Tuesday, June 27, 2017

ABT 2017 - Whipped Cream

I can't believe I only have two more ballet nights left this season! The season goes way too quickly as far as I'm concerned. Last night's visit was a fun one - I got to see Alexei Ratmansky's newest ballet, Whipped Cream. What a delight. This is definitely one to see more than once...

Whipped Cream is a redo of a 1924 Richard Strauss ballet Schlagobers, and is a silly, surreal, fantastical fever dream filled with gorgeous choreography and simply spectacular sets and costumes. At one point, my eyes filled with tears at the sumptuous dreamlike figures parading across the stage. It was simply glorious. Apparently, Strauss wrote only two ballets in his career and, for some reason, they have both been forgotten. Ratmansky saw a CD of Schlagobers one day and decided to do the ballet (the original choreographic notes are presumed lost). Because of the surreal elements in the libretto, Ratmansky decided he needed a very strong design element to make the ballet work. I don't know the artist Mark Ryden, but my goodness, if strong design was what was needed, Ryden sure provided it!  Here is an interesting NY Times article describing their process (I was especially struck by this quote from Ratmansky: "But in Mark’s designs, I find a parallel to my own approach; the use of a classical, historical technique to say something different").

That gives such insight into Ratmansky, and just confirms what I've always felt about his choreography - he takes classic steps and turns them into something modern. Whipped Cream is really a perfect synthesis of that idea; the ballet seems quaint and old-fashioned, but the execution of it is clearly contemporary, as are the surreal designs. I loved the juxtaposition. The ballet's story is pretty simple: a boy eats too much whipped cream in a candy store and gets sick. When all the kids leave the shop, the candy and other confections come to life. That's the first act. The second act is a little darker and more surreal, with the boy in the hospital, being tended by a drunken doctor and nurses with huge syringes. Finally, I think the boy surrenders himself to his fantasy world (some of the plot seems ambiguous to me) and ends up with Princess Praline.

The score is very rich and is very well-suited to this kind of ballet. There are a lot of variations in tempo and the orchestra was particularly well-used. I definitely want to see if I can find a copy of the score so I can listen to it again - I especially enjoyed the pas de deux music for Princess Tea Flower/Prince Coffee, and for The Boy/Princess Praline.  That choreography really matched well with the music and just elevated the whole thing. And then the scenic design elevated everything even more!  I can't really explain how the whimsy and brightness in both the designs and the choreography made everything such a rich experience.

photo credit: Andrea Mohin
The cast was terrific, from top to bottom. Jeffrey Cirio is a rambunctious, energetic dancer at all times, and he used those qualities to the max while dancing The Boy.  He got great height and had terrific speed throughout, and also danced with a lot of joie de vivre.  I liked him a lot. Hee Seo and Cory Stearns were their lovely selves dancing Princess Tea Flower and Prince Coffee. In a surreal ballet such as this, their lack of emoting wasn't a problem at all. I was especially taken with Thomas Forster as Prince Cocoa and Blaine Hoven as Don Zucchero in the candy shop scene, I thought they provided some real oomph to the proceedings.  I loved how the corps de ballet portrayed whipped cream at the end of the act, and their entrance via a slide was genius.

In the vaguely darker second act, my ABT MVP Roman Zhurbin was an amazing bottle of vodka (yes, really!) and the pas de trois he did with the champagne and the brandy was terrific.  Misty Copeland was Princess Praline and she was exuberance personified. The audience, many of whom were there to see her, I think, responded loudly to her every move.  I don't know, she's a lovely dancer, but I just don't see 'it' when she dances. I am obviously in the minority.  She did have great energy and seemed to have a nice rapport with Cirio, so that's good.  Oh, and the second act had the parade of amazing dreamlike creatures! Seriously incredible. My photo above (from curtain call) doesn't even do them justice.

I just had a really great time at Whipped Cream last night and I already wish I could see it again this week (can't. busy.).  There's just too much going on to be able to see everything in one visit. I can only imagine that ABT will bring it back from season to season - it's a great ballet for kids, even with the drunk doctor and the dancing liquor bottles, and it should rake in money in the summer, much like The Nutcracker does in the winter.  For a moment, I'll admit I started thinking, 'Hey, is this like Nutcracker with all the candy and stuff?', but it really wasn't.  The music and the storytelling are completely different.  I think ABT has a hit on their hands, but I guess the rest of the week will tell the story...

Mark Ryden sketch of his designs

Monday, June 26, 2017

Double Your Summer Friday Fun!

