Monthly Archives: August 2008

ABT on Tour: Etudes, Twyla Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue

ABT in Etudes, taken from their Facebook group profile

The last show that I saw during my recent trip to LA ended with the last performance of American Ballet Theater’s worldwide tour that took them from Asia to Orange County. Due to my packed schedule, I wasn’t able to catch the first cast (I especially wanted to see the cast that Tharp choreographed R&R on), but I found myself at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon. Watching this show with my mom gave me a great perspective, as she has always been one of my favorite seatmates.

One of the few advantages to watching a program long after it’s been playing in NY is that I went in with a set of expectations, thanks to reading blog reactions to these pieces, such as Tonya‘s and Philip‘s take (as well as Alastair Macaulay‘s bewildered take on the audience’s positive reaction to it and Joan Acocella‘s insightful take). I’ve seen ABT tackle Tharp before with wildly varying results; I feel spoiled to have seen Tharp dancers dance Tharp, and compared to that, ABT really was no comparison. With these reservations, I couldn’t resist going to see them and getting my ABT fix.

The program opened with Harald Lander’s Etudes. What I really liked about this piece is that it’s a light whimsical piece with a darker haunting undercurrent. The music is a fanciful take on Czerny’s piano exercises, by Knudaage Riisager. No one knows how many times I’ve played these monotonous Czerny exercises over and over on the piano, but the orchestration brought these normally repetitive exercises to life as fast passages were tossed off from one instrument to the next at breakneck speeds with a lightly propelling bass line. Mirroring the warmup exercises in the orchestration, the ballet highlights class exercises that every ballet dancer will recognize, starting with little girls in the basic ballet position to more complicated exercises with dancers on a barre. Towards the first half of the piece, the dancers are shrouded in darkness with a spotlight highlighting the dancers’ legs. This isolation adds to the whimsy as legs are spinning en l’air in perpetuity, yet in a darker way, it also shows these dancers as machines. Able to pull off athletic feats with no effort, their individuality is hidden, as I tried yet failed to identify the dancers in the dark. The dancers were shown for what they could do, and not for who they were. It reflects the darker side of ballet in a subtle yet sinister way. The nature of the exercises progresses, as does the lighting. The piece seems to move from class to what seems like a dress rehearsal or performance, as the costumes glittered and the steps get more complicated. The transition from class on a darkened stage to performance is a unclear, giving this piece a feeling that it’s made up of two separate pieces, especially to an nondancer eye. I was able to pick out the across the floor exercises that are commonplace in class yet just as commonplace in performance, especially indistinguishable without the presence of a barre. Group numbers were led by Xiomara Reyes, Corey Stearns, and Jared Matthews. Xiomara Reyes has a gentle quality in her flowy arms, but there’s an air of caution in her dancing as her movements feel a little restricted. My mom even picked up on this. Reyes came more alive in the quick footwork, and her swift turns were featherlight. Stearns and Matthews, replacements for Sascha Radetsky and Mikhail Ilyin amidst rumors of injury, stepped in admirably into two very difficult roles, yet it was a precarious experience as some turns were noticeabely off center resulting in near falls. I couldn’t help but to feel that the lead male parts were unnecessarily hard; it doesn’t really add to the piece nor advance its terms. The ensemble were crystal clear in their uniformity, and it was an awesome sight to see the stage crowded with that many stellar dancers. Despite its hazy big picture, I was charmed by this whimsical Etudes that had a haunting layer of harsh reality of the dance world that gave it that unexpected ingenuity.

