Tag Archives: balanchine

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One

28 Jan

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

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

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

-Igor Stravinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

Ahoy! I can’t believe I’ve neglected my blog for virtually all of September, and I’m not happy about it, but I shan’t dwell because I have a lot of words to cram into this one post on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of ‘All Wheeldon,’ a program that consisted solely of Christopher Wheeldon ballets. As those of you more obsessive readers know, I attended a preview with the man himself, where he discussed some of his works while the dancers rehearsed on stage, and wrote a synopsis for SeattleDances. There was much I couldn’t include, and luckily, I can be almost as loquacious as I want here, so here’s a little more to the story.

Life began for Christopher Wheeldon in England, where he described himself as very much a “Billy Elliot.” Stop. Okay, so I have to disagree with Mr. Wheeldon a little bit (Chris, if you’re on a first name basis), because I adore Billy Elliot and there’s more to Billy than simply being a male dancer in the UK; Billy faced a great deal of adversity in not having family who understood his curiosity in ballet. Wheeldon’s mother trained in dance (though she was forbidden to have a career in it because her father thought it inappropriate) and his father comes from a background in theatre (which is actually how his parents met), so a passion for the performing arts is not a foreign idea for his parents. Becoming a professional dancer is a major accomplishment, but it’s how Billy makes his father and brother understand him that is the triumph of the film…but I digress. The point is, Wheeldon’s formative and professional years were perhaps more sanctified. He recalled watching Sir Frederick Ashton as a student, working with two girls on a ballet in honor of the Queen’s birthday, a long, ashy cigarette in hand and after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon would also come face to face with Sir Kenneth MacMillan (I believe he mentioned that he was in the corps when MacMillan choreographed The Prince of the Pagodas). Incidentally, it was Peter who even brought up Ashton and MacMillan; let’s just say it required every ounce of discipline I had to NOT leap out of my chair and praise in jubilation, though the sad fact is the majority of the audience probably didn’t know much (if anything) about them. I get that some of the Ashton or MacMillan repertory is too much to ask for right now, but bits and pieces would be nice!

At any rate, Wheeldon has told the story of the Hoover vacuum countless times, and how he always has to retell it which is why I’m going to skip it; all you really need to know is that a vacuum cleaner got him to New York. Still recovering from an injury that kept him from competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize (where he was slated to perform the pas de deux from…The Dream! When he said it was his favorite and I just about died…can you imagine him as Oberon?), he merely sought to take class at NYCB. Somehow he was confused with some dancers auditioning for the company, and miraculously, Peter Martins offered him a contract. It worked out well for the lucky teenager, as he was quick to credit Balanchine as his greatest source of inspiration (beginning with a graduation performance of Valse Fantaisie) because his ballets taught him was a sense of structure and shape, because they would “never pull your eye the wrong way.” When Wheeldon joined NYCB, however, Jerome Robbins was still working with NYCB, and Wheeldon has some interesting comments regarding him and how he and Peter Boal were perhaps the last generation to put up with the idea of “success through intimidation and fear.” However, Robbins did impart emphasis on understanding who you are in a ballet, and encouraged dancers to be human.

The introduction ended with a sort of hodgepodge of information, like some general information about his production of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, how it’s his largest production to date, with a new score, etc. and also some of his future plans, like NYCB performing DGV, which will be a first because NYCB has never imported a ballet made on another company before. Wheeldon will also expand his artistic pursuits a bit with a first time outing as a choreographer for a Broadway production. He’s busy, he’s sensational, and he had fascinating things to say about the ballets PNB performed.

First came the lovely Carousel, which is a romantic, light-hearted fantasy celebrating music by Richard Rogers, and originally intended for a gala program. In this piece, Wheeldon sought to use pure movement to create an atmosphere (with no budget!) so the costumes are simple, minimal set design, and just enough lighting to enhance the mood. The work definitely has that “carnival” feel, and a central pas de deux that plays out like an awkward first date. The pas de deux to me definitely had a little MacMillan in it (I definitely saw steps from Manon), and struck me as a game of cat and mouse between two people who had a romanticized idea of what love is, as if they’ve seen the movies and have preconceived notions but the truth is turning out to be not as interesting as the myth. It definitely has a dark cloud hanging over it, though still playful and lush as it is, and Wheeldon had high praise for the original cast of Damian Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli, complementing the bravura of the former and the great imagination of the latter. I saw Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in both rehearsal and performance, and I absolutely adored them in it—flawless casting! High praise too for Margaret Mullin, who I got to see up close during the lecture demonstration (my subscriber tickets are up in the balcony, so for general seating I beeline for the third row), really taking notice of her lovely épaulement and beautiful hands…she has a wonderful refinement that really stood out to me. Carousel was easily my favorite Wheeldon ballet because I’m a sappy romantic and it’s one of those pieces that you just have to smile at while watching, while getting just a dash of Busby Berkely-ish, oh-so-satisfying cinematic geometry.

Meanwhile, Polyphonia was the complete opposite. I found it funny that Wheeldon picked the music—a scattering of piano notes somehow composed into song by György Ligeti—while browsing at Tower Records. I don’t know why the image of Christopher Wheeldon at a retail music store, listening to samples of tracks on headphones is so endearing, but it is. With the score being so difficult to almost listen to (apparently when he played it for his dad, he almost drove off the road), I had a sinking feeling Polyphonia was going to disagree with me and while it wasn’t my favorite, I was surprised that I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s what Wheeldon called “a sketchbook,” the title meaning “multiple voices” and it depicts…not people, but beings? For me it was like staring through a microscope into a Petri dish, and seeing these curious creatures that were both alien and terrestrial…like deep-sea plankton. It’s rather bizarre but then you get these interesting pictures like the duet between two men that was a sort of “question and response,” with one dancer shadowing the other, it’s becomes something recognizable like a younger brother imitating his elder sibling and Polyphonia made many such shifts between the foreign and familiar that I found fascinating. Wheeldon himself said it took choreographing (and finishing!) the work to unlock the score’s mysteries, to find order in disorder, and create something not chaotic but mathematical (help us Dave Wilson!).

