Sunday, July 7, 2019

ABT SWAN LAKE 2019: A TIMELESS CLASSIC IS RENEWED


Superb dancing by Principals and Soloists and a precision ensemble
elevates a time-honored classic to new heights

ABT Spring Season
June 24-29, 2019
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY


by Dwight Casimere



 Misty Copeland dances the role of Odete-Odile
 The Swans at the Lakeside
 Scenes from ABT's Swan Lake




Swan Lake is the ultimate ballet. Composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsy's  famous creation is, without question, the most well-known and performed ballet of all time. There isn't a budding ballet dancer alive who has not danced at least one scene from this master creation. It's music has been used in every genre there is from ballet, to film, to popular music. Its even been sampled in commercials, and, yes, you might even find a bar or two buried somewhere in the background track of a rap litany. 

It is, therefor, fitting that American Ballet Theatre would choose to include this repertoire mainstay in the final weeks of its Spring Season at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. No matter how many times you may have seen this or any other production, there is no mistaking that the June 24-29, 2019 performances were so vital and fresh that, even for the most jaded viewer, it was like seeing the ballet for the first time.

Principal Dancers Hee Seo as Odette-Odile, the Swan who is transformed into a beautiful princess, and Cory Stearns as her pursuer, Prince Seigfried, have made the roles their own. 

The scenery and costumes by Zack Brown, with lighting by Duane Schuler, makes the production a delight to observe. Maestro David LaMarche's spirited conducting from the Company Orchestra pit sheds new light on the composer's shimmering melodies and lush orchestrations. 

Like some many pieces that are regarded as mainstay's today, Swan Lake was met with less than enthusiastic criticism at its premiere in 1877 at the Bolshoi. The music was considered too complicated to be performed or appreciated by audiences of the day and the dancers found it impossible to keep step.  It faded into obscurity until it was revived decades later by the legendary dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa and his collaborator Lev Ivanov. It is this iteration that serves as the Holy Grail of today's productions.  Kevin McKemzie's further reworking for ABT transforms this timeless classic into a spectacle for the ages.

Known for its technical demands on the dancers, ABT makes the various scenes flow like an endless dream. All of the dancers perform complex feats with ease, moving with such precision the entire Corps de Ballet of Swans move as one. The Great Hall scene, which features spirited solos from the likes of Courtney Lavine as the Spanish Princess and the masterful ensembles that were the Czardas and the Spanish Dance troupe were the highlights of Act III. The Black Swan Pas de Deux by Hee Seo and Cory Stearns at the end of Act III was, without question the highlight of the evening. Soloist Thomas Forster as the wicked sorcerer von Rothbart made for a commanding and artful presence. 

ABTs Swan Lake was a spectacle to behold.  Breathtaking and beautiful it left one almost speechless. As Odette-Odile and the Prince ascended to their new life in the emerging dawn, the soul almost rose to meet them in mid-flight.

AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE-ABT-MANON GAINS NEW LIFE ON BALLET STAGE

ABT 
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 22, 2019 2:00pm


Part One: Manon



Stella Abreara in the title role



 Principal Dancers Misty Copeland and Cory Stearns in Manon

by Dwight Casimere

American Ballet Theatre ABT ended its Spring Season at New York's Metropolitan Opera House with ballet productions that epitomized its standing as  the nation's preeminent ballet company. Those who saw Manon and Swan Lake, were treated to a ravishing display of classic ballet at its pinnacle. Sleeping Beauty was the season finale.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, which received its World Premiere at The Royal Ballet in 1974, was presented with all of its dramatic import and scenic glory intact. Adapted from the 1731 novel of the same name my Abbe Prevost , the story of the rise and fall of a woman born into poverty working her way through the misogynistic ethos of the era to fleeting wealth only to fall victim to its imbeded traps, is the ultimate tragic tale.

