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Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë

23 Jun

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).

At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.

The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.

Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.

Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:

Photo of original cast members Michael Somes (Daphnis) and Violetta Elvin (Lykanion) Photo ©Royal Opera House/Hulton Deutsch

The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:

The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.

Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.

The Royal Ballet in 1994; Vaughan also said that the costumes “look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy.” What do you think? Photo ©Robbie Jack/CORBIS

There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).

Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.

As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.

So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!

Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)

 

Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!

You Dance Funny’s 2010 Year in Review Contest!

29 Dec

Well folks as we head towards the end of the year, I’d like to announce my Year-in-Review Contest!  Excitement!  I thought of writing my own year in review entry, but it seemed like a lot of work to go back through all of my entries so rather than do that, I thought I’d enslave my readers to do it for me!  Yay!  Oh…

Your motivation?  The fabulous prize of dance photography by London based photographer, John Ross!  I myself purchased a couple of prints from him (you can read about it here) and they are stunning.  In addition to having some fun with this blog and rewarding my faithful readers, I thought this would also be a great way to get people interested in his work.  Three lucky winners will receive one 8 x 10 of their choice, meaning winners will get to browse his extensive galleries at Ballet.co and request whichever photo they want!  It’s like being a kid in a candy store because the selection is virtually limitless.  Just as a teaser, here are a few photos I’m fancying at the moment, which is just a sampling from the many you can choose from:

Angelic Marianela Nuñez and Bobo in George Balanchine's 'Serenade' (photo ©John Ross)

Johan Kobborg and Coco in Sir Frederick Ashton's 'La Fille mal Gardée' (photo ©John Ross)

Roberta Marquez and Thiago Soares in John Cranko's dark and moody 'Onegin' (photo ©John Ross)

How to enter:

Find your favorite You Dance Funny post from 2010 (pick ONLY one…yes, I know many are fabulously entertaining but you can only pick one this time), and write in 500 words or less why it’s your favorite (don’t stress over the number of words…I’m not THAT picky).  Obviously, this contest is my blatant attempt to lure in depth feedback out of you, by giving you a material reason to speak up, so be descriptive and tell me more than “this is my favorite post because it’s funny and Sleeping Beauty is my favorite ballet.”  International applicants are of course welcome and encouraged to enter!  While the short essay must be written in English, don’t worry about grammar and such if English is not your native language…your ideas are much more important to me.

Submit your entry by e-mail (e-mail Steve) by January 9th (now 14th!) 2011.  I will be judging this contest myself, and will select the winning entries based on various criteria like creativity and how helpful the feedback is for me (basically, the ones I like the most…but don’t worry, I pledge to judge objectively and fairly…attempts at using trump cards like an Ashton ballet, or following me on Twitter will get you no special treatment).  I will announce and post the winners in my blog on January 12th (now 15th!) and once selected, winners will receive further instructions by e-mail on how to collect their prize (please note that winners will need to submit a valid postal address in order to receive their photos…common sense, I know, but it has to be said).

Please also note that the photographs are for your personal use and are not be used or distributed for commercial purposes.  Doing so can get you into a heap of legal trouble and the last thing you’ll want is to be slapped with a lawsuit!

Also, here are a few basic rules for the contest:

  1. One entry per person
  2. No cheating, no plagiarism.
  3. Be mindful of the fact that winning entries will be posted here, so don’t say anything too racy…chances are if you do, you probably won’t win anyway, because I’ll be filtering the entries as I read them.

Other than, get cracking and have fun with it!  I look forward to reading your thoughts in the New Year, as you have mine.

Many thanks and much love,

Steve

(Hey look, this entry is around 500 words!  Okay, 600)

Inner Petipa…are you sleeping?

15 Sep

In an attempt to get in touch with my inner Petipa, I sat my seat down and watched the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.  Truth be told, it really seemed more like “the story of the omnipotent Lilac Fairy,” a role in which Marianela Núñez shined…but more on that later (and props to Laura Morera as the…”spicy fairy.” I forget what the official name was).

As I said, the whole purpose of this exercise was to get in touch with my inner Petipa.  I’ve definitely been going through a “Peti-blah” funk towards the great classics because quite frankly, once you go MacMillan/Ashton you can never go back.  Well, I shouldn’t say “never,” but the more I come to appreciate that dynamic duo of British choreographers, the harder it becomes to enjoy the Petipa classics that are plagued with divertissements (translation, a dance for people on stage that probably have nothing to do with the story), leading to a tendency to stretch out stories that don’t have that much substance in the first place.  Sleeping Beauty was LONG.  I was genuinely shocked to discover that it’s only a mere eighteen minutes longer than my beloved Manon, because it does drag a bit and coming out of something feeling like you spent ten hours of your life in a mere two is generally not a good sign.

