"Writing (Or Scribbling Messily) in the Dark," "The Nightingale and the Rose," and My Sleeping Beauties

On Friday night I went to New York City Ballet to see the premiere of a new ballet, “The Nightingale and the Rose,” by current resident choreographer (though soon to leave NYCB and focus on his own new company) Christopher Wheeldon.

Above picture is of my crazy notes, hehe. After attending a marathon post-modern dance panel discussion, about which I previously blogged, and hearing a small consensus of choreographers name Arlene Croce a good (former) critic, I’ve been flipping through her book, “Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker” (which is a lot of fun by the way — reads almost like a novel or memoir of going to the ballet practically nightly in New York for two and a half decades and makes the NYC dance scene look like THE place to be from the seventies through early nineties — which, with the likes of Barsyhnikov and Suzanne Farrell and Merce Cunningham and all, it WAS … but, hey, it still is, just with different people!) Anyway, she talks up front about her method of note-taking, by which she carries a pad and pen to the performance, then jots things down, or sometimes — more often actually — gets so carried away by the performance that she forgets to write anything down at all, then is forced to rely on memory, which didn’t always work for small details like colors of costumes, etc., which is not a good thing when on deadline. Still, she concludes minimal notetaking is best: “it is the afterimage of the dance rather than the dance itself which is the true subject of the review,” she says, and in order “[t]o let an afterimage form, one has to give the stage one’s full attention, without the distraction of notes” (pg. 6). When Apollinaire Scherr invited me to NYCB to see one of the “Romeo”‘s, I noticed she did the same thing — had a small notepad and pen. I don’t think she wrote anything down though — it’s hard – you don’t want to take your eyes off of that stage! Anyway, I often forget small details like costume colors and minor props and sometimes even the exact sequence of events, so, I figured I’d try to be like a ‘real writer’ and actually jot down deets. Well, suffice it to say, it didn’t go too well — I was writing while looking at the stage, my scribbling is so sloppy I can barely read a word, some sentences are completely atop others, and some run off the page and into the open Playbill, where they’re now superimposed over pictures of dancers rehearsing, etc. Oh well, I tried… Anyway, here are my “afterimages”:

I thought Wheeldon’s ballet was beautiful in the images he created and emotions produced by the sad story, a great idea that may not have been completely perfectly executed (but are they ever on very first try?) The ballet’s narrative derives from the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, and the storyline is as follows: a nightingale is onstage singing of love when a professor’s daughter enters followed by an ardent student infatuated with her. The daughter, aloof and undesirous of his attention, refuses to entertain his affections unless he can bring her a red rose. He runs about the school gardens, searching for one, but can find only yellow and white. The nightingale, touched by his plight (and perhaps in love with the student herself?), agrees to help him. After searching long and hard, she finally finds a rosebush that produces red roses, but the winter has chilled its veins to the point that it cannot provide a vibrant red flower. In order to produce the desired object, the tree tells her, she must sing to it with her breast against its thorn giving the bush her life-blood, which she agrees to do. After the tree has produced the rose, the student hastily plucks it and presents it to the professor’s daughter, who, finding its aroma unappealing, refuses it and runs off. In his haste to continue pursuing her, futilely, the student steps on the discarded rose, crushing it and in the process nearly tripping over the now lifeless body of the nightingale.

It’s a sad but gripping story. Wendy Whelan danced the nightingale, Tyler Angle the student, Sara Mearns the professor’s daughter, and Seth Orza and Craig Hall led the ensemble who performed the part of the rosebush. I thought the tragic beauty of the piece really came alive in the scenes where the men forming the red rosebush surrounded the nightingale, raising her into a series of poetic lifts, enveloping her as she sings, then stabbing and ripping at her, a slicing arm here, a kicking leg there, eventually draining her of her life, before blossoming to produce the red rose. The costumes worked magnificently. The rosebush men wore brownish outer-clothing and must have been wearing red tights and tight undershirts underneath the brown, because, in order to show the nightingale’s blood-letting, reddening the bush’s stems, the dancers somehow discreetly rolled up their sleeves and outer tights to reveal the red under-clothes.

