Tag Archives: billy elliot

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame me once, shame me twice…I deserve it

29 Aug

Yesterday morning I went to see Mao’s Last Dancer with Karena.  Now I have to preface by saying with great humility that I have not read the book.  Normally, I’m one of those people that look at younglings, resist the urge to poke them with a stick and say “read the book, sonny boy!” (or for that matter, read A book…ANY book).  Back in Ohio I had gotten it from the library and added it to my fortress of borrowed items, but as any bookworm will tell you, we often bite off more than we can chew when it comes to library materials.  In the end, I never got around to it and had to return it before even getting the chance to open it.  Like any addiction it’s a rather vicious cycle but I honestly blame my parents—they were always reluctant to buy toys for me growing up but books were educational and thus limitless.  In essence, I’m not sure I know how to live a life that isn’t surrounded by books that I assume I’ll read someday…they offer a certain sense of security for the future that nothing else can.  But I digress.  The point is, no I haven’t read it and yes I consider that to be an embarrassing fact.

While it is true that I wear the scarlet letter of failing to read a book before its release as a film, I think it can be said that generally, biographical films tend to fail just a little bit because inevitably they will always lack nuances and important details.  There’s simply too much content in one person’s life to cram into a couple of hours, especially when the producers of the film are trying to include the whole spectrum of formative years as a child through to adulthood.  Many a twitterer have made this observation and I trust that they are right…a lot of the movie felt rushed and quite frankly didn’t really paint a complete picture of Li Cunxin.  I liked the movie but it did seem awfully rosy for the first hour or so, basically until his defection from China.  The problem with glazing over much of his developmental years is that it’s difficult to ascertain a sense of why he is the way he is as a grown man (besides the fact that he was jumping up staircases with a surplus of weights tied to his body, which really just made me cringe.  I’m not entirely convinced such a thing would work either, but I’m a big proponent of learning to manipulate the body you have when it comes to developing technique).

I think that’s why Billy Elliot probably remains (in my humble opinion) the most successful ballet movie within the past decade.  In Billy Elliot the story focuses only on his beginnings in ballet, extracting just the short time period in which he discovers ballet to his acceptance into the Royal Ballet School.  The other genius (and annoying) thing about Billy Elliot is the omission of any professional dance scenes—it forces the audience to focus only on the story and the amateur dancing Billy does throughout develops a stronger sense of his character.  Dance scenes would have ruined Billy Elliot but as a dance junkie I was glad there were snippets in Mao’s Last Dancer, especially because I think current generations are losing touch with classical arts and the film was a more appropriate forum to show them rather than certain television shows I dislike so very much.  Occasionally the editing weirded me out only because I knew too much (like how they chopped up the Don Quixote grand pas de deux) and while the slow motion leaps had Karena and I in giggles, she made the observation that it kind of takes away from the spectacularity of a bravura jump.  It almost makes you think it’s a trick of the camera when he really is jumping that high and really is achieving a certain position in the air.  I forget where I saw it, but I do remember seeing videos of a dancer leaping, as captured by a high speed camera, kind of like how during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel they use high speed cameras to film great white sharks jumping out of the water to eat seals…from a scientific perspective, getting the opportunity to be clued in to the process is incredibly fascinating.  Speaking of high speed cameras and nature, in a study that filmed frogs jumping in super slow-motion, the champion jumper was the Cuban tree frog, which leads me to believe that there is indeed something in the water that must make the Cubans the jumpers that they are—be they frogs or ballet dancers.

Speaking of other dance scenes though, I had to laugh when there were the obligatory fouettés in DonQ, because apparently a ballet movie can’t impress audiences without them (hell, even that long ass movie Benjamin Button had a fouetté moment).  That’s all I really have to say about that…it’s just funny how the move is so iconic of ballet and yet they’re hardly a part of daily training.  Then again, maybe that’s because I take adult classes and we’re too old for that crap (though I don’t doubt many people go into an adult class hoping to learn them!).

Meanwhile, I enjoyed the movie and was perhaps aided by not having read the book and yes, my sappy ass cried at the end when Li was finally reunited with his parents after that awesome performance of Rite of Spring (anyone know if that is indeed Graeme Murphy’s choreography?).  Also, lovely to see Amanda Schull again and I was impressed with the casting in general.  In other news, a woman asked us after the movie who the actor playing Stevenson was and what else he appeared in and I found myself in the awkward position of having to keep quiet in saying that I knew Bruce Greenwood was the president in the National Treasure sequel (“it’s a cipher!”) as well as a jerk CEO in Dinner for Schmucks.  Even worse than admitting I haven’t read Mao’s Last Dancer is having to admit that I know a Nicholas Cage movie so well.

My most brilliant idea ever: Hugh Jackman and Kristin Chenoweth should host a variety show together

26 Aug

I think I should take a moment to formally explain my thoughts on what I have alluded to a couple of times of this being the “age of mediocrity.”  I’ve tried to explain this before to friends, and I lost them in the process so I don’t know if this is going to work, but here goes.  The “age of mediocrity” is largely defined by several factors:

The idea of “who you know” as opposed to “what you can do” and the influence of money

This debate is fortunately less discussed in dance since there are always opportunities to prove one’s prowess in auditions, but it can still make or break a career in terms of promoting dancers to principals or helping a company gain exposure.  In other sectors of entertainment the “who you know” manifests in talentless hacks who record albums, a leap onto the silver screen, or otherwise step outside of their box simply because they have the money.  Some who take the risk are actually gifted and know their place in the world…most are not.

Cheap aesthetics over quality

Somehow sex appeal is now being defined by how attractive one’s visual image is, with a complete disregard for personality or talent.  At one time, it was the other way around…the talented ascended the ranks while a pretty face guaranteed nothing.  In dance, this translates to the constant “higher extensions, prettier feet, more turns” yammering that rages on, while dancers with artistic substance are left behind.  Some say those expressive dancers are just bitter…and I say, they have every right to be!

Overdependence on technology

There are a lot of interesting innovations in technology and art, but there is a certain boundary that’s broken when the technology controls the art.  Technology needs to be used more responsibly, not as a parachute to save a falling heap of crap.

The push for versatility

Versatility is awesome.  People can always learn new things and take risks.  But not everyone is indeed truly versatile, and people need to know their place.  Versatility should be the icing on the cake not the crux of one’s career.  Not every musician plays every instrument in an orchestra.

Reality television

There are the shows where stupid people are paid to do stupid things, and other reality shows are what they are because they can be cheaply produced.  In the end, we’re getting what they pay for.  As if it would be some terrible thing to seek real talent and pay them to do what they do best.

As you can see, this is an issue that I have a lot of rage over, because like many, I’m sick of low-quality, uninspired entertainment.  This is what keeps me running back to live music and dance, because professional musicians and dancers know how it works.  They know how much work it takes to get to where they are and they understand that once they find their niche, they can venture out and explore, but with realistic expectations.  Personally, I don’t even care if someone is not the best ever, doesn’t have the best lines or technical abilities…just show me something thoughtful, with substance and I shall proceed to enjoy (or ponder…whatever it is you want your audience to do).

There are of course some really talented stars out there, but their accolades are often drowned in really dumb news about celebrities who suck.  For as much as Hugh Jackman is praised, I still don’t think he gets enough credit for what he’s able to do.  He’s the rare talent who IS versatile and yet quite humble (gotta love that Aussie nature…and accent) and respects his place in the world of performing arts.  In an interview on the Ellen DeGeneres show earlier this year, he made it a point to stop the interview to talk about how moved he was when he went to see the Bolshoi Ballet:

He has also mentioned in articles before too that he wanted to be a dancer when he was younger, saying:

In another world, another life, probably growing up in another country, I might have been more of a dancer. In fact I was going down that road when I was about 12.  I was encouraged to do that, and I remember my brother saying, ‘Ah, you poof,’ so I gave it up. I dropped it like a hot rock. I didn’t have the guts of Billy Elliot at the time!

So ten points for the Billy Elliot reference and another fifty for acknowledging the courage of the male dancer.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that he would be so thoughtful, because he is an earth monkey (Chinese zodiac, not in the Invader Zim sense), and people born in the year of the monkey are known for their intelligence and thoughtfulness.  Coincidentally, I was born in the year of the rat, and I shouldn’t even be surprised that I admire Hugh Jackman because rats, monkeys and dragons are in the same “triangle of affinity,” which means we have a tendency to like each other.  Anyway, even though his brother’s words deprived us of a more technically trained Hugh Jackman (I love that he can hold his own in Broadway jazz, but the image of a Hugh Jackman with ballet bravura is delish), his brother was also a big part of the reason why Jackman went back to the studio, which I found out in a different article:

Six years later, his father took the boys to see the musical “42nd Street.” At intermission, his brother apologized for being such a jerk years before. “He said, ‘Hugh, you should be up there doing that stuff,’ ” Jackman recalls. “It made me tear up at the time — it was a beautiful thing to say — and I actually went straightaway and did dance classes from then.”

