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Dance, Opera Review

Dance and Stage Movement in Operas - and More - at the Spoleto Festival USA

June 12, 2004 - Charleston, SC:

The Spoleto Festival USA, the longest-running and most highly regarded arts festival in the southeast, has a long tradition of reflecting the numerous cultures that combine to such entrancing effect in its Charleston home while also introducing audiences to ever more exotic fare. Yet while one may voyage into the realms to the unsuspected (a six-part Chinese opera!) at Spoleto, and while at this year's festival one could have put together a full schedule of Afro-centric events (Alvin Ailey, Carlyle Brown's "An African Journey," Dee Dee Bridgewater, "DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation," etc.), Spoleto simultaneously remains a bastion of European high culture.

But it is Euro-culture with a decided twist away from tradition. In Richard Strauss' 20th-century Ariadne auf Naxos , nymphs knit with caution-yellow yarn as they entwine their melodic lines. In Bellini's 19th-century version of the Romeo and Juliet story, hard-faced security guards pat down the guests and confiscate handguns. In Big DanceTheater's homage to Gustave Flaubert's story, "A Simple Heart," extra sets of hands emerge from beneath a lady's hoop skirt. The Moscow Ballet Theater, with Kabbalistic rites, exorcises a suffering spirit from prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. And in Rezo Gabriadze's wonderfully strange meditation on the nature of belief and the necessity of faith, Mikhail Baryshnikov becomes a car.

My meditation as a critic at these events was on how, and how well, expressive movement was used - or not - across the range of stage productions. Obviously a ballet is mostly movement, but there are new hybrids of dance and theater that combine dance with dramatic action, music and spoken word, often to stunning effect. Sometimes opera includes ballet sequences, but this production of I Capuleti e I Montecchi had none, and the Ariadne had very little dance.

Ariadne auf Naxos is structured so as to distance the audience emotionally from its characters, by means of placing Ariadne's sad tale within another story. It's a head trip, not a heart wrencher, by design, and its predominant tone is one of mockery. Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal makes fun of the all characters, equally: There's the tasteless nouveau riche patron who has commissioned an opera but schedules a masquerade to be performed simultaneously with it, so as not to be late with the fireworks; the overwrought young composer whose work - Important Art - is treated so disrespectfully; the archetypal prima donna; and the exuberant dancer Zerbinetta and her harlequins. Zerbinetta comes off best, but her slight dance sequences are designed to support the underlying philosophy that music is the crowning art and dance but a coarse amusement.

Considering the structure, the opera is surprisingly engaging, although one's sympathy is less for the woeful Ariadne than for the passionate young artist and the coquettish Zerbinetta who, as her dance master points out, doesn't need a script or a rehearsal as she always plays herself. Soprano Lyubov Petrova was charming and obviously enjoyed herself in the role. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle was quite effective as the Composer and was in excellent voice for the June 10 performance in the Dock Street Theatre. Gwynne Geyer as the Prima Donna/Ariadne certainly has a lush voice, but watching her lying on the floor like a beached whale telling us how miserable she was got old in a hurry. Tenor Adam Klein as Bacchus, whom Ariadne mistakes for Death come to release her from her suffering, was more deadly than god-like. The performance's warmest tones were provided by baritone Louis Otey as the Music Master, but it was the nymphs - Sarah Abigail Griffiths, Phyllis Francesca Tritto, and Nora Bebhinn Fleming - who had the only truly lovely songs in the piece. They served as a chorus, and their sweet-voiced melodies came as welcome relief against the sarcastic wit and saccharine drama. The Spoleto Festival Orchestra, led by Emmanuel Villaume, also seemed enamoured of those passages and played particularly well in those sections.

