Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Eighth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize

Erik Bruhn; photo Gert Weigelt

March 18, 2009, 7:30 PM, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario

In a competition where past winners include Rose Gad Poulsen (1988) and Silja Wendrup-Schandorff (1989) of The Royal Danish Ballet, Julie Kent (1993) and Michele Wiles (2002) of American Ballet Theater, Johan Kobborg (1993) of (at the time) The Royal Danish Ballet, and Vanessa Zahorian (1999) of the San Francisco Ballet, the bar is set high for the rising young ballet stars of today.

The 5 companies which have sent competitors since 1988 are all those with which Erik Bruhn had close relationships of one kind or another: The Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), The Royal Ballet (RB), American Ballet Theater (ABT), San Francisco Ballet (SFB), Stuttgart Ballet (SB), and The National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) . There have been 4 winners from RDB, 1 from RB, 2 from ABT, 2 from SB, 1 from SB, and 5 from NBoC.

This year’s winners change the totals to 3 for ABT and 6 for NBoC.

I don’t know about all the other years, but this year, for example, there were no competitors sent from Royal Ballet, and last time (2007) there were only 4 companies present (San Francisco and Stuttgart ballets were absent), so the numbers don’t really represent any real comparables when all companies are not included every competition.

The evening began with opening remarks by an elegantly-but-simply-sheathed Chan Han Goh striding to the podium with Aleksander Antonejevic, whose baggy-at-the-ankles pants I couldn’t help but notice. They spoke simply and with smiles, lauding the competitors and explaining the rules and order of the competition.

Erik Bruhn in Giselle

They also read Bruhn’s statement that the prize is meant for dancers who "reflect such technical ability, artistic achievement and dedication as I endeavoured to bring to dance."
(I would have put the emphasis on the “I” in reading this, but it was read without accenting any words.)

The ages of the competitors are limited to those 18 to 23 and we had the full spectrum, from first year corps member 18 year old Hilary Guswiler (RDB) to the 23 year olds: soloists Cory Stearns (ABT) and Anthony Spaulding (SFB), demi-soloist William Moore (SB), and corps member Dores Andre (SFB).

Those in-between were 19 year old Alban Lendorf (RDB), 21 year old Rachele Buriassi (SB), and 22 year olds Isabella Boylston (ABT), Elena Lobsanova (NBoC), and Noah Long (NBoC), all corps de ballet.

Dancers would not be performing in the order presented in the program, but in the order of the lots they had drawn earlier. (That order would remain the same for the second half of the competition.) The first dances to be presented were the classical pas de deux and variations, the second set, all the contemporary pieces.

The judges (who would not be judging their own contestants) were the artistic directors (and one associate) of the ballet companies who brought competitors. The list printed in the program:

Kevin McKenzie, AD, ABT
Karen Kain, AD, NBoC
Nikolaj Hübbe, AD, RDB
Helgi Tomasson, AD, SFB
Tamas Detrich, Artistic Associate, SB

In actuality, Tomasson was not there, being replaced by SF Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamente.

First, I’ll review the classical portion of the program:

With dancers names and their dances' info shown briefly in surtitles before the curtain opened, the competition began with “Pas de Deux from Act II of La Sylphide” performed by The Royal Danish Ballet’s Hilary Guswiler and Alban Lendorf, choreography by Auguste Bournonville.

Hilary and Alban are the youngest dancers in the competition, ages 18 and 19, and in their first year in the corps of RDB. Taking that into consideration, their performance was very good and showed great promise for both. But I did not read the program notes before the evening started and took each performance at face value, not thinking of the age of the competitor at all.

Hilary Guswiler; photo Royal Danish Ballet

Hilary’s sylph was not quite soft enough, she had little stumbles, and wobbled her landing from a jump. Her développé to the back was not entirely secure and her last développé could have been more stretched. Her feet were not pointed enough during her entrechats and échappés. As the dancing progressed, however, she got better. Hilary had a particularly nice lift to a jump where she hung in the air for a second. She moved as lightly as she could and her adherence to Bournonville style (as much as I know of it) was admirable.