The last previewed work was After the Rain, or as I like to call it, “the Yoga Pas de Deux.” This piece was made for Jock Soto’s final season, an odyssey of partnering that often created the illusion of independent movement. There were times when the couple would reach for each other without making eye contact, and the danseuse just had to trust that her partner would lift her into the next step. For fans of Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon mentioned that she was visibly upset when told she would be dancing barefoot (he said “there may have been a tear”) but that After the Rain was a fascinating insight into her gentler side, beyond her fabulous technique. Meditative, tranquil, and often inviting a sense of loss, After the Rain achieved its purpose so perfectly the Seattle audience (who definitely loves their yoga!) responded to it very enthusiastically…even if I didn’t. I did yoga for a couple of years and I didn’t have the attention span for it then and certainly don’t now, so I didn’t find myself really interested. It’s not what I would call a “let down,” but when the theoretically strongest work is your least favorite, you’re sent on a different emotional roller coaster than the rest of the audience and that can be tricky to figure out.

Closing out the actual performance evening was Variations Sériuses, a comedic story ballet about a ballerina with a diva attitude who essentially gets in her own way and ends up being replaced by a younger dancer (et tu…Lily?). The neat thing about this piece is that the set is built to show a view from the wings as this fictitious ballet company rehearses and puts on a production of an unnamed ballet, which clues the audience into what it’s like backstage and of course, hamming it up a little. It has just enough melodrama to appeal to the general audience, though professional dancers and those familiar with the stage life will certainly derive a little extra here and there. The ballet within the ballet is a generic sort, with Romantic tutus and floral headwear, and the most heinously neon pink costumes you might ever see. American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg once referred to their production of Theme and Variations as the “pink monster,” but this ballet-within-a-ballet should then be called the “pink behemoth.” We are talking about the most offensive to the eyes, highlighter pink imaginable, obviously intentional because we’d be fools if we believed dancers enjoyed every costume they have to wear (and just in case you were wondering…they don’t). Laced with hilarity, I quite enjoyed Variations Sériuses, and really enjoyed Carrie Imler as the Ballerina. It’s a role in which a dancer could easily flail around and indulge in too much melodrama, but she always gives intelligent performances and trust me when I say she has some mean (literally) echappés!

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this crash course in Christopher Wheeldon’s work, having only seen a couple of pieces by Corella Ballet prior to PNB’s program. I did kind of yearn for something bigger, as there is something pleasing about having that big, symphonic ending (as ubiquitous as it may be), but you don’t curate a Chagall exhibit and spray the paintings with glitter because there isn’t enough “razzle-dazzle.” In these instances one must respect the creator’s perspective and when it comes to Wheeldon, I found every piece to be tasteful, coherent, and wonderfully made—a marvelous start to the performance season!

Here are some excerpts of the lecture/demonstration with Wheeldon, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel:

It Takes a Team to Raise a Dancer

23 Jul

Perhaps the greatest challenge artists face is how to shape their career, when there is never a clear-cut path. In the development of a professional ballet dancer, most of the time there is the added obstacle of having to figure it all out at an early age. It would be like trying to graduate with a master’s degree at the age of eighteen—that’s a lot of work (understatement of the century!) and it’s a decision that requires a sensibility and maturity not always found in teenagers (those of us who are older and wiser know this to be true). While I do find that there are many adolescent dancers who are mature beyond their years, they’re still kids and that means parents have to make some decisions and provide guidance along the way. Unfortunately, the “stage parent” (a term I hate because it implies that overbearing parents are a problem exclusive to performing arts) is a stereotype closely linked to ballet, and while there are some seeds of truth, stereotypes are useless when it comes to seeing reality. Thus, my feeling is that healthy relationships between parent and dancer need to be a part of the discussion.

I became interested in the topic of the dancer/parents relationship upon learning in the Twitterverse that two people I followed separately, are in fact related. Dylan Gutierrez, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet was trained by his mother Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, an accomplished ballet dancer in her own right (having danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet among many other professional endeavors) and is now President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Obviously, Andrea comes from a different perspective from other dancer parents, having been a dancer herself, but it could have easily been a double edged sword—maybe she knows too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time an impassioned stance led to irrational behavior. Having a parent who was also a dancer is like the set of ingredients needed for the perfect storm—though a storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just tumultuous. The end result for the Gutierrezes is a good one, with Dylan living the dream in Chicago, and judging by their interactions on Twitter, they’re close. Curious as to how they’ve gotten to where they are, I asked them if they would discuss their past and the nature of their relationship.

YDF: When did you both realize Dylan had what it takes to be a professional dancer? 

Andrea Paris Gutierrez (Photo ©Rose Eichenbaum)

Andrea: Well I knew he had a lot of passion, but because he was one of the first boys I trained I did not realize the things he could do were quite exceptional for his age. He really loved it [ballet] and after a trip away and an inspiring conversation with a certain prima ballerina, he began to talk about becoming a professional dancer. Being that I was also a professional dancer I did not find this unusual or daunting which I think some parents might. We got a lot of positive feedback whenever people saw him dance but I had no idea where it all was leading us. We took things slowly and methodically and did not rush into any offers or programs that many people wanted to scoop him up into. He rode his skateboard, played basketball and other sports like all of his friends. He didn’t leave home until he was sixteen years old and going into eleventh grade.

Dylan: When I was ten years old I decided I didn’t want to play basketball and that I wanted to pursue ballet; it interested me more as I had been inspired by Angel Corella, Patrick Bissell, my mother, and Susan Jaffe (who I heard speak at a summer program). I realized [Jaffe] felt the same way as I did when she was young; she said that she always knew she was going to make it but never said it out loud.

YDF: Andrea, how did being a dancer affect your approach in teaching him? Did you ever set boundaries for yourself and what would you say was your biggest concern during his formative years?

Andrea: Well I was very fortunate; I was trained in dance by my mother Bernice McGough at her school in New Zealand and we always had a great relationship. I modeled how I teach my children (I have a dancing daughter as well) on how she taught me. [Dylan and I] sort of compartmentalized our relationship. When we were at home I was mom, when we were at the studio I was the teacher. I can’t say there is no ballet talk at home—there is—however, I tried really hard not to play favorites at the studio or be overly hard on my own children. Ethics and impartiality are important for my children and for everyone else. Many people at the studio did not know that Dylan and Veronica are my children. I think that treating everyone fairly is important and then if my children did get a special role they knew they earned it like everyone else.

YDF: What was it like to transition from working together as a team for so long, to sending him off to The Royal Ballet School? Dylan, what was it like to train there under new teachers and different circumstances?

Andrea: I knew when Dylan was offered a scholarship to Royal Ballet School it was an amazing opportunity and a chance of a lifetime. I was confident that the training was the best in the world and when we visited the school in the summer I was given plenty of information on how the school ran and what was expected. Once he got there, it was hands off for me…I know that teachers and directors do their best work when they are given the freedom to do so. I never spoke to any teachers or the director until I came to visit at the end of the first year when I had a short conference. I did all the support from behind the scenes. I let them do their job and just supported and encouraged Dylan through the tough times and the good times. I did work with him when he came home on breaks but the school supported that. But I was happy to have them work with him their way, and I was thrilled with the training and support he received at the Royal Ballet School.

Dylan Gutierrez (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

Dylan: I had [already] learned how to work with other teachers and was comfortable with that, but The Royal Ballet School is a whole other beast. They have the luxury of expecting greatness, not good or okay, and I was no longer in the position of being one of two boys everyone thought was good.  I had to prove myself, and thanks to my mother and my father (who is also a huge support to me) I understood that. I didn’t expect anything, and I wasn’t given much at first. They were actually a little weary of me early in the school year; they thought I was a troublemaker, that I had to shape up, be willing to be tamed and pay attention. I started out a troublemaker and about six months into the year I was going on special trips with two of the best boys in the class. One of whom was Vadim Muntagirov, which I am sure if you know that name you know what kind of talent I was holding my own with. 

YDF: Obviously, Andrea, you’ve passed down a lot of your schooling to your son but do you see qualities you had as a dancer in him, or is he his own entity? Has he seen any of your performances and if so, what did he think?

Andrea: When I was dancing we did not tape everything like we do now. I have some pictures but not much tape of myself. Also professional productions are not taped although I have a few things. We are similar in many ways…both tall—but fast movers. I used to love fast allegro and quick footwork. I was a turner and jumper and he is too. I was also very competitive and still am—I love the struggle to be the best and I think he does too. I always used to watch and wonder at dancers who wished their careers away or worse yet complained their careers away. All of sudden its over and you did not enjoy the experience. I try to instill in him to appreciate the gift of dance and enjoy the experience. It goes by fast so make sure that you LOVE every experience you have. Dylan always compliments my demonstrations or my classes. We have mutual admiration of each other. It’s fun.

YDF: Are there ever any “I told you so” moments now between the two of you?

Andrea: Oh yes many, haha. When he was younger he would often “try” things for the first time on stage. I would beg him not to. If you were to tell him for example, that the director of the Nutcracker would be upset with him if he fell on his pirouette by trying to do too many, he would go for the extra one or two or three anyway—it would make me so nervous. He also did a double sissone for the first time on stage and as he ran by the wings he said “how did you like that mom!” as I almost collapsed! He was a daredevil.

Dylan: DEFINITELY! Example one: My mother always told me to think about quality not quantity and at the time I was so obsessed with pirouettes I didn’t care about much else. One day I was doing a Nutcracker where the guests were Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorevenko and I went up to Maxim and I asked “How many pirouettes can you do?” and he answered “It is not about the QUANTITY it is about QUALITY” and my mom looked at me [with that look of] “I told you so.”

Example two: I had auditioned for Houston Ballet, ABT,  Staatsballet , Dutch National, and I had NO OFFERS. I had one more audition to do and it was San Francisco Ballet…after company class Helgi Tomasson said “well I will contact you tomorrow and let you know if we have a spot.” When I came out my mom was really worried saying “You have to audition with smaller companies, you have too” and being young and stupid I said “NO—I want this.” She [kept] saying things like I don’t think he’s going to give you a contract and I just said “wait until tomorrow.” She had a lot of doubts and was really worried. The next day around noon the phone rand and it was Helgi offering me the job, and I thought: “Mom, told you so.”

YDF: Andrea, Dylan spent a year with San Francisco Ballet and now he’s been with the Joffrey since 2009, both two of the top companies in the U.S. Have you been able to attend most of his performances? What’s it like to be a teacher/mother/audience member? It’s still early in his professional career, but is there a performance that stands out to you?

