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Grand Slam - Metropolitan Classical Ballet's Mejia & Vetrov think bigger than Martins

by Paul Ben-Itzak
July 23, 2010
Arlington, TX
ARLINGTON, Texas — Three ballets into the one-night only season of Metropolitan Classical Ballet July 17 at Texas Hall, I went up to Paul Mejia, the company's co-director and the choreographer of all three dances, and asked him the rhetorical question: "What I don't understand, purely from an artistic standpoint, is what Peter Martins is doing in New York and you're doing here." "Well, my family's here," Mejia answered, but the question persists: After seeing Mejia succeed brilliantly in three different formats — a group piece and a duet to classical music, then a spicey contemporary work to Astor Piazzolla — in which New York City Ballet chief Martins has consistently failed, one has to ask: How has it come to pass that the house that Balanchine built continues to be maintained by an incompetent architect when there is clearly other Balanchine-bred talent out there that actually understands and is able to perpetuate the Balanchine aesthetic in a way that lives up to his legacy?

As Balanchine so often did, let's start with the music. Several years ago, Martins premiered a ballet — at an anniversary gala, no less — to an Astor Piazzolla piece. The result, which may even have been called "Tango," insulted the music and embarassed the dancers. To the voluptuous sexuality of tango, Martins responded with a very skinny Wendy Whelan in a classic tutu. Now take Mejia's 1992 "Cafe Victoria." Set to Piazzolla ("Contrabajisimo"), notwithstanding that virtuoso and droll pianist Gleb Ivanov toted a cigar with one hand while tickling the keys with the other (as part of an onstage ensemble rounded out by the equally virtuosic Eric Grossman on violin and New York tango heavy-weight Hector Tito Castro on bandoneon), this was not a neo-classical take on 'tango' — as it should not have been, considering that Piazzolla himself didn't think of his music as (social) 'dance music.' If anything, the work offered striking tributes to Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," with guest artist Vilia Putrius's red-leotarded vamp boasting scissory whipping black-stockinged preying-mantis like legs that would make any Siren proud. Her victim in this case is a prodigal tango wolf (guest Mindaugas Bauzys), who will indeed be drained before she gets threw with him and he's hurtled off the stage and out of the cafe. In the meantime, besides the Siren-like legs around his neck, there are also complicated supports, as when he bends his knees just a tad to scrunch behind her, holding her waist as she, leaning against him and reaching back her arms to hold on, sits in the air and arcs her feet on perfect tight points. Putrius is so dominating and clearly in charge that she manages to be sexy without being a sex object, equal parts beauty and independent force from the moment she winds her legs around an upstage left stand alone bar, where three corps women (Brittany Bollinger, Kayla Giard, and Ekaterina Ostroven) have been executing matching Busby Berkeley like moves supported by the bar and red bar stools, many ending in spread-legged V's. Perhaps because they were less deft than Putrius, this section sometimes bordered on cheesiness.

On the grand scale, Mejia's achievement in "Cafe Victoria" is the way the dance scales the music. This particularly Piazzolla composition (not easy to play, but the trio here matches any recording I've heard) comes with high scales of the violin and thumps (on the piano? the violin? not sure), and it all seems tailor-made for Mejia's choreography.

Under Martins's hands, a group work like "Brahms Waltzes," for 14 dancers to waltzes from the composer's Opus 39, might have devolved into an insipid procession of quaint and harmless couples dances. Mejia, though, actually uses the music, and dancers, in true Balanchinian fashion — not just paying surface attention to the music, as Martins might do, but returning to the forgotten arm. Balanchine can be so fleet that sometimes the arms are neglected, particularly by younger dancers. But here Mejia uses them to open a whole 'nother plane — and, important to Balanchine — lateral vista. While the romanticism of duets between Putrius and Bauzys is stirring — all the more when cast in perfectly lowered tones by lighting designer Tony Tucci, who apparently had just a day and a half to set the grid — the tour de force here was delivered by Bollinger and Sunni Wright, who managed to keep up with Ivanov's rapid but deft playing not only without losing a single phrase, but defining each, as well as their interplay.

Every company has, or should have, its anchoring couple, and for MCB it's Marina Goshko and Andrey Prikhodko, and Mejia and co-director Alexander Vetrov couldn't have found a more welcoming set of principals. Here's why I use the term 'welcoming': Goshko and Prikhodko, a couple in 'real' life, are elegant without being aloof, pristine without being prissy, as they demonstrated with their clean lines and eloquent partnering in the premiere of Mejia's "Valse-Scherzo," to Tchaikovsky. Often such classical duets can become cold parlor dances, seemingly removed even in intimate settings. Here though, thanks largely to the dancers, it was open. In fact, if I have any feedback for Prikhodko, it would be that while his easy, free style of dancing is endearing, what appears to be a fixed, slightly open-mouth, even rigid grin adds a degree of wooden-ness that he'd do well to lose if he can. Goshko is absolutely silken.

Up to this point in the program — which began with with 'Brahms,' followed by the duet, then "Cafe Victoria," the mood had been tightly controlled. With "Walpurgis Night," the dancers cut loose in a ribald parade, at the heart of which was Prikhodko as a sort of Puck. Now, this is not Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht" mispelled. No, this is a real chestnut of a reconstruction of sorts of what started as a ballet divertissement in the last act of Charles Gounod's opera "Faust," premiered March 3, 1869 at the Paris Opera House. That version was by Henri Justament. Then Leonid Lavrovsky, he of "Romeo & Juliet" fame, got ahold of it. It's this version that Vetrov staged and, as he puts it, 'renewed' in 2001 for Metropolitan Classical Ballet.

What I loved about the inclusion of a lavish work like "Walpurgis Night" on the program was that it tapped into a 20th-century ballet treasury trove — particularly the first half — which is so rich yet which ballet companies rarely investigate and share, preferring to lay on us the same handful of (often) tired evening-length story ballets — as if because it's ballet we don't mind seeing the same thing over and over again. (Tell me American Ballet Theatre followers: Did you REALLY need to see Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo & Juliet" one more time this season? Wouldn't you have preferred to see, in its place, three or four one-act rarities from the ABT archive?) "Walpurgis Night" is your basic lavish Bachanalia. Prikhodo does all the goofy, wrist turned things with his hands and fingers, often to finish off elfin jumps as he exits flying with a goofy grin. The corps here also cut loose. Goshko was graceful, especially in a gossamer section where she, Bollinger, and Lea Essmyer maneuver — without seeming too — three light white scarves as they dance with them and each other. I may be in the minority here, but for me the only somewhat weak point, besides heavily landing Evgeny Lushkin, was Maiko Abe's sprightly but not seamless performance in the starring female role. Dressed in a bright red top over tights, Abe flies about a lot, turns, executes willowy extensions, is carried about as she arches back and flings her legs out, flicks her hands at a bevy of supporting guys, also in Pan-like skimpy attire. But while she's physically pretty and charming and has a great smile, for me Abe just didn't exercise enough control — even elegant restraint — of those rubbery limbs, particularly the legs; few positions were fixed or held. This is a goofy extravagant ballet, and to not seem just silly, the ballerina here needs to bring a poise that the ribald choreography doesn't always make easy. (To see a contrasting example, take a look at this
You Tube video featuring Bolshoi legend Ekaterina Maximova.)

What was particularly brave about this choice of repertoire on Vetrov's part was that it would inevitably have to be done to a recording, a live orchestra being beyond MCB's means. While this was indeed a bit jarring after an evening of live music, it was still a commendable risk because instead of standing pat, Vetrov had actually shown us something new, in the sense of being so rarely seen. In fact none of the works — or work by the dancers — in the evening stood pat, from Vetrov's ambitious 'renewal' to Mejia's understanding that living by the Balanchine credo means not just using the same type of music and presenting the shell of what Balanchine did, but really working the music, working the arms and torso and not just legs, working the relationships in duets and in general working the dancers, who in this case were primed for it — amazingly so as, believe it or not, this obviously rigorously prepared evening was just a one-off — incredibly, the first performance by the company in six months. And there's the rub.

The auditorium on the University of Arlington campus can accomodate 2,800 spectators; there were probably less than 1,000 there for this evening. It would be too easy to dismiss this light attendance as a product of summer, or even snobbishly say, "Well, this is Arlington, Texas, not New York." But if there's enough arts support in the Arlington-Dallas-Fort Worth area for a brand spanking new multi-million dollar arts complex, there's probably enough to *at least* pack one 2,800-seat theater for one night… and more than one performance in six months. But for the people to come, they need to know about it.

A couple of days after the performance, I heard from a colleague who has lived here for years and is ensconced in the local dance community; she only happened to hear about the performance by accident the afternoon of the show. When you've got a jewel like Metropolitan Classical Ballet, directed by major-league talent like Mejia and Vetrov, and with dancers who pour their hearts out, including top-level national talent like the ballerina Vilia Putrius (yet another treasure that Boston Ballet's Mikko Nissenen let slip through his fingers) you have to hire professional staff to adequately promote and exploit what they're doing. Otherwise, the company won't develope, it will continue — as far as performances — to shrink, and that will ultimately have its effect on the artistic product, making it harder to attract quality dancers without significant performance opportunities. And this is before we even get to exposure on a larger scale. As far as the level of the choreography and dancing, this company should be playing on the national level, and yet I, too, only happened to hear about it thanks to a friend and colleague who works with MCB. Joseph Pulitzer once said that without adequate publicity, all efforts fail. On an artistic level, the July 17 one-off was hardly a failure, but it would have had a lot more impact if the program was not kept to one night, and if it had been better promoted (which would lead to more sales, which defer the cost of the extended run). The company's website describes it as 'one of the most successful ballet companies in Texas.' For Texas, I don't think they're thinking big enough.
Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Paul Mejia's Brahms Waltzes.  Dancers: Brittany Bollinger and Sunni Wright

Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Paul Mejia's Brahms Waltzes.
Dancers: Brittany Bollinger and Sunni Wright

Photo © & courtesy of Marty Sohl


Metropolitan Classical Ballet, Cafe Victoria. Choreography by Paul Mejia Dancers: Vilia Putruis and Mindaugas Bauzys

Metropolitan Classical Ballet, Cafe Victoria.
Choreography by Paul Mejia
Dancers: Vilia Putruis and Mindaugas Bauzys

Photo © & courtesy of Marty Sohl


Metropolitan Classical Ballet, Waltz-Scherzo Choreography: Paul Mejia Dancers: Marina Goshko and Andrey Prikhodko

Metropolitan Classical Ballet, Waltz-Scherzo
Choreography: Paul Mejia
Dancers: Marina Goshko and Andrey Prikhodko

Photo © & courtesy of Marty Sohl


Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Leonid Lavrovsky's Walpurgis Night Dancer: Andrey Prikhodko

Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Leonid Lavrovsky's Walpurgis Night
Dancer: Andrey Prikhodko

Photo © & courtesy of Marty Sohl


Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Leonid Lavrovsky's Walpurgis Night Dancer: Maiko Abe

Metropolitan Classical Ballet - Leonid Lavrovsky's Walpurgis Night
Dancer: Maiko Abe

Photo © & courtesy of Marty Sohl

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