Saturday, December 15, 2018

'The Nutcracker' thrives in Indianapolis Ballet production

The opening scene of Indianapolis Ballet's 12th annual "Nutcracker" production subtly reinforces a down-to-earth community feeling of a ballet whose fantasy and dream elements make it ideal for the season, and not just for its Christmas-season setting.

Clara looks on as the Nutcracker directs soldier platoon's attack on mice.
We see at first the gradual gathering of guests outside the upper-middle-class Stahlbaum home, site of the family's Christmas Eve party.  We can admire the naturalness of the casual, friendly interaction of adults and children before much dancing of any kind has taken place. Tchaikovsky's music has already exerted its charm, of course, starting with the perky overture. Everything that we see and hear is inviting and rests on common ground — a generous invitation to the wonders that follow.

It is to the credit of James Leitner's direction that the company conveys such a sociable atmosphere, and when the action moves inside and Drosselmeyer's godfather magic starts taking over, the transition toward fantasy seems entirely natural. As little as a narrative thread has to do with "The Nutcracker," what there is of it was firmly delineated on the show's opening night at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre.

The pivotal center of the action depends a lot on how Drosselmeyer is played. A balletically centered interpretation is essential, but so too is dramatic insight. Paul Vitali, the company's artistic director, offered both. The magical powers Drosselmeyer commands are carefully husbanded in this production. The suggestion that he may have some connection to dark arts is effectively muted.

We see mainly an eccentric, avuncular Drosselmeyer in close but mysterious connection to the festivities. He moves with ease among the host family and their friends. That he also represents a world apart allows him to plausibly usher the dreaming Clara into the Land of Sweets, where her delight can fuse with ours after the trauma of her broken, then mended, nutcracker gift. Vitali's broad gestures and swooping elegance expressed both his affection for making a Christmas party extra special and his readiness to trail mystery in his wake. Clara, as danced by Josephine Kirk, perfectly represented the vehicle for his generosity and capacity to evoke wonder. That carried right through the finale, where Clara's central position sums up the tribute that the panoply of character dancers offers to childhood dreams.

Staging of ensemble numbers was astute at several points, starting with the battle of mice and toy

Snow King and Queen:Christopher Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa
soldiers. Thorough costuming and disguises didn't mask the fitness of Greg Goessner and Leonard Perez for their leadership roles as, respectively, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. In a much different ensemble victory, the crossings and branched movements of the Snowflakes in the scene that ends the first act created splendid patterns in white that mimicked the geometry of real-world snowflakes, and complemented the stunning precision and dash of Christopher Lingner as Snow King and Yoshiko Kamikusa as Snow Queen.

The ballet's other notable duo — the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy — bookend Act 2's character dances and were capably presented Friday by Riley Horton and Kristin Toner. The stately onset of the Pas de Deux yielded to the panache of the variations, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's ethereal, celesta-accompanied magnetism.

The idiomatic choreography and costuming for the character dances worked hand-in-glove. The athleticism required for the Russian Trepak got single-dancer focus in Khris Santos' performance, set against an ensemble of young women whose dancing both complemented and contrasted with the soloist's. The Lingner-Kamikusa duo richly deserve singling out for their mastery of Arabian Coffee: The sinuous precision of her dancing,  meshed with lifts and catches that were so smooth and fluid they seemed to suspend gravity, made for a memorable showcase. Chinese Tea, as danced by the evocatively costumed Abigail Bixler and Greg Goessner, caught the spirit of the music without settling for the "yellowface" stereotyping that has recently come under fire in other productions.

Management of the accumulating second-act forces in the finale could hardly have been more uplifting and exciting. Something more captivating than a choreographed curtain call was achieved by the staging, and with the orchestra continuing its colorful account of Tchaikovsky's score under Vince Lee's baton, the full splendor of "The Nutcracker" was brought home. And after all the sugary visions,"home" is the underlying theme of the story and this production's realization of it.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

Friday, December 7, 2018

Dance Kaleidoscope's holiday glow: A world tour of Christmas, plus a celebration of Hanukkah

Dance Kaleidoscope's resumed tradition of adding year-end holiday luster to its season is back, wearing a splendid two-piece suit: "Let There Be Light (The Story of Hanukkah)" and "World Christmas Kaleidoscope: A Celebration of Christmas Around the World."

Themes of challenge and restoration abound in 'Let There Be Light.'
The program, titled "Home for the Holidays," opened Thursday night on the IRT Upperstage. Both works are the creation of DK artistic director David Hochoy, the latter adapted from last year to fit the current company; "Let There Be Light" revives a 2003 piece.

The Hanukkah narrative thread, which is fleshed out in a program note, is applied with a deft touch in "Let There Be Light," yet with more than sufficient emotional impact. The foundational event of the sacrifice Abraham was prepared to carry out of his son Isaac has a poignant position in the middle, with Manuel Valdes in the role of the intended sacrificial victim.

