Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jessica Lang, "Her Notes" - ABT, October 21, 2016

Just got back from a quick trip to New York to see ABT at the Koch theater. (Which I still can’t get over, the new name…and the fact that ABT is dancing there, in Balanchine’s theater; it’s wonderful and strange.)

I saw the premiere of Her Notes, Jessica Lang’s new ballet, sandwiched between Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations and Millepied’s Daphnis and Chloe, on Friday night.

Lang held her own, and her more introspective ballet offered the variety that Daphnis and Chloe was lacking. And while Tharp’s piece shows her formalist genius for shifting patterns, a sort of kaleidoscopic mathematics on stage, it was Lang’s choreographic idiosyncrasy that captured me – asymmetry, a little something unexpected, perhaps even disconnected; quick shifts from the 19th century to the 21st, from Sylphides to Serenade to … to what? That was the underlying question of the ballet for me, like what as women in ballet do we do with the social and aesthetic holdovers from the 19th century.

To me, “Her Notes” examines a transformation of consciousness, that of a woman who is supposed to be a muse, but instead decides she must be a creator. Partly through its choice of composer, but also in its focus on a single female character, Lang’s ballet signals its preoccupation with the female authorial voice; the piece is set to music by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny Hensel composed over 400 pieces of music, but as a woman she was discouraged from publishing these works. It’s hard not to imagine that the lead woman, Gillian Murphy, was not some avatar of Mendelssohn-Hensler in the ballet.

Two women (played by the serene Devon Teuscher and Stephanie Williams) appear to shadow the female lead and her partner Marcelo Gomes through the ballet. I thought they were like younger or older versions of her, or her interior or reflective self. They return at the end of the ballet to lead a reflective Postlude. Other sections of the ballet are more episodic, in keeping with the music’s status as a kind of musical travel diary that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel kept over one year’s time. At moments I waited for Lang to connect the brilliant use of the set in the opening and closing images more concretely with the action. (A moveable gray square, with a smaller square cut out of it, appears as a house, a window, a ceiling, a jail; at first I thought this was going to be the ballet version of The Yellow Wallpaper.) But the ballet negotiates a fine line between the abstract and the narrative, and perhaps we are left deliberately to connect our own dots. Bottom line: I’d like to see it again.

I saw Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium twice on Saturday at the matinee and evening performance. I’ve seen it three times now, and each time it reveals more. And this is a ballet where a change of cast can overturn what you thought the ballet was about the last time you saw it. But that’s a good thing – each dancer shows us a new shading of the movements, evoking different emotional resonances and enriching the whole.

When I watch this ballet, I am struck by my overwhelming desire to be a part of the idealized social world of  Ratmansky’s Symposium. Philosophical explorations of the meaning of love, and truthful emotional expressions and experiences, are met with openness, with friendship, and with humor by the group. It’s deeply moving to see a model of human society where vulnerabilities can be expressed and received. (Symposium as support group? A ballet rendering of an ideal AA meeting?) Multiple viewpoints, different temperaments – they all come together, and they are all accepted, in the Symposium. Human beings are held in their full complexity, from their foibles to their moments of insight and greatness. And all of it is rendered delicately, lovingly, richly, by Ratmansky’s choreography. What an ideal for us to hold on to at this time when public discourse has reached a new low.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Ratmansky's "Bright Stream" and Irony

Ratmansky’s 2003 remake of the 1935 Lopukhov/Shostakovich ballet Bright Stream raised a few eyebrows when it was restaged here in the US for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 2005. A few critics wondered why a ballet that sent one of its collaborators to the gulag was being redone with little to no commentary on its context. Bright Stream is set on a collective farm and at the time of the ballet’s making, millions had died in Russia as a result of Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture. All of this is at odds with the ballet’s slapstick, vaudevillean nature, which Ratmansky retained.  The uncomfortable question arose – is this Stalinism as kitsch?

