Tag Archives: anthony dowell

A Call to Ashton

8 Jul

Not much could cure these post-New York blues, but luckily, I’ve been holding onto a secret weapon for some time now—the ‘Frederick Ashton’ DVD featuring Les Patineurs, several divertissements, and Scènes de Ballet. Notorious for saving something special for a rainy day (well, sunny lately in Seattle!), I can’t think of anything better to inspire me than a mélange of Ashton ballets. While the DVD is well worth the money, with it being relatively new it’s still on the expensive side. Luckily, there is a more affordable option for Ashton aficionados, over at OperaPassion, where they sell a recording of a broadcast of the Ashton Centenary in 2004, for a virtual steal $4.95! In fact, most of what’s released on the Opus Arte DVD is actually the same—Scènes de Ballet and the divertissements among them, with the only differences being that the Opus Arte DVD comes with Patineurs and the recorded DVD by OperaPassion comes with Daphnis and Chloë instead. Bonus features come with both, including interviews and rehearsal footage, but it’s here where the OperaPassion DVD actually takes the cake, offering many interviews throughout with some original cast members, while the Opus Arte DVD only has extras for Patineurs. So, really, the solution is to stop worrying about an inconsequential amount of money and buy them both—you know I did!

As much as I loved both DVDs, I can’t say that they’re right for everyone because I do think you have to have a minimal amount of admiration for Sir Fred to get the most out of viewing them. Most of the divertissements simply won’t stand alone, and are much more interesting as glimpses into different phases of Sir Fred’s illustrious career as a choreographer. While most of the works were new to me, I’d have to say that none of them really rank above my favorite Ashton ballets. Still, their inclusions are important for both historical and sentimental purposes, and Dame Monica Mason was right to include them for the Ashton Centenary. While it’s easy to lament a list of Ashton ballets that have yet to be released commercially, the variety is unparalleled (although, I secretly thought that a DVD containing Ashton’s most famous abstract ballets like Scènes de Ballet, Symphonic Variations, Rhapsody, and even Birthday Offering would have been ideal).

What I’ve come to realize is that one of the things I love most about Ashton is that his dances have a way of capturing the spirit of an idea. Scènes de Ballet pinpoints the intricacy and quirkiness of Stravinsky’s score; Five Brahms Waltzes couldn’t possibly be a complete reconstruction of Isadora Duncan’s choreography (Ashton having choreographed it over fifty years after having seen her), but summons the essence of her style and brings to life the very inspiration Ashton felt having seen her with his own eyes; Les Patineurs is not merely a direct translation of figure skating skills into ballet steps, but plays on the quality of movement that gliding over ice allows for. Somehow Ashton managed to communicate ideas so clearly that it took out the guesswork for the audience without inundating them with blatancies. It makes more and more sense why I would fall in love with Ashton ballets so much because I’m an escapist with a classicist aesthetic. I don’t always need “happy” ballets but I can always count on Ashton to transport me to another world or invoke such strong emotions that I forget about my real ones for a while. Speaking as someone who tends to be more in thought than not, watching an Ashton ballet is truly a gift every time.

Though Ashton is typically known for his cleverness and charm (especially in narrative ballets), I was quite surprised by how much I liked his Scènes de Ballet. I don’t always find it easy to listen to Stravinsky’s music, but the purity of line throughout is just too interesting to see! What’s also fascinating is to see an interpretation of Stravinsky by a ballet genius that is not Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky was famous for collaborating with. Rather than modernize as Balanchine often did with his interpretations of Stravinsky, Scènes still uses classical vocabulary and was heavily inspired by Euclidean geometry. It’s mentioned that Ashton set choreographic patterns in Scènes to be pleasing to look at from any angle. Stylistically, Scènes finds such simple pathways that there’s a lot of “point A to point B” with no excessive flourishes and the overall effect is so tastefully chic that I couldn’t help but appreciate the score way more than I would listening to it on its own. Yoshida Miyako (though my Japanese is dwindling in quality, it’s still too weird to me to refer to her as “Miyako Yoshida”) was perfect in Scènes, with a tempered charisma that is sweet and transparent like honey. With crisp arabesques and nimble arms, a photographer could’ve taken photos in rapid succession and each one of them would’ve been clear as crystal.

Yoshida performing a solo from Scènes de Ballet:

Another favorite was the Thaïs Pas de Deux, which was prefaced by an interview with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who told a funny (and somewhat horrifying) story of Sir Fred, while taking a curtain call, asking the audience if they wanted to see the pas de deux again. Sibley and Dowell were relieved just to get through it the first time with no mistakes because they had very few rehearsals, but obliged the audience anyway with an encore performance. The pas de deux is set to Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, and with my tastes being much more suited to Massenet, I find the music absolutely gorgeous. Unsurprisingly, I find the choreography very moving as well, with the male role searching, in a dreamlike state for a lost soul mate. It’s tragic because the female character is detached and aloof for the most part, as if her spectral form can’t recognize the man she once loved. It’s not until she bestows a kiss upon him, does she recall their affections for but a second before disappearing into the ether. On the DVD Thiago Soares danced the quixotic lead made on Dowell, a vision of strength and soulful dark eyes, while Mara Galeazzi performed Sibley’s role like an astral breeze. It’s one of those pas de deux that left me breathless without even realizing it, as if time hadn’t passed at all.

Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares in the Thaïs Pas de Deux:

While I’d like to give a quick shout out to Voices of Spring, one of my favorite pas de deux (danced with aplomb by Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta), I do have to dedicate this last paragraph to Tamara Rojo and her arresting performance in Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. To see her dance barefoot is jaw-dropping for one, but the conviction in which she performed this piece is unbelievable. There aren’t many dancers who have the pathos to dance Five Brahms Waltzes appropriately, which is probably why it doesn’t make it into even the Royal Ballet’s repertory very often, however, as is often the case, Tamara is the exception to the rule. Opposite to Scènes, I have no problem relating to Chopin and it’s modern choreography that I have to work to discern for myself, but Five Brahms Waltzes doesn’t ask for much else than to simply delight in the presence of this magnificent woman. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Rojo and Ashton couldn’t be a more heavenly combination to me. This, is truly happiness!

Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes:

Live from Lincoln Center…

27 Jun

…it’s me.

I thought it might be fun to write a post from the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, so here I am next to the Metropolitan Opera House (where ABT’s Wednesday matinee of Swan Lake just so happens to be going on), writing this here blog. I had a little bit of time to check out the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, and one of my missions for this trip was to watch some archival footage. Nowhere else would I be able to see a full recording of Violette Verdy in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and see it I did! The entire collections here are much too vast, and any dance researcher could spend a lifetime here trying to see it all. As annoyed as I am that I can’t take materials home, it is pretty amazing that these materials are available to the public. Going to the library isn’t just for students/teachers/researchers people–one can easily come here to just watch some amazing ballets for fun!

First, I selected two Tchai Pas with Verdy, partnered in one by Edward Villella and the other by Helgi Tomasson. It’s almost unfair that anyone has to go without seeing a performance of Verdy, who radiates more joy than any dancer I’ve ever seen. Even in blurry old films you can see her charisma, the purity of her technique, and her incredible musicality. There were so many moments of subtle playfulness, as if she were teasing the music with her hands and feet. Now Verdy didn’t have super high legs in various extensions, but it hardly mattered because when the leg is just above the waist in a la seconde for example, you actually get to see the whole torso and face! Imagine that! And when it comes to Verdy, trust me when I say you want to see her upper body in entirety! Of course you want to see her feet and legs as well (not many dancers will do a flying leap into each of their piqué turns), but really it’s the whole picture that made her performances so special, and makes the idea of bemoaning the lack of artistry today a legitimate thing.

Both Villella and Tomasson were quite good, energetic, and wonderful partners. I believe it was the Villella video though where I saw some steps in his variation and coda that I had never seen before. There was an entrechat six de volé en tournant (which, if you don’t know ballet steps very well is as beastly as it sounds), and when he did a series of grand jetés in a circle, rather than insert one turn in between, there were two, which seemed to add excitement and speed. I’m fascinated by the idea that Balanchine had so many ideas for seldomly seen steps and also how his tastes evolved over time to incorporate them more into his vocabulary or never used them again. Having the opportunity to see these performances on film though, was everything and more than what I wanted, and I’m still basking in the glow of Verdy’s charm and wit, sparkling through decades to move and inspire me today.

Seeing as how I had to prioritize with what precious time I have, my other selection was Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, in a Granada film featuring Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Ann Jenner, Gary Sherwood, Jennifer Penney, and Michael Coleman. I had seen an all-too-brief clip of it from a documentary fragment posted on YouTube, and am so fortunate to have found it at the library because the performance is simply breathtaking. What was immediately noticable to me was the slower tempo at the beginning, with softer lines and patience. Contemporary performances seem to accent the music a bit sharper, but what I loved about this one was that the softness allowed for a gradual build towards more succinct lines by the end. You almost don’t notice how it almost carves itself out of its own form, and polishes to an even more lustrous shine before your eyes. If only this were commercially available, it would be such a definitive performance of this work (though, I’m still bitter enough to remind you that NO staging of Symphonic Variations is commercially available, so to label this one of the finest isn’t really valid I suppose).

For anyone who gets a chance to see this film, what was also made so clear was the often discussed partnership between Sibley and Dowell. When the two dancers themselves have discussed it in documentaries they often mention how the proportions between them were perfect–how she, in reaching for his arm would always meet it at just the right distance, etc. Perfection being the key word, you see it many times throughout the film. There’s a pose where Dowell perches Sibley in an arabesque, and when she tilts her head backwards it rests perfectly on his shoulder, and when she frames his face with her arm the picture is flawless. Even the length of their limbs are just in perfect harmony throughout, and against Sophie Fedorovitch’s winding backdrop of wavy patterned lines the effect is stunning. Though Symphonic is indeed abstract and often praised for its luminous sanctity, I saw more story in it today than I had in previous viewings of film as well as live with San Francisco Ballet.

The best I can do is relay the original clip I saw, so enjoy this for now, and remember to make a trip to the NYPL at least once in your lifetime!

A Simply Sibley Cinderella

11 Jul

I love libraries, and I hope you do too. My latest string of acquisitions includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. This pair of Royal Ballet dancers achieved such legendary status that books are written about them, like the coffee table tome also on loan from the library entitled Sibley and Dowell, which features photography by Leslie Spatt and text by Nicholas Dromgoole (which totally sounds like a Harry Potter name). With pages of gorgeous black and white photos, a few words from Dromgoole (hehe), and a great deal of transcriptions of interviews with Sibley and Dowell, the book offers great insight into the history and careers of these two dancers. Incidentally, in discussing differences between dancing wit the Royal Ballet and other companies, Dowell mentioned that in working with American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, ideas were shared but not a sense of humor. It then occurred to me to consider the prevalence of UK readership in regards to this blog—there may be some truth to those jokes I make about having a European sense of humor!

Anyway, Ashton’s Cinderella is widely regarded as the most prominent version today, and it is in fact the first full-length English ballet. There are two recordings of Ashton’s Cinderella available on film, both noteworthy for different reasons. The older one (filmed in 1957) is a made for television version featuring the illustrious Dame Margot Fonteyn (for whom the role was made, but due to illness, Moira Shearer debuted it instead). The film also has original cast member Michael Somes as the prince (Fonteyn/Somes being another legendary pairing in their own right) and the unique occasion of having Sir Fred himself and Sir Kenneth MacMillan as the Ugly Stepsisters. The very thought of Ashton and MacMillan (two gods of ballet choreography!) as the Ugly Stepsisters has me losing my mind, and although clips of this performance reveals a grainy, black and white film, that doesn’t detract from its historical significance. I’m not sure I understand complaints about the film quality anyway, as if people cared that the recently found footage of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes isn’t HD!

