Boston Ballet’s Ultimate Balanchine

[Yes, it’s been awhile, mea culpa, mea culpa. Work has kept me burnt out for the most part, but warmer weather has brought renewed energy, and now a backlog of posts.]

Just got back from the Boston Ballet’s Ultimate Balanchine. I had recently realized I hadn’t seen them all season, and after reading Alastair Macauley’s warm review in the New York Times my interest was piqued.

The evening started off a bit slowly. The young women who introduced the first piece, “The Four Temperaments”, set to music by Hindemith, executed the steps with precision but little understanding: high kicks lacked style or personality, pelvic-leading steps forward were pointless, and the beautifully geometric shapes Balanchine’s choreography sculpts out of the dancers’ legs, arms, and body were lifeless. The notable exception was Tiffany Hedman, who, for lack of a more-appropriate word, is a simply lovely dancer whose limitless grace combined wonderfully with the intentionally awkward positions. The piece is full of memorable choreography, and although Yury Yanowsky seemed unfocused, particularly at the beginning of “Sanguinic”, Isaac Akiba was simply fantastic both technically and emotionally in “Melancholic”, and Jaime Diaz also provided a strong performance in “Phlegmatic”.

“Apollo” doesn’t seem to be high among anyone’s favorites, and the piece does depend a fair amount on the the eponymous male role. Carlos Molina’s performance lacked character, too often slipping into generic classic ballet “hero” mode, but his muses (which included Rie Ishikawa and Whitney Jensen) were all memorable and their looks formed a nicely contrasting trio. It seems Kathleen Breen Combes was replaced at the last minute, I think by Lia Cirio, although I didn’t catch the announcement at the beginning and I forgot to check for postings in the lobby. But whoever it was who danced Terpsichore brought an athleticism to the role that was refreshing, so much so that it would just be curmudgeonly to complain of the slight lack of subtlety.

In “Apollo” the orchestra’s string section had similar problems as I’ve heard in the past, namely a stringy quality and lack of ensemble, partly due no doubt to the difficulties of amplification. This, unfortunately, was carried into the final piece, although to a lesser degree, “Theme and Variations” to music by Tchaikovsky. The piece is a quick ‘n easy crowd-pleaser, full of eye-catching classical ballet moments. As the male soloist Nelson Madrigal was a bit glossy, but his performance was assured and wholly enjoyable, as was that of his partner, Erica Cornejo, as the female soloist. The corps de ballet, both male and female, provided a steady wave of energy that culminated in a rousing finale and much applause.

The Boston Ballet has put together an evening that’s notably well paced, and the programme was so consistently engaging that I’m sorely tempted to catch one more performance, particularly since some dancers that I was interested in seeing weren’t on tonight. Stay tuned …

In addition to the previously mentioned review, here are links to reviews from The Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Herald.

Tati films at the Brattle

Just a quick post. I’m planning on catching some of the Tati films the Brattle is showing next week. For Tati fans the occasion is notable for several reasons. For one, they’ll be showing Parade, a film that has never been released in the U.S. Also, they’re showing many of the films in various new versions, and some of his films have so much activity crammed into every part of the screen that they really require a theater-sized screen to get the full effect. For those who don’t know, Tati is a fantastic French director whose antics are often compared to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, although his works are much more gentle than manic. His films often have minimal amounts of dialog and feature a combination of sight gags, physical comedy, quirky character idiosyncracies, and mild commentary, with a pervasive affectionate feeling of general amusement at humans and all of their many foibles. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), a.k.a. M. Hulot’s Holiday is a great place to start, although I like its follow-up Mon Oncle (1958) (My Uncle) even better.

Sleep No More, a dreamy Macbeth

A week later, somehow I still find the eeriness of A.R.T.’s presentation of Sleep No More, by British theater company Punchdrunk, to be palpably lingering in my mind. [My preview of the event is here.] I was and somewhat still am extremely skeptical of the premise, which combines the Bard’s immortal play with a haunted house atmosphere. On this blog I can feel somewhat freer to catalog my personal tastes, and the production inspires me to do so. For one I’m really not a fan of haunted houses, and high among my theater dislikes is anything even vaguely resembling performance art, which is almost always more useless masturbatory self-importance than illuminating experience. I also find nudity in theater to be unnecessary more often than not, too often used merely to shock and distract than add anything substantial. I also have a strong dislike for audience participation, but on that front I was reassured by my friend who had seen it once before and was going back for a second look (although she underplayed it a bit, as one of the first things that happened when I went was that an actress accosted me, which led to much internal grimacing on my part).

