Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Three Riddles of Turandot" Review

Nai-Ni Chen brings a different style to her collaboration with New Jersey Ballet

By Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger

November 09, 2009, 6:19PM

Artistic collaborations are never easy, but the payoff can be huge.
New Jersey Ballet and guest choreographer Nai-Ni Chen, for instance, took a whopping chance when they joined forces to create "The Three Riddles of Turandot."
This sumptuously theatrical production made its debut Saturday at the Community Theatre in Morristown as part of a delightful evening of fantasy excursions titled "A World Tour of Dance."

A contemporary artist based in Fort Lee, Chen had worked with a classical ballet company only once before, and New Jersey Ballet’s dancers were unfamiliar with her style. Telling a story in dance was also new for Chen, who prefers to create abstract works. Yet this experiment has produced a ballet of compelling mystery and emotional depth, marking a significant addition to N.J. Ballet’s repertoire.

"Turandot," employing music from Puccini’s famous opera, compresses the plot into one brief but intense act — exquisitely dressed in silks by designer Karen Young and set in the fairy-tale land of China’s Middle Kingdom. The scene is multilayered, with projections and fabric drapes suggesting the seemingly impassable distance between Princess Turandot (Kelly Mara Cox) and her hopeful suitor, Calaf (Andre Luis Teixeira). To win Turandot’s hand in marriage, prospective husbands like Calaf must divine the answers to three riddles or forfeit their lives.

After a tumultuous opening in which crowds of men and women crisscross the stage, Calaf’s unfortunate predecessor attempts to scale a human pyramid only to be brought low by the executioner’s ax. Then Calaf waits, gathered inward as he listens to each riddle, while Turandot guilefully picks out steps that trace a labyrinth on pointe.
The hero bursts into triumphant leaps when he unravels the riddles’ meaning. Chen finds attractive imagery to depict his answers: A clutch of women in white represent the birth of hope. When Turandot herself is revealed to be the answer to the third riddle, attendants remove her outer robes and carry her on display like a golden trophy.

The lover-antagonists, who have taken opposing positions first downstage and then at a distance, are united at last. Yet the choreographer’s imaginative use of space and lighting to create a luxurious yet deadly atmosphere is only part of her achievement. Although Chen does not make extensive use of the ballerinas’ pointe technique, she gives them elegantly sinuous gestures and a haughty allure, while the men hunker down and stretch in crafty, martial-arts poses, their energy winding up and then springing outward in surprise attacks. All of this is completely new for New Jersey Ballet’s dancers, yet they look terrific.

With any luck, Chen can be prevailed upon to work with them again.
The premiere of "Turandot" took place as part of an evening dedicated to a longtime New Jersey Ballet supporter, the late Republican Assemblyman Eric Munoz. In addition to visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing, this program, a "world tour of dance," made stops in Havana ("Guajira"), Rio de Janeiro ("Para Dois") and New York (the slight but endearing Broadway number "March"), not to mention a familiar island off the Levantine coast inhabited by pirates and their admirers (the "Le Corsaire" Pas de Deux). In addition to Cox and Teixeira, dancers Michelle de Fremery, David Tamaki and Mari Sugawa gave performances outstanding for their musicality and freedom.

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