Stratospheric Dance

Tulsa re-post finalSoo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet’s production of William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Photo copyright Rosalie O’Connor.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Alicia Chesser

TULSA — For the past 15 years, Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini has been leading his company to this moment, when it could not only obtain the rights to perform works like William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and Jiri Kylian’s “Sechs Tanze,” but actually perform them with the skill, stamina, and artistic maturity they require.

It feels like a turning point.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on December 18, 2010, including more photos + a bonus story by Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini written exclusively for the Dance Insider,  subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Just want this story? Donate $5 through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com then send an e-mail to that address with “Tulsa” in the subject line.

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A Tale of Two Shrews

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Soo Youn Cho & Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet’s production of John Cranko’s   “Taming of the Shrew.”  Photo copyright Julie Shelton and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Review Copyright 2011, 2017 Alicia Chesser

New introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Editor’s Note ((not necessarily reflecting the opinions of the author, Ms. Chesser)):

A word needs to be said here about the cultivating of taste and the caretaking – in the active sense of that word – of a heritage, and the critical role an artistic director plays in these complementary missions.

Reviewing a 2010 Royal Albert Hall English National Ballet performance of Derek Deane’s production of “Swan Lake” in these pages ((see elsewhere in these DI Archives)) which successfully appealed to what she dubbed “middle-brow” tastes, Victoria Watts commented, “I see the merits for the company in presenting an unpretentious evening of dance with high production values and an astute awareness of what its audience might want.” When he took over the artistic direction of Tulsa Ballet in 1995, Marcello Angelini could certainly have settled with this standard. This is not to be snobbish about middle-American tastes; when it comes to story ballets, even New York ((or Paris)) sophisticates can be fooled by opulent trappings. And, having toured with Nureyev for years and been weaned on ballet in the birthplace of Taglioni, Angelini certainly had the chops to dazzle. Furthermore, as his “Nutcracker” proved ((see elsewhere in these Archives)), he can also whip out an original libretto when the occasion calls for it. Financially, it certainly would have been an easier path to tread than to convince his board to front the expensive costs not only of rights, but of international shipping of sets and costumes for a European production like John Cranko’s “Taming of the Shrew.” But Angelini – and here I have to guess that Nureyev’s influence n’etait pas pour rien – realizes something that not only more ballet company but more fine arts museum directors would do well to remember: When you are directing a ballet company – or, for that matter, even a modern company with a rich patrimoine – you are not just there to divert your audience, you are also there to share your rich heritage with them. You’re like a bookseller or librarian whose purpose should not just be to promote new titles but to introduce his readers to the classics, including 20th century classics. You also don’t pretend that everything started with you. And you are not there to serve your ego. ((Or pocket-book; large ballet company directors are often paid extra for their choreography.))

I also can’t help but think of New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins, who, with the doubly richest repertoire in American if not world ballet, from not just one but two giants, Balanchine and Robbins, continues, year after year, to infest the company’s repertory and waste his audience’s time with his unimaginative ((at best)) choreographies. For every Martins ballet that perturbs a program, I can’t help but think “Another 20 minutes of my life waisted, when he could have shown me more Balanchine or Robbins.” ((There is *one* argument that can be made for a ballet company’s director creating new work, even if the choreography is middling; to push and develop his dancers. This is why I don’t quite put another Balanchine disciple, San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson, in the same category as Martins; in his early work for the company, at least, even if it was compositionally not much more interesting than Martins’s, one of his laudable aims was to elevate the company’s technical level, which he found lacking when he arrived in 1985. Other Tomasson creations, notably “Nana’s Lied” for star Elizabeth Loscavio, allowed certain personalities to flower. I suspect that Angelini, who carefully chooses his choreographic outings, had similar motivations to this last for revising “Nutcracker”: the company’s production was tired, and a new setting couldn’t help but enhance the dancers’ emotional investment and enagement.))

Angelini, by contrast, is kind of the reverse of the gold-miner who descends on a country to mine its riches. ((This is not to ignore his cultivating of local talent and new work, for which he successfully pushed for the construction of a separate theater devoted to this task.)) He’s like the immigrant who arrives *with* a treasure trove of riches to share with his adaptive country. In a time when a new American president is making Lady Liberty blanche with shame by not opening *but closing* our borders to “the tired and the poor,” Angelini’s case ((I also note that both the stars featured in the above photo have “foreign-sounding” names)) also serves as a larger reminder that immigrants are not here to take and to diminish the cut of the pie available to natives but to give, and to expand the horizons of us all. – Paul Ben-Itzak)

