Ad Hoc Ballet, and Final Thoughts on Romeo + Juliet With Major Kudos to NYCB for Audience Accessibility

I’m so behind on my blogging! I meant to blog about all of these things I did over the weekend MUCH earlier in the week, but with ABT opening and all, it’s just been…crazy!

So, last Saturday evening I went to see ad hoc ballet, a very intriguing new company founded by engagingly unique Deborah Lohse, with dancers Amy Brandt, Elizabeth Brown, and Candice Thompson, a new contributor to the Winger and the reason I found about about this cool new company in the first place! I had also seen Lohse a couple of weeks ago at Symphony Space in a work by choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and was immediately drawn to her.

I just love ad hoc’s mission statement: “ad hoc Ballet is committed to creating new works, which incorporate elements of classical ballet and modern dance, while exploring current social tribulations. Drawing inspiration from outsider populations that America tends to ignore and uniting pathology with empathy to uncover new movement, ad hoc Ballet explores the beauty in the alternatives to the classical aesthetic of perfection.” This is just the kind of dance I love — dance with contemporary social meaning that is rooted in the beauty of classical ballet and incorporates modern elements to explore issues and devise new, original forms of movement.

This performance was called “The Lucy Poems,” a title taken from a group of William Wordsworth poems, which Thompson talked a bit about on the Winger, and dealt with mental illness. The hour-long ballet opened with Lohse sitting in the corner in various contorted body positions, surrounded by a circle of very bright lights — so bright, they kind of blinded me to look at her. After she finished her first short piece, the lights went completely off and loud, brash sounds emanated from the speakers. It was really rather frightening, and gave you a sense of what the world must be like to a mentally ill person. Then the lights came on again, the music mellowed, and the other three dancers, all on pointe, took the stage and danced various duets and solos. It was really captivating. At times the dancers would contort and distort their bodies, taking different positions and shapes, then they would be perfectly “normal” and dance in the manner of a classical ballerina, as if mental illness could be something that came in waves or attacks. I went to see the program with Doug Fox and we both found compelling the ways that the dancers at times would visibly struggle to control their limbs, as if their arms and legs had minds of their own and operated independently of their minds. What was so amazing was that you could see this struggle played out in the face and body of the dancers — which I’d think would be really hard to do. Another thing I really liked about The Lucy Poems was, in contrast to for example, Forsythe’s You Made Me A Monster, that, sad subject though it was, there were moments of peace, and even within the contortions, there was a strange beauty to the movement.

The costumes were really interesting too and perfectly suited to the theme. They were dresses of haphazardly patched-together pieces of raggedy-edged blue denim-looking fabric, and were tied tightly around the backs of the dancers — so tightly they resembled sleeveless straight-jackets, if that makes any sense, or perhaps corsets, revealing possibly an underflying gender motif?…

It was a brief and small-scale but really spellbinding production and I will definitely look forward to seeing more from this promising company.

Earlier on Saturday, the wonderfully nice Newsday critic Apollinaire Scherr invited me to NYCB‘s matinee for one final viewing of their new Romeo + Juliet. As Apollinaire’s guest, I actually had a good seat at NYCB for once — thanks Apollinaire!! Though, I have to say, I think all seats in the State Theater, including those in Fourth Ring are really quite good.

So I think this was the cast with the youngest leads of all — Erica Pereira, still an apprentice with the company, and Allen Peiffer. I thought Pereira was really sweet — very small and with fluid movements and really beautiful willowy arms; she just glided around the stage, she was just a delight. She worked well with her Romeo, though, very cutely, she didn’t LOOK at him a whole lot! She kept her bright smile and shining face mostly turned out toward the audience, at least throughout her first pas de deux, as if a bit nervous to regard him. She almost looked surprised when he lifted her, from behind! Adorable given given her age — it is kinda scary to look at the boy :) The couple next to us, a sweet, elderly pair who’d been coming to the ballet for many many years, just adored her.

Daniel Ulbricht was an awesome Mercutio again, and this time Craig Hall was Tybalt — the most imposing of all of the Tybalts. He didn’t have Joaquin‘s virtuostic flair, but he acted the part well and he actually wore well that costume (that everyone but me, basically, seems to have had a problem with).

