Tag Archives: agnes letestu

Jerome Robbins’s In the Night

10 May

As I familiarize myself with new surroundings I find myself overwhelmed with frustration in the unfamiliar and desperately seeking comfort in the uncomplicated.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Seattle…life on the West Coast suits me well and I’m enjoying public transportation, interesting shops and even bewildering the residents of Queen Anne with my élan for grocery shopping.  However, I’m reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to a new environment, like when I first arrived and forgot that I live on a hill now.  It was only after I had purchased a bag of potatoes and a bag of clementines (both of which were buy one get one free, making that four bags total plus the flour and sugar I had purchased as well) that I remembered such an influential detail.  Or how about on Tchaikovsky’s birthday when I drove around blasting the music from the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux about eighty-five million times in a row to celebrate my favorite musical score of his.  I started the day out as a badass thinking “Tchaik it out, bitches!” but the day progressed into agitation when on my way to IKEA, I somehow rendered myself incapable of finding the exit from the highway and ended up circling the shopping center like a vulture keen on carrion.  Except in my case, there is an element of frenzy that is better described as a hummingbird trying to sip from a flower in a hurricane.  Easy, boy.

The point is (or was, at some point in time) that regardless of how much I love Seattle, I’m still lacking in the familiarity and comfort that only comes with time…like chocolate milk and knowing-how-to-get-to-stores comfort.  It just so happened that a few days prior, I had borrowed some items from the glorious (and gnome obsessed) Seattle Public Library and among the borrowed media was the A-MAZING documentary Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About.  Of course I had seen it when it aired on PBS, but when I found it in the library catalog, like any normal person I thought “absolutely!”  My favorite part of the documentary is of course the bits on Dances at a Gathering (that and the quote “There were only two things Lenny Bernstein feared—God and Jerome Robbins” which I misquoted in a blog entry long ago as Stephen Sondheim when it was in fact Arthur Laurent.  My apologies!).  Robbins had a deep love for Chopin’s music and that love was so pure that the choreography would of course match the integrity of the melodies.  So when Chopin waltzes and etudes induce a sense of comfort to the soul, so too will Robbins’s vision for them (and he was quite the tortured soul, so you know this Chopin stuff works).  Personally, I like to see choreographers have an enduring relationship with one composer’s music…like Balanchine/Stravinsky (or Tchaikovsky even) or Robbins/Chopin.

Rekindling my interest in Dances at a Gathering (I’m ready when you are, PNB), I wondered if my favorite Chopin Nocturne (Op.9, No.2 in E-flat major) was included in the selections for the score.  It isn’t.  However, it is included in another and perhaps slightly lesser known Robbins ballet to Chopin, In The Night.  I’m kind of ashamed to not have known of the existence of this ballet beforehand…but maybe someone else out there won’t know either and if by chance they have the tendency to know more ballets than I do, we can all mock them together.  Like Dances at a Gathering, In the Night has no narrative, but the latter is laden with a more defined theme beyond human emotions and relationships, narrowing the scope to look at the female psyche and relationships with men.  It’s much shorter than Dances at a Gathering, featuring four nocturnes, ending with the loveliest of them all, Op.9, No.2 in E-flat major.

There’s not much I can say about In the Night, because I think it’s relatively self-explanatory.  The cast features three couples with their own pas de deux to a nocturne, highlighting the women (as pas de deux most often do).  The video clips I’m going to post features dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet, with Clairemarie Osta/Benjamin Pech, Agnès Letestu/Stéphane Bullion, and Delphine Moussin/Nicolas le Riche.

The first pas de deux has dancers in dreamy periwinkle costumes, featuring movement that almost looks like it’s flowing in slow motion—it’s snail paced, even for an adagio.  It’s romantic without being overly intimate (they don’t even fully embrace until well into two-thirds of the dance) but it has its moments of tenderness, moments apart and even a moment of “fiery passion.”  It’s this subtle roller coaster ride that makes the pas de deux so real, even to someone who may have never seen a Jerome Robbins ballet or even any ballet for that matter.  It’s no stretch of the imagination to see it as an actual relationship because it comes as naturally as breathing does.  In fact the very end of this first pas de deux features a lift where the male dancer takes a little spin while the woman pulls in and then extends her leg and the effect is literally like inhaling and exhaling.  This is easily my favorite pas de deux of the three for its sheer reflexive nature.  Not to mention there’s this wonderful segment towards the end where both the man and woman bourée backwards (for the term unsavvy, that’s when a dancer rises onto relevé or pointe, taking microscopic steps and in this case, scuttle backwards.  The effect is…floatacious).  Not only is it captivating as they shrink away, but because this is a step men generally don’t do, this serves as proof that men should still learn and practice it.  Your calves will thank you later!

I.  Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, Op.27, No.1 (Osta/Pech)

In contrast to the freedom and romanticism of the first pas de deux, the second is stoic, calculated and in my opinion a little abrasive (relationships like that always make me uncomfortable).  It’s so stark that I can’t imagine how people can be happy like that and juxtaposed against the free-spiritedness of the first pas de deux it seems downright cruel…but it’s a relationship nonetheless and one that seems to endure.  I suppose some people want what they would consider regality and class but the restrictiveness makes me die a little on the inside.  There is one moment, where coming down from a lift you see the woman’s foot quiver in anticipation and THAT friends, is the extent of any emotional outburst, subdued as it is.  She is very much in love, but she is a woman that has to hide her desire in this rather cold courtship.

II. Nocturne in F-Minor, Op.55, No.1 (Letestu/Bullion)

The third pas de deux is the epitome of the “love-hate” relationship.  It’s argumentative, volatile and certifiably nuts.  She’s mad at him, she loves him, she leaves him, she takes him back…it’s a hot mess (an elegantly choreographed hot mess) and I constantly wanted to yank her bodice up.  You can see in the way he pulls her around on the stage that this is far from a healthy relationship and yet I think we can all say we know a girl like this.  Or you’ve seen enough episodes of Sex and the City to equate her to Carrie Bradshaw (you remember the obviously Sylphide inspired dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the 2004 Tonys…that bodice needed to be yanked up too).  At any rate I have to say that I was very drawn to Delphine Moussin in this performance, because of the way she used her hands.  Ballet teachers are always saying “energy through the fingertips” and with precision, Moussin shows us why.

III. Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.55, No.2 (Moussin/le Riche)

The finale has all three couples and emphasizes that while women have individual wants and needs in their relationships, these emotions all come from the same place.  There is a moment when the three couples gather in the center of the stage, breaking off into new pairs as if in a social setting but interestingly enough the only male/female pair is periwinkle woman with angry man from movement III, and their inability to connect prompts a quick return to their original loves.  The style of the choreography seemed to coincide with that of the first pas de deux, which leads me to believe Robbins saw that relationship as the one with the most potential for longevity, which is further supported by the fact that as they exit the stage, periwinkle couple exit stage right while the other two stage left, which sets them apart.  This may be excessive postulating on my part, but if we weren’t allowed to derive meaning from it, it wouldn’t be dance.

IV. Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 (entire cast)

So enjoy this beautiful, nerve calming dance and more importantly, enjoy that feeling of unbridled introspection…not every dance offers that luxury.

La Danse? La Revue

7 Feb

So I finally got to watch the highly anticipated documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse, directed by Frederick Wisemen.  I have to say it wasn’t quite what I expected (for one thing, it is LONG…I knew going in how many minutes it was, but it felt twice as long) and there were some things I found disappointing.  That’s not to say it didn’t have its share of charming moments too and inevitably any accurate portrayal of life is going to have both “cookies and celery” as I like to say…things you like and things you don’t (I challenge you to find me someone who loves raw celery…no dip, no peanut butter or what have you…just plain celery with nothing added.  Such a quest is fated to failure in my opinion.).

One of the issues I had with the documentary was the target audience.  To me, a typical documentary audience has an interest in the topic but a successful filmmaker will take care to render that topic into something both the knowledgeable and the casually interested can understand.  Easier said than done…but I have a hard time believing someone completely new to ballet would be able to follow the film easily.  Names were never given unless someone in the film called someone by name and so unless you’re already familiar with the faces of the Paris Opera Ballet you’re going to get lost.  Furthermore, names of the dances they showed were also not given, so you don’t know who choreographed what or even which piece was what.  I recognized Wayne McGregor, I deduced one piece was Mats Ek’s because there was screaming in it and I was fairly familiar with Paquita.  Meanwhile, I totally didn’t know that Casse-Noisette is French for Nutcracker so I was totally confused because the music was sounding familiar but the costumes were different, and it was further exacerbated by the fact that during rehearsals for the Prince’s variation in The Nutcracker, for some odd reason I kept hearing Prince Florimund’s variation from Sleeping Beauty.  Until someone told me afterward what Casse-Noisette meant, it really was a hot mess in my head.  Damn you Tchaikovsky!

I was not perturbed at all by the lack of commentary or narrative, because it seemed that the goal of the documentary was to film and let be.  There were some questionable additions, like filming workers vacuuming the theater or spackling a hole in the ceiling, but while unimportant to the ballet itself I felt those moments gave a sense of reality to the film; as if you were touring the STUNNING Palais Garnier (of which has a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall that was mentioned in several reviews of La Danse, and I wanted to see it because I saw a Chagall exhibit once in Korea, and of course they showed the ceiling once, for about half a second) and happened to pass such workers along the way.  There were all kinds of interesting shots, like the subterranean labyrinth underneath the building (which had a…pond?  Seriously, it looked like a sewer but there were plants and fish swimming in it.) and apparently someone has a hobby of keeping bees and harvesting honey on top of the building as well.  The documentary as a whole sort of followed a formula where it was mostly rehearsal footage, then some performance footage and each clip of performance footage was followed by a shot of Paris.  Actually I’m pretty sure several people in the audience fell asleep during the first segment of the piece of Médée, and it was a bright shot of outdoor Paris that woke them up.  Somehow I felt that this formula was a little detrimental to the film though, because rather than emphasize the sense of renewal that follows a performance, it made it seem more mundane.  I felt the goal was to clue the audience into the process, but unfortunately the film made the process itself seem less interesting.

What I did love was some of the footage they captured in the costumes shop.  Even though I worked on costumes crews in theatre (high school, nothing professional) to actually see them hand bead tutus and glue individual rhinestones with the same attention to detail and diligence that dancers use in their approach to their technique was really something.  It was somewhat brief, but enough to give you some (but totally inadequate) appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes in to costuming.  I’m surprised they didn’t shoot the fittings, but they did shoot hair and makeup and one of the hairdressers had a WILD set of rainbow dreadlocks.  THAT…was amazing.

As for the dancing itself, there is more than enough raw, peanut butter and dipless rehearsal footage to satisfy the eyes (although I would have liked to have seen more of company classes) and some of the little things that happen in rehearsals were the best parts.  Hilarious exchanged between Pierre Lacotte (choreographer) and Ghislaine Thesmar (who I believe teaches at the Paris Opera Ballet) and the dancers themselves inserted a witty comment or two.  Or a gesture like during the coda for Paquita, as the principal dancer was doing her fouettes, she started travelling forward and one of the members of the corps de ballet stuck out a flat palm as if to push her back.  Plenty of performance footage as well and I thought Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu looked amazing in McGregor’s Genus, looking mechanically alien.  The second segment of Médée was visceral and pretty disturbing with onstage blood as Medea (of Greek myth) murders her children to get revenge on Jason (of Argonaut fame).  It was pretty clear they wanted to show a great contrast in Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, with several modern works and a couple of classics as well, which emphasizes the company’s identity as one of the most innovative and experimental companies in the world.  Although I am left wondering if they are perhaps pushing the envelope a little too far and not doing enough of the classics…if they’re constantly experimenting, they will inevitably alienate people by not providing enough familiarity.  In fact, that was one of the weaknesses of the film because of the classics they showed, The Nutcracker was very different and Paquita had all kinds of revisions by Lacotte.

Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu in Wayne McGregor's "Genus." Image courtesy of Zipporah Films. This took me like eight tries to upload properly.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the dances they showed (I even find myself less interested in McGregor ballets) but it’s worth the watch just to see the process unfold.  Unless you can wander around Palais Garnier, there’s no other way you can get this kind of access to inner workings of Paris Opera Ballet.

I suppose you could join them.  Good luck with that!