New York Fringe Festival
The Theater at the 14th Street Y, New York, NY
August 18, 2015
How quickly we forget.
More than 40 years ago, I became interested in ballet as a result of reading reviews by then New York Times ballet critic Clive Barnes that made ballet sound accessible and interesting, even to a layman.
Barnes also did not hesitate to involve himself in controversial causes. In the early 1970s he wrote of the oppression of Russian dancers Valery and Galina Panov – how they had been virtually imprisoned and unable to practice their art solely because they were Jewish and wanted to emigrate to Israel. The real story is a bit more complicated than that, but there is no question that Panov was dismissed from the Kirov (now the Mariinsky), barred from dancing, and not allowed to leave – and that the instrument of their art suffered with each passing day. Barnes was not the only member of the arts community to speak up on behalf of the Panovs, who eventually did emigrate to Israel, but he added significant weight to the cause. I remember Barnes’s pleas vividly, but the Panov affair is known to few today.
Kyra Robinov and Tibor Zonai’s fledgling To Dance, The Musical attempts to bring the Panovs and their plight back to life. It has still got a long way to go before it graduates from the New York Fringe Festival to a more establishment venue, but this is a promising start.
To Dance begins with Panov confined in his apartment, trying to exercise with a makeshift barre as the muscles of his body are gradually weakening. It then proceeds, somewhat linearly but with occasional flashbacks. We see the young Panov enter the Kirov Ballet School and join the Kirov Ballet; his success in principal roles; a celebrated tour to the U.S. that the Soviet authorities end prematurely; his failed first marriage (from which he adopted the surname ‘Panov’ to replace his father’s Jewish surname, ‘Shulman’); his meeting with, and ultimate marriage to, the Kirov’s prize-winning young ballerina Galina Ragozina; his ostracism and imprisonment, and their final arrival in Israel.
Perhaps because of the undeniable suffering that Panov and his wife were forced to endure, Panov the man has been mythologized. As his autobiography (also called To Dance) reveals, and as To Dance, the Musical does not camouflage, it was his independence, arrogance, and egotism that got him into trouble with the Soviet authorities in the first place, and which led to the failure of his first marriage. His being half-Jewish made him an easy target for ingrained Russian anti-Semitism that in To Dance is the root of the Panov’s plight. Indeed, the libretto skillfully interweaves a reference to the Soviets finally allowing Russian Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky to emigrate after suffering years of harassment attributable to his Jewish heritage, under circumstances that roughly parallel that of Panov.
Panov is portrayed by Jesse Carrey with appropriate vanity and arrogance, but nevertheless as a magnetic and reasonably sympathetic presence. Carrey’s voice rings with determination whether he’s speaking or singing, but particularly impressive is his ability to fairly portray a dancer during those moments when he actually has to dance. Although Carrey’s profile indicates some dance training, and even though he probably would concede that he’s no danseur, he does a fine job with the ballet choreography he is required to dance.
His Galina, Kathryn Morgan is a former soloist with New York City Ballet, who retired prematurely to battle a debilitating illness. During the premiere season of Peter Martins’ Romeo + Juliet in May, 2007, she was a sweetheart of a Juliet, and displayed a simple warmth, as well as accomplished technique, that proved the wisdom of Martins’s casting her in the role (at the time she was still in NYCB’s corps).
Morgan still comes across as a sweetheart, and her simple warmth still permeates her stage presence. Although her body has matured since she left NYCB, she can still dance like a ballerina – particularly during a modified excerpt from the finale of the pas de deux from Don Quixote (for which the Panovs were justifiably renowned), and which is used in the musical to exemplify the Panovs’ touring success. She wowed the audience with consecutive fouettés and, in that and other ballet choreography in the production, handled the pointe work with ease. That her face bears an uncanny resemblance to photographs of the young Galina Panova (who attended the performance) was a bonus. However, Morgan has no background in musical theater and the contrast between her vocal abilities and those of the show’s other actors was unavoidably apparent.
Of those other actors, Rick Roemer added essential gravitas to counter Carrey’s necessarily dominant performance. Roemer is a retired professor of theater and a veteran of many regional, off-Broadway, and touring plays and musical productions, and provided a measure of mature credibility to the production. Considering that his role as Rachinsky, the Kirov’s official in charge of Soviet orthodoxy (his specific title is not indicated) is cardboard and generates not an ounce of sympathy – he’s Panov’s Javert – I found myself admiring his professionalism and stage viciousness.
