35. Dead and Forgiven: End of Season Review of HOUSTON BALLET’s Spring Mixed Rep & Giselle, 2016

My first year working with Houston Ballet is ending. Onwards to 2016/17! I got really busy and couldn’t post an adequate review of just Spring Mixed Rep, so I decided to combine it with Giselle, the last rep of 2015/16. I’ve also been writing the posts for each rep on the official Houston Ballet blog (The Ballerina’s Legacy of Giselle and Discussing Ekman’s CACTI with Stager Spenser Theberge) –there’s no need to repeat myself here.

I most note that even though I work for this wonderful international company, I still allow myself perspective and honesty during each performance. For me, working in the dance world isn’t for selfish gains–it’s to help the artform expand and evolve.

Writing 100% positive reviews or critiques or whatever doesn’t helping anyone (except ticket sales). The same batch of elderly audience members will only tolerate positive, glowing reviews that name drop their favorite principals and, at times, I feel like many people writing from within the industry are too caught up in the hype of certain nights with certain casts. So, I write this–and everything related to my career in dance–with passionate honesty for the integrity of the art form of dance.


 serenade

The most sought after Balanchine ballet is starting to become mediocre and bland. We all know the poses and the specific celebrated moments of this piece. There’s a generous amount of color and texture on stage with technical aspects alone. We’ve come to expect all Balanchine ballets to include a certain kind of “timeless” appeal. But the whole neoclassical vibe is starting to look weathered on stage. Oddly, this piece appeals to me on a more emotional level only when I watched it in rehearsals. Accidents, which were seminal to the creation of Serenade, are allowed during rehearsal. In the final form, the accidents are removed. All the placed accidents we see on stage–the late girls entering and exiting, the loose hair and bent over bodies–seem so well crafted and perfected. And this isn’t the fault of the dancers, all dedicated to the truest purpose of movement. It’s just how this piece has aged. Accidental charm and wit in the choreography are now highly sophisticated, perfected moments that are often mechanically placed to fit the final product rather than a reflection from the rehearsal process. Is this the stager’s problem? The Balanchine Trust? Or is “timeless” actually not at all the correct adjective to describe neoclassical works today?

Balanchine ballets are worshipped utterly and completely, but I feel like that might be changing now in the 21st century. At the recent SDHS conference I attended, the ominous presence of Mr. B. lingered all over the grim and rust of the city, but as dance researchers we continued to pick and pry and perform our duty to dance by not falling in line and bowing down before him. His polished fleet of dancers– all limbs and attitude–demand all the attention during their all Balanchine reps year after year after year. And who can blame them? It’s still very much their legacy. HOWEVER, when companies are clamoring for so much of the same by this one choreographer–Serenade is the most requested Mr. B. ballet, no surprise–everyone starts to look like a replica of City Ballet. Everyone wants to dedicated their viewing experience to that company, city, man. But that can’t be the case anymore. We have too many companies doing Serenade to not enjoy the faults and individuality from each principal, soloist, corps, apprentice. The past has already seen its fair share of duplicated City Ballet Serenades. Let the dancers of today show themselves in this piece onstage!

A side thought when watching Serenade for the first time live–the sounds make this ballet real. They are in fact the only real live elements that we can count on for each and every performance to follow. The muffled, collective pointe shoe swipes across stage, the shuffles and sighs from going into a true, unforced first position from parallel. The perfume of the ballet that many people have commented on in Mr. B. ballets is in fact the live elements. True sounds are the most poetic parts of watching performers on stage. You can’t fake the sound of a soft gasp before a fall to the floor. Or the airy whip of hair during piques and lifts.

Serenade is still a everlasting dream for many audience members, especially the older crowd who love that elite-looking sophistication. But I think we should start injecting more personal touches and allowing more accidents to form on their own for the future of Serenade.

 gloria

What more can one say about war that Gloria hasn’t already? It’s hard to digest a work that is a testament to a era that I can’t imagine living through. Maybe that’s why this piece is so hard to talk about, write about, be a part of. War in the 21st century–for the West at least–is not as intense as it had be during WWI. The Great War was devastating on so many ways and for such an extended amount of time. As a result Gloria is choreographed to be ridiculously theatrical, like many of Sir MacMillan’s work. The theatrics of a past generation of ballet, much like Serenade. Only we’ve already concluded that these early 20th century works by Sir MacMillan are dated. In America especially he doesn’t quite have the same following as Mr. B. So while Serenade is “timeless,” Gloria is a relic, a remembrance. Where’s the justice in that?

I happen to love Gloria–despite it’s deeply religious tone and manner. So much of life’s challenges and joys come to mind when I watch this piece. And seeing it live for the first time is like delving deep into the core of second-function abstraction, mainly with the theme of death. Death is all-consuming. It doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you’re feeling. There isn’t a divide with death, no them/others vs us/me. Everyone will die. In war, these truths are brutally realized. And when we put war into dance, we can at least try to hunt for that realization (see Bausch’s Café Muller). The problem with death in classical ballet is that death is immediately divided between “them/others” vs “us/me” because there’s still an emotional divide between the majority of its audience members and dancers. The classical ballet audience member reassures herself by stating, the dancers aren’t “us/me” therefore they die and not me. Also the movement of Gloria is simply pretty and very much about living bodies making shapes and acrobatically living and breathing on stage. The movements of death we see in ballet–Giselle is the prime example–is beautiful and simple and contained.