ABT in Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The afternoon concluded with Twyla Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue. A little bit into the performance, my mom leaned over and whispered, “I don’t get what this means”. I told her to watch it for its energy and its reflection of the music. The music by Danny Elfman was an unabashedly commercial yet raucously so – a riotous romp. The dancing had that typical Tharpian energy, a thrilling rollercoaster that twists and turns at high speeds that engaged, yet it was not without its limitations. Different ensembles come in and out with a jolting ebb and flow and a randomness with no clear direction. There is a literal plot with a competitive nature between the Rogue and the Rabbit; a general competitive spirit rather than detailing a specific relationship between the two might have been less confusing as audience members are left guessing at what the gestures mean. Despite moments of randomness, the interplay between the two leads had a fun sense of play. The corps work was visually interesting, and I realized that Tharp’s strength doesn’t come from crisp unified corps work as some other choreographers like Balanchine because her choreography has a raw unfinished edge that doesn’t necessarily fit into clean steps or 90 degree angles. The best corps moments came when the eye is overwhelmed with differing movement, canonic or otherwise. This piece showcased ABT better than any other Tharp piece I’ve seen (Baker’s Dozen, Sinatra Suites), which was a huge sigh of relief for me. Marcelo Gomes danced as the Rabbit with an electrifying stage presence, as he took over the stage with majestic power. Sascha Radetsky, in his last performance with ABT, danced as the Rogue with a fierce intensity and a depth of maturity. Maria Riccetto’s lines were clean as half of the Gamelan Couple, yet Jose Manuel Carreno as her partner wobbled visibly with simple balances. Carreno has a langorous luxurious quality in his dancing where he seems to stretch time as he floats in the air in his jumps or sensuously melts into his pirouettes, yet this quality doesn’t fit naturally with Tharp’s lightning quick choreography. Craig Salstein’s role seemed tailor made for him, with crackling dry humor in his dancing and his acting. It was an electrifying ride coupled to the fun music, yet it went a tad long especially without a clear sense of direction – when Craig Salstein points to his watch, I was thinking the same thing. Overall this piece showcases ABT’s best strengths in modern ballet, with razor sharp feet and equally intense power onstage. It was a satisfying fix that should carry me over until my next ABT performance.

I went into this performance with low expectations because of the mostly negative online reviews and I feel like nothing holds a candle to ABT performing ballet classics (my favorite was watching Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Malahkhov in Giselle). It’s interesting how I was pleasantly surprised, despite my misgivings. Isn’t bias a scary thing?? I wonder if I had high hopes, I would have had a more negative experience?

For some reason, this review was really difficult to write. Maybe it’s because I haven’t reviewed a ballet piece in a while. It’s also been a while since I saw this performance as well, but I feel like I was left with the distilled version of my thoughts, which eliminated the tenuous details but left with general impressions.

More reads:

The Silly Side of the Olympics

No, I’m not talking about the underage Chinese gymnasts being declared as over 16… Chalk it up to an early morning, but I was amused by the campiness of this segment with the only North American qualifier for the rhythmic gymnastics event, Alexandra Orlando.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I’ve been swept up in family things and a surprising but nice breakthrough at work on an experiment I’ve been working on for the past seven months. You know the quote, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” by Albert Einstein? That was my work life, literally doing this finicky week-long experiment hundreds of times until yesterday. Just wanted to share the good news with you all, I hope this streak continues!

Enjoy the vid! Reviews coming on ABT’s Etudes and Tharp’s R&R, Drowsy Chaperone (speaking of campy charm), and I still wanted to blog about the ACSO conference.

“Why don’t I just do javelin catching?”

Les Miserables at the Hollywood Bowl

I’m really behind on this, but might as well post it late than never. Last weekend in Los Angeles, I flew down for my two day summer vacation, and I caught the all-star cast of Les Miserables at the Hollywood Bowl. I can’t even remember the last time I was here – it must have been six, seven years ago, but here are a few thoughts. It was a completely sold out show on a Saturday night, and it’s an awesome thing to be inside of a packed stadium that holds over 17,000 people. We were all crammed into our seats but it was cozy, sharing wine bottle openers with our neighbors. I also expected a rowdier crowd, with people eating and socializing, but it was surprisingly very quiet and well behaved – more than a lot of the indoor theaters I’ve been in, in fact. I didn’t hear a single cell phone go off. We also weren’t sitting in the cheap seats but somewhere in the middle, which was perfect. In a big outdoor stadium such as this, I was expecting sound problems but it still caught me off guard. The sound was very tinny, and it took a while to get used to.