The parts that didn’t impress so well were the dancers who comprised the members of the white and yellow rosebush trees. They just kind of danced on their own, each seeming to do her own thing, and after Whelan passed them by holding up a hand to them, presumably to show that they had told her they had no red roses to give her, they continued dancing as before. I thought this could have been more powerful. The nightingale could have tried hard to wrest a red rose, climbing on them, reaching out to them, pawing at them, trying desperately to penetrate their core, while they could have pushed her away or huddled together, moving as a unit away from her, in rejection.

I also thought Sara Mearns, whose part was small, was too nice. She should have been more bitchy and spoiled in her rejection of Angle, who was perfect as the lovelorn male student, and her demand of the red rose. Another thing I don’t always understand and probably often lay the blame in the wrong place when something doesn’t work perfectly, is the music composition and the speed at which the conductor leads the orchestra, which in turn dictates the speed at which the dancers dance. Mearns took the rose from Angle, and in a split second, practically rammed it into her nose, tossed it down and fled, leaving no time for her character to take in the smell, determine it wasn’t good enough, and perhaps act at first as if she may accept it, playing meanly with Angle’s emotions. Her haste made the scene look very fake. But I don’t know whether it was Mearns’s acting or the orchestra playing way too quickly that was at fault.

Also, I love Wendy Whelan and think she is a wholly unique, very interesting dancer with a wiry, hyper-flexible body that well-suits the more contemporary pieces that NYCB does. I thought her angular body with its sharp lines made her nightingale very distinct and tragic in its own way — and that image at the end of her lifeless nightingale lying in a tangle on the floor is one only she is capable of making — but I would like to see another ballerina, known for her beautiful, swan-like evocations dance that part as well and see how it comes out. I know this nightingale is not a swan or a firebird, etc., but I’d still like to see someone else’s interpretation; I think it would make a very interesting contrast.

One final thing, that I can’t help but find endlessly amusing, but don’t know if anyone else will: at the beginning of the sound accompaniment, composed by resident composer Bright Sheng (this ballet marks the very first time he and Wheeldon have collaborated, which I didn’t know), the only sound is that of a lovely but very faintly chirping bird. Of course it’s beautiful and perfectly fitting. But, funny thing is, you can hear human voices speaking throughout the chirping, interrupting the bird. I thought this was intentional: I thought, oh that’s interesting, he’s trying to evoke the world of the humans — the professor’s daughter and the student who are offstage but presumably about to enter — encroaching as they do in ultimately tragic ways upon the sublimity of the natural world. And, I noticed this chatter resume whenever the orchestra stopped playing and the sound consisted only of the bird. I mentioned this to Philip, of Oberon’s Grove, at intermission, and he said it was the stage manager! He said he can often hear the talking whenever it gets very very quiet onstage! Haha, I had no idea — I honestly thought it was part of the composition! Anyway, the stage manager, as it turns out, added to my interpretation of the piece.

Yesterday, I went to my second, and my last, of two “Sleeping Beauties” at American Ballet Theater. This Beauty is a new creation by artistic director Kevin McKenzie, but ‘after Petipa,’ which, to be honest, I’m not completely sure what that means in terms of exactly how novel it is. This ballet in general is not my favorite, so I didn’t have many expectations nor much to compare it to, and I wasn’t that upset when I had to miss the original premiere, which happened while I was still in England. But I did see the original cast, performing a few days later. To be fair, one of the reasons the ballet is not my favorite is that I don’t really relate to the themes of the fairytale it is based on. Unlike others, such as Cinderella (who CAN’T relate to the hard-working slave who never gets any recognition from elites until, through friendship and compassion for those less fortunate, she gets her day in the sun?), the morals from Sleeping Beauty (don’t fail to invite someone to your party or they might wreak havoc??, etc.) don’t really speak to me. Anyway, those feelings aside, after viewing it twice, I actually ended up really liking it. I saw it on Monday night and again yesterday (Saturday, matinee), and I’m so glad I waited to blog about it until I’d seen it again because I was just way too tired to enjoy it fully on Monday night, just after I’d returned from my long trip.

So my first (Monday night) cast was Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in the leads (Beauty and her Prince, of course), with legend Gelsey Kirkland as the evil fairy Carabosse, Stella Abrera as the ethereal day-saving / kingdom-saving Lilac Fairy, and Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes as Bluebird and Ms. Bird (the latter of whom Playbill refers to as Princess Florine, but here she enters as a caged bird, released by Beauty in order to dance with Mr. Blue) who ham it up for the crowd-cheering bravura parts during the wedding dance scene. Veronika was a dreamily serene Beauty who danced with splendid perfection, Marcelo a very cute prince who jumped sky high during his solos, and, together they completely overtook the stage with their glorious Grand Pas De Deux, complete with those gorgeous fish dives I live for 🙂 Note: Veronika’s feet are like no other ballerina’s — her point is so pronounced and her arch so high, they nearly pop right out of those toe shoes! Herman and Xiomara were astounding as the high-flying ‘birds’ and I got all of my breathtaking overhead lifts I missed out on in their opening night “Romeo and Juliet” excerpt (thank you, Herman 🙂 🙂 🙂 )!

But, oh, the one who really took my breath away that night was Gelsey! The way she hunched her back, scrunched up her face, and hobbled around, she was pure perfect fairytale wickedness on that stage, and with her tiny little body, she commanded your attention like no one’s business! The way she captivated your gaze, it actually made me sad to think of what I must have missed out on by never having had the opportunity to see her dance in her heyday — so sad I missed that era in ballet… she must have been amazing with Baryshnikov.

As perfect as all the dancing was on Monday night, though, I don’t know what it was — perhaps I was just still tired from my trip or missing my Latin men and their beyond sexy hip-swaying, pelvic contractions or what have you, but I just couldn’t get that into the ballet at that point and was really rolling my eyes over the silly story. BUT all that changed with yesterday afternoon’s performance, which really brought home to me “Beauty’s” magic. Cast was Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg in the leads, with Carmen Corella as Carabosse, Craig Salstein as the King’s Chief Minister (who tries futilely to warn of the coming danger) and Sascha Radetsky and Hee Seo as the birds. Part of the magic for me of yesterday’s performance could have been the children who filled audience. No one dances to kids like Gillian. I know she runs the children’s program at Stiefel and Stars over the summer in Martha’s Vineyard and she must be so good at that; little ones just eat her fairy-princesses up. And, there’s no more ideal ballerina than she to both show little girls the splendor of ballet with her beatific, glowing face, and to prove what women dancers are capable of with her bedazzlingly athletic jumps and turns. If others like Veronika and Diana Vishneva perhaps excel at conveying more mature subject matter through their subtle acting and artistry, Gillian is the consummate fairytale heroine.

And there’s no more perfect a prince than David. He doesn’t come on until the second half, and when he did, this row of little girls behind me, sighed almost in unison. They were so young and it was so real and so completely adorable, the grown woman next to me (who I didn’t know) and I took one glance at each other started cracking up. Who cares if there’s no relatable moral when Prince David, running all over stage with furrowed brow searching and searching for his princess, ends up saving you and the whole kingdom with just one heavenly kiss!!! One thing I noticed about David though, sitting so close: he looked overly sweaty and a bit out of breath quite early on — a little too early on. I’m sure no one noticed sitting further back, and it didn’t show in his dancing AT ALL — which was nothing short of spectacular, but I did worry. I heard he didn’t dance last night, as he was billed for, so I hope he’s okay and is just taking a breather. He’s both an amazing dancer and a dependable, almost preternaturally responsible man, so I know he is counted upon to fill in for anyone and everyone who gets ill or injured (Vladimir Malakhov, unfortunately, is out this season with injury, so David’s been cast to replace him), and I’m sure it gets to be a bit too much, especially to be dancing two principal roles in one day — as much as I long to see him onstage, the last thing I want is him getting sick!

Sascha and Hee were brilliant as the birds — Herman is known for his sky-high jumps, so it’s a little expected that he is going to go soaring across stage, but I thought Sascha performed his with just as much knock-out height and speed.

Philip, whose review is here, didn’t like the casting of Craig Salstein, a young dancer after all, in the non-dancing role of the king’s advisor, face painted to make him appear older. True, as Philip says, there are many older, retired dancers in the company perfectly capable of such a part (and I had Wes Chapman on Monday in that role), but I rather liked Craig. He was hilarious in his defeat, especially when getting his hair plucked out by Carabosse. I actually think he looks pretty good with longish hair (albeit without the male-pattern baldness up top) and think he should consider growing his real hair out a bit… 🙂 Seriously, his acting was really pretty extraordinary and he put so much umph into that goofy little part that at points I couldn’t take my eyes off his reactions to Beauty’s dancing to look at Gillian!