Andrea: That’s a loaded question! In the first performance he danced with SF Ballet, he danced the first Temperament in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I had an ominous feeling. I worried that it was too much responsibility for an eighteen-year-old apprentice and that he would look too young next to the very experienced SFB soloists and principals. It was a good performance but I felt that he needed to be developed more slowly and methodically. I feel that [this] has happened for him at Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater seems to know what to put him in and when is the right time. The Joffrey also seems to prepare him very thoroughly. I was so thrilled to see him dance with Jaime Hickey in Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the pas de deux chosen for them suited them and they handled the material very well, but honestly the moment I saw him step out on stage in Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker as the Snow King I was [even more] thrilled. He looked so mature and confident and matched with Christine Rocas so magically that I honestly could not believe it was him. I don’t get nervous anymore because it is out of my hands now and I know he is prepared. I sit back, enjoy it and think how fantastic he is. It’s really such a pleasure to see my students and my own son in the professional environment. I absolutely love it.

YDF: Dylan, does having your mom in the audience add additional pressure, nerves, or excitement for you?

Dylan: It used to make me really nervous when I was still a student; my mother seriously knows a lot and she is not afraid to tell me when I look bad—professional, Royal Ballet School student—she doesn’t care. It’s her job to let me know and she does, but once I went pro I [began] working properly and she seems to be ecstatic every time she sees me dance now. I do always get a little nervous because she is my teacher and mother and I want her to be proud—she’s my teammate.

Dylan the "Daredevil" (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

YDF: Okay, so…because I’m an Ashton junkie, I have to ask—how was it to dance in his Cinderella? Besides that, what have been your favorite roles/performances so far?

Dylan: Oh I love his version—it’s so classy and glamorous and tells the story extremely well. This is also special for me—it was like my first soloist, first cast role. I was one of the prince’s friends the “Summer Cavalier” and it was so challenging. It takes so much technique to execute that men’s dance and it’s really exciting. Also, my little sister Veronica was an extra in the ballet when we did it in LA so that was fun because we get along so well and she got to meet the company. Other then that I have two favorite performances and one is when I danced the Aria II pas de deux in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Jaime Hickey. This was my first principal role that I had ever danced professionally and it was so liberating and freeing to be onstage by myself and just go at it with that intricate choreography. I used all the space I could, I focused and my mind was right. Our pas de deux went well for both shows and I feel like we really understood it. My MOST favorite performance to date was when I danced the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux at The Joffrey Ballet’s Spring Gala. The man who was supposed to do it (who is also my friend) hurt himself unfortunately and that was not fun to hear about but getting to step up was a great challenge and triumph. I had about four hours of rehearsal total and I had no choice but to go out, relax and just dance it. After the pas de deux, doing my solo [alone on stage] was incredible—it was some of the most fun I have ever had dancing and those two roles will always have a special place in my heart. 

Andrea: May I mention Steve, that as student at the New Zealand School of Dance we did Cinderella for our end of the year performance and I danced the role of the Fairy Godmother so seeing the Joffrey dance this version of the ballet bought a lot of memories for me too. 

YDF: Finally Andrea, what did you take away from the experience of simultaneously raising and training Dylan, and are those experiences helping in teaching your other children now?

Andrea: Well the road to becoming a professional dancer is long, tedious, complicated, and thrilling and traveling that road as a dancer myself and then with Dylan as his teacher and mother, I feel that I am able to see and understand many facets of the process. I think that helps me to guide and mentor my students and to be able to see what their parents are dealing with as well as the dancers. I feel I have a unique and special view of the process and am in the fortunate position to help young dancers and their parents navigate their way through. All situations are different though and as a teacher you learn something new with every dancer. My daughter has aspirations of being on Broadway so now I am learning all about that process and path. It’s quite different and equally as interesting. I’m glad I get to go on this journey with my son. He always asks for my perspective, he always shares things with me, and I’m always so happy when he arranges for me to watch a class or rehearsal. I love to have a special peek at the process and the Joffrey Ballet is always so warm and welcoming when I go to Chicago to visit. I’m already planning my trip(s) for this season. I cannot wait. 

Ballet parents need to remember that the motivation needs to come from the dancer. The parents’ job is to facilitate and support the dancer and the teacher. It’s very hard for a young dancer to travel this road alone—they need a back up who can remain calm in the difficult times. However, my advice is to make sure you take the time to sit back and appreciate the privilege of being in the profession and enjoy the process as much as the product.

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Well friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed interview as much as I have and if you ever hear anyone making some wisecrack about stage parents in ballet, I encourage you to kindly point them to this article! Even if it’s common sense to us, the world needs to know that stereotypes represent certain extremes (as they always do) and that the healthy, happy people are never discussed as much in comparison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andrea and Dylan Gutierrez or have any questions you’d like to ask them, follow them on Twitter! Dylan says a lot of things like “swaggin” and “balcony life,” the meaning of which elude me (best explained by a generational or coolness gap I suppose), but he’s a good kid. Also be sure to check out Dylan’s Facebook page, for a bunch of awesome photos and his YouTube channel for videos of him dancing. For more information about Andrea’s work as a teacher and artistic director of LA Ballet, please visit their website at www.laballet.com

Follow Dylan Gutierrez on Twitter @DylanthaVillain
Follow Andrea Gutierrez on Twitter @drummamamma

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

Wow—a busy week! Ever since the Dance Critics Association conference, it feels like it’s been full steam ahead. Prior to last weekend, I was going to blog something about Deborah Jowitt leaving the Village Voice, but seeing as how she was at the conference, I’m just going to tie in a few thoughts I had into one big entry, rather than bore you with a thousand words of inane rambling on the subject (and believe me, I could go on and on!). I have also been working quite a bit at my new job at a bagel deli, where I sell carbs and people eat them, and though it’s not mentally exhausting it is somewhat physically so, and you know you’ve had a long day on your feet when standing on relevé feels good because it relieves pressure on your heels! I’ve been rummaging through a few backburner topics in my head, but every time I sat down to write, I would end up asleep at the computer. So I’m still getting used to the new schedule (which sometimes includes the horror of getting up early) but today my friends, is a day off!