Alban Lendorf; photo Royal Danish Ballet

Alban’s acting was somewhat stilted and amateurish. But his beats were glorious! The trademark of James’ variation, these entrechats showed why this piece was chosen for their entry. His other allegro was very clean and bright.

All in all, they were like very good students, and like students, had unavoidable weak spots. I gave the RDB competitors an overall B-.

Next came the first of two Odiles and Siegfrieds: “Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III of Swan Lake”, performed by American Ballet Theater’s Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns, choreography after Marius Petipa.

<-- Isabella Boylston, top; Isabella and Cory Stearns, bottom; photos Matthew Murphy

Isabella Boylston; photo ABT

This performance was one of such perfection that I can’t find a single thing to gripe about. Isabella was stunning, both in technique and artistry. I sat close enough (2nd row orchestra) to see every facial expression, and she really acted her role well. Every arabesque, turn, renversé, jump and supported pirouette were exceptional. Notably tantalizing were Isabella’s movements in a repeated sequence of supported penché attitude, where she was held almost upside down toward the audience as she waved her arms and upper body with a delicious cant to her head and evil expression on her face. Also remarkable were her blurring supported pirouettes, anchored sharp as a dart to the ground, and too fast to count. The only thing – the ONLY thing – that happened that would cause anyone who knows the choreography to mark a teensy tick next to her name, was the end of the fouetté sequence. Isabella's 32-fouettés-to-be carried her in a straight line downstage, as if intended to, until, perhaps in danger of finishing by twirling into the orchestra pit, she used the last four turn counts to piqué perfectly in a half circle back upstage. The coda with Cory was exciting and dramatic, performed with mounting intensity and fervor to the last note of the music which occurred just as her fingertip stretched her hand to its fullest behind her back and her head fell backwards in triumph.
Cory Stearns; photo ABT

<-- Cory Stearns
as Siegfried, Act III, YAGP 2001

Cory was the ideal prince, with noble bearing infusing his long limbs. He partnered Isabella expertly and the two performed as experienced ballet veterans. In his variations, Cory showed beautiful line, lofty grands jetés, soaring manège. His technique is so solid, you just sit back and enjoy his dancing with the same confidence that he performs it.

I gave the ABT competitors an overall A+.

Cory Stearns in ABT's Le Corsaire; photo Marty Sohl

Third up: Stuttgart Ballet. “Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III of Swan Lake”, performed by Rachele Buriassi and William Moore, choreography: John Cranko.

In a difficult position, following the perfection of Isabella and Cory with the same PDD and variations (different choreography), Buriassi and Moore might have experienced more stress than the other contenders. The very first supported pirouette was off-kilter. Rachele's foot was not stretched behind her in lifts and she was musically late, missing arriving together with the music at the last dramatic beat in her first set of turns. William Moore was a considerably weaker partner than we saw in the last black swan PDD, and both lacked the dramatic flair so necessary in this piece. Rachele tried to use her facial expressions to convey the character of Odile, but the rest of her didn't follow suit. Both danced more position to position, which gave their partnership less flow. Their insecurity showed in the supported arabesque turn as well as in other portions of the PDD. William in his variation displayed the mark of a good student, but has things that need fixing, like getting his toe to touch his leg in turns instead of hovering in passé in the air.

Rachele Buriassi; photo Ulrich Buettenmueller

Still, there was much to enjoy in the dance. I took it apart as a judge might because we were, after all, watching a competition, and doing our own judging as audience members. Had they been the only ones to dance the black swan PDD and variations, it might have been easier for them. This is a dastardly hard PDD to make look easy, and this couple have many more practice sessions ahead of them before they even approach a semblance of "easy". Perhaps they should have been given a different PDD to compete with .....La Fille mal Gardée or Coppélia, for example.

