were effectually talking back to the characters in the play. You know how sometimes if you’re home by yourself, on your couch and watching a scary movie you’ll tell the ingenue, “No! Don’t go out there - the killer’s out there!”, or if you’re watching That Thing You Do, after Faye tells off Jimmy you testify, “You go, girl!”? Well, that’s okay if you’re by yourself - and maybe it’s acceptable if you’re in your home and amongst friends (or someone who can stand your running commentary) but it’s not okay when you’re in a theatre - whether you’re watching a film or a live show. Your comment intrudes upon the other audience members’ experience and in live theatre it’s just plain rude to the actors who are trying to live within the fourth wall and bring you this experience.


As much as I disapprove of talking back to the screen or stage, in this instance it didn’t bother me as much as the inappropriate timing of the audience’s laughter throughout the play. Yes, some things were meant to be funny and I was laughing along side everyone else. But it’s not funny when a son stands up to his domineering father, takes a swing at him, misses, and has his father shove him to the ground and threaten to hit him with a baseball bat. Not funny at all. And yet, people laughed. A similar thing would happen in Spring Awakening during the beating scene. Wendla asks Melchior to hit her with a switch she found because she wants to feel something. It’s actually a rather heart wrenching scene and yet, invariably in the ten times I saw the show, someone would laugh when Melchior beat Wendla. I suppose this could be explained by the phenomena of people laughing through discomfort, for lack of any other way to react. But it just doesn’t sit right with me. And this happened several times throughout the play.


There may be another reason people were laughing. August Wilson wrote about the black experience in America. Each time one of the plays in his ten-play cycle was produced, with one exception, he insisted on a black director because he felt that a white director couldn’t fully understand what was going on and therefore couldn’t properly direct the piece. (Last season’s revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone - the play that POTUS and FLOTUS took in on date night last May - was the first major August Wilson production to be directed by a white person. Mind you, this came about after Wilson’s death; his wife and estate okayed the director, saying August would have approved.) Given the subject matter of Fences and the stars, Washington and Davis, it should come as no surprise that a majority of the audience was black. Feeling - rightfully so - in the minority and finding much less to laugh about, I wondered if being white made me have a different experience - if perhaps there are mores in black culture that made certain things funny to the black audience members and not to me. I’m trying to remember the discussions my play analysis class had when we read this in college. I don’t remember finding the material funny. I also don’t remember the black students pointing out much that I didn’t understand, but I do remember them defending Wilson’s position that a white person couldn’t fully understand the black experience in America. Personally, I would like to think that we could look beyond race and just direct these pieces as stories of people and family and relationships, but I know that’s not realistic.


In any case, I certainly enjoyed the performance much more than I thought I would. There were moments that were very moving, especially the show downs between father and son, and the second act blow out between husband and wife. (I did feel that some of these highly emotional scenes didn’t linger in the moment long enough for my taste - that the scene would end too abruptly or there’d be some comedic gag to lighten the mood a little too quickly - but the moments were there.)


Everyone gave a great performance. Chris Chalk more than held his own as Cory, Troy and Rose Maxson’s son. This is noteworthy because he was holding his own against Denzel Washington’s Troy. I remember watching Glory in middle school and being astounded at the intensity Denzel brought to the role; he brought nothing less to Troy and gives a powerful performance. Best of all was Viola Davis, already a Tony winner for an earlier August Wilson work, King Hedley II, and a Tony nominee for her portrayal of Rose. You remember in Doubt how she made an indelible impression in just one scene? She does the same here. Yes, she’s in more than one scene and in each she’s a beacon of quiet strength. But it’s really her act two tirade against Troy that almost made me call out, “You go, girl!” Davis’s Rose is a strong woman, not to be trifled with, and when Troy reveals a damning secret she rips into him. It moved me to tears and was well worth the price of admission.