The topic of this year’s DCA conference was reconstruction, in conjunction with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle (but more on that later). I didn’t get to attend the whole conference, and was just a last minute volunteer but I was present on Saturday, for much of the discussion on reconstruction itself. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest, notation guru who knows more about the subject of reconstructing dances than the average mind can handle. It’s funny how a lot of what she talked about seemed relevant to things I learned at Ohio State (coincidentally, one of the examples she used to discuss differences in steps according to notation was indeed La Cachucha, a piece I saw at an MFA concert) and I chuckled to myself when she discussed how ballet training today is about superficial pictures, but the motivation for a movement is never a problem for a modern dancer. I actually had the opportunity to learn a ballet from notation at OSU (which was actually for six female dancers on pointe, but that’s a long story), and the thing she said that struck me the most was how reconstruction from notation is more important than video because the latter makes it so that you have to understand the movement. I always knew the importance of notation but couldn’t express why until she so artfully put it into words—the process of learning notation is an investigation of movement, and my own interpretation is that dancing from notation requires that creative process we like to call “imagination.”

The first panel discussion of the day was with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, and Marian Smith, the trio behind PNB’s staging of Giselle. Peter opened with a general spiel, about how he wanted a unique production for the company, how Doug told him of Marian’s proximity, that it was something of a last minute decision (I seem to recall a mixed bill that it replaced), and that people are calling it the “new/old Giselle.” Now that sounds familiar…oh wait, I was one of those people! Hey…look at that legitimate writer…that’s me too! Gloating aside, there was a lot of interesting discussion on not only negotiating three minds at work, but also three documents to work with, and what the ideal creation would be. Most of the choreography came from the Stepanov, and the French scores provided the pantomime, with the usual interpolations of “artistic liberties” (at times, none of the scores provided anything of use). Much of the more difficult choreography was tested on Carrie Imler, allegro extraordinaire, who could basically do all of it though the rest of the company had some trouble, hence the adjustments. Though many fascinating questions were asked, I’m glad someone mentioned the use of humor, in the lost scenes and Smith said that the originator of the role of the old man was a world-renowned comic mime, so it is fully intended to be a moment of comic relief. She feels lightening of the mood gives the story gravity, though I still disagree here—people were surprised by humor in Giselle, though I think Act I has always had traces of it, and it’s the contrast between the two acts that gives it gravity, not an unnecessary augmentation of the storyline…but, this is strictly a matter of opinion.

There was a writing workshop during lunch that I only observed because I hadn’t been a part of the conference the previous day, and that was followed by another panel on reconstruction means, which unfortunately, by that time I was mentally checking out. Sitting through panels is a lot like lecture-based learning, and the whole experience reminded me of being in school again, something I’m not really looking to return to. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept, or what I’ve done for the day, I am always sleepy around two o’clock, so my notes for this panel are woefully barren. Just remember…preservation makes us human and every dancer inherits an embodied legacy.

Finding my second wind for the last panel of the day, several ballet repetiteurs shared their thoughts on reconstruction for living or deceased choreographers. Though several ballet choreographers—from lesser known to titans like Tudor and Balanchine—were discussed, I’m just going to summarize some of the Balanchine tidbits, mostly coming from Francia Russell (one of the founding co-directors of PNB). Russell indeed danced for NYCB years ago, and I suppose a lot like Carrie Imler, Balanchine tested a lot of movement on Russell, even if the performances themselves went to other dancers. Russell actually retired pretty early, but stayed with NYCB as ballet mistress, and in fact only stages ballets that she watched Balanchine produce during her tenure, as well as ballets she herself has danced. Though she doesn’t claim to have the definitive version of anything, she does say she stages things very closely to the way he wanted them (in that sense, her work is kind of like the Australia of ballet—broke away from the mother continent and remained unchanged while Balanchine’s choreography in New York evolved under different circumstances). Though she tries not to impose her personal tastes, there have been occasions where she’ll make executive decisions like when she stages Ballet Imperial, it’s mostly NYCB material but there is also choreography that is seen with the Royal Ballet (Balanchine went overseas to stage it, working closely with Moira Shearer). Also, I believe it was in regards to the finale of Divertimento No.15, she said Balanchine changed the ending for PBS’s Dance in America to accommodate the set, but she loves the original finale. Apparently, NYCB’s Divertimento is starting to look a lot like Who Cares?, and never having seen the former I don’t know what that means but it was fun to hear her opinions on several matters, like which companies were great to work with and which weren’t *coughLa Scalacough*.

The second topic of this panel posed the question of how critics should approach reconstructive work, and while this wasn’t really discussed in detail, Russell voiced some frustrations in wondering why critics feel the need to personally attack dancers, when they are so willingly giving their all. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Deborah Jowitt nodded her head in agreement, as her refusal to write negative reviews led to her leaving the Village Voice. I found it funny that in a room full of critics, who so willingly put forth their ideas during other panels to the point where questions weren’t really asked during the Q&A sessions and it was more like a debate with statements of opinion, nobody really had much to say on the matter. Well, I am of the mind of Jowitt, who I saw speak and perform a sort of dance-theatre solo at OSU, and I believe that dance truly fascinates her, which is why she is able to write about it in the way she does. She genuinely finds the art of movement captivating at all levels, which is why she doesn’t have anything negative to say about the effort put forth by performers. I admire her so much for it, and aspire to be like her, though for me it requires some effort. We all know I can go on and on about Ashton (and in an upcoming entry, I will), but when ballet moves away from the styles I favor the most, I have a harder time discussing it. However, I think when a passion is authentic, you find a way, which leads me to believe that some critics may be more in love with the search for perfection than they are ballet itself…and for some reason society seems to think if you can nitpick flaws in a performance, you must know what you’re talking about. Rest assured, I don’t think that way.

On that note, I encourage you to read my latest and first post-DCA review on SeattleDances, in which I reviewed PNB’s Season Encore performance. I am interested to hear if you think my voice has changed, or is still the same old me, and ideally, WILDLY and authentically in love with ballet!

PNB presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…surprise! I went.

10 Apr

So I did the unthinkable…I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coincidentally, exactly one week after the anniversary of The Dream’s premiere and my birthday.  My fellow Ashtonians may be shocked, but not to worry—my dedication to The Dream hasn’t wavered, despite some new perspective on Balanchine’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  For starters, I’ve only seen the DVD of La Scala’s production, and we all know that a live performance is an entirely different experience.  Inevitably, as a balletomane I had to give the live version a chance and make an honest effort at being open-minded.  It helped immensely that my two favorite dancers with the company, Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes, danced the principal roles of Oberon and Titania (my “dream” cast, pun intended).  It was also something of a special occasion as this run of Midsummer serves as a means to an end for a few principal dancers who will officially retire at the end of the season.  It’s almost eerily poetic in a way, to use Midsummer as a farewell given the plot itself and how it’s all about returning to reality after a whirlwind fantasy, which is very much what a ballet career can be like.  Or so I assume.

It made for quite the occasion, as three of the dancers that are retiring (Olivier Wevers, Ariana Lallone, and Jeffrey Stanton) all performed major roles and the audience was quite sentimental about it, really embracing “their dancers” (to the point where some of the things they were applauding were a little ridiculous!  The saut de chat is a beast, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every single one is extraordinary!).  Though they all danced incredibly well, it was one of those moments where you realize the best dancing transcends technique by virtue of that mystifying relationship between performer and audience.  In fact, I was jealous!  Ballet was not a part of my life until adulthood and I haven’t lived in proximity to a large ballet company long enough to establish that kind of sentimentality.  Even though I found it odd that the applause was so generous, it was also endearing in how pure it was; the audience was just enjoying the whole moment, not caring whether something fell under good or brilliant, or whether they even liked the ballet or not.  Moments like these really are far too few, and things to be cherished.

That being said, Balanchine’s Midsummer still makes no sense to me.  There were also times where I felt that Balanchine really just didn’t use the music well, and I’ve concluded that for much of it, he stuck too literally to the story, which doesn’t work without the dialogue.  However, some things were much better this time around, like PNB’s set designs, which are absolutely stunning.  La Scala’s sets pale in comparison, resorting to very plain backdrops, whereas PNB frames the stage with huge painted roses, a glistening spider web, trees, and other elements that add to the fantasy (the giant painted frog I could have done without…but, okay).  As for Act II, the triple wedding of Hippolyta/Theseus, Helena/Demetrius, and Hermia/Lysander, it is of course still out of place, as Balanchine basically crammed the entire story of Midsummer into the first act, and decided to incur some kind of temporal anomaly to make for a lengthy wedding scene.  Artistically I find this an odd decision because it devotes a lot of emphasis to the wedding, which has very little significance in the play, however, the sets again made a huge difference; with garlands, columns, and a starry sky, the atmosphere was far more romantic.

If I think of Act II as a completely different ballet, like a Symphony in C, I have a much easier time accepting it.  Regardless, the PNB dancers really delivered a beautiful performance with the Divertissement Pas de Deux and their entourage pas de six (six couples that is, so twelve dancers).  Though the Divertissement Pas de Deux has absolutely nothing to do with the story, it is quite possibly, one of the most beautiful pas de deux Balanchine ever choreographed (and no, my dedication to the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux has not wavered either…but this one is definitely up there).  Last night’s performance featured Wevers and Kaori Nakamura (her return to the stage after going on maternity leave), who have known each other for many years not just at PNB but also the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (where they also danced with Alexei Ratmansky by the way).  The chemistry was a wonderful balance of genuine love and trust, perfectly matched to some of the subtlest choreography I’ve ever seen by Balanchine.  The brightness of the stage was toned down from a starry sky to a crescent moon, and the quiet strings provided an utterly utopian nocturne (for my fellow music geeks, it’s an interpolation of the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings no. 9 in C Major).  It’s the epitome of serenity and tranquility, in many ways serving as the perfect farewell for Wevers and Stanton (who is partnering Körbes), as night falls on their stage careers.  In a word, it was unforgettable, and I feel so lucky to have been in the audience for it.

Meanwhile, I don’t have to sing the praises of Carla Körbes’s Titania, because you already know I’m going to tell you she’s flawless.  The lovely port de bras, her beauty, her expressiveness…she just has a special glow.  Lucien Postlewaite is also amazing as Oberon, being in my humble opinion one of the most well-rounded dancers with the company and having a gummy bear plié.  Seriously, he lands so softly it’s not fair…though he took a little spill during his Act I solo, which is an absolutely wicked display of bravura steps.  Maybe he gets really nervous if I’m watching…or maybe the truth is they’ve been having issues with the floor, as the tape is apparently very slippery.  Isn’t it ironic how one of the few spots where he had to land in a tight fifth position, which, if you think about it, is a spot so small it’s a decimal percentage of the stage, also happened to be covered with slippery tape?  It’s like a stilt walker slipping on an olive…but he wasn’t the only one, because another dancer took a spill in the same spot, which was less noticeable because it was Lysander getting flung around by Puck during one of the confusion scenes.  May you never look at a dancer falling the same way again!  Here’s a video too where you can get some glimpses at the aforementioned wicked solo (and the giant frog):