I've forgotten to report on my last two Summer Fridays - how neglectful of me! I've had a good time, walking around the city and looking at things with (hopefully) clear eyes. Here's what I've been up to:

After many years of vacillating, I decided it was finally time to go to the Neue Galerie - they're in the middle of installing a new exhibition, so the entry fee was cut in half (their enormous entry fee is mainly what kept me away all these years). I thought, hey, I can pay a discounted price now and if I want to go back, I can! At the moment, though, only the second floor galleries are open, so I'm not quite sure if seeing two rooms was worth even half price, but I did enjoy the beautiful art and decorative pieces (some of those beautifully-designed objects in silver were exquisite).

No, wait, actually, I guess it WAS worth it, just to see the room with the six Klimt paintings of women. They were all stunningly glorious and I spent quite a bit of time admiring them. Well, after the tour group left the room. Once they left me alone with the paintings, I was content. I especially loved the piece that was unfinished and you could see the underlying pencil drawings at the bottom. I wish they had been selling a print of that one in the gift shop, because I would've immediately purchased one. I did succumb to a postcard of the gold lady and a box of Kandinsky note cards, though.

But the best part of the afternoon was stopping at Cafe Sabarsky after checking out the art. It's an authentic Viennese coffee house on the main floor of the Neue Galerie. You stand in line for a few minutes and you're seated in order, which is very egalitarian. I didn't have to stand in line for long - I feared that because I was a solo, I'd have to wait around for one of the smaller tables, but the host seated me on my turn, at a four-top. So I had plenty of room to relax and enjoy my delicious milchkaffe (latte) and sachertorte (dark chocolate cake with apricot preserves). There was also a big dollop of fresh whipped cream, which was also delicious. I may or may not have put a little into my latte. I definitely want to go back to the cafe to try more deliciousness. I will consider another trip to the galleries...

In other Friday fun news: a friend of a friend gave me a ticket to the One World Observatory - the tourist site at the top of One World Trade. I don't go down there often, and I'm a tad afraid of heights, so I was a little wary. I guess I figured for free, I could live with it. I would never had paid for the experience.

I got off the subway in the World Trade Center, walked through the Oculus and went across the plaza to One World Trade. It wasn't very busy for a Friday afternoon in the summer, thankfully. I already had my ticket, so I could just take the escalator down to the security line. After you go through security that's the same that's in the airport, you go into a room with a huge video screen with an image of the globe, giving you all kinds of facts and figures, like how many people have visited the site, how many were from out of the country, and that sort of thing. Then you walk through a tunneled area that shows a video of the builders of the tower, then another hallway with beautiful mirrors, then you walk through an area where the sheetrock is exposed, with subtitles lit onto them as you walk by. It was pretty cool.

You're ushered into the elevators to take you up to the top and this is what I was most nervous about. As a person with a fear of heights, I was afraid watching the world move swiftly outside the windows would make me feel sick. Thankfully, when you're inside the elevators, you see an LED video showing you how Manhattan has changed over the last 100 years. The ride up only takes about a minute, so my ears did pop, but concentrating on the video took my mind off how high we were going in the elevator. You get off on the 102nd floor and walk into yet another room with a video. I was glad there was a railing, because my legs did feel a little wobbly after coming off the elevator. The video was another evolution-of-NY kind of thing, with lots of sound and movement. It was a couple of minutes long, then the screens raised and we could see the view of New York. That was pretty cool. The screens lowered back down and we were ushered into the observatory.

Well, wait a minute.  We couldn't get into the observatory until we stopped and watched a demo video about renting iPads to complete our experience. OK, I was grateful to have a free ticket. Looking online, it costs $35 just to go to the observatory. Then they want you to pay $15 to rent iPads?! What a racket. I watched the demo patiently, then went into the main observatory. Actually, I went into the cafeteria to have a hot pretzel and water before wandering around looking at the views.

I did enjoy wandering around and looking at the panoramic views of all sides. It was a bummer that I was there on a really cloudy day, so the views probably weren't as good, but I did have fun. I liked the borders at the bottom of the windows and it was nice and airy up there. I'm glad it wasn't too crowded, so there was lots of room for photos and window-gazing. I didn't stay up there too long, though. I felt as if once I saw the views from all angles, I was done. Maybe if I had spent a lot of money on the experience, I would've stayed longer.  I don't know.

After I left the building, I went back through the plaza, soaked in the 9/11 Memorial area, then went to the Oculus because they are having an exhibit of Michelangelo's art from the Sistine Chapel. The exhibit is called 'Up Close' and I was excited to get up close to that art, since I don't have any photos from my trip there (photography is prohibited, though a lot of people broke that rule; I am a rule-follower). After I saw it would be $20 to actually get into the exhibit, I decided I didn't need to get THAT close. Again, I may change my mind and go back, because it WAS cool, just not $20-cool-when-coming-off-a-rent-check-payday. I took lots of pictures regardless - the security guards kept giving me dirty looks, but oh well! I'm trying to think up something fun for this week's Summer Friday - if you have any ideas, let me know. In the meantime, enjoy some of the photos I got over the last couple of weeks, including a few I got yesterday on the UES, after spending some time with my beautiful goddaughter...

