For Shoeman Peaces

31 Jan

As in any creative endeavor, the artist is bound to encounter obstacles and for the past two weeks I’ve had a monkey-sized writer’s block on my back.  For various reasons, I couldn’t seem to pull ideas together…I had plenty, but when I started to develop those thoughts they just faded away.  It’s frustrating, depressing, disheartening and requires the time old medicine of confections—my current delight being the new Andes Crème de Menthe cookies, which are even better than their after dinner mints…you know, those little rectangular chocolates with a layer of mint, wrapped in the signature green foil that is often distributed as little tokens of gratitude for having dinner at the Olive Garden (though the Olive Garden is very stingy, and will never give you more than one per person…I’ve asked.  On several occasions).  Thanks to these refreshing treats, the restoration process has begun.

I operate under the assumption that eating the whole box in a couple of days means fewer calories...but I was never good at math.

So!  In the spirit of renewal, I wanted to write about a dance completely new to me, and inspired by the anniversary of its debut, thirty-six years ago today at Covent Garden, I’ve selected Four Schumann Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen to music by Robert Schumann (Quartet in A major, Op.41, No.3).  I’ve never seen Van Manen’s work before, nor have I seen a ballet to Schumann, whose music I’ve always felt has a distinct refinement and intimacy.  Four Schumann Pieces seems to follow suit with this assessment and so it was impossible to be disappointed.  Overall, I found Van Manen’s style to be quite classical and at times academic, with the occasional dash of modern choreography.  It is however, the kind of piece that requires very disciplined training because placement is key and not having a certain squareness in the hips would result in a faceplant for sure.  It’s deceiving because it’s not a ballet that would strike you immediately as being particularly virtuosic, but it has exceptionally wicked choreography, especially for the lead male dancer.

In the performance I’m including in this post (filmed around 1980), this guy named Anthony Dowell danced the male lead, with Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling and Julian Hosking in featured roles.  The ballet has no plot, though the backdrop has horizontal lines could suggest a music staff and with Dowell beginning alone on stage I imagined him as a composer or maestro.  The other dancers I saw as representations of the notes themselves and Van Manen has all of the dancers doing these airy phrases that repeat in canon and truly embody this idea of music coming to life.  I don’t know if this would be a pertinent distinction (well, I guess it has to be if I’m writing it down!) but the difference I saw in this ballet was that it was very conscientious of not just dancing to the music but becoming it and letting the music speak for itself.  The result is quite reserved in terms of choreography as there’s nothing too flashy but when you watch the first male solo, you realize what makes this ballet so insanely difficult.  For example in this first part, at about 2:40 Dowell does the most beautiful, gooiest grand plié in fifth, springs up to passé, stays up on relevé and ever so gently place his foot down into fourth position before going into a pirouette.  So yeah, academic but also ridiculously hard and in order to make it look easy, placement is everything.  I actually laughed out loud when he did it a second time and sprung up to an arabesque on relevé.  I know nothing about ballet is normal, but that is incredibly not normal.

Van Manen gave Dowell a lot of work on relevé, which isn’t unusual for a ballet dancer but sustained movements on relevé are generally reserved for women (as is sliding into the splits and a penchée, both of which Dowell did above, and I though were absolutely fantastic).  There is more of that later on in the piece but the next segment elaborates on Van Manen’s style, which maintains simple lines and minimal port de bras.  While Dowell takes a nap on stage, Penney, Collier, Eagling and Hosking perform a quartet as a pair of duos, which was one of my favorite moments because Van Manen chose beautiful shapes to frame the women with, and I found it sensual without being romantic.  That’s followed by dancers executing simple steps with pseudo-V is for victory arms, which might seem stiff or awkward but it draws attention to the pulse of the music. I have to say there’s something really pleasing about a tempo in a three, especially a waltz.

Following are some different pas de deux, with Dowell partnering both Penney and Collier in beautiful fashion but the most intriguing is perhaps the duet between Dowell and another male dancer (sorry, I can’t tell who it is)…a little male-on-male action, but like I said before this is a ballet not about romance but intimacy which doesn’t have to be sexual, and such choreography is a rarity in neoclassical ballet (and practically nonexistent in anything earlier).  A friend once asked me if I’ve ever had to do a promenade a la seconde and I’m pretty sure I haven’t, though there are plenty in this little duet.  By this point Dowell is understandably sweating like a beast, having been on stage and dancing for a good twenty minutes, there’s an ease and softness to the brief partnership that makes me wish we could see more of such things in new works.  Although talk about unusual partnering, what could be a more fitting end to this section than Jennifer Penney supporting Dowell’s hand as he balances in an arabesque?  It’s no Rose Adagio, but I love the role reversal.

In the last section Van Manen gives snippets of bravura technique, with Dowell having to perform a series of piqué and tombé piqué turns (or piqué tour en dehors, but most certainly NOT “lame duck”…it has a name, people), which I would actually consider to be more along the lines of “women’s work” as well, as this is a very common series to see in pointe work (like in the female variation of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, or something a ballerina would often do in a coda en manège).  I think Van Manen is on to something here because I feel like his choreography has very few gender biases…and I like it!  The choreography isn’t what I would call innovative, but there are subtle hints of imagination that I find scrumptious…it’s like finding some wild berries on a forest path (yes, when I was little I used to eat such things without knowing or caring that it could potentially be poisonous.  I sort of know better now).

I suppose that’s all for Four Schumann Pieces, which I thought had a familiar charm along the lines of Les Sylphides, with the role of the poet and such.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say; I’m back boys and girls!  May February be a fruitful month for blogging!

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2 Responses to “For Shoeman Peaces”

  1. Hilary February 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Hang in there. I had the same blog-sloth for awhile but just the other day I realized I’d somehow managed to prewrite 3 of my next posts and have photos for the next 7 and now don’t know what to do with myself. IT’S A BAKING BONANZA OVER HERE. By which I mean to say, it’ll get better 🙂

    • youdancefunny February 2, 2011 at 12:19 am #

      Could you figure out how to duplicate the Andes mint cookies? They put Thin Mints to shame, and are unfortunately a seasonal thing apparently. My stock wears thin!

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