In all, it was a breathtaking spectacle. The musical in itself is a wonder, but place it outdoors under the stars with a stellar cast, and it was the can’t-miss event of the year. Directed by Richard-Jay Alexander, even thought it wasn’t, the performance felt fully staged. For instance, the rail that separated the orchestra from the front of the stage served as the barricades, and a fun moment had the students firing their guns directly into the orchestra. The musical was slashed brutally to make it about two hours long which was unfortunate, but I’m assuming that the cuts were necessary.

The cast was made up of a mix of Broadway stars, and typical of many Hollywood Bowl performances, a few famous names from movie/TV/music are mixed in. Melora Hardin (aka “Jan” from NBC’s The Office) was a powerfully dramatic Fantine, where her emotion overpowered her singing even to pitchiness, but a moving portrayal nonetheless. Rosie O’Donnell cancelled her appearance, and an enthusiastic Ruth Williamson took over seamlessly as the very funny Madame Thenardier. Brian Stokes Mitchell as Javert was an intimidating figure, even more so with his awe-inspiring deep voice. He kept on doing these odd slides though in between notes sometimes however, which added an uncharacteristic jarring jazziness to his singing. The standout of the cast was Lea Michele as Eponine – she wasn’t the scrappiest of Eponines that I’ve seen, but Michele emphasized Eponine’s vulnerable side, as a young girl in love. Her “Little Fall of Rain” was sweetly trusting, yet had that heartbreaking desperate air of her impending future without Marius, as she grasped at him with all her strength. John Lloyd Young played the role of Marius with an introverted intelligence and detail in every moment, characterized by a cool stark simplicity that was moving beyond overt emotion. J. Mark McVey as the lead, Jean Valjean, made admirable transitions between Jean Valjean the prisoner, the mayor, to old age, and his “Bring Him Home” brought everyone to tears. The stellar cast served the material well, and the overall effect was magical.

Forgive the quality of these vids.

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My favorite song in Les Mis

If you haven’t gone to the Hollywood Bowl, do so immediately! It’s a Hollywood must-see and a singular experience. Bring a few of your friends, pack lots of wine and food and don’t forget a wine bottle opener. I also learned that two bottles of wine definitely wasn’t enough for five people.

Do you prefer outdoor venues like the Bowl or do you prefer more traditional indoor venues? If you’ve been to the Hollywood Bowl, what was your experience with the audience members sitting around you?

Full cast list here on

For some much better video footage, check out broadwayworld

Festival Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I had heard such wildly contradicting opinions on Benjamin Britten’s operas that naturally, I was intrigued. Yet cautious. Last night, I found myself back at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek to watch Festival Opera’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. This was my second time there, having watched Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore a few months back.

It’s a big testament to opera (and a big improvement to the operas I used to watch in high school at the LA Opera) how all the elements of performance all point to a purpose. Like multiple arguments that support a thesis, everything from the singing styles of each performer to the sets to the lighting to the score pointed to the dreamlike atmosphere of this opera, which made for a complete experience. The score was deliciously complex and wistful in its gentle yet dizzying dissonance. It wasn’t the dissonance that I’m usually sensitive to, but like eerie sounds coming from an enchanted woods or the sounds that fairies make, there was a nonintrusive quality to the dissonance that I found unexpectedly pleasing. If there are two camps that either love Britten operas or don’t, I am definitely in the positive camp and am interested in hearing more. If the score didn’t have the catchy melodies of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, it made up for it in its complexity of contrasts (a held note being sung on stage, accompanied by an ascending staccato in the symphonic bass line) that enveloped the audience in an almost narcotic atmosphere that was transporting.

