Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One

28 Jan

I’m not happy with the way 2011 ended, and am determined to improve things for 2012, and what better way to kick off a reinvigorated stance than with a couple of posts dedicated to my beloved hero, Sir Frederick Ashton? For many a moon, a video of Sir Fred’s Rhapsody has been on my wish list, as it combines a choreographer I adore with a composer I equally admire, Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s something about Rachmaninoff’s melodies—which are some of the boldest and most romantic you’ll ever hear—that ignites within me what I believe to be something akin to a “dark side.” Those that have met me know I’m not exactly a menacing creature, but we all have different facets of ourselves and somehow Rachmaninoff’s music unleashes this ominous, rather austere presence in my soul that I can’t access on command. Before you get the wrong idea I don’t mean dark as in brooding and evil (or worse, emo)—what I’m talking about I suppose is best described as impassioned and just a little murky. Call me crazy (assuming you don’t already), but it’s emotionally quite satisfying to feel something like that, especially when it doesn’t come to me naturally.

Unsurprisingly, Rachmaninoff has inspired many choreographers, though curiously absent is a notable work from one Mr. Balanchine. You’d think of all people, Balanchine would love the whirling abyss of intensity that is a Rachmaninoff concerto, but there’s quite a story behind his refusal to choreograph to anything of his. Alexandra Danilova recounts a story of her and Balanchine seeing Rachmaninoff perform in Vienna (she never gives a specific date, though it was before Balanchine’s defection, so we’ll say pre-1924) and Balanchine was so inspired he and Danilova went to Rachmaninoff’s dressing room, where Balanchine asked to stage a ballet to his music. Rachmaninoff was so indignant over the idea he threw them out. Upon reading this, I like to recall one of my favorite quotes about Rachmaninoff, ironically, by a composer who collaborated with Balanchine on many occasions:

“Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and–a-half-foot-tall scowl.”

-Igor Stravinsky

Legend has it, from that moment on, an embittered Balanchine did his fair share of scowling, and any time Rachmaninoff’s name was mentioned, he would respond with “lousy music.” Regardless, Balanchine did in fact choreograph a handful of small works to Rachmaninoff, though some of them before he left the Soviet Union, one just after, and his last was actually a re-choreographed work by Léonide Massine. The proverbial ending to this story is that none of the works survived.

Still, what’s funny is that Rachmaninoff would eventually ask Michel Fokine in the late 1930’s to make a ballet to one of his compositions! The reason for Rachmaninoff’s change of heart is anyone’s guess, but the music Fokine used was in fact Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simply entitled Paganini, Fokine created the work for de Basil’s Ballet Russes and Rachmaninoff even had a hand in co-writing the libretto! (taken from australiadancing.org):

The libretto evoked the legend surrounding the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose playing was so extraordinary that he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for perfection in art.

The ballet is in three scenes. In the first the gaunt figure of Paganini performs on stage. As he plays, the allegorical figures of Guile, Scandal, Gossip and Envy weave through the audience and an evil spirit seems to guide his hand. Scene two is set in a Florentine landscape where a young girl is bewitched by Paganini’s playing and dances as though possessed. In scene three Paganini is tormented by enemies who appear in his likeness. At the conclusion a Divine Genius guides his spirit to heaven and his talent is vindicated at last. A significant component of the choreography is mime, particularly in the role of Paganini, while the roles of Guile, The Florentine Beauty and The Divine Genius execute highly technical episodes of pure dance.

Sounds pretty interesting and surely would have been lost had husband and wife dancer duo Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin not staged it for Tulsa Ballet in 1986. Though I suppose it remains in Tulsa Ballet’s repertory, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been performed since 1990, so one can only hope it will be revived again—who would’ve thought that such a gem of ballet history would be hidden in Oklahoma! It’s worth noting that a similar libretto would also be used by a production staged by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1960, which “stressed the diabolical aspects of Paganini’s art and the consolation he derived from a muse and a beloved.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond and unafraid of Rachmaninoff (though he probably never met him), Ashton took on the task of choreographing to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, although his first venture with that music was not Rhapsody, but a segment from the 1953 film The Story of Three Loves, in a scene featuring James Mason and Moira Shearer (this was of course, long after Rachmaninoff’s death so whether he had an opinion on it is a matter for the afterlife). Ashton’s choreography for the film is completely different from the ballet that would come to be almost thirty years later, though there are some things distinctly Ashtonian (I invite you to see for yourself, take a hop back in time and read my post on Moira Shearer, which has a video link). Now, at last, we fast forward to 1980 and Ashton choreographs Rhapsody, in honor of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. In addition to being a gift to the Queen, Rhapsody was also a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Apparently, Baryshnikov’s condition for guesting with the Royal Ballet was that Ashton create a ballet on him, as he intended for it to be an opportunity to learn the English style of dancing. However, the end product could go down in history as one of the few times Baryshnikov didn’t get exactly what he wanted, because Ashton wanted him to dance a la Russe—big, bold, and virtuosic.

Ashton paired Lesley Collier with Baryshnikov to originate the principal roles, and on August 4th, 1980, Rhapsody debuted at Covent Garden, with the Royal Family in attendance. Ashton designed the sets, William Chappell the costumes, and something that almost never happens did—part of the inaugural performance was captured on film!

Rhapsody pas de deux, with Lesley Collier and Mikhail Baryshnikov:

 

There’s no narrative to this ballet, though it’s suggested that the role created for Baryshnikov has some intention of playing the virtuoso like Paganini. Mostly the ballet has a sort of regal atmosphere and coincidentally, it’s in the same vein to what Balanchine often did, which was pure neoclassical ballet to a symphonic score (Tchaikovsky Suite no.3, Symphony in C, Ballet Imperial…you get the idea). I get chills watching this pas because it’s so dreamy, and Ashton certainly loved those lifts where the danseuse hovers just off the floor—and the part where she leaps into his arms in an arabesque and he spins around? Just makes the heart sing. Still, it’s hard to ascertain the dramatic impact of the pas de deux, without placing it in a larger context of the entire ballet. Phooey.

This post is way too long and has been broken into two parts. Read Part Two Here! 

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One Response to “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One”

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  1. Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part Two « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - February 1, 2012

    […] Categories ballet ← Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One […]

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