NINA'S SPRING SEASON WITH THE AMERICAN BALLET THEATER, MET OPERA HOUSE, MAY 10 TO JUNE 18, 2004

 

  NINA’S ABT 2004 SEASON

 

As I begin writing this (June 21) Nina will just have arrived back in Moscow, after giving New York a season that will be cherished in memory. Life intervened so this Friend had to miss her two La Bayadère performances (look for Spider's impressions to follow) but I did catch the opening night gala and the rest of her appearances with ABT this spring.

The gala (May 10) provided a glimpse of the new staging of Raymonda; Nina, partnered by Marcelo Gomes as Jean DeBrienne and Gennadi Saveliev as Abderakhman, danced the Pas de Sept and Galop; her radiant authority certainly whetted ones appetite for the complete ballet. However, the full staging proved to be a mixed blessing.


RAYMONDA

Choreography by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa, conceived and directed by Anna-Marie Holmes and Kevin McKenzie
Music by Alexander Glazunov, adapted by Ormsby Wilkins
Scenery, Costumes and Set Design by Zack Brown
Lighting by Steen Bjarke

New York balletomanes awaited American Ballet Theatre’s new staging of Raymonda with bated breath. This late Petipa work has always been hampered by a weak libretto, but has survived on world stages on the strength of Glazunov’s glorious score and the master’s inspired choreography, the epitome of classical elegance.

As readers of this website know, these Friends traveled to Moscow last November especially to see Nina in the Bolshoi’s latest version of Raymonda (see Moscow review). Consequently, Grigorovich’s masterful staging of this classic is fresh in our mind. In this, perhaps most coherent and visually elegant version currently on the boards, we meet De Brienne in the first act, as he bids farewell to Raymonda in a tender pas de deux before going off to the crusades. Abderakhman does not enter the picture until the Vision Scene, when the White Lady causes his apparition to appear, both intriguing and frightening Raymonda. The “real” Abderakhman comes as an uninvited guest to the chateau of the Countess de Doris in the second act, where he introduces his exotic dancers in order to impress the court. When his suit of Raymonda is rejected, he attempts to abduct her, only to be foiled by De Brienne, who slays him in single combat. The third act remains as in the original by Lydia Pashkova and Petipa---a joyous celebration of the Raymonda’s and De Brienne’s wedding.

ABT’s new version, a coproduction with Finnish National Ballet, is in two acts and four scenes. In an effort to add drama to the story and perhaps make it more “politically correct” in view of today’s world situation, the team of Anna-Marie Holmes and Kevin McKenzie only caused confusion and sapped tension from the action. This staging scrambles the dance sequences, strips De Brienne of his stature as knight crusader (he is simply billed as “a handsome young suitor of Raymonda") and builds up the role of Abderakhman (who now travels with a fulltime Assistant and an entourage of bodyguards).  Raymonda’s character is also diminished---she is supposedly torn between these two suitors during the first two acts, making nonsense of her love pas de deux with De Brienne.

Still, Nina’s impeccable form and charismatic personality made this flawed production worth watching (May 22, June 3). She sparkled in all her variations (she was allowed to dance the Bolshoi---hence Petipa---choreography). That ballet genius built up the heroine’s character in the progression of these variations; his constantly inspired step combinations, when danced by a ballerina who understands the style and tradition, makes you see Raymonda as a gracious young aristocrat, discovering her charms, realizing her capabilities, discovering love---and yes, being fascinated by the exotic and dangerous. Certainly, there is a hint of her sexual awakening as well---but she chooses to remain true to herself and her upbringing.

In every step, Nina embodied Petipa’s ideal---the carriage of her upper body, arms and head never failed to suggest nobility. Her eloquent feet and legs suggested meaning in every step, big and small. Yet, at many points her delectable blossoming was interrupted, even contradicted, by the workmanlike additions of Holmes: pas de deux were introduced for Raymonda and Abderkahman, involving forceful entwinings; even those for Raymonda and De Brienne suffered with the interjections of awkward lifts and illogical development. The various solos for the suitors were similarly disruptive and undistinguished. The music, adapted to accommodate these alterations, also suffered, its logical arch broken and its harmonies dissipated.

The set and costume designs by Zack Brown contributed to the muddle. While seeming to suggest the correct medieval setting in the costumes of some courtiers (cone-shaped hats with veils, floor-sweeping double sleeves), the stage was framed by a curving, Art Nouveau construction that blocked the view from the sides. And those spiral domes to one side were certainly out of place in Provence!