Most of the other actors filled multiple roles. Although they all did fine jobs, there were some especially noteworthy performances. As Panov’s first wife and as part of the ensemble, Lydell Higgins brought the production a touch of class, both with her nuanced acting and her dancing. A veteran of many regional productions, Higgins made Liya both a sympathetic and thoroughly credible character, with unexpected nobility. She also looked particularly comfortable as a Kirov dancer – not surprising since she’s artistic director of Los Angeles-based Stretch Dance Company and an award-winning choreographer.
Hannah Zimmerman’s portrayal of Panov’s teacher, Mme. Sergeyeva, was the most mild-mannered and sympathetic rendering of a company ballet teacher that I can recall seeing. It could use some venom. But as Liya’s mother, her depiction of a sour and spent female Russian Archie Bunker was spot on.
In a variety of ensemble roles, Joey Ama Dio stood out. She’s a pint-sized dynamo and has a face that can convincingly register different emotions, and change from one to another in the blink of an eye. Joshua Rees Hopkins’s Yuri (the show’s construction of Panov’s ‘best friend’ from his earliest dance school days who ultimately betrays him to Rachinsky) initially appears lightweight but ultimately succeeds in being a sheep-like Judas. He also delivered the show’s most startling and dramatic song, He Gets the Girl, which provides a back-hand view of one of prejudice’s roots – envy. Hopkins delivered the number, which comes out of nowhere, with unexpectedly virulent passion, which added immeasurably to its impact.
Generally, though, To Dance needs more texture and characterization. The libretto and lyrics by Robinov (who has a ballet background) and the music by Zonai, are serviceable, but not particularly inventive. Aside from He Gets the Girl, the most emotionally nuanced of the songs are duets by Valery and Liya. The romantic duets for Panov and Galina are OK, but not memorable. Piece of Glass, delivered by Rachinsky, is a very strong song, but simply matches the character in one-dimensionality. Although this may have been the intent, and not every song need be as complex as Javert’s Stars, it might have been more realistic to give Rachinsky’s character some depth.
At times the words and lyrics are overly cute. ‘Freaky’ (used by Galina) and phrases like ‘well goody for you smarty-pants’ (by Young Valery) may seem appropriate for the characters, but they sound inapt in context; and lyrics that rhyme ‘toilet,’ ‘spoil it’ and ‘oil it’ are particularly sophomoric (though in context that may have been intentional). And the notion that the main reason that the Kirov dancers wanted to travel to the United States is to shop (Stroke of Luck), is unnecessarily demeaning.
My greatest disappointment with the production, however, is its failure to specifically reference or build on the contribution of Barnes and others to the Panovs’ ultimate release. Barnes does appear in To Dance, but his presence is relegated to one scene where he visits Panov in an apartment he shares with other dancers. And although there are general references to the condemnation of the Panovs’ treatment (including using a chorus of protestors to represent the world-wide uproar that was instrumental in forcing the Soviets to let the Panovs go), there’s nothing specifically attributable to Barnes. I suppose that somewhere along the way it was determined that such a secondary focus would dilute the impact of the main story, but the contribution of Barnes and others is an indelible part of it; and why create a role for him and then limit him to one scene that, though not inconsequential, is relatively insignificant?
For a small-scale production, Brian Dudkiewicz’s imaginative sets (he is also responsible for the costumes) make the most of the limited available space. Standalone wooden frames that look like narrow versions of those that used to hold old fashioned moveable school blackboards are used inventively. Instead of blackboards, the frames contain removable dowels used to hold constantly changing ‘flags’. Those same dowels also double as weapons, curtain rods, and ballet barres. The frames do double-duty as well as room perimeters and dividers.
The overall direction and choreography by Donald Garverick keeps things moving consistently and coherently, and the musical direction by Evan Rees (who also accompanied on piano) is top notch.
Although it’s been in incubation since 2011, To Dance still needs work if it’s to expand beyond the Fringe Festival, but the groundwork is there, the story is compelling and there’s a waiting audience (all the remaining Fringe performances of To Dance are sold out). I don’t doubt that it’s appearance will be the springboard for something more, and that it’s now unlikely that the Panovs’ story will be forgotten again anytime soon.