Selecting programs for a summer dance or opera festival is not easy


By Barbara Pinckney

“It is so funny because I hear as many people saying ‘oh please give us something new, I want to see new work!’ as I hear ‘oh please don’t give us something new,’” Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) said in reference to the New York City Ballet’s summer residency there. “Trying to have something for everyone is a real challenge but that’s what we do.” Sobol and NYCB are not alone in this. Dance and opera companies throughout the region strive to present a mix of beloved classics and original works that appeal to both longtime fans and new audiences. Several factors were considered when this season’s choices were made. Among them: three centennials; local traditions and interests; current headlines; distinctive spaces; and the availability of unique programming. As a result, there really is something for everyone, at venues that are as much of an experience as the performances themselves.

Kaatsbaan International Dance Center was created in 1990 to give companies a place to create and rehearse new works. Set on 153 acres in Tivoli, “the Hudson Valley’s Cultural Center for Dance” is made up of studios and residences with a rustic appeal designed to complement the 1890s Stanford White “Music” Barn on the property. One of the studios has a dance space the size of the Metropolitan Opera House stage and doubles as a black box theater.
Gregory Cary, Artistic Director of Kaatsbaan, said the theater was designed to offer the best of both worlds. The large performance space enables dancers to move freely, but the 160 seats are positioned to give every audience member a perfect, somewhat intimate, view. “It is a very one-on-one feeling with the audience which is kind of unique,” he said. “Usually when you have that up-close feeling you are dealing with space restrictions.” Because most performances at Kaatsbaan are linked to creative residencies, audiences often get to experience brand new works.
Although Kaatsbaan ends its regular season in June, there is still time to experience some amazing performances. In May, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, one of the nation’s most prominent flamenco and Spanish dance companies, will be in residence to create the works it will then take on tour. Moving Spirits Inc., a modern dance company from Brooklyn, will appear as part of the UpStream series, which celebrates emerging artists. And Jennifer Muller, a well-known New York choreographer, and her company, The Works, will preview the pieces that will premiere in the city the following week.

Ellen Sinopoli Dance Co. Photo by Gary Gold

On June 2, the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Co. of Troy will be at Kaatsbaan to share a unique multimedia experience. The first in the two-part program is SleepWalks: The Body of Dreams. This work stems from a project launched in 2009 by video/sound artist Andrea Williams, a PhD candidate at Rensselaer, which uses sleeping audiences to explore the impact of sound on dreams. Upon waking, audience members record their dreams in a journal. Ellen Sinopoli and her dancers selected journal entries that could lend themselves to movement. Music was added and the result was a 45-minute multimedia performance. ESDC dancers transform themselves into the dreamers’ bodies as they are immersed in Williams’ video projection environments.
Sinopoli said Cary saw a performance of SleepWalks in 2016 and “was intrigued by it.” But it needed a companion piece to make it a full evening, so Sinopoli suggested another multimedia work called is a joint effort of Sinopoli, David Allen, a visual artist, musician, programmer, and Research Associate at the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Lab at Rensselaer, and composer Maria Zemantauski, who is on the faculty at HVCC and has a private teaching studio at the Troy Music Academy. Based on the five stages of grief, uses sensors attached to dancers’ bodies to project their movements onto screens in altered forms. Sinopoli said ESDC will use its week-long residency at Kaatsbaan to expand from its current length of about 10 minutes to 20 minutes or longer.
“I am very excited that we can bring these two programs to Kaatsbaan,” she said. “We have been there many times, but this is the first time we have had a project like this, which is so technically oriented and involves multimedia. It is a new experience for us.”
Rounding out Kaatsbaan’s season will be BalletNext and solo dancer Miki Orihara’s Resonance II.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center—known for its amphitheater and sprawling lawn that together create a unique choice of indoor/outdoor viewing experiences for more than 20,000 people—has been hosting the New York City Ballet for 52 years. NYCB co-founder George Balanchine was an avid supporter of SPAC. Therefore, “You cannot have a New York City Ballet season at SPAC without a tribute to Balanchine,” Sobol said. “So, we open [this summer]with some of the great Balanchine works.”
The program, All Balanchine, contains three separate ballets, each with their own personality. “Square Dance is really about community,” said Sterling Hyltin, a principal dancer with NYCB. “The Four Temperaments is very forward-thinking and very minimal. It is set to Hindemith music and shows a different vocabulary for George Balanchine—sort of a hip forward or a turned-in leg or something you never see in classical ballet. Then, in contrast, Symphony in C is classical ballet.” She noted that other companies who dance Balanchine choreography tend to slow the music down, but NYCB “dances faster than any company in the world.”

