Tag Archives: baryshnikov

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part Two

1 Feb

Be sure to read “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One” first!

For the past year or so I’ve been on a mission to hunt down some recording of Ashton’s Rhapsody, and sometimes being a locomotive pays off because I managed to find it! Only, I didn’t even know it was Rhapsody until close inspection of the choreography because the design of the production was completely different. In 1995 English artist Patrick Caulfield overhauled Rhapsody with new costumes and sets that were rather odd. In a way, I can see where he was coming from because Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini does have a certain quirk and mischief to it that wasn’t quite captured in Ashton’s pink and gold pastel-topia, but Caulfield seemed to have some kind of “art-deco-Alice-in-Wonderland” in mind, complete with playing card-like shapes on the costumes. I’m not fond of the designs or the color scheme (okay, I hate it), and the Paris Opera Ballet didn’t seem to be either. According to a review written by John Percival, POB wanted to commission a new design for Rhapsody when they staged it in 1996, but weren’t allowed to, and the Caulfield designs apparently lasted for one season (in which case, video of it is a treasure indeed!).

Successful or not, I like that The Royal Ballet has made a habit of injecting contemporary ideas into older works to see if it invokes new perspective on it. There are of course many instances of directors/choreographers staging their own versions of the warhorse classics, but they still revolve around a certain set of standards that make drastic changes rare, and significant makeovers for abstract ballets even more scarce. Many symphonic ballets don’t require highly specific costumes so colors, beadwork, ornamentation etc. will vary from company to company, but what Caulfield did to Rhapsody is pretty extreme. While alterations may be questionable, it’s still refreshing to see works being performed in new ways, and there’s bound to be audience members who may enjoy something more as a result. There are of course times when sets and costumes are far too crucial to a work to, but experimentation has to be just as important as authenticity. Oddly enough, Rhapsody has since gone under another transformation; in 2005 Jessica Curtis washed the work in a golden sunset, and her simpler vision remains the current production of The Royal Ballet. I can’t comment on it since I’ve only seen photos of Curtis’s designs, but I wonder if the Caulfield designs were perhaps so controversial there was a conscious effort to go with something rather neutral. Still, sometimes it’s a better decision to dress the dancers in something that doesn’t draw attention away from the choreography.

Steven McRae and artists of The Royal Ballet in their current production of Rhapsody, with costume and set designs by Jessica Curtis (photo ©Tristram Kenton)

Edited to Add (4/30/12) Miyako Yoshida and Yohei Sasaki perform the pas de deux, in the costumes by Jessica Curtis:


Ah, the choreography! It’s definitely some of Ashton’s most wicked work, and despite the plethora of bravura steps, it’s actually the quick changes of direction that are likely the trickiest aspect of Rhapsody. Though it’s hard to imagine anything being tricky for Baryshnikov (considering how easy he made everything look), it’s still quite a test for the primer danseur, almost as if to goad one into mastering it. I actually find Rhapsody rather funny and charming in a cheeky sort of way, as the choreography seems to play with the audience too. There’s a section where six male dancers line up in a row and one by one alternate between double tours and entrechat sixes, and when the last dancer finishes and the sequence starts over again, dancers who did double tours switch to entrechats and vice versa—it’s the kind of understated comedy that makes you smirk just a little bit. It’s so damn clever and I absolutely love it, and there are many such moments all throughout Rhapsody (especially just before the end, where all I can say is that fourth position has never made me laugh out loud before). I invite you to see for yourself:

Rhapsody (designs by Patrick Caulfield) Part 1 of 2:


Rhapsody Part 2 of 2:


According to the user who posted the videos above (and many thanks to you, friend!) Carole Arvo and José Martinez danced the principal roles. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet comprise the rest of the chamber ensemble, and while all performers have impeccable technique, Martinez is flawless—literally, perfect. I can imagine a performance from other dancers that are perhaps more sly and witty, but elegance tends to prevail in Paris and Martinez is a pleasure to watch in this one. Arvo is also a beautiful dancer with a cool demeanor, though having watched the central pas de deux with Lesley Collier/Baryshnikov, I missed many of the skyward glances Collier did, as Arvo’s upper body presentation was mostly focused forward towards the audience. Ultimately, it’s a fine and beautiful performance, hindered by the costumes and sets perhaps, with my only criticism being that when the ‘Virtuoso’ makes his second entrance (at about 5:30 in the first video), I think the tempo is too slow. Given, I was notorious for being a bit of a speed demon as a musician, but that’s a section of the music that needs to have a little fury, and not fall victim to the tendency in ballet to slow music down to allow for bigger jumps. Martinez was even ahead of the accent just a little bit on the sissonnes in the manège, so I think they could have pushed the tempo to something musically appropriate.

In the end, I’m just plain happy that I’ve finally gotten to watch Rhapsody! Even as a rather humorous ballet, there’s still an austerity to it that sates that speck of darkness on my soul. I think it’s safe to say that Ashton’s Rhapsody is probably the definitive Rachmaninoff ballet for the time being, having enjoyed its fair share of performances over the past three decades, though perhaps not enough outside of Covent Garden (I don’t know if Paris Opera has revived it in recent years, and the only other company I could find that has it in their repertory is K-Ballet of Tokyo). Besides selfishly wanting a more feasible opportunity to see Rhapsody live, on a serious note I do think it would do well in the repertory of ABT and/or Corella Ballet. Angel Corella has often been compared to Baryshnikov, and I can imagine him performing the role exceptionally well. We know he has the technical brilliance, and he really has the personality for it, and I don’t mean this to be presumptuous, what a treat it would be if Baryshnikov could coach him in the role!

While the future of Rhapsody appears steady, to bring this series of posts full circle back to the idea of ballet and Rachmaninoff in general, it’s worth noting that there are of course choreographers who are trying. It’s funny that Ashton’s first choreography to Rachmaninoff appeared in a film because it just so happens that another English choreographer has followed suit—surely, you can picture in your head Jonathan Reeves’s ballet to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor’ in everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, Center Stage? Well, the real choreographer behind that was Christopher Wheeldon, who has also created a piece entitled Rhapsody Fantaisie, to selections by Rachmaninoff. However, the bread and butter may be revealed this spring when two hot ticket choreographers will debut world premiere works to Rachmaninoff, one being none other than Alexei Ratmansky, who is probably the most well known (and busiest!) ballet choreographer in the world right now, and the other is Liam Scarlett, who is regarded as the most promising up and coming talent. Ratmansky is setting his work on Miami City Ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece intended to be a ballet which initially never happened because Fokine died amidst collaborative efforts between the two to make it happen and although Ratmansky isn’t the first to do a Symphonic Dances (Peter Martins’s ballet to the music remains current in the New York City Ballet repertory), he is the man with the “golden touch” so this could be big. Scarlett’s untitled work will debut a month later on The Royal Ballet, and while information about it is currently being kept under wraps, considering the success of his Asphodel Meadows, this could be huge too. Let’s hope they join the ranks of Rhapsody and help to establish a more prominent place for Rachmaninoff in the world of ballet!

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! 

The Modern Myth

20 Dec

As you know, the majority of my blog’s content is related to ballet, with the occasional post about modern.  However, all of the reviews I’ve done for Seattle Dances have been about contemporary artists, with the most recent being on choreographer/dancer Molissa Fenley’s work, in an evening featuring performances of three pieces, which were then followed by a conversation between her and Pacific Northwest Ballet director, Peter Boal.  Despite my feeble attempt to be somewhat incognito by wearing my Clark Kent glasses, Peter (we shook hands, we’re on a first name basis now) said he recognized me from class—I think the people at PNB are on to me…I knew I should have upped the ante with a fake mustache but alas, at this point my regrets are my own.

Peter told a funny anecdote about how when he had nights off from New York City Ballet, he went to see Molissa Fenley perform, while other NYCB dancers (including his wife) went to see the likes of Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theater.  Fenley was also quick to note that she would see Peter perform with his respective company, so there was a mutual appreciation of the other’s art.  I don’t know that it’s very common for ballet dancers to find modern dance interesting, and it certainly wasn’t natural for me either.  We all know that I’m an Ashton junkie (well, Peter doesn’t know…YET) because the technical steps, characterization and musicality (among many, many other things) speak to my soul.  I took to ballet like a faerie to a forest but modern was and continues to be more difficult for me to process.  I can churn out a review of a ballet performance with relative ease but my Fenley review I had to drag out of my brain, kicking and screaming.

