Motion without Emotion at Boston Ballet’s All Kylián

bsn-bllt-kylian

I’m backed up on all fronts, so this will be relatively short, but I was compelled to write some comments on Boston Ballet’s All Kylián which I caught last Sunday. By now Kylián’s genius is so apparent that it hardly needs to be even mentioned, and so the attention shifts to Boston Ballet’s execution. I’ve purposely avoided seeing some of their recent Kylián performances due to my palpable disappointment in their lack of understanding when I saw them perform his work a few seasons ago, but I thought I would give them another try since by now they’ve had a few more Kylián programmes under their belt.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Boston Ballet’s mastery of Kylián has grown at all. The most egregious illustration of this was in the first work on the programme, Wings of Wax (1997). The work is perhaps more virtuosic than usual, and is full of grand jetés, arabesques, and rapid synchronized turns with the arms in the fourth position. It’s also quintessentially Kylián, and the quote from the reviewer at the Netherlands newspaper NRC Handelsblad that is included in the documentary on the choreographer is particularly apt: “Kylian creates magic through movement – it is never predictable, never forced and yet it is almost impossible keep track of what is going on”. Kylián’s ability to pack a single work full of surprises yet still be completely cohesive continues to astonish (this is a work that I would be happy to watch on repeat for months on end), and his well of creativity seems limitless. Perhaps this density causes difficulty for the dancers, because although I don’t doubt that the choreography was executed accurately, there was a distinct lack of emotion throughout. The performance was hampered by a hyper-emphasis on athleticism, and although movements were executed with aplomb, they lacked the attention to detail Kylián’s works demand: each movement must have a trajectory, with a distinct beginning (origin), continuation (progression), and ending (conclusion). I would argue that the main emotions behind virtually all of Kylián’s works are those of melancholy and longing, none of which were apparent in this performance. I rarely felt any intention behind any of the dancers’ movements: is that rapid leg movement meant to be a flutter, a shimmer, a quiver, a spasm? This constant lack of communication gave an overall effect like that of So You Think You Can Dance? and other TV dance competitions, as incongruous as a Broadway singer belting out a Schubert lied, and equally unsatisfying. Of the dancers Whitney Jensen’s cool and controlled performance was the most in-line with Kylián’s aesthetic, although Lia Cirio’s intensity was an almost-acceptable substitute.

The second work Tar and Feathers (2006) is also quintessentially Kylián, although more recent, more contemplative, and more experimental. The work features samples of a dog snarling (at times synchronized with a dancer miming the sound), improvised piano, and bubble wrap. The work is much more foolproof than Wings of Wax in that much of it consists of slow transitions from one pose to another, so worked better for the Ballet overall. Despite inventive movement and some interesting trio choreography (such as a male lifting up a female who simultaneously lifts up another female), the work feels less cohesive than Kylián’s other works: the bubble wrap isn’t explored enough to become fully integrated into the work, (cf. the green apples in Sweet Dreams from 1990), and the staging of the Beckett poem, which has five dancers with bright red lips and tutus made of bubble wrap miming in a pseudo-sign language, was rather too obvious (much like the Lightfoot/León’s “Shutters Shut”, set to the Gertrude Stein poem “If I told him” from the NDT2 performance from a few years ago), as was the ending, in which a dancer tiptoes off stage to the amplified sounds of bubble wrap popping underneath her feet.

The final work, Symphony of Psalms, dates from 1978 and is one of Kylián’s earlier works, and one of the first he created after becoming Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater. From his note on the work from his official site (which incidentally was unveiled at the very end of last year and which is a treasure trove for any Kylián fan) it seems he has a personal affection for the piece, but as a work it does feel more like a preview of the greatness that is to come as opposed to being fully satisfying in its own right. No doubt the work was included because it plays to the company’s core strengths (i.e. classical ballet) more than the other, more-modern works, but the work has a formalism that toes the line between “classical elegance” and stiffness, most apparent in the handling of the eight couples as they move across the stage. Symphony of Psalms is interesting as an early work and in the hands of a truly capable group could prove to be more worthwhile, but the Ballet’s combination of soloists, principals, and corps de ballet members felt incohesive and even core movements, such as when the women move forward with knees bent, heads down, and palms stretched forward, felt mechanical and disengaged.

