Monday, 6 March 2017

Attending the Ballet in Florida: Miami City Ballet's Program Three

Simone Messmer and Miami City Ballet dancers in Alexei Ratmansky's The Fairy's Kiss
© 2017 Gene Schiavone: all rights reserved, reproduced with kind permission of the company 

Gita Mistry

Miami City Ballet, Program Three: Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Polyphonia and The Fairy's Kiss Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 25 Feb 2017, 20:00

I have just returned from Florida where I attended the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, gave a cookery demonstration and looked up some old friends who have moved to the United States. While there, I checked out the local theatres.  I found that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was to perform at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami between the 23 and 26 Feb 2017 and that Miami City Ballet was to dance a triple bill that included a new work by Alexei Ratmansky at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Having seen Alvin Ailey at the Bradford Alhambra and the Lowry when they visited us a few months ago I opted for the Miami City Ballet even though the Adrienne Arsht Center was much closer to where I was staying. The appeal of a new ballet by Ratmansky was hard to resist.

This was the first time that I had seen a dance performance in the United States and, indeed, the first time that I had seen a live performance by an American classical company anywhere.  I had heard a lot about national styles in ballet and that Americans are trained and perform quite differently from dancers in England, Russia and France. I was curious to know whether I would recognize a distinctly American style. I had, of course, seen Americans who dance with European companies such as Damien Johnson, Martha Leebolt and Michaela DePrince but I had never detected a particularly American feel to their performances.

I invited one of the friends I was visiting to watch the ballet with me. I do not know whether this was the first ballet that she had seen on stage but I got the impression that she does not go to the ballet very often. For instance, she had expected to see women in classical tutus and wondered where they were.

West Palm Beach is about 70 miles north of Miami and my friend kindly drove us there.  It was a pleasant drive along the coast but it took us 90 minutes to reach our destination as there was fairly heavy traffic on the motorway. The Kravis Center was huge.  It is quite a modern building - all steel, concrete and glass which reminded me a little of the Music Theatre or Stopera in Amsterdam.  It is called a "Center" because it has several auditoriums the largest of which seats nearly 2,200. You can get some idea of its scale from the Kravis Center of the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.  

Visiting the Kravis Center was different from attending a theatre at home.  For a start, there was plenty of parking at the venue and patrons were offered a service called "valet parking" where staff offer to take patrons' keys and find parking spaces for them thereby enabling motorists and their passengers to make their way immediately to the auditorium. A very convenient service for those who travel some distance and are pressed for time as parking near the theatre can be something of a bind in Britain, particularly in London. On the other hand, picking up the tickets that I had purchased over the internet was somewhat more complicated. I was asked to show photographic identification before they could be released to me. Programmes are included in the ticket price at the Kravis Center and I am told that is generally the case in Amerca.  However, mine was delivered through a tiny slot which was so narrow that it had to be folded. The ushers were somewhat more bossy than those at home, directing patrons to their seats in a tone of voice that primary school teachers might use with young schoolchildren. In several places, there were notices asking patrons to stay in their seats until after the artists had taken their bow. I discovered why such signs are necessary later.

Our seats were on the second tier of the auditorium. I should add that seating areas are known by different names in America.  "Stalls" for instance are called "the orchestra" and there is a tier of seating called "loges" which I guess must derive from the French word "loge" which means "box". Our seats were expensive by British standards and were by no means the best.  However, they commanded a clear view of the stage which was larger than most stages that I had seen at home.  The audience seemed quite well-heeled and many appeared to have dressed up for the occasion.  Though there were some children and young people I would say that most of the audience were middle-aged to elderly.

Program Three was a triple bill consisting of three one act ballets:
You can get a flavour of the performance from this trailer on YouTube.  All of those ballets were new to me although I had seen others by Balanchine and Wheeldon.

I have to say that I am not a big fan of Balanchine. I know that he is one of the greats of modern ballet and that Americans hold him in the same sort of awe that we hold Sir Frederick Ashton. the Russians Marius Petipa and the Dutch Rudi van Dantzig. I acknowledge his genius and the purity of his style but I still find it hard to appreciate him. Too stark and minimalist for me and relying entirely on the technique of the dancers, particularly the virtuosity of the principals. 

The curtain rose on a stage that was bare except for the backdrop and wings. Walpurgisnacht is said to be the night that witches roam and Balanchine adapted the music for the ballet from Gounod's Faust. The programme notes mentioned: "Twenty four girls stampeding across the stage - most of them purple, their hair flowing - and a single man."  From where I was sitting the lighting made the women look as though they were in pink and I found their loose hair to be distracting and an interruption to their line. I would have preferred their hair to have been tied back in a classical bun and I have found at least one version on YouTube where that is how the female dancers appeared (see Charles Gounod: "Walpurgisnacht Ballet"). "The man" in this case was the Brazilian soloist  Jovani Furlan and he partnered Lauren Fadeley and Nathalia Arja. Other dancers with solo roles included Emily Bromberg, Ashley Knox, Jordan-Elizabeth Long, Callie Manning, Adriana Pierce and Nicole Stalker.  The solos and duets were performed in an enclosure bounded by the corps. Each of the soloists danced well but I think one needs a taste for Balanchine to enjoy a work like this fully. Hopefully, that is a taste that I may one day acquire.