Some elements were more successful than the others. In theory, it was a fitting addition to incorporate choreography into this opera, especially as the opera opens, the sleepy rise of the dancers’ limbs (as wood sprites or Puck’s sidekicks perhaps?) immediately set the tone for the rest of the performance. However it becomes painfully obvious that the dancers mostly serve no other purpose than fillers for the glorious music that had enough legs to stand on its own.

Like Il Trovatore, the cast for Midsummer excelled expectations. It was uncanny how the singing styles contributed to character and plot development, from the clean light style of Helena (sung by Stacey Cornell) was a testament to Helena’s flighty, desperate character, to the earthier full singing voice of Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Hermia which described her more realistic yet fully emotional nature. The casting in this opera was spot on. Countertenor William Sutherland as Oberon, costumed unfortunately as Rod Stewart in drag, had a voice dripping with sensuality with a touch of smokiness in his falsetto, albeit lacking a consistently strong projection. Ani Maldijian as Tytania had a coloratura voice and a sex appeal that sparkled. The men in the quartet of lovers with Jorge Garza as Lysander and Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius were excellent as the ardent lovers who seemed to get more passionate when they were loving the ones they weren’t supposed to after the influence of Puck’s doings, but lacked that special spark to truly believe that they were in love. The opera really came to life with the appearance of the rustics – the working class men who perform the play within this opera. Each and every single one of them were scene stealers in their own rite, all with impeccable comic timing. Kirk Eichelberger, who made an impressive showing in Il Trovatore, took over the stage with his commanding stage presence, big voice, and acting skills as Bottom. The rest of the rustics achieved the delicate balance between exaggeration and earnestness, each with their own flair – John Minagro as Quince with a dry Eeyore-like humor, Jonathan Smucker as Flute with a touch of gentility, Trey Costerisan as Snout as the very funny “Wall”. As an ensemble they were a golden combination; all of them were equally deluded yet earnestly so, and it was performed with that perfectly balanced comedic touch. Last but not least, Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian as Puck impressed not only his voice but also the dance skills to make Puck come to life.

William Sauerland as Oberon, Kurt Krikorian as Puck. Photo by Robert Shomler

Kirk Eichelberger (Bottom), Joshua Elder (Starveling), John Minagro (Quince), Jonathan Smucker (Flute), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug). Photo by Robert Shomler

An additional special shoutout to the lighting, by Patrick Hajduk and sets by Frederic O. Boulay. Lighting and the setting are extremely underrated in performance, but I’ve been appreciating it more and more, especially following who wins the Tony’s for best lighting and set design, and why. I’ve seen lighting (and sets) ruin a show, and I’ve seen both be a vital part of a show, as it was for this opera. The scenery seemed to be bathed in a dreamy aura, thanks to the the sets and the lighting, that brought the audience to its magical place immediately.

If you’re curious about Benjamin Britten’s operas, or are a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I highly recommend this opera. It’s also a great opera to bring a newcomer – admittedly, there are a few slow spots (especially with the lovers – despite their excellent singing, a lack of chemistry really bogs down these moments) but the comedic acting and the thoughtful detailed performance and wonderfully precise singing is well worth it.

Festival Opera. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on August 17.

Other takes: (being updated fast and furiously as they are posted)

Sascha Radetsky’s Last Performance with ABT

Hi everyone – I just flew in from Southern California after an amazing weekend – there are TONS to blog about, from a really great conference talking about the changing media landscape for symphony orchestras, to Les Mis at the Hollywood Bowl, to ABT’s touring performance of Etudes and Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue. Not to mention another opera and Drowsy Chaperone this week. Anyways, I’ll take it one day at a time and wanted to post a few pictures of Sascha Radetsky’s last performance with ABT on August 10 that I snuck in during curtain calls. I have to apologize profusely for the horrid nature of these pictures – I was pretty far away and he just wouldn’t stop moving. Despite rumors of injury, he pulled out of Etudes but made an amazing appearance as the Rogue in the Tharp piece. The camaraderie shared onstage with him during his curtain calls was really fun to watch, as well as Marcelo Gomes’ friendly interaction with him. It also looked like he was pushed out from behind the curtain for a last curtain call by himself.

