Tag Archives: banana tights

‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review

20 Feb

It’s odd that Seattle has decided to invite the winter spirits, which was particularly cruel on a day like today, with cerulean skies and a radiant sun—accompanied with biting winds and sub-forty-five degree temperatures.  Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to the cold and anything below forty-five is all the same to me…I call it my “immobilization threshold.”  It’s possible that something like negative forty would have an even more profound effect such as cryogenic hibernation and in fact, I was recently told that if you step outside in those temperatures, your nose hairs will freeze (ask someone from Northern Canada…I’m sure they can confirm this).   The point is, all I wanted to do was wrap myself in blankets like a giant burrito and wait for spring to arrive.

I did manage to do the first part of that, but had to something productive, which I decided would be to attack my tower of library materials (some of which are probably overdue), including the documentary Dancing Across Borders.  The film was directed and produced by socialite Anne Bass, who saw Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced like “sea”) Sar as a young boy in Cambodia, performing in traditional Khmer dances.  He obviously had no knowledge of or exposure to ballet, but she could see quality in his movement, a knack for performance and the makings for a physique quite suitable for ballet.  She eventually brought him to New York and the School of American Ballet, where he received a great deal of private coaching from Olga Kostritzky and with one of the most freakish learning curves known to man, refined his raw talent into an accomplished ballet dancer.

Initially, I thought this would be a story similar to Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who grew up impoverished and learning the dances of his people (salsa and even break-dancing) before finding his way to ballet but there are significant differences.  Sy began his formal training at a much later age but what separates Sy from Acosta is that Cambodia has no tradition in ballet.  Acosta’s father, who was instrumental in ensuring his son’s pursuit of a ballet career held a great deal of admiration for the art, which had become a national treasure thanks to Alicia Alonso.  However, Sy’s parents understandably have a different perspective; they recognize their son’s talents and the opportunities it gives him but very little if anything beyond that.  His father even wishes Sy worked for the government, or became an engineer or doctor.  I don’t think he meant that in a “crush the artist’s dreams and get a ‘real’ job” sort of way, because I find it impossible to fault them for not understanding the impact and prestige of a ballet career.  This is perhaps the greatest difference of them all—as Acosta wraps up what has been one of the most prolific ballet careers of the past couple of decades as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet (donning the banana yellow tights in La Fille mal Gardée for what he must always hope is the last time), Sy still seems to be finding his identify as a dancer.

I say that because Bass herself even said that she wouldn’t want Sy to continue dancing if he didn’t want to, but after a few years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, he left to be a freelance artist.  It’s not a decision that surprises me because throughout the documentary he always struck me as someone who was a bit at odds with how much of his relationship with dance was talent and how much of it was passion.  After all, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not a huge fan of partnering so maybe his destiny isn’t really to be a classical ballet dancer.  Even though this is not my experience with dance, I felt like I could relate a bit because this was my approach to school.  I was a good (if anything, clever) student and when I was in control of my curriculum, I truly excelled.  I got better grades in college than I did in high school because I got so many opportunities to study things that interested me and yet I still managed good grades in subjects I hated, like math and chemistry so it baffled people (well, my parents really) when I refused to pursue a career in those fields.  It’s not enough to just be good at something because if the heart is unwilling, the result feels empty even if it looks brilliant.  Despite Sy’s unique qualities as a dancer, you can’t help but feel like dancing for a classical ballet company was like caging a magnificent, rare bird.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many like Peter Boal found Sy exciting—he has an effervescence that cannot be explained and can only be captured visually in photographs or film.  There’s a lot of great footage of him in class as well as performance selections and variations from competition footage with lots of favorites like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Sylphide, in addition to rehearsal footage with Benjamin Millepied and the actual performance of Millepied’s piece at the Vail International Dance Festival with live accompaniment from Philip Glass himself.  In Millepied’s contemporary work is where I thought Sy was most breathtaking.  There was a joy of movement in that work which is part of what leads me to believe Sy is suited more towards that style so I hope now as a freelance artist he is finding those opportunities because even if he’s pretty damn good at classical ballet, sometimes the things we’re born to do aren’t the things we look like we’re born to do.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dancing Across Borders because I think it tells the honest story of a dancer.  Oftentimes I think the problem with fictitious dance stories is the ridiculous, almost melodramatic, romanticized images you’ll often see when in fact many dancers lead extraordinary lives that don’t need to be enhanced, just told.  Seattleites will also get a kick out of seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, McCaw Hall and a few glimpses of familiar faces (I spotted Carla Körbes, and it’s interesting to note that both she and Sy were foreign dancers heavily recruited by Peter…very cool of him).  Actually, Varna had some fun cameos too, like an equally young Belarusian lynx Ivan Vasiliev (I was going to say panther, but there are no panthers in Belarus) doing some of his signature moon-jumping leaps.  At any rate, the only disappointment I had regarding the film was that it all went down just before I moved here…it would have been great to watch Sy dance live, though perhaps opportunities remain in the future to do so, and maybe for the better in a piece where he is truly in his element.  Check out the trailer for fun, or because I’m telling you to:

Chocolate Chip Cookie Ballet, Second Half

20 Nov

It’s always interesting to see a ballet with different casts (now I know why the Bag Ladies go to 34895764290482 shows of Mayerling!), because of all the little things one can pick up on that they didn’t catch the previous times.  Although I thought charming was the only word to describe La Fille mal gardée, I’m adding “cheeky” to the adjective list.  From the opening overture even, there is a moment where the flute player gets to “flutter tongue,” which is a technique not often used, where the musician has to breathe out to play a note while simultaneously rolling an “r” and yes, it is even harder then it sounds.  First of all, some people aren’t capable of rolling r’s (sucks to be you), you have to maintain a certain amount of tension in your embouchure (which means the shape of your lips) in order to do it, AND you have to be able to do it without laughing, which was always my problem.  Although, if you want to get really crazy there is this song called Lookout for solo flute, and there’s measures where the musician has to SING while playing at the same time (and other funny stuff like clicking the keys without actually playing notes).  I tell you, when my teacher played a little bit of that, she sounded like an alien and I burst into laughter.  It then became something I would periodically ask her to play, just so I could get a laugh out of it.  Meanwhile, she was working on it as part of some flute master class or workshop.  It was serious business, but I’m kind of fond of being inappropriate.

Anyway, this more recent La Fille I watched, starring Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta is hands down the one I will be adding to my wish list.  Obviously I’d love to have both the 1981 and 2005 productions, but who has the money?  Not I (especially with lots of goodies coming out soon!).  One of the wonderful things about the Royal Ballet is their sense of tradition and authenticity, so between the two productions there are hardly any differences, which is pretty impressive considering the near 25 year gap between them.  I noticed a thing here and there because I have a photographic memory (although I think I read somewhere a few years ago that some researchers were claiming that there was no such thing as a photographic memory.  Pffft!), observing things like how they added rain to the thunderstorm scene and changed the lighting, Simone flinging off her shoes with gusto before the clog dance, the part where Nuñez slides down the staircase on her bum when she’s depressed and also there’s a part in the 1981 version where the corps motions at Awain that he was headed for the wrong door which wasn’t in the 2005.  Little things that don’t really matter in the big scheme of things and can be attributed to each dancer’s individual interpretations of characters and updated stage technology, but it keeps ballet fresh and exciting.  For me, anyway.

I have to say that I found Nuñez and Lesley Collier to be fairly comparable.  Each had their strengths as Lise and I enjoyed both of their performances for different reasons.  I think Collier was a little sweeter with just a touch more lightness; Nuñez had loftier jumps and a winning smile.  What puts the 2005 version on my wish list though is Acosta.  Obviously, I like his dancing a lot.  But he’s REALLY good in this ballet and technically superior to Michael Coleman and Acosta’s Colas I think had a real youthfulness to it that was more enjoyable to watch for me.  After reading his book, I get the feeling that Acosta is kind of a child at heart (and a bit of a mama’s boy, but in an endearing sort of way) and also rather goofy even if he doesn’t intend to be…there was some article recently that said after he retires he wants to get pet rabbits.  Again with the rabbits?  That’s some serious attachment to his childhood right there…but then again, it’s something I can relate to as well.  After all, I have an affinity for koalas which can  only be explained by the first toy my parents ever bought for me, a Pot Belly koala, which I aptly named, Koala (and still have to this day, even though they were recalled…way to go mom and dad).  I was devastated when I read an article maybe a week or two ago that said koalas could be extinct in thirty or so years.

At any rate, not only did I like Acosta’s youthful exuberance, he also got some opportunities to show off some very precise batterie, which normally he doesn’t get to do much of.  Sure he gets to do entrechats, but not so much with the other jeté battus and brisés, because the roles he’s in usually has him doing the pirouettes, double tours, huge leaps etc.  Which of course, he does throughout La Fille as well, but his beats are so  exceptional, I think his bottle dance was the best I’ve ever seen…between two that is, but I’m still speaking the truth.  He just shines and seemed really invested in the role of Colas, even if he mentioned in his book that the he was horrified by the banana yellow tights, which were, in my humble opinion, more of a mustard or ochre.  La Fille is one of those ballets though that makes me wonder if it is as much fun to do as it is to watch.  The dancers seem to be having a good time, but when you rehearse it into the ground and it becomes work, can it still be fun to perform?  I would hope so, but through my trolling of the internet I once came upon a ballet forum where dancers discussed in a thread the ballet music they were sick of, and a couple even mentioned Grand Tarantelle (the music for Balanchine’s Tarantella) which was blasphemous to me, because I love that song.  How can anyone get sick of a good tarantella?  I listen to it like ten times a day and it never gets old.

For me, Le Fille mal gardée will probably never get old either.  Royal Ballet is doing it later this season and if all goes according to plan and I win the lottery, I’m totally going to go.  I’m thinking Alina Cojocaru?

Anywhodle, Nuñez/Acosta’s La Fille mal gardée is on YouTube, in its entirety and in FANTASTIC quality, so it’s definitely worth the watch.  Of course, I would recommend adding it to your personal collection so you can watch it sans interruptions and buffering time!

Part 1 (click the channel to watch the rest) 

And just for kicks, Part 8 because it’s the grand pas de deux.  If you’re going to watch anything, watch this: