Tag Archives: balanchine

Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

The third installment of Swan Lake Month spotlights a supposedly special one, the performance of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with the Vienna State Opera.  Theirs is a legendary partnership and from what I can find, this Swan Lake, along with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet are the only commercially available full length recordings starring them.  There are a few more videos of various pas de deux that offer glimpses into the depth of their partnership, but the emotional involvement of a grand pas de deux just isn’t the same if you don’t get to see the context from which it was born.

Now I’m no Swan Lake connoisseur, but I really don’t think I liked this one.  I wanted to, because after all it is Fonteyn/Nureyev but there was a lot going on that didn’t sit well with my personal preferences.  This staging had choreography by Nureyev himself, and it should come as no surprise that this too would be the story of Prince Siegfried.  However, I think Nureyev took it just a wee little bit too far.  First of all, this was quite the hack job of Tchaikovsky’s score, which is fairly common for Swan Lake but there were some things that were just bizarre choices.  For example (and the easiest for me to pick out) is the use of the supplementary Pas de Deux music.  The pas de deux itself is used in Act III as intended, for Siegfried and Odile, however both variations and the coda are used in Act I, with the female variation being performed by an unnamed character at Siegfried’s party, the male variation being performed by Siegfried and the coda as a pas de cinq with Siegfried.  If it feels like I’m writing Siegfried as every other word, it’s because I pretty much am…Nureyev may as well have called his staging: SIEGFRIED! (and a swan). The juggling around of music is forgivable because like I said, it’s common in Swan Lake to sort of pick and choose…but while not a glaring flaw it wasn’t exactly favorable (I did however appreciate some of Nureyev’s choreography here, like in the female variation he has the dancer do some work in épaulée).

However, watching this Swan Lake has reinforced what I’ve long known to be true about Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; it is by far the most harmonious and precise interpretation of the music.  In fact, other than a few moments I wasn’t terribly impressed by Nureyev’s choreography.  While staying true to classical structure, I felt a certain lack of phrasing and smooth transitions between the phrases.  There were a lot of pauses in certain poses and not always musically accented…it felt like the choreography just wasn’t finding the right space in the score.  Speaking of space, there wasn’t much of the physical variety either; the Vienna State Opera corps de ballet was incredibly cramped and could barely keep from bumping into each other.

However, Nureyev is a compelling dancer.  I found his makeup garish (heavy on the blue eye shadow!) and while I understand the need for some exaggeration in stage makeup, it appeared that this was a version made for film, thus offering closer views.  As a “made for film” version, there was no audience and possibly no live audio track (though the faint scuffing of shoes could be heard if there was no music playing).  Still, there was an odd, slightly boyish charm about Nureyev paired with an interesting technique; I didn’t feel Nureyev’s technique was the purest and most refined—in fact, maybe even a little stiff—but there was a rawness to it that drew me in.  Similarly, it was Fonteyn’s emotional rawness that I enjoyed in her performance as Odette/Odile.  There was something genuinely magical about the way she would even tilt her head to rest on Siegfried’s shoulder, or when in the fourth act, Siegfried rushes in and ruffles the feathers of every swan until he finally finds his Odette, a heavy-hearted mix of grief and joy.  I also loved when she entered as Odile in Act III, she gave this perfectly timed shifty glance to Von Rothbart, a fleeting cue to let us know she’s an imposter before she begins acting like Odette.

As far as some differences are concerned, there is a pretty substantial truncation of soloist roles, like Von Rothbart, who essentially doesn’t dance at all.  Also, there is no Benno and even the maidens from which Siegfried is initially to choose his bride are lumped into one dance with no distinctions between them.  Act III becomes a traffic jam of divertissements, with the maidens, a few of the national dances (which now serve absolutely no purpose) and then the Black Swan pas de deux.  An interesting choice in Act III though was the omission of Odette—it’s Siegfried who gradually comes to the realization that Odile and Von Rothbart have duped him, again highlighting Siegfried’s internal dialogue.  Act II was mostly untouched (I think Nureyev added…surprise, a solo for Siegfried), and it seems most productions tend to leave the Ivanov-Gorsky choreography alone…I suppose it has the auspicious “no touchie” aura.  Nureyev’s Act IV, however, contains a strange ending in which Siegfried dies in a flood, unleashed by Von Rothbart by the lake.  It’s awfully melodramatic, and Nureyev was quite indulgent in his death, dark fabric billowing around him as the deadly water.  Each time I thought he was submerged and drowning, he came up again, still fighting and he even manages to cling on to a tree to see Odette flying away as a swan, before finally drowning.  It wasn’t an ending I found particularly satisfying or even all that tragic…but I also had the issue of trying to rationalize in geological terms how a lake could violently flood like that (conclusions included the breaking of a natural dam in what would have had to have been a fairly mountainous region, the breaching of a crater wall at a lake that formed in an extinct volcano, or a jökulhlaup…had Nureyev thought to set his Swan Lake near a glacier).

All in all, probably my least favorite of the three so far.  Perhaps my expectations were too high given the circumstances of a Fonteyn/Nureyev recording but while there were some wonderful moments but for various reasons I felt disengaged with the ballet as a whole.  I know looking for logic is somewhat futile in a classical ballet, but this was just too indulgent in Nureyev’s fancies…I’m all for expanding certain roles if necessary but not without purpose.  I have a feeling this probably isn’t on the top of the list when it comes to a woman’s favorite Swan Lake.  I suppose it’s a good one for the die-hard Fonteyn/Nureyev fan, and they have a truly genuine chemistry that shines in their pas de deux, but I suspect they’ve been better in other filmed performances.

 

Svansjön Nummer Två

14 Nov

Swan Lake Month continues with selection number two, the staging by Sir Peter Wright as performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet.  Like the Bolshoi production, this one also tells the story from Siegfried’s point of view, except as a gothic tragedy rather than the happy ending the Bolshoi goes with (which is characteristic of Soviet-era art).  Siegfried is danced by Anders Nordström, Odette/Odile by Nathalie Nordquist, the Queen by Markette Kaila, Baron von Rothbart by Christian Rambe and Benno by Johannes Öhman.  At this point, it should occur to you as it did to me that I didn’t mention Benno at all in my review of the Bolshoi DVD—he wasn’t in it—so there you go.

This Swan Lake begins with a catalyst; Wright wanted to develop the character of the prince more and so it begins with the funeral of Siegfried’s father…who apparently happened to die right around Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday, which is quite dramatic but I suppose not outside the realm of possibility.  We are meant to see the melancholy that hovers around the prince, to help us understand his reluctance in enjoying his birthday celebration, despite Benno’s efforts to cheer him up.  Here’s where early differences can be seen, such as the pas de trois where either Benno or Siegfried (obviously, depending on the production) dances with two courtesans but Wright has it begin with Benno and then Siegfried joins in with a solo (with a horrifying en dedans pirouette a la seconde, which we all know is women’s work) and various pas de trois/quatre dances.  Queen mama makes an unexpected appearance and is horrified that Siegfried is enjoying himself when they should be in mourning and reminds him that he is to choose a bride, which gives further insight as to why Siegfried is so depressed; the Queen’s insistence on marriage makes it pragmatic and thus an inhibitor to his freedom.  At some point he also gets the crossbow (and a GIANT one at that) and after Benno spots a wedge of swans, is urged to take it for a test drive.

An excerpt of the Pas de Trois, with Siegfried and two courtesans:

I have to say that Philip Prowse, who designed the sets and costumes did amazing work.  Act I was mostly a monochromatic color scheme of dark grayish-blues, a relatively straightforward expression of the somber atmosphere after the death of the King.  Act II is a lakeside act, so mostly dark with white, luminous swans and a gorgeous, Stygian Von Rothbart costume (as an owl) that melded in and out of the set.  Act III returns to the palace, except with new lighting that paints everything in sizzling reds (Act IV, is another lakeside act with white swans).  It’s rather simple, but in many ways the drastic contrast between Acts I and III made it feel like an entirely new ballet.  This is aided by the fact that Wright’s choreography undergoes some changes; I actually felt like Act I was pretty rigid and rather academic while Act III was much more vibrant and imaginative.  By breathing new life into the separate acts, the dreaded divertissements were actually quite enjoyable and cleverly woven into the story.

Now Act III is very interesting…lots of good things and some odd.  Wright reduces the number of national dances to three and structures it differently by having each delegation dance followed by a variation from their respective female suitors.  If I recall the score correctly, Wright uses the Czardas followed by the Intrada from the Pas de Six, the Mazurka paired with Variation IV from the Pas de Six, and the Danse Napolitaine coupled with the female variation from the supplementary Act III Pas de Deux (aka, the female variation from Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux).  Then the three maidens dance a coda, again from the supplementary Pas de DeuxBack when I was researching the Black Swan Grand Pas de Deux, I stated that I hadn’t come across any examples using the female variation and coda from the supplementary Pas de Deux, but lo and behold here’s one!  It was kind of bizarre seeing different choreography to my beloved Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and personally, I think Balanchine’s choreography is much more suited to it…but I digress.  Here’s a fun fact for you though; after the three maidens do their dances and Siegfried refuses to marry any of them, a fourth contingent arrives with their ambassador being Baron Von Rothbart.  What I found deliciously hilarious was that Von Rothbart’s people perform to the Danse Espagnole, so apparently Von Rothbart is a Spaniard.  Unfortunately the amount of dancing is decreased for Spanish Von Rothbart as he doesn’t do a variation in this production (he does in the Bolshoi, where his contingent is actually a flock of black swans!).

One of the central ideas in this staging seems to be making the transformations, like Von Rothbart from owl to human, or Odette from swan to human and to Odile, very clear.  When the diminutive Nordquist enters the stage as Odile, you can sense an enormously villainous and I really enjoyed this interpretation of the character.  While others may opt for the subtler layering of an imposter Odette over Odile herself, Nordquist is downright evil with a dash of crazy.  The softness of her arms remain but there’s an added dimension of malevolence in her hands, like at the end of the pas the deux where many ballerinas will arch their heads back in the iconic attitude position with the prince supporting her; Nordquist hits the final note with a capricious flick of the wrists.

Nordquist as Odette (note the transformation at the end, and Von Rothbart’s Valkyrie helmet):

Compared to Nordquist as Odile (note crazy glances):

Overall, I think Sir Peter Wright’s Swan Lake is a nice one, and makes things very clear for modern audiences.  In that sense, it may not be for the die-hard Laker because they may feel like they’re being beaten over the head with the plot and desire nuance and innuendo.  I would actually recommend showing this to someone who is perhaps interested in ballet, but afraid that they “won’t get it” (since that seems to be a common excuse).  The DVD is also loaded with extra features like interviews with Sir Peter Wright himself, an interview with artistic director Peter Jacobsson, a narrated libretto and interviews with Nordström and Nordquist (the former of which was a little awkward, but I commend him for doing the interview in English, which is probably not his native language).  It’s a well-rounded Swan Lake experience, unfettered by overly sophisticated ideas or a useless jester.

As for my hypothesis…I’m still on the idea of the pursuit and knowing the woman as she wants to be seen.  In this instance, there is an element of remorse on Siegfried’s behalf that is necessary to make him real and forgiveness on Odette’s behalf to ensure that she is the smarter, more compassionate one between the two of them.