Enjoy! More about the performance to come later – the last picture is L to R – Jose Manuel Carreno, Marcelo in all his bronzey glory, Sascha Radetsky as the man of the hour, and the next two I’m not sure of because my program is still in my luggage which is also upstairs – I think it’s Corey Stearns and Maria Riccetto.

Does anyone know what Sascha Radetsky is doing after ABT??

The Association of California Symphony Orchestras Conference

In two days, I’m heading to Walnut Creek for the 40th annual conference for the Association of California Symphony Orchestras! I’ll be on a panel alongside SF Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman, Lyla Foggia of Foggia PR (representing the Festival Opera of Walnut Creek), and possibly a Contra Costa Times person – the panel as it stood as of two weeks ago, at least. I’ll be speaking as a card-carrying member of the plebs blogerati in a panel titled “Charting New Territories: The Changing Media Landscape” moderated by Gary Ginstling, director of communications at the San Francisco Symphony on Friday afternoon. It’ll be interesting to see what issues that people are really interested in, and where discussion will go.

The description for our discussion:

“Given the shifting balance between print and online media, how do arts organizations get the word out? Where should we focus our human and financial resources in this world of bloggers, wikis and social networkers? A panel of media, marketing and PR professionals help us explore these vexing issues that face all arts organizations, large and small.”

I’ll post a summary of this discussion afterwards; it’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart – promoting theater by talking about it and demystifying a subject that’s inaccessible and exclusive to a lot of people. On the flip side, it’s fascinating for me to approach it from the arts organization’s point of view and to see what purposes blogs serve to them.

And then immediately afterwards, I will be jetting off to SoCal for some coffee and Cuban sandwiches and good company in Silver Lake, in addition to some ABT and Hollywood Bowl goodness. My summer vacation is only two days off of work, but I’m really looking forward to it!! It’s going to be a fun weekend.

“Bare” is Back!

A cover story in the Sacramento Bee on Artistic Differences’ production of Bare. Ian Cullity as Jason.

Bare is a small musical that seemed unstoppable on its one-track path to Broadway. It had a plot guaranteed to garner a following of Spring Awakening and Rent-like proportions – an edgy modern story of love, sex, identity, forgiveness, and religion about two boys struggle with their love and identities within the backdrop of a Catholic high school. It had a powerful score that rocked, and lyrics to break your heart. It had a superstar cast when in NY, included the unbelievable Michael Arden and stars that later went onto star in big Broadway shows like Wicked and Legally Blonde. Starting in Los Angeles, Bare moved to NY and was slated to go to the New World Stages when the show unexpectedly disappeared. There were Bare posters still left up inside the theater with a sign that said, “Coming Soon”, a hollow promise left unfulfilled. That was in 2004, and now that all that exists is a small but devoted group of fans that have not given up hope, constantly speculating on when and where this show will reappear again. Imagine my surprise when I heard through the grapevine that a local Sacramento theater called Artistic Differences was performing Bare. After experiencing the show through its 11 track sampler (with the AMAZING Michael Arden) and a grainy bootleg video, I grabbed at the chance to be able to see the show live.