Carmen Corella: ooh la la, big time! Okay, I have always had a bit of a thing for her, and her Carabosse, though completely different from Gelsey’s, just sent chills up and down my spine! Her devious fairy, instead of being pure evil, was more sexy sultry vixen, albeit totally hilarious, kind of in the manner of her would-be seductress “Cinderella” stepsister (which I CAN’T WAIT to see her perform again later this season — I so wish they’d bring Erica Cornejo back just for the role of her little dorky sidekick — they were miraculous together; they MADE that ballet, IMO). After she makes her first crackling entrance, complete with pyrotechnic display, the whole kingdom aghast, Carmen turns toward the King and Queen and, raising a pinky to the air, gives a little wave, all sweet smiles drenched with wicked sarcasm crossing her face. It was so funny, I wanted to burst out laughing. Anyway, Philip hated Carabosse’s costume … well, after seeing Carmen wear that thing, ooh how much do I want it! She made that thing so gorgeous — I’d so cut it short, clip off those fairy wings and make it into a mad hot Art Deco-ey ballroom outfit — totally serious! Carmen really excels in these kind of roles — she does so much with them — the deliciously mischievious fairy, the goofy sexpot evil stepsister, Lescault’s frighteningly charming mistress (who she dances with Marcelo 🙂 ) in Manon… I wish they’d give her a principal role to try; I just love her!

Sarah Lane was so sweet as the Fairy of Joy, in both of my casts. Everytime I see her onstage, I can’t help but remember her ever-sweet performance and curtain call with Angel in Sinatra Suites last season. So cute she was dancing, then receiving, all wide-eyed, her numerous bouquets and curtain calls, with him! Oh and, hehe, the Fairy of Joy is dressed in bright yellow (a detail I wouldn’t have remembered but for this: Philip said he didn’t like the costumes — I thought nothing of them, but now am remembering overhearing a little girl behind me say, “yellow, really mother! I mean really!” just like an adult and as if her mother was somehow responsible … hmmm, maybe she was?? Anyway, I guess Philip is not the only one who didn’t like the costume colors…) Misty Copeland is a powerhouse, as always, and I’m so sorry I missed her in Sinatra Suite. Vitali Krauchenka stood out to me as well in the various smallish roles he had — don’t know why exactly — he didn’t have any huge dancing parts, but he seemed very tall and upright the way he just stood about and took up space, and he was always in character… and, he kind of looks like a little Max… don’t know, could just have Russia on the mind, having come from a ballroom festival (which I can’t stop mentioning for some reason…)


  1. I didn’t so much dislike Craig specifically in the role (he IS a good actor) but the idea of casting young dancers in ‘mature’ roles. Also, I sort of think he should have had a couple Bluebirds rather than this pure acting role.

  2. Hi, Tonya,

    Loved your account of both ballets.

    Did want to say, when I’m reviewing–I wasn’t, for that second R+J–I take notes like a maniac: I don’t have a good memory for visual details, so I feel it’s necessary. Not that it helps. I really haven’t figured out how to make the scrawl legible, and I do worry that the notetaking pulls me out of the music and the production a bit, but if you know you’re going to be reviewing, you’re already in a somewhat different state of mind. After trying various sized pads, I’ve finally relented and let myself use a big 8.5 X 11 pad, which I buy in bulk at Staples. I only get a couple sentences on a page. And most of them are half sentences–little reminders. But I find if I write big, it’s more likely to be legible. (I have the worst handwriting of anyone I know.)

    On the other hand, critics are very different. My friend Paul Parish never takes a single note. I don’t know if he even brings a pad. Terry Teachout has this teeny-weeny pad–for theater, at least–and writes maybe one word all night.

    I was fascinated that Croce–my all-time favorite critic–held on to her notebooks, it seems. I dump mine. Reading them once, straight after, is struggle enough. okay, back to reviewing. (Noche Flamenca–fantastic.) ~Apollinaire

  3. Oh I know that’s what you were saying! I agree he should have had some Bluebirds; he would have been great in that role — actually, if I remember correctly, he did do a little excerpt from Bluebird at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process thing… I expected to see him cast in that role at some point this season…

  4. oh tonya, I loved your reviews! you put so many details! thanks for that!

