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"Manon" & "Swan Lake": Classics of Ballet From The American Ballet Theater

Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg in Manon. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor
One of the most extraordinary events in the superb current season at American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center will surely prove to be the thrilling matinee performance on Saturday, June 22nd, of the Kenneth MacMillan masterpiece, Manon —after the classic 18th-century novel by the Abbé Prévost—regrettably not seen in New York for several years. The enchanting score is assembled from works by the estimable Jules Massenet—who himself composed a major opera adapted from the story—orchestrated and arranged by Martin Yates, here excellently conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. The effective staging is by Julie Lincoln and Robert Tewsley, with scenery and period costumes designed by Nicholas Georgiadis, and lighting by Thomas R. Skelton.
Isabella Boylston has scarcely ever been better than she was in the title role, although the tragic outcome of the final act might have had more pathos had the part been danced by Natalia Osipova. Her partner, as Des Grieux, was the incomparable David Hallberg, performing for the first time this season, and dazzling in every scene. Also at his best was Blaine Hoven—who has been moving from strength to strength this season—as Lescaut. Christine Shevchenko was outstanding as Lescaut’s mistress. The primary cast was assisted by Alexandre Hammoudi as Monsieur G.M. and Thomas Forster as the Jailer, while the marvelouscorps de balletwas simply magnificent.
slseozhurbin1gsThe following week’s performance on the evening of Monday, June 24th, of the sublime, immensely popular Swan Lake was also fabulous. The choreography is by Kevin McKenzie after that of the legendary Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with a glorious score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted by David LaMarche, and attractive sets and costumes by Zack Brown and clever lighting by Duane Schuler.
Hee Seo was simply astonishing as Odette-Odile, perfectly incarnating both roles. Her partner, Cory Stearns, was exceptional as Prince Siegfried. Hoven again excelled as Benno, the Prince’s friend. Von Rothbart was played by both Roman Zhurbin and, remarkably, Forster.
The superlative secondary cast deserves enumeration with Katherine Williams and Catherine Hurlin mesmerizing in the two Pas de trois. The exquisite Cygnettes were Cassandra Trenary, Luciana Paris, Nicole Graniero, and Skylar Brandt. Also terrific were April Giangeruso and Melanie Hamrick as the Two Swans.
Act III too was replete with first-rate dancing including Paulina Waski, Courtney Lavine, Gemma Bond and Stephanie Williams as, respectively, the Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, and Polish Princesses. In the Czardas, there were Zhong-Jing Fang and Alexei Agoudine; in the Spanish Dance, Hamrick again, Duncan Lyle, Brittany Degrofft, and Jose Sebastian; and in the Neapolitan dance, Joseph Gorak and Jonathan Klein. The corps de ballet, despite a few infelicities, was again entrancing.
The season closes next week with performances of Tchaikovsky’s fantastic Sleeping Beauty.

June '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

La vie de Jesus 

(Criterion Collection)

French director Bruno Dumont has made alternately hypnotic and infuriating dramas about individuals approaching states of grace in their singular ways; in that sense, he’s a legitimate successor to Robert Bresson. But Dumont’s best film remains his first, this 1997 study of an epileptic young man in a rough-hewn seaside town in northern France, where Dumont himself grew up.




The director has found the perfect locales in which to play out his dissection of spiritual malaise, and his amateur cast—led by one David Douche as the alternate brutal and gentle hero of sorts—responds with astonishing realism. The film’s gritty cinematography by Philippe Van Leeuw looks especially potent in hi-def; extras include Dumont interviews from 1997, 2014 and 2019. 


Between the Lines 

(Cohen Film Collection)

Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 comedy drama about the messy professional and private lives of young journalists at a Boston alternative weekly has attained a certain cache thanks to an estimable cast of then-unknowns who did better work elsewhere: Lindsay Crouse, John Heard, Jill Eickenberry, Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Marilu Henner.





Though at times insightful, the film lurches from episode to episode too disjointedly. There’s also the late, lamented Gwen Welles, an actress who died far too young at 42 in 1993. The new hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a new Silver interview.







Heroes Shed No Tears 

(Film Movement Classics)

This early John Woo shoot-em-up, set on the Vietnam-Laos border, follows a mercenary soldier whose wife and young son’s lives are in peril when he crosses a sadistic colonel.