The costumes for the opening scene would have been more appropriate for a Disney cartoon---Raymonda in bright yellow, De Brienne in white and silver, Abderakhman in flaming red. The courtiers were in multi-colored attires, the women in various skirt lengths. The designer also insisted on an eccentric accent to Raymonda’s costumes, making her underskirt pink no matter the color of her tutus.

The costumes mercifully turned more uniform in color---if not in length---for the Vision Scene, where the White Lady introduces the dream images of De Brienne and Abderakhman to Raymonda. She appeared in a green-beaded white tutu, while both suitors were in almost identical grey attires---just to add to the confusion. On May 22, this scene was rather spoiled by a fog machine that wouldn’t quit, obscuring dancers’ feet.

The second act, which takes place in the great hall of the palace, brought back colors. Raymonda was in a pink- beribonned lavender tutu, her friends in coordinating colors, and Abderakhman in clashing red, purple and yellow. Here, the lifts calculated to show off Raymonda had a rather forced quality---there was no need to resort to such hard sell. However, the dance of the Saracen Children was charming and the Spanish Dancers (Kristi Boone, Carlos Molina) were sensuously energetic. But another false note followed: the introduction of the “Cortège Hongrois” at the end of the first scene, as if De Brienne had to offer a counterpart to the Saracen’s exotic suite.

The company itself danced more than capably. The corps work, especially in the Grand Pas Hongrois, was superb. On May 22, Jose Manuel Carreño, although dancing with a foot injury, showed true nobility in his tender partnering; coping with diminished energy, he kept his form throughout his variations. Max Beloserkovsky took over as De Brienne (on short notice) on June 3, and showed again, as on opening night with his wife, Irina Dvorovenko, why he is one of the most admired male principals at ABT. His classical form and lyrical style is always easy on the eye. Gennadi Saveliev displayed his strong technique and menacing projection as Abderakhman on both nights.

As Raymonda’s friends, Veronika Part (Henrietta) and Michele Wiles (Clemence) showed contrasting temperaments. Part was the dreamy friend, with her slow liquid grace, while Wiles was the lively one, executing her variations with finely pointed vivacity. David Hallberg (Bernard) and Ricardo Torres (Beranger) were their suitably solicitous cavaliers.

Naturally, Nina dominated the Hungarian divertissements. Eyes sparkling with joyous confidence, she wove magic with her wonderful articulation of shoulder, arm, head and hand movements, coordinated with her lightning quick pointe work. She brought the house to a fever pitch of excitement at the end of the ballet. That is, it should have been the end of the ballet, but for the worst miscalculation of this production.  Just as the wedding festivities are ending, Abderakhman returns (!) and the fatal duel takes place. De Brienne then has to woo the shocked Raymonda in yet another pas de deux (with mood and music transposed from Act I), before the ballet limps to an end.

Rounding up the cast were Georgina Parkinson as a gracious Countess Sybelle, Carmen Corella as a rather overactive White Lady and the distinguished Victor Barbee as the busy Seneschal. Charles Barker needed all his considerable skills to command an orchestra still learning Glazunov’s hauntingly melodic score.

ABT may have aimed to make Raymonda accessible to a wider audience with colorful sets and pumped up action, but it has only succeeded in turning an imperfect diamond into rhinestone.


TRIBUTE TO BALANCHINE

The centenary of Balanchine’s birth is being celebrated by nearly 200 companies this year, and ABT’s contribution to the festivities consisted of a bouquet of some of his most memorable masterpieces---all of them created to music by Tchaikovsky. Theme and Variations and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux preceded two works in which Nina was delighted to dance---Mozartiana and Ballet Imperial.

MOZARTIANA

Choreography by George Balanchine
Music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (Suite No. 4, Op. 61)
Staged by Maria Calegari
Costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Lighting by Mark Stanley

Nina first had the opportunity to dance in Mozartiana in 1997, when Suzanne Farrell, for whom the ballet was created in 1981, staged it for the Bolshoi. The company obtained access to the ballet through Nina. Her husband, Gregory Vashadze, had bought the rights as a tenth wedding anniversary present for her. (Nina confused the occasion during the interview published in Vanity Fair, May 2004, when she stated that it was a birthday gift.)

This time around, another former New York City Ballet luminary, Maria Calegari, staged the work for ABT.  Nina appeared in it on May 24, 28 and 31.  It was fascinating to observe the progression in the performances of this enigmatic piece, with its contrasting elegiac and joyful divisions, with all the dancers dressed in black. Black drapes also framed the stage.

