Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Juliet of the spirits

Dvorovenko floats in ABT's Romeo and Juliet

by Donna Perlmutter

It may not happen in the first scenes of "Romeo and Juliet," when the innocent teenage heroine is still playing with her teddy bear and her hair is still braided neatly around her head. Those are pretty much prescribed. But by the time love strikes her like a thunderbolt and she's flying around in an ignited state, we just might get to see who Kenneth MacMillan had in mind when he created his unendingly engaging 1965 ballet to Prokofiev's marvelous score.

And that's exactly what happened opening night of American Ballet Theatre's week-end run of the work at the Music Center -- because Irina Dvorovenko did not just dance the steps beautifully or negotiate the internally acrobatic pas de deux with Roberto Bolle expertly. She showed us the full dimension of Juliet's feeling states by taking the choreography's basic outline and adding her own imprint, her own grace notes -- nuances that enlarged on each stolen meeting with her Romeo and grew more weighted as the drama deepened.

It was outside the ballroom (scene of their momentous love-at-first-sighting), and in the courtyard, when the two flew into each other's arms -- for mere seconds at a time, before various Capulets came upon them -- that she leaned into his side, melting against him, each repeat yielding another level of intimacy and tenderness in these urgently fleet episodes.

Also, after the tragic consequences of their star-crossed love began to sink in, after she realized there was no escape from the parental order to marry another, she formed her body into a linear sheaf, and leaned backward on pointe to bourrée in helpless horror. Yes, MacMillan plotted the steps but she gave them an indelible image.

Dvorovenko, with her frail, child-like arms and chest, flies like a leaf, given up totally to the emotions impelling her. She resembles an antique print, a reduction to fragile lines but miraculously animated and wind-swept.

We remember others, of course. Most recently the just-retired Alessandra Ferri, whose balcony scene had the rapture of her voluptuously supple spine and neck and dove-shaped arches all stretched to the max in passionate explosion.

Bolle's Romeo certainly boasted a technique in the best classical tradition, if not the deeply dramatic profile Dvorovenko gave us. A perfect piece of equipment who's runway-ready down to his last hair, he is a glorious 6' 3 and could easily call himself the Robert Goulet of ballet. Everything works: his turnout, his line, his unity of movement, his alacrity -- even for so tall a dancer. But Bolle remains a "here I am, folks" kind of guy. Hardly one who loses himself in the character or in the moment.

One quibble regarding their partnership: in the balcony pas de deux they broke the ever-swirling momentum of lifts that should quickly devolve into body twists and turns; they held those lifts too long (circus acts?), thus contradicting Prokofiev's torrential music and even slacking off on the density of steps.

Other changes also took place. In the ballroom scene this Romeo, before spying Juliet, broadened and intensified his stage-side flirtation with Rosaline -- so distractingly that my eyes stayed on it and away from the central act, the young heroine dancing.

But all else was quite well done. The production, with its arresting Georgiadis decors and colorfully rowdy Renaissance townspeople, is a Ballet Theatre gem. It almost doesn't matter
that a small point -- no coaching for Clinton Luckett whose one task as the Prince of Verona was to walk on authoritatively, to Prokofiev's crashing intro, and stop the marketplace melée; instead he conjured up all the fearsomeness of a shrimpy schoolboy. And, of course, there seems never to be a way to get pit-orchestra horns to play without making us cringe at their bobbles. Otherwise, Ormsby Wilkins gathered his musical forces together for the score's sweeping ardor, delicate lyricism and mighty drama.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Veni, Vidi, Vici: Vinikour essays Handel’s Harpsichord Suites on CD

George Frideric Handel: Harpsichord Suites (1720), Chaconne in G Major (1732-3)

Jory Vinikour, Harpsichord

Instrument by John Phillips, 2001, copy of Johann Heinrich Gräbner of 1739, Dresden

Recorded: First Scots Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Recording: Delos DE 3394 (2009)

Review by Rodney Punt

Music lovers know the Handel of extravagant operas, their cousins the oratorios, and certainly the orchestral Water and Royal Fireworks music. We are less likely to have encountered his eight Harpsichord Suites of 1720, though by now there are many recordings on both harpsichord and piano. Far more famous in the genre are the nearly contemporaneous English Suites of J. S. Bach of 1725. Where the suites of Bach often seem like serene, internalized contemplations on dance forms, those of Handel brim over with exuberant impetuosity. If the Bach suites are best appreciated in the evening, those of Handel seem designed for our morning constitutional - as bracing as an ocean spray or the first rays of a dawning sun.

The suites derive some of their heady atmosphere from Handel’s free use of musical form and technique, with few strict fugues and many darting changes of pace and motif. It has often been noted that Handel composed for the ear, not the eye, and these suites are no exception. In many cases the individual pieces have an improvisational quality, and may well have originated as such. We also often hear in them music borrowed from or used later in other works; listening for examples is half the fun.

We have enjoyed harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s virtuosity in the Los Angeles area before, most notably in his April 2007 outing with Musica Angelica, where he gave a brilliant performance of the Bach Concerto in d minor. Here he surpasses that performance with an instrument fully up to the sonorous demands of these suites. The Gräbner harpsichord is particularly rich, with a deep bass buzz adding a pleasing cushion for the soprano sparkle of the upper registers. In the many dialogue moments between soprano and bass lines, this equality of timbre pays off nicely. The instrumental placement in the recording is just right – not too close, nor too distant.

Vinikour’s performance is propulsive, his rhythms nicely gauged with just the right hesitations at cadences and phrases. His ornamentation is fully integrated into the musical fabric, which is to say it is natural and unselfconscious. In every sense, Vinikour, an extrovert performer by nature, has fully realized this music. It’s as if the composer himself were performing for us.

The two-CD set of Delos is a model of its kind. In addition to the eight “Great” Suites, there is a bonus inclusion of the Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435, a work which would take many guises over the years; Vinikour here performs the traditional version. Vinikour’s own intelligently written liner notes aid the listener with important details of the works offered.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What moves people

Pina Bausch, 1940-2009--an appreciation

Bausch in 1985

by Donna Perlmutter

Twenty-five years ago, here in Los Angeles, Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal first appeared on the American scene and so jolted the dance avant-garde that it has not been the same since.

Among choreographers of the experimental ilk there is arguably not one who has been able, or wanted, to resist her influence. Until then the leading lights had been Martha Graham, she of the grand Greek narratives and Merce Cunningham, he of the conceptual abstract; they and others practiced their art with a pristine modern accent.

But Bausch pushed the boundaries beyond movement, beyond abstraction, beyond simple narrative. Her scope included every aspect of theater -- the spoken word, visuals, entire stage environments -- and bounced between the surreal, the expressionistic and the palpable here.

She was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, her company's 1984 debut at Pasadena Civic Auditorium -- a centerpiece of the International Olympic Arts Festival -- was met in New York with howls of critical protest. She outraged the "dance-must-be-only-dance" contingent, specifically those critics of an elite sect (not including Anna Kisselgoff and Deborah Jowitt) who believed strictly in Balanchine and Fred and Ginger and Merce, of course. For here was an artist demanding that the total human experience be revealed, not just its lovely, comforting distillations, but its darkly layered side as well.

Like Bausch, who grew up in the horror of World War II and is imbued with a Günter Grass mentality, her dancers were people with stories to tell, a Euro-version of "Chorus Line" -- but not the instantly sympathetic soap-opera types Broadway dispatched to us. No, these folks dug deeper, with their mentor's coaxing; they harbored facets of existential truth -- not theatricalized but real -- double-sided by a flinty humor tinged with irony, sometimes even openly innocent in an amazing, original way. They were/are informed dancing actors of supreme intelligence and emotional awareness, who never belabor those points.

Getting back to the beginnings, Bausch had studied dance at Juilliard (with Graham and Antony Tudor, for instance, those fellow-seekers of artistic truth) and even performed briefly with some of New York's leading companies. When she returned to Germany and finally accepted an invitation from the northern industrial city of Wuppertal to form a troupe there, no one predicted that she would make that municipality's name famous to theater-goers worldwide.

Until the theater visionary's death at 68 on July 1, her Wuppertalers have appeared regularly in New York, Paris, London, Vienna, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Lisbon and Seville, never able to fill all the requests from other cities. Their last visit to Los Angeles in 2007 came only after UCLA/Live's director David Sefton traveled to Paris just to persuade Bausch (successfully) to bring her latest piece, the Japanese-based "Ten Chi," to Royce Hall.