In some ways I was rather surprised to discover that Peter is such a modernist and it got me thinking about the gap between ballet and modern and popular misconceptions, like “modern is for dancers who didn’t make it in ballet” or even that it’s for dancers who retired from ballet.  Modern dance is for people who like modern dance—that’s all there is to it.  Yes, it can be less demanding on the body (and seems to demand less on the physical traits of a person), although I have to say that I’ve had a few minor injuries in dancing ballet, like pulled muscles and such but when I’ve had some of the more devastating variety, like the kind that last for weeks or more and they all came from modern classes.  I don’t know if it was a strange belief that I could do what teachers asked for, a willingness to try anything, throwing my weight around, or the Aries in me pushing one hundred percent, but modern hurt.  I think it would be more apt to say that modern doesn’t demand a physical capacity to perform precise, virtuosic feats in the way ballet does, but modern can be a mental obstacle course that in my opinion, can be worse.

First of all, there’s the “I-word”…which normally I do not speak aloud but I shall for the sake of clarity, remind you that this is my euphemism for “improvisation.”  It’s virtually impossible for me to create dance instantaneously and more importantly, continuously, and exercises in “I-word” make me an anxious squirrel.  I tried, but practice of it made me ridiculously uncomfortable, which of course happens to be the greatest inhibitor of “I-word.”  Or how about “retrograde,” meaning dance a phrase and then basically rewind it.  Maybe due to the advent of television’s rewind button we’re not so impressed with such a mind-boggling skill, but to see human bodies do it without the use of technology is really something else.  As someone who relies on music that recognizes a time and space continuum, to inform the tone or character of a movement, it’s just inconceivable…and many times modern dances won’t even have music at all, which is like a hellish nightmare for me.  The intellectual challenges modern dance provides are different, but by no means easier than physical challenges seen in ballet.  I would even argue that those mental challenges are in fact greater because the mind is limitless, whereas there are limits to what the body can do, and that vastness is why modern never fails to be “new.”

It may sound like I don’t like modern because of my natural tendencies and escapist point of view that favors the romantic, fantastical world of ballet but the world is more than romance and to me, that’s what modern explores.  It’s an art form that is indeed beautiful in its own way, but when I remember not to expect to feel the same after seeing it as I would a ballet, then the doors are open to experience whatever it is.  Of course there are things I like or don’t like, and in many ways learning to understand the subjective nature of the arts is a metaphor for human interaction.  I think of artists as having great responsibility in bearing their souls for an audience, because if we can judge them as we inevitably do but in a respectful way then we can claim that we are capable of doing the same for any person we encounter in life.  Perhaps it’s cliché, but this is why I truly believe that art appreciation is one of the keys to a world peace.  There’s a reason why patrons of the arts don’t go into museums, rip paintings off the walls and burn them if they don’t like them, which makes the fact that people are so willing to harm or even kill one another over differences all the more tragic.

So…I aim to never write a negative review for Seattle Dances, because people work too hard to have someone just blah on their creations.  I’m more open with criticism in this blog (though I try my best to keep it constructive and relatively inoffensive) but people read this specifically for my thoughts…a formally published review is not the appropriate forum for overindulgences into my ego.  I encourage any dance audience member to respect the validity of their opinions regardless of your understanding of dance…be judgmental, but don’t be a jerk.  There are even times when a harsh critique is perfectly appropriate; a good review does not imply seeing things through rose-colored glasses and some of my favorite reviews I’ve read aren’t sunshine and bunnies.  The secret is knowing when, where and how to express oneself and to be open to learning something before disliking it.  It wasn’t a simple process for me, but I had help along the way, in the form of education and encouragement I received from various teachers (for whom without, I would not be writing about dance as I do today!).  I came across a video a few days ago of sardonic New York humorist and author Fran Lebowitz, who in talking about her relationship with Jerome Robbins, sums it up better than I can:

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.

Don Qonfused

2 Nov

So I sat down and watched ABT’s Don Quixote with Cynthia Harvey and Baryshnikov.  I actually hadn’t seen a full production of DonQ before, only the countless variations and grand pas de deux on YouTube.  For whatever reason, the roles of Kitri and Basil seem to be epitomized by many, discussed and compared more than any other role I can think of, and apparently if you’re a good Kitri/Basil that means you’ve really achieved something in ballet.  Personally, I’ve long wondered why this ballet seems to be at the top of so many peoples’ favorites lists, and I’ve decided it’s because nobody is evil and nobody dies.  In that sense, it’s perhaps easier to relate to the characters because most people don’t have pure villains and melodramatic deaths in their daily lives.  But something like parentally encouraged betrothals (while different in modern times) still has some relevance.  DonQ is one giant celebration with a lot of fun moments and I suppose for dancers and fans alike it can be a relief to escape from the intensely serious and have some lighthearted fun.  And if you know me, I’m all about lighthearted fun and having a good time.  I would probably label DonQ as Petipa’s attempt at a sitcom.

However, while watching this DonQ, I found myself extremely confused.  For one thing I’ve owned the soundtrack for a couple of years (yes, even without having seen the ballet.  Buying it seemed like a good idea at the time, even if I can’t find the words to rationalize it now).  Things were out of order, and certain flourishes are not in the particular recording I own.  Perhaps it was the placement of the camera mics, but the french horns were raging off the charts, especially in Kitri’s act I variation and the flutes were noodling like crazy during the fouettes for the coda.  It made the soundtrack bizarrely unfamiliar, and somewhat disturbing.  I also got lost with the libretto, because I only read the synopsis from The Ballet Goer’s Guide, which lists four acts.  However, what I so carefully failed to read in the little history blurb was that Baryshnikov cut a lot of content and switched the order of the dream sequence and tavern scene, for a total of three acts.  Apparently it was his way of rationalizing certain aspects of the libretto, but I ended up getting lost anyway.  Like the scene where he fakes his death and somehow manages to trick Kitri’s parents into letting them get married made no sense to me…I just didn’t get that from what was actually being performed on stage.  And I don’t know what Basil pretends to stab himself with in other productions, but the humongous barber’s razor just made me laugh, and was impossible to take “seriously.”

There was a lot going on though…like random bits by Gamache and corps members in the coda that I’ve never seen in other clips and on the topic of those characters, man alive does DonQ boast a big cast.  So big, in fact I didn’t quite figure out who everyone was.  Obviously I recognized Kitri and Basil, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gamache is impossible to miss (and one of the highlights of this production)…but who’s Espada?  Lorenzo?  Mercedes?  And that Cupid thing…what’s her purpose?  Queen of the Dryads?  Will the REAL Dulcinella please stand up?  Who are all these people and why are they in this ballet?  And why is the ballet even called Don Quixote when he has next to nothing to do with the main plot?  It’s all difficult to rationalize and made me feel like I’m might just start seeing monsters in lieu of windmills any minute now.  Although I’m sure many of these characters don’t appear in the novel, perhaps having read it would at least provide insight into the character of Don Quixote himself (I read that Nureyev himself thought Don Quixote was a fool, until he read the book).  As it stands, I have not read the book and my only conception of Don Quixote is from that cartoon Don Coyote and Sancho Panda.  That and the fact that Don Quixote is the name of a chain of convenience stores equivalent to CVS, but in Japan, with the most obnoxious jingle on Earth.  While you shop, you are subjected to this heinous tune with the lyrics “Don, Don, Don, Don, Ki…Don Ki-hooooo-teeeeeee” the ENTIRE TIME.  I’m still haunted by it, so I’ll spare you the jingle, but here’s the opening for the cartoon, for anyone else who wants a taste of nostalgia:

So back to the ballet…I wasn’t a huge fan of the “after Petipa” choreography, as it was…kind of boring (eek!).  There wasn’t much substance until the man himself, Baryshnikov stepped onto the stage.  I actually found it rather bombastic that he would produce and choreograph a ballet on himself.  Not that it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done…I’m just skeptical that one man can really do it all.  Not even Carlos Acosta starred in his own ballet, Tocororo, which I think is important if you’re going to put your name on something.  It’s one thing to do a solo or a piece, but an entire ballet requires a watchful eye from where the audience is sitting, and so that when there is an audience they do indeed get the entire picture of the ballet as a whole.  Personally I think it’s a lot to ask of an audience to have them sit through a couple of hours of ballet just to see the star.  Of course we pick which castings we want to go to, but we want to enjoy the entire ballet, not sit around and wait for it to highlight one dancer.  There was fantastic dancing being done from supporting cast members like the colossal Patrick Bissell and Susan Jaffe, but it didn’t seem like there was much care to make them look good.

Baryshnikov was fantastic and did amazing pirouettes en dehors in arabesque which are kind of a signature move for Basils (and I think they are among the witchiest pirouettes of ALL TIME.  Those and en dedans a la seconde…I hate those), but I loved Cynthia Harvey and she made the production for me.  She was saucy and coy, elvish and frisky.  She was everything she needed to be at the appropriate moments and a wonderful technician to boot.  I was so captivated by her that she was far more memorable to me than Baryshnikov.  She was positively brilliant in act I, and is well worth the watch.  I just hope anyone else who watches this as their first Don Q isn’t as ill-prepared as I was! (and seriously pay attention to the french horns and low brass in the second variation…WHAAAAT?!?!)

MASSIVE review of “The Turning Point” (1977…before my time)

15 Jul

Another movie review…this time, “The Turning Point” starring Shirley Maclaine, Anne Bancroft, Leslie Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov.  By the way, I hope these movie reviews aren’t annoying…but please understand two things; number first, I didn’t engage the world of dance until a couple of years ago so all of these movies are still new to me, and second, I currently have waaaaay too much time on my hands and a fantashtik local library with a good (free!) selection.  In addition to “The Company,” I watched “The Red Shoes” a few months ago, and have “White Nights” on reserve.  “The Red Shoes” I don’t think I’ll be doing a review of (for now)…I’ve already forgotten many of the finer details, and I actually found it difficult to follow and really intense.  In other words, I’m pretty sure I’m too dumb to get that movie…but it was an interesting one nonetheless.  The drama and history of the whole Diaghilev and Ballet Russes era is one that I just barely scratched the surface of, and to those well versed in the history, it probably holds more significance (meanwhile, simpletons like me were hoping for a “Wizard of Oz” ballet…I’m an idiot).  However, I am starting to do a little research and such here and there and I really like “The Firebird” (one of my favorite Stravinsky works of all time), although there are parts that remind me of trippy Russian cartoons.  If you’re an Ohio State student and have ever been to Hagerty Hall (which is the foreign language building), the café on the first floor has several television screens that broadcast channels from all over the world, and sometimes there would be these DE-ranged Russian cartoons with lots of swirling colors and monsters that would continually morph into other monsters.  Your guess is as good as mine.

ANYWAY, so back to “The Turning Point,” I was really annoyed by the very first scene in the movie, which features the corps in the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère.  It’s the famous moment where the shades are descending the platform contraption in a linear fashion, and pause to hold an arabesque.  I believe it was ABT that did the dance scenes for the movie, and the arabesques from those ladies were a hot mess.  The whole point of the corps, and especially that scene is to have all the arabesques completely identical, creating an illusion of eternity…like if you’re standing in a mirror while holding a mirror you get that infinite tunnel effect.  But some of those ladies were either too indulgent or just went to the arabesque they knew out of habit, and what you get is the same effect that the portrait of Stephen Colbert at the Smithsonian American History Museum produces:

Note sloppy corps...

Note sloppy corps...

But corps aside, I really loved this movie.  No other ballet movie shows so many variations from the big ticket classics, while this one has the aforementioned scene from La Bayadère, the slave Ali variation from Le Corsaire, pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty, pas de deux from Romes & Jules, selected scenes from Swan Lake and Giselle (now I know why Jess had us do 685047880546 entrechat quatre on a diagonal, which seemed like torture at the time), and everyone’s favorite grand pas de deux and coda from Don Quixote.  Baryshnikov, or “Misha” as one should call him in order to appear as though they can mingle with ballet’s most knowledgeable elite, is something else.  A gracious partner, superb technique and an uncanny ability to really connect movements in a phrase rather than a series of steps.  I do think Misha likes to throw his head back just a wee bit too much (some call it expression), and I find his pirouettes to look kind of crazed and almost too tight…he doesn’t exactly make them look easy, even if he is reeling around ten of them.  He’s a little pumpkin dynamo and deserves the praise he gets, but I have a tendency to be less enamored with people who are full of themselves.  For him to be playing the skeezy, womanizing Yuri in Turning Point, and many years later to also play a stuck up, arrogant character again on Sex and the City (a show that I feel has set women back 25 years), just makes me feel like his acting had to be drawing on real experiences if you know what I’m sayin.  But I shan’t criticize further…because in the end he is an epic dancer.  I just choose to worship in the church of Acosta (who I believe is substantially taller, making his ability to move with impeccable technique even more impressive to me).

Meanwhile, I have to say that Anne Bancroft played a very convincing withering ballerina.  For someone with no dance background, she certainly picked up on how to carry herself.  11 Oscar nominations for the movie was a little much, but I dig Anne’s portrayal of Emma.  There’s a scene where she even throws a drink on DeeDee (Shirley Maclaine), which was totally improvised so you know Shirley was surprised, and what a genius moment that was.  DeeDee is an obnoxious, whiny character who is always blaming others for her problems, and Maclaine did a great job of making me dislike that character.  But back to Emma, apparently Audrey Hepburn was even offered the role, which she turned down and was quoted as saying that that was the one she regretted not doing.  Sucks to be her…or not.  Anyway, Emma was probably my favorite character, and replace her 3 Yorkshire terriers with malteses, subtract the illustrious ballet career, fabulous New York apartment, and I’m thinking that’s where I may be when I’m in my forties.  I should be so lucky, no?  But muchitos kuditos to her and Shirley…a two “Venga!s” up for the both of them!

Anyway, a definite must watch for all ballet fans, and a particularly good one for non-ballet people too, since it’s a crash course in the classics.  Leslie Browne is an adorable little baby bunny, unseasoned at the time and did well for herself as an actress too.  And how can anyone not like her as a drunken corps member in Giselle? *cough* Gelsey Kirkland *cough*  Or her ridiculous Russian/Soviet persona she assumed in the bar to get drunk in the first place?  Clearly, she and Nikolai Alexander Vladimirovicherov could have an interesting conversation or two over vodka and caviar.  Like some of my favorites from the movie:

Favorite performance:

Lucette Aldous (Australian Ballet principal dancer) as Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux.  Totally sinister and saucy.

Favorite quote:

Michael: Little Arnold’s ambivalence is showing…

Arnold: Don’t get bitchy, Michael.

Michael: I’m not referring to your sex life.

PS. Michael is loosely based on Jerome Robbins.  Stephen Sondheim once said that the 2 things Leonard Bernstein feared were God and Jerome Robbins. ::snicker::

Other favorite quote:

Emilia: What happened between you and Michael?

Emma: Oh…um, priorities.

Emilia: Oh.  He liked boys better than girls.

So brilliant, so fabulous.  And to conclude this marathon entry, I leave you with the funniest pictures I could find that had anything to do with this movie…(actually, the only pictures I could find)

Director Herbert Ross joins in on the fun.

Director Herbert Ross joins in on the fun.

Courtesy of www.sleeveface.com.   Be sure to check out their site for more hilarious sleevefacing.

Courtesy of http://www.sleeveface.com. Be sure to check out their site for more hilarious sleevefacing.

And a quick note to my readers…I see that I’ve had a reader in Brazil!  Youdancefunny has officially reached its third continent, and I feel crazy honored.  So thank you ALL for reading, and I hope my blogging efforts are entertaining for you.  Feel free to complain or slap me if they aren’t.