But, the ballet as a whole … I still had the same problem with the overacting and the lack of interesting choreography. The couple next to us, loving as I said, Pereira, felt the same about what they considered a lack of movement in the choreography. But these are the things that the critics and the avid balletomanes, who have seen every version of the ballet under the sun, are kind of naturally going to focus on. But Martins was trying to reach out to new audiences. And here’s what two such new audience members had to say:

My friend from work and her husband, compelled by the brilliant ads they saw in the Times (the design of which is pictured above on the postcard setting on my lap), along with my offer to buy them $10 discounted Fourth Ring tickets, attended Sunday’s final performance, starring the original cast. My friends, a public interest attorney (meaning, poorer but more arty than the average lawyer :) ) and an actor, have sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities but have not attended a concert dance performance in years. They know the play of course, but nothing of all of the prior versions of the ballet, and almost nothing of the dancers and who’s a big ballet star and who is not (though my friend did know of Kistler).

So, their verdict: they couldn’t get enough of Ulbricht :) :) , they thought the leads — Fairchild and Hyltin were lovely, their dancing was beautiful and they captured the innocense of youth. They thought the minimalist sets were fine, but the costumes garish, particularly Tybalt’s, and unlike me, had a hard time appreciating Joaquin’s brilliant dancing because of it. They thought the choreography was a little “fast” in places — such as the balcony scene, when Juliet only has a second to look down and find Romeo before running down the steps; they wanted her to do a little lyrical dancing up on the balcony ballet before slowly spotting him and then processing whether or not she should go to him, then excitedly skipping down) and the death scenes at the end happened too fast to be believable. And, like me, they thought the acting was way too overdone. My friend laughed this off though, thinking it was silly but not a huge deal, and telling me her father-in-law, a ballet fan, won’t go to the story ballets because of the “bad acting. I mean, everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet,” she said, “we don’t need all the extreme gestures.” So, to them, it didn’t ruin the ballet at all, but was just a silly but inevitable thing that one should expect to see in a story ballet.

My problem with the overacting — and it was the same way with all three casts that I saw so I’m now assuming the dancers were only following Martins’s instructions — is that, I really believe in a story ballet it’s of the utmost importance, it’s what emotionally moves the audience and propels the drama along, and if it’s totally overdone, it ends up looking cartoonish — resulting in the exact opposite effect. In the Saturday afternoon cast, Jonathan Stafford played Paris and his kissing Juliet’s hand in an attempt to win her over at one point was so abrupt, so overdone, it just looked comical. As revealed by the excellent Tragic Love videos made by Kristin Sloan (discussed further below), the company spent so much time on the sword-fighting — and it shows; that scene is by far the best. Mercutio doesn’t toss up his sword the moment he is fatally stabbed, clench his chest and fall straight to the ground screaming; rather, it takes him a lot longer than that — as it would had he actually been struck. Tybalt’s death is the same. If they would have just had some actors come in and instruct the dancers on how to emote without overdoing it to a ridiculous extreme, I think the whole would have been so much better. I realize these dancers are used to performing abstract ballets; so much more reason then to have actors come in and help out for this kind of ballet.

Last Thursday evening, I attended a studio talk at which members of the original cast — Robert Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, and Joaquin De Luz — spoke. I have to say NYCB people are really some of the nicest people. Originally the talk was to be held in the Rose Building, where apparently they normally take place, but it was moved last minute to a studio in the State Theater, so there were a lot of lost people wandering around in the bowels of the studio corridors! None of the young dancers made fun of me in the least, annoying though I must have been holding them up on stairs and in narrow hallways trying to figure out where in the world I was supposed to be! When I finally arrived at my proper destination, the moderator and the other organizers actually congratulated me :)