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review - Bella: An American Tall Tale

During my NYC hiatus in the 1990s, I would occasionally still visit friends and see theater. One vacation, I went with a friend to see all the new Broadway musicals - we got tickets at TKTS for a musical neither of us knew anything about, Once on This Island. To say that musical was a watershed in my life is an understatement. We went right back to see it again, to make sure that the delight we had experienced was real. It was. I have often said I feel Once on This Island is a perfect musical, just a jewel, and I developed a real artist's crush on its leading lady, La Chanze. So when I moved back to NYC and saw that she was starring in a new Off-Broadway musical, I bought a ticket sight unseen, not knowing anything about that show or its creator. It worked before, why wouldn't it work again?

Boy, did it work! After seeing The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin at Playwrights Horizons, I remained in love with La Chanze and I fell in love with the show's creator, the magnificently multitalented Kirsten Childs. It was the first time I had ever seen a musical created solely by a woman and I was just blown away. Her music was so infectious and her lyrics so insightful, I was inspired. Since I saw that show, I've been fortunate enough to meet Kirsten and to say she's as kind and wonderful as she is talented is telling the absolute truth. I've been hearing her talk about her new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale for a while, so it was a no-brainer that I would pick up a ticket for its current run at Playwrights Horizons. [Sorry for the long backstory...] 

Spoiler alert: I loved Bella! Maybe I would've regardless because I love Kirsten, but still. The show was supremely delightful, ever so smart, and slyly pointed in its politics. I just had the best time and seriously had a smile on my face throughout the entire evening. I even had one of the biggest belly laughs I've had all season in the second act! I wish I had the time (and money) to go see it again before it closes July 2. I have my fingers crossed that there will be a cast album so that I can listen to those irresistible songs again and again.

Reading the author's notes in the Playbill, Kirsten says she wanted to "...flip that script, to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body..." and she thought the best way to do it was to tell the story in the uniquely American storytelling form of the 'tall tale.' I think her idea works beautifully in Bella, because the breadth of imagination in a tall tale lends itself well to the musical pastiche that Kirsten works in - characters are so specific and the music they sing is also so specific to them, so no two songs sound alike. It's a musical cornucopia, sort of, and I loved how tailored the actors, characters, and songs were to each other.

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
The main character of the musical, Bella Patterson (played by the incandescent Ashley D. Kelley, with whom I'm also now crazy in love) is on a journey to save herself and find herself. After a near-attack by a wealthy white man in her town, Bella's protective mother and grandmother put her on a train out west. As she rides out to the man she thinks she loves, Bella imagines all sorts of adventures for herself and her fellow passengers - each adventure is more wild and exciting than the last. I just felt like I was on the edge of my seat throughout the first act, so excited to see what new treat would come out of Kirsten Childs' vivid imagination. And she did not disappoint. This musical is wildly creative and almost too-full of terrific ideas. And Kirsten's own open-hearted take on life is represented directly in her music - the positive energy and the take-charge quality of the women who are doing it all for themselves was palpable. There is strength and dignity and good humor throughout, even during the bleakest parts of the story. I guess that's what I admired most. It's easy to get bogged down and jaded in life, and this show is not bogged down or jaded at all. It's full of joy and passion, even when it comes from desperate acts. If I enjoyed the first act marginally more than the second act, ok, but the ending was terrifically powerful and so earned.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
The entire cast was spectacular, and it was so great to see a big cast fill that stage! The sets, costumes and lights were also terrific, and there were slyly placed projections throughout that added a little context to the action. The music was beautifully orchestrated, too - I'm just so glad the show was produced with so much care and attention.

After enjoying the show so much (and, seriously, everyone should get a ticket NOW), I'm also enjoying reading opinion pieces by other women, women who may have a more visceral connection to the work than I do as a white woman of a certain age and certain size. I felt a kinship to the characters, but obviously different viewpoints abound. I'm going to link to two especially interesting pieces, both of which are extremely intelligent and both of which are responses to the critical reception of the piece, mainly (again) by the white male critics of New York. Maybe I sound like a broken record, but we really need to do something about this.  Anyway, please enjoy these thoughts from Masi Asari, an amazing composer/lyricist herself (her blog post is HERE) and Sarah Lunnie, whose public Facebook post is HERE.  They talk about much of what I loved about Bella in much more articulate ways than I.  I should probably work on being a little more dispassionate, and more articulate, about work from people I already love.  It will go on my to-do list, right after I listen (again) to the Bubbly Girl cast album, which will have to do until I can listen to Bella again...

[actually, you can see a little clip of one of the numbers on YouTube - I'll link it here.  and I'll remove it if asked]