The holidays are often associated with depression, but whatever was ailing audiences likely was cured upon seeing Cincinnati Ballet's sold-out, three-day performance extravaganza Dec. 8-10 at U.S. Bank Arena — and I'm not talking about The Nutcracker.
Following in the footsteps of their recent reconstructions of historical ballets from the Depression era (such as Léonide Massine's 1938 Seventh Symphony), the Ballet's The Buzz — a tribute to Busby Berkeley's 1933 lavish trioogy of musical films 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade — took the multi-tiered cake for the performing arts achievement of 2006. With its waterfalls and over-the-top sets, it was a breathtaking and literally awesome spectacle.
Taking the dynamically shot Berkeley dance sequences to a live stage was no easy task, considering how prominent a role the unconventional camera angles — not to mention the outrageously oversized and elaborate sets — had played in the classic films. Inevitably, some stylistic liberties were taken and a few new dance pieces were added. In a surprising turn of events, dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov was brought in as Guest Artistic Director.
"I remember the first time I saw a Busby Berkeley film," he said in an exclusive interview with CityBeat. "I was a young boy in Riga (Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic) and it — what's the expression? — blew me away. I knew I always wanted to be part of his glorious and influential legacy of dance."
How did it all come about? Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan explained.
"One chilly night last March I fell asleep on the couch while I was watching Citizen Kane on TCM and, when I woke up, I looked at the TV screen and saw all these dancers' legs moving in perfect unison like tentacles," Morgan said. "I recognized Busby's choreography immediately. It was so beautiful and otherworldly. I wanted to recapture the spirit (of Berkeley's choreography) and celebrate it, but I felt it was important to add some contemporary flair to it, too. Oh, and the costumes! Gorgeous!"
Cincinnati Ballet's wardrobe department faithfully recreated the costumes from the original films. Particularly striking were the two-piece "Gold Digger" costumes seen in "We're in the Money": the bikini-style tops, bottoms and matching boas were fully adorned with real gold coins. The bathing caps worn in the "By a Waterfall" piece were designed and textured to resemble sculpted wavy hairstyles and were custom created by Grishko of Russia, normally manufacturers of specialty tutus. (I suspect Baryshnikov might have had some influence there.)
Music Hall was originally booked for the show (at Baryshnikov's insistence), but it soon became clear that a much larger and more versatile space was needed for the 48-foot, five-tiered kaleidoscope formation and the "bathing beauties" numbers featuring an earthy-looking 35-foot waterfall complete with slides and a sprawling 54-foot scallop-edged pool. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra — who provided live music due to Cincinnati Ballet Orchestra Maestro Carmon DeLeone's unexpected boycott of the production — needed a dry place to set up and play.
DeLeone declined to comment on his reasons for withdrawing from the production, but he's known as an audio purist. Perhaps the U.S. Bank Arena's acoustics weren't up to par. Speculation also lingers around the humidity's potential to wreak havoc on the orchestra's instruments.
Given the scale of Berkeley's choreography, scores of dancers were needed for each piece. Company members from Columbus' Ballet Met, ballet tech ohio and CCM supplemented Cincinnati Ballet's ranks. Only dancers who could swim needed apply for the stunning "By a Waterfall" piece that featured aquatic sliding and posing in countless complex curvilinear formations.
If any of the dancers were negatively impacted by Berkeley's historic inclination to value the ability to assemble oneself into a large geometric formation over pure terpsichorean talent, they didn't show it. The Cincinnati Ballet dancers appeared more relaxed and comfortable with the choreography than I might have expected. Then again, for the female dancers, The Buzz did offer a welcome break from pointe shoes.
"Being flown in, then perched on the top tier of a huge stack of round gold platforms is a whole lot different than being lifted onto a guy's shoulder! And the choreography is a lot less taxing physically," Principal Dancer Kristi Capps said in an exclusive interview with CityBeat. "There's one piece where I just move my arms while laying in a big shell by a pool. Even the high kicks don't wear me out like fouettées do. When I retire, maybe I'll join the Rockettes!"
Special appearances from Contemporary Dance Theater and Bi-Okoto Drum and Dance Theatre rounded out the program. CDT dancers performed an Isadora Duncan piece celebrating nature, for which an asymmetrical pool and dancers gracefully basking in large half shells lent the perfect backdrop. Bi-Okoto provided a fresh Hip Hop spin on Berkeley's classic Gold Diggers of 1933 with break-dancers doing headspins in unison to the tune of Kanye West's recent hit song, "Gold Digger."
Primarily owing to Baryshnikov's hefty fees and the $1.2 million costume expenditures, The Buzz claimed two-thirds of the Ballet's season budget, forcing a cancellation of The Nutcracker in 2007. Yet rumors abound that the Ballet is considering reworks of additional Berkeley musical classics, perhaps 1949's Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Great American Ball Park. That alone should keep dance fans' — if not sports fans' — holiday blues at bay. ©