Anyway, the discussion was very interesting. One thing the moderator asked the dancers was how they dealt with all the criticism of this new production. (I actually didn’t think there was that much harsh criticism though.) Hyltin was sweet. She said, after a bad experience once reading, in the midst of the run of a particular ballet she was performing, a critic’s harsh words about her, which really hindered her next performances, she no longer reads reviews until the run was finished. I think that’s very wise. Although all artists put themselves in the public eye and must be able to take criticism, dancers in general tend to be the youngest of artists, and these dancers in particular are very young, so it’s got to be hard on them. DeLuz, older and more jaded, with a good sense of humor, shrugged his shoulders and said he stopped letting it get to him: they’re gonna say what they’re gonna say you know; you can usually predict at this point who will say what. Fairchild, called “Robbie” — how cute! :) — ran in late and sweaty from a rehearsal. I realized listening to him talk at this, just how young he really is. All wide-eyed and smiling brightly, he chirped, “Well, I’m totally new at this, so I read EVERYTHING!!” He sounded pretty happy about it and I don’t remember any bad reviews of him. But, in general, I have to say to Hyltin (and to Morgan, whom I was a little hard on in my last post!), maybe sometimes, not always, but sometimes, the critics are harsh because they see a kernel of something there and are anxious to see it taken to another level. I’d think that a critic’s not noticing you is worse than them saying something critical. A critic is writing for the general public and readers of his or her publication rather than the dancers and ballet-makers, but maybe, taken the right way, a critic’s words can help improve something. Assuming of course that the critic is open to looking at the next performance with fresh eyes, which I think was what Joaquin was complaining is all too often unlikely. Hyltin said after she finishes her run, she will read some reviews, take what she can of the criticism, and learn from it, and leave the rest. I think that’s so smart — she’s a wise young woman :)

And one other happy thing about ‘Robbie’ :) :) : the dancers were also asked how they prepared for their roles. Apropos of what I said in my earlier post about watching the greats dancers of the past, he said his sister, the magnificient Megan, gave him a DVD of Nureyev and Fonteyn dancing the ballet :) So, see, the good dancers do agree with me!

One last thing about R+J: I feel that something that was left out of many of the reviews was recognition of all the hard work the company put, especially Kristin Sloan, into making this production publicly accessible to everyone, both in and outside of New York, and to attracting new audiences. That Tragic Love video series broadcast over the internet, originally on NYCB’s website and now on bliptv, here, is downright trailblazing. Also, the advertising, with those very cool designs, the already inexpensive but further discounted seats in honor of Kirstein’s birthday, the studio talks allowing audiences to hear directly from the dancers — invaluable to me for one — for all of that, NYCB is really on the forefront of promoting ballet and expanding audiences, particularly through internet use, and for that alone it deserves MAJOR KUDOS.

One final thing about Romeo + Juliet and then I swear I’m done, is this from the Wired blog. Which prompted me to write this to Apollinaire, who sweetly posted my thoughts. I fully realize this writer, Todd Jatras, who from his oeuvre appears to be of the Sebastian Junger uber-mensch school of journalism, is writing for a certain audience and is trying to convince his readers to try a ballet performance, as he did, after meeting Kristin and viewing her awesome Tragic Love videos. And I’m very happy that he did and that he admitted his formerly-held prejudices about “muscely men in tights”, etc., were silly. But it just worries me that promoting a ballet on the bases that it’s just like action-packed film with lots of sword fights is problematic … I mean, what are people then going to think of the more abstract ballets, which is what NYCB primarily puts on? And why must one go to the ballet in order to see the same thing you can see at the movies? For a Schwarzenneger film, you need simply to run up to your local mulitplex; ballet is art; it’s like the opera, it’s like an art museum — people should go for the same reasons they’d go to those things, to be exposed to something different, to have a cultural experience. I mean, I obviously love a good drama too, which is why Romeo and Juliet is one of my favorite ballets, and I CAN’T WAIT to see ABT’s Othello next week (!!), but ballet is drama mixed with poetic movement and beautiful music, or it’s abstract beauty and lyricism … it’s just so much more than a Schwarzenneger film! And that led me to wonder why the same people who don’t mind spending an evening at the opera or afternoon at an art museum — who are NOT expecting to see Schwarzenneger action in such a place — are hesitant to go to the ballet, when it’s the same art form… I don’t get it.

Okay, one more thing, not related to R+J but to NYCB: Sarah, a friend who I met on the Winger (where I’ve made many new ballet friends :) ) sent me some information about a talk hosted by the Jewish Community Center next Monday, in celebration of the centennial of Kirstein’s birth, on the making of Dybbuk, one of Jerome Robbins’s ballets. NYCB dancers will be there performing and there will be a talk on staging this ballet and the music used in it. For more information, go here and here.

