Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Havana Ballet Festival part 3

My third performance at the Havana Ballet Festival was probably the most highly anticipated event on the program: American Ballet Theatre. Alicia Alonso, who founded ballet as we know it in Cuba, danced for American Ballet Theatre many years ago (1943, for example, was a date she cited in the documentary film that was screened before the evening's performance). So there is an historic link between the two companies.

The director of ABT introduced the evening's program, and he mentioned that it is the first time ABT has performed in Cuba in 50 years. Again, you get the feeling that you are about to witness something special, something historical. He gave his speech in English (there were many English-speakers in attendance) and his escort, a young-ish cuban ballet star, translated to Spanish.

Let me talk a little bit about the theatre. It's probably the largest venue in Havana, and by extension I would imagine it's the biggest in the country. Someone told me it seats about 4,000 people. And it was full to capacity on the first night of ABT in Havana. The theatre is called the Teatro Carlos Marx, or Karl Marx Theatre. I liked to think that American Ballet Theatre was performing at the Karl Marx Theatre, but I think the irony is kind of lost on most Cubans. Anyway, the theatre is this enormous, terribly designed building. 70s styling inside, very "modern" looking with its angles. By contrast, the curtain is really classical looking and over the top--think major velvet drapes.

We got into this performance for free. A friend of Alejandro's supplied us with bootleg tickets that had been duplicated from some real ones. I thought they looked pretty much like everyone else's, and so did the ticket lady at the front door. We were sent to the second balcony, the way-way-way-up-there nosebleed seats. You could hardly even see center stage because of a huge spotlight that was mounted right at the edge of the balcony.

When the program began, I immediately knew something must be wrong. The orchestra just sounded terrible. It was all muddled and gave me the impression that everyone was playing at different tempi. At first I was horrified that the orchestra could be that bad. And after seeing two live orchestras, two nights in a row, I'm not impressed with either of the conductors. But then I realized what I was hearing was terrible acoustics. The orchestra could more than easily carry into this huge theatre, but they had decided to amplify everything. So I was hearing the delay between the live orchestra in front of me and the speakers that were positioned over my head in the balcony. And all that sound was bouncing around that terribly designed theatre with all those weird angles. Definitely the worst sound designed performance I have every been to. I thought I was going crazy. And this is at an historic performance at an international ballet festival, that people have come from all over the world to see (and hear!).

To be honest the sound problems ruined the experience of seeing ABT. I don't really remember anything from the first two pieces other than me wishing I could strangle whoever placed those microphones in the orchestra. There were some other minor flaws that bugged me about the staging--the lights, for example, kept flickering. How Cuban, I thought. The dancing, of course, was incredible. The first work was "Theme and Variations," by Balanchine. It was quite impressive seeing the whole company of ABT performing this work. But again, I felt like the music and dancing were just not matching each other in quality. And sometimes it seemed the dancers themselves couldn't hear the music clearly either and were searching to feel the pulse.

The second half followed a really nice long intermission in which I had a beer and got some ranting about the acoustics out of my system. We ran into our friend Nev again, the one from New York, and chatted.

"Seven Sonatas," choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, promised to be a really exciting work. The dance is focused on a series of seven piano sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which I spent a lot of time listening to and a lot of time playing when I was 12-15. But after listening to the famous Vladimir Horowitz recordings, nobody's performance is going to meet my expectations, and the pianist who performed live on stage was not quite up to snuff. In fact, I was more worried about her messing up the difficult passages of the music than I was worried about paying attention to the choreography. Also distracting was that the piano, too, was amplified very badly. It sounded really tinny and fake. Not to mention the awful reverb, which muddied up Scarlatti's beautiful, clear, delicate music and exacerbated the pianist's mistakes. This music is HARD to play for the very reason that everything you do is so exposed--every little mistake gets heard since there are no thick chords to hide around.

For the second half we snuck down into the first floor orchestra section to find empty seats. Even down there the acoustics were bad, which proved to me it wasn't just the weird nosebleed balcony seats that sounded awful. I'd love to see "Seven Sonatas" again, with a better pianist, and without microphones. The choreography looked good--the last sonata stood out because it was in the form of a fugue, and Ratmansky did a good job creating a dance that looked like a fugue.

The last piece was "Fancy Free," a true American classic by Jerome Robbins. It was the first time I saw it live after watching it in on film in dance history class. I was amazed by the performance the dancers gave when considering that the piece began at 11:00 pm. The program started at 8:30 and didn't finish until 11:30! I kind of wish I had been less sleepy--I definitely nodded off a couple times. But overall, quite impressive seeing these American themes in Cuba. The sailors, New York, the war--it made me wonder what Cubans think of the work.

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