 In Manon's world, she is bartered like a piece of chattel by her greedy brother, Lescaut to be passed between the hands of the older gentleman she is traveling with and the wealthy Monsieur GM. When she arrives in Paris in the courtyard of the inn where her brother and GM await, she meets the handsome young student Des Grieux among the glamorous habitu├ęs and demimonde of Paris, and instantly falls in love. 

The opera's score is a pastiche of music gleaned from more than a dozen of Massenet's operas, orchestral divertissements and piano works (one recognizes themes from Thais, Don Quixote, Le Cid, Cleopatre, Cendrillon, among others). The themes are beautifully spun out like gilded threads by members of the Company Orchestra. Principal Conductor Charles Barker imbued the score with an air of depth and clarity.

Manon is one of the most enduring tragic stories in all art. It is a tome that has found its way into the pages of literature, to the opera stage, and then to the ballet.  It follows the path of a fallen heroine, a theme which lies at the heart of so many great operatic tragedies. In fact, when MacMillan first proposed his new ballet to his principal dancers at The Royal Ballet, he presented them with a double volume that included a novella of that most eponymous of all tragic heroines, Carmen.

Those who saw several productions of Manon during its run at the MET were treated to a cornucopia of superlative performances from ABT's principal dancers, who brought differing levels of dramatic tension and choreographic nuance to the characters and the ballet's expertly staged scenes. It is hard to believe that all of the principals were appearing in their role debuts, as their performances were so in sync with their partners. 

The matinee performance of Manon featured Principal Dancers Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg in the title roles of Manon and her ardent suitor Des Grieux. Principal Dancer Christine Shevchenko danced the role of Lescaut's Mistress and Soloist Blaine Hoven was Lescaut.

When we first meet Manon she is on her way to a convent,  Boylston's 
gossamer moves aptly reflected her innocence. Her transformation from ingenue to operator to oppressed victim was seamless and convincing.


Things heated up quickly in Act I.  Once  Manon spied De Grieux they instantly fell in love. The ballet and the performances by Boylston and Hallberg  then moved into high gear. 

The party scene which opened ACT II was a masterpiece of stagecraft. The costumes and scenery were a glory to behold. Lighting by Thomas R. Skelton underscored the gaiety of the moment and portend the gravitas to follow.

With Massenet's glorious themes swelling from the orchestra pit, the ballet soared to  theatrical and balletic heights. 

The party scene was  where the principals and soloists began to shine. The pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux was danced by Boylston and Hallberg to the apex of seduction. Sir MacMillan's ingenious choreography was expertly danced by the pair. 

Ultimately, it was Manon's journey that served as the dramatic arc of the ballet. Artful dancing and exceptional staging made for an indelible experience. 

There's plenty of 'storm und drang' in this ballet, complete with stabbings, murders and passion to spare. 

Staged by the team of  Julie Lincoln and Robert Tewsley, the Scenery and Costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, as  recreated by ABT, brilliantly depicted the  razor-thin delineation between great opulence and absolute degradation. Manon's fall from grace as a bejeweled courtesan and the object of Des Gireux's ardor, to her subsequent arrest as a disgraced woman charged with prostitution and her banishment to the wilds of the Louisiana Territory are portrayed with stunning clarity. 

Manon's story is the ultimate dramatic tragedy. It inspired not only Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ballet, but two  grand operas; Jules Massenet's Manon and Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut. As one who has seen both opera versions numerous times, it was refreshing to see it transposed to the balletic stage. ABT's presentation of this classic once again proved the enduring power of dance.

ABT Principal Dancer Isabella Boylston (r)


Friday, July 5, 2019

"The Pieces I Am"-Bio Film Explores the Creative Soul of Nobel Prize-Winning Author Toni Morrison



by Dwight Casimere

 Dwight Casimere with the film's director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
 Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison


No one knows the power of words better than Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. In the brilliant documentary, The Pieces I Am' by celebrated photographer and long-time Morrison confidant  Timothy Greenfield Sanders, she tells how, as a toddler, when she and her sister began scratching the letters of a curse word she had seen on the sidewalk in front of her childhood home on Lorain, Ohio, her mother had become enraged beyond words. Later in life, she received word that the Texas Correctional Authority had banned her book Paradise from the prison reading library because, in their words, it would start a riot. "Now that's power,: Morrison says in the film, "that I could tear the whole place up!"

