No Contrapposto for you

18 Sep

Upon the recommendation of my former ballet teacher Karena, I sat down, read about and watched Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.  All I can say is j’dore.  Of all the Ashton ballets I’ve been teaching myself about, this has officially become the one I want to see live the most.  This necessitates a trip to London, because it’s exclusively a part of the Royal Ballet repertory, but unlike the rizzle-frazzle Balanchine Trust, the Royal Ballet is kind enough to allow (or at least I hope they’re okay with) a user having put it on YouTube.  You know, YouTube is so much better than television these days…no commercial interruptions, shorter clips with easy access to related and recommended videos.  For those of us with squirrely attention spans, it’s fantastic.  There’s a lot of crap too, but it’s easy to avoid, no?  Just thought I’d say that.

Anyway, Symphonic Variations is set to César Franck’s piece of the same name, and surprisingly I don’t know all that much about Franck.  I might have played his Symphony in D…but who’s to know.  By virtue of an article Karena also forwarded to me, (which people should check out because it’s pretty extensive and there’s no Wikipedia entry on this ballet) I learned that the costumes and set design were done by Ashton’s “more-than-a-collaborator-BFF” Sophie Fedorovitch.  I had to chuckle when I read that both Ashton and Fedorovitch had an epiphany where they both realized they would be better at something than what they were doing.  Ashton a good dancer, realized he would be a great choreographer and Fedorovitch went from painter to costume/set designer.  This makes me want to throw tomatoes and baguettes at all those wingnuts that think you have to decide your entire future by the time you graduate college (or even scarier, sometimes before).  I love it when people realize as adults the different things they can do with their lives thus finding themselves in a world they never foresaw.

Kind of a pity that this wasn’t the first home grown British ballet to be created at Covent Garden, due to an injury to Michael Somes, so Robert Helpmann’s Adam Zero got that honor instead, but as Carlos Acosta’s papito would say, “if something bad happens, it’s always for a good reason!”  (No offence to Helpmann, but Adam Zero isn’t in The Ballet Goer’s Guide, while Symphonic Variations is.  Need I say more?)  During that period, Ashton revised, trimmed, edited, reworked, refined, and fine-tuned the details.  I’m reminded of the parallels between gemcutters and choreographers…in this case, taking some rough material and faceting it in such a way to show it off in its purest form.  You don’t have the bulk of the original stone (i.e. diamonds often lose around half their weight in the cutting process), but you’re left with its brilliant soul.  According to Dame Margot Fonteyn (who also danced in its debut), it was the purity of Symphonic Variations that made it Ashton’s masterpiece.  I’m inclined to agree.

Although plotless, it calls upon some imagery from classical Greek art, and overall I felt that a lot more in Symphonic Variations than I did in Balanchine’s Apollo.  Accordingly, Symphonic Variations has displaced Apollo as my favorite classical Greek-ish themed ballet.  However, the author of the article discusses Ashton’s use of the classical Greek contrapposto in the opening and ending pose (and throughout the ballet), grounded in the fact that Fedorovitch was well versed in art history, but I would actually argue against this.  I’m no expert, and I certainly fell asleep many times during my one and only art history class (the teacher mumbled and was so old he literally could have died at any moment.  Parthenon?  I think he was there.), one of the few things that I do remember is the contrapposto pose.  Although Ashton uses the idea of bearing all the weight on one leg with the other one relaxed, really the main characteristic of contrapposto is the way in which standing on one leg  displaces the hips and twists the shoulders, creating a flexuous line through the body instead of a straight, symmetrical one.  Obviously ballet dancers are taught not to sit in their hips and to lift lift lift, but in contrapposto there is waviness that is created by lifting and dropping certain sections of the body.  Although Ashton’s choreographed pose still conjures images of Greek statues, I say nay on the contrapposto.  I did get an A in art history and this is one of the few things I retained (in addition to cave paintings, the pharaoh’s striding pose which is very square with one flexed foot in front, and the pubic triangle of the Venus of Willendorf…you never forget when a hundred and fifteen year old man says “pubic triangle” to you) so you have to give me some credit here.

Anywhodle, I absolutely love the simplicity of the ballet, the geometry, the interplay, the way it comes full circle to begin and end with the same pose (thus making the neurotic happy), and the way in which dancers assume the instrumentation and mood of the music.  I actually read an article on a psychology website that talked about the euphoria we get from moving on the beat to music, because it pleases the brain’s pleasure circuits or something like that, and certainly Symphonic Variations is tapping on the same part of the noggin.  Balanchine was known for really pinpointing phrases in the music and having it show through his dancers, but I have to say that Symphonic Variations is more musical than anything I’ve seen of Balanchine, with even more accuracy and attention to the nuances of Franck’s composition.  Which might have something to do with there being more available space to work with, having only six dancers compared to Balanchine’s legions, but yeah…oh snap, I went there.

So here’s Symphonic Variations, performed by dancers of the Royal Ballet (Steven McRae, Roberta Marquez, Federico Bonelli, Belinda Hatley, Laura Morera and Ludovic Ondiviela), plus a short interview for some background info and the dancers talking about dying from dancing for twenty minutes straight (although sorry dude, it’s more like eighteen…seventeen and a half.)  User has embedding disabled so you’ll have to walk the extra mile and click the extra link.

Thanks Karena!

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6 Responses to “No Contrapposto for you”

  1. Karena September 20, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    I think this is your best post ever 🙂

    Glad you enjoyed Symphonic Variations so much too–I think I’ll go watch it again and be happy!

  2. youdancefunny September 20, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    Thanks! I’m quite proud of this one too.

    Although, is it possible that as someone who majored in the classics, you have a *slight* bias?

    • Karena September 22, 2009 at 8:43 am #

      Bias?! Me?! I’m perfectly unbiased–it’s the rest of the world that’s biased against the classics and ballets I like…

      • youdancefunny September 22, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

        Indubitably.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. YouDanceFunny is unfunny today…and MAD! « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - December 19, 2009

    […] Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, which is a ballet I have grown quite attached to, since being introduced to it a couple months ago.  I would go as far as saying it’s one of my absolute favorites, which means it’s PERSONAL.  […]

  2. Time for 2010 « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - December 31, 2009

    […] upper echelon of my favorite ballets because it embodies everything I love to see in a dance (my post on Symphonic Variations was definitely one of my favorites of the year).  Heck, 2009 was worth it just for Symphonic […]

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