A New Tharp and A Revived (And Brilliant) Etudes

Yesterday I finally had the chance to check out the new Twyla Tharp ballet at ABT. Overall, I thought there were exciting parts, and I recognized a lot of elements from her other work, but the sum of the parts didn’t really add up to a compelling whole. I also thought it was very well acted and danced by my favorite 😀 But more on that in a minute. First, let me talk a bit about “Etudes,” which I LOVED, and which was on first.

“Etudes,” by Harald Lander of the Royal Danish Ballet, made in 1948, was a radiant celebration of ballet. It started with very young dancers likely from the Jacqueline Kennedy School of Ballet associated with ABT, then curtains went down and rose again to reveal a set of older dancers warming up at the barre. There were three barres set up in a kind of half-pentagon that opened out toward the audience. The lighting was dark except for a white light shined on their legs. They simply did warm up tendus (points of the toe) to front, out to side, then rondes (circlings of the floor with the leg), then swinging kicks, etc. Basic warm-up vocabulary. But they were all in perfect unison and each set of several dancers pointed, swung, rondeed, etc. in a different direction, making for a mesmerizing effect. At times it looked like a Rockettes routine.

Later, tutued ballerinas, more advanced and ready to learn performance technique, came out and did their own warm-up, the lights making their black puffed-skirts looking almost like upside-down ladies’ wigs from afar. It made for a really cool visual effect. Soon, the barres were taken away and, like in a real class, the floor work began. One set of dancers performed a series of high jumps in place, then began flying across the stage in a diagonal line, doing grand jetes, the men eventually doing barrel turns around its perimeter (my favorite 🙂 ).

(Irina headshot from ABT website)

A prima ballerina, in my version, Irina Dvorovenko — a role perfect for her- emerged in splendid white tutu accompanied by two men, one (Cory Stearns) her princely danseur noble, the other (Jared Matthews) a more bravura type (who performs high, thrilling jumps, fast turns, etc.) — all three the main ingredients of classical ballet. They danced a perfect pas de trois, and at times from my vantage point in the middle orchestra, Irina looked like a tiny china doll atop a child’s music box. She was sheer perfection and the quintessential classical prima ballerina. I like Cory and Jared but don’t think either has the star power, at least at this point (they are both still young) to be her equal.

At first I thought how much more thrilling the ballet would have been with someone like David Hallberg in the princely role and Angel Corella or Herman Cornejo as the virtouso. And then I realized they all would have completely stolen the show. The focus, in this man-centric company, should be on the ballerina for a change! And Irina is the perfect ballerina for that focus.

Anyway, who ever knew simple classical ballet vocabulary, a celebration of the dance from class to performance, could be so captivating? But it was. And the audience ate it up right along with me and went nuts with applause, so I know it wasn’t just me. A great introduction to the thrill and beauty of the art form for people new to ballet, IMO.

(top photo Marcelo, bottom Jose, both from ABT website)

Now, onto the new Tharp. First, I must say I am beyond overjoyed whenever I get to see either Marcelo Gomes or Jose Carreno onstage, and both had major parts in this ballet, so I was basically on ecstasy 🙂 And of course they both danced marvelously, Marcelo, I think, to an extent saving the ballet with his dramatic skills.

Tharp named it “Rabbit and Rogue,” but it could have been named Everything Tharp But the Kitchen Sink. As in her “In the Upper Room,” at times the dancers appeared to emerge right out of the woodwork, the dark back lighting making the back seem wall-less. There was the pretend playful boxing from that ballet, the poor little fellow who humorously gets beat up by his girl from “Baker’s Dozen,” the balletic vocabulary fighting for space with social dance from “Deuce Coupe.” It’s like she just combined several of her ballets into one.

Anyway, from what I can make of the story-line, it’s something like this: Rogue (Marcelo) and Rabbit (Sascha Radetsky) play-fight with each other, over what I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s who has the better dance style. Rogue is more modern, moves with more angularity, virility, and solid form; Rabbit is more soft and wiggly, moves in more of a jazzy, not-a-care-in-the-world manner. Rogue as danced by Marcelo seemed more competitive (but in a cutely jocular way) with Rabbit than Rabbit did with Rogue; Rabbit seemed to care less about Rogue’s little jabs and taunts. But this could have been because Marcelo is more of an actor than Sascha…

Anyway, a pair called The Rag Couple (the excellent Kristi Boone, and Cory Stearns again — he must have been tired at the end of the day!) dressed in snazzy black, dance a sexy little number composed of swingy, jazzy elements and a little ballet. I guess they are supposed to represent sinners or denizens of the underworld. The corps emerge dressed in black. Marcelo returns (he and Sascha are also dressed in black unitards with a silver stripe down the side) and dances alone but seems to compete with the corps for attention. At one point, he shuffles off the stage into the wings shrugging and extending a hand outward toward the corps as if indicating he’s given up trying to compete with them and they can have our full attention. Of course the way Marcelo does this is hilarious.

There was a group of four women, probably aged between about 45 and 80 — perhaps a group of sisters taking their mother to the ballet– sitting behind me and the three younger women loved Etudes but the older woman complained it wasn’t her thing; she liked more of a story. When Marcelo made this action, she laughed and shouted I think a little louder than she meant to, “now, this is more my thing!” Her “daughters” giggled and shushed her.

Later, the corps disappear during one of Marcelo’s and Sasha’s alternating solos, only to emerge (again from the wall-less back, as if straight out of the air) now dressed in shiny silvery white. This entourage is led by Jose Carreno (:)) and Maria Riccetto, dancing a pair of characters the program notes call The Gamelan Couple, who dance beautifully together, their vocabularly all ballet. Except it’s not classical ballet. He keeps doing fish dives with her, but with his butt to the audience so you can only see her legs peeking out from behind him. So it’s backwards. (In a way, perhaps Etudes was an ideal ballet to show before this one, since one esteems the classical, the other questions it a bit). This couple represents to me a heavenly ideal, which reminded me again of “Deuce Coupe,” as if it’s the ballet couple who are pure and the social dancers who are cool and fun but a little wild and perhaps bastardize the form a bit. Maybe. Anyway, eventually a group of four — two women, two men — emerge and try to partner each other, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

(Craig photo from ABT)

Poor Craig Salstein, reprising his “Baker’s Dozen” role as the hapless little fellow, who tries to dance with his partner, the normally sweet Sarah Lane. He’d rather tango, but she’d rather ballet (if I can use that as a verb), and they fight and the poor little guy ends up getting beat up a bit by his lady. Eventually, he gives in and dances a very off pas de deux with her, throwing her up in the air like a rag doll. It’s hilarious the way Craig does it; only he can pull it off.

Later, Marcelo returns doing his competitive thing, Sascha comes back, does his dance, more ensemble work,, etc. At one point, Craig holds his hands up in the air looking toward the heavens and mimics, “why me, God, why me?” then shakes his head, helplessly. It’s now apparent he’s the angel sent down to earth to teach Marcelo and Sascha how to behave like proper dancers and stop the ridiculous bickering. Apparently part of their coming together is to learn to partner women because they’ve both been dancing alone throughout and suddenly Craig throws Misty Copeland at them, they throw her around a bit between each other, partnering her weirdly, but I guess not dropping her on her head or anything hugely untoward. Eventually, everyone is happy. They have proven they are good partners who can share the spotlight with a woman, like the perfect Jose can with Maria. (I am probably projecting all manner of my own crap into this, but I don’t know what else to make of this ballet, although I have to say, I’m liking it more the more I’m trying to interpret it). In the end, Marcelo and Sascha shake hands and wave to the audience and all is well; angel Craig has saved the day. The score, by Danny Elfman, was riveting; at times I kind of felt like I was in a Danny Elfman movie, the way the ballet created kind of an over-the-top alternative universe / fantasy world.

By the way, on my way to the store for ice cream afterward, I overheard a young woman talking on her cell phone pronounce Misty “kick ass,” which she was, as always.

(Andrea Mohin photo of Herman Cornejo, in black, dancing the part of Rabbit opening night, from New York Times).

(photo by Rosalie O’Connor, of Craig in white, Ethan Steifel on top and Herman on bottom, from ABT website)

Reviews have really been mixed. My “colleague” at HuffPost, Patricia Zohn, liked it, Sir Alastair did not, Philip found both good and bad in it. Anyone else?

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed your commentary / critique of the two performances.

    Etudes is an interesting way to demonstrate what ballet is, how is is created from the basic elements, which can be beautiful in themselves, almost like abstract art, or looking at a detail of a classic building like an Tuscan doric column or a cornice. These are the elements of style which when added together with finesse create a create building pleasing to the eye. So it is with the steps and elements of classic style in ballet.

    Personally I enjoyed this way of not only showing how the dancers “exercise” ands train and then advance into more complex movement, but the pure aesthetics this production summons up. It is very exciting to see how visually stunning these basic elements are and especially as part of ensemble with multiple dancers. And of course we can see how this all relates to or works with music. Lovely idea!

    Having said that, this piece demands perfection from the corps and the Kirov pulled this one off better than ABT. The smaller CC stage worked better too, I thought. I do love full length ballet with the silly stories involving acting and costumes as well all built from the
    ballet elements of style. But abstract ballet without story lines and acting can be, and in this case is, visually stunning and I, personally, like this very much. But the choreographer needs to be clever and Etudes is successful in creating a “dance” out of the elements of style.

    Twyla, on the other hand is a bird of a different feather. She i a modern choreographer and draws on all sorts vernacular to create dance. She is not a ballet choreographer, although she may use elements from ballet, have her dancers wear pointes and so forth. But her “abstract” dances, at least the ones I have seen, hardly storyline dances, but more abstract concepts the way we often see dance in modern terms, in terms of idiosyncratic movement, bold, delicate, masculine, feminine and so forth.

    Her love of movement always comes through and she is a genius at creating these melanges of movement. I feel exhausted seeing these pieces, but they are not my favorite style of dance and I have no way of evaluating whether someone is doing something wight or wrong or bad or good or what. No frame of reference.

    The costumes were silly in this one. I like them in In the Upper Room, especially the hot red points! This is not a very good piece despite its great dancing. Too long and too silly, and silly in a way that I wasn’t laughing.

    I’d say it was well danced, and I loved Maria Ricetto very much in this one. The others seemed to be having fun and I suspect they DO like to break loose from the rigors of ballet.

    Nice try Twyla. You’re a genius, but this is not one of your best.

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