Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fire and Glass: Contrasting Nights at the Mondavi

Last week I took in Tango Fire and Philip Glass at Jackson Hall. The shows, which couldn’t be more different, both drew full houses and earned deserved standing ovations from the appreciative crowds.

In Tango Fire, five pairs of dancers, a singer and an orchestra recreate a smoky Argentine dance club. The performers slink, strut and twirl their way into and out of relationships in a rough narrative that is secondary to the movement and the energy of the smoldering dance form.

The couples, each with their own flavor, take turns one-upping each other with their impressive technique, intricate footwork, dazzling acrobatic lifts and increasingly entangled displays of affection. Occasionally, the pairs come together for ensemble work, or break up into solo expressions. Singer Javier “Cardenal” Dominguez provides needed breathers between the choreography.

After intermission, things really heat up. If the first act, with its considerable sensual energy, is the mating dance, the second act’s overt sexuality represents a “third date” consummation. There are more musical interludes in this act, as if the directors recognized we would need a break from the visual pyrotechnics provided by the dancers. The music, now dominated by Astor Piazzolla, is richer, more aggressive and drives the bold choreography. The dancers are truly remarkable in some of these duets - displaying exciting phrasing choices and nuances along with their more ambitious “tricks”. However, I did have to laugh and agree when my date for the evening commented, “Tango is such an interesting dance form…the men treat the women like little dolls, throwing them around, but then the women (appear to) keep kicking the men in the balls.” I wonder how an ethnographer would describe our more American dance form of the Lindy Hop.

Philip Glass was a delight in a completely different way. Mostly, it was a treat to see a legend live! I have to admit that when I first heard Glass’s music (about ten years ago), I found it to be inaccessible, repetitive and overly cerebral. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s become more mainstream, more popular, or more copied, (or if my tastes have changed), but on Wednesday, I was engaged and moved by every piece.

Glass was personable and engaging as he introduced each piece. Sometimes he gave us little snippets about the context in which he composed something, and other times he humorously laughed off the fact that he couldn’t remember the details of what he had composed.

The concert was simple – just him at the piano, Wendy Sutter on cello, and Mick Rossi on percussion. But the program was so satisfying because it was basically his “Greatest Hits” from the last few decades. His work, which spans commercial film score work to collaborations with international artists and symphonies, has never felt so honest yet nuanced. In his signature style, the compositions start slowly and repetitively, then evolve gradually into a lush and complicated score. The order of the program mirrors this structure. He first takes the stage alone on piano, then Sutter performs as a solo voice on cello, then Rossi joins Glass, then the three play together. As he moves from his classic “Metamorphoses” towards his more contemporary compositions, the music grows more visceral and evocative.

Glass has been busy creatively in the last year, and he unveiled several new works on stage, but if you didn’t make it to the show, look for his score in Woody Allen’s recent Cassandra’s Dream.

Pretty Pretty Princess

This Friday, I joined dozens of princess-clad little girls at the Mondavi Center for the State Ballet Theatre of Russia's production of Cinderella. As a special treat, the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Morgan, brought Prokofiev's score to life. The house was filled to capacity, with a line of people outside waiting for cancellations.

The company's dancers seemed to be having fun with the familiar fairy tale. The stepsisters had wonderful comedic timing and boldly pushed their technique to the edge to fulfil their bold and irreverent characters. Their mother, performed by a man in drag, also got several laughs with her physical absurdity and antics.

But it was Valeria Antisiferova, as Cinderella, and Ivan Alekseyev, as the Prince, who wowed the audience with their grace and poise.

As expected from a "story ballet," Vladimir Vasliev's choreography drew heavily on pantomime, but he managed to make this sometimes contrived "acting" seem more natural and accessible to today's audiences. And his movement had a wonderful breath and flow. While I am more familiar with the more formal neoclassical ballets of Balanchine (I grew up watching the New York City Ballet), it was great fun to get lost in the elaborate sets, the richly colored costumes and expressive dancing.