DK dancers lively up themselves in the reggae-styled "All I Want for Christmas."
The connection to the Hebrew texts Leonard Bernstein used in his "Chichester Psalms" is also subtly applied to the psalms of praise and complaint that the composer set. For accompaniment, Hochoy chose a more fully orchestrated and mixed-chorus version of Bernstein's original, which has the effect of emphasizing the communal import of the psalms more than their personal expression. It's a smart choice, because an imperiled, unified community and its survival against large odds is the holiday's central theme in celebration of the Maccabees' successful struggle against oppression 2,500 years ago.

The transition between an intact community to one aware of its vulnerability was neatly etched as free, flowing gestures and movement gave way to more angular, shielding types. The setting for three of the company's men of Psalm 2 (known in English and to fans of Handel's "Messiah" as "Why do the nations rage?") matches the music's militancy with the rise of Jewish resistance.

Eventually, as the persistence of a people's faith gains the upper hand, there is the tender, reverent processional with one lamp (a live flame carried by Timothy June Thursday night) carried onstage and becoming the basis for the Hanukkah lighting of a central menorah. The simple, ritualized piety was underlined by Laura Glover's delicately shaded lighting upon Cheryl Sparks' timeless costumes. The saving of the much-damaged temple celebrated in the Hanukkah story puts special significance behind the program title "Home for the Holidays."

In the second half, the balance of drollery and devotion was sustained through a panoply of deft choreography and the idiomatic, sometimes spectacular costume designs by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji. To incorporate the troupe's name into the piece's title has never been more appropriate: Kaleidoscopic is the best description of both the music and the dancing.

The final moment of "O Holy Night"
With Jillian Godwin displaying sharply defined limberness and comic virtuosity, the suite was launched by the solo "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."  Balletic turns were mixed in with flung arms, shoulder shrugs and concise jerkiness to spice up the fun in one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved "Nutcracker" numbers. Fun was multiplied in the reindeer mimicry of the company's "Here Comes Santa Claus" as sung by Elvis Presley, and in the imitative ornamentation Stuart Coleman exhibited in a solo setting of Elvis' "White Christmas" recording.

It's difficult not to mention everything, but I want to highlight the reggae-intensive "All I Want for Christmas," in which Valdes was joined in succession by Cody Miley, Godwin, and Marie Kuhns for a salute to Jamaica. It was a riot of individuality pulled together in an exuberant common cause. Also: the plaintive "Nadal de Luintra" from Spain, with Aleksa Lukasiewica and Timothy June as Mary and Joseph in search of Bethlehem lodging, and a setting from Benin of a somehow fully reverent but never cheaply worshipful "O Holy Night," stunningly performed by the gesturally precise trio of Coleman, Lukasiewicz, and Paige Robinson.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thomas Hampson focuses on Chicago composers as he furthers the American art song

There is a cornucopia of pleasant surprises available about the American art song in Thomas
Thomas Hampson has steadily promoted the vitality of the art song.
latest recording, "Songs from Chicago" (Cedille Records).

For keeping interest alive in a 20th-century original, the lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter, the CD makes its mark particularly with his settings of poems by Langston Hughes and especially by Rabindranath Tagore, whose cycle "Gitanjali" accounts for one-third of the hourlong program, with sensitive assistance at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang.

It's Hampson's debut on the Chicago-based label, which is still under the direction of its founder, James Ginsburg, son of the most widely beloved Supreme Court justice. The performances on "Songs from Chicago" are immaculate. "Gitanjali" is a richly perfumed set of prose poems in a style that is too florid for our era, perhaps, but Carpenter's musical response to them is like a preservative that makes them seem fresh.

Radiant piano chords introduce the first line of one of the songs: "I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious." You need the insulin of music to moderate the sugar high of those words, and Carpenter supplied it. There's no sense that the composer intended to introduce the slightest irony behind any of Tagore's prose-poems, however. It's his very commitment to the texts that enabled him to supply settings of consistent enhancement throughout the 23 songs (plus a spoken prologue and epilogue).

Carpenter is also represented here by three of his "Four Negro Songs" to Hughes' poetry. Authentic, zestful appreciation of the African-American heritage is a feature of both the compositions and Hampson's performance of them. "Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey!," a celebration of vernacular dance, is performed jauntily by the duo. Hampson cannot be accused of adopting a blackface style, I believe, but is simply being true to both Hughes' idiom and Carpenter's effusive setting. He is no more required to be black to sing these songs authentically than he would need to be a despairing,  love-sick German youth to put across Schubert's "Winterreise."

Most effective from the standpoint of the classical art-song tradition are seven songs by Ernst Bacon to well-chosen excerpts of Walt Whitman poetry. Hampson's sustained phrasing is well-deployed here, especially in "The Last Invocation." The singer's ability to put some heft into his middle and upper register without straining comes through in "Darest Thou Now, O Soul."  Bacon's music strikes me sometimes as a little tendentious and "forced," but it must be hard for composers to avoid that whenever they set Whitman.

It's hard to account responsibly for everything on this disc, but I want to single out the expressive tone of anger Hampson commands so well in Margaret Bonds' setting of one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, the one beginning "I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother." Also worth highlighting is the sustained feeling of veneration that Hampson and Huang achieve in Florence Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin," a Hughes poem of more than usual mystery.

The whole disc gives a boost to the need not to overlook the art song when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Popular song by no means tells the full story of the American experience.