The problem is, Petipa is to be respected—NOT optional.  His great classics have been a driving force in securing ballet’s continual success and its place in history.  At first I thought maybe I was watching the wrong ballets.  The only one I’ve seen live is Le Corsaire, which I used to like a lot more than I do now and then there’s Don Quixote (meh) and La Bayadère that I’ve seen on film (the latter being one I still appreciate quite a bit actually).  I still have yet to watch a Swan Lake, which generally seems to be the most popular one, especially amongst women.  Why women anyway?  Rarely have I heard men say it’s their favorite or for male dancers, that it’s their favorite to perform but women are crazy about it!  However, this is a topic of research for another day so back to regularly scheduled programming…I had some hopes for Sleeping Beauty because I do adore the Disney movie oh so very much.  A hackneyed reference, I know…but the force is strong with my inner child.

I had trouble with the plot of Sleeping Beauty…I know it’s a fairy tale but there were a number of things that either didn’t make sense or were just disappointing—the biggest of these disappointments being the demise of the villainess, Carabosse.  She is a fantastic character but her demise is weak and is mostly at the hands of the Lilac Fairy, whose spell, once actualized in the awakening of Aurora by virtue of Florimund’s kiss is what destroys Carabosse.  I mean really, if the Lilac Fairy’s magic had this potential all along, why the wild goose chase and the one hundred year delay?  I had the same problem with Disney too…Maleficent is one of the most badass villains of all time and the movie went from the legendary line of: “now shall you deal with me, oh prince…and all the powers of Hell!” to having the fairies enchant the sword with a convenient “accuracy spell” so that when Prince Phillip threw it, it was guaranteed to hit its target.  It’s a disservice to these amazing villains to have them perish so easily, especially when it’s not even the main characters who overcome them…there was no sense of triumph for me.

At least in the Disney movie Phillip and Aurora meet before the whole sleep spell so their coupling at the end seems more serendipitous but in the ballet, Florimund kisses Aurora and they meet for the first time (after of course, the Lilac Fairy has him dance with her…ghost?  Where?  In an enchanted forest.).  First of all, shouldn’t Aurora be disturbed that she and her kingdom basically “Brigadooned” it and appeared as anachronisms in a completely new world?  And second, waking up to a stranger kissing you should be kind of creepy…like, “where’s your pepper spray” creepy.  Call it romantic if you must, but the nonsensical aspects of this ballet have me thinking Romeo and Juliet actually makes sense.

Regardless, the ballet IS pretty and Tchaikovsky’s score for it is one of the finest ever.  I think how I’ve come to differentiate the purely classical choreography by Petipa and the sort of neoclassical work of Ashton or MacMillan is that Petipa would be like what I would call “a great writer” while I would categorize Ashton/MacMillan as “great storytellers” (in addition to being great “writers” as well!).  To me, writing and storytelling have always been different arts, sometimes overlapping but still distinct.  I don’t even consider my own writing to necessarily be “good writing” but more often “good storytelling.”  When I came to this epiphany in regards to ballet, all of a sudden Sleeping Beauty became much more digestible.

The whole ballet is rather…“sugar and rainbows” so to speak and speaking of rainbows, I was oddly fascinated by the procession of fairies and their cavaliers in Act I.  I was somehow reminded of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering which has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty; it was just funny to me how the pastel color palettes were almost the same, the number of dancers was almost the same (twelve for Beauty, ten for Gathering), but obviously featured classical choreography with heavily embroidered and ornate tutus for one while the other has contemporary choreography with unadorned chiffon dresses.  The similarity in colors created in my mind a relationship between the two pieces that transcended time.  With both being so exemplary of their respective periods, I couldn’t help but feel the expansiveness of ballet’s timeline and be amazed at how much it has evolved.

In addition to the glitter and sparkle, it has to be said that Alina Cojocaru is in a category of her own.  Her impeccable balances and youthful nature make for a sweetheart Aurora that is sure to make your teeth hurt.  Federico Bonelli (or as I like to refer to him, BoBo…which I guess makes Alina: CoCo) is equally youthful and has a wonderfully boyish look that screams innocence.  What I love so much about his dancing is that he has such beautiful placement and dances very “squarely”—nothing is contorted to get a higher leg or turn out that is forced to unhealthy degrees.  It makes his dancing efficient and clean and it is in fact when dancers are struggling to get their legs higher or forcing their turnout that ballet actually looks hard.  BoBo also has a superb lightness; you would never be able to hear him land a jump and he rolls through his feet and uses his plié so well his steps seamlessly transition from one to another.  He is a perfect partner for CoCo, who is equally light and technically strong.  She has an ability to indulge her lines when she wants to, like in some of the attitude positions she’ll open her hip a bit but when it comes to those tough balances in attitude, she knows how to square her hips off as well.  (This is actually something I sort of learned for myself recently…given, I never dance on pointe but I’ve found a sense of balance that I never had before and now when I microwave leftovers for thirty seconds, I use that time to see if I can hold an attitude on relevé.   And yes, I can!  Even longer some days…I figure if the average human being can’t do that, it warrants a pat on the back)

Observe CoCo and BoBo in their “Happy Ending Pas de Deux”

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sleeping Beauty, and certainly CoCo and BoBo’s dancing of it.  Regardless of some plot issues I think I can enjoy Petipa after all…although considering the Royal Ballet’s production has revisions and choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon, it’s kind of a hot mess of different choreographers.  Then again, every Petipa ballet today is.

Meanwhile, this might be the most fantastic Rose Adagio ever (at the 3:19 mark):