Monday, July 18, 2011

Ballet Binge in Saratoga Springs

Levity. It's a quality not much prized amongst US border crossing guards.
But one guard at the Thousand Islands Bridge over the St. Lawrence between Ontario and upstate New York obviously didn't get the memo. When told that a coachload of Canadians was heading down to Saratoga Springs for the ballet this past weekend, he surveyed us (average age somewhere beyond 50) with his expert terrorist-detecting eye and deadpanned, "Watching or performing?"
This unexpectedly humorous welcome to the US augured well for the rest of the ballet-packed weekend that 38 of us enjoyed in this verdant corner of the Adirondacks, the summer home of New York City Ballet and a truly unique venue for watching ballet. Having had a wonderful time there last year, I was eager to bring a group back this summer.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is built into the side of a hill in the Saratoga Spa State Park, created to preserve the mineral springs that brought the fashionable set to the area starting in the 1850s. Although a roof protects the audience and performers from the elements, open walls let the breezes, birdsong, and burbling of the stream alongside, not to mention moths, bats, squirrels and other wildlife, waft through the theatre.
The theatre is a stone's throw away from the palatial Hall of Springs, one of many nearby structures built in imitation of the great European spas like Baden-Baden, and now a restaurant. As we dined sumptuously where the rich had come to "take the waters", some of us felt we had landed in a Jane Austen novel. And then we got to feast on ballet too.
Friday evening's performance featured Jerome Robbins' Circus Polka and Dances at a Gathering, and Balanchine's Agon and Valse-Fantaisie. Circus Polka was originally choreographed to a commissioned Stravinsky score by George Balanchine for ... circus elephants. Yes, you read that right. No elephants were in evidence in Saratoga though, because the music was re-choreographed by Jerome Robbins for young ballet students. And they were adorable, eliciting audible "Awwww"'s from the audience (it was impossible to repress them).
I had never had the good fortune to see Robbins' masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, so was thrilled by its combination of lyricism, virtuosity, and drama; the pas de trois which seems to celebrate the friendship of three women made me think of my relationship with two friends whom I met through ballet classes and who were also on the trip. Joaquin de Luz with his astounding jump and sunny outgoing personality was brilliant as the dancer in brown who starts the piece with a solo. Sterling Hyltin's trademark warmth and generosity shone through in her "girl in apricot" solo. Wendy Whelan, who would be NYCB's prima ballerina if NYCB believed in such things, immediately set her stamp of authority and maturity on the solo of the woman in green. Many in the Tours en l'air group had their hearts in their mouths at Robbins' trademark unusual lifts (upside down, ballerinas tossed through the air halfway across the stage).

Valse-Fantaisie is a short but non-stop Energizer-bunny of a ballet to Glinka, with dancers flying in and out and across the stage with athletic leaps. Ashley Bouder, of the huge jump and technical brilliance, and Andrew Veyette rose to the task with aplomb.
Agon featured Wendy Whelan and Amar Ramasar in the pas de deux roles. Although now over 50 years old, this ballet still impresses by its modernism, and provides a sharp contrast to the classicism of the other Balanchine ballets we saw, bringing home once again how remarkably varied Balanchine's choreography is.
On Saturday morning, six of our group were extraordinarily fortunate to participate in a "Dance with the Dancers" class arranged by Mary Ann Fantauzzi at her Total Body Trifecta Fitness Studio
Huge thanks to Mary Ann for allowing us to join in with her Saratoga regulars.
NYCB corps dancer Andrew Scordato gave a half-hour of barre exercises (except without a barre...) and then taught us steps from Rubies. I have both the pictures and the sore hips from all that gyrating to prove it! Andrew is a charming young man who clearly knows how to flatter the ladies, summarizing Jewels as follows: "Emeralds is romantic, Diamonds is majestic, and Rubies is hot and sexy, which is why we are doing Rubies because you are hot and sexy too!" (that man will go far...)
Not that I had any illusions before that I could perform Balanchine, but the experience of trying it out on one's own body makes you realize just how physically demanding and hard to coordinate it is (and counting Stravinsky's challenging music doesn't help either), especially if your body is used to the less extreme positions of classical ballet. It was an absolutely fabulous experience, and made it all the more fun to spot "our" steps when we saw Rubies that evening.
Other members of the group seized the chance to visit the National Museum of Dance just 5 minutes walk from our hotel.
Saturday afternoon saw us upstairs in the mezzanine level of the theatre. This is quite high, but gives a wonderful perspective for Serenade. 4,000 people were in attendance but you could have heard a pin drop in the last scene of the piece, as Janie Taylor, lifted aloft with her amazing hip-length golden mane of hair cascading behind her (it made one realize just how inspired Balanchine was to use long hair as an actual dancing body part), was carried diagonally upstage.
Then we were in for a treat as NYCB's hot young star about whom there has been much buzz, Chase Finlay (promoted to soloist from the corps later that day), performed Apollo. From the beginning, it was clear that he is something special, with extraordinary elegance and musicality (and stage presence, for one so young). For us, used to the "long-version" Apollo performed by the National Ballet of Canada, it was interesting to see NYCB's version without the birth scene at the beginning and the climb up the mountain at the end. I do in fact find NYCB's ending more impactful, with the three muses leaning against Apollo in varying degrees of arabesque penchée to form the famous sunburst pose, held much longer in this version.
The matinee wrapped up with Peter Martins' charming Magic Flute, with Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz (again) virtuosic and delightful and the whole cast looking hilariously silly when the titular flute forces them to dance against their will.
Jewels was a fitting close to our weekend and to NYCB's 2011 Saratoga season. The highlight for me of a magical Emeralds was Jenifer Ringer in an exquisite solo, flitting fluidly around the stage, coming to an amazing retiré balance centre stage, then setting off again. Like Wendy Whelan, she brought a mature womanliness to her dancing. Shame on a certain NY Times reviewer for criticizing this beautiful dancer. Anthony Huxley, also promoted from the corps to soloist that evening, stood out in the pas de trois for his neat footwork. Rubies was suitably jazzy and very fast, and remarkably looked much better than when "performed" by me earlier in the day. Diamonds crowned the evening, the central pas de deux danced by Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard, the latter, in his last appearance in Saratoga before he retires in the fall, receiving an affectionate and appreciative ovation from the crowd. In a curtain speech before the show, Peter Martins promised that NYCB would be back to SPAC, and I certainly plan to be too. If you think you would like to join us, send me an email so that you can be on the mailing list and among the first to know when the trip is announced. The 2011  trip sold out within days of being announced!
For info on our upcoming 2013 Saratoga trip, please click here. Booking deadline is March 8! Either join us on the coach from Toronto, or meet up with us in Saratoga.

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