Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fogpocalypse: ABT at City Center (Friday, November 11, 2011)

American Ballet Theatre's Friday night offering at City Center was the most uneven of the three performances I attended, and the most confusing.  But one thing became clear, even in the surreal moments when technical difficulties resulted in the stage (and much of the audience) completely obscured by fog for at least one movement of Twyla Tharp's In The Upper Room.  The unformed rumblings in my mind from Wednesday turned up the volume and took form:  soloists Simone Messmer, Sarah Lane and Misty Copeland are READY to lead. 

The evening began with Paul Taylor's Black Tuesday.  Immediately I felt that this piece worked much better as an ending, as on Wednesday's program, than an opening number.  It's relaxed style felt somehow abrupt, and isn't strong enough to draw the audience in as an opener.  In fact, the crowd near me seemed a little bored until the last section  While parts of this cast were stellar - namely Herman Cornejo in the final solo, Brother Can You Spare a Dime and Simone Messmer in the heart-wrenching The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, some of the other casting choices were less successful.  Calvin Royal and Luis Ribagorda showed their youth in the opening Underneath the Arches and it was a little too smiley instead of embracing the right character of the piece.  Although I have great hopes for Royal's future with the company, the pair of them seemed to be thinking really hard during the whole piece.  Karen Uphoff and Daniel Mantei were unfortunately awkward in their duet There's No Depression in Love.  Kelly Boyd was thankfully delightful as the pregnant woman in Sittin' on a Rubbish Can, and seemed to have more command of the choreography than Nicola Curry had on Wednesday.  Roman Zhurbin was right out of Guys and Dolls in the saucy quartet Are You Making Any Money, and maybe even a little more credible (a little less innocently comical) than Craig Salstein had been.  Of his ladies, my eye was drawn in particular to the beautiful Jennifer Whalen.

From the first note of Simone Messmer's solo, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, I felt like I was watching a different production (in a great way).  The maturity, honesty and emotion Messmer brought to this tragic moment was real. Interestingly, the sharp and striking Messmer shares all three of these characteristics with the fantastically fluid Stella Abrera, but yet creates a completely different effect and aspect on stage. Both are wonderful and unique.  Messmer left me wishing that she had had a more mature cast around her to elevate the rest of the piece (but for Cornejo) to the same level of real emotion.  The contemporaneously masculine and vulnerable Herman Cornejo escalated the urgent isolation that began in Messmer's solo to a feverish pitch that reached me in my seat. (I note that Taylor interrupts these two pieces with the intervening comical street urchin danced well by the sharp and sprightly Nicole Graniero in (I Went Hunting) and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead - who maybe had just a tad less fire in her eyes than Gemma Bond had on Wednesday).  Nevertheless, while Black Tuesday gives the audience a heavily joyful and entertaining romp through the depression era, Taylor's choreography in Messmer's and Cornejo's solos delivers a harder message of pain, longing and needs for hope and help that lay at the root of the American depression experience.

Second on Friday's program was young choreographer Demis Volpi's premiere piece for the company, Private Light.  I had seen an excerpt of the main solo and pas de deux at Works + Process at the Guggenheim a few weeks before, and from that had been very excited to see this new work.  However, the reviews I'd been reading from earlier in the week were not as enthusiastic, so I came out of intermission with some hesitation.  Danced to an assembly of solo guitar music played masterfully on stage by musician Christian Kiss (yes, that's his name), Private Light is at once both wonderful and disappointing. On one hand, the lead roles danced in this cast by soloist Misty Copeland and shirtless corps member Alexandre Hammoudi, were well thought-out and expertly executed.  Copeland gave a wonderful portrayal of a young woman in conflict between her own independence and the strong pull of her passionate and sometimes brutish partner.  Some reviewers found this character weak and overpowered, but for me, Volpi gives a voice to the romantic confusion of the younger generations coming of age in this sensory-overloading era.  The angular and sometimes frantic arm movements of Copeland are somehow no less graceful than a classical ballet.  Hammoudi's partnering was perhaps the strongest and most mature I've seen from him ever. He definitely stepped firmly into the leading man's shoes here.