But what if audience members started to think less of dividing lines during the performance so that the initial realizations could be made? I guess this is more of an issue beyond what Gloria can do, but I think it would be a great piece to start the conversation about general audience inclusion and engagement. The dancers are already committed, already aware of death during this piece. But what about the audience as a whole?

 cacti

I’ve written a lot about Cacti in the past two months. I’ve been thinking about it for even longer. This work has all of the contemporary glory and guts that I adore and strive to present to the world on a daily basis. The ballet world isn’t just tutus and tiaras, pointe shoes and pain; it has so much humor and cleverness. I guess the main thing I’m writing about when I write about Cacti‘s presence in major ballet companies is that Mixed Reps MUST be more diverse and exciting! Throw some Kylián works around, shovel all the funds together to pay for Balanchine ballet returns, and wait in line for Peck? OR look overseas and possible even consider a younger choreographer, maybe even a woman? GASP.

Mixed Reps are the keys to evolution in the art form, because they provide adequate  time, space, and dancers for choreographers to create or restage works that otherwise wouldn’t have been housed there in the first place. But taking a chance on a new work or new choreographer isn’t part of the general agreement of classical ballet companies. In order to get funding and donor support, those patrons expect predictability under the guise of newness, which the ADs always bend over and give to them. (For the record, I only consider a classic ballet production as new if it reaches all the way back to the past and is a complete reconstruction, such as Ratmansky’s work like the recent Swan Lake, or if a retelling is successfully attempted, such as Stanton Welch’s Cinderella. Otherwise, I’d prefer we let sleeping dogs lie, and stop pretending productions are “new” when there’re gloriously wonderful contemporary dance works about the classics which really are NEW, such as Dawson’s Giselle.)

That’s what this entire Spring Mixed Rep should be about: Take chances, get messy, make mistakes! Realizations take the place of assumptions. Laughter during a ballet performance isn’t such a scary thing after all. If the dancers can form a community which embraces these three works beyond what they’ve learned– their technical training and expectations–why can’t the audience match that mentality and in turn demand absolute diversity?

 


 giselle

I have a lot of opinions about this 2016 production. Character development especially. But for starters, the sets are obnoxiously overblown. How much of the stage can you fill with dense overhead foliage? All of it, apparently… Act II was the very cliché of dark and dreary, minus the usual fog. Thankfully, the costumes were extremely mesmerizing. And a few of the added/refreshed 21st technical aspects weren’t quite right during performances, granted they worked better during dress rehearsal for some reason.

In 2010, hinting that he wouldn’t want to touch it, Welch told Pointe Mag that he considers the trimmed down, no-fat productions of Giselle as “pretty perfect.” Now we have this. So, this isn’t a reconstruction. But it’s also not entirely new. The additions that are placed back into Act I and II hardly make any historical cohesion; they were deleted for the past Giselle‘s for performance reasons, and they don’t work for today’s Giselle for even more performance reasons.

Yes, the score from those rediscovered sections are wonderful to listen to. But, for instance, the Mad Scene has been created based on decades of condensing and compressing. The additional time added between her snap and her death only made everything exaggerated beyond belief. It became too 21st-century melodrama too quickly, less about her psychological on-the-verge-of-supernatural state of mind. Don’t dance, Giselle. Don’t pretend to snap. Take a break and sit down? Rational thinking from everyone in the village but Giselle? We already know that psychologically Giselle is weak, afraid of conflict. I mean, she runs to her fucking mother like 8 times during Act I alone! She’s young, but with this Mad Scene down time, she comes off as either a preteen or an elderly woman…

I couldn’t follow that usual stream of consciousness during this Mad Scene with any of the beautifully passionate Giselle’s (Karina and Yuriko; didn’t get to see Sara sadly), because of this down time added back in. Romantic madness–the kind that classical productions of Giselle is and will always be created for– doesn’t work itself in waves. It’s destructively immediate. (The notion of mentally distressing waves for women came later in the 20th century with Chopin and Woolf.) AND the biggest reason for a quick snap followed by suicide leads to her isolate forest burial, and thus wilis. But, alas, these historic additions where heavily pushed into the entire 21st century production; glaringly obvious in Act I especially.

Luckily, the dancers of Act I were delightful and energetic throughout. The best part of  Welch ballets are the soloists, corps, and apprentices. We know the principals are high quality technicians and performers. Matured audiences flock to the good looks and charms of these principals, but do they even see the created, quality interactions going on around these main characters? The entire company continues to hold their own for the classical workhorses of the ballet lexicon, from Manon at the start of this season to The Sleeping Beauty and everything contemporary in-between. Much like Romeo and Juliet, the corps did a phenomenal job filling in the gaps with these underrated national dance variations–a handful of delightful sections diluted from the very start of the Russian tradition of Giselle.

They all interact, mingle, and communicate on stage, rather than stand around and fake a smile or wave at one another (Looking at you POB productions). You can see storylines that weren’t ever created. (I could watch Chris Gray and Ali Miller conjuring up characters forever!) You can feel their emotional reactions when pivotal moments happen on stage. And when solo roles are allotted to various corps/apprentice members–something the originator of Giselle, POB, still rarely allows–you’re really in for a treat. Tyler Donatelli was especially vibrant during her solo’s traveling assemblés and Elise Elliot radiated a charming buoyancy. But, really, the classical peasantry vs aristocracy theme is weakest in Giselle, so do all of the peasants really have to dance THAT much? The blurred line of who can dance and who can’t dance was wiped clean in this production, since everyone’s active, all the women en pointe, and moving Act I’s plot along. Is it worth it? Maybe. This is one of the only musical and choreographic reintroductions that gave more breath to Act I. Everyone on stage of all social classes–this production interestingly made it seem like there were 4 different classes going on at once–have to be present and feel authentic from the lower ranks upwards, otherwise what’s the point of Albrecht’s Loys act/deception? Who cares if no one else but Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion, and Bethilde care?

Still, the wedding addition seemed to distract from the whole isolated Rhineland village vibe. Where did these other villagers come from? A communal autumn wine festival with its symbolic tone of life giving way to death would have been better still. But maybe a peasant wedding is equally symbolic of these less pronounced class divides? How one class views marriage with formalities while the other class is, well, wild. Still, the ultimate Romantic undertone that passion in the form of dancing will kill you is constantly stated and stressed. Still. Could 21st century classical ballet Giselle productions PLEASE change this ultra demoralizing notion! I remark again; bring back the suicide of Giselle!

Enter Act II and we’re already in a mess of complications. The hunting scene that opens following Giselle’s grieving mother, was just more squeezed in male dancing. Afterthoughts from decades ago. Again, the set details were too much, too dense for this Act. Abstraction rather than piles of dense tress and flowers allow for a kind of darkness that’s more palpable. There was no moon looming above in this production, a sorely missed opportunity to add even more phantasmagoria in. Sometimes with less on stage, the haunting reflection of the vampire wilis corps can be seen on the floor. (The best use of that kind of abstraction in Act II has to be the Dutch National Ballet’s production circa 2009.) That’s why the majority of past productions have a very stark Act II, albeit always with that overblown fog at the start and finish. Elegant, ethereal costumes always win Act II though, and we certainly got that, minus the little delicate fairy wings that are usually and originally applied to the wilis (The Victorians assumed that many supernatural spirits had wings like fairies, so it actually makes historical sense to include wings on the wilis even if they are ghosts; see the exceptionally historical POB Act II) The corps of wilis worked together with remarkable skill and ferocity. If anything the musical additions and choreographic expansion worked better in this Act, giving the wilis and Myrtha much more to elaborate on alongside Giselle, Hilarion, and Albrecht.

And then there’s the gravestone… If Giselle doesn’t die of a suicide then the gravestone in the middle of an abandoned forest makes ZERO sense. Many productions fall in line with this, sadly. And I was hoping for a return of this element since it’s one of those things that was deleted over the years, just like sections of the score… No such luck. Ah, Giselle. You’re not a girl, but not yet a woman, yet we always try to make you into one. I mean we treat Giselle like she’s just another little girl turned woman over night, and her death is one of the major problems with how we treat her character. Suicide was part of the Gothic and Romantic realm, and it’s a very real epidemic for the vast majority of youths still today. Giselle is a young adult, 15 in some productions. She isn’t a kid. She doesn’t go from innocent delight of the village to ghostly apparition without more details to her coming-of-age/madness awakening. Suicide–coupled with her weak heart, yes–transforms her childlike Act I persona into a middle ground before her Act II adulthood persona. I guess I’ll have to wait for Ratmansky to add suicide back into the story and touch this classic with his reconstructive powers.

One take away from this production–and all Giselles, really–could be how unparalleled love and forgiveness are important qualities for women to have, or at least the Victorians WANT us to have those qualities still to this day. But the real take away has to be the truly timeless bond between life and death. Giselle’s forgiveness means nothing without her death. When reworking the classics for the 21st century, and beyond, there has to be an extremely proficient approach to how death is treated, rather than reinforcing social morals or gendered qualities. You don’t have to change the entire ballet to do that either. Newer productions of the classics just need to reach a better balance of the details. OR sometimes you have to change it up and create a present production for the future of ballet; look at Dawson’s Giselle! History doesn’t work without the three figures of time: past, present, and future. In dance, we can’t possibly know what the future will look like, so we must achieve preservation of the past WITH maintenance on the present.

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