While I applaud any efforts to bring Kylián to a larger audience, when the end result is as mixed as Boston Ballet’s it becomes impossible to support them without deep reservations. I’m happy at the thought of audiences becoming introduced to Kylián for the first time. However, for myself, although I’ve been content to rely on videos of Kylián’s works as opposed to seeing performances live locally, I think I’m going to have to make more of an effort to plan my vacations around seeing his works done further afield by groups with a deeper understanding than Boston Ballet’s.

Ice cream (and hot sauce) inventions at the Heaven and Hell Takedown

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I am actually still alive, still residing in Boston (specifically, Cambridge), and still (occasionally) finding time to venture outside of work and home. My most recent excursion was to the Armory in Somerville this past Sunday afternoon to witness the culinary mash-up that was Heaven and Hell “Takedown”, i.e. Ice Cream and Hot Sauce local competition-slash-tasting. Apparently the Takedowns have been going on for five years, presumably usually benefits some worthy non-profit, and has covered a range of comestibles, including chili, mac ‘n cheese, and bacon. In this particular case combining ice cream and hot sauce cookery (as an event, not in the same dish) was a good idea since a hot sauce competition wouldn’t have quite enough interest to sustain a local event in and of itself and ice cream is an easy draw. I arrived a bit late but had enough time to sample all 9 ice creams (some more than once) before the voting ended, and it was great to see (and taste) all the variety. I have to give a shout out to the brain(s) behind the jelly donut-flavored ice cream which was spot on and got my vote, although the winner, basil and chocolate chips, was also excellent and perfectly balanced. (Still hoping that I see both of those in a store one of these days.) The hot sauces were a little less my thing, but it was fun to try them out; the ones I tried weren’t particularly hot, but then I got hit with a doozy halfway down the line that instantly gave me hiccups and I had to give up and run back to the ice creams. All in all, this was worth the 15 clams and although I’m less excited about the rumored upcoming cookie Takedown (perhaps I underestimate the innovation lying hidden in the world of cookies), I’ll be keeping my eye out for future Takedowns, especially of the mac ‘n cheese variety.

Crisply Curated Dance in This That Show No. 4

My local dance experience has been fairly peripheral, so I was looking forward to seeing Daniel McCusker’s This That Show No. 4 at the relatively new Central Square Theater. The show, which highlights the works of local choreographers, should be regarded as a template for an ideal evening dance programme: intermissionless with a running time under an hour and a half and a nice amount of variety but with some interesting connections among the pieces.

The majority of the evening focused on exploring the relationships between women, and included two pieces (one by Brian Crabtree and the other a work-in-progress collaboration between Lara Binder and Sheriden Thomas) pairing an older and younger woman and both featuring repeated alternating acts of the older pushing the younger away and then pulling her close. These themes climaxed in the larger ensemble piece “Roots” by Audra Carabetta, which examined the evolution of friendships between women over time that lacked any leavening sharpness or conflict, although the inclusion of two young dancers brought a freshness to the proceedings that was compelling. “Rewind”, presented earlier in the evening and also by Carabetta with memorable music by Nick Zamutto of The Books, was more interesting due to its more abstract nature and the interlocking movements of the three dancers, and the odd veneer of detachment, perhaps unintentional, from the constantly smiling trio.

The evening was rounded out by two overly repetitive works by Adriane Brayton — “Here”, a light, comic duet between two young lovers, and the confusingly titled “in-progress” (is it a premiere or not?), a kinetic male solo — and Nell Breyer’s “From the Floor: 5 Studies”, a theme and variations with each movement presented singly and that formed a framework for the show as a whole. The latter proved to be the most ambitious, if not wholly satisfying, of the evening’s works, and not just due to its multiple parts and use of video. The first “study” was the video “Perspectives on a Dance in Sol LeWitt’s ‘Bars of Color Within Squares (MIT)’”, a brilliant Escher-like play with perspective in which three dancers seem to climb, crawl, and hang down from three squares of the completely two-dimensional Sol LeWitt work “Bars of Color within Squares” installed at MIT in 2007. The remaining four studies provided increasingly diminishing returns as the variations of the central conceit became less and less novel (none of which matched the surprise of the first study), despite an assured solo by Sarah Baumert in mustard (“Study #2″), a gradual increase in the number of dancers, and some fancy but hollow technological special effects in which ghostly shadows of the dancers appear on the stage’s backdrop in real time (“Study #3″). The works have a general aesthetic that would not be out of place in an Ok Go video, with its assortment of dancers garbed in a crayon box range of colors, Capoeira-like movement, and bodies sliding and undulating flat against the floor. Although that work doesn’t succeed as a whole, it ended an evening that did leave me feeling that I should be making more of an effort to catch local dance.

