PNB’s ‘Love Stories’…not feeling the love

29 Nov

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve blogged. It’s embarrassing but this is what working two minimum wage jobs gets you (stay in school, kids!). Still, at the beginning of November I got to review PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ and about once a year I get the royal treatment from them with press tickets, complementary truffles, and wine (or in my case, San Pellegrino Aranciata—the last thing I need to be doing is falling asleep mid-performance!). Chocolates aside, I love having the opportunity to do this because I rarely get to sit at orchestra level, and with having my season tickets up in the second balcony, I get to catch a second performance and see the same ballet from vastly differing locations. This was most apparent in Le Baiser de la Fée, but before I get into the details you’re pretty much going to have to read the aforementioned semi-legitimate review over at SeattleDances because I’m not one to rehash something I’ve already written and it’s my blatant way of directing some more traffic to that site.

Under the assumption that you have now read it (because, why wouldn’t you?), I shall elaborate on some of my thoughts. First and foremost, I hope I made it clear that the programming was unimaginative, even though the dancers were amazing. There were at least two embittered audience members who knew that ‘Love Stories’ replaced the ‘All Robbins’ program that was supposed to feature Dances at a Gathering. Sitting a few rows behind Peter Boal, there may have also been plans for one to trip him as he came down the aisle, and the accomplice to pin him to the floor until our their demands were met, but in the interest of avoiding assault charges, logic prevailed. Regardless, ‘Love Stories’ definitely rubbed some sea salt into the wounds because it simply lacked continuity. A mixed bill of shorter ballets is great because there’s always “something for everyone” and it’s exciting to decide what appeals to you or not, or performing works all by one choreographer is interesting too because it offers many facets of one artist’s perspective of the world. However, “love” is much too broad a topic and even a little misleading—Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is not about love, and neither is the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odile. Even Le Baiser de la Fée was pushing it, since it didn’t really have a narrative. Baiser could have easily been interpreted as affection between two youths, children almost, and at that age, is it really love? I mean, the title of the program isn’t ‘Narcissism, Deception, Love Stories, and One Potential.’

I hate to say this because I love and respect PNB so much but this is the first time after moving to Seattle that I’ve been really disappointed with a program. Besides the fact that the dancers were totally hosed by not getting to develop roles completely, eavesdropping on conversations during the matinee revealed my worst fears to be true. Many didn’t “get” Faun and while art is of course subjective, there are times when the artist’s intent is important and Faun isn’t entirely abstract. However, as a part of ‘Love Stories,’ semantics played a role in herding the audience into preconceived notions—there were those who did in fact find Faun beautiful (and it is), but called it “utterly romantic.” My stomach really turned though even before the show began when I overheard someone say that ‘Love Stories’ extracted “just the best parts” of each ballet. I could have screamed in horror—what, really is the best part of Swan Lake? It’s impossible to answer that and it’s the same for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. I don’t even like the story and even I know that there are several pivotal moments throughout and my friend and I were both left wanting to see more after opening night. As for Sleeping Beauty…well, I’m not sure there’s a best part of that ballet because it’s so heinously long and chock full of divertissements, but there are definitely parts that are significantly more pleasing to watch than the Puss in Boots variation that beats you over the head with pas de chat. Not to mention, I was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of PNB’s Sleeping Beauty and honestly, it does look like a beautiful production.

Perhaps worst of all is that inevitably, I bought into the idea of ‘Love Stories’ too because I was really excited to see Carrie Imler dance Odile. Of course, I would much rather seen her perform the whole ballet, but in a nutshell, Carrie Imler is a goddess who is ruminative, powerful, and has impeccable technique. She’s no banana-footed string bean and I like to think of her as a throwback to when ballet dancers were admired for a healthy balance of purity in technique and performance quality. Reading up on ballet history might surprise some by revealing how difficult some of the exercises were during certain eras, and even professional dancers today wouldn’t be able to do certain steps as they were described. If you recall PNB’s Works and Process presentation on Giselle, you may remember Peter Boal mentioning that Imler can do anything and a certain passage in the peasant pas de deux that was incredibly tricky and required superhuman fast feet, was one she made look completely natural. Her body awareness is extraordinary and she’s always on top of her leg and can literally stop on a dime, plus she has one hell of a lofty jump, and effortless bravura steps. When it came time for the ubiquitous fouettés, she wove doubles and triples tightly into the music and looked like she could have done even more had she chosen to. It saddens and upsets me that the inclusion of the Black Swan pas de deux cuts her off at the knees, never revealing to anyone the contrast between her Odette and Odile.

Imler in Peasant Pas de Deux (4:57, note how the original choreography in the first phrase emphasizes the crossing of the foot on the downbeat—I love that!)