However, the original Ugly Stepsisters were actually Sir Fred and Sir Robert Helpmann, appearing in the debut on December 23rd, 1948. Twenty-one years later, Sibley and Dowell’s performance is filmed, and includes both Ashton and Helpmann in their signature character roles (also, Alexander Grant, the original Jester, appears in both films, which is quite the span since the 1948 debut!). The Ugly Stepsisters are characters often met with some controversy, because they’re these over-the-top, squabbling, vulture-like caricatures whose antics a lot of people find annoying. While I can agree with some of those complaints, I still think they’re necessary—without the Stepsisters, there isn’t much of a story! Ashton also paid tribute to the tradition of British pantomime (or “panto” as they apparently like to say), which dates back to the Middle Ages and almost always has campy characters played by men in drag. For me, the humor of Cinderella would just be incomplete, and there are such delicious moments when Sir Fred is in the role because he’s so willing to mock his own art. Nowhere else will you see Sir Fred, performing “the Fred step” with a complete disregard for aesthetics. Although, I suppose it’s possible part of what made the Ugly Stepsisters special may have died with the originators, something Sibley and Dowell might agree with, having said that getting to dance on the same stage with Ashton and Helpmann had a special sense of occasion.

While I’m notorious for an aversion to Prokofiev, I didn’t entirely mind the score. It helps that Ashton appears to have been heavily inspired by the music because it is some of the most unique choreography I’ve seen of his, and by unique I also mean wicked—especially the corps work. Much of the choreography for the corps de ballet is quite zippy and moves in unusual patterns, which fits Prokofiev’s music so well, and it’s hard to keep those lines clean when things are faster. Cinderella also has a difficult variation, where she has to do a series of flickering turns in a circle, not just once but twice, and just watching is dizzying enough. The ball pas de deux with her Prince is an interesting one, containing references to clock hands and the countdown to her midnight curfew. The way she beats her legs together midair mimics the seconds ticking away, and all kinds of straight limbs in arabesque and penchée indicate time’s influence on her allotment with the Prince. It’s not as though the shapes tell you exactly what time it is, but the way they’re jumbled together is an obvious statement as to how she loses herself in time as she is falling in love.

Cinderella’s Variation:

 

Cinderella Pas de Deux, with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg:

 

Speaking of the ball, however, it’s Cinderella’s entrance that is perhaps one of the finest moments, as she descends a staircase and simply bourées forward. The bourée being one of the most elementary of movements on pointe, it is often relegated as a way to get from A to B when a sort of shimmering, or floating effect is desired. Rarely does the bourée by itself get respect as a choreographed step, and this particular usage has to be up there with the most poetic instances of it (the other one I think of being Myrtha’s entrance in Giselle. Fokine’s The Dying Swan is of course all bourées, but is a piece that is really told through the arms rather than the feet)

Cinderella’s Entrance, with Margot Fonteyn:

 

As for Sibley and Dowell, they are of course the image of perfection in DVD. Dowell has been filmed numerous times but there is an unfortunate shortage of Sibley, so it’s a treat to even have just this one with her in a principal role. An elfin blonde, Sibley makes the role of Cinderella look completely natural, with gracious acting and strong balances (she had many an arabesque on pointe that were just brilliant, the trademark of classical lines and correct placement). It’s impossible to not love Dowell as well, even if the role of the Prince is not a particularly deep one. He is genuine, reserved, and elegant and quite young here. It wasn’t his first appearance on film (he danced Benvolio in the Fonteyn/Nureyev Romeo and Juliet), but his second and he even looked just a little shy. What’s also interesting is that the Prince’s solo has a lot of jumps in it, something that Dowell mentions not being his strength (and is completely evident when he spins a quadruple pirouette into a perfect extension of his leg to the side, maintaining a flawless center), and that he was happier with it after changes were made to it during a tour to Australia. It was also during that tour Sibley and Dowell had a humorous incident during a performance in which her costume got caught on his in a lift:

Dowell: I was trying to bring you down from a shoulder lift and your tutu caught on the hooks of my coat, and you were quite immovable, pinned to me like a brooch.

Sibley: You kept saying ‘Get down, get down!’ and I could only say ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

Dowell: Eventually we had to run off, or rather, I mean I had to run off, with you just dangling.

(Bonus pointes if you read the above with an accent! Unless you speak British-English, in which case I guess you were just reading it)

While we are without a more current production of Ashton’s Cinderella on film (though there has been outcry to have the BBC broadcast of the Cojocaru/Kobborg performance released on DVD), the Sibley/Dowell is more than sufficient—it’s stunning. The only thing missing (literally) is an entr’acte where the Prince searches the world for Cinderella and some critics lament that the omission of that scene eliminates character dances, although character dances, like Ugly Stepsisters can be controversial too; maybe you’re one of those people that finds them vile, time consuming, and a little racist…maybe not (boy, that’s a blog topic for another day—are character dances racist?). Regardless, despite pockets of Ashton all over the United States, for audiences in America our only chance to see it is to commence an odyssey to Chicago, and see the Joffrey Ballet, who added it fairly recently to their repertory in 2006. The rest of us can (and should) enjoy the Sibley/Dowell, and believe me when I say there are few things as sacrosanct as Georgina Parkinson’s Fairy Godmother!

Behind the scenes look at the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Cinderella:

 

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë

23 Jun

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).

At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.

The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.

Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.

Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:

Photo of original cast members Michael Somes (Daphnis) and Violetta Elvin (Lykanion) Photo ©Royal Opera House/Hulton Deutsch

The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:

The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.

Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.

The Royal Ballet in 1994; Vaughan also said that the costumes “look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy.” What do you think? Photo ©Robbie Jack/CORBIS

There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).

Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.

As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.

So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!

Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)

 

Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.

For Shoeman Peaces

31 Jan

As in any creative endeavor, the artist is bound to encounter obstacles and for the past two weeks I’ve had a monkey-sized writer’s block on my back.  For various reasons, I couldn’t seem to pull ideas together…I had plenty, but when I started to develop those thoughts they just faded away.  It’s frustrating, depressing, disheartening and requires the time old medicine of confections—my current delight being the new Andes Crème de Menthe cookies, which are even better than their after dinner mints…you know, those little rectangular chocolates with a layer of mint, wrapped in the signature green foil that is often distributed as little tokens of gratitude for having dinner at the Olive Garden (though the Olive Garden is very stingy, and will never give you more than one per person…I’ve asked.  On several occasions).  Thanks to these refreshing treats, the restoration process has begun.

I operate under the assumption that eating the whole box in a couple of days means fewer calories...but I was never good at math.

So!  In the spirit of renewal, I wanted to write about a dance completely new to me, and inspired by the anniversary of its debut, thirty-six years ago today at Covent Garden, I’ve selected Four Schumann Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen to music by Robert Schumann (Quartet in A major, Op.41, No.3).  I’ve never seen Van Manen’s work before, nor have I seen a ballet to Schumann, whose music I’ve always felt has a distinct refinement and intimacy.  Four Schumann Pieces seems to follow suit with this assessment and so it was impossible to be disappointed.  Overall, I found Van Manen’s style to be quite classical and at times academic, with the occasional dash of modern choreography.  It is however, the kind of piece that requires very disciplined training because placement is key and not having a certain squareness in the hips would result in a faceplant for sure.  It’s deceiving because it’s not a ballet that would strike you immediately as being particularly virtuosic, but it has exceptionally wicked choreography, especially for the lead male dancer.

In the performance I’m including in this post (filmed around 1980), this guy named Anthony Dowell danced the male lead, with Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling and Julian Hosking in featured roles.  The ballet has no plot, though the backdrop has horizontal lines could suggest a music staff and with Dowell beginning alone on stage I imagined him as a composer or maestro.  The other dancers I saw as representations of the notes themselves and Van Manen has all of the dancers doing these airy phrases that repeat in canon and truly embody this idea of music coming to life.  I don’t know if this would be a pertinent distinction (well, I guess it has to be if I’m writing it down!) but the difference I saw in this ballet was that it was very conscientious of not just dancing to the music but becoming it and letting the music speak for itself.  The result is quite reserved in terms of choreography as there’s nothing too flashy but when you watch the first male solo, you realize what makes this ballet so insanely difficult.  For example in this first part, at about 2:40 Dowell does the most beautiful, gooiest grand plié in fifth, springs up to passé, stays up on relevé and ever so gently place his foot down into fourth position before going into a pirouette.  So yeah, academic but also ridiculously hard and in order to make it look easy, placement is everything.  I actually laughed out loud when he did it a second time and sprung up to an arabesque on relevé.  I know nothing about ballet is normal, but that is incredibly not normal.

Van Manen gave Dowell a lot of work on relevé, which isn’t unusual for a ballet dancer but sustained movements on relevé are generally reserved for women (as is sliding into the splits and a penchée, both of which Dowell did above, and I though were absolutely fantastic).  There is more of that later on in the piece but the next segment elaborates on Van Manen’s style, which maintains simple lines and minimal port de bras.  While Dowell takes a nap on stage, Penney, Collier, Eagling and Hosking perform a quartet as a pair of duos, which was one of my favorite moments because Van Manen chose beautiful shapes to frame the women with, and I found it sensual without being romantic.  That’s followed by dancers executing simple steps with pseudo-V is for victory arms, which might seem stiff or awkward but it draws attention to the pulse of the music. I have to say there’s something really pleasing about a tempo in a three, especially a waltz.

Following are some different pas de deux, with Dowell partnering both Penney and Collier in beautiful fashion but the most intriguing is perhaps the duet between Dowell and another male dancer (sorry, I can’t tell who it is)…a little male-on-male action, but like I said before this is a ballet not about romance but intimacy which doesn’t have to be sexual, and such choreography is a rarity in neoclassical ballet (and practically nonexistent in anything earlier).  A friend once asked me if I’ve ever had to do a promenade a la seconde and I’m pretty sure I haven’t, though there are plenty in this little duet.  By this point Dowell is understandably sweating like a beast, having been on stage and dancing for a good twenty minutes, there’s an ease and softness to the brief partnership that makes me wish we could see more of such things in new works.  Although talk about unusual partnering, what could be a more fitting end to this section than Jennifer Penney supporting Dowell’s hand as he balances in an arabesque?  It’s no Rose Adagio, but I love the role reversal.

In the last section Van Manen gives snippets of bravura technique, with Dowell having to perform a series of piqué and tombé piqué turns (or piqué tour en dehors, but most certainly NOT “lame duck”…it has a name, people), which I would actually consider to be more along the lines of “women’s work” as well, as this is a very common series to see in pointe work (like in the female variation of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, or something a ballerina would often do in a coda en manège).  I think Van Manen is on to something here because I feel like his choreography has very few gender biases…and I like it!  The choreography isn’t what I would call innovative, but there are subtle hints of imagination that I find scrumptious…it’s like finding some wild berries on a forest path (yes, when I was little I used to eat such things without knowing or caring that it could potentially be poisonous.  I sort of know better now).

I suppose that’s all for Four Schumann Pieces, which I thought had a familiar charm along the lines of Les Sylphides, with the role of the poet and such.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say; I’m back boys and girls!  May February be a fruitful month for blogging!

Resistance is futile

28 Nov

You know I love the Royal Ballet, so of course I have to include at least one of their productions for Swan Lake Month, in this case the one featuring Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried.  Right off the top I think it’s important to note that a Makarova performance as Odette is quintessential; it’s her thing and she does not disappoint in this DVD.  It’s one of those performances where you don’t know why or how, but you can feel how much she loves that role.  Of course, Anthony Dowell is no slouch and they had a wonderful, memorable partnership—I would even go as far to say that this was the most memorable Odette/Siegfried I’ve seen thus far.  I would also say that this production is probably my favorite of the classically oriented versions of Swan Lake I’ve seen as well.

The structure is pretty standard fare for a Swan Lake, beginning with Siegfried’s birthday (though this one is outdoors…an unusual, but refreshing choice) with plenty of hearty, festive dancing.  When Anthony Dowell enters, he flashes a devilish grin to his subjects and it’s one of those utterly charming, handsome heartbreaker smiles and all you can think is “oh, Anthony…” and heave a heavy sigh.  We all know Siegfried screws up, but as soon as Dowell smiled the way he did, I just knew this going to be a Soviet-era happy ending.  Sometimes I worry I think I see that smile in real life and think I might be going insane, but that’s another story…anyway, the choreography is nice (definitely some Ashton in there) and I’d like to point out that in the coda for the pas de trois, one of the women ends a diagonal series of jumps with FOUR, yes FOUR entrechat six in a row, which is something quite common in choreography for men, so not only does that deserve a high-five but it also means the ladies out there can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to those nasty little entrechat six!  Meanwhile, that wasn’t the only challenging of the status quo in male/female specific choreography as later on in Act III, in a male pas de deux one of the men does a saut de chat with his arms in third, which in some schools of thought could be considered a vile emasculation of the male danseur.  Well, maybe vile emasculation is exaggerating a bit, but it sounds funny…anyway, Act I ends with Siegfried’s solo, and I kid you not when I say Dowell’s performance in it was quite possibly the most perfect bit of dancing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Act II is again a “no touchie” zone, with the only major difference I could see being a moment where Siegfried’s hunting party actually appears on stage and they’re about to shoot at the flock of swans and Siegfried comes in to stop them.  This of course comes after Siegfried and Odette’s flawless, first pas de deux.  When Makarova enters, she does the most beautiful arm movements, the most luxurious backwards arches of her back and she even makes a simple lunge sing.  Together, I love the way Makarova and Dowell shade the characters because it isn’t entirely love at first sight; Dowell’s Siegfried is bewildered for most of the pas de deux, recognizing the fact that oh, he just saw a swan turn into a woman and doesn’t really give into love until later.  Similarly, Makarova holds back a little as a frightened and timid Odette, running from Siegfried until the end of the first pas de deux where she lets her curiosity take over.  This is of course, when Von Rothbart enters in his strigine glory…well, at least it should have gone something like that but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Von Rothbart owl costume.  In fact, it’s probably my only major criticism because I felt the design made him look more like a pterodactylic peacock (for the record, the word used to describe a peacock-like animal is “pavonine”).  It’s also unfortunate that Von Rothbart isn’t much of a dancing role (his massive wings being so unwieldy and all) but the focus of Act II, Odette and Siegfried’s romantic first meeting is tender, which is aided by the fact that Makarova works to a snail pace tempo.  I actually think rubato is often abused today, with many dancers using slower tempos but without purpose.  I’m not a fan of slowing the tempo just for the sake of slowing the tempo—it has to be done if the dancer feels it will allow them to add something to the character, and not just be seen as additional time to show off an extension.  I had no problems with Makarova’s tempo, because she works it brilliantly.

What also makes Makarova’s slower adagio more successful is the contrast it provides when she appears as Odile in Act III.  She actually uses faster tempi like in the Black Swan variation, which makes quite a difference.  Makarova’s Odile is very business-like; she enters, she seduces, she laughs maniacally when Siegfried realizes what’s going on and she leaves.  It’s the complete opposite of say, Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake, where Odile is able to seduce Siegfried in a much different manner.  I forgot to write this in my review, but in that staging Odile lures Siegfried by coming close enough for him to get a glance, but then one of Von Rotbart’s other maidens will get in his way.  This happens I think four times and by the fourth time Siegfried is blinded with frustration and the thought that Odile could be an imposter doesn’t even cross his mind.  The Royal Ballet, on the other hand takes the direct approach and no qualms are made as to Odile’s true identity.  Makarova is marvelous as Odile, spicing things up a little bit with a little more élan and a little determination to get through those fouettés.  Every Odile I’ve seen thus far has done thirty-two single fouettés, which doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, thirty-two singles may very well be harder than throwing in some doubles because if you do a double pirouette you get to pull in and just worry about holding yourself up, but doing two singles in the same span of time means having to work through the foot, plié, rond de jambe and spring back up to relevé again.  That’s a lot of work. (Side note: the national dances are pretty typical but the Italian dance is awesome and gets tremendous, well deserved applause)

Finally, it’s time for Act IV; reconciliation, suicide pact, and happily ever after (life).  What I loved about this act was that again, we’re made to wait for it.  Odette doesn’t forgive Siegfried immediately and the act of forgiveness and the apology, are danced out.  Sometimes these redemptive moments in ballet can be reduced to a hurried set of mimed gestures immediately followed by the pretty pas de deux, rather than sustaining the emotions throughout.  With Makarova/Dowell, you get to see the whole process unfold.  Well, I suppose you would REALLY see it if I posted the clip:

All in all, I’m sold on this Swan Lake.  Makarova is the epitome of the cygnine (I’m totally about these animal adjectives today!) and if anybody asks why I would add this to my collection I’d say “Anthony Dowell made me do it.”  Nobody could resist that Act I smile.

What goes around comes around

27 Aug

So I’ve been in a bit of a shlump and was having an uninspired couple of weeks.  The best remedy for this is really to go back to the basics and go with what you know.  What do I know?  Manon.  I mean, I don’t know EVERYTHING about the ballet, but I know that it is by far my favorite full length ballet (keep that in mind kitties, there will be a pop quiz someday…) and I’m familiar with it to a point where I don’t need program notes or anything of the sort.  Instead of the usual goddess Rojo however, this time I got the chance to watch the Royal Ballet production with Jennifer Penney and Sir Anthony Dowell, the latter of which originated the role of Des Grieux.  I’ve actually had this on loan for a while but was saving it for a rainy day (in Seattle?  The very idea…although it did actually rain today and it has been a fairly sunny summer).  In fact, most of the cast in this production (filmed in 1982) were the dancers who originated their respective roles…hot!

