PNB’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’–what you should also know…

18 Apr

So…moving apartments, a staph infection, and twelve days of work with no day off later, I am back from the dead! Not gonna lie—I think I may have been on the verge of an emotional or physical breakdown at some point so I’m really glad that to be in one piece right now. Anyway, let’s travel back in time two weeks and you may recall (if you’ve been following my updates on Twitter/Facebook) that I attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’ lecture-demonstration on my birthday which was far and away one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Gary Tucker, the Media Relations Manager over at PNB didn’t plan on having any press coverage for the event and I had actually intended to go anyway, but he’s always been generous with SeattleDances and provided some tickets in exchange for an article (pretty sure he didn’t even know it was my birthday—he’s just awesome with getting us tickets!). I was more than happy to jump on the opportunity, and it was nice to have a chance to write something for SeattleDances that wasn’t necessarily a review. I tried to approach it more from a historical perspective with the hope of educating readers a little because it was, by far, one of the most interesting presentations of its kind and in a perfect world, anyone who read my article would be more compelled to attend these events in the future.

What was it like, you ask? Well dear friend, you should probably read my SeattleDances article before proceeding further! Now, assuming that you have, let me fill in the details. It has to be said that it’s so fascinating to listen to Francia Russell’s stories about Balanchine, because unlike his muses, Russell seems to have achieved colleague status with him. When she danced for New York City Ballet he used her as his guinea pig, often trying choreography on her, how he was relentless in demanding more, and how as one of his dancers you simply couldn’t refuse him. She even went so far to take Robert Joffrey’s class and then booking it to the School of American Ballet for company class with Balanchine. As if that wasn’t dedication enough she even mentioned how he even taught a three hour class on occasion—THREE HOURS. As exhausting as the mere thought of that is, she did say that there’s a certain gratification that comes with having given something your all (or perhaps, even just surviving such an ordeal). Still, the desire for a life outside of ballet was too great and she retired from dancing fairly early, though Balanchine often tried to lure her back by using her favorite roles in Apollo as bait. She did go back—though not to dance—but rather, to catch the eye of a certain fellow dancer named Kent Stowell (long story short, they eventually married).

Balanchine certainly mentored Russell from then on, sitting right in front of her as she began her career as an educator of ballet, “sniffing” while she taught and lecturing her afterwards about everything she did wrong. It wasn’t all overbearing though and for about a year they were in close quarters, and she recalled him being on the phone once with composer Morton Gould, discussing some things regarding a ballet about birds (unfortunately I can’t remember the specific ballet, but it’s likely that this was The Birds of America, set to Gould’s Audubon. It was intended to be a three-act story ballet involving prominent figures in American history and narrating westward expansion. Lincoln Kirstein wrote the scenario and Balanchine toyed with the project for decades, even while hospitalized before his death).  While speaking with Gould, Balanchine started doodling wings on the rehearsal schedule Russell was working on, in an elaborate rococo sort of design, a little sketch she treasures to this day. She was gracious enough to bring it in for the presentation and having seen it with my own eyes, it’s obviously an interesting insight into Balanchine’s mind, his eye for shapes, patterns, and aesthetics that are applicable to his work as a choreographer, but what is most lovely is how you could tell just from how she held that drawing in its matted frame, that it reminded her of the time they spent together. Balanchine was famous for gifting his favorite ballerinas with perfume, but this sketch is so incidental it’s sentimental value is unique.

I could go on—Russell did bring up “Gisellitis” and how Balanchine hated it more than anything, how despite her love for many Balanchine ballets Liebeslieder Walzer is the one she’d take with her to a deserted island, or even Peter Boal, visiting Balanchine in the hospital and asking him about the third movement of Western Symphony, to which Balanchine told him that the music was horrible and that it should never be seen again (Peter Martins did, however revive it)…but I should talk about the dancing that happened that night. I mentioned in my review the Melancholic solo from The Four Temperaments, how Benjamin Griffiths and Matthew Renko danced two different versions simultaneously (and this was after each of them danced it alone too!), and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in dance. I suppose this is easily achieved with video, but how often—if ever—do you get to see this kind of thing live, with one pianist providing the music? I wish they could have done more of that kind of visual comparison, but alas, they did not. There was another short excerpt from 4T’s, a couple of steps demonstrated from Apollo (a particular pirouette that apparently everyone hates and also a series of jetés that were changed to grand battements, because well, Suzanne Farrell didn’t like grand jetés), and two different versions of a duet in Agon (apparently Lesley Rausch was messing it up in rehearsal, but then Maria Chapman called it when she said she would be the one to make a mistake in performance…ah the curse of self-fulfilling prophecies!), but the real bread and butter (in addition to the Melancholic solos) was the male solo from Square Dance and the variations and coda from Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Griffiths was called upon again to dance the Square Dance solo, but before I elaborate on that, I have to quickly tell you they showed some footage of the original Square Dance that had hay bales and a caller—if ONLY I could remember some of the rhymes the caller came up with! They were absolutely hysterical. Anyway, Griffiths has a wonderful lyricism, a fantastic line (and he’s short so it’s amazing that he “dances tall”), and I enjoyed a lot of the subtleties he showed. To be honest, the guy really should be made a principal because he dances principal roles like this one, Oberon, Franz, Nutcracker prince (although I’m halfway convinced dancers will get together and fight over Nutcracker, like “You do it!” “No, you do it!” or maybe even use it as a wager in a game of poker), so fingers crossed that happens for him soon because he’s such an accomplished bravura dancer that he’s always called upon to do the hard stuff but doesn’t necessarily get the credit (or the paycheck!).

Now, the moment you’ve (okay I’ve) been waiting for—Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux!!! Have I not expressed my love for Tchai Pas in this blog no less than eighty-five million times? I’ve scoured the internet for videos, done as much amateur research as I can, dedicated posts to it and until this occasion, had never seen even a snippet live. Let me tell you, even in studio, without costumes and a full orchestra, it was everything I had hoped for. I’ve said before that Tchai Pas is like running down a hill and not being able to stop yourself, and quite often when I see it I feel the sensation of flight, and each movement reminds me of a different method of flying. The pas de deux floats and hovers like a cloud, the male variation soars and careens like a kite, the female variation flutters with the zip of a hummingbird, and the coda is a Peregrine falcon diving towards Earth at 322 km per hour. It was so gratifying and so exhilarating to watch, with Griffiths doing the male variation (seriously, three major solos—does that not scream principal dancer?), Rausch in the female variation, and Chapman/Renko in the coda. Griffiths was excellent, and Rausch also superb—I described her performance as having “minimal port de bras in the manner of Violette Verdy” and I’d like to elaborate on this. I’m actually planning yet another Tchai Pas post that discusses how it looks on dancers that come from different schools, but one of my pet peeves is actually how the port de bras, in my humble opinion, is rather overdone. My problem with excessive fluidity in the arms for this particular piece is that it draws attention away from the feet, which musically, is where the emphasis is. I’ll talk about this and more in detail another day, but I loved 98% of the way Rausch danced it, with my only criticism being something that Eric Taub elucidated for me, which is that a great many dancers won’t do a complete series of arabesque en voyagé into an assemblé before the diagonal of pirouettes. Given that Verdy herself can be seen coaching it this way in the documentary Violette et Mr. B., clearly this is something authorized by the Balanchine Trust.

I guess I’ll have to save the rest for that forthcoming Tchai Pas post (because this one is already too long) but one of my favorite parts of the coda, the fouetté series? Chapman didn’t do them a la Farrell, but she did do beautiful coupés that stayed en pointe before each plié, and I wanted to be like “Yeah! Get it girl!” but seeing as how I was one of probably three people under the age of thirty, it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. I didn’t get a chance in the Q&A to harass Russell about the intricacies of Tchai Pas as I wanted to (mostly out of courtesy towards everyone else there who would’ve been bored to death by such a thorough dissection), though I did ask her about the challenges of staging Balanchine ballets on dancers with vastly different training like the Russian and French schools, and she said she was often met with a lot of resistance. The first staging of Theme and Variations for the Kirov wasn’t pretty—dancers up and walked out of rehearsals. Can you imagine if she had tried to stage one of Balanchine’s more abstract works? It wasn’t until she sat the company down one day just to talk, educating them about who Balanchine was and why he wanted things the way he did, that rehearsals ran smoothly. It just goes to show that understanding a little about who an artist is really matters in interpreting their work, and probably not just as a dancer of it, but even for us as audience members as well.

Meanwhile, I will conclude this post with an update to my SeattleDances review, the tragic news that next season’s ‘All Tchaikovsky’ program has been officially axed since I wrote of it. Like last year’s robbery of Dances at a Gathering as a part of the never realized ‘All Robbins’ program, this year sees an untimely demise for Allegro Brillante and yes, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Oh cruel world, oh PNB! You take as easily as you give, stabbing me in the heart and twisting the knife. Still, I have so much to be thankful for and I feel blessed to have had the birthday that I did. The bitterness won’t last forever…after all, it has to come back into the rep at some point. I’ll be here.

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5 Responses to “PNB’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’–what you should also know…”

  1. avesraggiana April 18, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    I’ve been scouring youtube obsessively, looking to see if there are any ballerinas out there recorded performing the fouetté-coupé-coupé sequence as immortalized by Farrell in the movie, “The Turning Point”. Apparently, none of today’s crop of ballerinas from Russia or western Europe can quite manage it. They either tentatively attempt it and then abandon it altogether, or they substitute other, less fiendishly difficult fouetté sequences, denying us the brilliance and nonchalant daring that Farrell brought to that part.

    The European dancer who comes closest to doing the fouetté sequence å la Farrell is Evegnia Obratsova. The one who comes off looking the worst, Alina Somova. That girl can barely move, never mind dance.

    It’s reassuring to know that there are others in the world who live for the minutiae of “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux” as I do.

    • youdancefunny April 18, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      YES! My greatest hope is that somewhere, there exists a complete recording of the coda from when they filmed the movie, just lying around and waiting to be a part of the deleted scenes of a re-release on DVD. I’d love it if Suzanne’s variation were on it too–but I’d settle for the full coda!

      I think part of the problem is that the coupé is the wrong step altogether. Well, not wrong, but it’s not what Suzanne did. I looked it up, and the proper term for what she did appears to be an emboîté en tournant sur les pointes, which is both harder and more musical because it presents the foot forward instead of hiding it behind the calf. With the coupé the ballerina need only pick the foot up and set it back down, which isn’t as significant a shift of her center, and doesn’t move the sequence forward.

      Even with the coupé though, many dancers can’t seem to do the step on the music! Or worse, they don’t even try to stay on pointe with the second foot and go straight to flat. At least Maria Chapman can do that, and I loved her speed. There’s a fuzzy video of Xiomara Reyes as well that I liked for the same reason. I haven’t seen Obraztsova, but it’s a kind of a relief to know that there’s a Russian trained dancer who can do it too (though I often find their Tchai Pas unremarkable as a whole).

      Ashley Bouder is by all accounts, devastatingly sharp in it, though it doesn’t seem that the sequence is even taught a la Farrel at NYCB. I’d be curious to know how it is taught then, by Suzanne herself for the dancers in her company!

      • avesraggiana April 19, 2012 at 5:23 am #

        “Emboité… sur les pointes” is a more correct term, for sure. Bringing that second foot forward is what adds sparkle and speed.
        Another part that “non-Farrell” dancers often flub, especially the European ones, is the coda’s run-run-run-jump to a fishdive that they repeat right and left just before they run off to the music at the very end. The catch into the danseur’s arms looks too safe, too planned, unlike the way Peter Martins would catch Suzanne Farrell as she hurled herself to the ground, and grab her body just before she broke her neck.
        Incidentally, the Obratsova video I saw made me think that the way she danced it would have been the way Verdy would have performed it in her day – the expressive, witty feet, the unerring musicality.

        I remember Francia Russell’s comments many years ago in a book I read, regarding her first visit to Russia to stage “Theme and Variations”. She wrote that she walked into a room filled with people, some of whom didn’t even look like dancers! They were probably the “pensioners”, dancers who were for all intents and purposes, retired, but still kept on the payroll. Apparently that happened a lot in the old USSR. I also remember her talking about the incredible resistance she encountered.

        Perhaps what surprises me more than anything els is that they gave the premier evening performance to Altynai Asylmuratova, an extremely beautiful and musical dancer who no one ever associated with speedy footwork and unshakeable bravura technique. Could she really have approximated those tricky Balanchine passages and done them justice? I wish, I wonder, if there’s a video recording lying around somewhere.

      • youdancefunny April 19, 2012 at 8:36 am #

        We are Tchai Pas twins. I wrote a whole post about the evolution of Tchai Pas, how Balanchine perfected it on Farrell/Martins and these two moments were my focus!

        What I love about the Farrell/Martins fish dive is the clean line, and the certain “swing” it has, again emphasizing the music and making it look so thrilling and dangerous. You’re so right about the catch that looks much too safe (and in my opinion, often has a “splat” effect)–have you seen the video of Noëlla Pontois and Vladimir Derevianko? Their fish dives are not as effortless, but surprisingly they sort of had the right idea. Also, if you haven’t seen Xiomara Reyes, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll forward a special link to you! She quite literally flies into it and Angel Corella is such a great partner that he can cushion the catch by swinging her to the floor like Martins (though she has her leg in retiré and not fifth). It speaks volumes about how great Corella is as a partner because I’ve seen another video (which I can also send for comparison) where he does the same with a different ballerina.

      • avesraggiana April 21, 2012 at 6:21 am #

        Twins we are indeed! I hadn’t thought that anyone else on the planet would have obsessed about the correct execution of the same two passages in the Tchaikovsky PDD that you and I have been going on about! What a pleasant surprise!

        Part of that “swinging” effect, a word that you chose so perfectly, comes I believe, from having the legs straight and in fifth, like a sous-sus position. I keep seeing in my mind’s eye, Suzanne Farrell’s head swinging downward to the ground like a pendulum.

        I have to tell you, I am happily surprised that Suzanne Farrell’s ballet company has survived as long as it has. I’ve never seen them perform and I don’t know if they’ve ever toured the west coast. What I do sense is a ballet company of that size is more like a “chamber ballet company” and by implication, limited in its resources and audience appeal. Both those limits might make a national tour unwarranted for a company like Suzanne Farrell’s. I too wonder whether Farrell has taught the Tchaikovsky PDD to anyone within or outside her company, and whether she would insist on the fouetté-emboité sequence, such a signature piece of choreography.

        Are you saying that even NYCB’s dancers don’t even do the ballerina’s coda that way anymore? I’m shocked and crushed!

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