Some footage of Imler in rehearsal for ‘Love Stories’ at 0:14 and 1:00 (take special note of how she finishes that manège, pirouetting on one leg and casually changing to the other on pointe like it’s nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s freakishly harder than it looks).

One of my other favorite dancers in the company, Jerome Tisserand shined in the Bluebird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty, which he did for both performances I attended, as well as Faun. Since ‘Love Stories,’ Tisserand has been promoted to soloist, which I’ve been telling people since last year and it’s funny to me that audience members were talking about him as if he were up and coming when he’s really been that good all along. For me, the buzz was something of a bittersweet reminder that the audience was eating up exactly what they were being fed, that casting Tisserand in principal roles meant he was worthy of the promotion when he’s been long overdue based on his talent alone. Of course there are others in the audience who have noticed him as I have (and probably since he first arrived!) but it remains disheartening how passive some of the audience was in accepting what was given, never thinking to question any of it. In this instance, the programming didn’t take any risks, and a great deal of the audience chose not to think for themselves.

A snippet of Tisserand in Bluebird (begins at 1:25, note the ease and airiness of his arms at 1:57 for the brisé volé! In the video he partners Margaret Mullin, who I didn’t get to see in this, though I like her a lot)

Dark times I suppose and it’s something that weighs heavily on a lot of arts organizations in the current economic climate especially. Tamara Rojo was recently a part of a panel discussing the future of dance in the UK, though she spoke of ballet in America briefly and so accurately describes what the probable situation is and I feel it’s relevant to share her wisdom here:

Corporations and private funders don’t want to take risks. They want to take their friends to a very safe show that ends well, is not going to offend anybody, and is a great celebration of their economic success…in America, it has translated, in my opinion to the death of any artistic vision. There is no risk taking in the great ballet companies, there’s nothing new being created, it’s constantly Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet—and I love those ballets—I do them all the time myself, but unless we invest in new unknowns, there will be no future Romeo and Juliets, there will be no future Swan Lakes, there will be no future for the arts.

Those pieces of work survive for good reason and the audience goes to see them for very good reasons. However, it is my personal opinion that in an organization that has that [funding] cushion, you ought to take risks but the responsibility lies entirely on the artistic directors. It is not in the funding bodies, it is not for them to tell us how to spend that money and it’s very good that there’s an ‘arm’s length’ policy [for the Royal Ballet] where they don’t tell us how to spend that money so if we want to look at why these companies are not putting on more creative programs, it is actually a personal decision by an artistic director and that is the person that has to answer for the programming being seen.

Meanwhile, can I just point out that when Tamara said that there would be no future great classics, Sleeping Beauty was not mentioned again? Intentional—I’m sure of it!

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2 Responses to “PNB’s ‘Love Stories’…not feeling the love”

  1. ballettothepeople November 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    Tamara Rojo is as smart as she is talented: she was a strong contender for the artistic directorship of the Royal until the powers-that-be (apparently still reeling from the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in the 16th century) settled on a safe pair of hands in home-grown Kevin O’Hare.

    It’s a pity that the Royal, in attempting to take the kind of risks that Rojo insists are so important to the future of the world’s great companies, has invested so heavily in Wayne McGregor whose tortured choreography leaves us begging for more Petipa-Ashton-MacMillan-Tudor-Balanchine. While there are flashes of brilliance in his work, a little goes a long, long way. With every twisted limb he telegraphs the same message: “just because these dancers are classically trained doesn’t mean they can’t be hip.”

    Surely Tamara will run a company one day, once she hangs up her pointe shoes, and I’m willing to bet she is going to be a game-changer.

    • youdancefunny November 30, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

      I completely agree with you on Tamara as director and McGregor–I find his work to be almost painful looking, and kind of circusy, even if some of his ideas are quite interesting (I remember liking Infra). McGregor’s work demands a flexibility that’s extreme even for ballet dancers and it just kills any opportunity to relate to it for me.

      I think another way for ballet companies to take risks is not necessarily to seek out “new movement” but to take risks in the stories they produce. Tamara hinted at this, though the message may have been lost a little when she also brought up how Wheeldon and Ratmansky are classically oriented. I would love to see more original story ballets that reflect issues in society, even if the stories themselves are period pieces (MacMillan certainly understood this). Right now it seems like Ratmansky mostly does revived ballets and his own versions of commonly performed works, and Wheeldon has Alice, which was kind of a “what fairy tale hasn’t been done yet?” situation

      Although, another way to take a risk would be in the score. I wouldn’t call Ashton the riskiest choreographer, but Ondine is quite possibly the most controversial narrative ballet score and it’s utterly brilliant!

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