Using archival footage, artful animation, on camera interviews with Morrison herself and celebrated writers such as Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb and others, combined with Greenfield-Sanders' own gripping photographs, the film is an absorbing and thoroughly informative portrait of the artist which dares to delve deep inside both her outwardly creative and introspectively inner soul.

With sensitive cinematography by Graham Willoughby, skillful editing by Johanna Giebelhaus, and a haunting score by Kathryn Bostic that incorporates both traditional and modern black music, the film has thundering impact in spite of its quiet, measured pace.

Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the film reaches deep into the author's cultural roots. She tells of her grandfather who proudly told her that he had read the Bible cover to cover five times. "In those days, it was against the law for a white person to teach a black person to read, much less for a black person to read. That alone brought a heavy penalty. In that sense, reading was a revolutionary act." That declaration by Morrison is layered with photos of lynchings to drive the thought home. One of Greenfield's own photo portraits of a pair of weathered black hands resting on a Bible further illustrates both the gravity and grace of the moment. 

Reflections on her later thirst for reading and knowledge involved her work as a teenaged ;library assistant where she spent the majority of her time reading the classics rather than dutifully stacking the shelves. Her voracious appetite for knowledge caused her to delve deeper and deeper into the world of literature, an act that would later inform her writing. 


After protesting her mother's early demands that she attend nearby Oberlin College, where Morrison felt parental interference would constantly distract her, she managed a scholarship to Howard University, the nation's most historic of Historically Black Colleges and ground zero for progressive black thought. Howard, the undisputed black Harvard, had its impact on a young, impressionable and idealistic Morrison. It gave full flower and substance to her burgeoning personal and racial identity and fueled and informed her creativity. Morrison's career as both  an author and editor at one of the nation's most powerful publishing houses, which brought to the public the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali, among others, is further illustrative of her commitment to promoting the thoughts and beliefs of her people. The path to her Nobel Prize is given further weight by the fact that her fellow black writers all joined to petition the National Book Award to grant her a prize which they felt she richly deserved.

In the film, Morrison is very clear about her mission as a writer. "I wanted to write books that spoke to me. I always felt that black writers were always writing to white people. The writers were always explaining things that they didn't have to explain to me. Even Frederick Douglass. He wasn't writing to me. The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison). Invisible to whom!?"

"The Pieces I Am" is one of the most absorbing biographical films you will ever see. It is both provocative and haunting and, like Morrison's many books, it compells one to revisit it again and again.

Particularly provocative is the anecdote she relates as to the incident that planted the seed for her celebrated novel, Beloved. The novel is loosely based on the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who flees slavery in Kentucky only to be captured in the free state of Ohio is 1856. Rather than surrender to the 'Paddy Rollers' (slave hunters), she elects to kill her own children rather than have them raised in slavery. The central issue surrounding her later trial was should she be tried for murder, which would mean that slaves were human beings, or for destroying property.

Beloved's place in black literature is immutable . Not only does it give flesh and blood to the saga of slavery it, in the words of editor Gottlieb, "crystalizes" the impact of slavery on black history and gives it a face and a soul. |t also, in Morrison's words, tells the story of the impact of slavery from the unique perspective of a black woman who must make a momentous and difficult choice.

Morrison opted not to make her novel a literal retelling of the facts of the story but merely used it as a jumping off point to explore a larger truth. She says the answer came to her in a vision.

"Early one morning I looked out my window at the end of the pier. And out of the river, a young woman arose, fully dressed, and sat on the edge of the pier. She was wearing a nice hat. Then she disappeared.  I new then that I had the solution for Beloved."

That's just one of the spoken gems of "The Pieces I Am." By viewing the film, one learns that the personality fragments that the author reveals are also deeply woven into the fabric of our own inner beings. 

 Receiving the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden and (below) the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama