Aye Yay Yay…

Last night I went to see a discussion and demonstration of ABT‘s SLEEPING BEAUTY at the Guggenheim as part of the museum’s Works & Process series (in which the producers talk about the making of a new ballet and have a few dancers demonstrate some of the choreography). I’d attended their talk on OTHELLO a couple months ago and learned a lot about the history of that ballet and choreographer Lar Lubovitch’s intentions, and got to see some amazing dancing (David Hallberg 🙂 ) from very close.

Well, I didn’t feel this one went quite as smoothly.

Kevin McKenzie, ABT artistic director and choreographer of this new production, was out sick, so Wes Chapman moderated a discussion between famed former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland who is helping to put this production together by coaching the dancers, and her husband Michael Chernov.

First, five ballerinas — Maria Riccetto, Kristi Boone, Yuriko Kajiya, Zhong-Jing Fang, and Adrienne Schulte — performed the Fairies Variations. After each danced, Kirkland would come onstage and ‘coach them’ right in front of us! I don’t know if it was intended to be this way — if they were trying to show what a hard life a dancer leads or trying to showcase Kirkland as a strict but brilliant former ballerina and current teacher or what, but I’m sorry, I thought it was just not a good idea. She came across as really quite mean to the dancers. She started with Riccetto, telling her she was supposed to, as she’d told her before, show the audience “the child” ie: Sleeping Beauty, which she was supposed to be carrying in her arms. She had Riccetto do it over a few times, and, at the end of the third, Kirkland turned to the audience and asked us if we “saw the child.” Of course everyone wanted to please Kirkland, and of course we couldn’t see any child because there were no props, as it was a work in progress hello, so everyone said “oh no.” Riccetto looked so embarrassed. I felt just horrible for her.

Then, poor Kristi Boone, who I really like, came out and performed her solo. It seemed like everyone was so scared of Kirkland, like they were trying very hard but were just so shaky. At the end of Boone’s variation, Kirkland told her her movement was so lacking in fluidity she kept looking like she was simply ‘reaching for a bowl of cereal’ when she stretched upward, then kind of scolded her, saying, “I told you how to do this yesterday, we talked about it yesterday. I know it’s hard, but do it again.” And she made her repeat it a couple of times for us.

After she finished with Boone, poor Kajiya, who has the sweetest most innocent-looking face, came out and did her solo looking like she was going to faint from the pressure the entire time. Kirkland was hard on her too, but I don’t even remember what she said; I just couldn’t listen; I couldn’t even look anymore. I just remember she told Kajiya to do something over, and Kajiya tried, but the pianist played the wrong part, so Kajiya performed the part he played, then was told by Kirkland she’d done the wrong part, which she seemed to know but was too sweet to correct the pianist. Nightmare!

After Kaijya fled to safety, Chapman asked the audience, “are you all finding this helpful?” And I couldn’t help it but I shouted out “No,” and shook my head dramatically. I’m sure they didn’t hear my soft voice in the sea of “yesses” and couldn’t see my head shaking, but somehow someone knew it had to be toned down because Kirkland was much better after that. Fang escaped without a single correction, and Schulte only had to do her “trouble spot” over once.

Then they talked a bit about the costumes and set designs. At a few points, Kirkland and Chernov disagreed over whether a particular costume was still in the works or whether they’d changed the design, and then whether they’d completely changed it or slightly altered it. And then there was a bit of disagreement on whether to call the cavaliers (the men) “knights” or “elves,” — Chapman, who seemed like he was trying very hard to keep things running smoothly, nicely asked for audience input, and we all shouted out, almost in unison, “Knights!” I have to say, it was Kirkland’s suggestion to change “elves” to “knights” so she was definitely on the pulse on that one.

After the discussion, Irina Dvorovenko, the only principal who danced this evening, came out and performed the beautiful Rose Adagio (in which Beauty is courted by four gorgeous guys, and which involves extremely difficult balances and partnering). Her suitors were Blaine Hoven (who looked like he had a bit of a cold), Jared Matthews, Patrick Ogle, and Isaac Stappas (who is, hello, really quite good-looking — did I know that???). Anyway, annoyingly, Kirkland was again hard on Dvorovenko, but let all the guys escape without a single word of criticism. I realize Kirkland is a former ballerina, and so is helping to coach the women, but it’s just a pet peeve of mine for someone to be hard on only one group of people.

Anyway, poor Irina, another favorite of mine… To her credit, Kirkland tried to be kind, telling the audience Irina was a great ballerina and it was a true pleasure to work with her, and that there were only a few minor things … then began ripping her. What she wanted Irina to keep doing over was basically an acting job. She said it was very hard for a dancer to keep from playing to the audience, and to maintain “a fourth wall,” then asked her several times to re-perform a look of “wonderment” upon seeing … something … presents maybe? That’s the thing: I don’t think the audience really understood what was even going on between Kirkland and the dancers, what exactly the dancers were supposed to be doing that they weren’t. But poor Irina: the Guggenheim is obviously ridiculously small compared to the Met Opera House, and here she’s standing in front of maybe a hundred people, the closest all of five feet away from her face, having to do this huge, over-the-top acting job of making a face of “wonderment” and pretending to project out into the Family Circle hundreds of feet away at the Met … it was so embarrassing for her. I really felt all of the dancers’ embarrassment.

Then, another discussion ensued, followed by, finally!, newly-promoted Craig Salstein dancing an all too short Bluebird Adagio with pretty (and, by this time, courageous) Riccetto.

I mean, all in all it was an interesting night. I think it drove home to audiences how hard dancers — at least the women — work when being coached by someone with Kirkland’s stature and personality, and how hard the life of a ballerina can be in that regard. At least that was made clear to me. And I have to say, to me at least, it was upetting. Like I said, if they did hear me shout out “No,” I didn’t mean to be rude, but I was just very bothered. Maybe others didn’t care. But, for me, and for many I think, the dancers ARE the company; we see them more than anyone else and we relate to them more than anyone or anything else in ABT, and we don’t like to see our favorites get picked on! (Plus, the gentleman next to me was snoozing, and my “no” did wake him up, at least momentarily, so I feel like my actions weren’t all bad :))

The night also made clear how difficult it must be to put something together when people are disagreeing about how things should be. It seems like a pretty ballet, and hopefully it’ll get there by the time it premieres. Chapman, in impressing the importance of this production to us, said, “ABT without a Sleeping Beauty: it’s like we’re not America’s National Ballet Company anymore…” I personally don’t know if that’s true — is it really that fundamental of a ballet? — but, in any event, it should be interesting to see how it all comes together. I’ll be excited to see Marcelo and all my other favorites perform it anyway 🙂


  1. I am not sure these public ‘coachings’ do anyone any good, except to inflate the ego of the coach. Similar things have happened when famous opera singers give public master classes are are quite cruel to the young singers. Who really derives any pleasure from seeing young performers humiliated? Maybe a few sadists.

    I wonder if Kevin was really ill or just avoiding an unpleasant situation? I wonder if he
    regrets having Gelsey participate in this production? I guess it’s too late now…

  2. Wow Tonya, that sounds awful!
    I think it really depends on the personality of the person who does the coaching though!
    I recently saw a masterclass that Natalia Makarova taught to 6 wonderful dancers of Dutch National Ballet, and last year a masterclass of the lovely Guillaume Graffin, and both were absolutely wonderful! They weren’t at all about telling these great dancers what they were ‘doing wrong’, they were about getting just the right finishing touch to their performance in a certain role.
    Oh, and a few weeks ago I also saw an open rehearsal with Banu Ogan (of Merce Cunningham Dance Company) and she was really sweet to the dancers too!
    So if it’s like that, it can great. 🙂

  3. Your Gelsey Kirkland story comes as no surprise to me. For all her brilliance as a dancer, she was, from everything I’ve heard over the years, always a bit of a “head” case – someone whose self-destructive behavior shortcircuited what could have been a legendary career. The way in which she humiliated those dancers was not only unprofessional – it was deplorable and unconscionable. I have seen dancers of Gelsey’s stature coach other dancers and no matter how demanding they were, they invariably treated those dancers with sensitivity and respect. I’m not sure what Kevin McKenzie was thinking when he brought Kirkland in as a coach, but I very much hope that if he had been there that evening, he would not have condoned her behavior.

  4. wow, kirkland sounds…like a mean person 🙂 i loved her autobiography, but u know, dancers are tough cookies. i feel bad for the dancers…we know how amazing the dancers she criticized were.

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