Michael Arden in the NY production of Bare

In short, Artistic Differences put on a stirring performance that even moved a finicky heart like mine. This show really calls for the actors to step up to fill the difficult demands of each role and the expectations of Bare‘s fickle fans. This local theater company stepped up and put on one heck of a show. The show relies heavily on the emotion-laden performances of its actors, and this show’s casting was spot-on. Lucas Blair was the boyishly idealistic Peter, and he performed with a subtle yet piercing sensitivity. Ian Cullity played the role of Jason, a confident high schooler who has the world on a string and whose life is slowly derailed as the show progresses because of his love for Peter. Yet in the first act, Cullity plays an almost bewildered Jason lacking a nonchalant confident swagger, surprised and flattered by his popularity with girls. Despite this, Cullity came to soaring life in his songs, and he brought out the darker passionate aspect of the role with a full commitment that gave me chills. Kelly Daniells played the role of the promiscuous yet insecure Ivy who falls for Jason; Daniells sang “All Grown Up” with a sheer raw power that raised the roof. Joelle Wirth most fully embodied her character Nadia, the unattractive girl with a quick quip to cover her insecurity to the world (although it would be more believable if Wirth actually was overweight). Wirth’s performance packed a visceral punch with every line where she pretended not to care. Joshua Glenn Robertson played the role of Matt, the guy hopelessly in love with Ivy and ignored for Jason. Robertson tackled the broad range of emotions that the role requires with ease, from his sweet pursuit of Ivy to jealous rage as he fights with Jason. Natasha Greer as Sister Chantelle gave a rousing rendition of “God Don’t Make No Trash”. Even the minor roles were cast to perfection; a personal standout for me was the priest, acted by Scott Martin, burdened by the sins of the world and his responsibility to tell the world the message of the church that didn’t always make sense, with moments of internalized repressed emotion peeking through. The rest of the cast was just as stellar, with performances that filled the theater with power.

The show is tightly directed by Kevin Caravalho that kept the action moving, peppering the production with interesting personal details such as having Matt accompany himself on the guitar at the beginning of “Are You There?” which added an appropriate lonely, introspective touch. Choreography by Gino Platina added a layer of visual complexity, where I couldn’t help but to wonder if Bare was the precursor for the Broadway hit Spring Awakening, a show which also embodies emotions through dance. Mostly adding depth to the emotions communicated through song, sometimes though, it felt like the movements were too big for a stage of this size, especially in “Portrait of a Girl”. Subtlety and simplicity may have been a better option for this song in a small theater like this one. The beginning of the show was marred by technical sound problems, where it became impossible to hear the actors. This was even more unfortunate because the first three songs immediately throw the audience into the thick of the plot right off the bat. But this is a minor detail that will be fixed I’m sure as the show continues its run.

The success of this show lies in the strength of the material and the theater company that was willing to take the risk to put it on and to meet the challenge of presenting it successfully. A forgotten lyric, a missed vocal entrance, and sound problems paled in comparison to the compelling drama that unfolded onstage. Despite its blatant melodrama, there’s something about this show that always brings me to tears. A love despite all odds, a passion that never dies despite a harsh world – it’s a cliche but surely we’re not jaded enough to still buy into this once in a while. In addition, my favorite part of the show was when Peter with heartbreaking pain comes to terms with his religion and sexuality in his conversation with the priest by acknowledging the shortcomings of the church and being honest with himself. The show presents two very different members of the Catholic church, the priest and Sister Chantelle (who even appears as the Virgin Mary in Peter’s dream). One message of the show may be that organized religion and the people who rule it may be imperfect, but God is not. I find this message to be heartbreakingly honest, deeply courageous, and unspeakably moving.

I feel like Bare is a type of show that defines theater companies, and this is no different. It definitely put Artistic Differences on my radar, and am looking forward to seeing the rest of their season, including Sondheim’s Assassins and See What I Wanna See.

The Sacramento cast of Bare on the cover of Outword magazine

Other reviews:

For those of you who don’t have it yet, download the Bare sampler. Michael Arden’s “Role of a Lifetime” is one of my all-time favorite songs.

Artistic Differences. Bare runs on Thurs – Sat on July 31 through Aug 30. Two notes of caution: be careful where you park near the train tracks, and dress appropriately because there’s no air conditioning in the theater and it got pretty hot.