Madcap Comedy of Errors

I finally got myself out of the house to catch the last performance of Propeller Theatre Company’s touring production of The Comedy of Errors at the Huntington, directed by Edward Hall. I was hesitant to go because I’m generally leery of productions of Shakespeare (or opera for that matter) that try to shoehorn in a contemporary setting or genre. In this case the contemporary setting was a sort of amalgam of Mexico and Texas and the genre was slapstick, but since the play was Shakespeare’s highly farcical comedy the approach certainly wasn’t at odds with the text.

For the most part the setting worked well, imbuing the proceedings with a colorful zaniness. The production supplements the text with occasional anachronisms (mostly in the form of asides) with references including (in the Boston edition anyway) mentions of Sarah Palin as “a devil woman” along with the Bruins’ recent Stanley Cup win, but they don’t overly distract. Casting Doctor Pinch as a gospel tent revivalist was an inspired stroke, although purists may decry the completely interjected singin’ and dancin’ gospel number that sticks out just a bit too much from its surroundings; but it’s a fun and flashy moment that is in keeping with the flow of the production in spirit, if not in pacing.

The same could be said for the production as a whole. Although the cast is uniformly appealing and the scenes are full of laughs, in general the staging feels somewhat haphazard, freely mingling bits of slapstick, mime, and comedic sound effects willy-nilly. This is madcap comedy, very much in line with Monty Python where the true hits are accompanied by occasional bits of dullness, and everything in between. The comparison to Monty Python seems particularly apt, given the company’s apparent actor-created approach to productions.

But to overanalyze seems petty, and after some initial slowness of exposition the rest of the production zips along. It’s interesting to see how American critics can’t seem to help focusing beyond the visceral appeal, whether it be Brantley’s condemnation of the slapstick when the production hit New York in March in which he makes way too much of the policeman/nightstick and the evangelist/lighted sparkler gags as symbols of “physical abuse”, or The Hub Review’s over-analysis of the fact that they’re an all-male troupe, when in reality (for this production at least) the “drag queenery” serves the same perfectly obvious and prosaic function as it does with Monty Python: that the female characters are simply much funnier when it’s the boys playing the women. (Just to round out the reviews, I suppose I should also mention Don Aucoin’s “review” in the Globe which, as so often the case these days, is content to recap rather than actually review Comedy, although to be fair his review of Richard III is better.) The British critics, perhaps since Shakespeare permeates their country more fully than ours, seem to do a better job of just enjoying it for what it is, and in the end I was certainly won over. I’m not convinced that their slasher-movie take on Richard III would equally successful, but I’m much more interested in seeing it. Even though I’m too late for that, hopefully they’ll went their way back to Boston before too long. And in case anyone is curious, the current productions have returned to London and are playing at the Hampstead Theatre through July 9.

Semi-recent restaurants around Central Square

Ugh. I’ve been having a hard time getting out of the house, but now that the weather is warmer hopefully I’ll be able to post more regularly. In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with some quick reviews of places around Central Square (and its environs), in particular, places that have opened relatively recently. It’s surprising but, of course, gratifying that there have been quite a few new, and more importantly, worthwhile places. Here’s a quick rundown:

Leapfrogging its way to the top of my list is actually the most recent opening, Thelonious Monkfish on Mass Ave. Being Asian, Asian eateries are always more than welcome. Despite a somewhat silly name, it’s a pretty solid pan-Asian place (although it seems to be trying to bill itself as an “Asian fusion” restaurant), offering renditions of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese food. I’ve gone twice so far. The first time the pad thai I ordered was completely mediocre. However, the second time I had a tofu katsu with curry that, despite the curry being way more soup-like than any I’ve ever encountered, was quite tasty, and a red curry that, although Americanized, still had a hearty flavor. A friend says that one of their specials was a quite good pad thai with bacon (I suppose this is where the “fusion” side comes in), but their regular menu should keep me occupied for quite some time. [Quick edit: Have been back several times since, and their menu has been a bit hit or miss. In particular the bf tried the sushi and the fish was far from fresh, so you might want to avoid that part of their menu or try it at your own risk.]

Although Monkfish comes nowhere near the level of the king of the area, the Buddhist temple, which features a sublime lunch special consisting of rice and four vegetarian dishes that more than one of my Chinese friends has said “tastes just like my mom’s cooking”, it easily holds its own against the remainder of the area’s direct competition which includes, in rough order of preference: Mary Chung, a neighborhood institution and a much better than average Chinese place that includes dim sum; Beijing Tokyo, another relatively new pan-Asian place that is a decent option but with much more proletariat aspirations; Pepper Sky’s: A Thai Sensation, which has completely Americanized Thai food but still keeps some of the flavor intact; Thailand Cafe, closer to MIT and featuring bland Americanized Thai food and a much more authentic Chinese menu; and Pu Pu Hot Pot, which is good if you’re craving completely greasy and Americanized Chinese takeout.

Going back to semi-recent openings, Life Alive right across from City Hall, is a welcome newcomer, with its green and earthy dishes. Its San Francisco, west coast decor and vibe fit well with its central Central Square location. The originally South End bakery Flour has opened a new location close to MIT which I have yet to visit because I always found their food to be incredibly heavy, but apparently I’m not missing much because reports indicate that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it’s always been. If I’m jonesing for brunch around Central Square, S&S and Tosci’s are still my first picks (although the latter only offer it on Saturdays nowadays).

Another semi-recent opening is Viva Cafe, next to the decidedly mediocre Zoe’s and close to Harvard. Viva Cafe is a Middle Eastern place where the food in general borders on being too bland, but their red lentil soup is fantastic and there are highlights among the rest of the menu as well. A stone’s throw away is Harvest of India, which we tried for lunch buffet a couple of weeks ago and was left decidedly unimpressed. My pick for best Indian buffet remains Shalimar in Central Square, the most savory of the bunch and which has been including dosas for a while now and varies the rest of their dishes regularly. My second pick would be Tanjore in Harvard Square, although the flavors are less robust and it’s pricier and always feels somewhat cramped (although they have the added advantage of gulab jamuns, mmm). While on the subject of Indian food, I have to squeeze in a shout-out to Chutney’s in Harvard Square. They’ve taken an Anna’s-like approach to wraps, where you choose an Indian bread (paratha or various naans), an inside (e.g. saag paneer), and a chutney to go with it, and they combine it with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. It’s quick, easy, and absolutely bloody brilliant, and if there were one near my work I would seriously go there every day. I suppose it’s lucky for my waistline that there isn’t, but as it is I try to find excuses to be there around lunch time whenever possible, which unfortunately isn’t enough!

One more quick comment: Although it’s in Kendall, I also have to give one quick mention to Za, a great new pizza place that outshines Cambridge 1 and that I had a great meal at last week. I’d gotten completely bored with Cambridge 1′s static menu, so I’m really looking forward to checking out all the variety that Za offers.

Phew. I think that’s the news from around Central Square. Next up for food reviews, some more off-the-beaten track places hopefully. Eventually!

Lunchin’ around Fresh Pond

I’ve been meaning to post about food places in Cambridge for quite some time. I suppose I should do this in sections since there are so many distinct areas, so to start off with I thought I’d mention a few places near Fresh Pond, which is where I work.

At the top of my list is a place that I’m betting few people know about, which is the Cafe at 10 Fawcett St, run by AJ Culinary. On the surface this looks like a nondescript corporate cafe offering at best cold premade subs and salads, but in fact it’s a completely worthwhile locally owned and operated cafe. Most of its clientele come from the surrounding businesses, but if this were located just a few blocks away it would reach a much broader audience. Given their scope their selection isn’t extensive, but to supplement the daily soup and the daily hot entree (a vegetarian version is often available and all entrees can come in half sizes or with a salad) are a complete range of sandwiches and wraps created on the spot. Roasted vegetables are a common sight on the menu, whether it be with pasta or in a lasagna, but hot entrees also include such things as quesadillas, Asian noodles, and beef brisket. Soups are uniformly good, such as carrot ginger soup, as are the sandwiches. It can get a bit heavy at times, but given the other options in the area this is a clear winner.