Moira Shearer

21 Sep

It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance.  Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones.  There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known.  I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.

The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives.  It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr.  I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked.  Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni?  Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.

I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.”  It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!).  At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding.  Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer.  I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days.  I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.

Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored.  It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence.  De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room.  This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen.  Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine.  Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately).  De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly.  It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?).  Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet.  It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…

It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances.  The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard.  Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no?  At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer.  Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well.  I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody.  The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them.  In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton!  I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.

(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)

Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

Challenging Changes and Audacious Authenticity

23 Jul

I’ve been reading up on reviews and such for the Bolshoi’s production of Coppélia that is currently showing at the Royal Opera House, which is a new reconstruction from a Stepanov notation score of Petipa’s original.  The Bag Ladies wrote a post that included a link to a fascinating article from The Arts Desk, featuring the man “restoring” Petipa ballets, Sergei Vikharev.  It’s all supremely interesting, but unfortunately wasted on me because most of the Petipa ballets I’ve only seen one or no production of (I can hardly believe this debauchery), let alone be familiar with the details and choreography to know the differences in “after Petipa” versions and any reconstruction (none of which are on film yet anyway).  I hope in depth discussions about Coppélias are taking place in London as we speak, meanwhile I’m going to keep splashing about in the kiddie pool.

What I do take away from the article though is a question of what exactly does authenticity mean to the world of ballet?  Rather than lead you to believe I have some coherent answer stewing in me brains, I’m just going to say up front there really doesn’t seem to be one.  Some ballets do well with change while others simply can’t be touched.  There’s no clear formula to decide what’s allowed and what isn’t and it seems no great choreographer’s work, whether classical or contemporary is completely invulnerable to change.  There’s no gauge to say whether any of the changes are good or bad, but we discuss these changes anyway and that friends, is what makes art history so special in comparison to plain history.  Regular historians have to argue with each other over the truth while art historians can just argue for fun…or really, to present a certain interpretation of an idea.  It’s all quite intangible and makes for better conversation because we have the luxury of learning to accept differing ideas on the same topic.  Meanwhile, history seeks to uncover one, unbiased truth and I find that incredibly boring (needless to say, history was never my best subject).

I was surprised to read in the article that there was a lack of support for Vikharev’s work (and even more so that money was part of the reasoning behind it) because I don’t think Vikahrev is trying to monopolize Petipa ballets; to me it seems to be more of a responsibility to expand ballet’s history.  I think part of the problem is the word authenticity itself—to claim one version as “original” or “authentic” is to imply that anything else is not and while everything else is indeed “after Petipa,” many new stagings of these ballets have built their own, admirably strong traditions (like Balanchine did with his after Petipa choreography).  As cliché as it sounds, we really do have to look at the past to be able to see the future.  These new reconstructions can help us see how ballet has changed and thus give us that ballet can indeed continue to evolve as a classical art form.  The only way to know where you can go is to know where the heck you came from.

Nobody knew the importance of change better than Balanchine.  In my own obsession with (or as I like to call it, “amateur studies”) of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, I’ve seen many of these changes and not just in historic versus contemporary performances, but within older performances that included changes made by Balanchine himself.  He created the pas de deux on Violette Verdy and she herself had this to say in a documentary:

If he didn’t like what you did with it right away, and he’d say ‘I think I need to change it’ [And you say] Oh Mr. B. I love this, I’ll make it look good, I promise, I’m going to work. [Balanchine would say] ‘No dear, I have another one [step]’ because he knew, maybe there was something better there to be done.

I’ve seen footage of Verdy, the originator of the piece which debuted in 1960 as well as the television debut with Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise in 1962 and already there were changes in the choreography.  DISCLAIMER: Okay so if you’re a casual reader who may not be too familiar with ballet terminology, you may want to choose your own adventure and skip right to the animations because it’s about to get really confusing or if you know the terms and want to skip the details anyway (a valid lifestyle choice) please feel free to do so.  For example, in the coda fouettés were never in the original choreography.  Verdy would perform a series of consecutive attitude turns (en dehors) followed by a quick series of tour sautés en arabesque.  When Hayden performed, Balanchine had her do fouettés but start out with slower ones and gain speed.  Fast forward a bit and Patricia McBride performed what has become sort of the standard and what I used to call the “fouetté steppy-step.”  I looked this up in the dictionary and it’s a mouthful—“fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes.”  I have a little side complaint with this because nobody does this with the speed and accuracy of Suzanne Farrell (understandably so) but what many ballerinas end up doing is cheating the second half of the emboîté en tournant.  They do the fouetté, step onto the right foot en pointe but they cheat with the left leg and plop straight into plié to do the next fouetté.  It’s kind of sloppy to me…but anyway here’s a couple of animations for the visual people:

violette suzanne

Observe: Violette Verdy on top, performing attitude turns en dehors followed by tour sautés en arabesque and Suzanne Farrell on the bottom, performing fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes, both at the same moment in the music.

It is somewhat normal to change bravura steps in a grand pas de deux but there are also many stylistic changes throughout that Tchai Pas has gone through over time.  Hayden didn’t do the partnered penchée in the pas de deux and d’Amboise’s variation actually had an extra forty-eight counts!  Arms differ on the fish dive, whereas Farrell would dive face first, many ballerinas extend their arms forward.  The final exit offstage includes an overhead lift where the man lifts the woman underneath her back and she extends one leg forward and one leg behind her in attitude but it is often changed now so that she tips completely backwards and extends her front leg to the ceiling.  Personally, I like the forward version because it gives the effect of this huge, flying leap and the tipped back version tends to look a little awkward to me, like a caveman hoisting his latest kill but like I said, no right answers when it comes to these changes.  I’m just scratching the surface here, but you get the idea.  What I’d like to know is why hasn’t Verdy’s original interpretation been revived?  Yeah, I went there.