There’s non-stop action and blood-letting—most of it implausible, and when the mercenary’s son evades a raging inferno, downright risible—but the 88 minutes fly by, which has always been Woo’s forte. The hi-def transfer looks terrific; extras include a new interview with the movie’s star, Eddy Ko.


None but the Brave 

(Warner Archive)

In novice director and star Frank Sinatra’s hands, this 1965 WWII drama—about what happens after American marines crash-land on a remote Pacific island inhabited by a platoon of Japanese soldiers—wavers uneasily between psychological study and “can we just get along” liberal pieties.




Director Sinatra, who plays the Americans’ drunken doctor, is unable to avoid a mire of clichés throughout, making this an honorable failure that nevertheless anticipated Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima by nearly four decades. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.


DVDs of the Week 

Degas—Passion for Perfection 

(Seventh Art)

French artist Edgar Degas kept his distance from his impressionist cohorts, going his own way in the paintings and sculptures of racehorses and ballet dancers for which he is best known.




This 90-minute documentary, in conjunction with a traveling exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, is a fine overview of the artist’s background and artistry, and doesn’t sugarcoat his virulent anti-Semitism, which reached its apex during the sordid Dreyfus affair. Extras are additional interviews and a glimpse at the museum.


Sara Stein—From Berlin to Tel Aviv 


Matthias Tiefenbacher’s exciting four-film 2015 mini-series follows a secular Jewish detective whose investigation of a Berlin murder case propels her on a journey to Tel Aviv, where she begins a new life colored by her religion—and her decision to become a detective in Israel.




These refreshingly sharp procedurals are highlighted by the always on-target portrayal of Stein by German actress Katharina Lorenz. Four 90-minute episodes are included on two discs.


CD of the Week 

Tchaikovsky—Complete Works for Solo Piano 


Valentina Lisitsa has given herself a monumental task by performing all of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s solo works for piano—10 CDs worth, over 11 hours of music—but she succeeds brilliantly. Although Tchaikovsky’s music has been criticized as being too flashy, too flagrantly sentimental, it is technically impressive and anything but mechanical.




Lisitsa’s flawless playing follows suit, finding the joyful musicality in the two sonatas and the innate playfulness in his Children’s Album. Then there are the fiendish technical challenges of the solo-piano versions of The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture, which she masters with hair-raising ease.

Film Series Roundup—Ermanno Olmi Retrospective

Ermanno Olmi

June 14-26, 2019


Italian director Ermanno Olmi

A masterly artist who specialized in dramatizing undramatic lives, Italian director Ermanno Olmi—who died last year at age 86—made psychologically acute character studies that are as close as fictional films have come to showing real life in all its complexity and ordinariness. The director himself said it all: “The cinema is life and life is the cinema for me.” 


Film at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective—some of his films, rarely seen in this country, are being shown in 35mm prints courtesy of the Instituto Luce Cinecitta in Italy—should, I hope, bring about a reappraisal of the extraordinary work Olmi created, even after his critical and commercial peak, 1978’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, after which the director almost completely disappeared from our screens.


Born in 1931 in Bergamo, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region northeast of Milan, Olmi began making short films in the early 1950s for Milanese electric company Edisonvolta. In 1958 the company commissioned him to make a short about a hydroelectric dam in the mountains; he instead returned with his first feature, 1958’s Time Stood Still, whose protagonists are embodied with simple authenticity by the first of many amateurs Olmi used to enact fictional events similar to those in their own lives.


Olmi's 1961 classic Il Posto, starring his wife Loredana Detto

Olmi’s imposing body of work is highlighted by his early masterpieces Il Posto (1961) and The Fiancés (1963), both of which follow quotidian existence with an eloquence that speaks directly to the heart. Olmi entirely avoided artifice and affectation in his films, preferring to concentrate on the intense emotions of his characters as they attempt to maintain their dignity in their struggles to survive. That even goes for the capitalist at the center of the 1968 classic One Fine Day, who finds his world forever altered after a pair of events threaten to boost him professionally and ruin him personally. Olmi’s gracious and sympathetic study is punctuated by his visually arresting snapshots into the troubled man’s mind.


Then there are the Catholic director’s more overtly religious films, like A Man Named John (1965), a singular biopic about Pope John XXIII; Cammina, Cammina (Walking, Walking, 1983), a recreation of the story of the Magi; and Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), a visualization of events in the first book of the Bible. These transcend their narrow structures to become triumphant paeans to the goodness of man and his co-existence with nature, artfully displayed by Olmi’s earthy imagery.


Olmi's 2001 study of warfare, The Profession of Arms

Two of Olmi’s greatest late-period films consider the insanity of war. The Profession of Arms (2001), a biography of the 16th century military man Giovanni de’ Medici, was photographed in a procession of indelible images by Olmi’s son, Fabio Olmi. Olmi’s final film., 2014’s Greenery Will Bloom Again, is a spare, humane meditation on warfare, embodied in shivering soldiers caught up in the machinery that made World War I such a protracted and horrific bloodbath.


In Olmi’s films, it’s the precisely etched faces—expressive, inscrutable and hauntingly human—that viewers will remember. There is the young man in Il Posto, visibly heartsick when the girl he adores is among a new crowd; the lovers in The Fiancés realizing their bond can remain strong, even while separated; and the alcoholic hero of the elegant, dream-like fable The Legend of the Holy Drinker, at last finding spiritual redemption (a role wonderfully played by Rutger Hauer in a rare instance of Olmi casting a name actor).


A poet of the commonplace, Ermanno Olmi—as this retrospective makes clear—made films that are anything but. 


Ermanno Olmi

Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Sneakers, Soul & Shakespeare in the Park

Much Ado About Nothing

From the pulsating subwoofer beats, picket signs, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” sung by the all-black cast’s lead Danielle Brooks (Beatrice) as she entered onstage, the audience knew the evening’s Shakespeare in the Park performance would be politically charged and now. “Now” being America’s 2020 (the campaign banner for Stacey Abrams is boldly displayed) set in the Georgia town of Messina in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as neighboring soldiers return from war. Don Pedro, the Prince, and his uniformed entourage arrives in a black sedan with a fanfare of sub bass rhythms, his soldiers marching with picket signs. Contemporary live music numbers and infectious celebratory dancing are the highlights of this 2019 Public Theater staging of MUCH ADO. One wished they can jump onstage to join in on “stir the pot.” The sets and colorful costumes are lovingly detailed, from the brick manor's roof turret down to the baby roots of the astroturf grass at the edge of the stage.


Love and deception are mirrored in the two couples of MUCH ADO: Beatrice and Benedick; and Claudio and Hero. Danielle Brooks as Beatrice powers the show with her fierce comedic force. Grantham Coleham as Benedick is the skinny bantam rooster to her voluptuous hen with a sharp tongue, both verbally sparring with the wit of Shakespeare’s prose. Both claim to never marry, and friends plot to reverse that. The tragic couple, Claudio (Jeremie Harris) and Hero (Margaret Odette), are victims of false accusations of infidelity. (“Nothing” in the play’s title is a homophone for “Noting” or slang for gossip and slander.) Their performances are overshadowed by the comedy of Brooks and Coleham, but their tragedy plays up the gender, race, and caste divisions that our society still upholds.


What hurts to a modern audience is the unfairness of the slander and how patriarchal world would believe it and judge a woman. A Prince’s judgment carries more weight than a father’s familial experience. One could extend the unfairness to racial bigotry. Director Kenny Leon (Tony Award winner for A Raisin in the Sun) questions these values of divisive privileges. In a Public Theater interview, Leon states, “I’m reminded that we are fighting for values in America more than anything. MUCH ADO is really about protecting those values of love, family, respect—all those values we say we believe in.” He says further, “I didn’t cast it all black because I wanted an all-black production. I cast it because it came to me in terms of the play about community.”


Family values at the core of this performance is a message that attracted local audiences of color that were willing to picnic in line for an hour or more to wait for free tickets. After a week of rain, the run of the show ends this weekend on June 23. I had wanted an extension of this wonderful version of MUCH ADO, or at least a way of recording this all-black cast performance for YouTube. According to some media sources, this may come to light: PBS’s Great Performances will film this Shakespeare in the Park 2019 production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.


Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York City

Shakespeare in the Park

Play run: May 21 – June 23, 2019




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