ABT Entertains Chicago

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in "Bach Partiita". Photo by Gene Shiavone.

The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has one more performance left this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. Download the Bears app to keep track of the game and head to the theater to see this All-American Celebration featuring Back Partita and Sinatra Suite by Twyla Tharp, Some Assembly Required by Clark Tippet and Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins.

At first, I was curious why they chose to bring this program considering Chicago audiences recently saw Robbins’ Fancy Free (Stars of the American Ballet) and Nine Sinatra Songs (The Joffrey Ballet) a few weeks ago at the Chicago Dancing Festival, but witnessing the audience reaction to these works left no doubt they made the right choice. Opening with the piquantly performed Bach Partita set the tone, showing off the talent and breadth of the massive company right out of the gate…or curtain. ABT smartly used the fame juggernaut that is Misty Copeland in promoting the performances, but Gillian Murphy was the star of this piece. Tharp’s brisk and difficult choreography was a breeze for Murphy who never missed a beat and was expertly partnered by the handsome Marcelo Gomes (who just danced the lead in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in Japan).

Tippet’s breezy duet danced by Sarah Lane (dance double for Natalie Portman in Black Swan) and Sterling Baca was a delightful, if too long interlude before the other Tharp piece stole the show. Sinatra Suite uses five of the nine duets from her Nine Sinatra Songs to blockbuster effect with the famous and formidable coupling of Copeland and Gomes. The audience gasped as the two entered from the wings to Sinatra’s crooning voice. Having seen this work many times over the past decades, I was not expecting anything new, but the charisma and obvious fun they were having was truly infectious and made the overdone piece seem fresh.

By now, the touring troupe had the audience in its grip and closing with Robbins’ Fancy Free, in hindsight, seems perfect. The fun dance theater piece about three young sailors on leave looking for action took the audience on a sweet ride. It was a real treat to see long-time friend of the blog Daniil Simkin (now a principal dancer) as one of the sassy sailors. Special mention goes to the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra – always fantastic – and, in particular, violinist Charles Yang, who played brilliant solos for the first two pieces of the evening.

American Ballet Theatre performs today at 2:00 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $34-$129, call 800.982.2787. Use code: JOFFREY for 20% off tickets. 

*Disclosure: I work for The Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra is our resident orchestra. 

Dancer Spotlight: Abigail Simon, Dance For Life

Dancer Abigail Simon. Photo by Gina Uhlmann.

This Saturday, Aug. 18, marks the annual dance performance, Dance For Life, that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Proceeds from this year’s benefit will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancer’s Fund and Chicago House. Always a highlight of the show are two world premiere finales, Act I by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer/C5 and an Act II finale by Randy Duncan. Participating companies include DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago and Thodos Dance Chicago. Also performing this weekend are independent artists Mauro Villanueva and Abigail Simon.

Simon, 27, was born in New York to a director/actor father and an opera singer mother. The family was bi-coastal spending time split between NY and Los Angeles, where she started dancing at age three. At seven, back in NYC, she studied for three years at Ballet Hispanico and at ten, was accepted to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where she studied for ten years. She danced with American Ballet Theatre‘s second company (ABT II) for two years and with the main company for another two years. “I learned so much there,” she said. “I knew that because I came from SAB and because I hadn’t had much classical training that I needed to go to a smaller company to get my wings.” Joffrey was holding auditions in NYC, she auditioned and spent the next seven years dancing with them here in Chicago.

Some may recognize her from her extremely perky performances as Clara in The Nutcracker, but some of her favorite roles from her time at Joffrey are the virtuoso pas Balanchine’s Tarantella and Valencienne in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Simon has only performed in Dance for Life one other time when she was part of Harrison McEldowney’s finale in 2011. This year, she partners with former Joffrey dancer Villanueva for the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a gala favorite. “We’re excited,” Simon said. “It’s pure classical. It’s got tricks!”

Simon recently left Joffrey to pursue a freelance career. “I’m going to miss that family feel and being on the road,” she said, “but when I told them I was leaving, it felt like the chains coming off. You’ve got to trust your instincts and follow your heart.” So far, she’s kept busy dancing with Ballet Next, coaching students for the Youth America Grand Prix, modeling for Bloch and Revolution Dancewear. She has modeling gigs set with Capezio and Custom Barre and auditioned for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Broadway project An American in Paris. She’s also up for a lead role in an upcoming movie with actress Sean Young set to film next year in Venice, Italy. (Rumor has it people affiliated with the film will be at the show on Saturday. Perhaps if we clap extra loud, she’ll get the part!)

Simon said it is easier to find consistent work as a freelance dancer in New York, so she and her boyfriend are getting a place there too and will be splitting their time. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m very open. It took me a couple of years to figure out, but if you’re positive and open to change, good things can happen. Just get on the horse and start riding. I’m so happy.”

