Thursday, January 18, 2018

Winter Book Corner #1

Making Ballet American – Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine
by Andrea Harris
released by Oxford University Press, 2017

Today, ballet is such a prevalent force in the American performing arts scene. So much so that it’s easy to forget that American ballet is actually a recent phenomenon, at least relatively speaking. Compared to ballet’s long history in other cultures, American ballet is still in its infancy, or perhaps adolescence is more accurate - not really woven into the cultural fabric until the early part of the twentieth century. An abundance of dance scholarship has been proffered about those ‘beginning’ years, much of it, of course, centering on George Balanchine.

Andrea Harris’ Making Ballet American – Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine, a new release from Oxford University Press and part of the Oxford Studies in Dance Theory, shares a more detailed and highly nuanced perspective on this topic. Yes it covers the early-mid 1900s, yes it is about Balanchine, and yes, it is about the artists/endeavors/efforts that influenced American ballet. But the book is more than that. Making Ballet American extends both pre- and post- the early-mid 1990s to provide a fuller picture. It has a broad cast of characters, and takes a deep dive into the impactful contributions of Lincoln Kirstein and Edwin Denby along with Eugene Loring, Agnes de Mille and John Martin. It seeks to mine terms like ‘modernism’ and ‘neoclassicism’ by placing them within a wider swath, one that is simultaneously political, historical, interdisciplinary, cultural, geographic, sociological and economic. It has a compelling format that Harris calls “chapters and interchapters”, where her inquiry, concepts and commentary are further investigated through tangible case studies of three ballets: Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Western Symphony. And Harris’ prose should be a model for others – hers is writing that is clearly academic in tone but at the same time, accessible to a larger audience.

The case studies, in particular, I found to be full of hidden gems. How traveling directions in Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938) were more narratively-driven than structural or how the gestural choreography in the ballet was intended as a literal reflection of certain tasks and motions. Or Harris’ discussion of de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) and how in its earlier iterations, it was more of a conceptual work that had a deep sense of place. And I loved the detailed notation breakdown of Western Symphony’s (choreographed by Balanchine in 1954) four movements.

My only thought – considering the book’s year of publication, perhaps a different title, or different wording?

Big Deal – Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical
by Kevin Winkler
published by Oxford University Press
to be released in March 2018

Another wonderfully accessible and cleverly conceived read is Kevin Winkler’s upcoming Big Deal – Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, new this Spring from Oxford University Press as part of their Broadway Legacies Series. Big Deal is a terrific blend of narrative and meticulous research, but doesn’t read like a traditional biography. Winkler is able to combine his consummate skills as a storyteller with his direct personal connection to the material. The result is a thoroughly entertaining sojourn into the life and work of an industry legend, one whose choreography has been on small stages and in vast theaters; on television and on the big screen. And one whose ‘jazz hands’ are now a colloquial term.

Winkler spends the beginning chapters of Big Deal sharing the early days of Fosse’s career: first forays into performance, individuals he met and worked with during this time and his exposure to an array of choreographic genres, which in turn, would shape his own evolving choreographic style. Some influences were expected, like Burlesque, Vaudeville and tap, while others were a fantastic surprise, like Indian and Balinese traditional dance and early modern forms. After reading Big Deal, I immediately checked out the 1972 movie version of Cabaret, mining the choreography for Kathak eye movements, Limón upper-body curves and the elongated lines of old school percussive dance.

Another thread Winkler weaves through Big Deal is Fosse’s relationship with women - personally, professionally and of course, the oft circumstance when it was both. Winkler relays Fosse’s several marriages and long-term partnerships as well as the relationships he pursued and maintained outside of his marriages. He talks about their deep creative connections, in rehearsal, in performance and in the choreographic process itself. But when speaking about Mary Ann Niles, Joan McCracken, Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking (and others), Winkler reveals something more nuanced. At every point in Fosse’s career, women were instrumental in its forward propulsion - providing opportunities, campaigning for him to be involved in projects, quite literally and quite often, making the next ‘thing’ happen. Without these powerhouse women, it seems that the story would have been very different.

Big Deal covers much ground in its eleven chapters and brief epilogue: Fosse’s peers and his relationship to them, his penchant for the ‘show within a show’ format and lengthy ballets within his various productions as well as his commitment to deepening the dialogue about how dance alone can continue a theatrical narrative. Winkler gives equal attention to Fosse’s more famous shows and to his less familiar works, and provides a very astute glimpse into the complex and fraught system of choreographic and artistic copyright during the mid-late 1900s.
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Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Nutcracker"

San Francisco Ballet
Nutcracker
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 22nd, 2017

Last Friday, I made my second December excursion to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. While less than two weeks since my first visit, the vibe was entirely different. The resplendent lobby had been decked to the nines and patrons were dressed in their most festive finery. San Francisco Ballet had arrived in the space for its annual Nutcracker engagement, the classic two-act story ballet that follows the enchanting Christmas Eve journey of Clara, Uncle Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince.

I’ve seen this particular version (created by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson) most years since its premiere in 2004, and have already commented on the narrative arc, design and choreography for particular sections. But that doesn’t mean after ten plus years that there’s nothing more to say about SFB’s Nutcracker, especially if you look at the performances by the artists of the company in the various roles.

After the overture and prelude scenes, the company and students from the San Francisco Ballet School invite the audience to the ever-elegant Christmas Eve party at the Stahlbaum’s. The children delight in the decorations and in their gifts, especially Clara (Chloe Treanor) who receives a Nutcracker doll from her Uncle Drosselmeyer. All the celebrants are transfixed by Drosselmeyer’s (Val Caniparoli) otherworldly entertainment, including the three full-size figures that he brings to life. These three short solos are always a highlight of the act, and they were again this year. Lonnie Weeks had uber-flexibility as the jester/mirliton character, Julia Rowe tackled the doll’s relevé-heavy enchainment with ease and confidence and James Sofranko cycled through parallel sissones and fouettés with precision and specificity.   

The dream/fight sequence is never my favorite part of any Nutcracker, but Tomasson’s does have some nice moments: the reappearance of the dolls from the party scene, the King of the Mice (brilliantly characterized once again by corps member Alexander Reneff-Olson) and of course, the Nutcracker Prince becoming real. Once the battle is finally over, the best parts of the Act, maybe even of the whole ballet, unfold: the brief Clara/Nutcracker duet, in which Joseph Walsh was every bit the Prince - regal, debonair and gallant in every balance, turn and jump. And then the wintery forest scene, led by the Queen and King of the Snow, danced at this performance by Lauren Strongin and Wei Wang.

As Strongin and Wang began their opening pas de deux, with its grand lifts and partnered turns (including a low attitude spin that awes), the snow was already in a steady descent. The women of the corps de ballet (which on Friday night also included some of the apprentices and senior trainees from the school) joined the scene for the delicate, yet technically challenging variation: quick jetés, emboîtés in sequence and posé arabesques. This was all accomplished while a Sierra Nevada Mountains-style storm whirled about, with so much snow that whenever the dancers were at the back of the stage, unfortunately, you could barely see them. It was the only downside to an otherwise idyllic experience. 

Joseph Walsh in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Then we were off to another destination entirely for Act II. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Land of the Sweets’, in Tomasson’s Nutcracker, it is the Crystal Palace, presided over by the graceful and stately Sugar Plum Fairy (Sofiane Sylve). And after some onstage storytelling, the Act II divertissements get underway. The Spanish pas de cinq (Wona Park, Lauren Parrott, Blake Kessler, Sofranko and Myles Thatcher) had some of the best unison I’ve ever seen in this variation. Similarly, the lengthy French trio, in which Kamryn Baldwin, Ludmila Bizalion and Elizabeth Mateer have to navigate their pointework while twirling hand-held ribbons, also had a standout sense of special awareness. As the lead in the Russian dance, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira wowed the audience with his successive split jumps in second. There was so much loft and punctuation; it looked like he was jumping on a trampoline. Sylve led the Waltzing Flowers with super high extensions and multiple turning sequences that had both speed and exactitude. And then came the grand pas de deux, its solos and coda, danced by Walsh and Maria Kochetkova. While the first duet features thrilling shoulder lifts and the coda, superb turning phrases by both dancers, Walsh really stole the show. His solo was marked by exceptional pirouettes and multiple tours and he completely astonished with his fouetté series in the coda, arms alternating between second and fifth.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017