During the first performance the whole cast moved with extra care for the precisely contoured choreography. Nina’s innate spirituality suited the opening Preghiera section, with its prayerful poses. She maintained this part’s otherworldly atmosphere on all three evenings. In the second and especially the third performance, however, Nina allowed herself more freedom in accenting the playful animation of the Theme and Variations segment without losing command of the intricate footwork. Her partner, Angel Corella was fully in accord with her mood, and had the technique to conquer the challenges of his part.

Herman Cornejo had the right balance of control and exuberance in the Gigue (May 24, 28); Jesus Pastor (May 31) got the spirit right, if not yet the precision required. Four students from the School of American Ballet accompanied the opening section with dewy assurance, later mixing with the ABT corps with the confidence of professionals.

BALLET IMPERIAL

Choreography by George Balanchine
Music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
(Concerto No. 2 in G for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 41)
Staged by Colleen Neary
Scenery and Costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Lighting by Jennifer Tipton

Two performances of Ballet Imperial were a gift to us from Nina. The fiendishly difficult first ballerina role is not for the faint hearted, and dancers half Nina’s age supposedly wondered why she was taking it on at this stage of her career. Nina told me that she had always wanted to learn the ballet, and that it was now or never.  I would also like to think that my begging her to do it, since I had never seen the key role danced by a real ballerina, had something to do with her decision.

Created in 1941 for American Ballet Caravan, this masterpiece is a perfumed distillation of Petipa’s classical style and the traditions of Russian ballet. Its formal architecture and constantly changing patterns are exhilarating to behold. Tchaikovsky’s score, full of melodic treasures, gives the various episodes deep emotional resonance.

Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s décor refers back to the original production, with its evocation of St. Petersburg---a view of the Neva River framed by imperial blue and white drapes. His sumptuous costumes also recalled to tsarist times, complete with Russian style tiaras. The tutus, constructed with stiff satin and heavy with elaborate beading were reportedly a challenge to dance in, but they were certainly beautiful to look at: Nina and her cavalier, Marcelo Gomes, looked majestic in white, trimmed in silver blue; Monique Meunier, who danced the second ballerina role, was encased in powdery pink. The soloists and corps dancers were in beautifully graduated shades of blue.

Colleen Neary, who staged the ballet anew for ABT this season, reportedly encouraged the various ballerinas to express their personalities within the choreography’s framework. Making her role debut on May 27, Nina looked every inch the glamorous prima ballerina. She opened strongly, attacking her first solo with speed and formidable style. In a scene where she leaves the stage with her back to the audience, her regal carriage kept your eyes glued on her receding figure, no matter what else was happening onstage. She was still finding her way into the ballet, however, and there were hesitations and lapses in later passages.

The second performance (May 29) was a total triumph. By this time, Nina had taken the measure of the ballet and was in complete command---speed, style and daring, combined with her soulful star presence, lifted the whole ballet to a glorious level of polish and excitement. Gomes, whose growth as an artist has been astounding, matched Nina’s energy and elegance. Their emotional connection in the sublime adagio section was the stuff of poetry. This movement starts with the cavalier partnering two soloists, who are linked to a short line of corps ballerinas who alternately retreat and approach to mimic the closing and opening of a fan. The first ballerina subsequently enters through the outstretched arms of the corps; after a tender pas de deux with the cavalier, the she disappears through the corps, leaving the cavalier to search for her in vain, before he himself retires----a heartbreaking evocation of Swan Lake.

Monique Meunier, formerly of New York City Ballet, reclaimed her role of second ballerina, dancing with daring attack, clarity and speed, even after she took a bad spill on the first evening. She was a shade more careful at the second performance, though hardly less impressive in this challenging part, in some ways even more difficult than the first ballerina role. However, she also displayed an immobile torso, only partly attributable to her stiff bodice.

Barbara Bilach, an excellent pianist, and David LaMarche, the conductor, did justice to Tchaikovsky’s music, keeping the concerto moving at a pace Mr. B would have approved of. The ABT corps de ballet danced these Balanchine creations with élan and classical form, showing that proper placement of upper body, arms and head need not get in the way of speedy footwork.

(N.B. This ballet, now titled Piano Concerto No. 2 at NYCB, currently is danced there in soft shirred skirts, although all the ballerinas still wear tiny tiaras.)


DON QUIXOTE

Choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky
Staged by Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Arranged by Jack Everly
Scenery and Costumes by Santo Loquasto
Lighting by Natasha Katz

There are evenings when you know as soon as the Nina steps on the stage, it is going to be a great performance. This was so on June 7, when she and Jose Manuel Carreño led an inspired cast in a rousing Don Quixote that had the audience screaming in their seats.