TULSA — Classic tutu ballets like “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” are often thought of as the ultimate yardstick for measuring the maturity of a company. But other kinds of ballets can measure qualities every bit as important as the technical prowess the classics put to the test. John Cranko’s 1969 “The Taming of the Shrew,” which Tulsa Ballet performed last month at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is one of those other kinds, a work that tests skills such as theatrical range, character acting, and the ability to sustain narrative continuity. ‘Shrew’ has more in common with the Ballets Russes classics TB performed regularly in its early decades than with the ‘white’ ballets in the classical canon. In a ballet like Ronald Hynd’s “The Merry Widow” (which, incidentally, TB is bringing back next season), it certainly matters whether steps are done correctly, but it matters more that the dancers make the audience able to see the story and get behind the characters. ‘Shrew,’ based on Shakespeare’s play, is like that, which made it refreshingly different after the high-toned technical seriousness of TB’s last two programs, which included “Swan Lake,” a fine rendition of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” and a mesmerizing performance of James Kudelka’s haunting “There, Below.”

To receive the rest of the article, including more photos, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Flash Focus, 10-25: Think Globally, Act Regionally — Angelini Builds New Home for New Dance; Lustig Smashes Glass Ceiling

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Tulsa Ballet’s Daniela Buson and Wang Yi in Ma Cong’s “Blood Rush” on the opening program at the company’s intimate Studio K theater. Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s Note, 10-25-2016: In processing my interview with Marcello Angelini in 2008, I was so focused on the immediate picture in front of me – the Tulsa Ballet artistic director’s investment in creating infrastructure, as one of the rare young directors of mid-sized ballet companies who wasn’t using it as merely a stepping stone to something bigger – that I under-emphasized the importance of Angelini’s vision about ballet’s larger role as a cultural and even historical vector. Beyond pointing to paragraphs six and seven below, I can only add here an element of Angelini’s trajectory which no doubt helped forge his global vision and historical appreciation for ballet’s role in reflecting and advancing the larger culture in the same way that his very Italian manner of finding a suit influenced his designs for the new theater. Before turning to directing ballet companies, he danced for many years with Rudolph Nureyev’s touring company, frequently alternating with the star in principal roles. On the day I write these notes, we’ve just learned of the death of the activist, author, and politician Tom Hayden two days earlier at the age of 76, after a long illness. Hayden is remembered for co-founding, in 1961, Students for a Democratic Society, an early agitator  for civil rights and free speech, and against the Vietnam War. In 1968 he was tried as a member of the so-called Chicago Eight after protesting outside the Democratic Convention. The last time I saw Hayden was in Sacramento, California, during the 1992 government shut-down in a squabble over the state budget. Sitting in a subdued legislative chamber, the goatee’d Hayden was profiting from the lull to immerse himself in a new book about “Generation X.”  No fossil he. But fundamentally, Hayden’s importance was that he refused to accept business as usual. Ballet has far too few of these  — another reason to celebrate agitators like Marcello Angelini.)

Recently I received the Royal Ballet’s programming announcement for next season. I had trouble keeping my eyelids open. The same old dinosaurs being trotted out, whether in tired versions of classics or tired names of supposedly original modern ballet choreographers. Fortunately, where many of the large ballet companies have failed to imagine, the companies we big-city types used to condescendingly refer to as “regional” (as in, ‘not bad for a regional company’) have come through, commissioning new work with traction from choreographers not named Wheeldon, encouraging original voices to work in the ballet idiom without sacrificing classic values or, like many European ballet companies (Lyon comes to mind) resorting to extra-dance elements like text and ‘technology.’ At the top of this list are Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet and Graham Lustig’s American Repertory Ballet.

Angelini and Lustig have one other trait in common which is revealing itself in the level of talent and support they’ve been able to build. Neither see their companies as simple necessary stepping stones in ambitious trajectories whose ultimate goal is to land them a job with a bigger company. As a result, rather than the flashy programming which garners short-term attention but leaves no legacy (or, worse, the legacy of a deficit) that we often see from directors whose ambitions are confined to their own careers, they are actually building structures, community infrastructures,  and patron relationships from which their companies and audiences will reap benefits long after they’ve departed.

In Angelini’s case, the most visible evidence is a capital campaign which, over the past five years, has raised $17 million, $8.9 million of which has been directed towards a building expansion and renovation which sees its first fruits Thursday with the opening of Studio K – Kivisto Hall, a 300-seat theater designed expressly for the performance of new work in an additional fifth series for the Tulsa home season. (For this inaugural edition, three tango-themed works by Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, Young Soon Hue, and Tulsa Ballet principal dancer Ma Cong, on a program running through May 4. See Alicia Chesser’s review, elsewhere in these DI Archives.) The facility, named after Tulsa supporter Tom Kivisto, will serve for performances and education, and be available for community rental.

“This is a theater built to suit a new program, a new series that we are starting this year, rather then the other way around,” Angelini explained to me earlier this week. “This series has been in the making since I first came to Tulsa 13 years ago. In fact, it was one of the first projects I presented to the board of directors. It was all part of a plan, a three-fold plan with this series dedicated to creation being the last part of the plan. First I wanted to build a company that was able to dance everything, from the classics to the most contemporary work. Then I wanted to build a repertory that was truly international, allowing the people living in our community to experience here, in their homes, the same works they could see in New York, Paris, London, Milan or Moscow. Then, once the international repertory was built, I wanted to take the company internationally and give us a true test of our value, as assessed by reviewers and audiences that had never seen us before and would never see us again. Lastly, I wanted to add a series dedicated to creations.

“I always felt that creations need a special surrounding to be appreciated to the fullest. So, rather then creating a work and trying to fit it into a theater, I did the opposite. And that’s when being Italian helped in the thought process…. In Italy, we don’t just buy a suit and then fit it on our body. We go to the tailor, we get the fabric we like and we ask him to build it on our body…. I believe we are the only company in the U.S. that has spent $5 million to build a theater entirely dedicated to the creation of new works and, thus, to the progression and growth of the art form. This is the statement I wanted to make with Kivisto Hall.”

Angelini broadens the scope of his intentions with a credo that should serve as a guidepost for all guardians and cultivators of this art: “We enjoy an introspective look at the sociology and emotions of our ancestors from the 19th century through the art they created,” he says. “Better yet, with dance, this art comes alive in front of our eyes. We artistic directors need to commit to create a body of works that will withstand the test of time and will represent, a century or two from now, who we were at this time in the development of the human being.

“Another reason for creating art is that we, the arts organization, differ from the entertainment industry insofar as we have a responsibility toward the cultural growth of the community that supports us. Yes, we have to entertain, but we also have a responsibility to push the cultural boundaries of our people, challenge them to think, to accept progress, to expand their vision beyond the boundaries of the community they call home. Our job is to both please and make people think. Kivisto Hall will allow us to continue this commitment by creating works that are leading edge, while still entertaining and never infringing on the artistic integrity of the art form.”

Speaking of boundaries, for an art form that owes most of its historical stages of physical invention and development to women — from Taglioni’s enabling the articulation of Romanticism (see elsewhere in these DI Archives), to Farrell’s articulating and even inspiring Balanchine — ballet has a lousy record when it comes to allowing women creators *equal* access. It was in part to correct this that, several years ago, artistic director Graham Lustig started the Dancing through the Ceiling commissioning program at American Repertory Ballet, based in the working-class and university central New Jersey town of New Brunswick. But he didn’t stop there. The problem with sex or race-centric programs is they risk ghettoizing the very group they seek to promote. An all-female, all-Black, all-gay program carries the unfortunate subtext, “not bad for (women, Blacks, Gays).” It can even imply that the works will be of little interest to anyone outside that group; that they’ll speak only to an identity constituency. What Lustig does, however, is to integrate these works into his general programming. So even though three of the four works making up ARB’s program at New York’s Symphony Space May 8 and 9 are by women, the program is not being marketed as “Three Girls and Graham” but under the more universal rubric “Sinatra, Shadows, and Stars,” the ballets in question being inspired by the crooner from Hoboken, Balanchine, three Van Gogh paintings including “The Starry Night,” and the diary of Anne Frank.

The program starts with a work from that giant of male and female choreographers of the late 20th century, Twyla Tharp, in her Balanchine homage “Octet,” only the second time in 17 years the work has been programmed in New York. (Seeing the piece earlier this year in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson called it “the most thrilling Tharp revival anywhere this season.” (And there have been a lot of them, notably at American Ballet Theatre; see elsewhere in these DI Archives.) Tharp also contributes “Sinatra Suite,” in a staging by Elaine Kudo, who created the duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Dancing through the Ceiling commission is “Starry Nights,” one of more than 80 ballets created by Lisa de Ribere, and which takes its inspiration from Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights Over the Rhone,” “The Cafe Terrasse, Arles, at Night” and “The Starry Night.”

Even the one work on the program created by a male, Lustig’s “Shadows in the Attic,” owes its source to a young woman, reflecting the last night diarist Anne Frank, her family, the van Daans and Mr. Dussel spent in the Secret Annex before being discovered and before they were hauled off to the death camps by the Gestapo, all but Anne’s father Otto perishing. Bringing it back home to Angelini’s point about the potential of art to reflect a time and of dance to do it in real time, reviewing this ballet, Johnson wrote, “Such unusual works do more than underscore the empathic function of art; they place art within the realm of civic duty.”