And it was thrilling. By now, the older company members were not only familiar to us, but so steeped in life and having so ready a performance-conduit to it that they could enact their humorous little fetishes, their quiet frettings and fulminatings in the most seductively, confessional way. What we got to see amid their giddy, impulsive outbursts, their tantalizing encounters tinged with erotic innuendoes was Dominique Mercy, for instance, a weathered blond in shirt and trousers who came to the stage-edge, smiling, and pretended to invite his front-row patrons to snore -- yes, snore -- in the same way that he pointedly demonstrated, in long, sleek rumbles, his manner irresistibly intimate and helpfully coaxing (never mind the absurdity), and ever smiling.

So was Mechthild Grossmann touching-close as she strolled into the audience, speaking imperiously of her love-lorn anguish in deep Dame Edith Sitwell tones, only to appear onstage later in a short cocktail dress as a naively hopeful man-catcher beseeching the stars -- thus giving us two sides of a persona. And how could we forget Helena Pikon doing another version of her 1996 "Nur Du" solo -- where, in short shorts, fishnet hose and high heels she did cartwheels across the stage while excitedly yelling "he's coming to see me!" only to end up bemoaning "he's not coming to see me." The piece was also rife with funnybone parodies of japonaiserie -- competitive bowing and deliberated word pronunciation (kimono, bonsai, Mt. Fuji), none of it lost in translation.

But Bausch did not begin on her path so lightheartedly. At first encounter she was the central figure of Picasso-blue-period sorrow in "Café Müller," casting about blindly, crashing into chairs, while other strange figures whizzed past in manic fugue states. Per chance to dream? In a hazy grey nightmare scored by Purcell? Similarly her "Bluebeard -- On Listening to a Tape Recording of 'Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Bartok)" showed the women skittering from wing to wing mindlessly and finally plastering themselves high on the walls like gothic bats in long gowns. These are indelible images, paintings in motion that the mind's eye obsessively clutches.

In "Rite of Spring," the women formed a corps quaking so powerfully in fearful anticipation, that the episode triggered a kinesthetic response. At each juncture, in fact, Bausch re-emphasized the crippling torment of fear, while tons of peat moss, spread on the stage floor, gave off the smell of damp earth and flew in the air as dancers trounced on it.

All this came counterbalanced by studies in absurdity, on the benign indifference of the universe, on life as a lark, on harmless human foibles. Throughout her oeuvre Bausch took us to the simple heart of the matter. She was the keenest observer of people and their behavior -- in all its paradoxes and levels of defensiveness.

"Nur Du," a western-states commission, was her first piece created outside of Europe. Its title, which calls to mind "Wien, Wien, nur Du allein," leaves behind the eponymous city Vienna and latches onto American pop culture in its translation: "Only You." But, as usual, Bausch tapped into nostalgia with antennae that are universal, incorporating the doo-wop Platters' title song. One episode takes an amused look at Hollywood's obsession with bodies -- illustrated by having dancers take off their clothes in a provocative manner, finding pleasure or horror in what they see, as someone finally utters a mock profundity: "I'm naked under my clothes!"

As for music, Bausch had a remarkably sophisticated range -- "Nur Du" rounded up a sound track that had authentic fado and tango recordings, mixed in with jazz favorites like Jeri Southern singing "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and Sidney Bechet playing "What Is Thing Called Love?" juxtaposed with '50s hit tunes by Jo Stafford and Les Paul.

The whole collection of her work showed her to be, variously, a fearless primitive, a keen yet loving satirist, a punster who bridged the arcane and the simple, a Mensch with a world view that did not shy away from sorrow, a purveyor of the unmitigated unconscious.

What can we say of the artist who, in the best tradition, was reclusive and humble? She herself once admitted: "I am just a human being. All this incredible praise frightens me. I'm sure that what comes out in my pieces is very sincere. But, remember, it was made just by little humans."

Few can argue that the extravaganzas she created with her Wuppertalers are an invaluable treasure -- although a fierce East Coast critics' crowd continues to march lock-step in protest of her, starting back in 1984 when the New Yorker's Arlene Croce coined the term "Eurotrash" to define Bausch and labeled her work "the pornography of pain." Well, I suppose they still need to keep the curtains drawn.

But never mind. She certainly didn't -- and went her own way.

"I am not so much interested in how people move as what moves them," Bausch once said, repeating the mantra of Antony Tudor to explain that steps and movement, for their own sake, are insufficient.