A couple of blocks away are the Whole Foods on Alewife Brook Parkway, a Trader Joe’s, a relatively new Chipotle’s, and a second location of Genki Ya, a Japanese organic sushi place that I’ve tried once so far and was fine, although nothing special and quite pricey.

Down Fawcett St about a 10-minute walk from Concord Ave is another tucked-away spot, Iggy’s Bread. Boston shoppers are no doubt familiar with their breads from seeing them in local grocery stores, but their store also includes gourmet pizza by the slice, sandwiches, and of course a host of sweets to look forward to including some nice jam cookies and a memorable plum cake. Not necessarily worth a special trip, but if you’re in the area it definitely beats most of the other nearby offerings.

So that’s the news from Fresh Pond. Next up, Central Square. Eventually!

Subdued La Bayadère at the Boston Ballet

Just some quick notes on Boston Ballet’s La Bayadère which I saw last night. I was excited to see James Whiteside in the lead male role of Solor, having enjoyed him immensely the two other times I had seen him (in “Le Spectre de la Rose” and the Bluebird Pas de Deux), but I found that the fizzing energy and intensity he had brought to those shorter appearances was curiously missing from this longer work. Even his leaps which were usually so confident seemed restrained. Ah well. His all-American looks were also working against him a bit, although the design team’s choice of costume and lack of makeup didn’t help there either.

His Nikiya was Misa Kuranaga, another soloist at the Boston Ballet who I have enjoyed watching over the years, and she was one of the strongest performers of the evening. Her solo and death at the end of Act II were particularly affecting, and perhaps one of the only truly emotional moments of the night (although the staging for the adder bite moment could have had more of an impact). However, her duets with Whiteside, although technically precise, lacked fluidity and through line.

In this case their performance was hindered by a series of atrociously bad violin solos in Act III. I’ve complained about Boston Ballet’s violin section previously and lately they were doing much better, but this is the absolute worst I’ve heard them. The violins flubbed notes throughout the evening, made all the more obvious by the impeccable playing by the rest of the orchestra, but I’m astounded at the lack of quality control for the violin solos, such an obviously exposed part of the score. This was literally the worst violin playing I’ve heard in a professional setting in all my years in Boston, or most anywhere else for that matter. I really hope the Ballet recognizes this problem this time, because it seriously detracts from what is happening on stage.

One of the iconic sequences of the work is the Entrance of the Shades at the beginning of Act III, and the corps de ballet didn’t disappoint. Technically the dancers are proficient, but too often, particularly as the temple dancers in Act I, the corps feel like they’re performing drills in a ballet class. But although Thea Singer, in her review for the Globe, felt their performance in the Shades sequence failed to completely transport, I found it to be quite successful in its still, almost Zen-like (or should I say yoga-like?) concentration and focus.

The second act is the real crowd-pleaser, though, with its sequence of divertissements. The highlight here was easily newcomer Adiarys Almeida in the role of Manu, who dances with a water jug on her head while two young girls (the sweetly playful Saho Kumagai and Fiona Wado-Gill) tease her by pulling at her skirt. Almeida’s relieved pose and pleased smile as Manu whenever she manages to successfully balance the jug was utterly winning, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her. And Jeffrey Cirio (literally) glowed in the virtuosic role of the Golden Idol. Special mention should also be made of the quartet of ballerinas in Act II and the Three Shades in Act III, particularly Kathleen Breen Combes (who I unfortunately always seem to manage to miss in meatier roles).

All in all an enjoyable evening, if not one for the ages. I don’t have much interest in the upcoming Elo evening, but will probably catch the Kylian work (despite being paired with a work by William Forsythe who I loathe) and the Balanchine/Robbins evening. So far along with the Globe’s review the only review of La Bayadère I’ve seen is wickedlocal.com. For background info on the ballet Wikipedia proves to be as indispensable as ever.