Okay sorry for the hugely long post; I’m done, for now!

5 Comments

  1. It is always interesting to bring or send people to the ballet who don’t go often (or have never been) and then to hear what they think of it. Over the past decade I have gotten tickets for co-workers and ‘non-ballet’ friends on many occasions and I’m always curious to hear their unbiased, unvarnished opinions. One thing that surprises me is that almost everyone who went to see mixed programs did not particularly respond to Balanchine; they loved things like THE CAGE, CAROUSEL, IN VENTO and EVENFALL. All of the ‘uninitiated’ who saw Peter’s SWAN LAKE really liked it because they didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to.

  2. With your final thoughts on R & J, Tonya, I think you have outdone yourself. I will offer just a few observations.
    1. I think it’s interesting that with all the criticism I’ve read of Martins’ s R & J, you are the first to cite “over-acting.” To tell you the truth, I never even thought about the acting because I share your friends’ perspective that we don’t really go to story ballets to see the acting nor do we expect much of the acting (after all, dancers are not great actors anymore than professional actors are great dancers). But maybe that’s an NYCB ballet -goer bias. Actually, the acting I observed in NYCB’s R & J was pretty much like the acting I’ve become accustomed to seeing in ABT’s story ballets over the years – on the whole, no better but no worse. What I can say is that I did find the emotions conveyed by Hyltin/FAirchild and Morgan/Orza to be generally believable and moving. But I do think you have raised an excellent point. If a company is going to bring in a fencing coach to work with the dancers performing the sword fight scenes, why not also bring in a professional acting coach to work with the dancers portraying ROmeo & Juliet (and even some of the lesser roles).

    2. Lack of Interesting Choreography: Yes, apart from the Balcony pdd and the solos for Mercutio, the choreography is rather run of the mill. But is that not also the case with MacMillan’s version or any other version of R & J that has ever been attempted? The problem is still the story and to an even greater extent the musical score. Sure, Robbins created great choreography for West Side Story but he had Bernstein’s music, not Prokofiev’s, to work with.

    3. Costumes: TAke heart, Tonya, you are not alone. We have all heard such words as “garish” and “ghastly” used to describe them. But I too, apparently as crazy as you, happened to like the costumes, even Tybalt’s yellow – Joaquin wore it well. And actually, we may not be crazy at all because I know of a number of other people who liked them.

    4. I commend you for reminding us what a major role Kristin Sloan played in the promotion of the ballet. Her videos were brilliantly conceived and executed and everyone I know who saw them loved them. Brava for Kristin! (Now we all want to see her back on stage dancing her full repertory) It’s also refreshing to see someone praising Peter Martins and NYCB management for their efforts in promoting R & J in particular and Ballet in general. This is no time for ballet people to be such purists that they denigrate marketing efforts. However one feels about Martins’s R & J, the fact is that the ballet succeeded in expanding the ballet audience. R & J sold out for the entire second week of its run – short of Nutcracker, that is truly a rarity at NYCB. When I saw the ballet (for the third time) this past Sunday, the audience gave the lead dancers a standing ovation during their curtain calls. What that tells me is not just that they liked what they saw but that there were a lot of people there who were not regular members of the NYCB audience (the regulars give standing ovations only to ex-Presidents – at least one they like, longtime principal dancers on the occasion of their retirement and farewell performance, and George Balanchine, if he happened to rise from the dead and appear on the NY State Theater stage again). Will all of these newcomers return to see additional programs? Many, of course, will not but even if only some do, we have made significant strides.

    OK – enough of R & J for the time being. Let’s get back to our wonderful NYCB repertory at the State Theater and those star-filled ABT story ballets across the plaza at the Met.

  3. Thanks for the good comments, you guys, and the shout-out, Gray! I know, Philip, it was really fun introducing people to the ballet and seeing what all they thought of it. I definitely want to do it again! Bob, haha, that’s funny, I DO seem to see different things in ballet than the average balletomane, or than many of the critics — judging by all the reviews and by the threads on BalletTalk, I have got to be the ONLY person who wasn’t upset by Veronika Part’s performance at the ABT gala!

  4. well she got pretty happy responses in bayadere at least :)

    I’ll email you about tomorrow!

    I need to make a costume now!

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