"Director's Cut: Musical Masters"
Cincinnati Ballet, Aronoff Center, Cincinnati. March 15-18, 2018
Sirui Liu (L) and Samantha Griffin are seen in an especially memorable scene in choreographer Garrett Smith’s “Façades.” The work is part of Cincinnati Ballet’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” series March 15-18 at the Aronoff Center. Photo: Peter Mueller.
Review by David Lyman
“Façades” was supposed to be the other work on Cincinnati Ballet’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” program at the Aronoff Center. You know, the one by the lesser-known choreographer, the necessary third work on a mixed-rep program that would have been too short without it.
And while it’s true that choreographer Garrett Smith is not as well-known as Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine – the other choreographers – “Façades” turned out to be the evening’s surprise hit.
That’s not to diminish the impact of Robbins’ “Fancy Free” or Balanchine’s “Rubies.” They occupy hallowed spots in the pantheon of American ballet. But “Façades,” with its stunning visual presentation and deliciously eccentric movement, had a freshness and a vivaciousness that the two much-studied (and much older) works couldn’t match.
For the record, “Fancy Free” premiered in 1944, while “Rubies” first appeared in 1967 as the second movement of Balanchine’s full-length ”Jewels.” “Façades” is just three years old.
Let’s look at those older ballets first. When it premiered, “Fancy Free” was an anomaly. It was the debut work of a young American choreographer. And the music was a jaunty, jazzy piece by equally young composer /conductor Leonard Bernstein. And for a nation three years into a world war, the robust and wholesomeness of the 100 percent American storyline could hardly be matched.
As the curtain opens, three young American sailors are beginning a long-awaited shore leave in Manhattan. Robbins’ choreography is filled with all manner of physical hijinks and cocky bravado. These are, he seems to be telling us, all-American men, filled with optimism and an enviable youthfulness. They wander into a small mid-Century Modern bar – thank you, designer Oliver Smith – for a beer, but are quickly distracted when a stylish young woman wanders past.
The interplay is playful and, for the most part, quite innocent, at least in its original 1944 context. At times, though, it teeters on the edge of discomfort when viewed through the modern-day, #MeToo prism. But the performers save it from that fate. Cervilio Miguel Amador, James Cunningham and Edward Gonzalez Kay are agreeable presences on the stage, more playful than threatening.
Christina LaForgia Morse, along with (from L) Cervilio Miguel Amador, James Cunningham and Edward Gonzalez Kay in a scene from Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.” Photo: Peter Mueller.
And the young woman, Christina LaForgia Morse, later joined by Melissa Gelfin, is self-assured and has an air of self-reliance. We sense that both women will manage just fine, thank you.
I may be reading too much into all of this, but I think it is the two women who give us permission to enjoy the ballet. Both Morse and Gelfin bring substantial acting chops to their formidable dancing prowess. They are, at turns, flirtatious, sociable and resolute that this lively encounter will be nothing more than a quick beer and a little dancing in the pub. Kathleen Dahlhoff appears at the very end of the ballet. Saucy and playful, her appearance promises that the sailors’ pursuit will continue well after the curtain falls.
It’s wonderful to see “Rubies” again. The last time Cincinnati Ballet performed it was in 2003, as part of a joint production of the full-length “Jewels” with BalletMet Columbus.
“Rubies” is, to my eye, a curious piece, an amalgam of several different styles that we don’t normally associate with Balanchine. On the one hand, it is filled with the interweaving patterns that are a Balanchine hallmark. But it is also sprinkled with pedestrian movement, as the men trot and prance and cavort.
And at times the stop-action angularity of Balanchine’s choreography for principal dancer Sirui Liu seems to beg her to channel a young Martha Graham. She succeeds marvelously, incidentally, in a role that is at times severe and at others downright majestic. Principal dancers Chisako Oga and Rodrigo Almarales are also featured in a series of short duets that are frisky, impish and, at times even teasing.
Principal dancer Sirui Liu is seen here performing in the “Rubies” movement of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” with other members of the Cincinnati Ballet. The work is being performed as part of the company’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” series March 15-18 at the Aronoff Center. Photo: Peter Mueller.
And then there is "Façades."
Choreographically, it’s a visually arresting piece, made all the more striking by Travis Halsey’s costumes. They run the gamut from 17th-century frippery to elegant tutus – some black, others red or white – and long wispy white wraps that make the men who wear them look as if they’ve just come from posing for an Impressionist painting.
Watching Smith’s choreography is like studying the inner workings of an elaborate clock. Pieces move every which way. Just when you focus on one thing, something more fascinating unfolds on the other side of the stage. It’s a glorious confusion of movement. But it’s confusion that has order.
Moments later, a towering picture frame drops from above and two dancers – Liu and Samantha Griffin – do a mesmerizing mirror-image dance. It’s the sort of thing that some choreographers might play for laughs. Or to show the dancers’ discipline. But because Liu and Griffin are such compelling performers, this is nearly hypnotic.
In another movement, the women in the corps de ballet collapse to the floor. They roll onto their backs and all we see is a sea of slightly crunched tutus with disembodied legs extending upward. It’s bizarre. And when their feet begin to turn in and out and writhe in most ungainly ways, you’re not even certain you’re looking at feet any more. Maybe they’re the necks of swans. Or serpents. Or some unknown plant life rippling in the currents of the ocean floor.
Besides the wonderfully elegant Liu, “Façades” also provides a showcase for David Morse and Christian Griggs-Drane, as well as Almarales and Taylor Carrasco as a pair of delightfully foppish characters.
Of special note is Griffin, who has very quickly become one of the company’s must-see dancers. At one moment, she is a ferocious countenance, sharp and edgy. The next, she looks impossibly fragile, a towering presence caught in a swirl of unpredictable choreography. It’s hard not to watch her.
Accompanying all of this are Maestro Carmon DeLeone, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and soloist Michael Chertock – he plays both piano and harpsichord in the course of the evening. It’s almost as if they are giving us a crash course in western music.
There are more than a few bumps in Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” which accompanies “Rubies.” But the ensemble gives Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” a rugged and robust performance. And the Vivaldi “Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra” that accompanies much of “Façades” is crisp, incisive and filled with every bit as much character as Smith’s choreography.
“Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.