Dance for Life at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8 pm. Tickets for the performance only are $50-$75.

A pre-performance gala reception will be held in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 5 pm. Gala tickets (which include a ticket to the performance) are $200-$500.

For more information, call 312-922-5812 or visit danceforlifechicago.com.

Chicago Dance 2012 Highlights

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers in "Revelations". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Nothing says end-of-the-year-review time quite like the last day of the year…am I right? My proficiency in procrastination aside, now is the time to reflect on the past year and look forward to new, exiting surprises in the next. Here’s my Dancin’ Feats year-end review for Windy City Times that came out last week noting 12 memorable performances/performers of 2012, but I wanted to add a few more things.

Looking back at my notes and programs from the year (yes, they are all in a pile, I mean filing system, in the corner of my bedroom) I am so thankful for all the wonderful dance I get to see. Narrowing it down to 12 “top whatevers” was not an easy task for there were too many people and performances to name. Here are some other performances that are still in my thoughts:

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. Although Revelations is still amazing, seeing this company in more contemporary work was refreshing. And the audiences at Ailey performances are a show unto themselves.

Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre‘s performances of Giselle were stellar for their star-studded casts on opening night, but ABT’s Sunday matinee with real-life couple Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews stole my heart.

Luna Negra Dance Theater founder Eduardo Vilaro brought Ballet Hispanico to town with former Chicago dancers (Jamal Callender, Jessica  Wyatt and Vanessa Valecillos) back for a rep show at the Dance Center to much acclaim, while current director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano continues to take the company in new and fascinating directions.

The Seldoms, in their tenth year, deconstructed the Harris Theater and traipsed around the world to collaborate with WC Dance in Tapei, while tackling the ongoing arguments around climate change with artistic director Carrie Hanson’s trademark wit and intelligence.

Before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago turned 35 this fall, it said goodbye to retiring, beloved dancer Robyn Mineko Williams. Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton completed his goal of presenting all five master European choreographers in the rep with the acquisition of Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa. Ek’s work took the company to a new level, but I’m still haunted by their dancing in William Forsythe’s Quintett from the summer series.

The Joffrey Ballet performed Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in their regular season and at the Chicago Dancing Festival. I was proud to be an official CDF blogger for the second year in a row. New to the fest this year was Giordano Dance Chicago, now celebrating 50 years. And Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago hit 40!

River North Dance Chicago dancer Ahmad Simmons deserves a mention for his work in Ashley Roland’s Beat, particularly his performance on the Pritzker Pavillion stage in Millenium Park.

Special thanks to Catherine Tully of 4dancers.org for her continuous and generous encouragement and insight. Thanks lady!

Dance writing-wise, I’m thankful for the opportunity to write for Front Desk Chicago, Windy City Times, 4dancers and Dance Magazine.

I could go on (and on…), but tomorrow is a new year and I look forward to seeing more incredible dancing and dancers in our most awesome city. Happy New Year!

 

The Snow Scene

 

Snow Queen in "The Nutcracker" with Alexei Khimenko. Photo by someone's dad?

The other day I was home working on my November column for Windy City Times. My iTunes genius list was set to “classical”. A little Corigliano, some Yo Yo Ma and then more familiar music came on. Music I’ve known intimately for years. I first remember being moved by it when I was much younger. I was in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. The rest of my family was downstairs watching who knows what (probably basketball), but I was upstairs standing in the kitchen watching Baryshnikov’s The Nutcracker on PBS.

It was the beginning of the snow scene – or snow pas. Misha had just magically turned from a “wooden” soldier to a prince and was asking Gelsey Kirkland (“Clara”) to dance. The setting was beautiful and romantic. The dancing…well, it was Misha and Gelsey. It is still my favorite version of my favorite scene and I still watch it every year. And, yes, it still makes me cry (but don’t tell anyone, I have a reputation to uphold).

Luckily, I got to dance a version of the snow pas many times in Springfield. I still get a little tingly with anticipation (and a bit nauseated with nerves) when I hear the first few notes. Walking out to do the pas was nerve-wracking, but once you got through it, you were home free for the rest of the scene. The flakes come on and you get a break, then basically just a few quick jump passes and lifts  – oh, how I love the lifts, especially when  your partner is 6’5″ – and you’re already in the blizzard. Slow down, resolution, make it snow and scene.

I know it’s only the beginning of November, but the snow scene will happen, real and on stage, soon! So here’s a little something to get you in the mood.

 

Wednesday in the Park with Giselle

Crowd at Pritzker Pavillion for Paris Opéra Ballet's live simulcast of "Giselle". Photo by Robert Carl.

