Tuesday, June 14, 2011

American Ballet Theatre's new Russian star: The Bright Stream

A little background before my thoughts on Saturday's matinee....

When I travelled down to Washington, D.C. on a frozen weekend in late January to see ABT's premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream, I didn't know what to expect.  I'd seen a few pictures, but purposefully hadn't done any research on the Bolshoi's production.  I wanted to see it with fresh eyes, no expectations.    

Within minutes of the orchestra's beginning note of the joyful Shostakovich score, I was hooked.  

The Bright Stream turned out to be a refreshingly joyous vehicle for ABT - and although set in Soviet Russia, it somehow seems like a modern continuation picking up at the point where de Mille, Robbins and Tudor left ABT years ago.

In January at the Kennedy Center, I had seen ABT's original principal cast: Paloma Hererra as Zina, the "local amusements organizer", Marcelo Gomes as Pyotr, Zina's husband, Gillian Murphy as the ballerina and David Hallberg as the ballet dancer/Sylph.  Hallberg, in particular, was a revelation in Act II, somehow more masculine than ever before while dancing en pointe in a fluffy white dress.  In my opinion, Ratmansky's choreography here, as in On the Dnieper, does great things for Hallberg. Somehow, his jetes were only made more beautiful by the gauzy dress. Other standouts were Sarah Lane and Sascha Radetsky, who gave us a sparkling, flirty pas de deux as Galya, the schoolgirl, and the Accordion Player.  The corps de ballet were the most together and energetic that I had ever seen them.  

At Saturday's matinee (after much indecision about which cast to see), I wound up with Xiomara Reyes as Zina, Ivan Vasiliev of the Bolshoi as Pyotr (filling in for poor Herman Cornejo still sidelined by injury), Natalia Osipova, also of the Bolshoi, as the ballerina, and Daniil Simkin as the ballet dancer and Sylph.  As much as I've been making a particular effort NOT to see the guest artists this season and support ABT's home grown talent (though I am seeing Osipova also in Coppelia, but sadly no longer dancing with Ethan Stiefel), I admit I was excited to get my first glimpse of the fiesty Vasiliev.   

The most pleasant surprise of the day was that one of the two standout performances came from Xiomara Reyes.  Going in, I had actually been concerned that Reyes would be lost in the fireworks of athletic jumpers Osipova, Vasiliev and Simkin.   Instead, her acting and superior grace and technique won the day.  (I also love Reyes in Ashton's The Dream)  Although the age difference made it a little hard to believe (at least from the 7th row) that Reyes' Zina and Osipova's ballerina were classmates at ballet school (and even more of a stretch to believe Reyes and the boyish Vasiliev as a married couple), Reyes' fluid dancing made Zina's progression throughout the story credible.  Vulnerable, shy and a little rusty when her friend first comes to town...she gains confidence as the day goes on and in her Act II pas de deux with Pyotr she is clearly a talented ballerina in her own right.  And even though Osipova seemed to have a tiny bit of trouble remembering to reign in her gymnastics to match Reyes in their duets - side by side they actually paired quite nicely. 

As the ballerina disguised as the male ballet dancer, Osipova sparkled like a silent film star.  Gillian Murphy had also brought a lot of personality to this role.  In the non-cross-dressing scenes, though, I thought she lacked a little of the glamour one might expect from a star dancer coming to visit a rural collective.  She seemed maybe a little young.  Similarly Vasiliev's Pyotr was deliciously flirty and his daredevil jumps left the audience breathless.  His James Franco-esque grin seemed to make whole sections of the theatre giddy. While his legs were dazzling and bounding around the stage, however, I did find that he sometimes lacked control of his upper body, especially his arms, which seemed to be often in need of a purpose and direction.  His parterning was strong, though, especially for a young dancer of his height.   This Pyotr seemed a little more like Zina's son or younger brother than the cad husband the more robust Gomes gave me, but he was so likeable I didn't really mind. 

The other standout for me in this cast was Craig Salstein as the accordion player.  While he and Maria Riccetto's school girl had a different, less mutually-flirtatious dynamic than Radestky and Lane, Salstein gave probably my favorite performance to date.  Powerful, sharp and masculine, with height in his jumps and great lines throughout, the usually comical Salstein gave one of the least hammy performances of the day.  Salstein brought a little macho and "danger" to the role, which made the school girl's scheme to frighten him off with the tractor-operator-dressed-as-a-dog (Isaac Stappas) make a little more sense.  Julio Bragado-Young also deserves a quick note - as one of the collective's old men he really stood out and made me smile.  I wish I had got to see him play the more central Old Dacha Dweller who falls in love with the Sylph - as I heard he was terrific.

The one question mark for me in this production is Simkin as the ballet dancer/Sylph.  His character was fun and his pointe work fantastic, but, even next to the very young Osipova and Vasiliev he looked about 15 years old.  Also, where Hallberg had been funny as the Sylph because his broad shoulders and the masculine way he approached the choreography made just the sight of him in the dress laugable, Simkin had real femininity and in several instances I almost had to remind myself it was a man dancing.  Simkin's humor came more from facial expressions and situation, than from the dancing itself.  While his take on the role was well-done, I prefer the more manly visual Hallberg gave us.  (I had suspected that for this reason Cory Stearns would also be great in this part, and based on the reviews so far this is the case).  Also, while Simkin usually wows the crowd with his jumps and almost reckless energy, next to the visiting Osipova and Vasiliev, his variations seemed to lack a little of their usual impact. 
Easily the best scenic and costume design ABT has put together in the past few years (especially compared to McKenzie's disney-esque Sleeping Beauty), even the red outer curtains seemed to glow Soviet-red and lets the audience know this was going to be something a little different.  

The Bright Stream is fun, almost in the way of Fancy Free or Rodeo.  Despite the ridiculousness of the plot, it is somehow almost believable - the people are exaggerations, but still real.  Ratmansky gives us characters we might know, in relationships that might just come to pass. Even the movement of corps de ballet villagers made sense. My joy that Ratmansky has extended his contract with ABT through 2023 grows with every performance, with every new piece of his I get to see (though he might cast Jared Matthews in some better roles....just a small request).  I'm really looking forward to seeing what the Mariinsky does with Ratmanksy's choreography later this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival.

браво, Ratmansky! And bravo, dancers of ABT!

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