Sara Mearns : the heroic and musically ardent New York City Ballet principal dancer and the star of A Dancer's Dream: Two Works by Stravinsky : played French horn in her middle school band. Her New York Philharmonic debut (June 27 _29), however, comes because she gave up her music lessons to brush up her arabesques. A regular member of the Orchestra's audience when she's not thrilling audiences across Lincoln Center's Josie Robertson Plaza, Mearns appears as the Dancer who dreams, and in turn inhabits several other characters in a blend of reality with fantasy.
Music Director Alan Gilbert corralled visionary artists to put together this month's fusion of classical ballet, symphonic performance, theater, circus arts, puppetry, and live and pre-filmed video artistry. His partners are director/designer Doug Fitch, producer/video director Edouard Getaz, and their production company Giants Are Small (which put together the resoundingly cheered 2010 music visualization of Ligeti's absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre), as well as choreographer Karole Armitage (artistic director of Armitage Gone! Dance, who worked on the dynamic and vivid 2011 production of Janšcek's The Cunning Little Vixen).
Two Stravinsky ballets are the foundation of a brand-new narrative. The first, The Fairy's Kiss (or, to ballet fans, Le Baiser de la f_e), builds on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ice Maiden" : a story about the beauty and tragedy of a life devoted to Art : to explore the joys, and the dark side, of being a committed artist. Stravinsky, thinking of Tchaikovsky, a composer beloved to him, wove his ballet from a congery of the earlier composer's piano works and songs. Its painful felicities enraptured George Balanchine, who first choreographed the complete score in 1937 for his American Ballet and then staged revisions for several companies, among them, in 1950, the New York City Ballet. Unable to resolve certain problems of staging to his satisfaction, he dropped the ballet from repertory until 1972 when, for City Ballet's first Stravinsky Festival, he choreographed Divertimento from 'Le Baiser de la f_e,' a new and, according to Balanchine, "storyless" ballet to excerpts from the score.
Here, The Fairy's Kiss is the first act of a story told through a mix of ballet, puppetry, pre-shot video, and live filmmaking, Giants Are Small's signature technique in which a real-time feed of musicians, puppets, and miniatures is projected above the orchestra. Following a transition that continues The Fairy's Kiss's snowy setting : a brief excerpt from Neige (Snow), a roiling, 1918 piano work by Frenchman Louis Durey : the conclusion of this Dancer's dream is told to Stravinsky's original, 1911 version of Petrushka, a showpiece for any orchestra that touches on issues of free will and the existence of the soul. Sara Mearns's Dancer has been transformed from the Ice Maiden into Columbine, the ballerina in a love triangle among three puppets at a wintry Shrovetide Fair that concludes tragically.
In fact, that presentation of Petrushka was the foundation of the current project. In 2008 Giants Are Small adapted the ballet for a production at the University of Maryland, directed by Fitch and conducted by James Ross, both of whom had been chums of Gilbert's when they attended Harvard. The two conductors, who collaborate at The Juilliard School, have long conferred about exploring and enhancing the theatrical aspects of orchestral concerts. "I have often spoken about my belief in storytelling through music, sometimes in ways that are literal but often in ways that are less easy to define," Gilbert said.
Fitch agrees: "We're reinventing how concerts can be experienced by contemporary audiences. We shake up the audience and, perhaps, the musicians, too." So Gilbert approached Fitch about expanding the earlier Petrushka for the Philharmonic, and they chose The Fairy's Kiss to be the opener. The resulting musical combination, Gilbert explains, is in keeping with Stravinsky's protean gifts: "Over his career Stravinsky consciously adopted different styles, but all his works still bear an identifiable quality that is his voice. The Fairy's Kiss and Petrushka contrast with each other, but both are intrinsically associated with dance, and the action on the stage allows certain themes to emerge and connect them."
In addition to providing the opportunity to show off the Philharmonic in magnificent music, this combination of works offers a chance for the Orchestra to work again with Fitch and Armitage. Gilbert describes them as "geniuses in their fields, really rich, sophisticated thinkers. More importantly, what they create totally fits in with my ambitions in terms of the Orchestra's connecting with a variety of art forms on the deepest levels."
Giants Are Small and Armitage together mapped out the details of what the choreographer calls the "second-by-second action plan" for A Dancer's Dream, changing the gender of Andersen's boy protagonist, for instance. Alan Gilbert has been following the preparations and says: "What they've done is amazing. And have you seen the costumes? To me they represent a Jean-Paul Gaultier/Alexander McQueen level of genius!" The costume designer responsible is the imagistic painter and costumer Irina Kruzhilina; the small Krostyne Studio, in Pittsburgh, constructed them. Their work is complemented by the contributions of Margie Durand as make-up stylist, whose brushes and face paints magically lower the temperature of Mearns's blonde warmth to that of the frostbiting Fairy-Ice Maiden.
Despite the plot's turns and the artistic and technical challenges presented in the production, the major theme that has emerged is the blending of reality and fantasy. Sara Mearns sums it up: "I think if you are a true artist, passionate about your art form, who can't imagine life without it, you are kissed with this curse of always trying to do your art form justice, create the beauty it deserves. It's our job as performing artists to give the audience a taste of that passion : to let them fall into that world."
Mindy Aloff, the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and the editor of Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World by Agnes de Mille, has written about the performing arts and literature in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other international publications. Winner of a Whiting Writers Award, a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Woodrow Wilson Foundations, and a past president of the Dance Critics Association, she teaches at Barnard College.