Thursday, March 13, 2008

He's Got a Rocket in His Pocket

It was a bumpy night at the San Fracisco Ballet on Tuesday evening, which was devoted to "A Tribute to Jerome Robbins." The program featured his first ballet from 1944, the short collaboration with Leonard Bernstein about sailors on shore leave called "Fancy Free," continued with the 1970 "Into The Night" set to four Chopin piano nocturnes which he created for New York City Ballet, and finished with a "West Side Story Suite" which is a 35-minute condensation of the 1957 musical.

The first problem was when the big gold curtain got stuck and didn't want to go up. After a few hurried announcements over the loudspeaker and a ten minute delay, the curtain was raised into the flies where it stayed for the rest of the evening, leaving the undercurtain to do its job instead. Then, five minutes into "Fancy Free," a woman in a wheelchair in the rear of the orchestra section proceeded to pass out and thunk onto the floor, so we standees in the back watched fascinated as a small army of ushers and patrons attended to the poor woman before wheeling her out of the theater to an ambulance.

We didn't miss very much, because "Fancy Free" felt not only thin but just plain wrong at times. Instead of being a playful look at three sailors on shore leave in World War Two flirting with New York girls, it looked like they were trying to rape any woman who passed by, which was probably not what was intended. Plus, the Bernstein score was so derivative of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Copland (at the end) that it was a little embarrassing.

"Into The Night," with its three elegant couples on a bare stage against a starry backdrop, fared much better and was genuinely beautiful.

The "West Side Story Suite," which Robbins cobbled together for his "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" show in 1995 and which he restaged for the New York City Ballet, has been praised to the skies and since I mostly love the musical, I was looking forward to the performance, but it turned out to be godawful in all kinds of ways. First off, the orchestra under music director Martin West, didn't have a clue how to play the score. I've heard high school bands demonstrate a better grasp of its jazzy rhythms. Plus, the solo singing wasn't just inadequate, it was downright bad, though the troupe singing as a chorus sounded fine. Part of the problem is that though "West Side Story" has its operatic and balletic moments, it's still a Broadway musical, which is a whole different kind of singing and dancing than opera and ballet performers are used to. When Bernstein recorded the score with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras, there was much the same problem. They didn't sound like Tony and Maria but rather like upper-class opera singers.

Similarly, the performers on Tuesday didn't look like jazzy juvenile delinquents but instead like exquisite ballet dancers. Plus, the staging was all wrong, with a hint of a set but none of the usual coups de theatre that make this piece so much fun onstage, such as colored streamers shooting from the flies during the dance in the gym, or the Jets and the Sharks climbing over a chain-link fence before and after the rumble. There was a fence onstage but the dancers just gestured towards it which was sort of silly, though not as silly as the final number, the "Somewhere" ballet which has always been the sentimental and gooey soft spot in what is generally a hard-edged show. The best version of "West Side Story" I've ever seen was in the late 1960s at a Santa Barbara Youth Theatre production, and I would urge you to see the show if it's ever performed by a high school or college with a good arts program near you. It really is the ultimate High School Musical, and tarting it up with professional ballet dancers and opera singers does the piece no favors.


The Opera Tattler said...

It's almost always very painful for me to hear opera singers sing Broadway tunes. On the other hand, the possibilities for the absurd are very high in this sort of case. Though one worries, would I have a hysterical fit at the SF Ballet if I saw this performance? Perhaps I need to find out.

Civic Center said...

Dear Opera Tattler: I'm sorry to tell you that it wasn't bad enough to actually be funny. And the vocal soloists weren't opera singers, they were ballet dancers who sang from the wings or the side of the stage in the front. They did their best, but it was pretty awful.

The Opera Tattler said...

O no! Why would one have dancers sing? It gets my goat when they make singers do percussion or complicated dance too. Thanks for the heads up, I'll just have to wait for a different SF Ballet performance to attend.

Jennifer said...

sfmike, i completely agree...west side story was a disaster. all words were blurred (what the heck were they saying?) and if they really wanted to do west side story, couldn't they just have danced it? very odd choice.

fancy free is itself a very thin dance piece, i've seen nycb and abt perform it, and sf ballet's version is the best fancy free i've seen. i think it's more of a historical piece, it was so revolutionary at the time, a ballet with no pointe shoes...very "American".

i love robbins though...too bad they showcased none of my favorites ;) "in the night" was wonderful and beautiful.

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more. West Side Story was downright torture at times-- especially with the singing. I almost felt like I was fooled into attending a bad high school musical with good dancing especially after watching the first two pieces; kinda like the joke was on the audience or something. Anywho, "Into The Night" was absolutely wonderful and beautiful. I would pay money just to go see that segment again...and then of course bail right before West Side Story. "Fancy Free" was playful. Oh and whats up with the principal trumpet player? I had my doubts after Firebird, but now after this last performance...hmmm.

jolene said...

Hilarious account! Some odd things happened when you were there. It adds to the excitement, no? We had curtain problems when I saw Program 5. I hope it's fixed.