There was an electric feeling in the air, and everyone seemed eager to have a good time. Nina was really on---from her first jump onto the stage, you could see that she was glad to be back as Kitri. She threw her arms with extra abandon in her series of leaps with one leg bent to meet her head, and her manège of turns had an exciting crispness in attack and finish.   She and Carreño (Basil) were endearing lovers, teasing, quarreling and making up in high spirits. The traveling lifts and jumps in the first act were perfectly timed and all seemed to develop naturally from the action.

Guillaume Graffin keeps adding delicious details to his fop of a Gamache; he has made even him a sympathetic character. Victor Barbee’s befuddled yet noble Don Quixote remained an anchor of this production, with Flavio Salazar his bumbling Sancho Panza. And then there was Marcelo Gomes as Espada---he owns this macho role by now, and he preened outrageously, flirting with Mercedes (Carmen Corella) and Kitri when not making theatrically sure his hair was in place after his rigorous and sharply accented solos. Even the flower girls were in good form---Erica Cornejo and Maria Riccetto displaying polished verve in their numbers.

In the Gypsy dances in Act II, Herman Cornejo stood out for his aerial feats, though Carreño was not far behind in sheer virtuosity with his controlled spins.

The Dream Scene for once featured a Queen of the Dryads worthy of the title---Veronika Part--- showing her Kirov pedigree in the elegant precision of her solo, commanding the stage with her serene presence. Anne Milewski bourreéd charmingly as Amour. Nina was, of course, impeccable in her classical variation as Dulcinea---her refined, effortless dancing an embodiment of the ideal woman.

The Grand Pas was more than a display of virtuosity---it was a playful contest between Kitri and Basil---with both ending up winners. Both elicited gasps of awe: Nina by ending her variation with the fan in a perfectly balanced pose, and ending her fouettés by decelerating and landing on one knee; Carreño by executing his final turns with the free leg changing to different positions without losing momentum.

But the audience was the real winner of the evening. Seldom will anyone ever see a Don Q as wonderfully danced and joyously performed as this one. Bravissimo!


SWAN LAKE

Choreography by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Music By Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Sets and Costumes by Zack Brown
Lighting by Duane Schuler

This has been the year of Swan Lake for Nina. Her nine-city tour of Japan earlier this year featured a condensed version of the Petipa perennial that included every vital scene in Acts II and III. In April she had three performances of the complete ballet in Santiago, Chile. But New York was to see only one performance---and yet, it was perhaps the best so far in 2004.

I can’t speak for the Chile Swan Lakes, which received rave reviews in the press, but I did manage to catch three of the performances in Tokyo last February. While those were superb in their way (see review) there was something about the evening of June 18 that made it stand out above other recent viewings. That something was a partner who had a real emotional connection to his character, and therefore to his Swan Queen.

The current ABT production has its faults; the first act can seem interminable. But, it does give Prince Siegfried the chance to establish his character, and Julio Bocca did so with particular poignancy on this night. Subtle touches in his danced soliloquy conveyed the Prince’s loneliness and sense of longing. Thus, when he discovers Odette in Act II, he is emotionally ready for her. On this basis, the performance ignited in a way that’s rare even when superb artists are involved.

As I’ve mentioned before, Julio’s passionate commitment has made Nina’s Odette evolve through the years. Her Swan Queen, always supremely classical in form, has thawed into a vulnerable, trusting woman. She expresses this in the way she breathes, unfolds her legs and falls backward tenderly and fearlessly into Siegfried’s arms. Yet such details are only possible because both dancers are in such command of technique that they no longer have to think about it. Their bodies have become instruments of expression.

In Act III, the transformation of Nina from the gentle Odette into that bird of prey Odile remains magical and awe-inspiring. Through twenty-two years of performing Swan Lake, she has naturally had time to perfect angles, hone her timing and her mime, but she’s always adding layers of detail, adjusting a turn of the head or the fluttering of her arms and fingers to keep things fresh. This time, she added a sudden drop into Siegfried’s arm just as he capitulates to her. It was startling and very effective.

Oh yes, Marcello Gomes played the courtier Rothbart (as opposed to the monster Rothbart, danced by Ethan Brown) and he suavely ensnared all the princesses in the amusing scene that distinguishes this McKenzie version.

Act IV, which starts in darkness, ends with a bright apotheosis---as the betrayed lovers sacrifice themselves to vanquish the evil sorcerer. Flowers rained on the stage and bravos resounded from the hall, but many could only stagger out of the theater, still lost in the poetic tragedy and the magic that Nina and Julio created on this unforgettable evening.