Speaking of Puck, Jonathon Porretta was brilliant and absolutely hysterical (overall PNB “got” the humor in performance much better than La Scala did on film).  What was also funny was the woman behind me, who I think had a Russian accent and said “oh, Jonathon Porretta, I love HIM.”  Especially with the accent, how fabulous is that?!  I wish I could have heard more, but then she started speaking to her friend in Russian and alas, I could no longer understand.  She was also far less enthusiastic about Postlewaite, and I wanted to turn around and be all “oh no you didn’t!” but then I realized I would have looked like a crazy person.  Although, like I always say, we’re an eclectic bunch up in that balcony—who else would manage to give himself a paper cut on the program during intermission, and ask one of the bartenders for a napkin to stop the bleeding?  Right…that was me, and beside the point.  Despite being an Ashton junkie, I really did enjoy myself and hey, Wevers himself told me that he danced The Dream at Winnipeg, and liked it better so even in my darkest hour (which wasn’t that dark) Sir Fred smiles upon us.

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011-2012 Season Tidbits

2 Feb

Here’s some exciting news…I received my subscription renewal package to Pacific Northwest Ballet in the mail today, where a few tidbits about next season have been revealed.  This season I chose to do a mini-subscription which entailed selecting four of the six programs they are doing because I knew there would be something I didn’t want to see (this year’s omissions being Kent Stowell’s Cinderella and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though I may cave on the latter, even if it betrays my beloved Ashton ballet, The Dream).  The mini-subscription has the advantage of purchasing additional tickets at a discounted price and I like having that flexibility, though the one problem with it is that they prioritize full season subscriptions and sell the mini ones later.  Perhaps this is there way of encouraging me to buy a full subscription, but I’m stubborn and it’s not going to work.

So what’s in store for Seattle area residents and the travelling fan?  Four juicy mixed bills, including an All Balanchine/Stravinsky program.  ‘Twas a special relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky, one of the last significant collaborations between choreographer and composer in the world of ballet.  A great number of works were born out of their creativity, including Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée and Apollo, which are confirmed to be a part of the program.  Any number of works could flesh out the evening, as PNB has several Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets in their repertory and could easily learn another one (in fact, Divertimento will be a premiere for the company).  I saw excerpts of Apollo when PNB did their ‘Balanchine’s Petipa’ lecture demonstration (which is where I fell in love with the dancing of Carla Körbes), and am eager to revisit the piece as well as see anything new for the first time so I’m all in for this one (even if some of Stravinsky’s music occasionally gives me insomnia).

Another mixed bill will be an All Robbins program, which doesn’t have any details listed in the newsletter, but Karena confirmed after attending a post-performance talk of the program that included Robbins’s Glass Pieces, that Dances at a Gathering would be on the menu.  I couldn’t be happier…Dances at a Gathering has been my holy grail for the longest time and I might just buy tickets for a good five to seven performances just to permanently burn it into my retinas.  With Dances being a good meaty hour or so, it will be interesting to see what else will be included.  Perhaps it will be a night of Chopin, with In The Night and The Concert, or maybe it will be a diversified selection of Jerome Robbins works and showcase variety with the lighthearted Fancy Free or popular West Side Story Suite.  All of the above are in the rep, though there are other iconic ballets like Afternoon of a Faun that are not, so surprises could be in store.  Regardless, I’m not going to get greedy…just give me Dances and I will gladly pay the money to see it over and over again.

Rounding out the mixed bills are an All Wheeldon program (obviously, featuring ballets by Christopher Wheeldon) and a Director’s Choice, which will showcase contemporary works.  I have no idea what to expect from either of these, as PNB has many pieces they’ve done before to choose from and possible new pieces being learned, though I’ve never seen any Wheeldon ballets so that program is a must for me.  No details were revealed about the Director’s Choice program, so I will probably end up skipping it by default, and purchasing a ticket later.

As is tradition there must be full-length ballets in the lineup and unfortunately I was a little disappointed with the selections for the upcoming season, but that has nothing to do with the ballets themselves, it really is just me being cranky about it.  They will bring back Balanchine’s Coppélia, which they just did last year and it’s simply not among my favorites to warrant a strong enough desire to see it again.  It’s a good production—I just don’t want to go again so soon and I think part of the reason why it’s a little disappointing is because there are other full-lengths they haven’t done in a while, like Swan Lake or Jewels (the latter being most preferable!).  The other story ballet will be Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote, a new ballet for PNB and while I haven’t seen Ratmansky’s version, it’s not a ballet I’m a huge fan of.  I find it a little ridiculous and on the cheesy side, with a score that isn’t anything special.  However, I feel the need to give it a chance, and to date I’ve never seen Ratmansky’s choreography live either so I’m going to give it a go.  It really could be worse…like they could be doing Paquita, but even if I’m not exactly fond of Don Quixote, I do feel it important to check off Petipa based classics on my “Live Performance List,” which sadly, only contains Bolshoi’s production of Le Corsaire so far (clearly, I need to get out more…or REALLY get out and move to London).

Despite certain aversions and personal yearnings, I commend Peter for putting together what looks to be an exciting, well-balanced season.  There’s a great deal of variety that honors the classical traditions, highlights the neoclassical masterminds and brings fresh blood in with new works.  However, my plight of lacking Ashton, MacMillan and Bournonville continues, and I was never foolish enough to think that this would change in the upcoming year, but next weekend I will be running off to San Francisco to see San Francisco Ballet perform Ashton’s Symphonic Variations in a mixed bill with Symphony in C and RAku (which is obviously, what I will be doing instead of seeing Cinderella).  I guess I lied earlier when I said I couldn’t be happier about Dances at a Gathering…because I am over the moon about Symphonic Variations!  Be looking forward to that review, which will also include a Giselle with the lovely Maria Kochetkova.  If you were hoping to hear my thoughts on PNB’s Cinderella…too bad.

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Take two pliés and call me in the morning

10 Dec

I’m definitely feeling the love from your votes for my entry into the Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest and the question that keeps popping into my mind is if I’m so intelligent and funny then why am I still single?  Joking aside, I figured that because I am entering as a student of dance, it would be relevant to assess what I’ve been doing in the studio, since the majority of my posts have been more academic in nature.  It just so happens that I recently traveled home to Ohio for the holidays, spending time in Dayton with family and then in Columbus for a few days with friends before heading out again for a wedding in Savannah, Georgia, where I found out one should never touch the Spanish moss.  My friends and I thought it would be funny to use them as dwarf beards a la Gimli from the Lord of the Rings franchise (you don’t need to know why…it’s a long story that will never make sense), but we were luckily stopped by a home grown Georgian friend, who warned us of “chiggers,” little red mites that will burrow into your skin and cause fierce itching (I made the mistake of Googling for pictures—I suggest that you do not).  The point is,  I was in Savannah, but before that I was in Columbus.

In Columbus, I visited with lovely ballet teacher friends, dropping in for a few classes for a “regular check up.”  As one of the many adult students of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s open program, most of the teachers I’ve encountered are in fact trained in the Balanchine method.  I’ve documented a few of these differences in previous entries, but a while ago I began to wonder if somehow certain changes have been creeping in.  The catalyst was a freak pique in attitude, where I was horrified to see in the mirror that my leg was way out to the side.  I should clarify that it’s not that I’m opposed to Balanchine entirely, but I understand much of the training methods to be unsuited for my body type, hence the “check up.”  I think revered Balanchine muse Violette Verdy said it best…she said that she didn’t think she was a Balanchine dancer because he had a company of greyhounds and borzois, while she was a French poodle (which makes me a kiwi bird—small, quirky, and flightless).  Anyway, for many reasons, I am incredibly thankful for the foundation I received at Ohio State, which was probably more Russian based, with bits of the French, Italian and British schools mixed in because PNB classes present certain challenges that I can’t always overcome.

For example, the fact of life is that I don’t have great turnout.  It’s one thing to have fairly open hips to say, 160° or 170° and cheat a little to 180°, as the teachers often tell their students to take their legs completely out to the side in an extension a la seconde.  However, if you have a mere 100° or so like I do, going that far to the side does one of two things: it contorts you into some weird position that makes you fall over or you turn in your standing leg.  I was taught to bring the leg forward in line with my natural turnout, because that’s where I can access rotation in my hips.  I haven’t much, but it’s all I’ve got and I’d rather work with that than look awkward trying to achieve the impossible or worse, injure myself in the process.  Also, I am of the school of thought that rotation in the hips has a certain aesthetic appeal because of the way the feet can be presented…but one’s preference for that or the Balanchine look is strictly a matter of opinion.

There are certain corrections in ballet that are more or less universal so I apply what I can but sometimes I do end up disregarding others.  I’m not trying to be a know-it-all, in fact, I’m completely open to trying the advice PNB teachers give at least once.  However, if I’m falling out of turns or finding it impossible to get a good balance, I go back to what I know and concepts that have proven to be the most successful for me in the past—all things I learned from my teachers at OSU.  There’s nothing wrong with having the courage to stand your ground on what works best for you and I would even go as far as saying that it is a responsibility every student, whether of ballet or even school should take on for themselves.  Learning isn’t just about the absorption of information; an understanding of what percentage of that information is beneficial is equally important.  This is not to say when I disagree with the Balanchine method I have the right to make a scene…it’s also my responsibility to try new things, internalize what it is teachers are telling me and compare that to the knowledge I have and come up with my own resolutions.  Although…if I’m going to be impudent, the gremlin in me desperately wants to mount a protest against Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in favor of Ashton’s The Dream…but I bet that you didn’t see that one coming!

Meanwhile, I loved taking class with my teacher friends again and liked the challenges I faced at barre, with (as much as I hate it) lots of work on relevé.  We even did a mini-Rose Adagio in one class, and to think that a year ago, I would have had no idea what that meant!  I felt a new sense of freedom in returning to those studios, and I could feel a certain energy that made me dance better.  I suppose time apart makes the heart grow fonder indeed, and everything just seemed stronger.  I even managed a couple of triple pirouettes and threw in extra beats whenever I could in the allegros.  For the longest time, I wasn’t really sure how to add a beat to a balloné and once I figured it out I wasn’t even sure if I could, but gosh darn it I went for it in good old Studio 3 and I did it!  So now I have that to carry with me though the million-dollar question is, have I been Balanchine-ified?  Well, I received confirmation that my technique looks stronger so the answer would be “no.”  That was the greatest news because it means that through my self-corrections I’m  succeeding as a bastion of my preferred technique, and improving as well.

Ironically, after all the efforts to make sure I wasn’t becoming a Balanchine dancer (I am an Ashton worshipper after all!), one of my friends told me that she would be doing a tiny excerpt of Balanchine choreography in her class.  While it may sound like I would have avoided it, the truth is that whenever given the opportunity I’d rather dance than not.  So it went that she taught us a short phrase from The Four Temperaments, but rather than have us dance it to Hindemith’s famous score, we danced it to Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance instead.  Rock.  On.  I totally toned down my usual emotiveness and did my “serious face,” busting out some School of American Ballet fingers and relishing the opportunity to “whack” my leg up into the air instead of an elegantly elastic grand battement.  Every now and then it’s good to let loose…even I can get a little too serious in ballet sometimes.