Review: Miami City Ballet ‘Nutcracker’ reboot hits all the right notes

It’s hard to imagine a time when one couldn’t see multiple versions of The Nutcracker during the holidays.

Master dance-maker George Balanchine first presented his version of the E.T.A. Hoffman tale in 1954. While not the first production made and performed in America, it is indeed the version that launched 10,000 other versions.

It is amazing that the Balanchine chestnut presented this season by the Miami City Ballet looks as fresh as if it were made yesterday. It doesn’t hurt that new sets and costumes by the husband-and-wife design dream team Isabel and Ruben Toledo are absolutely beautiful.

Many design teams have tried to update or “deconceptualize” The Nutcrackeronly to wind up hiding the true essence of the ballet and wrecking a great fairy tale. The Toledos come through with a visual chop suey of colors, projections and backdrops of the most original execution.

See the new sets, costumes

The first act of the Miami City Ballet production is a model of narrative efficacy. Most Nutcracker first acts drag, but not this one. All of the dancing is sharp and clear. More importantly, the narrative action, largely pushed forward by Didier Bramaz’s Herr Drosselmeier, is fast-paced and right to the point. Bramaz has thankfully made his character mysterious without being the least bit creepy. It also helps that Marie and the Nutcracker prince are wonderfully played by Renata Adarvez and Erick Rojas, respectively.

The only problem in the first act is the famous tree-growing scene. In this case, instead of having the tree grow in real time and dimension, we see it morph into a video projection and then finally into a two-dimensional backdrop. This falls a bit flat and is more than a little anticlimactic.

The entirety of the second act moves at a great pace as well. The divertissement are all clear and quick, with Sugar Plum doing her variation as the opening of the dances, not toward the end with the grand pas de deux. All of the variations are wonderfully danced with exquisite musicality and technique to spare.

The highlight of act two was clearly Nathalia Arja as the Dew Drop Fairy. Arja’s dancing is Balanchine of the highest order: extreme motion, extreme speed and not a moment of misplaced effort. She lights up the stage every time she enters and propels the Waltz of the Flowers to delightful heights.

The only misstep in act two was the decision to have Mother Ginger wear a headpiece. Instead of the usual dizzy aunt danced in the most wonderfully obvious manner by a man, we get a creepy muppet.

It is important to mention that Miami City Ballet performs with a live orchestra — a rare treat for dance-going audiences these days. The Opus One Orchestra, under the direction of Gary Sheldon, handles the score with clarity and delicacy. The music is truly wonderful in the Snow and The Waltz of the Flowers; Balanchine’s notoriously fast tempi didn’t phase the players a bit.

This was indeed a beautifully executed performance on all counts.

Review: Dancers brilliantly explore extremes in Wilson’s ‘Citizen’

Posted: 6:16 p.m. Saturday, May 06, 2017

Brooklyn-based choreographer Reggie Wilson is brilliant. The Fist and Heel Performance Group dancers who perform and collaborate in his work are brilliant, and the work he creates is wonderfully, difficultly, brilliant.

His newest creation, Citizen, presented Friday at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, is a 70-minute exploration of singular and intimate perspective. Citizen is a big work about extreme choices: Time, space and energy are all taken to the most extreme places, usually with beautifully poetic and visual results.

The cast is small, with most of Citizen performed by four dancers: Hadar Ahuvia, Yeman Brown, Raja Feather Kelly and Clement Mensah. Dancer Annie Wang appears only in the last portion of the work.

After a brief opening tableau, each of the dancers presented a wildly eccentric solo of great length and detail. These solos — part and whole — were repeated over and over during Citizen. At times, viewers saw one of the solos performed for a very short duration.  Mensah seemed to come in and comment on events in a speedy, eloquent manner. At other times, the dancing was drawn out to take what seemed an eternity.

Kelly performed his material as if he was trying to get someone to hear him, saying the same thing over and over desperately, to the point where he became almost exhausted and seemed to be questioning his statement, his search for a sensitive ear to hear his story, taking him deeper and deeper into himself.

Citizen was presented with the stage dressed in an asymmetrical manner. All of the wings were gone and replaced by large canvas borders of varying sizes. Video projections were flashed throughout the dance, suggesting travel, journey and place. This layer of visual lacquer added to the denseness of the work, but also the ambiguity of its focus. At times, it provided context into what is happening live on stage; at other times it was merely a kind of wallpaper. And, at still other times, it obscured the action totally. The video element also used extreme repetition of the same material to achieve its ends.

Citizen is the type of work not usually seen at conventional performance venues, so viewers were fortunate to have this level of cutting-edge work presented as part of the Kravis Center’s Peak series.

The series has consistently brought superb non-mainstream work to the Palm Beaches. Wilson’s Citizen is a welcome addition to that canon.

Stuart Pimsler troupe delivers divinely curious works

Posted: 1:26 p.m. Saturday, April 08, 2017

Minneapolis-based choreographer Stuart Pimsler has been creating unique dance-theater works for nearly 40 years, and it shows. In an age when many movement-based artists are struggling for relevance and authenticity, he presents masterfully crafted works of the most personal and humane kind.

His company, Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater, presented three such works Friday at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse.

Tales from the Book of Longing, At It Again and Bohemian Grove made for a divinely curious evening.

The Book of Longing, which premiered in 2009, is a rich essay on, well, longing. The piece begins with a dancer singing on a perch high above the audience in the theater’s catwalk. The dance develops into duets and ensemble vignettes of sometimes witty, sometimes wrenching, details all centered around wanting love, but never actually quite touching it.

When we do finally see love achieved, it is in the form of a beautifully tender and supportive male duet, accompanied by the same singer singing plaintively on the stage at the dancers’ feet. This work asks the tender questions about why we want what it is that we want.

At It Again is a tour de force dance monologue in which Pimsler himself dances and reads aloud a personal letter written to author Phillip Roth. While not intended to be knee-slappingly funny, Pimsler’s physical and vocal delivery takes the work to a special place of high political and cultural commentary mixed with a generous side of belly-laughs. Deftly executed and intellectually spot-on, this solo practically sums up and defines an entire sub-genre of post-modern dance in 10 minutes.

Bohemian Grove derives its title and premise from a campground in Northern California used by the uber-rich and famous. Never one to shy away from the political, Pimsler lets the 1 percent have it with both barrels.

The primary narrator is co-artistic director Suzanne Costello, who slithers through the piece with delightfully reptilian splendor. The rather cryptic and morose stories deal with the upper class’s desire and delight in keeping all others in their place by any means necessary.

This visually stunning and emotional dance was performed by Costello, Brian Evans, Katherine Griffis, Jesse Neumann-Peterson and Scott Stafford. Each of the performers was rich and mature in their roles, bringing even more depth to an evening of masterful work.

Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater goes on stage at 7:30 tonight in the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse.

Review: Dancers stellar, but Miami City Ballet program fails to satisfy

Posted: 5:07 p.m. Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Miami City Ballet brings consistently high-quality dancing and world-class choreography to South Florida audiences. The company’s Program Three, running through Feb. 26 at the Kravis Center, is no exception, at least in regards to the dancing. The dancers perform with their usual brilliance and stunning clarity. The program, however, is uneven at best.

The company opened the evening with George Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet, a brilliant work made in 1980 for the New York City Ballet. This beautiful, lively romp reveals Balanchine at the peak of his powers, able to show masterfully dense, musically sophisticated choreography.

The premise, simply, is beautiful — virtuosic dance set in motion to incidental music from Charles Gounod’s Faust. The work opens with 24 women, a soloist and a principal couple working through the paces of what, on the surface, appears to be a standard neoclassical ballet.

As the music gets progressively more and more abandoned, wild and free, we see the dancers quite literally let their hair down. By the finale, hair, legs and raucous spirits are flying at breakneck speed, engulfing the stage. What makes this work even more masterful is that it never crosses over into kitsch or camp.

Polyphonia

Christopher Wheeldon is rightfully one of the most popular and talented choreographers working in ballet today. It’s unfortunate that his ballet Polyphonia — the second work of the evening — does not reflect that fact.

Polyphonia is one of those non-descript contemporary ballets that could have been made by any one of several chorographers working today. Its pared down aesthetic and, at times, borderline misogynistic partnering are dry, cliché and a pretentious thin soup.

Miami City Ballet would do well to find a better ballet created by Wheeldon.

The Fairy’s Kiss

The third work on the program was The Fairy’s Kiss, a new ballet by the wildly popular choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

While this ballet has all the trappings of a successful new work — beautiful score, lighting, costumes and décor — it never really finds its feet. It struggles from the very opening, trying very hard to force across the patchy narrative of the libretto.

The ballet teeters back and forth between overly simplistic play acting and oddly crowded, busy ensemble.

The ballet ends in a vague, disconnected ritual of bodies, somehow attempting to illustrate an even more obtuse metaphor about the nature of life. This ballet, while at times beautiful to look at, is vague and unfulfilled as a piece of theater.

Review: Visually stunning ‘What the Day Owes to the Night’ lacks some theatrics

Posted: 3:07 p.m. Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Not until he became an adult was French contemporary choreographer Herve Koubi shown a photograph of his grandfather: a man dressed in flowing Algerian garb somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean from his native Cannes. And so began Koubi’s journey to create his 2013 dance work What the Day Owes to the Night.

Presented Tuesday at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, this is a poetic and virtuosic meditation concerning the pull of cultures toward each other; clashing and supporting as they move on a journey toward a spiritual place of serenity.

It is a full-length work for an extraordinary ensemble of 12 male dancers — Koubi’s “found brothers”— hailing from Algeria and Burkina Faso.

What the Day Owes to the Night revolves around 10 or so tableaux. Each has an arc that mirrors a day — brilliantly lit by Lionel Buzonie — starting with a murky, hazy dusk reaching heated afternoons and fading into contemplative nights. In one of the middle tableaux, rapturous choral music by Bach culminates in bodies being flung — nay, launched — high into space and then lovingly caught, cradled as they fall to the earth. The enduring themes are reaching to the heavens, embracing and assisting one’s neighbor, flinging and running as a clan, and gently observing as others work their way on the journey of mutual transcendence.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the work is its vocabulary, a deft mix of hip-hop, Capoeira, break dance and gymnastics. This work gives no nod to any Western classical dance mode. The men spin, flip, lift and throw each other with a death-defying grace and brilliance not frequently seen in Western theater.

If the work has any weakness it that this dance is so packed full of virtuosic movement that it never really advances as a work of theater. The beginning, middle and the end of the work are largely the same. While the work is wonderfully performed and choreographed, it suffers from a lack of overall theatrical progression.

But it is visually and kinetically stunning dance that offers a unique vision of two worlds reaching for each other.