Sending in the clowns for classical ballet renewal 2

Dance · Reviews

James Whiteside (Harlequin), Thomas Forster (Pierrot)
photo credit: Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

The tears of a clown rained down all weekend at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It was the West Coast premiere of American Ballet Theatre‘s triumphant reconstruction, Harlequinade —and it was a pip. The dashing Commedia del’arte clowns pictured above, diamond-suited Harlequin and sad-faced Pierrot, took top billing. But by the end of this seamlessly entertaining, beautifully danced pageant — an inspired labor of love by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky with marvelous sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola — the clowns smiled. And so did a heck of a lot of people in a delighted audience, including this dance critic, who watched the entire spectacle with something akin to a dumb grin on her face.

Lighter than froth, nuttier than a fruitcake, and with visual charm equal to a deck of vintage playing-cards sprung to life, Harlequinade was a gift all around. As mentioned, first and foremost, a gift for the audience, touching the precise tone of universality that has kept the Commedia figurines compelling since the 1600s. But in resuscitating this daunting Petipa two-act work dating from 1900, Mr. Ratmansky also offered a heap-big gift to the ABT dancers. He tapped dormant talents: We watched dancers pantomime with clarity (dancers as actors, remember that?). We watched them apply their physiques to farce, and spiritually connect to the art form’s antiquity. We watched ABT dancers assume the well-trod positions of American ballet classicism, but embellished with fillips, little twists and turns, fol-de-rol, and twinkle-toes. ABT, please continue to mine this broad spectrum of your dancers’ capabilities.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, “Dream Play” choreographer Fernando Melo, photo: Sharon Bradford

More grin-inducing pleasure came from a performance at the far, other end of the Southern California dance map, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (the erstwhile Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, now known as “The Soraya”). There, Saturday evening, the wonderful Aspen Santa Fe Ballet completed its fourth season as resident dance company.

After thoroughly enjoying (what’s not to love in this witty escapade) choreographer Fernando Melo‘s Dream Play, an edgy interchange between technology and dance dating from 2017, my first thought was, “In three-to-five years, ABT will be doing this.” An ABT-familiar friend replied dryly, “I’d put it at five.”

You need the vision and versatility of an artistic director like Tom Mossbrucker and his ‘make-it-happen’ co-director Jean-Philippe Malaty to understand that a work like Melo’s high-tech adventure relies on pinpoint accuracy and a supreme level of technical control endemic to classically trained dancers.

Dream Play has ASFB’s high-voltage dancers, race horses each, in an amusing mode. They lie on backs and sides, on the floor. Scuttling around, they link up, flip over, and get dragged from side to side, sometimes by outside helpers. It sounds awfully dusty, but hey, it’s all being filmed from an overhead perspective and then projected onto a screen in real time. And on that screen transpires an endearing, gentle high-wire act set to music by Erik Satie.

Indeed, for his trompe d’oeil exercise, Melo turns to the circus — tightrope walkers, twirling umbrellas, ladies tippy-toeing neatly on the palm of a man’s outstretched hand. As viewers, you are flipping back and forth, up and down, floor to screen, because you don’t know where to laugh first.

The more traditionally virtuoso skills of the ASFB dancers kicked in right after the Melo, with a blazing rendition of Jorma Elo’s crackerjack First Flash (2007), to music by Sibelius. Joseph Watson and Pete Leo Walker, two very big fellows, moved in tick-tock tandem, as standouts.

The lady on the tightrope in Fernando Melo “Dreamplay” for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Laughing ha ha ha at the ballet? Hell yes! Both concerts reflect an art form in a much overdue shake-up and dust-off. We have such great dancers, all dressed up, and it’s time to give them someplace to go. ABT is pursuing renewal, ironically, by reaching back in time; Aspen Santa Fe Ballet by integrating modern technologies. How hopeful this makes us; how it augurs a revival of profound ballet creativity.

It’s a pity that Benjamin Millepied, who was such a fine classical dancer, is not part of this revival. He’s not. He’s practicing mish-mosh ‘contemporary.’ Read about that here.

arts·meme founder/dance critic Debra Levine authored this review.

2 thoughts on “Sending in the clowns for classical ballet renewal

  1. debra levine Jan 22,2019 2:29 pm

    What a great comment. Thank you, Julie.

  2. julie McDonald Jan 22,2019 1:18 pm

    Thanks for your reviews. I did not see ABT but am so happy I attended ASFB. My patience for contemporary dance was wearing thin so this came along in the nick of time. I loved all three pieces. The company is stunning, each dancer uniquely beautiful.

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