  5. Oh, I just saw this from you, Apollinaire! Thanks so much for commenting! And thanks for the advice on note-taking — if I do take notes again, I’m definitely going to take it (trying to write in normal sentences line by line and in my regular-size handwriting, made my scribbles almost unreadable — writing a couple of thoughts per page in large handwriting makes so much more sense…)

    Thanks, Cathy — I’m glad you liked reading it 🙂

  6. Thanks for posting about the shows. What you said about David is making me slightly worried–I hope he is alright.

    I loved reading about all of the different note takers, and Mrs. Scherr’s comments! I definitely do not consider myself a “critic” even though I get paid to do it, so I feel silly even writing about what I do, but I’m a “notetaker” at shows, and it’s super hard when the lights are down. What I usually do is when the lights go up on intermission, is flip back and supplement my notes if I can still remember. For example, if I wrote, “airy, light and beautiful” for a particular piece of music then during intermission, I’ll re-write it more legibly so that I can remember it when the show is over!

    I have about 10 of those extremely tiny little notepads with the spirals at the top, and one little fat notebook. There’s no science to the one I pick, just whatever I can find in my messy office! It’s super descrite, so I can just slip it in my program when people start reading over my shoulder (which happens a lot, and it’s so annoying).

    I also make numbers for cast members, or just refer to them by initials so I don’t have to keep re-writing their names. Sometimes when the right word to describe a moment in a show doesn’t come easily, I just write absolutely anything that I’m sure will jog my memory under deadline. When I was at the Philharmonic in May, Anne Midgette (NY Times) took a few notes on her program pages, and I was too far away to tell if Jay Nordlinger (NY Sun) took any notes, but I didn’t seem him with any notebooks when we spoke!

  7. Thanks Ariel! This is so fun — hearing other peoples’ methods!

  8. I never take notes during the ballet; I would never take my eyes off the stage for a moment…well, except when I am bored like with the ABT BEAUTY, but even that I watched 99% of the time because I knew I’d never go back to see it again unless Wendy dances it with Nijinsky.

    Right after a piece ends I will jot in my programme any unannounced cast changes I noticed. Sometimes I will write a word or phrase to remind me of a certain dancer or movement. Or I will underline dancers names if they particularly grabbed me in a given work, or put stars next to them…or hearts.

  9. PS: Regarding the idea of another ballerina doing the Wheeldon, I can’t imagine anyone other than Wendy although I’m sure she has a cover or understudy. After watching the little video clip at New York Magazine’s website, I got the feeling that this ballet didn’t mean much to Wheeldon; it was a job and he did it. That it turned out to be interesting, unusual, and a big success for Whelan is rather remarkable under the circumstances.

  10. this is very interesting – i’ve been reading quite a bit about reviewing lately but this is the first time i’ve come across the art of notetaking – no jokes. it really is an art 😉 as we can see from everyone’s tips.

    it is always easy to attack the reviewer on grounds that they did not fully understand the work – but this has made me realize once again that there are two sides to an argument. dance / performance is one of the most difficult things to review because you cannot sit back and analyze the work at your leisure (as you can with an artwork or book etc.) it all happens in the moment and is over in an instant.

    i have all kinds of shorthand clues for myself … i also use the star and heart system. i have tried to write during performances but it is always a disaster. I find it easier to jot down notes in an interval / at the end of the show.

    Tonya – i also wanted to say – i just love your writing. keep up the good work…

  11. Really, Philip (regarding Wheeldon)! I’ll have to look at that video clip — I missed it! I was thinking Janie Taylor…

  12. Would love to read that Croce book once you’re done, if you’re the lending type 🙂

  13. Oh yes, Janie Taylor…of only she were dancing…

  14. Thanks Maia!

    Janie Taylor’s not dancing?…

  15. Hey Tonya! Very interesting to read about both ballets, and it’s somewhat reassuring to hear Sleeping Beauty isn’t as bad as they say in other reviews.

    Regarding the note taking – when I was writing for review (oh the good old college paper…), what worked for me was to bring a notebook but wait until the lights came up and then immediately write down everything I could remember and my impressions. That way I could watch, observe and take it all in during the performance, but then also capture as much as possible before I forgot it. It doesn’t capture every detail, but then again I also couldn’t read the things I wrote in the dark either, so it worked out well enough. Of course, scribbling at intermission can be slightly antisocial for a bit, but it helps the review! And knowing that I’d be writing notes afterwards, I also began mentally keeping track of things I’d want to remember, and it wasn’t too distracting either. It’s not a perfect solution, but a workable one at the time.

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