A quick browse of reviews will give you the basic information about the production and a sample of the high praise it has elicited. Time Out NY’s and The Boston Globe’s are worth reading, and The Globe also ran a preview of the show in October. You can also find audience comments on the production’s site, and there’s also an article on Wikipedia.

Free from the constraints of having to say something objective about it, I’ll just briefly go over my personal experience. It’s easy to see why each person’s experience will be different: 44 rooms on 4 floors of the abandoned school are used and with a cast of 18 you could spend a fair amount of time just wandering through empty rooms. But the sets of the rooms are so lavishly and oddly dressed that they encourage study as much as they inspire wonder at how much money, let alone time and effort, went into them.

After wandering through several such rooms near the beginning, when I came across a person I later realized was King Duncan getting shaved and dressed I followed him to a ballroom scene that I presume featured the entire cast. There were some baffling interactions, including a homosexual couple (one of whom I later learned was Banquo) that could be interpreted as either (or perhaps simultaneously) sensationalistic or contemporary, and an allusion involving a glass of milk that I later learned is from Rebecca, a Hitchcock film I and probably many of the audience hadn’t seen. After that scene I happened to follow Duncan back to his room where in a liberal dose of surreality (which I quickly found is the norm in this production) he went and gardened for a while. Somehow despite the odds the scene felt successfully bizarre and sinister though. I then followed some actors around and caught some of the central Macbeth scenes, including another obtuse scene in which a woman and naked man with an animal head (yawn) danced with our eponymous anti-hero and rubbed what looked like a bloody fetus that had been sitting in a birdbath over each other. Later I learned that the pair were supposed to be representing the three witches but that the third witch was out that particular night. Hmm. All in keeping with the dream-like, nothing-makes-too-much-sense-or-has-much-connection-to-Shakespeare atmosphere I suppose. A bit later I also caught a peculiar pseudo-dance scene involving a lamp dangling from the ceiling and two men playing an odd sort of tetherball with it.

It wasn’t too long later that I felt I had had enough and wandered my way towards the exit. Despite my criticisms, of which there are many, in the end I have to say I left more convinced than not. Any complaints, ranging from lack of cohesiveness in narrative, questionable use of the word “Hitchcockian” in its marketing, oftentimes extremely tenuous connections to its hallowed source with scenes appearing out of order, and overuse of fog machines (haha), are easily counterbalanced by the sheer abundance of atmosphere: everything seems calculated to leave you disoriented and the production perfectly succeeds in that regard. The wordless presentation and the masked audience’s silence and the constant feeling of stumbling through half-darkness adds to the eeriness. The huge scale and the ability to choose how you want to progress (by following the main actors around the whole time, for example, or just coming across characters and scenes as you find them) certainly inspires a second visit, and discussing the production afterwards with others and comparing notes on what you’ve seen and missed is almost more entertaining than your own experience.

Although the run has been extended, it’s sold out and closes February 7. Punchdrunk has done several other productions which I’m definitely interested in hearing more about, and I’m guessing they were similarly successful, but it would be a no-brainer to just buy the whole building and keep this production running permanently. The audience seemed to be a mix of RPG fans who probably have little interest in theater, theater fans, and people who had heard the hype, and adding tourists to the mix seems like it would enable a very long, very healthy run. Reading audience comments it seems like the production fosters conversation and speculation the same way shows like Lost do, and that at the very least people appreciate the evening as an “interesting” and memorable, if baffling, experience. A permanent production isn’t likely to happen, but if it somehow makes it back something tells me that I’ll be compelled to be back for more of this unique experience.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for a pre-dinner option my group happened to end up at Tashi Delek, a nearby Tibetan restaurant that offers 10% off with a Sleep No More ticket. Good food, and a good deal. Sweet.

Sleep No More presented by A.R.T.

Yikes. Apologies for the lull, but yes, I’m still here. I’ve been busy with life, but I’ve got a few things lined up that should keep me entertained for the next couple of months. To start with, A.R.T.’s presentation of Sleep No More has been extended to February 7. Here’s how their website describes it:

    An abandoned school. Shakespeare’s fallen hero. Hitchcock’s shadow of suspense.

    Award-winning British theater company Punchdrunk makes its U.S. debut with Sleep No More, an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller.

My friend D saw it and had this to say: “It was certainly one of the most interesting things I have ever seen/done; this abandoned school in Brookline has been done up as a set to a Macbeth/Hitchcock-like film, and you are asked to wander and explore the different rooms (which themselves are all intricately designed and fascinating to explore even without any actors) and occasionally follow around actors involved in this replaying of Macbeth. The acting is extremely physical (the actors are actually dancers I think) and almost wordless. It’s totally baffling until you get into it (btw, you don’t have to engage with the performers, they mostly act as if you aren’t there, so you start to feel like a fly on the wall or a ghost after a while). I would say it’s a visual feast.”

I have to admit that I’m leery; I’m getting a bit bored with the glut of Shakespeare-inspired works, although I’m glad to see that audience participation is certainly not required. D also points out that A.R.T. has various passes you can get to save some shmackeroos.

Martian invasion … in Somerville??

I’ve been meaning to post a quick review of the show I saw randomly a couple of weeks ago. I was somewhat intrigued by the premise, which was a staged version of Orson Welles’ radio version of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The production actually consisted of three acts. The first was “The Frank Cyrano Byfar Hour”, a “lost classic from Boston’s radio history” that in its quaint geniality had a rather Garrison Keillor sort of feel, while the second was an adapted version of the radio play that shifts the setting to the Boston area while at the same time intertwining an original story about a group of mobsters reacting to what they hear. The third expands the original story and focuses on the Martians’ reign over Boston before the not-so-surprising ending.

I’m not going to spill too much digital ink on my particular thoughts since I came across the blog entry of someone who’s done an admirable job recapping the show in depth. I agree with most of what he said, including the fun of watching the foley (i.e. live sound effects) artists, the sometimes chilling moments of the second act, and the fact the production was slightly overly long as a whole. In that post the co-writer of the War of the Worlds section also comments on the ship sequence, which was apparently not included in the original Orson Welles production but was one of the highlights of this production. That scene and several other great moments like the first encounter with the Martians at their landing site served as wonderful reminders of the power of one’s own imagination and how a book can still have more visceral impact than even the most lavishly produced movie.

I came across this post from the writer of the first act in which he comments on the difficulties of editing the script, and Boston.com ran a preview of the show. I found the text of the original radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds here. The website of the production is here, and the website of the group is here. Apparently they have some recordings and some clips on YouTube. I came in a skeptic, but I’m sufficiently intrigued that I’ll have to dig through some of their archive. The War of the Worlds is such a classic, though, that it’ll be interesting to see what they tackle next.

Minmalism and Post-minimalism at Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival

Whoops. I meant to post about Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival in advance, but the first concert was tonight. You can find details here about the rest of the concerts, and I’ve included a copy of the schedule below. A range of selections including some classic stuff, so should be fun for newbies and long-time fans of the genre alike.

THE BOSTON CONSERVATORY
new music festival 2009
minimalism / post-minimalism

concert 1
thursday, november 12 seully hall 8:00pm
ACME
AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC ENSEMBLE
michael nyman string quartet no.2
michael torke chalk
nico muhly stride
ingram marshall entrada

concert 2
friday, november 13 seully hall 8:00pm
terry riley in c
steve reich new york counterpoint
evan ziporyn hive
steve reich eight lines

concert 3
saturday, november 14 seully hall 8:00pm
marcus balter torus
john adams gnarly buttons
steve reich tehillim

concert 4
sunday, november 15 seully hall 6:00pm
john adams hallelujah junction

concert 5
sunday, november 15 seully hall 8:00pm
john luther adams qilyuan
ramon humet mantra II
joseph celli snare drum for camus
steve reich music for mallet instruments, voices, and organ
louis andriessen workers’ union

Opera Boston’s Tancredi

Even though it was rainy and cold and a weekday I made it out to the last performance of Opera Boston’s production of Rossini’s melodrama Tancredi last Tuesday. The opera, his first serious opera and written at the ripe old age of 19, isn’t one of his greatest works: the plot is extremely far-fetched even by opera standards and the music oftentimes has an oratorio-like stiffness. The main draw for me and I’m sure many others was the Polish contralto Ewa Podles in the title “pants” role as an exiled soldier. Tancredi has become a signature role for Podles for good reason: her immediately distinctive, rich voice enables her to give the character a convincingly masculine portrayal, yet her voice is pliable enough to tackle Rossini’s coloratura with ease. I was familiar with her recording of the opera on Naxos (with the great Sumi Jo, who I’m a big fan of but who alas doesn’t perform in the US much), so I was looking forward to her live performance.

From her first appearance Podles commands the stage. She has a stage presence that no one else in the cast quite matched, and showed off not only her extensive vocal range (which, annoyingly, prompted the two men in front of me to wink and nudge at each other every time she hit a high or a low note) but her acting as well: her opening aria “Oh, patria” had a touching tenderness and her death scene was also surprisingly moving. At times her performance was more subtle than the orchestra’s (conducted by Gil Rose), although in general both were in full Rossini mode where little subtlety is required and instead in Tancredi we get a full dose of pageantry to substitute.

