Be sure to read “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One” first!
For the past year or so I’ve been on a mission to hunt down some recording of Ashton’s Rhapsody, and sometimes being a locomotive pays off because I managed to find it! Only, I didn’t even know it was Rhapsody until close inspection of the choreography because the design of the production was completely different. In 1995 English artist Patrick Caulfield overhauled Rhapsody with new costumes and sets that were rather odd. In a way, I can see where he was coming from because Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini does have a certain quirk and mischief to it that wasn’t quite captured in Ashton’s pink and gold pastel-topia, but Caulfield seemed to have some kind of “art-deco-Alice-in-Wonderland” in mind, complete with playing card-like shapes on the costumes. I’m not fond of the designs or the color scheme (okay, I hate it), and the Paris Opera Ballet didn’t seem to be either. According to a review written by John Percival, POB wanted to commission a new design for Rhapsody when they staged it in 1996, but weren’t allowed to, and the Caulfield designs apparently lasted for one season (in which case, video of it is a treasure indeed!).
Successful or not, I like that The Royal Ballet has made a habit of injecting contemporary ideas into older works to see if it invokes new perspective on it. There are of course many instances of directors/choreographers staging their own versions of the warhorse classics, but they still revolve around a certain set of standards that make drastic changes rare, and significant makeovers for abstract ballets even more scarce. Many symphonic ballets don’t require highly specific costumes so colors, beadwork, ornamentation etc. will vary from company to company, but what Caulfield did to Rhapsody is pretty extreme. While alterations may be questionable, it’s still refreshing to see works being performed in new ways, and there’s bound to be audience members who may enjoy something more as a result. There are of course times when sets and costumes are far too crucial to a work to, but experimentation has to be just as important as authenticity. Oddly enough, Rhapsody has since gone under another transformation; in 2005 Jessica Curtis washed the work in a golden sunset, and her simpler vision remains the current production of The Royal Ballet. I can’t comment on it since I’ve only seen photos of Curtis’s designs, but I wonder if the Caulfield designs were perhaps so controversial there was a conscious effort to go with something rather neutral. Still, sometimes it’s a better decision to dress the dancers in something that doesn’t draw attention away from the choreography.
Edited to Add (4/30/12) Miyako Yoshida and Yohei Sasaki perform the pas de deux, in the costumes by Jessica Curtis:
Ah, the choreography! It’s definitely some of Ashton’s most wicked work, and despite the plethora of bravura steps, it’s actually the quick changes of direction that are likely the trickiest aspect of Rhapsody. Though it’s hard to imagine anything being tricky for Baryshnikov (considering how easy he made everything look), it’s still quite a test for the primer danseur, almost as if to goad one into mastering it. I actually find Rhapsody rather funny and charming in a cheeky sort of way, as the choreography seems to play with the audience too. There’s a section where six male dancers line up in a row and one by one alternate between double tours and entrechat sixes, and when the last dancer finishes and the sequence starts over again, dancers who did double tours switch to entrechats and vice versa—it’s the kind of understated comedy that makes you smirk just a little bit. It’s so damn clever and I absolutely love it, and there are many such moments all throughout Rhapsody (especially just before the end, where all I can say is that fourth position has never made me laugh out loud before). I invite you to see for yourself:
Rhapsody (designs by Patrick Caulfield) Part 1 of 2:
Rhapsody Part 2 of 2:
According to the user who posted the videos above (and many thanks to you, friend!) Carole Arvo and José Martinez danced the principal roles. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet comprise the rest of the chamber ensemble, and while all performers have impeccable technique, Martinez is flawless—literally, perfect. I can imagine a performance from other dancers that are perhaps more sly and witty, but elegance tends to prevail in Paris and Martinez is a pleasure to watch in this one. Arvo is also a beautiful dancer with a cool demeanor, though having watched the central pas de deux with Lesley Collier/Baryshnikov, I missed many of the skyward glances Collier did, as Arvo’s upper body presentation was mostly focused forward towards the audience. Ultimately, it’s a fine and beautiful performance, hindered by the costumes and sets perhaps, with my only criticism being that when the ‘Virtuoso’ makes his second entrance (at about 5:30 in the first video), I think the tempo is too slow. Given, I was notorious for being a bit of a speed demon as a musician, but that’s a section of the music that needs to have a little fury, and not fall victim to the tendency in ballet to slow music down to allow for bigger jumps. Martinez was even ahead of the accent just a little bit on the sissonnes in the manège, so I think they could have pushed the tempo to something musically appropriate.
In the end, I’m just plain happy that I’ve finally gotten to watch Rhapsody! Even as a rather humorous ballet, there’s still an austerity to it that sates that speck of darkness on my soul. I think it’s safe to say that Ashton’s Rhapsody is probably the definitive Rachmaninoff ballet for the time being, having enjoyed its fair share of performances over the past three decades, though perhaps not enough outside of Covent Garden (I don’t know if Paris Opera has revived it in recent years, and the only other company I could find that has it in their repertory is K-Ballet of Tokyo). Besides selfishly wanting a more feasible opportunity to see Rhapsody live, on a serious note I do think it would do well in the repertory of ABT and/or Corella Ballet. Angel Corella has often been compared to Baryshnikov, and I can imagine him performing the role exceptionally well. We know he has the technical brilliance, and he really has the personality for it, and I don’t mean this to be presumptuous, what a treat it would be if Baryshnikov could coach him in the role!
While the future of Rhapsody appears steady, to bring this series of posts full circle back to the idea of ballet and Rachmaninoff in general, it’s worth noting that there are of course choreographers who are trying. It’s funny that Ashton’s first choreography to Rachmaninoff appeared in a film because it just so happens that another English choreographer has followed suit—surely, you can picture in your head Jonathan Reeves’s ballet to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor’ in everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, Center Stage? Well, the real choreographer behind that was Christopher Wheeldon, who has also created a piece entitled Rhapsody Fantaisie, to selections by Rachmaninoff. However, the bread and butter may be revealed this spring when two hot ticket choreographers will debut world premiere works to Rachmaninoff, one being none other than Alexei Ratmansky, who is probably the most well known (and busiest!) ballet choreographer in the world right now, and the other is Liam Scarlett, who is regarded as the most promising up and coming talent. Ratmansky is setting his work on Miami City Ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece intended to be a ballet which initially never happened because Fokine died amidst collaborative efforts between the two to make it happen and although Ratmansky isn’t the first to do a Symphonic Dances (Peter Martins’s ballet to the music remains current in the New York City Ballet repertory), he is the man with the “golden touch” so this could be big. Scarlett’s untitled work will debut a month later on The Royal Ballet, and while information about it is currently being kept under wraps, considering the success of his Asphodel Meadows, this could be huge too. Let’s hope they join the ranks of Rhapsody and help to establish a more prominent place for Rachmaninoff in the world of ballet!