Vincenzo Bellini's seldom-performed lyric tragedy I Capuleti e I Montecchi (libretto by Felice Romani) was far more to my taste musically, and the performance by the youthful Spoleto Festival Orchestra and Westminster Choir under the baton of Silvio Barbato was outstanding during the last of four evenings in the Sottile Theatre, on June 11. But the production suffered some significant flaws. There was more chemistry between Barbato and the musicians than there was between Romeo and Giulietta, and I frequently found my attention straying from the stage to Barbato's impassioned countenance as he mouthed the lyrics and kept the singers and the players in balance. There was action on the stage - people came and went and did things to progress the plot - but there was an almost complete dearth of really expressive movement, so it didn't really matter if one's gaze wandered.

Bellini's music is warm and rich, full of golden liquid sounds and interesting pizzicato and percussion, and the stage was set in intriguing contrast - stark and coldly lit. Costuming was contemporary, which mostly worked well. The Capuleti are well-dressed mob types, and Giulietta wears trash-chic teen girl clothes. But Romeo is a problem. He first appears as an emissary for peace from the Montecchi - wearing grubby cargo pants and a jean jacket, not showing any respect. Later, he changes to a suit, but it doesn't help much. The real issue is that he is a she, and she never fully realizes the essential and necessary maleness of the Romeo character.

The distressing thing is that I think mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe, the Romeo, could have made the role work, but stage director Paul Curran left unused every opportunity to show us Romeo's passion, and Hanslowe was not coached into powerful male movement and manners. Her voice has the power to challenge the voices of the men, and while I would prefer a greater contrast to Giulietta's voice, the duets between Hanslowe and Hoo-Ryoung Hwang, as Giulietta, were ravishing. Hwang's voice was stunning throughout, and she had me on the edge of my seat in the poison-taking scene.

Bass Philip Cokorinos was excellent as Capellio Capuleti - fierce, menacing, unforgiving. Baritone Julien Robbins sang well as the priest Lorenzo, although he could use a new set of gestures. But it was tenor Jesus Garcia who fired the performance and lit up the stage as Teobaldo. No amount of wooden stage direction could suppress his natural grace and power as both performer and singer. It would have been a lot easier to understand if Giulietta had died to follow that voice to the next world.

For a long time, opera was the model for gesamkunstwerk , the total work of art. Now, however, we have a different model that may be called dance theater or performance and which generally does not include opera's intense vocal component but does often include singing along with spoken words, dance, music, dramatic action and various visual and aural elements. Big Dance Theater's work and that of Rezo Gabriadze both exemplify this type, which has developed over the last 40 years.

Flaubert's masterly short story "A Simple Heart" is dense with anecdote and incident and velvety with empathy. Big Dance Theater 's version, with choreography and direction by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, maintains these essential characteristics, while paring away much of the narrative to create a staged analog of the literary experience. The result, however you may like to categorize it, was a remarkable, memorable hour of performance.

As presented in a June 12 matinee at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, "A Simple Heart" was as fully satisfying visually as it was kinetically. Nine beautifully crafted objects hung from above in the stage space, lit like colored stones in a jeweler's window. They were bell-shaped, and like bird cages, and reminiscent of ladies' hoop skirts - all images apropos to the story of the maid Felicité and the family she serves.

It is the mistress, Madame Aubain, who wears the hoop skirt, and the space it creates signifies many things. She is danced with great assurance by Tymberly Canale, who communicates without a sound the shades of Madame's personality and the vagaries of her experience. Canale is joined by the graceful Jennie Marytai Liu, who has a smaller part as the young daughter who dies, David Neumann, who successfully takes on a series of briefly-seen male characters, and by the two dancers who play Felicité.

Of all the images I saw at Spoleto, it was the sight of Molly Hickok and Stacy Dawson Stearns emerging from under Madame's skirt that was most amazing. They do not play Felicité alternately or in succession: they are both Felicité, dancing in tandem. It was an astonishing representation of the dual self, the self that can know itself, or as Walker Percy says, be abstracted from itself. The two dancers are of the same height and have the same coloring; their brown hair is dressed in identical braids and they wear identical serving-woman's clothing. Often their movements are identical; sometimes they mirror each other; occasionally they perform reverse motions. Together they brought a completeness to the loving, sorrowing Felicité that I had not expected and which was profoundly moving.

The emotional impact of "A Simple Heart" came primarily from the expressive dances, but the dancing was aided by the sound - a recorded collage - and a little singing, plus some projected texts, in addition to the crystalline lighting and simple props. I thought the texts were superfluous (especially since the woman seated behind me insisted on reading them aloud). The experience would not have been as rich without the aural and visual elements, but the dancing was such that the story and its meanings would have been conveyed without them. The same could not be said for Rezo Gabriadze's Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and the Patient . It could not survive the extraction of any of its extraordinary array of elements.

It takes quite a while for art to process history. That is partly what is happening in Forbidden Christmas , which is set in the Soviet Republic of Georgia on Christmas Eve, 1952 - a brutal, restrictive place and time in which the play's Georgian-born writer/director/designer/puppeteer would have been coming fully into his artistic, humanistic consciousness. This work is a paean to individuality and tolerance, a poem to determined love, a sweet song of faith. In its execution it reminded me more of a Chagall painting than anything else I'd ever seen; certainly I've never seen anything quite like this Doctor and Patient .

The matinee performance in the Dock Street Theatre on June 11 was charming and seamless, its profusion of peculiar creative elements knit together with the thread of its simple, sinuous story line. While Mikhail Baryshnikov as the patient Chito, the man who comes to believe he is a car, was the big draw, his talent was equaled by the four other performers. The play's first image is of Luis Perez (formerly a principal with the Joffrey Ballet) as an angel - in red spats, making his own wings. He's a great big handsome man whose every motion is a dance, even without choreography. Baryshnikov, who is rather small and preternaturally alert, can't take a breath without it seeming dancerly, and the precise placement of his feet even when he's standing still expresses volumes. When these two were on the stage together the air seemed electrically charged, replete with negative ions like the air around a waterfall.

Jon DeVries as the Doctor, Pilar Witherspoon as Chito's beloved and various other roles, and Yvonne Woods in several other female roles, were all more typically dramatic on the stage. Although their parts were far from any typical narrative, they carried the dramatic arc even while the script seemed to wander strangely from scene to scene with the anti-logic of magic realism. Chito, returning from his naval service, has his heart broken by Tsisana, who drives off with her new husband in their big car. Chito then tries to drown himself, from which fate he is saved by the angel. Upon his emergence from the waves, Chito finds a crank on the ground, fits it to his chest, and becomes a car. He rattles and shakes on start-up, puts it in gear with a delighted expression, and skips off. His mother calls upon the doctor to treat him, but no treatment avails, and eventually the mother comes to depend on having a car.

Chito admires and loves the doctor, looking up to him for his knowledge and wisdom, and one Christmas Eve, he comes to take the doctor to treat a girl some distance away. The doctor, exhausted, tries to refuse, but Chito's will is too strong. However, the doctor will not get in the car, and will only walk beside Chito as he drives. The two go on and on through a worsening storm and finally the doctor loses all patience and insists to Chito that there is no car. The doctor becomes a hurter, rather than a healer. But suddenly they arrive at the house of the little girl. An amazing reality is revealed, and the doctor discovers he has been ignorant and cruel. He then visits the grave of his wife, looking for forgiveness and absolution. The play ends on a note of joyous reconciliation. All will be well.

The dancers and actors are abetted in their expressiveness by the fantastic props and visual aspects of the production. The props are clever, but in their innocent quality not unlike things bright eight-year-olds might dream up for a play in the living room. My favorite was the dream machine, a device rather like a film projector that reeled through a roll of fabulous drawings. The sound collage was just as satisfying, and it fitted nicely around and through the action and dialogue. All of it was first-rate; none of it would have worked without all of it - yet still it was the quality of the movement, and the choreography of the movement, that made Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and the Patient a sublime work of art.

I must note here that some viewers did not agree with this assessment. Two very different sets of friends thought it was dreadful, or at best, "different." And while most of the audience was enthusiastic, probably a couple dozen walked out of the performance I saw, while others could be heard making unhappy noises. But I assert that one rarely sees theater of such a purity of vision matched with such a fineness of execution.

To have seen one performance of that quality was a great pleasure; to see another the following day was extraordinary. Nina Ananiashvili and her Moscow Ballet Theatre presented a stunning program in Gaillard Auditorium on the evening of June 12. Ananiashvili may be the greatest female ballet dancer of her generation, and at age forty-one looks and moves like an assured twenty-something. Born in then-Soviet Georgia, she joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1981 and is now the Bolshoi's prima ballerina. She is also a principal with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and dances with many other companies around the world. In 2002 she was instrumental in organizing an international touring company, but the troupe in Gaillard was put together by Ananiashvili especially for the Spoleto Festival from leading soloists from the Bolshoi and corps de ballet from Tbilisi National Ballet.

The program opened with choreographer Stanton Welch's Green , set to excerpts from various Vivaldi concerti played by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. The costumes were all in shades of mossy green, which under the stage lights maybe didn't look as joyous as the movements of the dancers, but who could care, with dancing like that? Although the choreography had some Balanchine references, the dancing was not at all American in style - far more exquisite and regal, with an emphasis on perfection of line and a grace that veils the trained strength. All the dancers could do extremely difficult things with tremendous elan, and without ever looking athletic, especially lead dancers Sergei Filin, Dmitri Belogolovtsev (who can just about fly) and Lali Kandelaki. But Ananiashvili is rightly the queen. Watching her I felt just as I did the first time I saw a big Botticelli painting in person: breathless in the face of beauty. Her perfect form, incredible extension, amazing lift and most of all the lovely expressiveness of her arms and hands had tears streaming down my face.

Green was an elevated pleasure; the Don Quixote pas de deux (music by Ludwig Minkus, from Act III, and choreography by Marius Petipa) that followed was the finest kind of flash. Thirty-two perfect fouettes by Kandelaki in a bright red tutu! Dmitri Belogolovtsev was no less impressive. It was a fun interlude between intense beauty and intense emotion.

The evening's final work was, if not the most popular, the most important. Leah was choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and is set to Leonard Bernstein's Dybbuk . The Charleston and Spoleto orchestras were joined by baritone Todd Thomas and bass Joshua Winograde for a stirring performance conducted by Pavel Klinichev, from the Bolshoi Theatre. Klinichev emphasized the mystical and strange, rather than the merely dissonant, drawing out some passages for the darkest effect, which was increased by the large painted hangings on the backdrop and by the foreboding quality of the light.

It is dramatic music and a powerful story - one without a happy ending. Two Yeshiva students promise that their (then unborn) children will marry. One student later dies; the other forgets the promise and pledges his daughter Leah (Ananiashvili) to the son of a rich man. Leah is in love with Khonnon (Sergei Filin), who, unknown to Leah's father, is the son of his old friend to whom he made the pledge.

To retrieve Leah from her betrothal, Khonnon attempts some Kabbalistic magic, represented by half a dozen dancers covered with mystical markings, but he fails and falls dead. On her wedding day, Leah visits his grave. His spirit rises up and enters her as a dybbuk, whereupon she promptly attacks her intended husband. The rabbi performs an exorcism that kills her, and she joins her true love in death. (For a series of images, go to http://www.ananiashvili.com/images/leah/leah1.htm and click on each image to see the succeeding one.)

The piece is not beautiful, not happy, not easy - but it is replete with excellent choreography and great dancing. We feel everyone's emotions while appreciating the dance patterns. The duets by Ananiashvili and Filin as the inhabiting dybbuk/lover are incredibly powerful. And in contrast to many story ballets, there is virtually no pantomime or fussy stage business. The story is clearly explicated using dance, undiluted dance. It is a superb achievement, and it provides a clear proof of the expressive power of movement in dramatic stage productions that the directors of opera would do well to remember.