Three Sailors Made My Night

No, I don’t mean at the Halloween parade, but onstage at City Center 🙂 Well, last night was my first less than stellar night at ABT. But I’m not that bummed because I still had a good time.

First, the best.

(all photos from ABT website; this pic’s of Herman Cornejo, Sascha Radetsky and Jose Carreno)

Last night marked the debut of one of my favorites, David Hallberg, in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”, a short but sweet ballet about three loveably cocky sailors on shore leave vying for the attentions of only two ladies, and who, due to their silly preening competitiveness with each other, don’t fare so well.

This was an interesting role for David because he’s usually either the ethereal, lyrical type or the noble prince. He hasn’t been assigned a part with a real comical acting job before, that I know of anyway. He actually brought his dreamy, head-in-the-clouds romanticism with him to this role and it worked really well. And, I’ve never noticed the Fred Astaire-ish “tap dancing” steps so vividly. Oftentimes, the sailors all kind of blend into each other. Here, each had his own personality, which is the way it should be. David’s sailor was the romantic, sandwiched between Craig Salstein‘s show-off, jumping-jack of a funny guy who tries to wow the girls by performing such feats as jumping off the bar into a splits, and Jose Carreno‘s cool, hip-swaying, macho dude who fancies himself (wrongly of course) Mr. Seduction. (The way Jose grabs his dazed girl and forces her into a “romantic” tango is beyond funny; it’s like Pepe Le Peu tango.) David’s sailor initially tries to impress his girl with tall tales of military feats he hasn’t performed, but soon realizes, what the heck, he’d really rather just dance with her. Showing off is just not his thing, and he’s almost forced into performing his little solo by the other two, which, after finishing, he ends up at Gillian Murphy‘s feet, lying on his stomach, head propped up in his hands, dreamily gazing into her eyes. Sweet!
Anyway, those three guys were a good end to a rather blah night.

More notably, the evening also marked the company debut of Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen.” I sat in the Front Gallery, which is way up at the top of the City Center auditorium. They rarely open this area, especially for dance performances, but ABT was so sold out, they were forced to create some more space. Though I could see David and his marines okay, I don’t think it was generally a good place for viewing dance. Jorma Elo’s “Close to Chuck,” showed for the second time, and from all the way up there, the backdrop of Close’s gorgeous self-portraits was almost entirely obscured.

Anyway, back to Tharp: this was my first time seeing “Baker’s Dozen,” and I thought it was a fun jazzy little number. It involved an ensemble of 12, all dressed in egg-shell-colored jazz clothes (pictured above, with Isaac Stappas and Kristi Boone dancing). Nothing was on pointe, only jazz shoes were worn, and the piece — broken down into five parts all danced to Willie Smith music — varied between the playful and the lyrical. At times dancers would run up behind each other, tease with a shoulder-tap, leap-frog over each other. Craig Salstein (the poor man danced in three of the four ballets performed: I don’t know how he was still standing at the end of the evening), the best actor of the bunch, was constantly cajoled by a woman who repeatedly jumped on his back unexpectedly. He’d carry her off, she riding over his shoulders childishly flexed-footed, almost playfully piggy-back but upside-down, he with a sadly funny, hopelessly wearied frown. But then he’d return dashing across the stage with crazed high jumps, almost drunk on his freedom, however temporary.

The problem was, Craig was the only real actor of the bunch, and Tharp’s work methinks requires very good acting skills. Isaac Stappas and Sarawanee Tanatanit impressed as well, but they still didn’t have Craig’s level of comedy, and the rest of the company just kind of seemed to be going through the motions, not really giving the piece their all. Maybe that’s to be expected since it’s their first time with it, though. I have high hopes they’ll get more into it the more they perform it.

And then there was Marcelo‘s Sinatra in Tharp’s lovely, ballroomy “Sinatra Suites.” I fell in love with this piece last year this time when I saw Marcelo dance it. For some reason, it didn’t have the same magic for me this time around. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps, this is where I really needed to be down lower in the theater. I couldn’t see his face very well at all, and, like I said, Tharp requires a real acting job. But maybe he just wasn’t that on, either, which is unusual for Marcelo. Or maybe my expectations were so high because of last year. Or maybe it was … Argh .. maybe it was

this damn DVD!!! I’d fallen so head over heels in love with the ballet last year that I: bought the DVD, in which Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo dance the piece; insisted my ballroom teacher incorporate some of the lift sequences into a Foxtrot showcase I was working on; and, in preparation for said showcase, I then watched the blasted Baryshnikov DVD what must’ve been well over a hundred times, because I realized last night, I really have that thing memorized. Not good. I have to say, I do think when you know something too well, your spectating enjoyment is just diminished. All I could see were the things Baryshnikov and Kudo did that were not quite as smooth here, the tricks that weren’t quite as fancy, the difficult drags and pulls that went on for too short of a time, unlike B&K’s longer, extended ones, the little cheeky lifts where she is bent over butt up under him, between his legs, and he bends down and lifts her up toward his crotch, upside-down — it’s a very funny and contorted lift, but B&K did a few ups and downs, here there was only one. And, like, at the end of the third song, “That’s Life,” after he’s been a cocky, gum-chewing shithead treating her like crap throughout, and she angrily runs at him, throwing herself like a cannonball and he catches her in his arms but at the very last minute, surprising the both of them and the audience, and showing that she can really make him her slave if she wants: well, Baryshnikov was looking the other way when he caught her as she flew at him, so he surprised even himself. Marcelo looked back at her while she took her running leap, both making the trick not as extravagant (since he knew when she was going to jump because he was watching her) and dissipating his degree of cockiness since he was actually paying some attention to her. Which in a way is good really. Marcelo’s a nice guy; it’s hard for him to load on too much swagger 🙂 His Sinatra is simply different than Misha’s. And what am I even saying? I mean, I’m faulting Marcelo for not dragging his woman across the floor like a sack of potatoes for long enough, not lifting her by the butt like a naughty child enough times, and paying her some attention … what’s wrong with me? Hmmm… I don’t know. Just don’t watch a DVD of someone else doing something a million times and then go see your favorite do it live. Others loved it: the audience downstairs went wild and I even heard some “Yeah!!!s” so it wasn’t just polite applause. Okay, no more DVDs. At least not when I have access to a live Marcelo. If you don’t have access, however, to a live Marcelo, or a live Jose, or an Angel, or a Herman, do buy the DVD of Misha — it’s gorgeous!


  1. Tonya,

    Speaking of spectating… I have wondered where the line at having so much knowledge that you can be WOWed lives. Clearly as you learn more about dance, or see the same piece multiple times, you get more from the experience. So you might see something in a state of blissful ignorance and not even appreciate the virtuosity, for example. But then you smarten up a bit and are majorly bowled over now at seeing these things. And then you pass the line and see the performance and can’t help but dissent the work on technical competance, minute and subtle nuance of style and so forth. You’re not seeing the forest, but you really can see the leaves of the trees.

    But maybe you now see other things which were invisible or indescribable to the naive spectator.

    I like to believe that dancers are performing for “mildly” informed spectators most of all and less so to the hypercritical eagle eyed criticons who see everything and seem to have lost sensitivity to the true thrust of the performance.

    I love to read the eagle eyed reviews, because I can’t see that stuff. I simply don’t have the training. But I also feel a bit sorry for these reviewers who seem jaded at times and so critical that they miss what me down here can see.

    If dancers are performing for the congnoscenti, I think this would be unfortunate. This doesn’t mean that they should not strive to optimize their performance/skill, but it would create an invisible barrier in a way. No?

    You’re one of my fav reviewers. If you could sit anywhere… where would you sit for dance?

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, SanderO! Well, when I’m able to sit in the press section, they usually put you in the mid-orchestra in the center, about half-way back, which I think are probably the best seats. I also like sitting way up close, practically onstage 🙂 particularly with ABT because I like the dancers so much and want to see them as close up as I can. Beyond that, I think it varies with the work: with Tharp closer is better so you don’t miss out on expressive details, both in faces and bodies. Too far away and you miss those important nuances. But for something like Balanchine (when I saw “Ballo” at the Gala I was all the way in rear mezzanine), you can sit farther back because his ballets are more designed for the overall choreographic effect. I feel like Tharp and Robbins are more like playwrights who use movement rather than words to convey a story or theme, whereas Balanchine’s ballets are more like paintings with moving figures. If you’re too close to the latter, it distorts the effect. I actually think it’s important though to sit in various parts of the theater, especially if you’re reviewing something. All the press people sit in the ideal seats, but then they don’t get a sense of what regular people are seeing.

    Something else you brought up that’s very interesting to me (and that I want to blog about at some point) is: who is dance for, who gets the most out of it, how much training do you have to have, if any, in order to appreciate it, and could that sometimes hurt your enjoyment of watching. It seems to me that the vast majority of balletomanes have some ballet training, and many of them have a lot of it. I have some ballet but not a lot; I have mostly ballroom. But of course you shouldn’t have to have ANY dance in order to understand and be engaged and fulfilled by the art form. You don’t need a degree from the School of Visual Arts in order to appreciate a Picasso, do you? And yet I feel like the way dance is talked about by both practitioners and by critics (most of whom have dance training as well), oftentimes feel like I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s debate that’s already long underway; I can’t understand what people are talking about and it becomes all the more inaccessible to me.

    For example, I watch “Clear” in blissful ignorance and I love it. But then people (in the know) tell me how horrible it is and they explain why: there are too many different kinds of movement, too much open and shut, it violates rules of order, there’s no thematic or structural development, certain things like the ballerina don’t make thematic sense, it’s just a bunch of movement with no structure basically. And all I can say in response is, well, I love the movement, I think it’s beautiful, I think it showcases male beauty (which we don’t often see), and I just think it’s pretty — can I enjoy something because it’s pretty!? 🙂 And yet, if I had all this background, all of this dance training and education in movement theory, if I understood what a phrase was, how steps were developed into phrases, etc., maybe I would see what all the critics see, how wrong it supposedly is, and hate it.

    I have more to say about this, but have to get back to work! Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment!