Isn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard?  A commenter on my blog mentioned how sorely missed the variety show is, and I think Jackman is probably the only actor out there who has the ability and magnetic pull of a Dean Martin or Carol Burnett to really be successful at it.  The Austin Chronicle published an interview with Carol Burnett in January about what a variety show would need for success, and she said it would need a host that audiences can latch onto, and great writers with no egos (which goes for the actors too!).  Jackman definitely fits the bill, but I say take it a step further and add a second host.  Another earth monkey…Kristin Chenoweth!  Can you IMAGINE the possibilities if these two were the host of their own variety show?  It kills me that these two are among the most talented people in show business, and I don’t think they’ve ever collaborated on anything (and for the record, neither are among the top 10 paid actors/actresses in Hollywood…it’s sick).  Kristin’s comedic abilities are vastly underrated and both are surely used to improv and live performances thanks to their experience in theater (and not just TV and movies like some actors), and the fact alone that Jackman is 6’2” and Chenoweth is 4’11” has the makings for comedy gold.  I’m seriously five seconds away from starting a petition or something.


My two favorite earth monkeys...we know they're friends, could it be just a matter of time before they have a variety show?

My two favorite earth monkeys...we know they're friends, could it be just a matter of time before they have a variety show?

Anyway, just for the hell of it, I love Hugh in this video from the Tonys where he pulls NYCB patron Sarah Jessica Parker up on stage (in a totally Giselle/Sylphide dress I might add) to have a good time (oddly enough, she claims she’s not a dancer…but didn’t she attend SAB for a while?)

“I’m always very nervous about the word dancer next to my name because anyone who’s really trained in dance will go, ‘This guy’s fudging so badly.'”

-Hugh Jackman

The Latest in Ohio State University Dance…

4 Jun

Everything I know about dance I’ve learned at Ohio State University.  It’s a long story, and one that will require an extensive entry that I have no patience to write.  Too bad.

Anyway, tonight I went to their spring concert, entitled “13 Feats,” showcasing a number of different pieces, mostly modern with some variety to curry spice the life.  People, it was MEGA-long.  A lot of interesting things going on, but when you’re dealing with someone like me who has the attention span of a squirrel, the mind wanders.  I would still recommend to anyone to go see it because there’s a lot of great content though.  Furthermore, one of my little ducklings is in it.

Before I continue, you should know that throughout my massive amounts of class taking at OSU, I’ve befriended a number of lovely ladies, who I call my ducklings.  As head of the dance elective student mafia (in other words, as the comparatively geriatric male of the bunch), I look after them.  You know, let them know when papers are due, carpool to shows, steer them away from unruly boys, and lend an ear whenever they have dance gossip.  I may mention them in this blog, so in the interest of their anonymity, I shall refer to them by the pet names I have so graciously bestowed upon them.  If you know who I’m talking about, that means you know them personally and I don’t worry that you’re some creepo stalker crazy.

So Magelas was in the piece final, a sort of modern-fusion dance set to “O…Saya” from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.  Which, for the record I had identified from the beginning as the superior song to the Academy Award winning number “Jai Ho,” despite the fact that I do indeed know the concluding Bollywood dance from the film.  My brain is wired to monkey see monkey do, and for whatever reason it’s pretty good at imitating dances.  My ability to imitate is a gift that may be a further topic of discussion someday.  Oh my Billy Elliot!  So much to cover, and only one life to do it.  (“Billy Elliot” by the way, is my religion and shall thus replace all profanities.  This started when a friend of mine and her Jew mother had gone to see the movie, and due to the excessive amount of swearing, as if we could accept anything less from proper Englishmen, decided to swear as much as they could for entertainment, on their way to the parking lot.  However, once they realized the presence of children nearby, they replaced all terms that could burn the tykes’ ears with Billy Elliot instead.  Or Billeh Elliot if you want to go for a more accurate pronunciation).  

Where was I?  Do sea otters mate for life?

One of the highlights of going to a dance show is people watching the audience.  You have the fellow dancers in the department, friends of the dancers, students who take dance classes and have to write a response paper on a live performance, and me.  In addition, there is a small portion of people who don’t want to be there but are so obviously dragged there (and it is ALWAYS written all over their face).  One girl brought her sasquatch boyfriend, who I shall call Squatch.  Squatch wasn’t yeti-like as in hairy and smelled like yak, just tall and built like he should be loping through a forest of redwoods.  His first comment complaint was that the chairs were too small and close together, leaving him no leg room.  Luckily, he found a seat at the front of a section with vast amounts of space to sprawl into.  I’m pretty sure my leg was about as thick as his arm, and I have pretty chunky thighs, or as I like to refer to them my “raw materials.”

The point is, yeti-man was on to something; when attending a long dance show, make sure to get up during intermission because sitting for long periods of time makes your raw materials tight.

And the second point is, Nacho and I are awesome friend for supporting our Magelas.

And the moral of the story?  Go see a local dance show.  Dance is an art that thrives on the support of many.