Sunday, March 30, 2008

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater-Zellerbach Hall

Some dance performances stand out because of their creativity, spectacle or beauty while others stand out because they lack technique, originality, or innovation. After seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on its annual western tour, what stood out was a complete surprise. When pondering the four pieces in Program B (Night Creature, Unfold, The Road of the Phoebe Snow, The Winter in Lisbon) and trying to formulate an opinion, what I noticed most was the absolute hypocrisy inherent in dance criticism.

All dance critics must suffer from bouts of selective amnesia because they contradict themselves all the time. Without fail, a review by one writer can be filled with condemnation for a particular aspect present in a performance. Then, that same writer’s next review can praise and laud another performance for the exact same reason they felt the first one failed. Why? Did they forget their previous thoughts or just change their mind? Perhaps dance critics embody a ‘love/hate the one you’re with’ mentality; a fickle collection of easily swayed individuals. Or, is a contradictory nature a job requirement? As I view more dance from a critical perspective, I, too, discover the two-facedness of my own opinions. What disturbs me about one company; thrills me in another. The individualism displayed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a perfect example. I was excited by the unique quality of each dancer in the Ailey troupe, yet, in the past, this type of non-conformity has completely annoyed me.

The Ailey dancers were in no way a group of look-alikes. In Night Creature (1974), fifteen original artists were interpreting the choreography and consequently, the audience could see fifteen personalities emerge onstage. In the unison sections of the work, the leg extensions fluctuated which completely makes sense. On different bodies, extension heights should vary because no two dancers are exactly the same. So often in major ballet companies, there is a decision made on the height of the leg, and all dancers must adhere to it. These choices create compulsory movement; enforced upon the dancers rather than being generated from within them. The timing of the lifts in Night Creature was also distinctive. When the women jumped into the men’s arms and landed in a Russian split, the timing varied. Some of the couples arrived in this position a little later than others. Once again, the mixed timing was appropriate because each couple had already established their own identity and personality throughout the piece. Here come the inconsistencies with dance criticism. Sometimes these slight discrepancies suggest a lack of cohesion. And, they can be to blame for the failure of a piece rather than the reason for its success. I have made that judgment many times with other ballet companies; criticizing their lack of attention to uniformity. Yet, here the distinctiveness was astonishing; it was not happening by accident or due to lack of rehearsal. Night Creature was choreographed by Alvin Ailey as a piece for fifteen unique dancers, not as a showcase for a cookie-cutter company without soul or spirit. The Ailey company proved that cohesion does not have to come from replication. This piece was still unified, but it was the individualism of these dancers that held it together.

So, I am just as hypocritical as all the other reviewers and maybe that’s okay. Choreography will constantly exasperate, surprise and challenge biases and conceptions. You may hate something one day and love it the next and maybe that is just part of the job.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

State Ballet of Georgia-Zellerbach Hall & San Francisco Ballet-War Memorial Opera House

It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to be the artistic director of a major ballet company. Every production decision is ultimately yours; casting, set design, costumes, publicity and more. Everything falls under your jurisdiction. The artistic director receives the credit when things go well, but they definitely take the fall when things go poorly. Learning how to create a cohesive artistic vision and manage this huge responsibility can take years or sometimes decades to accomplish. Therefore, ballet companies that are under the leadership of a relatively new artistic director will experience the same growing pains that this individual does. Well-seasoned artistic directors will have a company that embodies their maturity. How the company appears on stage bears a direct correlation to the competency and experience of the artistic director.

Still, comparing the work of one artistic director to another is a challenge because rarely does an audience have the opportunity to see two different versions of the same work in close proximity. This winter, both the State Ballet of Georgia and the San Francisco Ballet presented Giselle within a week of each other, making a comparison possible.

These two companies are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their artistic directors. Nina Ananiashvili has only been the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia since 2004 whereas San Francisco Ballet’s artistic team has been headed by Helgi Tomasson since 1985. Because the State Ballet of Georgia has a new artistic director, the company is at a transitional point, much like adolescence. They are adjusting to a new chapter in their existence and experiencing the challenges that accompany a change in leadership. In contrast, the San Francisco Ballet has already matured into adulthood with consistent guidance over the past twenty-three years. Each company brings their own reality of progress to the stage. And, the highs and lows in their respective productions of Giselle are directly related to their artistic directors.

Both companies excelled in their casting of the two main characters: Giselle and Albrecht. These two sets of dancers were technically accomplished and evenly matched. The ballétés and penchéés in Giselle’s opening solo were equally breathtaking from Nino Gogua of the State Ballet of Georgia and Yuan Yuan Tan of the San Francisco Ballet. Unfortunately, the similarity in technique ended there; the soloists and corps de ballets from the State Ballet of Georgia did not measure up to the soloists and corps from the San Francisco Ballet. The peasant pas de six in the State Ballet of Georgia’s version was lacking; the unison sections were not in time and these six soloists were under rehearsed. In Tomasson’s version, the same section was a pas de cinq, and it was strong, competent and together. Also, the girls in the State Ballet of Georgia corps seemed to struggle and bang their way (literally, at times, it sounded like tap) through the group sections, especially the famous arabesques from the second act. Their legs bobbed up and down and their upper bodies seemed unable to maintain an arabesque line. In contrast, the corps from the San Francisco Ballet looked ethereal and effortlessly floated through the arabesques that had caused the other company such trouble. It is the artistic director’s responsibility to oversee the technique of the entire company, not just the main dancers.

However, the comparison of these two companies is much more than simply which has the better soloists or the superior corps de ballet. Large-scale narrative ballets like Giselle require more than great dancing to be successful. A significant amount of non-dance communication is also necessary to complete the story. The audience relies on gestures, facial expressions and character interactions to understand the sequence of events. Well-seasoned companies understand this; and subsequently, they spend the time and energy needed to develop these performance skills in their artists. SF Ballet is impressive at achieving the equilibrium of dance and non-dance. The gestural sections of their Giselle were as telling and as clear as was the technical accuracy of the steps. The interaction between the characters looked natural and Tomasson managed to transport the audience to that peasant village. The State Ballet of Georgia was not as successful in recreating the environment of Giselle’s home. With the exception of Nino Gogua, who portrayed Giselle, the dancers looked uncomfortable with any story-telling that was not immersed in dance steps. This is common with less mature ballet companies. They experience difficulty attaining the balance between technique and artistry. They understand that as a professional ballet company, technical proficiency is a must and therefore, the majority of time is spent working toward that goal. The crucial element of non-dance communication is often overlooked. In narrative ballets like Giselle, this is a grave omission because technique and artistry must work in tandem to create the story for the audience. Again, the artistic director of the company must ensure that this balance is achieved.

San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle was the superior production by far. The technique and artistry of the entire company was better than the State Ballet of Georgia. But, the State Ballet of Georgia is still struggling to define who they are and what their artistic vision is. Perhaps once they have had time to mature under their new artistic director, these ‘growing pains’ will have disappeared, and they will become an example for other progressing companies and in time, meet the level of maturity exhibited by companies like the San Francisco Ballet.