I have to say one of the most fascinating things about this recording is that even though it was filmed a good twenty-five years before the Rojo/Acosta version, the performance isn’t dated at all.  Despite changes in approaches to technique and desired body types in ballet, imagining both productions as different casts two nights in a row is completely realistic.  I felt differences in technique and physiques were evident in between the 1984 and 2008 La fille mal gardée recordings, but not so for the Manon performances.  This speaks volumes about Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography—it’s timeless, it’s most definitely a classic and it defies technique.  Obviously it takes a great deal of technique to be able to perform it but when all is said and done the physical act of having bodies dance the choreography reveals so much about characters and story that there’s this rich depth that I’m not sure any other choreographer has ever achieved in story ballets.

Accordingly, the Penney/Dowell interpretation of Manon was vastly different from Rojo/Acosta.  I felt that Penney portrayed a Manon who was very much aware of her ability to manipulate men, as opposed to Rojo who grew to be aware of it but concerned herself more with the internal struggle of wealth versus love.  I never felt that Penney’s Manon was in love with Des Grieux…I found their relationship to be very hunter and prey, like a cat and bird (to see an actualization of this eternal conflict, see Simon’s Cat: Snow Business).  Dowell’s Des Grieux is catlike in so many ways—for his use of plié and he has this charm about him that completely belies his predatory nature.  Acosta’s Des Grieux, like Rojo’s Manon is more about an internal struggle, with his being between the path of virtue and temptation.  This is where things get really nifty, because conflict in the Penney/Dowell performance manifested in their actual relationship as a power struggle between the two characters and not as internal turmoil.  What? I suggest watching these first:

Notice how it’s almost violent in the way Dowell pulled Penney toward him, ten seconds into the first pas de deux, like a cat clawing at a bird?  And how in his luxurious solo he’s like a predator—mesmerizing his prey by trying to lure her and toy with her.  To continue with the house cat metaphor, you see Dowell’s coy, innocent face, his beautifully soft movements and you know his character wants to be a righteous man but without hesitating he gives in to his desire for Manon which is exactly like how the cat that rubs up against your legs and purrs with affection is the same cat that will shred your couch even if s/he knows it’s wrong.  Manon is obviously the bird…a free spirit that is captured (but not loved) by Des Grieux.  However, in the second act there is a shift of momentum and it’s Manon who takes on the role of the hunter and becomes the cat.  It’s in the second act where we see her seductive solo that mirrors the purpose of Des Grieux’s solo in Act I.  She’s bewitching her prey, whether it’s the various men at Madame’s party or Monsieur G.M.  The reason why I felt Penney’s Manon never truly loved Des Grieux is because in her performance of that solo, she blatantly ignores him, symbolizing her ability to captivate whoever she wants.  The jewelry she receives from Monsieur G.M. then become not a symbol of wealth but of her powers of ensnarement.

In Act III, Des Grieux reassumes the role of the hunter, but this time manipulates his prey as if willing it to live again so he can hunt it anew.  By this time, Manon is disgusted by jewelry, as it recalls memories of when she was the hunter and how she suffered from the consequences of those times.  I know I’ve been saying that I never believed Penney/Dowell’s portrayals of the characters to be that of two people in love but that’s the heart-rending aspect of the performance—you want to believe it’s this romantic tryst but you know better and you can see how their relationship is quite dysfunctional.  However, when they get to the concluding swamp pas de deux…it’s like taking an anvil to the soul.  Manon realizes that her only salvation in breaking the cycle of manipulation and lust that she’s trapped in is the very hunter that destroys her while Des Grieux no longer wants to be predator or prey and wants to try to love this girl.  It occurred to me that there are some similarities with La Sylphide here; trying to own a fairy is what will inevitably kill her and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon is almost exactly the same, just told in a more corporeal, sans-supernatural-bells-and-whistles (aka, enchanted forests) story.  As we all know, she dies and let me tell you I have never cried for a ballet before and I was in tears this time around.  It’s such an emotional roller coaster to watch Manon and Des Grieux go through the motions of loving each other only to realize they truly do when it’s too late.

This DVD is a MUST buy.  It is such a treat it was to see Dame Monica Mason dance as Lescaut’s mistress.  She was rather brassy and I loved her bewilderment during the drunken pas de deux with Lescaut.  Just amazing work…and what can you say about Anthony Dowell?  When I watched his performance as Oberon in The Dream, I thought to myself “if I could be reborn as a professional dancer, that’s the role I’d want to do” but having watched him in Manon makes me want to BE reborn as Anthony Dowell.  Better start stocking up on good karma.

Ashton’s Month in Ashton Month

22 Jul

Continuing with the celebration of my unofficial Ashton month, what could be more appropriate than viewing A Month in the Country?  You may recall that this was the ballet that got away from me…when I visited Washington D.C. to see Manon, the Royal Ballet also brought a mixed bill which included this Ashton work.  Obviously I knew about it, but just like it never occurred to me to see multiple casts of Manon, it also never occurred to me to see both shows, because for whatever reason I thought you just buy your one ticket and then that’s it.  Or perhaps my wallet knew better and was communicating with me telepathically or I was too preoccupied with plotting to steal the Hope Diamond.  Regardless, I missed out and feel rather ashamed that I’ve still yet to see an Ashton ballet live.  The fact that I got to see a MacMillan was serendipitous; the fact that I completely failed to cash in on an Ashton opportunity is just stupid.  Balanchine’s stranglehold on the repertories of most American companies is just salt in the wound—neoclassical British choreography is much too scant here.

No commercial recording of the complete A Month in the Country is available for sale, but somehow it is on YouTube (perhaps a videotape of a broadcast performance).  It’s a unique opportunity in that the principal roles of Natalia Petrovna and Beliaev were originated by Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell respectively who also dance them in the taped performance.  I read in the Façade mini book too that Ashton was a stickler for first casts and the only time he ever got into an argument with Dame Ninette de Valois was over casting.  I forget exactly how it was cited in the book, but it was just a tidbit about Ashton being unhappy with the idea of a second cast because creating a ballet with certain dancers in mind is like a masterpiece painting—that’s how the choreographer originally sees his work.  However, as artistic director, de Valois also had concerns about money and I’m guessing the dancers’ health as well.  Guessing, or hoping.