William Moore; photo John Kannelopolous
John Cranko's choreography for this piece is topsy-turvy. If we're well-versed in who dances to what music in the variations, it is disconcerting to see Odile doing her variation to Siegfried's music, and Siegfried doing his to Odile's. Even the choreography for Odile in her variation was strange. It included echappés, presented seemingly out of context, as if they were a center exercise, followed by a circle of piqué turns. Little of what we expect Odile to dance was evident. However, the fouettés in the coda were still there, and they presented an obstacle for Buriassi. Starting off well, they travelled forward rapidly and stopped suddenly, way too soon, leaving Rachele standing in plié in fifth position until the end of the music. I don't even remember much of the rest of the coda after that, but they did recoup and finished in the standard position, Odile's head thrown back (a little behind the music again) with Siegfried kneeling before her.

William Moore; photo UlrichBeuttenmueller

I gave the Stuttgart competitors an overall C.

Fourth in the lineup: San Francisco Ballet. "Pas de Deux from Act II of Giselle", performed by Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding, choreography: Helgi Tomasson after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa.

Dores Andres; photo Erik Tomasson

Dores Andre; photo David Allen

The curtain opened with Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding standing upstage in the position of the cross, Giselle in front of Albrecht, as they do in front of Giselle's grave (there were no props used in the competition). Andre's développé was very good, her promenade in plié arabesque just a little unsteady. Her entrechats sounded clunky (not good for a wraith who should move soundlessly), but her bourrées were exceptionally lovely. She danced the whole PDD and her variation with an unvarying far-off, glazed look in her eyes, her face never changing expression. It was as if Giselle wasn't seeing Albrecht instead of the other way around. Dores's articulate use of her feet was beautiful to see. Her ronde jambe en l'air to each side while in a jump were lacy, delicately precise, and very quick.
Giselle's trademark soubresauts, however, didn't get very high off the ground, leaving her with more of an earthly rather than airborne connection. Still, the general feeling one got from her rendition of Giselle was of a lonely spirit, haunted by an intangible loss. But for a few instances, she and her partner didn't really connect.

Anthony Spaulding; photo David Allen

Spaulding, with his long legs and princely bearing, should have left a better impression, but I found his technique merely adequate, and he didn't take the opportunity to explore his acting lexicon, either. It seemed also to have only one facet -- a look of ambiguous longing. There's something that bothers me about his arabesques and every leg extension to the back: his leg movement does not come from the hip but from the back, giving his line an awkward look. I began to cringe every time he lifted his leg. He also danced very much position to position instead of presenting his role as an organic whole. It made me appreciate the skill of so many professional danseurs whose performances flow with logical movement, their in-between steps as important as the positions they help the dancer attain. Anthony's landings from jumps were sometimes sloppy, with feet open in a quasi-fourth position instead of in a tight fifth. I thought he was the weakest of all the contenders in classical ballet.

Anthony Spaulding with Yuan Yuan Tan; photo Kurt Rogers

I gave the San Francisco competitors an overall B (Andre's performance pulled the grade up).

Fifth and last of the classical repertoire: The National Ballet of Canada. "Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire", performed by Elena Lobsanova and Noah Long, choreography: after Marius Petipa.

Difficult for me to review because I've known Noah since he was 14 years old and because he and my daughter danced together, I will nevertheless be as objective as possible.

Noah Long grand jetéd onstage with a light, high jump, signaling the excitement he would bring to his role as Conrad's slave, Ali.
(The program notes give the impression that Noah is dancing the role of Conrad by stating, "At this point in the story, Conrad the pirate has rescued Medora, a Greek slave girl from sale to a Pasha's harem and taken her to his underground grotto, where, having fallen in love, they dance in celebration of her rescue." Of course, Conrad is nowhere to be seen, and we have the standard pas de deux between his slave Ali and Medora. I fault the NBoC blurb writer with this misleading info. It is Conrad who is in love with Medora, not his slave. When the piece is performed as a pas de trois, Ali serves as Conrad's aide, handing Medora off to him several times as a duty to his master.

Noah Long; photo National Ballet of Canada

With the above clarification, we can understand the bent head and obsequious posture characteristic of this role . However, there are points when this slave exhibits bravura, and Noah's was more of the ostentatious style bravura than the technical sort. Not that his technique wasn't good, but that his showiness outshone it. The home audience, composed in part by students of the National Ballet School and dancers in the company who weren't performing later while the votes were being tallied, went wild, as was to be expected. Those close to Noah watched with a critical eye and hope in their hearts, but had to admit his performance was a bit raw. Noah could do wonders with a good male coach. Still there was so much right about his dancing the old warhorse that it could be enjoyed with confidence that it was in good hands (and feet).

Noah's "snake" turns worked out really well for him the second time he did them, and his turns à la seconde were excellent. Dancing with elan, his variation mounted in excitement until the final dramatic fling to the floor. I would have liked to have seen a delicious breath-holding développé into second after his pirouettes. That's one of the highlights of the Ali variation and there are a couple of chances to apply it. In PDD, Noah is a very good partner and he guided and supported Lobsanova with complete assurance.

Elena Lobsanova; photo National Ballet of Canada

Elena Lobsanova is a lovely dancer with beautiful lines and demeanor. I don't know why she feels it adds something to her arabesques and attitudes to break the line of her foot by winging it in that characteristically NBoC style which is so ugly! Through the years I have watched female dancers at the National do this (not all of them, to the credit of those who don't) as if they couldn't call themselves NBoC dancers if they didn't. It ruins the effect of a stretched pointed foot and adds nothing to the line -- nothing! It has been one of my pet peeves about the National for years and it stresses me to see it passed on from generation to generation. I used to call it a "cupped" foot because it looks like you could pour a demitasse of espresso into it. Photos abound of National dancers, from principals down, who do this at the height of their arabesque. I am begging everyone at NBoC to please stop it!!

While Lobsanova showed she was up for tackling the Medora role, there were still a few problems. Her arms were usually stiffly held (this is also a hallmark of the National), especially noticeable in fifth en haut. This does not look pretty. Arms should be fluid, continuing the movement of the rest of the body, softly and with plastique. Such graceful port de bras was totally lacking. My notes (written in a stream as I watched) are peppered with "arms!", "stiff arms!", "terrible arms". There was a jerky développé, too-low jumps and wobbles on landings. Her fouettés were a disaster, after a good start, like a top spinning out of control, first from center stage to stage left (she's a left turner), then forced back to center stage, losing form all the while until she plumb fell out of the last of them into an ungainly position.

Were I to ignore the negatives outlined in the above paragraph, then I could say that Lobsanova danced beautifully and winsomely, doing a creditable job with difficult choreography that is in the domain of prima ballerinas and principal dancers. However, all the competitors danced such lead roles. And, I reiterate, I am wearing my armchair judge's hat, my opinions informed by my own and my daughter's training in ballet. I might not be so harsh otherwise (but, then, I might!).

Despite my nitpicking, I gave the National an overall B+.

Now you can understand why I was flabbergasted that Isabella Boylston's name was not called out as female winner of the competition. I'll bet it had a lot to do with the choice of contemporary piece. My reviews of the contemporary repertoire will be next.
Contemporary repertoire

From the program: “These ballets have been commissioned by each of the companies specifically for the Eighth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize. They are receiving their world premieres this evening. The Choreographic Prize will be awarded to one of the participating choreographers for best new contemporary choreography as determined by the panel of judges.”

1) Royal Danish BalletHilary Guswiler, Alban Lendorf

An Elegy for Us, choreography: Iain Rowe; Music: James MacMillan, Angel; Michael Byron, As She Sleeps with additional sound design by Iain Rowe

Stage has a dark cast. Piece begins with lots of walking to silence by each dancer. There are 2 chairs onstage. She sits down on one of them and the music starts. He shows off some entrechats and a grand jeté. She runs and jumps. He turns. She gyrates on one spot. She brings a chair next to his. He does a renversé and a grand jeté. She sticks her legs out. He twirls her in a split. He lifts her. He twirls her in another split. He lifts her again. The minor key music consists of chord, chord, note, note, sustained note, note, chord, and so on. They gyrate around each other. He runs and puts his chair in a new place. She gets hers and puts it right next to his. He moves his chair again. She picks hers up and places it next to his again. They sit. He moves his chair. She moves hers next to his yet again. He picks up his chair and throws it across the stage. It lands upside down. She stands stock still. He walks toward third wing. An unseen “door” opens beyond it, emitting the bright light of a room full of people partying. We hear loud party chatter (in English), above all a clear female voice whose words are distinctly understandable (I don't remember what they were, but they didn't seem to advance or explain the "plot"). He stands at the “open door”. She goes and stands next to him. They “enter” the “party room” together. The end.

My summation (there's nothing really that I can review or critique): The first of three "end of relationship" pieces, this one is a big, fat, 60s style, minimalist, experimental nothing (not to be confused with the 60s works of genius produced by Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Alwin-Nikolais, etc.). Girl wants boy. Boy doesn't want girl. But they walk into party together. ?

Iain Rowe; photo Royal Danish Ballet

It’s a real shame that Hilary Guswiler and Alban Lendorf, both in ballet slippers, didn’t get a chance to dance. They needed something wonderful to augment their overall competition score and were given walking, running, twirling, a cou ple of jetés for him, and a little gyrating, all of which they did very well. ;)
The choreographer, born in 1986, is a member of the corps de ballet.


2) American Ballet Theater Isabella Boylston, Cory Stearns

End., choreography: Marcelo Gomes; music: Franz Schubert, Piano Trio #2 in E Flat, 2nd movement (Andante con moto); piano: Mark Harjes; violin: Lynn Kuo; cello: Maurizio Baccante

Cory walks in. Isabella runs in and jumps on his back. This piece, too, is in a minor key, for it is clearly about a breakup where he doesn’t want her anymore. There is lots of beautiful, classical dancing. Isabella is in a romantic tutu with puffed sleeves and a gorgeous bodice, the just-below-the-knee skirt built up with several layers of lavender tulle covered by iridescent fuchsia chiffon. Her tights and pointe shoes are black. Cory is in grey: tights, shirt, and shoes, with a black vest.

This very balletic piece is full of advances by her and rejections by him. She goes to him, he pushes her away. There is partnering in-between the push-pull, with luscious supported pirouettes, Isabella’s foot in high passé. Her extensions are also high, and classical. A contemporary moment: She wipes his face and places his sweat on her own brow.

He resists her every time she tries to engage him. Cory has wonderful double tours, Isabella a beautiful entrelacé. She dances to him, he takes her by the shoulders and gives her two firm shakes, pushing her violently away from him. The dancers use all levels: floor, middle, and the air, to convey their feelings – she, always wanting him to take her in his arms and be hers again, and he, angrily and abruptly trying to get rid of her. Isabella’s technique shines through every movement, as does Cory’s. Her upper body is soft with expressive arms and beautiful port de bras. Her legs are powerful and confident. The music is seen through her movement. Every note of it is danced with smooth phrasing and vivid accents.

In their pas de deux parts, there are lots of backward flops into his arms. Before he strides briskly offstage, he gives her an intimate touch and with softness on his face, looks on hers with kindness (reminding me of one of my own past loves when we broke up). She is left alone onstage. She runs back and forth, then stops and reaches in the direction he left in one last gesture of painful yearning, turns and runs off in the opposite direction.
Marcelo Gomes; photo ABT

This was an achingly heartrending piece that should be seen by all for its exquisiteness. But it shouldn’t have been presented at this competition. It hurt Isabella's chances, I’m sure, by looking just too classical. Both Isabella and Cory are widely experienced in many styles of contemporary choreography, and New York is full of avant-garde choreographers who would have loved to have had the chance to compete for the $2000 (Cdn.) choreographer’s prize. I wanted everyone at the competition to see what a great contemporary dancer Isabella is. And, I would have loved to have seen Cory do something in a different vein from what I’ve seen him do before (excepting “Citizen”). I have convinced myself that the choice of this piece, as beautiful as it was, lost Isabella the competition, stellar as she was.


