Reviews: February/March 2009

The National Ballet of Canada Caught in Love’s Web
By Virginia Johnson

In a more perfect world, instead of The Nutcracker, a thoughtful and dramatic ballet such as John Neumeier’s The Seagull would be the annual performance that audiences looked forward to year after year. They would be much the richer for it. This full-evening work, which had its North American première in November with The National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, yields ever-greater pleasure with repeated viewings.

Loosely based on Chekhov’s play and with music by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Evelyn Glennie, Neumeier’s Seagull can be difficult to follow, however. The play comes packed with eccentric characters whose side plots feel distracting and superfluous in the ballet. Even with supertitles on the proscenium, program notes and a diagram of characters, the narrative proves daunting. On first viewing, the choreography also seems overly dense.

Yet Neumeier, who also designed the sets, costumes and lighting, has created a cohesive work in which he orchestrates our emotions with the lightest touch. In the second act, he even provides entertaining moments that yield those bursts of applause which audiences delightedly contribute.

Not surprisingly, the choreographer has transposed the action from the theater world to that of ballet, allowing him to take full advantage of dance as a medium. Only occasionally does he use gesture to convey the story. Instead, we learn everything about the characters and their world through his use of movement. It helps that two characters, Kostya and Trigorin, are choreographers: Kostya being young and rash, and Trigorin, established and complacent. Showing us their work gives Neumeier ample opportunity to play with style and form.

Program notes tell us that The Seagull is a story about love and art; and many hearts are broken by one or the other as the tale progresses. The company meets the challenge with relish. The opening night cast, though still negotiating some complicated and cumbersome partnering, was able to offer richly nuanced performances. In the role of Arkadina, the diva ballerina, Greta Hodgkinson was both poignant and ridiculous, with Aleksandar Antonijevic thoroughly believable as Trigorin. (In another cast, Piotr Stanczyk’s Trigorin was more chillingly heartless.) True to Chekhov’s original, Kostya (Zdenek Konvalina) and Nina (Sonia Rodriguez) are tragically unable to resolve their powerlessness, which ironically dampens the impact of the dancers’ passionate performances. Echoing the futility of love, Xiao Nan Yu as Masha was charmingly and fruitlessly smitten with Kostya, while Noah Long, as Medvedenko, pined after her.

The Seagull is not a pretty story, but Neumeier’s conception of the play has depth and grandeur; and he has taken care with every element. The ballet demands attention, but does so to reward it. How marvelous to be so engaged by a story ballet.

Resurgent Oakland
By Rita Felciano

Rita Felciano is dance critic of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
After Oakland Ballet Company’s precipitous collapse in 2006, its resurrection the following year looked like the triumph of hope over experience. Yet the company’s October 25 program at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA, seemed to justify backers’ faith in Ronn Guidi, its founding director. Though the company is small—only 20 dancers, including several who have emerged from retirement—the three repertory works presented quality choreography in convincing performances.        

Live music was a welcome bonus. Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony in excerpts from Guidi’s intimate 1993 Romeo and Juliet set to Prokofiev’s eponymous score. The symphony also played the Stravinsky score of Ron Thiele’s frolicking 1989 How’d They Catch Me? In addition to restaging his own 2001 Asian-flavored Bamboo, Michael Lowe conducted the Melody of China chamber orchestra in the score by Hong Wang.

Guidi has telescoped Romeo into a series of chiseled miniatures that work well within their sometimes overblown musical environment. His is high drama on a human scale. In the ballroom scene, the guests work out their animosity through refined patterns, with the men incongruously raising their fists. The women confront one another in huge, not quite ladylike strides. Within these robust encounters, Jenna McClintock’s warm but vulnerable Juliet and Ethan White’s handsome but expressively limited Romeo spun a shimmering web of growing attraction. At one point the ballroom simply froze, with the lovers left moving as if in a dream. When Juliet realizes that she has to marry Paris (a gently solicitous Omar Shabazz), she bursts into tears; but when Jekyns Palaez’s stormy Tybalt tears off Romeo’s mask, she collapses. Ikolo Griffin’s pirouette-whipping Mercutio was a star turn; his presence, however, also set into relief some of the men’s less-than-sterling technique.

Thiele heard a cheerful playfulness in Stravinsky’s “Suites No. 1 and No. 2” and created a small ensemble of dances that link together in a chain. With its young cast in candy cane­–colored costumes performing acrobatic choreography, Catch has a snappy, circus-inspired mood about it, one in which Amanda McGovern knocked out her male partners; and newcomer Mario Labrador set a beach ball next to a dancer who rolled across the stage like a ball. Mariko Takahashi and Labrador charmingly hooked up in “Española;” while David Bertlin and Shabazz brought a self-congratulatory machismo to “Balalaika.”

Lowe, who is comfortable in both Chinese and Western dance, has the skill to shape Bamboo’s delightful paean to youth, love and companionship with a light touch, adding a dollop of humor. McClintock and White’s stretchy pas de deux was its beating heart. Out of a huddle, the women arose onto pointe like flowers opening towards the sun. The men flew like Frisbees, flopped like fishes and were left flat on their backs, heads hanging into the pit. A ribbon dance looked more conventional but smoothly fed into a sparkling finale billowing with clouds of airy lifts.

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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