Probably ABT could have done a better job explaining the context of the ballet to the audience. Knowing this context makes understanding the positioning of this ballet – and the fact of its reconstruction – much more complicated and interesting. For instance, if you know that this was the last ballet Shostakovich ever composed, and that for Lopukhov this ballet effectively marked the end of his experimental choreographic career, the reconstruction of the ballet – and the retention of its comedic flavor – takes on a different valence. In the 1930s the arts in Russia became increasingly beholden to the official state aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism. Bright Stream attempted to meet these goals with its depiction of contemporary Soviet life, but failed to promote socialism in a way considered sufficiently serious or “realistic” enough. To maintain the comedy intended by its original creators – avoiding the didactic impulse to “educate” the audience in a vulgar fashion, which was unfortunately the effect of much socialist realist art – this in itself could be viewed as a tacit protest. The question then becomes to what extent Bright Stream’s refusal to engage with the political is a reaction to the didactic imperative of socialist art and to what extent it is simply appealing to a vogue for Soviet-era kitsch.
It seems that Ratmansky left open the latter possibility, as a kind of insurance policy, when he first recreated this ballet for the Bolshoi in 2003. The Russian critic Pavel Gershenzon made the point in 2008 that Ratmansky better than all the other Russian choreographers knows each market where his ballets will be produced. “At the Bolshoi Theatre – Bright Stream, for a simple public and a patriotic, nationalistic elite; exhaustive dancing in “Cards” [Jeux de cartes] – for advanced balletomanes and critics. In New York – an abstract ballet to the music of a new Russian composer, with big jumps, broad, ample movements a la Bolshoi and elements of Russian feeling” [speaking of Russian Seasons (2006), to music of Desyatnikov].  But, as he says, it’s hard to fault him for that (if indeed such adaptability even is a fault). And in Bright Stream Ratmansky included some subtle and not-so-subtle ironic touches, which audience members could be free to look for or ignore. The frontcloth carries the text of the original Pravda denunciation of Lopukhov and Shostakovich, “Ballet Falsity.” (But you would need to read Russian to know this.) In the third act, at a kind of agricultural festival, the cast wheels on a parade of gigantic, oversize vegetables (think pumpkins the size of a futon). Here the joke is more pointed and obvious given that there were widespread food shortages in the 30s (plus the fun of poking fun at the Soviet super-producer mentality, these Stakhanovites of vegetable production). The grim reaper makes an appearance as well, but he is literally waltzed off the stage by our fearless cast. If only it had been that easy, right?
Plus, we have to look at the movement language that Ratmansky uses, which is something unique to him and very different from Soviet style ballet. Pavel Gaevskii described it as follows: “a skillful, easy, inventive dance style, full of dance jokes, and having nothing in common with the heaviness, pathos, and bombastic dance style of Soviet ballet.” By virtue of this style Ratmansky’s ballet cannot be considered a slavish imitation or even homage to socialist realism, but something new altogether. In fact we could view Bright Stream as a watered-down version of Russian postmodernism following Alexander Genis’s observation that Russian postmodernists used socialist realism the way that Western postmodernists used popular culture – as a “source of literary devices and clichés” that mixed ambivalently with avant-garde techniques and leanings.  (His formulation, following Leslie Fielder: Russian postmodernism = avant-garde + sots-realism [socialist realism].) This notion of Ratmansky as influenced by the aesthetic strategies of Russian postmodernism deserves a lot more thought. I’m not convinced that Bright Stream could be considered an example of it, at least in Genis’s formulation, but it’s an appropriate lens to apply to (off the top of my head) Bolt and the Shostakovich Trilogy

There IS though something in this sophisticated use of irony in Bright Stream that accords with the ideas of Mikhail Epstein involving a specific new function and definition of irony in Russian postmodernism - a kind of double-speak that never lands on either the pole of the literal or the pole of its implied opposite meaning, but somewhere else altogether. Epstein termed this kind of irony "trans-irony", which he stated uses "ready-made ironic cliches as its material" that have "become just as ossified in social consciousness as have weighty, pathos-laden cliches." Epstein goes on: "The two possible modes of receptions of the words "fatherland" or "Soviet power," for instance, have been frozen into cliched gestures: either that of standing at attention or of sniggering behind one's hand." Epstein indicates a third choice: "endow[ing] these words with a new intonation, which is neither serious nor ironic, but "otherworldly," so to speak, from beyond the grave." This attitude bears a family resemblance with the playful refusal in Ratmansky's Bright Stream to use irony in a biting, satirical way, while at the same time the ballet calls us to attend to the fantastical elements of socialist mythology. We are asked to view these elements from a more neutral vantage point, with a sense of a continuum of human behavior; the folly of an old man falling in love with a man dressed as a woman is equated to the folly of believing in gigantic vegetables which is equated to the improbable folly of just dancing Death off the stage. (As we know this latter was a historical impossibility; Stalin stuck around for some time. Yet even at this moment in the ballet, when we are so clearly reminded of the spectre of death, we are forced into a third term, as this image of the Grim Reaper - so easily disposed of - reminds us of the sad historical reality while audaciously positing an alternate, fantasy ending; and the play between these two propels us into unfamiliar territory, a feeling of Eptstein's "otherworldliness.") Such a vantage point also negates the snob factor of irony, or the self-satisfaction that comes with recognizing that you "get it" while the targets of the irony do not. This trans-irony is irony without winners or losers, irony without a clear or stable target; instead, it forces one into a broadly "humanistic" viewpoint, like a disillusioned but secretly idealistic misanthrope singing kumbayah at a campfire. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Old Women Falling Out" 2007 Ratmansky ballet