As you’d expect the various news rags around town disagreed about the performances of the singers. I agree with Jeremy Eichler’s opinion in The Globe that “Amanda Forsythe was a lovely, agile, and affecting Amenaide, even if her featherweight soprano naturally made for a lopsided pairing with Podles’s vast contralto.” Although Forsythe wasn’t able to keep the interactions between the two leads completely balanced, for the most part she did an admirable job and her prison scene was also affecting.

Although he sang well, I agree with Heidi Waleson at The Wall Street Journal and the reviewer for the MIT Tech that the tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan as Argirio, Amenaide’s father, had a nasal, pinched sound that was off-putting. Everyone seemed to agree that the baritone DongWon Kim, in the thankless role of Tancredi’s rival, was fantastic, and no one seemed to care for the production much, which was directed by Kristine McIntyre and featured a mostly bare set. I agree with Mark Kroll at the The Boston Musical Intelligencer, that the direction was too static and there was too much “park and bark” staging. Despite the dull production, two fine leads and two strong supporting singers made this one well worth seeing.

Cambridge Elections

I’ve got a couple of reviews in the pipeline, but this is just a quick post to say that the Cambridge elections are tomorrow. This Cambridge City Council elections are this year, and if you live in Cambridge you’ve probably already been inundated with all the various pamphlets and flyers for the candidates. wickedlocal.com has a site that includes a Q&A with all the Cambridge City Council candidates as well as the School Committee candidates. Go vote!

Historical Cambridgeport

Ech. Still haven’t gotten caught up enough to get out and about, but one thing I’ve been meaning to post about is The Cambridge Historical Society’s “If This House Could Talk …” event that happened a couple of weeks ago. I noticed the signs around my neighborhood and read them with interest, but I only recently got around to looking up the website and reading more about the event and the group. The signs were posted in front of houses and each included historical information or an interesting anecdote, and the event was part of a larger “Cambridgeport History Project”. I’ve been meaning to find out more about the area, and although I didn’t have time to track down many of the signs while they were still up, luckily the text of the participating addresses (or at least most of them) has been archived on the group’s website. I’ve been particularly interested in the architecture of the area, which has an unusually eclectic range, and if it weren’t so creepy I would take and post pictures of some of the more interesting places. But instead you can read about some of the styles represented and go visit the houses yourself. The text includes a range of interesting information, including an explanation for the mural near the parking lot of the local Trader Joe’s, and rekindled my interest in some of the local public areas, such as Dana Park, Hastings Square, and Fort Washington Park.

Speaking of the latter, apparently as part of the CHS’s celebration, the Fort Washington Park was rededicated. The CHS has some pictures up here. The website also has a great map highlighting historic Cambridgeport.

While I’m on the subject, I thought I’d also mention the Cambridge Historical Commission’s Historic Marker Program. If you walk around Cambridge at all you’re bound to come across one of the blue oval markers posted to commemorate historic events and places. The site has a list of all the locations and their text. Uh-oh. Checklists tend to bring out my OCD side … Must … resist … … …

Another season, and more conflicting concert dates!: BMOP and BMV’s season openers

The new season has crept up on me. I just realized that BMOP’s “Voices of America” festival, which includes Florestan’s BarberFest, is next weekend, at Tufts’ Distler Performance Hall (just a short walk from Davis Square ). For more info on the festival check out this preview at Boston.com and for a complete schedule see BMOP’s website.

I’m a big fan of Barber’s songs, and Florestan has tracked down “more than a dozen” of his unpublished songs, including what appear to be nursery song settings from when the composer was 10-13 years old. Many of the unpublished works seems to be scheduled for the second of their three concerts. Lest anyone fear this is purely an academic exercise, no, they are not performing Barber’s songs in chronological order. And also, although the majority of the unpublished songs are juvenilia, one just has to listen to his other early works that have been recorded, such as “With rue my heart is laden” (opus 2, from 1927 when the composer was only 17), to immediately realize that Barber was an assured composer at an extremely early age.

One of the connective threads between the two groups’ concert series (aside from the obvious fact that each BMOP concert is preceded by a Florestan recital) is that two of Barber’s greatest vocal works, Dover Beach and the much-beloved Knoxville, Summer of 1915 will be performed at BMOP’s third concert. Now the only problem is deciding which of the three pairs of concerts to attend. Too bad they didn’t offer weekend passes!

In reference to the title of this post, the first conflict of the season is unfortunately BMV’s first concert of the season, also this Friday. Alas, such is life.The concert includes the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s song cycle The Seven Ages.