Honesty and irony: more NYC reviews

A few days after Stephen Page’s Warumuk – in the dark night – received negative reviews by some New York critics, the collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet was thoughtfully reviewed by Margaret Fuhrer, associate editor, Dance Spirit and Pointe magazines and dance critic for The Huffington Post.

Unlike the other critics, Fuhrer was honest enough to write that “I don’t know how true to indigenous tradition Page’s choreography is”.

She continued: “It’s certainly alloyed with contemporary movement, but the proportions are unclear, at least to my untrained eye. I do know that the Australian Ballet dancers in Warumuk’s cast seemed to relish its style: deep, rooted pliés, movements initiating from the gut, overt, unabashed theatricality.

“(The wonderful Bangarra artists aren’t technical slouches, either. Even during more balletic phrases, it was often hard to tell which performers were from which company.)”

Fuhrer believed that the Australian Ballet dancers “looked most comfortable in the work whose style was, in theory, most foreign to them”.

She thought the dancers seemed nervous in the five pas de deux presented under the umbrella label, Luminous, as well as in Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929.

“The 12 TAB members who performed Dyad looked tentative, even scared. You could see them hesitating for that extra millisecond during in-between moments, chopping phrases that should have flown together into disconnected bits”.

The dancers might have been even more apprehensive if they had known in advance that for this season, the New York critics have outdone their traditionally harsh London colleagues.

I wrote yesterday that it would be surprising if Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake did not receive the warm reaction in New York this June that it has all around the world since its premiere in 2002.

I was wrong.

Alistair Macaulay, The New York Times’ critic, was disappointed that that “with this production as its calling card, the Australian Ballet…is not serious about wanting to be a serious classical ballet company. The opening-up and opening-out of the body that is basic to ballet’s classicism doesn’t really occur here; women dance on point but with arms folding in to express inhibitions”.

Although he praised as “clever” the concept of the central characters representing the dysfunctional relationship between the Royals – Prince Charles, Diana and Camilla – Macaulay wrote:

“I can’t help feeling that this Swan Lake… is an exercise in opportunism. It cashes in on the Diana story, which is fair game, but it also cashes in on Tchaikovsky’s score without ever opening its heart to the production. The way that dances and acting scenes are fitted to certain beats or phrases, but not others, feels arbitrary and often clumsy. The score has been reordered and cut in ways that have even more disregard for its internal structure than usual.

“The central idea of swans is where the production is dimmest. Its heroine retreats to her distorted idea of ballet and swans when she can’t deal with real life, but the swan aspect is entirely incidental. Instead of giving us ballet as the sublimated language of the soul, the dancing gives us a world where the wildness and beauty of swans has become fragmented by conflicted impulses. This has some limited psychological effectiveness, but we’re made to watch something small and cut up while the music, and a few sporadic images of ballet’s amplitude, evoke larger dramas than any sustained here.

“The Australians, presenting this production in four performances at the end of their week at Lincoln Center, fielded two casts of the three lead roles. Saturday’s cast was led by Madeleine Eastoe (Odette), Kevin Jackson (Prince Siegfried) and Lucinda Dunn (Baroness von Rothbart) — all as effective as Mr Murphy’s choreography would allow. But this isn’t pro-dancer choreography; it never shows their capacities for sustained phrasing or refined energy.

“New York City Ballet Orchestra played particularly well under the baton of the Australian Ballet’s music director and chief conductor, Nicolette Fraillon, but this version involves some appalling changes of tempo in the middle of individual sections. As for the most famous theme in Tchaikovsky’s score – which ties swans, mystery and fate together – it’s astonishing how often it’s allowed to wash over the action as if irrelevant”.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Macaulay at least has a firm point of view, and explains the basis for his conclusions.

In contrast, Leigh Witchel’s review for The New York Post merely described the story, as interpreted by its creators, Graeme Murphy, Janet Vernon and Kristian Fredrikson, then briefly complained that the choreography was “pedestrian and thin”.

Witchel compared Murphy’s interpretation unfavourably with the “original” production, (whatever that is) but praised the dancers Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and found the dancers as a whole “hardworking and beautifully schooled”.

The sharpest barb came at the end. Referring to one pas de deux, danced in the triple bill, Infinity, Witchel wrote:

“Stanton Welch’s Divergence was so awful it was wonderful. In it, the women were dolled up like Jane Jetson in futuristic tutu skirts, only to shuck them off and dump them at the back of the stage.

“It was supposed to be classical yet sassy, but it looked more like the Real Housewives of Sydney taking stripping lessons.

“If that’s Australian for ballet, maybe they need to come up with some different phrases”.

That throwaway remark is flippant, condescending and a misplaced attempt at irony, considering the pas de deux was a brief excerpt from Divergence, a ballet choreographed more than 17 years ago, and hardly representative of “Australian for ballet”.

Witchel might like to take a trip to Australia to see more of dance in that country or perhaps take a shorter flight to Texas, where Welch has been artistic director of the Houston Ballet for almost a decade.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 21, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Hello Valerie!

    It’s good to be read, even by those who aren’t crazy about what you wrote.

    You make good points but unsurprisingly, I don’t fully agree. To ask for the same thing from a Post review as a Times review is like asking a cat to bark. The Post is a tabloid and I have a completely different space allotment, readership and editorial slant mandated, and that includes the occasional wisecrack. Interestingly, my editor asked for the Divergence line at first (it was an offhand comment from an email exchange with her), but on reading thought the ending was too harsh.

    A fuller story is on my page – https://www.facebook.com/danceleighwitchel/posts/308771189214797 and some commentary on a very interesting observation you made, about the uniformity of NY dance critics: https://www.facebook.com/danceleighwitchel/posts/382038201855572

    Best regards –

    Leigh Witchel

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Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe, photo © Lynette Wills

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe, photo © Lynette Wills

Alastair Macaulay

Alastair Macaulay