While the solo and pas de deux were tension-filled and engaging, unfortunately much of the rest of the piece lacked editing.  The opening bit featuring the five couples moving only their heads back and forth (comically "kissing") goes on WAYYYY too long and Volpi's need for a few too many repetitions of other choreographic moments flows through most of the rest of his choreography as well.  Whether he needed more weeks to develop the piece or simply a way to cut down some of the excess music I'm not sure.  The other MAJOR problem was the solo by Blaine Hoven to Isaac Albeniz's famous tension-filled "Leyenda".  The sharp, difficult choreography was almost completely lost on Hoven, who has seemed throughout the week to be perhaps out of shape and out of breath.  It was almost uncomfortable to watch the sometimes wonderful Hoven struggle and fight with his brain and body to keep up with the urgency of the music.  My main regret of the week was that I missed the first cast of this piece starring Simone Messmer and Cory Stearns as the leads and Joseph Gorak in Hoven's role.  A much more Hallberg-esque dancer, I think Volpi's demands would have been met much more successfully by the precise Gorak.  One other note: the roaring audience seemed to appreciate Private Light much more than I had expected given the earlier reviews.

Last on the evening's bill was Twyla Tharp's perennial favorite of smoke, sneakers and crimson pointe shoes, In The Upper Room.  Or at least, for about five minutes after the curtain went up after the second intermission, that is what the dancers may have been dancing.  The audience, however, would have little witness to this, since all but about two feet at the front of the stage was obscured by a thick white fog that slowly travelled its way into the orchestra and blinded all in attendance.  After a few minutes, you could hear clapping and yelling from the mezzanine and finally an angry yell to "start over!".  I couldn't help but giggle, as many around me in the audience seemed to have no idea what was going on (didn't they know we were supposed to be able to see the dancers?)  Finally, after what must have seemed to the dancers to be an eternity, the music stopped, the curtain came down and the vents opened.  Several audience members in my section left at this point - perhaps made ill by the smoke, or perhaps just not interested in the piece. 

When the curtain came back up after fogpocalypse, there was perhaps a little too little haze on the stage, but the radiant Simone Messmer and Luciana Paris triumphantly returned in their baggy jumpsuits and sneakers to lead the brave cast through the exhausting and exhilarating nine movements of choreography.  Their fellow "stompers" Cory Stearns, Roddy Doble, Jared Matthews and Devon Teuscher (and sometimes stomper/sometimes bomber Katie Williams) put forth a truly valiant effort, working seamlessly through a number of visible missteps and clearly refusing be vanquished by the lost adrenaline of repeating so much of the beginning.  The "bombers" (who had not had to dance through the haze in the opening movements), were fantastic throughout.  Led by Herman Cornejo and a dazzling Sarah Lane, the more classical bombers electrified the audience.  Nicole Graniero and Skylar Brandt were almost picture perfect in their unison and so alike in size and movement that a more perfect pair might be hard to find in the world of ballet.  Eric Tamm and Joseph Gorak turned and leaped with abandon and all of the energy left in their tanks.  I'll leave more detail to the review of Saturday's performance by the same cast under better circumstances, but cannot omit to mention that the solo work and partnering by Lane and Cornejo were truly masterful and electric.  Lane in particular has never danced (to my eyes) with more freedom and confidence.  By miles.

The audience jumped to its feet after the final note, shouting in appreciation of these dedicated, talented, indefatigable dancers and the beautiful Philip Glass score and Tharp choreography. I can think of only a few occasions where I have been prouder of these dancers (only two of which on the entire program, Cornejo and Stearns, deemed worthy by McKenzie of the rank of principal).  Soloists Messmer, Lane and Copeland made me forget entirely that principals Gillian Murphy, Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent, Veronika Part and Xiomara Reyes made no appearance on Friday night.  In fact, I think I enjoyed each individual piece more than I would have if any of those more seasoned ballerinas had been on the program.  

The program itself made no sense to me as a whole - there was not even a thread of commonality of theme or style among the three ballets - but individually I appreciated each offering in its own way.

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