A Month in the Country is based on novelist/playwright Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name.  Interestingly enough, like Ashton did with The Dream and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his Month is an extraction from the play.  I’m curious to know what prompted Ashton to trim the content of his ballets from the plays since obviously, he has done amazing full length works but on the other hand how many times has Tim Gunn spoken of the importance of editing?  Many a time, friends…many a time.

Month is accompanied by a John Lanchberry orchestration of Chopin works, which is so perfectly matched with the mid-nineteenth century setting in an aristocratic Russian home (Turgenev himself grew up in a wealthy family).  It’s fascinating how theatrical the ballet is, with attention to authenticity; the set is realistic rather than “tricking the eye” (i.e. painting something two dimensional to look three dimensional) and the costuming is closer to actual clothing.  For example, the men aren’t wearing tights and ballet slippers but trousers and character shoes.  Were it not for the shortened dresses on the women and the pointe shoes, much of the set and costumes could really be used for a production of the actual play.  What I find most extraordinary about these production values is how it alters the way the dancing tells the story.  When I think of one of MacMillan’s story ballets, the choreography tells the story which is very much “danced,” but in Ashton’s Month it’s almost as if the choreography and music replace the dialogue.  I don’t know that this is all that significant of a distinction (either that or I’m not making the distinction very clear) but you (well, I) could actually hear Chopin’s notes and see the movements as words that proceeded to divulge the story as opposed to watching movements to music that might express an idea or show a relationship between two characters.

Of the Ashton works that I’ve seen, the choreography for Month struck me as Ashton’s most innovative use of port de bras.  I tend to think that choreographing arms is the hardest thing to do without making it look like a bunch of flailing.  Right away, in the opening solo for Natalia there’s all this amazing arm movement with a myriad of different positions of the head, just icing on the cupcake.  It’s unusual in that it was one of the few times I was completely drawn away from what the legs and feet were doing and watching (mouth agape and utterly enamoured mind you!) at what was going on from the waist up.  Other characters follow suit with their introductory solos except for Natalia’s son Kolia, who does this INSANE solo, dancing while manipulating a ball.  I find the idea absolutely terrifying because anything that is designed to roll is unpredictable and personally I don’t do so well with large round objects that hurtle through space (needless to say, I’m not good at sports or catching things) and here’s Kolia leaping and pirouetting with a fleet-footed ease.  Ashton’s choreography is brilliant here, not only in styling Kolia to be a boyish youth, but also in how the prop is danced with, one of Ashton’s signature choreographic devices.

However, this is the story of Natalia and Baliaev, and in this case, Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell.  Natalia is…essentially, a bored housewife.  Though she is married to a wealthy man, has a son and also has the attention of a doting admirer named Rakitin,  there’s still something missing.  Enter Baliaev, who is supposed to be Kolia’s tutor, but seems to catch the eye of all the women in the household including Natalia’s adopted daughter Vera and one of their maids.  It all gets just a little too soap opera crazy and thankfully the original play is indeed a comedy so it’s not meant to be taken too seriously.  Natalia is perhaps embittered by a life of empty decadence and is the original queen cougar as she is in love with the young Baliaev.  They share a loving pas de deux, but things get crazy when Vera discovers them and it’s Rakitin who convinces Beliaev that the two of them must leave.  I’m sure this is all explained in the play in better detail, but the minor tragical point is, Beliaev is forced to leave, thus forcing Natalia back into her life of boredom.

Seymour is superb in this role (duh) and gives a commanding performance as the two faced Natalia, who hides her love for Baliaev from her husband.  It’s an interesting role that requires quite a mature ballerina and technique is almost useless because it’s the range of emotions including boredom, love, anger and devastation in such a short period of time that make the role so demanding.  Dowell’s acting skills are no less inferior (he even looks like a different person in every video I’ve ever seen of him.  Were it not for those gorgeous giraffe legs I’m not sure I’d recognize him every time) and even though Baliaev is kind of a hound dog, the dancing is sublime.  There were moments where you really get to see the stretch of Dowell’s plié (one of the most underestimated moves in all of ballet).

Can’t say enough about how wonderful the ballet is and what a blessing it is that it’s on YouTube (the user quillerpen has one of the best YouTube channels…subscribe or die).  Without further ado, here’s Ashton’s A Month in the Country (in five parts):

I Dreamed a Dream

2 Jul

So I just bought my subscription to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2010-2011 season, opting for a mini-subscription which means I get to choose four of the six shows I want to see.  Jigga-what?  Surprised I’m not going to see them all?  I’m not.  For one thing, Cinderella is running the exact same time San Francisco Ballet will be doing Symphonic Variations and quite frankly, I have priorities.  The other show I chose to omit was A Midsummer Night’s Dream mostly for two reasons…the first being that I’m a little wary of Shakespeare and the second being it’s hard for me to accept Balanchine’s version knowing Ashton’s The Dream is out there too.  I can always purchase additional tickets later so I may end up seeing it anyway but I’m a bit skeptical.  I thought of watching the recording of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is actually the PNB production but ironically the Seattle Public Library doesn’t have it.  Of ALL the libraries in the world, Seattle Public Library doesn’t have PNB’s Dream.  Of course the Balanchine version isn’t available on YouTube and after the virtual bitchslap the Balanchine Trust sent me for posting excerpts of Balanchine choreography, I’m not really all that enthusiastic to seek it out.  Thus, I find myself deterred and unmotivated to see it live.  Mission accomplished Balanchine Trust…mission accomplished.  Besides, from what I gather, the Balanchine production has children in it, which is an automatic check in the minus column.