Sterling Hyltin in Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Paul Kolnik

To please fans who asked for a story ballet, SPAC and NYCB chose Romeo and Juliet. “Nothing beats that story and that Prokofiev score,” Hyltin said. “It is very approachable to a first-time ballet-goer. You’ve got that story you can hold onto. It is so special to dance that ballet in Saratoga because as it gets darker in the sky the story gets darker and more ominous. And there is nothing like the balcony scene when you are actually outside.”
This summer, Romeo and Juliet will be particularly meaningful to Hyltin, who originated the role of Juliet in 2007. When she dances the part this summer, it will be for the last time. “This is probably one of the biggest moments of my career,” she said.
Also on bill is a program that celebrates the new choreographers making their mark at NYCB. 21st Century Choreographers features four new works by Justin Peck, Lauren Lovett and Gianna Reisen. Closing out the season is the NYCB Gala, this year featuring a tribute to choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, both of whose centennials are in 2018.
But NYCB is not the only dance group SPAC will be featuring this year. In late June, the legendary Ballet of Cuba will grace the amphitheater stage on one of only four stops on its North American tour. “That is a wonderful, miraculous thing,” Sobol said “They are going to DC, Chicago, Tampa and Saratoga. That is how exclusive this tour is.” Then, in August the Celtic group Trinity Irish Dance will appear.

Isabel Leonard. Photo by Becca Fay

Opera Saratoga Artistic and General Director Lawrence Edelson knows that many people think opera is an antique art form.
“Or people just say ‘I don’t like opera,’” he said. “When I hear that, my response is ‘well, do you say you don’t like movies?’ Because there are as many different types of operas as there are movies.”
Opera Saratoga got its start as Lake George Opera 56 years ago and has been operating out of the Spa Little Theatre for the past 20 years. Edelson describes the theater, which shares the Saratoga Spa State Park with SPAC, as “a very intimate space.”
“You are really up close and personal in a theater of just under 500 seats,” he said. “There is really nowhere else you can experience opera with this caliber of talent, these world class artists—some of whom you might see at the Met or in Paris—so close and so viscerally.”
Although Opera Saratoga—which also nurtures emerging talent as home to the nation’s second-oldest young-artists program—does performances all year round, it is best known for its summer festival. Edelson said this summer’s diverse repertoire includes both traditional and contemporary works that reflect the interests of local audiences. “I think that is really how we are able to keep opera relevant in the 21st century—to make sure we really show the depth and breadth, that scope of what opera is for our audiences today,” Edelson said.
First up is The Merry Widow, a well-known operetta that has not been performed in Saratoga for 30 years. Edelson said he chose it, in part, because of the region’s love of dance. Much of The Merry Widow is told through dance—ranging from romantic waltzes to the can-can. “It was one of the first pieces in history to use the waltz to help drive the story forward,” Edelson said. Next up is The Consul, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political thriller about refugees and the bureaucracy that surrounds people escaping war-torn countries. “This piece was written 70 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday,” Edelson said.
Then comes the first Opera Saratoga production to feature horse racing as a critical part of the storyline. The Rocking Horse Winner is based on short story by D.H. Lawrence. It will be part of a double bill with The Finch Opera. Both one-act operas deal with competition and the lengths people will go to win.
Opera Saratoga generally presents operas in the language in which they were written—using supertitles for translation—but that is not an issue this summer. The Consul, Rocking Horse Winner and Finch Opera were all written in English, and the company is using a new English translation of The Merry Widow.
The Glimmerglass Festival is described by Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello as “a total cultural and nature experience.” Performances take place in The Alice Bush Opera Theater on the shores of Otsego Lake in Cooperstown. The 900-seat indoor venue was built for opera, with superb acoustics that require no amplification. It sits on 30 acres dotted with picnic tables, and audiences are encouraged to come early, eat lunch, take in a free lecture and enjoy a concert in addition to the headline performance.
“To me it is really about the whole ethos,” Zambello said. “You are surrounded by incredible natural beauty with great arts and international-level opera singers and orchestras. It is really an all-encompassing experience.”
She said festival programming this year “ranges from highly entertaining to more content-ridden.” Starting things off, in celebration of the Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein centennials, is a production of West Side Story, a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with the original Robbins choreography.
Glimmerglass also will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I with a new, Pulitzer Prize-winning opera called Silent Night, which will be presented in English, French and German with English supertitles. “It is a very joyous piece about the Christmas Eve truce,” Zambello said.
Traditional opera fans will enjoy The Barber of Seville, a comic bel canto work that Zambello will direct. It tells the story of Count Almaviva, a young nobleman who allies with Figaro, the barber, to woo the fair Rosina. The Barber of Seville will be presented in its original Italian with English supertitles.
Rounding things out, at least on the opera front, is a new English translation of The Cunning Little Vixen composed by Leoš Janáček in the 1920s. Zambello described it as a woodland fable—“a somewhat obscure but beautiful piece about human kind and our interaction with nature.”
But the Glimmerglass Festival is more than opera. Also appearing this summer are singer Roseanne Cash, comedian Bill Murray and author Margaret Atwood, among others.
Caramoor, which calls itself “Westchester’s bucolic cultural mecca,” will hold its 73rd summer festival this year. The 90-acre estate in Katonah includes the historic Rosen House, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places; the 1,500-seat Venetian Theater; and gardens that double as unique performance spaces.
“Caramoor really is a hidden gem,” said Kathy Schuman, Vice President, Artistic Programming and Executive Producer. “It is like coming to somebody’s home, because it was somebody’s home. I think a lot of people don’t really understand the breadth of what we do and until you come here it is hard to imagine.”
The Caramoor summer festival includes musical performances ranging from a unique percussion experience called Inuksuit to American roots and jazz to opera. Until last summer, it was known for producing bel canto operas that were performed one night only. They were popular and launched the careers of some well-known stars, but were resource-intensive to mount.
Caramoor did not want to end its association with opera, so starting this year it will host outside companies and artists, often with performances that will make use of the estate’s unique venues.
Coming this summer is San Francisco-based Philharmonic Baroque, which will be performing Handel’s Atalanta in the Venetian Theater.
For something a little out of the ordinary, the New York City group On Site Opera, which does site-specific works, will be bringing the Mozart work The Secret Gardener to Caramoor’s Sunken Garden.
“That is something really different,” Schuman said. “I want to get different perspectives, different kinds of companies, different periods. We aren’t here to do things the Met would do, big grand opera. There has always been a case for a little bit of the unusual here.”
In addition to the full productions, Caramoor’s summer festival will feature two solo performances that should be of interest to opera buffs. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will perform selections from the roles that brought her renown, including arias by Handel and Mozart. And Isabel Leonard, also a mezzo-soprano, with guitarist Sharon Isbin, will do a Spanish program in, appropriately, the Spanish courtyard of the Rosen House.

Dance calendar
May 12-13
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Tivoli.
May 20
Moving Spirits – Tamara LaDonna Moving Spirits, Inc. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Tivoli.
May 26
Jennifer Muller/The Works. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Tivoli.
June 2
SleepWalks: The Body of Dreams/ – Ellen Sinopoli Dance Co. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Tivoli.
June 6-8
Giselle – National Ballet of Cuba. SPAC, Saratoga Springs.
June 16
Resonance II – Miki Orihara solo. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Tivoli.
July 6-8
T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-on-Hudson.
July 17-18
All Balanchine – New York City Ballet. SPAC, Saratoga Springs.
July 19-21
Romeo and Juliet – New York City Ballet. SPAC, Saratoga Springs.
July 19
21st Century Choreographers – New York City Ballet. SPAC, Saratoga Springs.
July 21
Robbins / Bernstein Centennial Gala – New York City Ballet. SPAC, Saratoga Springs.
July 30
The Luck of the Irish – Trinity Irish Dance Co. SPAC, Saratoga Springs. August 19 Repertory Concert – Ellen Sinopoli Dance Co. Freedom Park, Scotia


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