REVIEW: Columbia Classical Ballet's Don Q - by Susan Lenz

 

Audience Needed

 

I’d been looking forward to Friday’s one-night-only performance of Don Quixote by Columbia Classical Ballet all season, especially after seeing portions of it during last month’s Studio Series preview. Why? Well, I’ve only seen the full ballet once. 

 

It was a long time ago, 2005, but a very memorable experience. The Bolshoi, accompanied by its own orchestra, came to Wolf Trap theater outside Washington, DC. At the time, world renown Alexei Ratmansky was the artistic director. Many consider him the best choreographer working in the world today. He’s a MacArthur fellow and current artist-in-residence with American Ballet Theater in NYC. Ratmansky was trained at the Bolshoi, the company for which Don Quixote was originally choreographed back in 1869 by ballet's greatest classicist Marius Petipa. Most performances today are based on Alexander Gorsky’s derivative 1900 choreography, but that was for the Bolshoi too. So, Don Quixote by the Bolshoi, I can pretty much say that I once saw “the best of the best”.

 

Don Quixote is performed in either three or four acts with at least eight scenes of bravura, emotionally charged character dancing, flashy use of fans and capes, a hot Mediterranean aura, and a pumped-up score by Leon Minkus. The story comes from episodes found in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de a Mancha, a tale of unattainable humanity, chivalric romance, and the impossible dream of justice. In the ballet, The Man of LaMancha is really part of the background. The innkeepers’ flirtatious daughter Kitri and her love, Basilio, are are center stage. The ballet is full of humor and lots of variations for the casts’ female dancers plus one of the most frequently performance full pas de deux. That’s why I know the ballet so well.

 

Over the years, I’ve seen parts of this ballet literally hundreds of times. There are at least six female variations performed in international competitions and the wedding scene is generally on every gala program. Odds are, if you’ve been to Columbia Classical Ballet’s annual LifeChance gala, you’ve seen part of the production as well. Thus, when I say Friday night’s performance was wonderful, trust me!  You should have been there! It was undoubtedly the best ballet performance in Columbia this season.

 

Radenko Pavlovich, Columbia Classical Ballet’s artistic director, should be rightfully proud of his talented company. They were so good that even the few flaws were wonderful. A fan was dropped but the dancer showed no sign of concern. She waited for the perfect moment to pick it up, as if the accident was part of the choreography. Dancing to canned music sometimes causes problems too. There are variations in which the movement begins before the music. With an orchestra, the conductor is to watch the dancer and know precisely when to bring down the baton. With canned music, timing is tricky, not always perfect. A missed cue happened, but I doubt most in the audience knew. The dancer in question was so well rehearsed that he was flawlessly back with the music within seconds. 

 

The highlight of the evening was watching Nao Omoya as Kitri. Not only is she a technically brilliant dancer who makes every move look effortless but she’s a lovely actress. Her energy seemed to increase with the physical demands of the ballet. Her double fouettés in the final coda were world-class. Koyo Yanagishima partnered her beautifully and his boyish charm was evident throughout.

 

Now, I know there were lots of other cultural events going on last night, including another opportunity to see dance. But, it is a shame that every seat in the Koger Center wasn’t filled. This was a performance that deserved a full house and a standing ovation. I left the theater wondering about Don Quixote’s unattainable quest for chivalry and a better, more just world. In Columbia, dance companies have their own unattainable quest:  finding an audience to fill the seats. I was happy to occupy one, and I hope my previews and review for Jasper Project might assist in awareness for local dance and filling seats in the future because occasionally, like last night, Columbia’s audience has a chance to see “the best of the best” right here in the Midlands.

LifeChance Preview by Susan Lenz

Anyone in Columbia who has even a slight interest in the local dance scene knows that twice a year there's exceptionally good evenings to witness world-class ballet performers. One of those nights is coming up on April 15th when USC presents the 13th Annual Ballet Stars of New York. The other night is just around the corner:

 

Columbia Classical Ballet presents

LifeChance 2018 this coming Saturday, January 20th.

 

Don't miss it!

Lifechance.jpg

Principal dancers from Boston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Washington Ballet, and Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance are coming to the Koger Center. One night only! Every year LifeChance puts on this benefit gala. Proceeds will benefit Heroes In Blue (http://heroesinblue.net/), a local charity that was founded in honor of Forest Acres Police Department Officer Gregory Alia who was killed in the line of duty on September 30, 2015.

 

Now, I'm sure there will be other news articles featuring the internationally known artists and the very high caliber dancing that this gala brings to the stage, but I promised to write articles from a different point of view. I want to bring more awareness of the local dance community from the audience's perspective. After all, Columbia Classical Ballet's roster of talented performers will also be dancing during LifeChance 2018. These are the dancers who regularly grace our stage. It must be an amazing opportunity for them to perform alongside some of their own idols. It must be exciting for the staff, choreographers, and those behind the scenes too. In this vein, I sought out the opportunity to get a few quotes!

 

Juliet Brown is really excited about Saturday night. She’s in her second season with Columbia Classical Ballet and fondly remembers last year’s LifeChance as her favorite time on stage. She said, “There are even more guest dancers this year. It’ll be a longer show.” Clement Guillaume echoed my opening statements, “LifeChance is a one time thing. It’s a gala. There aren’t two chances to look good. As a company, we are really close to one another and really looking forward to dancing Rick McCullough’s contemporary piece, Rhapsody.”

 

Yet, I had the most fun interviewing Koyo Yanagishima. Like his fellow company members, he’s in Rhapsody but he’s also dancing Flames of Paris. In past LifeChance galas, Artistic Director Radenko Pavlovich has showcased several of his exceptionally talented dancers in order for them to share the stage on an equal footing with the world renown guest dancers. Koyo was almost blushing to admit being selected for this rare opportunity. He was assuredly embarrassed by my next few questions.

 

I asked Koyo if the LifeChance 2018 poster was the first time a solo image of him was used to promote a performance. It was. I asked if he called his mother back in Japan. He did. He shared it on social media too.

 

 

Yet, Koyo was quickly serious when discussing Shadows, a male duet he choreographed. Radenko Pavlovich is proud to include Koyo’s choreograpny in Saturday’s line up. It will be seen alongside Topless, a contemporary piece from Hubbard Street Dance. Pavlovich is as eager to see the audience’s reaction to his young dancer’s choreography as he is to see the reaction to the Chicago-based company’s work even though he had to nix the original costuming (or lack thereof).

 

Time talking with Radenko Pavlovich was enlightening. He mentioned many past events and the amazing guest dancers who have come to Columbia. He added, “When my company dancers come here for a season, they are cheering for one another to excel beyond their own earlier expectations. I believe, without a doubt, that LifeChance is the very best evening of dance in Columbia. It raises the bar for quality, locally and for my company. It makes my dancers push themselves, collectively and individually.”

 

Hopefully, the excitement at Columbia Classical Ballet for the upcoming star-studded evening will add to the number of people in attendance. I know I'm excited and promise a review of the evening shortly after the curtain comes down!

 

For tickets to Saturday’s LifeChance 2018 gala:

http://www.kogercenterforthearts.com/index.php

 

Koyo Yanagishima holding a LifeChance 2018 poster in which he is featured.)

Koyo Yanagishima holding a LifeChance 2018 poster in which he is featured.)

Susan Lenz is a full time, professional studio artist in Columbia, South Carolina. Her studio is located at Mouse House, Inc. at 2123 Park Street where she has both a studio for 3D sculptural and installation work and a separate fiber art studio. Susan's work has been juried into numerous national and international exhibits, featured in solo shows all over the United States, and shown on television and in print. She has been awarded six full scholarship art residencies and several "Best of Show" ribbons.
She blogs at
http://www.susanlenz.com/
http://artbysusanlenz.blogspot.com
http://decisionportraits.blogspot.com
http://graverubbingquilts.blogspot.com
Susan Lenz   photo Forrest Clonts

Susan Lenz

photo Forrest Clonts

Jasper Dance Writer Susan Lenz Weighs in on Which Nutcracker Ballet to See but Cautions that the Choice is Yours!

Both have snow, tiaras, and take a young Clara on a fairytale journey into the Land of Sweets with dancing variations and a final pas de deux. So, what are the differences? Which company's production should an informed audience member select?

Is that a Unicorn in Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker?

Is that a Unicorn in Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker?

 

My husband and I own a little frame shop. My sales counter is in front of a non-working fireplace with a mantel holding family pictures, including some of my dancing son. For years these images seemed to remind clients that ballet is part of my life. Every holiday season, clients excitedly tell me, "I'm going to The Nutcracker!" Of course I'm happy for them and ask, "Which production?" The answer is always the same. "The one at the Koger Center."

 

Further conversation reveals that most people in Columbia are aware that The Nutcracker comes to the Township Auditorium every Thanksgiving weekend. Some even know that this is the civic company.  (I wrote a review of last month's show at http://jasperproject.org/what-jasper-said/88xw7fa24pxcfdb5x77mxf5zyrkgxd). Most seem to know that The Nutcracker also comes to the Koger Center for three weekends in December, but they are totally unaware that two different, local professional ballet companies are putting on these shows. They have no idea to which production they've booked tickets. They have no idea that there is a difference. But there is a difference.

 

The first weekend features Columbia Classical Ballet (Radenko Pavolich, artistic director). The later two weekends feature Columbia City Ballet (William Starrett, artistic director). Yes, the company names are as similar as The Nutcracker's basic storyline.  Both companies use canned Tchaikovsky music, cast students from their independent ballet schools, and include adults from the community in character roles, mainly in the first act's party scene. Both companies sell tickets through the Koger Center's on-line box office. Both have snow, tiaras, and take a young Clara on a fairytale journey into the Land of Sweets with dancing variations and a final pas de deux. So, what are the differences? Which company's production should an informed audience member select?

 

Let me cut to the chase. If one wants to see a technically superior Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, book Radenko's production. I saw Nao Omoya and Koyo Yanagishima on Saturday night. At least I think I did. The program listed double-cast roles but didn't indicate which dancers were performing in which show. I still have no idea who I saw as Clara. Despite being in several Act II variations in both that afternoon's matinee and the evening performance, these two dancers surprisingly had plenty of energy and brought excellent technique to the stage. The dancers for Columbia City Ballet had two performances the following Saturday. I saw both. Claire Richards was lovely but her afternoon partner was weak. Bo Busby and Regina Willoughby looked understandably tired that evening.

 

Yet, who goes to The Nutcracker for just the last pas de deux? In almost every other way, Columbia City Ballet's production was more pleasing.

 

That last sentence was hard for me to write.

 

I'm predisposed against the liberties William Starrrett takes with his production. I'm more inclined to like the traditional dancing dolls during Act I's party scene. Radenko Pavlovich’s Harlequin and Columbine were first rate but couldn't save the scene. That party unfolded as if a series of recital pieces. At one point, all the girls covered the stage rocking baby dolls, and there weren't even enough to go around. Stranger yet, the Nutcracker doll wasn't even a traditional solid. Its legs were moveable, possibly even like a stuffed animal. 