Three different fish dives: Hayden & d'Amboise left, McBride & Baryshnikov center, and Farrell & Martins on the right. Note the differences in arm and leg positions as well as the positions of the men. d'Amboise is lunging forward with his weight on his front leg, Baryshnikov on his back leg while presenting his front foot in tendu and Martins in an upright pseudo-first position. Each couple presents a completely different line and aesthetic, and all of these dancers worked directly with Balanchine.

Anywhodle, there are more controversial, substantial changes like the whole Bournonville versus Lacotte La Sylphide.  The Bournonville is the real deal, “authentic” if you must, while the Lacotte is what it is and seemingly less liked.  In the case of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, I think the choreography was so stylized it’s hard to imagine the same story being told a different way.  However, old or new even masterpieces can see a little change, as Lady Deborah MacMillan mentioned in an interview that when the English National Ballet (I think) did Manon, there was new choreography she had never seen before and she was in full support of it.  So it seems we’re forever blessed and cursed with conflicts between originals and obscurities, authentic versus standard but in the end it’s always giving us something to talk about and that’s the most miraculous thing about the classical arts.  I think it impossible to find something that is so rewarding, the more you invest into studying it…because maybe every Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux being performed today is a LIE.

Staging a comeback

7 Jul

It’s been a long time coming but I finally stepped back into a ballet class…and slithered out on jelly legs.  ‘Twas a unique opportunity because the quiet and understated Peter Boal, former NYCB principal dancer and current artistic director of the company taught the class and I figured what an honor!  Unfortunately, I hadn’t donned the ballet gear in almost a year so it really was a horrible idea since I would obviously be rusty and weak.  Although, truth be told, if you’ve ever spent a year away from the studio there is no good time to go back…only bad times and times that are worse.  I’m sure some dancers would be self conscious about making a fool out of themselves in front of such an accomplished dancer/director but I’m kind of a fan of a good horrible idea and it’s not like I have anything to hide.  Please.

It was an interesting experience for me for a number of reasons.  For starters, the majority of ballet classes I’ve taken have had female teachers.  I’m not complaining at all…women are awesome and in fact, the most demanding teacher I ever had (who slowed down the tempi for the men and made adjustments to combinations to accommodate men’s ballet vocabulary) is indeed a woman.  However, balance is always good and the number of times I’ve had a male ballet teacher is in the single digits.  Second, this would be my first encounter with Balanchine technique (or style…people out there like to argue about this but I don’t).  From what I’ve read online, Mr. Boal trained exclusively at School of American Ballet and taught there as a faculty member for many years and while I don’t know exactly what my former teachers’ backgrounds were, most were all-encompassing and not too heavily grounded in one technique (except for one who was heavy on the Cechetti).

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one cashing in on the opportunity because the class was packed.  Later on, during the petite allegro, Mr. Boal even commented that it looked like a scene from Braveheart, with these hordes of people clashing in the center.  At any rate, things started out familiar enough, warming up with pliés, tendus and your basic barre exercises.  One thing I did notice though was that he incorporated a lot of exercises with just the toes, like mini tendus and mini rond de jambes.  Teachers I’ve had in the past have of course included some of that, going from a fully pointed foot to demi-pointe but these exercises that isolated that part of the foot felt a lot more like work.  My current hypothesis is that this is what allows NYCB dancers to achieve the fleet-footed speed they’re known for.  I don’t think it contributes necessarily to say, the height of a jump but I think that last push off the floor with the toes is what allows the dancers to get into the air or into a particular position sooner and stay on the beat.  To give an idea, if I recall correctly, Karen Eliot would give some toe work at barre in long, lingering rond de jambes to really find the whole range of the foot, while Mr. Boal asked for four in half the time.  So if y = 2 and X is 5, how many rond de jambes does Karen ask for at barre?

In many ways I underestimated myself because I survived barre okay (some ace music selections from the pianist too, like O mio babbino caro).  Of course I made a few mistakes and was slightly perturbed at some omitted steps (e.g., no pas de chevals, grand rond de jambes or petite battement).  There were some other slight differences as well, like a developpé a la seconde, Mr. Boal said to take the leg as far to the side as possible because keeping it slightly forward, while allowing for more rotation throws the torso off and generally causes one to lean backwards.  I had always been taught (or forcefully encouraged rather because I didn’t always manage to do it) to lift my torso up and forward, bringing my arms forward as well to center the weight over the standing leg.  Neither technique is right or wrong although I prefer keeping the leg forward not just because it’s what I’m used to but also because I don’t have that much turnout so trying to take my leg that far to the side really pulls me off balance.  At any rate, many of the barre sequences seemed abbreviated and I do prefer a few more balances before heading to center, but I survived. 

Then came the beginning of the end.  Center work didn’t go so well.  My body was holding up and it was my brain that seemed to get fatigued first.  It wasn’t used to sequencing things and quick memorization anymore so even though I was alert on such a fine, sunny Seattle morning, I couldn’t piece things together in the center.  My arms were doing whatever the hell they wanted and there’s a chance I was really clenching with my jaw or something because after class even my face seemed a little sore.  Most of the combinations weren’t that taxing but for whatever reason I was fading (although, trying to do a double pirouette from fifth is pretty damn hard and kind of unfair.  Mr. Boal’s advice was to avoid sitting in the plié and sinking into it at the last possible second and spring up as if taking off for a double tour…but double tours are pretty damn hard too).  Adagio was thankfully short; a true sign that a man is teaching but at the same time I almost felt like I needed more since there wasn’t much adagio work at barre either.