An estimated 14,000 people showed up at Millennium Park Wednesday evening to watch the live simulcast of the Paris Opéra Ballet‘s performance of Giselle.  After a greeting from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) Commissioner, Michelle T. Boone and a few words from Brigitte Lefèvre, Paris Opéra Ballet’s Director, the audience fixed its collective gaze at a giant screen  set up on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  The LED screen set up by Staging Solutions was 18′ x 32′ according to the City’s press release or 16.5′ x 32.5′ according to Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun Times – it was big!  Hi-tech, LED, surround sound and arguably the most famous ballet company in the world performing my favorite ballet…for free.  I love my city!

Chicagoans have been privy to this ballet before.  Local fave Joffrey Ballet presented Giselle in October 2007 and American Ballet Theatre has performed it here numerous times, most recently in March.  The ballet was created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1841, however, the current version was staged by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991.  The french version is pretty much the same as what we’ve seen before with one notable exception.  The Americanized adaptations throw in more grandiose choreography.   For instance, ABT’s version has Albrecht’s brisé diagonals and grand jumps in Act II, where Paris Opéra has him doing slow changements that grow into a crescendo of entrechat quatré and six (performed with great ballon by Nicolas Le Riche).  Where ABT’s Myrta breezes back and forth across the stage and in and out of the wings in a bourré flurry, Paris Opéra’s Myrta’s doesn’t leave the stage, stopping and balancing in sous-sus before taking off again, an exercise in complete control (danced brilliantly by Nolwenn Daniel – she was scary!).    Clairemarie Osta’s Giselle was a sweet, innocent take on young love, but her mad scene lacked the dramatic prowess of a Julie Kent.  Rounding out Wednesday’s cast was hottie Vincent Chaillet as Hilarion and a stellar corps de ballet.  Those Wilis were on!

Being outside had the effect of enhancing, yet separating you from the performance.  The breeze made you feel like you were in the glen celebrating the wine festival and as the sun set and the sky became darker, you could imagine yourself in a wooded graveyard.  The minimal downside was random fire engine sirens and the weekly fireworks exploding at nearby Navy Pier, but that made the experience uniquely Chicago.  There was a disconnect not being in the theater.  A twice-removed feeling: one, you’re not in the theater and two, you’re watching live dance being filmed on a screen.  Nothing beats a live performance experience, but knowing it was being performed live a few hundred feet away (and below) was pretty cool.  The actual filming was fantastic with close-up shots of the lead dancers, a peak into the orchestra pit, an angled shot that showed a hint of the entrances from one wing.  It gave those of us in the cheap (free) seats a VIP feel.

 

Spring Break

After the whirlwind that was the spring dance season, it is time for spring break. Spring cleaning, holidays for some, chocolate (hopefully) for all and a little down time until we hit the theaters again with for another run of performances.  I saw a truckload of fantastic dance in the last few weeks.  In fact, the final performance of ABT‘s Giselle still haunts my dreams with its beauty.  My hopes are to put up delayed reviews at some point, but for now lé brain is fried and Seabiscuit needs a nap.

Happy Spring!

The Power of Love

ABT's Yuriko Kajiya in "Giselle". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

If you like a good love story, then get thee to the Auditorium Theatre this weekend, poste-haste.  A romantic tale on par with Romeo and Juliet takes over the stage with some of the top ballet dancers in the world bringing the action to life.  Originally created in 1841 for the Paris Opera Ballet (they are coming to Chicago this summer for the first time ever!), Giselle tells the story of a young peasant girl who falls in love with a prince, only to find out he is betrothed to another.  She goes mad, dies of a broken heart, then proceeds to come back from the grave to save her love from an untimely death.  Drama.

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) brings its version of “the quintessential Romantic ballet” to town for five performance starting tomorrow.  The lead roles of Giselle, Prince Albrecht and Myrta, Queen of the Wilis are some of the most sought after in ballet.  On top of difficult technical feats, the dancer must add emotion and dramatic acting skills to aid the plot while making it all look easy.  And the women are dead in Act II!   It takes a tremendous amount of technique to do a series of entré chats and look as if you are other-worldly.  Of course, there are artistic choices to be made.  Some Albrecht’s play the cad who later tragically regrets his actions.  Some Giselle’s commit suicide with her lover’s sword.  For real-life couple Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews (both soloists who will be debuting as Giselle and Albrecht in ABT’s version this Sunday, March 25th) they rely on the power of love.  Matthew’s Albrecht is truly in love with Giselle and Kajiya’s Giselle dies of a broken heart, yet relies on her love for him to save his life in Act II.  “Albrecht is a role you aspire to achieve and work on,” said Matthews.  “It’s more than just about dance, you have to bring them into your world.”  Kajiya has the dual challenge of the dramatic mad scene at the end of Act I and then switching into Wili-mode for Act II.  She’s been working with her coach Irina Kolpakova on the nuances of the character.  “In Act II, the upper body has to change,” she said.  “You have to be very much forward.  That helps with the illusion.”  But Matthews adds, “It takes a lot of work to make her look weightless.”

ABT's Jared Matthew's in "Le Corsaire". Photo by MIRA.

The duo have performed together often outside of the company and have even performed Act II of Giselle together, but they have never performed the full-length ballet together until now.  The couple met as teenagers while in ABT’s Studio Company (now ABT II) and have been together romantincally for eight years, literally growing up physically and artistically side by side.  ( I spoke with them separately from NY on consecutive days off.) “We have a huge passion for ballet,” Kajiya said.  “We love and know each other so well.  We work really well together in and out of the studio.”  Matthews agreed, “We both want the same things and we’re both willing to put in the time…refining and honing, growing and changing…to become better artists. We have the same goals.” With vastly different backgrounds – she is from Japan and moved to China to study ballet at age ten, he grew up in Texas – they both came to know of ABT via the screen.  Matthews remembers watching Baryshnikov on television and Kajiya saw videos of the company at school and on the big screen in the movie Centerstage.  It is another love story that has them ending up at the same place together now.

They have fond memories of Chicago having danced in the first two years of the Chicago Dancing Festival at Pritzker Pavilion.  Some may remember them as well from a July 2010 guest appearance on So You Think You Can Dance, where they performed the second act pas de deux from Don Quixote.  “Every few minutes, someone would come by to remind us that the show was live,” said Kajiya.  Executive Producer and judge Nigel Lithgoe had seen her perform at a gala and asked her if she’d like to perform on the show.  Matthews said, “The air conditioning was on high, which made the floor slick like ice.  Once we were out there dancing, it was fun.”

Come see Kajiya and Matthews fall in love again on stage this Sunday with live music by the Chicago Sinfonietta.  This story of romance, love, betrayal and forgiveness, set to the achingly gorgeous score by Adolphe Adam is not to be missed.

American Ballet Theatre performs Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.

Thurs & Friday, March 22-23 at 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 24 at 2 & 8 pm, and Sunday, March 25 at 2 pm.

Tickets are $32-$137. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.

 

 

 

Henry V Delights at Dance Center

Post modern guru David Gordon has a way with words.  He uses them as a structure, a starting point, an inspiration and then turns them into a complex living creative act right before your eyes on the stage.  So it is with his Pick Up Performance Co(s)‘ presentation of Dancing Henry Five this weekend at The Dance Center of Columbia College.  This 2004 revival is part theater, part performance art, part dance, part music collage.  A deconstructed take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, it not only entertains, but offers a commentary on war that still resonates today.

The program calls it a “reduction” of Shakespeare’s work.  Once in the theater, the stage shows what Gordon has reduced it down to – the bare necessities.  Everything for the performance is on the stage in plain view.  No wings, props strewn about the stage and performers standing around the edges waiting.  Costumes of colorful, but faded rugby shirts with shorts suggest uniforms of a different kind of battle, rather than the 1415 Battle of Agincourt that they are about to partially recreate.  The performers walk around the stage carrying signs with pertinent information (title, names, please turn off cell phones) passing by like the opening credits of a movie.  Valda Setterfield (Gordon’s wife and former dancer with Merce Cunningham) acts as narrator and chorus moving the action along and adding sly, sometimes biting commentary – Gordon’s,  not her own, she states – as well as joining in the dance.  At 77, she’s still a dynamic performer with impeccable timing.  (Go on with your bad self, Valda!)

Dancing Henry Five incorporates spoken word along with audio excerpts from the stage and movie versions of Henry V with musical interjections of William Walton’s score from the film.  The first Shakespeare quote heard is “a kingdom for a stage” and Gordon transforms this stage into a kingdom, ocean and battlefield.  At times funny, poignant, sad and moving, the one-hour production is a creative, quirky take on a classic historical poem.  Shakespeare through the looking glass.  Seven dancers make the action happen, most notable former American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet star Robert La Fosse.  His trademark mole on his left cheek is barely visible through his make up, but watching him do a low quick jeté shows the technique, if not the flexibility, is still there.

As the plot takes us to war against the French, one can’t help but be reminded of more current events.  ”War takes minds off deficits”, says the narrator.  Indeed.  Originally choreographed in 2004, a year after we began the war in Iraq, the words bring a poignant pause to the audience.  A quilt carried across the “water” includes an American flag, even though Columbus wouldn’t discover America for another 77 years.  One image that sticks is dancers standing on sheets of material being slowly pulled across the stage like ships.

There is one performance left of this interesting post modern take on Shakespeare’s play.  Tickets are still available.

Pick Up Performance Co(s) – Dancing Henry Five

The Dance Center at Columbia College, 1306 S, Michigan, 312.369.8330