3) Stuttgart BalletRachele Buriassi, William Moore

La Grande Parade du Funk, choreography: Bridget Breiner; music: Chris Brubeck, Convergence, 3rd movement

He is shirtless, in bermuda shorts. She is in a bathing suit (or something that looks like one). Both costumes are blue in color. As the name implies, this piece was replete with funky dancing: feet turned in, walking on pointe, body isolations. Sometimes the couple danced in unison, sometimes they were each in a different part of the space dancing independently of each other. His hands were sometimes in his pockets, lookin’ cool and easy.

Bridget Breiner: photo Stuttgart Ballet

Rachele Buriassi showed us sharp développés to head-height and excellent attitude turns. She and William Moore moved effortlessly through the upbeat piece which required lots of movement, something to do on every beat of the music. They were both really comfortable with the choreography – which was relatively easy – and showed the fun they were having. Some of the movements were made quirky because they were led by the head (think breakdancing). There were slides along the floor, and some simple partnering.

The audience loved the piece and so did I.


3) San Francisco BalletDores Andre, Anthony Spaulding

Ebony Concerto, choreography: Val Caniparoli; music: Igor Stravinsky, Ebony Concerto; clarinet soloist: Max Christie

Dressed in a black t-shirt and pants, Anthony Spaulding begins the piece with a solo which includes turns, grand jetés, and isolations. I have scribbled in my notes “he’s really good at this”. Dores Andre, in a black lacy strapless top and a black ballet skirt (like girls wear to class) contributes lots of body isolations as well -- arms, head, legs – and I’ve written “she’s really good, too.”

More grand jetés, jazzy moves, different ways of touching and connecting, all to a fast tempo. They cavort on the floor and several other levels. In a neat move, they’re both supine, she atop him, and he rolls her off in a sushi-roll-making motion. They dance different things concurrently on different parts of the stage (as in the last piece), then unite for some arm-y pas de deux. Drumbeats signal a new section of the piece, which is a different kind of push-pull – sort of a can-you-top-this? competition.

Val Caniparoli; photo David Allen

Spaulding has soft-as-a-kitten landings. Andre has nice arms. This is a long piece that you wish would go on and on (I noted “best!”, as in best contemporary offering). The music is wonderfully utilized, with continuous movement that makes sense.

I was sure Val Caniparoli would win the choreographer’s prize with this innovative contemporary work.


5) National Ballet of CanadaElena Lobsanova, Noah Long

Dénouement, choreography: Matjash Mrozewski; music: Paul Tortelier, Suite in D minor for solo cello, movements 1 and 4

Noah Long: shirtless, with long maroonish-brown striped pants, brown ballet slippers
Elena Lobsanova: hot pink short shorts with a lacy maroon turtleneck top, pointe shoes

Matjash Mrozewski’s overly long rendering of his "anticlimax", while interesting in its use of space and form, was not a winner, in my estimation. I was sure they would call out Val Caniparoli’s name for the choreographer’s prize. I liked the piece well enough, and there were some nice lifts and a couple of attention-grabbing positions, but long before the end I was wondering when it would. That’s not a good sign.

Matjash Mrozewski after his win

Elena danced assuredly, displaying shapely extensions with no broken-foot “cupping” (see my first review of NBoC). Noah is an extremely sensitive partner who handles quirky choreography with aplomb. Perhaps due to the energy demands made by its length, it became noticeable toward the end of the piece that they were both working – not dancing – it. The final pose, a head-to-head embrace, came as a welcome relief for both dancers and (some of us in the) audience.

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