I found this video of Ratmansky's "Old Women Falling Out" or "Tumbling Old Women" on youtube. The music is a song cycle by Desyatnikov, his "Love and Life of a Poet," which is itself based on a selection of poetry by the absurdist poets Nikolai Oleynikov and Daniel Kharms (active in the late 20s and early 30s). This is at least the second time Ratmansky has used a song cycle by Desyatnikov, the other being his "Russian Seasons" (2006). "Lost Illusions", also with Desyatnikov music, contains choral work as well.

"Old Women Falling Out" was created in 2007 for a more experimental program at the Bolshoi for new choreography, and it shows. It's delightfully quirky, but in an intelligent way. Innovating on ballet vocabulary is not the focus here which is something of a departure. My guess is that he's using the poems as a guide, but in a more theatrical way. (The poem I found online, "The Old Woman," by Kharms, is about a young man who can't bring his sweetheart home because an old woman has died in his apartment; the section of the ballet with this title has an old woman in a grotesque mask fighting with a couple.) Wish I were Russian and knew these poems.

The ballet is presented here complete, and Ratmansky and his wife Tatiana make appearances as well. Definitely worth a view for Ratmansky super-fans.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ratmansky Triple Bill: ABT at Dorothy Chandler Pavillion

July 8, 2016

Symphony #9
Serenade after Plato’s Symposium

The big surprise for me was Ratmansky’s Firebird, which I hadn’t yet seen or read very much about. A lot is different from the Fokine version (we have a corps de ballet of firebirds, for example). Ivan is no longer a tsarevich, although the bottom of his suit jacket is reminiscent of the bell-shaped skirt worn in the original.

I did like that Ratmansky ramped up the drama of the love story between Ivan and the maiden, and gave the maiden an actual personality – sassy, awkward, endearing.  This answered the criticism that Alexandre Benois wrote of the 1910 version in his memoir: “The worst of it is that the hero of the ballet, Ivan Tsarevitch […], and the Beautiful Tsarevna are always remote from the audience. One does not believe in them and therefore it is impossible to suffer with them.”

I think we were not supposed to be somewhere geographically or culturally specific, and so I found myself with strange associations – lipstick vent birch trees, Daenerys Targaryen (“mother of dragons”) headdresses for the freed maidens, Kaschei as The Joker. But relieving the sorcerer of the parade of minions from Fokine’s version, which I have always found somewhat tedious, focuses the action on Kaschei’s power over this group of maidens. (It’s a little bit Swan Lake-ish in that regard.) He makes the maidens worship him; he usurps their will. He controls their movements, he keeps them in total ignorance.

Call me crazy, but that sounds a lot like Putin's hold over Russia. By the time we got to the pas de quatre between Kaschei, Ivan, the Firebird, and the Maiden, I was off and running on an interpretation of Ratmansky’s Firebird as a wish fulfillment fantasy for the future of Russia, with the maidens as the Russian people duped by state run media and the Firebird as this messianic symbol of the underlying power and magic of the “folk.” Ha! Probably not what was intended, but I’m telling you, there’s a case to be made here! (Zara Abdulleva, a Moscow-based writer, on the post- Soviet era: "The only myth that continues to fire the imagination is the one about Russia's mysterious, messianic destiny.")

Curious about: What was the reason for the multiple firebirds?

And where exactly is Ivan when the ballet starts (it looks like he’s in an insane asylum – high white walls, small black door)? (I wrote down “Mats Ek Giselle” in my notes.) What are we supposed to make of him – who is he, where is he, and what happened to cause him to lose contact with his lady love?

I felt that the ballet dragged in a few places, but what an imaginative, provoking, and warmly humorous take on the original libretto. Incidentally, I learned that the “smoke” that Kaschei breathes onto Ivan comes from a capsule of cocoa powder the dancer playing Kaschei puts in his mouth. Apparently this was Ratmansky’s idea.

Also reminded of how incredibly difficult his choreography can be. (No problem for our Firebird, Isabella Boylston.) If I am not mistaken one of her diagonals is a souped-up variation on the arabesque into pirouette combo from Le Corsaire’s “odalisques” pas de trois (third variation). Yowser. There’s an extra developpe front thrown in there and I cannot imagine how she pulled it off.

And briefly: I only saw Symposium once, and I wish I could see it again and again. The civility, fraternity, and conviviality of Ratmansky’s group seemed all the more poignant with the terrible shootings ripping our country apart right now.  The whole idea of rational discussion about a passionate topic (love) with everyone listening and respecting each other… It was a delight and a relief to dwell in the world created on stage for a while. Ratmansky emphasizes our common humanity. (And I again wondered if Ratmansky’s finds his most honest and complex voice in choreographing for men...something I continue to think about.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Russian cartoon using Pushkin's text for Golden Cockerel


"The story's false, but in it lies
some truth, seen only by inward eyes"

Thus ends this 30 minute telling of the Golden Cockerel story - "Zolotoy Petushok" - based on Pushkin.

There are a number of similarities with Ratmansky's 2016 version for ABT in terms of staging, characterization, and costuming. I don't know if he watched this as a kid (it came out in 1967, he was born in 1968) or if these details are in the Pushkin story.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Le Coq d'Or

Le Coq d’Or
American Ballet Theatre
Saturday, June 11, 2016 @ 2 pm

It's Ratmansky, but without the emotionally piercing sincerity of Seven Sonatas or Symphony #9. The story of Coq d'Or demands ironic distancing, which may not bode well for its longevity (a little repeat here of what Jennifer Homans called Ratmansky's "familiar postmodern ruses."). Still, as a political satire (albeit without the biting tone), there's a lot to admire here. 

The theme is entirely appropriate to our age, and to every age for that matter: we have a bunch of foolish men, doing foolish things, for foolish dreams.

There’s a foolish tsar who neglects his duties in favor of naps, good food, and erotic dreams. (He kind of reminded me of the response to Bill Clinton – everyone still seems to love him, even though he’s not a morally principled person.) There’s a seemingly foolish Astrologer, who uses magic (he creates a Golden Cockerel) and political machinations (he gives the Golden Cockerel to the tsar in exchange for his deepest desire) as part of a plan to entrap the glamorous Queen of Shemakhan. We also have two foolish sons of the tsar, one a daydreamer and another a mincing toy-sabre rattler – both get killed off in the second act; and a bellicose, doddering “General Polkan” who agitates for war like an aged bulldog.

Events proceed in cartoon-like fashion, aided by the almost tongue-in-cheek florid folklorism of the designs (Richard Hudson after Natalia Goncharova). Ratmansky’s Coq d’Or (which he first revived for Royal Danish Ballet in 2012) is based on 1913 and 1937 stagings by Fokine, and with the Goncharova décor – and an avian heroine - is clearly a cousin to another Fokine-Goncharova production from the early days of the Ballets Russes – Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910).

With the exception of the Queen of Shemakhan, all of the other characters seem completely out of touch with reality. Misty Copeland as the Queen played a realpolitik narcissist, one obsessed with power and completely clear headed about how to take it. She seemed to be the only person in the ballet who realized that she was playing a part in a cartoon.

At the end of the ballet, we learn that all the characters – except for the witchy femme fatale, the Queen of Shemakhan – have been projections of the Astrologer’s mind. This ending invites us to consider an alternate reality – like maybe this has been a power struggle between the Astrologer and the Queen all along? If this whole story of the Golden Cockerel and Tsar Dodon has been a divertissement, what was the real story?

Again I was reminded how much Ratmansky’s time at Royal Danish Ballet must have influenced him – a lot of this ballet relies on pantomime, a more old-fashioned mode of ballet communication which the Danes maintained over time, but the Russians cut. Choreography as such didn’t really stand out here; but the masterful comedic scenes such as the one between the tsar and his court conveyed another facet of Ratmansky’s great gift for creating sophisticated yet legible satires of human political and group dynamics (also on display in his Lost Illusions, which one might even consider a funny sort of sister ballet to Le Coq d’Or – they coincide in their themes of desire and illusion, fantasy and reality.)  This ballet may not have the staying power of his Nutcracker or even for that matter his Bright Stream, but it is a quirky testament to his incredible range as a choreographer. And, I have to say, for this viewer a welcome relief from a frequently monotonous ballet landscape of new works featuring fundamentally empty demonstrations of balletic edginess, alienation, and hyper-flexibility, which, let’s face it, only Bill Forsythe or maybe Karole Armitage in Watteau Duets really got right.