  3. Oh and I also wanted to say: I did kind of get a taste of what professional critics, and diehard balletomanes (like those on BalletTalk!) must go through, when I watched Marcelo and Luciana dance Sinatra Suite after having seen Baryshnikov on that DVD bizillions of times, and couldn’t help but compare the two. I think so much of most companies’ repertoire consist of older ballets that have been performed time and again, and people who’ve seen these ballets repeatedly have them so firmly entrenched in their minds, you can’t help compare and focus on what the new dancer you’re watching didn’t do, what they did differently. And because you’re so used to what you’ve seen before, their new or different interpretation comes across as wrong. Sometimes it is wrong and doesn’t make sense, but sometimes it’s just different. It’s sometimes hard to separate the two.

  4. Baryshnikov’s “Sinatra Suite” is emblazoned in my mind as well, so when I saw Miami City perform “Nine Sinatra Songs” last weekend, I also missed that wild leap at the end of “That’s Life”. I guess it REALLY is dangerous, and so dancers who do it nowadays have to be careful. i loved how Baryshnikov did it, with the gum chewing, etc. and I missed that aspect of it too. (Didn’t B unwrap a piece, ONSTAGE, and pop it into his mouth? MCB didn’t do that, a guy with it already in his mouth walked onstage and started dancing.) And you’re right, that last leap really changes the interpretation of the entire dance, which is important for the love-hate/push-pull relationship of the song.

    I don’t think that knowing the original version, of dancers who worked very closely with the choreographer, etc. is ever a bad thing. You know that’s how the choreographer wanted it, esp to really capture the heart and the soul of the choreography. And it’s the challenge of all dancers who follow the original, to recapture the same spirit – you can reinterpret it, that’s ok, but to really capture the essence of it; that’s the challenge of dancers preceding the original.

    Also, is Luciana Paris tall? I can’t imagine anyone doing this piece without the woman being very tall, elegant, and leggy. For instance, I’m not sure about what Misty Copeland will look like, although Alastair Macaulay calls her “Tharpian”.

  5. From the little Twyla Tharp choreography I’ve done, I can definitely testify to the fact that it requires A LOT of acting skill. It’s amazing, but can get slightly boring at times (don’t get me wrong, I love Twyla and her Twyla-ness) if the dancers don’t have the acting/stage presence ability.

    Regarding the Sinatra ballet: NEVER EVER EVER compare anyone or anything to Baryshnikov. However amazing they are, they’ll never compare too him; he was just too amazing.


  6. My preferred seat for dance is the lowest balcony center. It’s not too far and I can use binocs for close ups. And as an architect I like the “plan” view of the choreography. I believe one sees the volume differently from above. When seated at stage level the dancers pass in front of and behind one another, and although there is perspective etc., it is a very different image. Think of the may pole dance for example and how differently it looks from head on and from above.

    Too close you lose the big picture and that might work for pdd but not for scenes with the corps and the entire stage.

    I got a friend to join me in the Grand Tier one performance and she loved it. She had always sat in the orchestra and remarked at how much more she saw up there.

    The dress circle at the Met is about as high as I like to sit and only in the first few rows at that. I like the feeling of the height of the theater over me and not shut in by a balcony.

    I’ve become a fan of binocs because they really bring you very close to something, a face, a hand or whatever. But I don’t like to spend too much time looking at details.

  7. Jolene — that’s really interesting how different it was in the context of Nine Sinatra Songs — I really wish they’d do that at ABT, actually. Having different couples makes sense; here, it’s more like one couple with multiple personalities, which I guess makes sense in its own way too … relationships do have their ups and downs. Yeah, Marcelo unwrapped the piece of gum onstage! Luciana is rather small, or at least she’s much smaller than Marcelo, which is probably one big reason why some of the funky lifts and drags weren’t as smooth, they had a big size difference. Misty is really small — I hadn’t noticed until I saw her dance part of Elo’s Close to Chuck with Herman. She is dancing Sinatra Suite with Jose tonight and Herman tomorrow, which I’m really excited about since I didn’t get a chance to see her dance it last year with Angel (she was injured and replaced by Sarah Lane).

    Selly, that’s so cool that you’ve danced Tharp!!!

  8. This is a wonderful writeup– I feel like I was there!
    Ever since I read Somewhere (the recent biography about Jerome Robbins), I’ve wanted to see Fancy Free. After learning that had morphed into On the Town, I went back to see the movie, only to find out that they’d scrapped his choreography for someone else’s in the movie! Boo.

    I like sitting in the center first level balcony as well if I’m in the Kennedy Center Opera House. If you are in the concert hall, which is much longer, you need to sit on the sides or orchestra to see any detail. The height gives you a better sense of the formations in the choreography. I would like to experience it from closer up too, because seeing the dancers’ expressions can give you a much better sense. For example, when I saw Ballet Hispanico’s Palladium Nights we were in the balcony of the concert hall and because the acting was so important to the choreography, some of the dancing fell flat for me. I had a feeling that if I could see what was going on in their faces, I’d have a much more cohesive view of the dance as a whole.

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