I found Mr. Boal to be wonderful with addressing the entire class with corrections as well as dishing out individual ones (all my issues were with the shoulders—folding inward on pirouettes and also having them up by my ears in fifth).  At some point during petite allegro I’m pretty sure I saw the pearly gates ahead of me because I was near finished, even though the class wasn’t over.  So grande allegro was a blur and then class was over.  Half human, half jello, I somehow managed the uphill walk home with plenty of food for thought.  I still like an arabesque with a square pelvis a la Karen (mostly because I’m convinced it’s how you don’t fall over or wobble in a promenade) and I’m still a fan of lingering a bit in certain movements, but I’m intrigued by the timing of a more Balanchine style and I suppose if I want to develop Suzanne Farrelian foot speed, I’m going to have to work on it.

But for now, what I really need is to lie down and wake up fully restored in two days.  I have a feeling it’s going to hurt to laugh tomorrow.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Coppélia

13 Jun

Sometimes a person will have a day where they always seem to be a half step behind and today, that person was me.  I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Coppélia, with choreography by Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova (who danced the role and helped stage it from memory with Balanchine for NYCB).  According to the program, this is the first time Balanchine’s Coppélia has been performed outside of New York.  ‘Twas a night of firsts because it was also the first time I had ever seen a full length production of Coppélia, which means I have no idea what specific differences are compared to other stagings, but the program does mention that the third act is comprised of entirely new choreography by Balanchine.  Unfortunately I thought the third act was really out of place…but more on that later.

I should have known it would be a strange evening because for one thing, the weather was sensational—not a cloud or raindrop in sight.  In Seattle.  Seriously, Seattle.  Good news for commencement attendees at the University of Washington, including my quasi-wife who informed me that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, co-founders of PNB received honorary degrees at today’s ceremonies.  I should have taken that as some kind of omen…not in the evil sense, only that I was in store for drama.  Unsurprisingly, next on fate’s list was missing the bus I needed to take to get home.  As I attempted to transfer from one bus to another, the bus I needed drove away as soon as I got to its door and with it, my opportunity to get home in time to change into nicer clothes.  I figured it would be better to just make it to the show because in the end, a body in the seat is better than an empty seat waiting for a late body in better clothes.  Changing plans, I made it to the Seattle Center but somehow in between the bus and the two minute walk from the bus to McCaw Hall, I lost my ticket.  Grief-stricken and panicking with bells-a-ringing, I searched my pockets and bag to no avail as time was running out.  Thankfully, the ticket window had my name on file and was able to reprint a ticket for me.

I made it into the theater, aided by the act that the first few minutes were used for an introductory speech that talked about funding and such.  However, as I entered I learned that Carla Körbes and Seth Orza would be replaced by Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths (I didn’t catch the reason why so I don’t know if it’s an injury or what have you).  Now I’ve only seen full length ballets four times in my life and so far half of them had casting changes…I think the odds are against me and of course I was a little disappointed that Körbes wouldn’t be dancing because I was so impressed with her when she danced Terpsichore and she reminds me a bit of Marianela Núñez (who I assume to be a lovely Swanilda).  Casting changes can be a little frustrating but are of course just a happenstance in ballet and honestly, I was a little preoccupied with the fact that I was sweating like a beast since I had just freaked out over ticket issues and basically ran to get to my seat as soon as possible.  Despite my trendy haircut from earlier in the day, I.  Felt.  Pretty. (as in not)

At any rate, the troops rallied and PNB put on a truly lovely production.  Foster was delightful—fussy, clever and she really shone in Act II, during the famous scene where Swanilda pretends to be a doll, starting out with stiff, mechanical movements and melting into human ones as she fools Dr. Coppelius into thinking his doll is magically coming to life.  She was also very crisp in the Act I, with some amazing, lightning quick passé and echappé work.  By Act III, I thought she looked maybe a little tentative in the female variation but I think Swanilda’s variation is deceivingly hard.  It is painfully slow and requires a lot of careful placement and the variation Foster chose to perform was one without the Italian fouettés which I actually think is more difficult because without a flashy bravura step it becomes all about balance and the pointe work.  Griffiths (as Swanilda’s love interest, Franz) did well to partner her and is quite a jumper.  He’s not particularly tall (and by that what I really mean is that he’s short) but he just ate up the stage in travelling leap combinations.  I was really impressed with how clean the jumping was, especially the way he landed in a very secure arabesque out of his cabrioles.  Exceptionally clean beats in his jumps and good control in the series of double tours at the end of his variation to boot (the same music as Aminta’s variation in Sylvia).

Now onto the rest of Act III…okay, so please tell me that not every production of Coppélia has a random attack of valkyrs in the middle of Swanilda and Franz’s wedding?  First of all, I didn’t think there was such a thing as a male valkyrie and it was the most bizarre thing to have them disrupt a wedding, dance and leave (the lead valkyr, which I think was Karel Cruz was on FIRE though…just awesome dancing).  Second of all, it made absolutely no sense.  There really is something to be said for editing a dance because despite Cruz’s prodigious technique the whole scene was just deepening the “WTF?!” frown lines on my face.  Then of course there was the children’s scene earlier on…an army of young girls in neon pink tutus (which clashed with the romantic style costumes in my opinion…I don’t like peas to touch my mashed potatoes and accordingly I don’t like my ballets to contain anachronisms).  I know I know…it’s great that the kids get a chance to participate in a big production and really I should know better than to judge them for bent knees, wonky port de bras and recognize that they’re trying to appeal to larger demographics and spark interest in kids.  But let us recall that children is one of the reasons why I avoid the Nutcracker…I really could have done without them and not because they’re young or because I think bourée on demi-pointe just looks weird, but because they were a little distracting during the solos (I think the characters were Prayer, Dawn and ???) in the third act.  They were given movements and basic formations that cramped the stage a bit  and detracted from the soloists.  For example, one of the soloists was performing a manége (a series of travelling pirouettes that move in a circle) but there was no space for it and the manége ended up too tight to really make an impact.  So I found some of the decisions questionable from an aesthetic point of view but I know the truth to be that ballet isn’t just about aesthetics.