Anyway, I’m all about the Ashton love.  In fact, I might just make July Ashton month.  I have all kinds of reading material, from a tiny pocket-sized book entitled Façade to a couple of epic tomes on Ashton ballets.  Façade was a quick read…a mini-book of about a hundred pages so really it’s hardly more than a pamphlet but it covers many of Sir Fred’s earliest works and traces his lineage, from studying under Marie Rambert, influences from Ninette de Valois, Sergei Diaghilev, Bronislava Nijinska and even a little Balanchine.  I also noticed in one of the original cast lists that Antony Tudor danced for Ashton…which I find fascinating for reasons that I’m sure will make more sense in the years to come.  Façade doesn’t discuss The Dream because it was published in the fifties but it was interesting to get a glimpse at Sir Fred’s history.  He was quite young when he began as a choreographer in his twenties and of his earliest ballets only Façade and Capriol Suite survive (which is tragic for obvious reasons but even more so when I read that some of the lost works include a wealth of Greco-Roman themed ballets like Mars and Venus, Leda and the Swan and Pomona).  It was fascinating to read snippets of reviews from that period though which echo exactly how I feel today, like the genius of his patterns or his sense of comedy (except those reviewers used words like truquage).  I always feel “comfortable” with Ashton choreography and maybe it’s because I can relate to him in some ways (a late starter in ballet with a slight build) and the more I learn about him the more the addiction consumes me.

So back to The Dream, Shakespeare-aversion aside, I decided to watch it and who better to learn from than Anthony Dowell, who originated the role?  Here’s a fun fact for you…the ballet debuted April 2nd, 1964 and twenty years later I would be born!  Another twenty years later in 2004 ABT would record their own version for DVD.  So what happens in 2024?  Your guess is as good as mine…but because it is a shorter ballet I decided to make an afternoon of it, watch the Dowell and Merle Park performance, then the master class with Dowell/Antoinette Sibley and Ashton himself, then watch the ABT version with Ethan Stiefel/Alessandra Ferri.  I won’t nitpick every difference and I think ABT did a fine production but it has to be said that the Royal Ballet performance is definitely my preferred of the two for many reasons.  Under the assumption that the general populace is familiar with the story and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m going to skip the synopsis and get right to the point (if you don’t know at least the basics of Dream, you seriously need to read more.  Sheesh!).  First, I love that Ashton did a Victorian interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and ABT kind of watered down the costumes and hair (Hermia and Helena being the most noticeable) to a more modern aesthetic.  Second, the lover’s quarrel between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius is one of the funniest choreographed scenes in the history of ballet including a moment where Lysander and Demetrius are fighting over Helena, who slips away from the both of them and they accidentally kiss.  ABT changed it to a mere hug, which is so very American of them and dulls the humor quite a bit.  I hate to say that I find it a little shady in a homophobic kind of way…but maybe it’s for the benefit of an uptight American audience and my sense of humor is perhaps more in line with the British.  My aesthetic certainly is, as the Royal Ballet prefers a straighter line through the wrist and the ABT corps likes to flourish with the hands a lot, which came across as a little too floppy for me.  To quote Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the phrase “Hands!  Hands in new places!” comes to mind.

As for the lead dancers, there was kind of a split—few ballerinas can tell a story like Alessandra Ferri, and who better to be the “Ferri Queen” (ha…ha…oh) Titania?  Ferri is magnificent and her partner Stiefel as Oberon is in all likelihood the cleanest dancer on Earth.  Unfortunately, Stiefel’s acting was a little off for me…he does a lot of wide eyed, crazy expressions that make his Oberon look a little loony.  You can’t take away from his technical brilliance and classical line but the characterization wasn’t my favorite.  To me, Oberon is immature, arrogant and a little abusive, but not crazy.  Enter Anthony Dowell, who has a sort of brazen, chafed look that really makes you believe he is displeased with Titania’s defiance.  Merle Park is sweet and impish, like a sassy little butterfly but what I preferred in Ferri was an ability to combine that delight with a sense of regality.  Titania doesn’t defy Oberon simply because they’re married, but because she is quite used to being royalty in her own right.  Meanwhile, the Pucks of both productions were enjoyable though, with Herman Cornejo literally flying about the forest and the Royal Ballet dancer (who I can’t identify unfortunately) being much more of a ham.

Ashton’s choreography is of course perfect and wonderfully unbiased.  He has the same love for transitional steps as he does the big flashy bravura ones with more attention towards overall effect rather than making a singular impression.  Choreographing Oberon on Dowell as he did, he took full advantage of his line and plié, giving Oberon many arabesques when the typical choreographer will give a male role maybe a step into an arabesque to start a variation or maybe a turn in that position.  Meanwhile, Ashton makes the arabesque a motif for Oberon, putting in arabesques in demi-plié, tipping over in a penchée (a move usually reserved for women), tour sauté (a series of little hops that turn in place) as well as working in and out of the position.  Para example, Ashton has Oberon do this heinously beastly series of different pirouettes, all of which have to end in a little penchée which is insanely hard given the quiet, sustained notes from the music…the effect can easily be ruined.  I had a teacher who once gave us similar exercises in class and contrary to what your brain may tell you, you have to be pretty aggressive when diving forward because hesitation won’t get you to where you need to be.  It really is as simple as getting from Point A to Point B, but ballet is kind of ridiculous.

For music aficionados, The Dream has an AMAZING score my Felix Mendelssohn (as if there were another!).  Mendelssohn has been kind of underrated in the ballet world, with this probably being the most prominent work with his name attached to it.  Ashton uses a John Lanchberry orchestration of the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote that was inspired by the play.  It fits the mood so perfectly and kindled images of fireflies in dusky forests for me, which I sorely miss for you see, there are no fireflies west of the Rocky Mountains…I don’t get how Seattle people know when summer has arrived without fireflies!  Although given the weather as of late I’d say summer is still not here yet…it can’t be…but I digress.  I think the Mendelssohn score is one of the finest I’ve heard in ballet…although I’m holding out for something spectacular to his violin concerto.  Anyone up for the challenge?

I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I’ve fallen in love with The Dream (oh Ashton, you cad, you!) and that I can say I love a Shakespearean ballet.  It’s definitely up there in my top ten.  So do partake and pick your poison below (Royal Ballet or ABT as well as the master class with Sir Fred):

The Royal Ballet’s The Dream in six parts:

American Ballet Theater’s The Dream in six parts:

Titania and Oberon’s pas de deux master class in five parts: