Tag Archives: benjamin millepied

‘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:

Bridging the Lake; a Black Swan discussion with an outsider

7 Jan

Rather than write my thoughts on Black Swan, I thought I’d do something a little different and get the perspective of someone completely outside of the dance community.  There are many wonderful reviews written by dancers and balletomanes (which I am just now catching up on, having avoided spoilers until I saw the movie), but what about the “common man?”  Well, the common man is my friend Derek, a movie buff who has graciously submitted to an interview, directed by yours truly in order to guide the conversation into a context that makes a connection between the dance world as we know it and the one he saw in film, perhaps illuminating for both sides how we can find common ground and bring new audiences to ballet.

Derek is older than me (just thought I’d throw that out there) and is the type of friend who never calls, unless I call him at least five times.  He hails from a quaint little village known as Fort Wayne, Indiana where you can park your horse at the local grocery stores, though he lives in the more metropolitan Indianapolis now (which is essentially a clone of my hometown, Columbus).  Despite my desperate pleas to get him to go see the ballet, he hasn’t—missing the likes of Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev at the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala in September of this year.  I KNOW.  I KNOW!!!  He had these superstars right on his doorstep and I implored that he go so I could live vicariously through him, with Kent/Gomes performing the pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias and Othello, and the Bolshoi wunderkinds doing the Don Quixote and Flames of Paris grand pas de deux (their best!), but he didn’t go.  Derek has no idea how embittered and hostile I still am over this most egregious failure and rest assured next time I see him violence will ensue.  Meanwhile, he saw his first Nutcracker this holiday season…if that’s not a knife to the gut I don’t know what is.

Putting aside his nefarious betrayal, he was in fact very excited for Black Swan.  As I said, he’s a fan of films; he makes Oscar predictions and watches all of the award shows, delighting in the prestige and glamour (while I perish at the mere thought of bowties and tuxedos).  He is of course a huge admirer of Darren Aronofsky and despite impeding my mission to get more people interested in our sacred art, Derek is a cheerful chap and occasionally his moral compass proves to be sound (though his spending habits beg to differ).

So first, what is your overall impression of Black Swan and what aspects of the film were most enjoyable/interesting to you?

Derek: My general impression of the movie was that it was pretty freaking cool.  I like Aronofsky as a film-maker, and I have seen all of his movies minus Pi, so when I noticed on IMDB that he was making a movie with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Winona Ryder (all are certain favorites of mine) I knew I would see this movie the first chance I got.  I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations because I was so excited to see it, but it didn’t fail me.  While watching, I was glued to the screen. When I left, my mind was racing.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My favorite things about the movie were definitely the performances.  Natalie Portman has long been a favorite of mine, and I’ve always known she is an amazing actress (not proven true by ANY of the Star Wars movies, but I held on to faith, and she finally did a 180 with the film, Closer).  Portman, in my honest opinion, has delivered one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Winona Ryder also did excellent jobs. They were all extremely effective in their supporting roles, and deserve recognition somehow.

I thought it was interesting that the movie was about ballet, and about a ballerina who wanted to be the best, but the story didn’t really end there. It was a character study about transformation, and perception.

Besides the obvious hallucinations, did anything strike you as unrealistic?  You mentioned the effectiveness of Portman’s acting and the supporting cast, but what did you make of some of the stereotypes they portrayed, such as Nina’s eating disorder, her perfectionism, her stage mother, or the bitchy fellow dancers?

Derek: I think what made this an interesting portrayal of an anorexic ballerina is that they never touched on the subject verbally… we saw images of Nina throwing up in a bathroom. It was never mentioned again.

Her mom was odd. She was a typical “stage mom”, living vicariously through Nina. What made her more corrupt is the fact that she knew Nina was sick, and even through we as an audience can only guess that Nina is schizophrenic, her mother knew it all along.

The perfectionism that Nina is striving for is unrealistic. Nothing is perfect, and anything that is perceived as perfect will falter in the end (Ryder’s character in a way was a representation of this). Nina ended up killing herself in her highest moment, and will be remembered forever for this one “perfect performance”, or what she thought was perfect. It’s like Romeo and Juliet’s perfect love; they died at the height of it, and had they survived it they would have lived to see it somehow die, and/or not be perfect.

How familiar are you with the actual story (what’s called the libretto) of Swan Lake?  The original plot is more or less revealed at certain points in the film but I kept wondering if it was enough for people who have never seen Swan Lake before and I’m curious as to whether the parallels between the plot of the ballet Swan Lake and the movie were apparent for you or not.  For example, in the ballet, the Swan Queen (Odette) is fragile and timid, while her imposter the Black Swan (Odile—and not Odette’s twin sister as stated in the movie!) is seductive, which is re-imagined into a modern, New York setting via Nina and Lily.

Derek: I’m not familiar with Swan Lake at all…however, I did a little reading before the movie. I read that Nina personified the White Swan perfectly, and that Lily personified the Black Swan even better, but that Nina had to become both to get the part. That’s all I knew…but I did see the parallels for sure. I think that it was very important for the filmmaker to show these similarities between Nina (Odette) and Lily (Odile).

To see this movie though I don’t think you need to see the ballet, although I think it may prove to have more of an impact. I’ve already said how much I loved this movie, but my roommate Anna did ballet for 10 years, had seen Swan Lake before and knows the music well.  She connected with that part of the movie better than I did.

That’s interesting considering I did a whole Swan Lake MONTH series on my blog, that you obviously did NOT read, “friend.”  However, I agree—Aronofsky maintained the integrity of Swan Lake; in the ballet, the story is told through music and movement but in his film the story is told through dialogue, acting and special effects, coincidentally taking place in the ballet world…at any rate, was there anything you would have liked to have seen in the film but didn’t?  Dare I ask, anything you would have changed?

Derek: Regarding both of your questions, my answer is no.  I liked it the way it was, and I can’t think of anything else I would have added to make it better.

Thank you…for that elaborate response.  Although his role had few lines, did you notice Benjamin Millepied at all (aka, David, Nina’s partner)?  What did you think of him? (I guarantee ballet fans were watching him with as much interest as they were watching Portman)

Derek: Yes, I did notice Benjamin Millepied. I knew going into the movie that he is a pretty accomplished dancer and choreographer, and that he did some, if not all, of the choreography for this film. He had great film presence, and with Portman had great chemistry (and it all makes sense now, being engaged and expecting a little bundle of “joy!”).

But, not being a particular dance fan, and not really knowing correct techniques, or knowing what to look for in a great dancer, I will say that Portman held her own. I was extremely impressed with her skill, but you could definitely see a difference in between Millepied and Portman. I could tell that he was an extremely experienced and good dancer. It was very good casting.

I kind of felt like Millepied needed to comb his hair…but that’s irrelevant.  Has this film changed your perception of ballet?  Are you more/less inspired to see a ballet on your own?  And don’t even think about telling me what you think I want to hear because I’ll know you’re lying.

Derek: I don’t think this movie has really changed my perception of ballet. In a way, I have always appreciated it, maybe not as much as you [Steve], but I think more so than the general population.

I think I would see a ballet, but I would prefer to go with someone who kind of knew ballet (maybe you!), or perhaps Anna, who like I said, is a big ballet fan. I wouldn’t know left from right or what was good or not, but I think I could enjoy a good ballet for the music and the artistry.

Well, the truth is, you don’t have to know what’s good or not…the important thing is having the freedom to decide what you like or dislike and to have conviction in your opinions, while accepting those of others.  If you choose to learn more about it, I think you’ll find the rewards more gratifying though.

Hey, remember when I gave you a dance belt for your birthday? How’s that going for you?

Derek: I’ve worn it.  Yes.  I can’t say why.  Or for whom.  But it’s gotten use.  It fits well.

Well thank you for your time, and just so you know, after missing the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala, you have a chance to redeem yourself.  On January 19th, Opus Arte Cinemas will be doing a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet performing Giselle in limited theaters (including the Carmike 20 in your hometown, Fort Wayne) with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather performing the principal roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  This is not a request and it is not an interview question…it is a demand that you not fail me again.  And look—I’ve even written a post about the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, so you can imagine me there with you…and if you don’t go, you can imagine my hands wringing your neck.

This concludes the interview with my friend Derek, a so-called “outsider” of ballet.  As Black Swan continues to delight audiences as well as stir up controversy for some professionals in the industry, the only safe thing to say is that dance movies (or in the case of Black Swan, a movie that happens to have dance in it) have a tendency to be divisive.   I think there’s a triangular relationship, between professional dancing, a well-developed storyline and good actors that has yet to be balanced to the satisfaction of many.  It seems two out of three just isn’t enough!