Aside from the strangeness of Act III it really was (is, since they have one more matinee tomorrow) a fine show, with beautifully done sets and excellent dancing (minus one dancer who took an unfortunate spill tonight…I blame myself for that though because I think I brought a strange aura to the building).  Coppélia was made possible by virtue of generous gifts and I hope that’s a sign of more to come *cough MacMillan.*

And as always, kudos to the orchestra.  Live music rrrrrrrrocks!

(Visit Pacific Northwest Ballet’s website for ticket info and other tidbits…Peter Boal’s story about his experience with Coppélia is pretty neat)

If by ‘short’ you mean ‘long’

8 Jun

Because I let dance permeate everything in my life, it should come as no surprise that I’ve become interested in reading novels that have dance in them.  The first dance novel review I shall do will be on Jane Hamilton’s The Short History of a Prince.  I have to preface by saying my tastes in literature greatly reflect my tastes in dance too (funny how that works…or is it?).  I like books that are charming and easy to read, the literary equivalent of say, Symphonic Variations.  I also like action driven, thriller types like a Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  On rare occasions my carefree heart is moved by a fantastic drama (Manon) and my inability to appreciate Shakespeare as much as I should applies to both books and ballet.  Thus, The Short History of a Prince was a difficult read for me.  It’s realistic fiction with virtually no plot and while I can appreciate a plotless dance, no dance performance takes the same amount of time it requires to read a three hundred and fifty page book.  It is at times like these I remember how obsolete my squirrely attention span can be.

Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it.  Hamilton tells the story of Walter McCloud, ping-ponging back and forth between a younger version of him and the adult Walter.  This gets awfully confusing and I’ve read in books on novel writing that flashbacks are generally a no-no because surprise, they can confuse the reader.  Also, the chapters are so long it’s easy to forget where on Walter’s timeline you are.  I think the book has a total of twelve chapters which is a lot to spread out in three hundred and fifty pages and it wasn’t until the last fifty or so pages that reading the book felt less like a chore.

I wanted to enjoy the book, I really did—there were moments in Walter’s life that I could relate to in ways I have never felt for a fictional character before.  However, my efforts to understand Walter were constantly hampered by his cantankerous outlook on life.  He’s a rather unpleasant person and I’ve always felt that the cornerstone of a good character is the growth they show in a story.  Walter shows hardly any and at best goes from arse to less of an arse.  It’s not that I expect a protagonist to be a shiny hero; there were several times I wanted to kick Harry Potter in the shins for being an incorrigible youth and making the same mistakes over and over again.  However, J.K. Rowling makes us feel a complete spectrum of emotions for her prince while Hamilton’s Walter is stuck in a rut.  In a way, this does make Walter more real than you’d expect…until he opens his mouth.  The majority of his dialogue is not like anything you’d hear from a person and it’s not because of the decade—it’s because it’s inane and supersaturated with philosophical monologues.  The way he talks and even supporting (and in most cases underdeveloped) characters talks makes them impossible to visualize.

The major pro of the book I thought was how Walter was this boy growing up in the Midwest, aspiring to be a dancer and doesn’t make it.  He’s not gifted like his two best friends Susan and Mitch which strains their relationships.  Jealousy is further exacerbated by his feelings for Mitch and even spite for Susan as she develops a relationship with Walter’s terminally ill brother, Daniel (a hatred that I couldn’t wrap my head around).  Regardless, the one silver lining in Walter’s experience with dance is realized when he gets a part in a shoddy, juvenile production of The Nutcracker which is probably the one moment of jubilation in the entire book.  On one hand, he’s sort of embarrassed by it but on the other, the excitement of being on stage cannot be denied.  I think it’s safe to say that most people have formative experiences from their youths that are embarrassing but underneath layers of humiliation a small token of pride can also be found.

Now Jane Hamilton herself must have quite the passion for Balanchine, as Walter’s biggest artistic influence is Serenade.  Like it is for many, Serenade is a dance for angels in Walter’s mind.  Other shout outs for Balanchine works include Diamonds, with Susan mentioning how she was coached by Suzanne Farrell herself for that role (Susan ends up at Miami City Ballet, under Edward Villella’s tutelage, because “there is more Balanchine being done in Miami than New York” or something like that.  Ouch…I wonder if that’s based on some real drama that was going on at the time?).  Swan Lake is of course mentioned several times throughout, and there’s a funny scene where Walter does some of the choreography from it, trying to explain its intricacies to his five year old niece.  It’s because of his aunt, Sue Rawson that Walter even falls in love with ballet (she’s the one that takes him to see the above ballets, discussing them as well as classical music and opera).  I kept thinking about how I would have loved to have a Sue Rawson in my life, to nurture my love for the classical arts by helping me to understand their purpose.  My parents of course got me into music, but obviously nothing else and I was never really told why classical music was even important.  However, I ended up being horribly wrong about Sue Rawson because she makes the most heinous comment in the entire book…she calls Frederick Ashton “an amateur.”  I literally choked on my own tongue at that moment…if she was real, the sleeves would have been rolled up, the boxing gloves donned and it would have been SO on.  Nobody says that about Freddy A…NOBODY.

Overall…I’d have to say that The Short History of a Prince wasn’t my cup of tea…it gets bogged down by odd dialogue, the lack of a plot, a mean main character, anti-chronological messes and way too much description of the quaint, rural life.  However, there was something really beautiful in the way the book comes full circle in the end and I eventually did come to understand (but not sympathize with) Walter.  His mundane life and imperfections are the functions of the book.  It’s uncomfortable, it’s long and it goes nowhere and as much as we hate to admit it, for many people this IS indeed life…but even if it’s faulty I will always prefer optimism, hence my love of Billy Elliot. The world needs more Billys.  Although given the growing and fearful trend of parents giving their children ridiculous, nutty names it’s quite possible the world needs both Billys and Walters after all.

Muse musings

3 Jun

Despite being a mere forty some odd pages from finishing the book I’m reading, I couldn’t find the effort.  So I popped in Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas, a documentary featuring interviews with Maria Tallchief, Mary Ellen Moylan, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Merrill Ashley and Darci Kistler.  I needed the break from reading because my eyes were going nuts and the DVD is actually due back at the library…today.  Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion comparing Balanchine’s muses because that’s a history far too convoluted for me to want to know.  When it comes down to it, they all have their place in history and that’s dandy enough for me.  Does it matter who gets the title of “greatest Balanchine dancer of all time?”  Will it ever matter?

At any rate, what the DVD did make me ponder was the relationship between dancer(s) and choreographer.  It seems as though the method for new works these days is to simply do what the choreographer asks (which sometimes comes across as a clandestine exercise in stroking his or her ego) or the “modern” thing to do, which is to collaborate.  I want to say with certain uncertainty that choreographing a ballet on a muse isn’t widely practiced anymore.  Or maybe it is and I just never hear about it…or maybe it’s the politics the higher ups are afraid of; it’s not as if Balanchine’s favoritism didn’t spark some strife here and there.  Merrill Ashley is pretty frank in the documentary that Suzanne Farrell’s departure and return to NYCB affected her career and she said so not with jealousy or contempt, just a plain statement of the truth.  Balanchine was in a funk when Farrell left, and certain roles Ashley had went back to Farrell when she returned.  To be fair though, Ashley did say Balanchine didn’t forget the dancers who “took over” in Farrell’s absence and Ashley even had the honor of having Ballo della Regina choreographed on her.  Is it any wonder that Balanchine’s muses get all sentimental and weepy when speaking of him?  Having a dance be inspired by you and subsequently choreographed for you by a genius is like the ultimate gift.  How can you top the gift of a legacy?  When in doubt, get something edible I always say…

While I can understand the desire to avoid politics, I still love the idea of muses.  What seems to separate Balanchine’s muses from those of other choreographers is how instrumental he was in their development.  I’m fascinated by how he picked so many women at such an early age; off the top of my head I can only think of Kenneth MacMillan having done the same for Darcey Bussell (I have yet to read too much about Frederick Ashton’s muses besides the obvious being Margot Fonteyn—I have a stack of books in queue for a self induced Ashton extravaganza.  Why?  I don’t know, but I may find out).  It seems simpler to admire a known entity from afar and if a choreographer is lucky, get the opportunity to create a work on the dancer of his or her choice…but to be the driving force in the cultivation of a dancer is something else.  Balanchine is heralded as one of the greatest choreographers of all time and the most influential teacher in American ballet but it’s that grey matter—the substance between choreographer and teacher that really interests me.  I can’t shake the feeling that the key to his continual success lies somewhere in there (intangible as it is).  There have of course been others who have studied the vocabulary, technique, worked with greats and have had precious quips passed down to them from previous generations but maybe, just maybe, nobody has made the connection between teacher-choreographer in the manner that Balanchine was so gifted in doing.

Overall I thought the documentary was lovely (the archived black and white footage is to DIE for and criminally short…there were a few seconds of a Melissa Hayden and Edward Villella Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux that had me writhing for more) and especially interesting because it has interviews with a very young Darci Kistler, soon to retire in just over three weeks, thus bringing the dynasty of Balanchine muses to a close.  Blah blah, it’s the end of an era…closing one door…open a window…Wheeldon…Martins…new beginnings for the NYCB.  I suppose NYCB is still in a post-Balanchine/Robbins transitional phase and I can’t even begin to imagine the mess it must be to balance the repertoire while trying to develop new facets of the company’s identity.  It’s that kind of pressure that probably influenced Monica Mason’s controversial decision to make Wayne McGregor the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet.  Oy…who (besides Tamara Rojo and Johan Kobborg apparently) would ever want to be an Artistic Director?  One would almost have to list “Oracle of Delphi” under previous employment on his or her résumé.  Come to think of it, Balanchine must have been a clairvoyant…how else would he have known to pick the women he did and be right, every single time?  It’s not like he went for the same formula each time either (not all of them even trained at the School of American Ballet).

In the end, I find the biggest question I have about muses and ballet is that can a person aspire to be a muse?  Is there even a difference between dreaming of becoming a great dancer and dreaming of being somebody’s muse?  Can the desire to become a muse and to originate a role perhaps negate that it will ever happen?  Maybe serendipity is the cornerstone of supreme artistic inspiration and maybe today’s dancers and choreographers are bogged down by too much desire to achieve or be and thus constrict the potential output.  Or maybe, I’m really hungry and can’t write anything logical on an empty stomach.  Now that I’ve reread this entry, I’m thinking my writing muse did a hit and run.  Too bad.

The Nacho Project: Diagnosis

24 May

One of my ducklings (number five in the row, if I recall correctly) is headed to New York this summer and is in need of your help!  “Nacho,” as I call her, has never been there before and will be doing some kind of an internship this summer but more importantly, will have access to the splendiferous wonder that is NYCB and ABT.  Not only will this be her first time in Manhattan, she has yet to see such prestigious ballet companies (she has seen smaller dance performances before though).  Needless to say this is a crucial moment in her development as a human being and as my ducklings tend to do, she sought advice from me but there are many ballets on the programs I haven’t a clue about.  So I thought I’d pose the question to more knowledgeable folk.  We’re always wanting ballet to reach new audiences and this is our chance to tinker a la Frankenstein with one young woman’s perception of it!  The challenge here is that funds are not entirely limitless (she’s not the type to see five Swan Lakes) and yet between NYCB and ABT there’s an abundance of things to see.  She’s going to be a kid in a candy store, but she has to make the Big Apple her pie.  Selectiveness is key, so here is what I feel you need to know about Nacho:

  • She may be short, but she has a lot of angst.  She likes pretty, romantic ballets but if not that then they have to be pretty…raging
  • She’s one of those “danced since I was three” jazz babies.  Showing off big flashy jumps and fouettés go in the plus column, as do Fred & Ginger
  • This is educated conjecture, but she probably has no appreciation for classical music.  This isn’t to say she hates it, only that she’ll like what sounds pleasing to her ear, without deeper understanding of the finer details.
  • She has questionable taste in men (mostly because she dates people I disapprove of)
  • She’s Italian and her mom makes good sauce
  • She likes the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Roddick and Sex and the City (she thinks she’s Carrie Bradshaw if that means anything to you)
  • Her phone number is…

So those are some things about Nacho and after looking at NYCB calendar (link) I’ve convinced her that attending NYCB’s program on June 25th with After the Rain, The Lady with the Little Dog and Who Cares? would be an ideal choice (she will be in New York June 18th to August 18th).  There’s a short preview of After the Rain on YouTube I sent her and she likes the tragicalyricalness and I also sent her a clip of Who Cares? which she loved.  I have no idea about Little Dog, but I figured two out of three is more than sufficient for a happy evening.  Glancing at the other programs, the chances of her liking Prodigal Son are slim to none but I do think she would enjoy Western Symphony.  June 26th has a program with La Source, a new Martins ballet and Western Symphony but I don’t know what Peter Martins choreography is like and I’ve only heard of La Source in passing…so what say you, fellow balletomanes?  Then there’s the added allure of farewell performances including that of Darci Kistler, the last ballerina to be selected by Balanchine himself…do you miss the opportunity to witness something so epically historical?  I’m almost completely unfamiliar with the Kistler farewell program (minus Swan Lake of course) so suggestions para Nacho por favor!

She could watch Kistler in an excerpt from Swan Lake, but it turns out ABT (calendar link) will be doing Swan Lake the previous week as well so I say go all out and see the whole shebang.  But the casting!  Decisions, decisions…I’m thinking she should cat fight with the rest of the audience in attendance for the June 21st show with Roberto Bolle so she can fall madly in love with him (she does like them tall…and he’s Italian too) in addition to seeing the beautiful Veronika Part, but there are so many great casting options like Julie Kent/Marcelo Gomes or Jose Carreño/Gillian Murphy.  Now I don’t know if she’ll make it in time for Sleeping Beauty, but good heavens!  It’s the battle of the guest stars…do you opt for the saccharine innocence of Alina Cojocaru or the flight of the Osipova?  Then ABT does a week of mixed bills and I’m more obsessive about watching ballet than Nacho is but even I’m finding the selection overwhelming.  If it were me, I’d go with the All Ashton program on June 30th to sort of round out the experience and diversify the choreographers, but it’s Nacho and not me, so I would only strongly suggest/force that idea upon her if I had a legion of people who agreed with me (also keeping in mind she’s never seen a MacMillan and the Manon pas de deux is just…to DIE for).  ABT then does a week of Romeo and Juliet in early July before heading off to Los Angeles, and you know I’m a grouch when it comes to Romeo and Juliet so I’m in no position to be suggesting which casting I think would be lovely to see.

So friends, I beseech thee to diagnose Nacho and help her get the most out of her summer in New York!  Here’s a short interview I did with her which might help figure out which ballets/casts she should see:

YDF:  Do you like Roberto Bolle?

Nacho:  Sure.

YDF:  Liar.  Do you wear clothes from the Gap?

Nacho:  Roberto Bolle is fine…don’t really have an opinion of him and no I do not.

YDF:  Not the answer I was looking for.

Nacho:  Sorry friend.

YDF:  Do you even know who he is?

Nacho:  Yes, I YouTube’d him.

YDF:  Just now?

Nacho:  Yes…I’m not a little ballet freak remember? (oh NO she didn’t!)

YDF:  Did you know he’s Italian?

Nacho:  I kinda got that

YDF:  You’re Italian.

Nacho:  Indeed I am.  What was the answer you were looking for?

YDF:  The answer should have been yes, so I could tell you that he was a model for a Gap ad, and then you’d have something in common…but you ruined it.

Nacho: Sorry Charlie 🙂

YDF:  How do you like your male dancers?

Nacho:  Good?

YDF:  Fascinating.  Now describe your ideal ballerina.

Nacho:  Traditional yet not stiff?  I don’t know.  These are hard!

YDF:  Okay so final question (and this SHOULD be easy) what do you love about dance?

Nacho:  The expression through movement…the story that can be told without any word use.  The different interpretations of pieces, the emotion, the passion…I don’t know.

YDF:  Okay I lied, the REAL final question is, what are some characteristics of dances you like or dislike?

Nacho:  You know I don’t like too modern/abstract pieces… but I do like originality… generic pieces make me wanna scream.

And there you have it.  I’ll be sure to update on her progress as the summer progresses!