Thursday, January 27, 2011

American Ballet Theatre at The Kennedy Center

The Thespian looks forward to the annual visit of American Ballet Theatre to the Kennedy Center each season.    When the The Thespian first traveled to Washington, DC with the Girl Scouts she experienced her first professional ballet in the balcony of the Opera House watching Martine van Hamel dance Raymonda.     So, it was with delight that The Thespian looked forward to seeing both the mixed repertory program and the company premiere of Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream.

The mixed repertory program that opened the week's performances was chosen to honor former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a patron of the performing arts during her time in the White House and for many years following.   All of the pieces chosen were said to be among her favorites.   The evening began with George Balanchine's Theme and Variations set to Tchaikovsky's Tema con Variazioni from his Suite No. 3 for Orchestra.     This is one of Balanchine's tutus and tiaras dazzlers and the company did not disappoint.    Gillian Murphy was scheduled to dance the lead ballerina role and was unable to do so due to injury.   Soloist Yuriko Kajiya ably took her place.    While there were visible nerves in her dancing in the very beginning of the piece, she quickly settled down and delivered a gorgeous performance, ably partnered by David Hallberg.    Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas (the Lilac Garden) showcased the dramatic abilities of Julie Kent.    Ms. Kent danced the role of Caroline, a bride-to-be attending a farewell party with her arranged and much older fiancee, Roman Zhurbin.   She longs for a last embrace from her lover, danced by Thomas Forster.    Into the mix is the other woman, billed as an episode in his past, the former mistress of the fiancee danced alluringly by Kristi Boone.     This is a short ballet of longing, filled with brief encounters and interrupted tete-a-tete's, ending on a moment of pathos as Caroline and her fiancee leave as scheduled.    While the lighting for the dance was particularly dark it added to the sense of intimacy and furtive, forbidden meetings.      This is a ballet that calls for strong acting abilities and led by Ms. Kent everyone was of the highest caliber.

This was followed by another Balanchine ballet, Duo Concertant.     This is a "practice clothes" ballet in which two dancers listen and observe a duet between a pianist, David LaMarche, and a violinist, Ronald Oakland, and then periodically join in and dance to some of the movements.     The two dancers were Paloma Herrera and recently promoted to principal, Cory Stearns.    Paloma danced beautifully, but seemed a tad uneasy in the listening sections.   Cory made an impressive DC debut as a lead dancer and The Thespian looks forward to seeing more of him in the future.

The last ballet of the evening was Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free.   This is the sailors on leave ballet that later inspired the Broadway musical On the Town.   There was another injury substitution, this time for Ethan Stiefel and his role was danced by Sascha Radetsky.      All three of the men, Mr. Radetsky, Herman Cornejo and Jose Manuel Carreno were athletic and dynamic.    Each of the sailors has a distinct personality and it is reflected in their dancing.    As the objects of their desire, Maria Riccetto, Isabella Boylston and Leeann Underwood were equally delightful.    It is a fun way to end an evening.

Upon Saturday evening, The Thespian returned to view The Bright Stream.   The Thespian is indebted to The Washington Post's dance critic, Sarah Kaufman, for her background on the history of this Soviet era ballet.     Please visit:
to read Ms. Kaufman's review and the devastating story of the creators of the original ballet and how they suffered under the Stalinist regime.

When you entered the Opera House you were greeted with a display above the curtain a very 30's era painting featuring stylized agricultural symbols and very prominently the hammer and sickle emblem of communism.     The ballet was originally created in 1935 by Fyodor Lopukhov at the Maly Theater in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) with music by Shostakovich.   Mr. Ratmansky created a new version in 2003 for the Bolshoi Ballet and the current production debuted at the Latvian National Ballet in Riga, Latvia in 2004.   These performances at the Kennedy Center were the company's debut of this production.

It is a tale set during a harvest celebration on a collective farm.    There are flirtations, disguises and broad humor. Everyone ends up happy at the end.    It is a comedic ballet set among the common folk.   If one were uncomfortable with the communist setting it could easily be re-set among any rural community.

The basic story is thus: Zina, the local amusements organizer, danced by Paloma Herrera, awaits the arrival of famous artists who have come to take part in the harvest celebration.    She is distracted by her husband, Marcelo Gomes, and several other members of the community.    The artists arrive and it is clear that the ballerina, danced by the happily healed Gillian Murphy, is an old friend of Zina's from ballet school.     Zina's husband is smitten by the ballerina as is the old Dacha dweller, danced by Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee.   Meanwhile the Dacha dweller's wife, who tries to act younger than she is, danced by Martine van Hamel, is smitten with the male ballet dancer, David Hallberg.

Zina is heartbroken by what she believes is the betrayal of her husband and friend.   The ballerina assures her she is not interested in betraying her and sets up a plan.   Zina will dress in the ballerina's costume and a mask and meet her husband.     The ballerina will wear the male ballet dancer's suit and meet the Dacha dweller's wife.   And the ballet dancer will dress as a Sylphide  and meet the dacha dweller.   There is madcap mayhem including a duel, bicycle riding and a tractor driver disguised as a dog before everyone is unmasked, the husband begs Zina's forgiveness and everyone dances to the glory of the harvest.

As Zina, Paloma Herrera is poignant and dances beautifully.  As her husband, Marcello Gomes, who is one of the most expressive male dancers has terrific acting ability, and yet, has moments in which his strong athletic ballet talent is permitted to shine.  Mr. Barbee and Ms. van Hamel are wonderful character performers providing much humor over the course of the evening.   Gillian Murphy is delightful as the ballerina and rises to a particular choreographic challenge.   During act one, the male ballet dancer dances a typical bravura solo with many leaps and turns.    During act two, in disguise Ms. Murphy must dance the same solo with the exact same steps.  She doesn't get the height on the leaps, but she matches the steps perfectly.    And then there is our disguised Sylphide.    The evening is worth the price of admission to see one of the best male dancers in North America en pointe partnered by Victor Barbee.     Seriously, this a ballet that requires the male lead to dance in toe shoes.

American Ballet Theatre performed at The Kennedy Center from January 18-23, 2011.   For information on upcoming performances please visit

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Arabian Nights written and directed by Mary Zimmerman at Arena Stage

The Stories of Scheherezade are passingly well-known to most persons who have studied literature.   Who doesn't know Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp thanks to the Disney film?  Or who hasn't heard of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves or the Seven Voyages of Sinbad?   Guess what?   None of those tales are part of the earliest known manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights.  According to the very helpful and thorough dramaturg notes that Arena Stage thoughtfully provides (especially to those with a smartphone), you will learn that none of the most famous stories appear any earlier than Antoine Galland's French translation in the 18th century.

Prepare for a dazzling evening of wonder as you discover several of the tales spun by Scheherezade along side that of her damaged and cruel husband, King Shahryar.  If you could join the talented cast upon the Fichandler Stage you could pull up a comfy pillow and stretch out on a rich carpet and enjoy the adaptation of these marvelous stories created by the very imaginative Mary Zimmerman, first for Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago in 1992, revived for Berkeley Repertory Theater and now ensconced in the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage.

Mary Zimmerman is one of the most creative writer/director's working in theater today.   The Thespian has had the priviledge of viewing her produtions of Argonautika, based on Jason and the Argonauts, and Shakespeare's Pericles at The Shakespeare Theater at the Harmon Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.  Ms. Zimmerman also recently directed a well-received version of the musical Candide also at The Shakespeare Theater.   With The Arabian Nights she returns to a work she originally created in 1992 inspired by "a military official boasting that we would bomb Iraq 'back to the Stone Age.'"   There is very little overtly political about this interpretation of the stories.   It is simply wonderful that Zimmerman was inspired to adapt the vast canon of between 200 and 300 stories that are extant in a very pleasant few hours upon the stage.  For this adaptation she chose to use the 1923 translation by Powys Mathers as it was more poetic, lyrical and erotic.

The framing tale of Scheherezade is a story of redemption and forgiveness.    King Shahryar (David DeSantos) discovers his queen has been unfaithful and he murders her and her lover in their bed.   Shahryar becomes so convinced that all women are deceitful and unfaithful that he vows to marry a virgin each night and kill her the next morning.   His vizier, Scheherezade's father (Allen Gilmore), is given the unhappy task of procuring the King's endless stream of victim brides.   After three years, no one remains in the kingdom who is eligible to be sacrificed to the King's anger.   Shahryar notices that his faithful servant has two daughters and demands the elder as his bride that very night and the younger girl the next night.   Scheherezade (Stacey Yen) agrees and brings her sister to the palace with a plan to try and save her life, her sister's life and the lives of any other unlucky girls who might follow.   Scheherezade's father is instructed to return to the palace the following morning carrying his daughter's burial shroud.

The marriage takes place, Shahryar attempts to kill Scheherezade and her sister, Dunyazade (Maureen Sebastian) cries that she cannot sleep unless she hears one of her Scheherezade's wonderful stories.   And thus it begins, as one tale leads to a tale with in a tale always ending at a cliffhanger and Scheherezade points out that it is dawn and her father awaits with her shroud.  Her life is spared for one more night as the King wishes to hear how the story will end, but the King forbids her to comfort her father.   The cycle begins that will end a thousand and one nights later.

Obviously not all of the stories can be adapted into one evening of theater.   Zimmerman judiciously has chosen tales that Scheherezade can use to instruct Shahryar in the ways of justice, error and forgiveness.   Okay, she also tells the world's greatest fart joke.    And, did you hear the one about the three nuns who go to heaven?

The talented ensemble all have moments in which they take the prominent part.   All are well cast and help provide a spellbinding evening.    Stacey Yen is a beautiful and sensual Scheherezade and is marvelously expressive in her voice and body as she weaves herself in and out of her tales.   David DeSantos is passionate and menacing as the vengeful King Shahryar.    Most of the tales chosen for adaptation take place in the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and as the bewildered at times ruler, Barzin Akhavan is both regal, exasperated and intrigued as the stories revolve around his court.   The Thespian especially appreciated the performance of Susaan Jamshidi, who while prominently featured in the know-it-all story Sympathy the Learned, captivated The Thespian's attention during a swirl of multiple stories being told at the same time, playing a tortoise who becomes a princess.  

This is the first production of the play to be performed in an arena setting and the director/writer and her actors have adapted well to the challenges.    The Thespian highly recommends this production for the opportunity to see a truly unique evening of theater.

The Arabian Nights written and directed by Mary Zimmerman will be performed in the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for the Performing Arts through February 20, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

Note:   In the program you can access detailed dramaturg notes by using your smartphone and the scanlife app.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett

It all comes down to sex.    Whether or not Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales consummated their marriage has provided academic and dramatic speculation for 500 years.    In English biographies of the Tudor dynasty the "bring me a cup of ale for I have been this night in the midst of Spain" bragging reported at the famous Great Matter Trial in Blackfrier's in 1529 has been coupled with Queen Katherine's insistence that she came to her second marriage a true maid and that Henry VIII knew it.    One of the marvelous revelations in Giles Tremlett's new biography of Katherine is that there was another trial in Spain at the Cathedral town of Zaragoza in June 1531.    The Spanish transcripts from this trial tell a different story of that wedding night.    They tell of Katherine's Spanish servants being shocked that Arthur was thin and frail and that he left the wedding bed before morning and that Katherine complained that he would never be able to consummate the wedding.  

This is just one episode that is relevatory in Gile's Tremlett's well-researched book.    Mr. Tremlett is not an historian.   A graduate of Oxford, he is the Guardian's Madrid correspondent.    Astoundingly his is the first stand-alone biography of Henry VIII's first queen since Garrett Mattingly in the 1940's.    Katherine's story has, of course, been reviewed since, but usually as part of a joint biography of Henry's six wives.    It is long past due for Katherine to take the center stage.   And Mr. Tremlett provides an easy to read biography that benefits from access to the Spanish National Archives.

He is not the first writer to use the Archives, they have been available for quite a long time.   However, it is only recently that the entirety of the Archives has been available to historians and biographers.   Dr. David Starkey used them in his Six Wives book earlier this decade and he uncovered some interesting material about Katherine's first pregnancy during which, following her miscarriage of a daughter in January 1510, doctors convinced her that she was still pregnant with a twin and that she even went through the taking her chamber ritual for this phantom pregnancy giving an eerie foreshadowing of the humiliation suffered by her daughter, Queen Mary I, decades later.

Mr. Tremlett's book is important to anyone interested in Tudor history as with the inclusion of previously unused material from the Spanish archives  this biography gives more insight into the life of Henry VIII's first queen.    Not only does the material provide a wonderfully fleshed out account of Katherine's childhood as the youngest daughter of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, it provides insight into Katherine's education, the example she had of a strong Queen Regnant in her mother which explains a lot about why she fervantly fought for her daughter's rights as heir to the English throne.   And, Katherine also witnessed an example of a marriage in which one party was the sibling of the deceased spouse in the Portuguese marriages of her eldest sister, Isabel, who married first Afonso of Portugal then Manuel and then when Isabel died her sister, Maria married Manuel.   It was a more complicated arrangement than Katherine herself would face when her first husband, Arthur died.

Where Mr. Tremlett's research is strongest for the student of Tudor history is where he finds material, usually in the Spanish archives, that gives a new take on well-worn events.   Such it is with the marital trial held in Spain, at Zaragoza in June 1531.   It is in this material that we find a markedly different take on the marriage of Arthur and Katherine.    Was he the robust lad boasting of sexual conquest or the weak, frail teenage boy related in the Zaragoza transcripts?   We can never know for certain, but it is wonderful to have this material brought forth by Mr. Tremlett so that we can add to the discussion of this, the most famous annulment in history.

Mr. Tremlett also provides great insight into Katherine's life as a young widow.   Remember that the only language that she and Arthur could communicate in was Latin.   So, imagine being a girl of 16 in a country in which only the few servants that remain with you speak Spanish and trying to maintain dignity while fighting for your dower rights.    It apparently took Katherine several years to become fluent in English and she spent a lot of time under the influence of several different people from her duena, Dona Elvira, who was trying to undermine Ferdinand of Aragon's rule once Isabel of Castile died, to her confessor, Fray Diego Fernandez who probably convinced her to start defying Henry VII's authority in 1507.

Most persons familiar with Katherine's story know that she came to England in 1501 to marry Prince Arthur who died in 1502.   Katherine was proposed as a bride for the future Henry VIII, but there were many obstacles including the famous dispensation required for her to marry her husband's brother.  Then she lost the protection of her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth when she died as result of childbirth in 1503.   Katherine's own mother, Isabel died in 1504 making Katherine no longer the daughter of the joint rulers of Aragon and Castile, and thereby a lesser commodity on the marriage market.    Yet, after eight years of widowhood, the new King promptly marries her, shares his coronation with her and they embark on a few years of happiness.

Tremlett finds evidence that Katherine suffered from an eating disorder, there are primary sources that refer to her obsession with fasting and to episodes of vomiting.   Later in life she would adopt wearing a hair shirt under her courtly clothing.    He posits that this may have led to Katherine's childbearing problems.     The pregnancies that are documented included the stillbirth of 1510, during which a swelling probably caused by infection led to pseudopregnancy symptoms.   The birth of Prince Henry in 1511 who lived for seven weeks.   A pregnancy in that ending in late 1513 after the French war and the victory of Flodden which Katherine was actively traveling to assist with material support and may have caused the child to be stillborn or only survive a few short days.  Another stillbirth or shortlived child in 1514, Princess Mary in 1516 and a last sad pregnancy in 1518.   Katherine had frequent pregnancies over nine years.  

Tremlett also provides some interesting material surrounding the timing of the annulment attempt by Henry VIII.    He finds evidence that  Henry was seeking a possible annulment as early as 1524/1525.   He cites that the timing of this was due to Henry's frustrations in the political arena with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Katherine nephew.   Henry had many disappointments in his foreign entanglements, first from his father -in-law, Ferdinand making peace with Louis XII following Henry's victories in 1513, then by Charles breaking plans for a joint invasion of France in the mid-1520's.   Tremlett argues that this is what turned Henry to first consider annulling his marriage, to Katherine, which puts the usual romantic view that it only happened after he met and fell in love with Anne Boleyn into a different light.   For if you accept Tremlett's view, the elevation of Henry VIII"s bastard son to the peerage in 1525 comes as much more dishonorable to Katherine.

The Great Matter has been a subject in many, many books.   Tremlett gives a good background to the various arguments for and against the annulment.    One of the events he points out is that Henry VIII gave Katherine of Aragon permission to appeal her case to Rome.    That is correct.   During the famous opening of the Blackfrier's trial, it is well known that Katherine delivered a famous speech imploring her case on her knees in front of Henry's throne.   (see Shakespeare, see most television versions of the scene)  However, at the end of the speech she asked Henry for permission to write directly to the Pope to defend her honor and conscience.   And Henry gave her that permission.    Tremlett then goes on to discuss at length the foreign examinations of the annulment proposals, from seeking the opinions of the universities to the trial at Zaragoza, apparently not the only foreign trial of the Great Matter.

Tremlett ends with reviewing the years that Katherine spent in exile from 1531 to her death in 1536.  He discusses the precautions taken against poison which became a real threat when an attempt was made using poison on John Fisher's life.   He discusses the ways that Katherine's friends, such as Eustace Chapuys, appointed Imperial Ambassador to England in 1529, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter tried to aid the exiled queen.    He also mentions how, Katherine's nephew, while willing to use his aunt's situation for political advantage was never serious about waging war on Henry.   Not only did Katherine forbid it, Charles had his own issues on the continent that did not lead to Charles wishing to provide a  martial intervention.

Overall, Mr. Tremlett has provided a much needed updated biography of this remarkable woman.   He provides chapter notes online for anyone who wishes to review his sources.   He has a good writing style, although he does begin each chapter with one or two paragraphs which are "dramatic" in nature he does not stick to that style but provides a clear and concise analysis of primary source material.

As a note:  The Thespian is used to writing Katherine of Aragon's name with a K as that is how Katherine was spelt in England in the 16th century.  Mr. Tremlett uses a C which follows the Spanish version of her name, Catalina.    The Thespian does not want this to lead to any confusion.

The book was published in the United Kingdom in 2010 by Faber and Faber Limited.