 

William Starrett’s nutcracker doll looks like a nutcracker, but it’s the only doll on stage. Instead of the classic mechanized dancing doll variations, Starrett features a flirtatious Scarlett straight from Gone With the Wind mythology and a courtship dance between Clara’s older sister and a lead cadet. It works though. It works because the Columbia City Ballet dancers are good actors. As the scene continues, the audience has no problem following the plot. The nutcracker doll is broken, repaired, and placed by the Christmas tree. Effortlessly, the audience follows the action. Clara is lurked back to the darkened living room and a dream sequence begins. Mice and rats battle and the nutcracker is magically transformed into a living doll and finally a prince. One doesn’t have to consult the program. The plot is told through the choreography, the dancers, and good lighting.  Virginia Welsh as young Clara, though not technically perfect, was utterly charming and carried the audience into the Land of Snow and beyond.

 

Unfortunately, Columbia Classical Ballet’s dancers generally don’t express much emotion and pivotal moments often occurred in poorly lit areas of the stage. There was too much fog and the machine producing it made a lot of distracting noise. The transitions from the Stahlbaums’ living room into a battle scene and onto the Land of Snow were simply not as magical as intended. Narrative was lost.

 

Columbia Classical Ballet’s Act II is traditional, though it starts oddly. Why? Well, there is no overture played before the ballet begins. Thus, it is strange to listen to the first part of the angelic scene played to the curtain. William Starrett’s Act II starts the same way but his production includes the opening overture. Musically, that seems proper. Musically, Starrett’s Act II is anything but proper. It starts to the correct, heavenly melody and altogether too much gold lamé but then progresses into the Waltz of the Flowers. The other variations are also mixed up and include Neapolitan Ice Cream Flavors and Striped Candy Canes using music that isn’t even from Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker score. Anyone familiar with the music knows it’s all out of order.

 

Yet, it works. There’s a flow from section to section and a nice mix of humor for sheer entertainment. I didn’t even mind the appearance of a white horse dressed as a unicorn. Admittedly, its a gimmick but it is only a magical inspired entrance. It doesn’t distract from the dancing or the progression of the ballet. 

 

By the end of both ballets, Clara is back in her living room and the audiences are altogether too eager to give standing ovations, as if a requirement. Both ballets had their strong points and weaknesses. Both were worth seeing. 

 

Both companies have extremely enticing opportunities for audience members to witness something special in the coming new year.  On Saturday, January 20th, Columbia Classical Ballet will present their annual LifeChance, an International Ballet Gala of Stars (always one of the best ballet performances in Columbia). On Saturday, January 27th, Columbia City Ballet is partnering with the full South Carolina Philharmonic under Morihiko Nakahara’s baton for Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

Looking ahead, I hope this article assists future audience members make informed decisions about their Nutcracker options. Best bet: see both and compare! Maybe you’ll agree with my impressions. Maybe next year’s productions will be entirely different. There’s still time to catch the last weekend of Columbia City Ballet’s Nutcracker. It can be seen at the Koger Center:

3:00 PM Saturday, December 16, 2017
7:30 PM Saturday, December 16, 2017
3:00 PM Sunday, December 17, 2017

 

Postscript: Most informed audience members know something else. Using LED devices is strictly prohibited. The family sitting in front of me during Columbia Classical Ballet’s Nutcracker used a cell phone to record the entire Bon-Bon variation. The gentleman sitting beside my husband at Columbia City Ballet’s Nutcracker checked his email during the Sugar Plum pas de deux.  Please, go to the shows but don’t do this!

Susan Lenz - photo by Forrest Clonts

Susan Lenz - photo by Forrest Clonts

Susan Lenz is a full time, professional studio artist in Columbia, South Carolina. Her studio is located at Mouse House, Inc. at 2123 Park Street where she has both a studio for 3D sculptural and installation work and a separate fiber art studio. Susan's work has been juried into numerous national and international exhibits, featured in solo shows all over the United States, and shown on television and in print. She has been awarded six full scholarship art residencies and several "Best of Show" ribbons. She blogs at 

http://www.susanlenz.com/

http://artbysusanlenz.blogspot.com

http://decisionportraits.blogspot.com

http://graverubbingquilts.blogspot.com