Wheeldon's Polyphonia was very much more to my liking and I hope that was not just because of the nationality of the choreographer. Looking through the notes that I made in the interval I used adjectives like "brilliant," "refreshing" and "exciting."  The choreography followed various movements of piano works by György Sándor Ligeti. I loved the music.  "Edgy", "modern" and "compelling" were words that I used to describe the score. Wheeldon had interpreted the music ingeniously with pairs or larger groups dancing particular movements.  I found them fascinating. Some were like watching a Rubik’s cube turn by itself. Others were more like the intricate workings of a timepiece.  "Just as I like it!" I wrote and "welcome to 2017."  I think I wrote those words because Wheeldon had blended contemporary with balletic movements and I relish the freedom of contemporary dance. Knox, Bromberg and Furlan made a second appearance in this ballet and were joined by Tricia Albertson, Jennifer Lauren, Reyneris Reyes, Renato Penteado and Kleber Rebello. They were all good but I was particularly impressed by Bromberg. Being a sportswoman, I often like to choose a man or woman of the match and, for me, Bromberg was the woman of the match in Polyphonia.  I should also like to commend Holly Hynes for her simple dark costumes and Mark Stanley for his lighting design. The silhouetting of the dancers towards the end was spectacular. The ballet has a silky, upbeat feel which I loved. I think Polyphonia was my favourite work of the evening.

I also enjoyed The Fairy's Kiss which was billed as the highlight of the evening.  In contrast to the earlier works, this was a narrative ballet based on the Ice Maiden by Hans Christian Andersen. Briefly, a little boy, who loses his mother in a snowstorm, is kissed by a fairy who chooses him as her own. The boy is rescued by the villagers who bring him up as a strong young man. He falls in love with a village girl and they decide to marry but the fairy intervenes just before the wedding and takes him away with her forever. The music is by Stravinsky which I described at the time as "delectable."  I am aware that Sir Kenneth MacMillan made a version of this ballet for the Royal Ballet but I have never seen it. 

I loved the opening, particularly the clever simulation of the snow scene and the dramatic way that depicted the young man's transformation from child to adulthood. A little boy appeared momentarily on stage and was replaced by the adult danced by Renan Cerdeiro, a technique, incidentally, which Wheeldon had used in the prologue of The Winter's Tale. I enjoyed Cerdeiro's dancing with Jeanette Delgado, his fiancée, and also with Simone Messmer who was the fairy. The other leading role was the boy's mother which was danced by Long.  I was most impressed by Cerdeiro and he was definitely my man of the match for The Fairy's Kiss. Indeed, he was my dancer of the match for the whole evening. I have to congratulate Jérôme Kaplan on his clever sets and costume designs. He conjured a period feel with a sense of place for buildings through a clean, modern but entirely functional set that achieved slick scene changes. It reminded me of a very expensive but understated handbag or item of jewellery. I particularly liked the green costumes of the spirits which contrasted with the golds and reds of the other costumes. Congratulations are also due to James Ingalls for his ingenious lighting and Wendall K Harrington for his projection design.

Having seen an American company in action I think I now understand what is meant by the American style. The dancers are very athletic, very polished, very precise and seem to project a measure of pride and showmanship that I have only seen in dancers from Russia. When the corps moves it moves in sync with military precision. When the dancers turn they are ramrod straight. The English style is softer more lyrical. It is difficult to say which is better. They are each pleasing in their own way, but different. I had been asked to compare them with the Royal Ballet and the other leading companies of the United Kingdom. Because the American and English styles are so different it is impossible to make a fair comparison but in technique I would say that the Miami dancers stand comparison with any of ours, including those in the Royal Ballet. I would certainly see them if they ever came to London and I would try to see them again should I ever make another trip to Florida.

Now something that I found rather shocking was that the auditorium emptied as the dancers took their curtain call. I now understand the reasons for the signs asking the audience to stay in their seats until after the it was over. I can think of nothing more demoralizing for an artist who has danced his or her heart out than to face rows of empty seats or the backsides of retreating patrons. These are some of the best dancers in the world. They have spent years at ballet school giving up many of the pleasures that other children and teenagers enjoy in order to perfect their art. They have competed against the best in the world and somehow found their way into a very tough and very competitive profession. They deserve respect and in most other theatres of the world I am sure that they would get it.

I expressed my dismay to the ushers and one of the managers who agreed with me completely. I asked whether this was an isolated lapse or whether it happened all the time. They told me the latter which is why the management had erected the signs. There was no particular reason for the exodus except perhaps to be first in the queue to pick up their cars from the valet parking service. The ushers asked me not to judge the audience too harshly because most of them support the Center generously and regularly attend its shows. 

That may be so, but it is very sad for the patrons as well as the artists are missing out on the most precious part of the evening. Ballet, like all the performing arts, is a two-way communication and the reverence is there for a reason. The artists thank us, the audience, for our attention and we congratulate them for their performance. Anyone who buzzes off to his car as soon as the curtain falls is treating the stage as though it were cinema or, worse, a vending machine. 

One last memory from West Palm Beach. I spotted one of the dancers - I think it must have been Nieser Zambrana - in the car park on the way to his motor car.  I waved at him and mouthed my greeting and appreciation, a signal that he acknowledged with grace. I was glad to see that he stepped into quite a smart motor, more expensive perhaps than those members of the corps de ballet in many of our companies could afford.  I am pleased that he and his fellow artists are appropriately rewarded.

Now that we have made contact with Miami City Ballet I hope that they will stay in touch with us. It would be good to see them to the United Kingdom one day. It would be better still if they could work with some of the choreographers and dancers here and if some of our companies could work with some of their choreographers and dancers.

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