Monday, June 6, 2011

A ballet with a thousand lifts…and a few stumbles

American Ballet Theatre’s Lady of the Camellias seems to be a ballet that people either love or hate.  Unlike the often-cranky New York Times’ reviewers, I really do like this ballet, and even love parts of it.   Based on the novel by Dumas, which has been told a hundred different ways before, including ABT’s Manon, John Neumeier’s choreography and the stark scenery of this ballet mostly works.  The Chopin score is beautiful, and beautifully played by three soloists.  And even though a lot of what happened at Saturday’s matinee was a bit of a mess, I still think that this is a production not to be missed.

First, the good news.  Marcelo Gomes had another stellar performance, continuing what is proving to be a breakout season for the dancer, who, with his unique combination of power and grace, already had won my heart, and many others, long ago.  His version of Armand had the right youthful attitude for the part, which really should not have surprised me as much as it did, since I’d adored his Romeo last season for similar reasons.  His emotions were clear and honest, without being too melodramatic.  In addition to the countless lifts (which, I suspect, not many dancers on the planet can manage in one production), Gomes’ port de bras were particularly beautiful on Saturday.

Diana Vishneva’s portrayal of Marguerite was strong as well, though now having seen all three principal performances, I still prefer Julie Kent in the role.  I thought Vishneva was at her best in Act III, during Marguerite’s demise, which I think is the most familiar aspect of the character for ballerinas adept at Manon, Juliet and Giselle.  She wasn’t as powerfully haunting as she had been last week in Giselle, however, and I think she, like Dvorovenko when I saw her last year, does not yet have the nuance between Marguerite and the more familiar Manon.  Interestingly, I liked Dvorovenko a lot in Act II last year – her beauty and sparkling eyes really helped sell the romanticism of the country party. 

But for me, Kent still has the only complete Marguerite – believable in all three long acts, and transforming over the course of the ballet.  Her Act III pas de deux was the only one that didn’t remind me of her Manon.  Also, Kent’s Act II lifts were some of the most powerful I’ve ever seen (and her core strength really made me feel like I should run out to the gym immediately).  I’d like to see Kent and Gomes perform this someday, to know if Bolle’s strength was a real factor in Kent’s performance or if it was just that she gives herself a little more to the role before Act III than Vishneva did.  (Gomes seemed to have no problems lifting Vishneva at all.)

Other positives from Saturday’s matinee were Roman Zhurbin as Armand’s father, in perhaps his strongest performance to date.  His brief pas de deux with Vishneva was quite striking and grave.  Isaac Stappas also gave a harrowing performance as the Duke, and Simone Messmer’s Prudence, but for a mess of a lift/drop with Hammoudi was sparkling and flirty – I wish McKenzie would give her more roles like this.  The masked ball scene was VASTLY improved from last year and had me wondering if maybe they redid the costumes entirely (last year one of the partygoers bore an eerie resemblance to the Burger King “king” – this year the king was nowhere to be found).  The blue ballroom scene was also well danced by the corps (other than one tumble where it looked like someone got tangled up with his lady).

Now the less good news.  Eric Tamm, a dancer I usually enjoy, seemed a little wobbly – both in his solo turns and especially in his pas de deux with the tall Veronika Part.  Ms. Part was pleasantly feisty in her role as the theatrical/dream-sequence Manon Lescaut in Act I (finally!) but her team of admirers couldn’t lift her and any partnering sequences were uncomfortably awkward.  I felt she lost some of the fire as the ballet wore on – unlike Gillian Murphy’s version where I felt Manon really was haunting Kent's Marguerite. Part seemed to be thinking more and more as the ballet went on – perhaps because of the lack of support she was getting in the lifts.  Tamm seemed to have a little more trouble with Vishneva and Part in the pas de trois – which in the other productions was much more of a highlight and exclamation point on Marguerite’s mental breakdown.

Similarly, Alex Hammoudi had a little bit of trouble filling in for Sascha Radetsky as Des Grieux.  My suspicion is that they didn’t give him a lot of time to prepare.  His character was good (though maybe a tad less than believable) – very haughty and more French (I’d hope so!) than Jared Matthews and Gennadi Saveliev, and some of his leg lines were gorgeous.  But he had a big miss in a lift with Messmer and another stumble back near the piano, which took some air out of his solo.  Matthews really sells this role and makes it seem bigger than it is, so that possibly makes it all the more difficult for anyone to measure up.  In fact, the entire country scene lacked some of the joy I remembered from last year. 

Nicole Graniero – usually a delight in the corps scenes of this type – is out with an injury, and I think I missed her presence a little.  Meaghan Hinkis, though, is quickly becoming one of my favorites.  She has a sparkle and a presence (similar to Jackie Reyes 4 or 5 years ago) that makes the corps dances seem like more than filler.  Joseph Gorak was also a standout in the country scene (such huge jumps and easy landings!) If the entire corps shone at once in the non-soloist parts like Graniero, Gorak and Hinkis, it would be quite a sight to behold.

Lady of the Camellias may not be a ballet for everyone.  Then again, I also like Kudelka's Cinderella (well Acts I and III) more than most.  Like Othello, visually it requires the audience to abandon many of our preconceived ideas of story ballets at the door.  But that does not make it any less valuable a piece of theater.  In fact, the more ballet I see, the more I cherish nights (well days) like this.

Lady of the Camellias is playing at the Metropolitan Opera House through Wednesday evening – go see it.  And bring an open mind.

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