Tag Archives: bolshoi

Oh Raymonda…

24 Jun

For some reason it completely escaped me that the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Raymonda streamed live today and luckily, I was able to attend with fellow balletomanes Catherine and Ryan. Though I’ve seen some ballet in cinema it was never live so this was something of a new experience for me. To be honest I’ve become somewhat disillusioned to Russian ballet over the past couple of years as my preference for the English style has grown, but deep down I knew I had to give it another chance. After falling in love with true story ballets my problem with the imperial Russian full-lengths was that the narratives were simply too weak to hold my attention—which hasn’t changed. However, even I must admit that I haven’t always been open minded in my assessments and resigned myself to at least enjoying the beauty and sheer opulence of a Bolshoi production. Dancing in the Bolshoi theatre has got to make a dancer feel like a million bucks! Such confidence may even inspire one to don a Pikachu costume backstage…

Now having seen it, I can’t say Raymonda is a masterpiece, and being his last ballet it almost felt like a formulaic retrospective of some of his successes rather than a ballet that stands on its own. With a wedding like Sleeping Beauty, national dances like Swan Lake, exoticism like La Bayadère, and possibly more that I’m obviously not aware of, Raymonda is a Petipa pot pie, with a filling derivative of his own work. This current Bolshoi production has choreography that follows a lineage from Petipa through Alexander Gorsky, and now Yuri Grigorovich who staged this production in 2003. Alexander Glazunov composed the score with specifications from Petipa himself, and the result is everything you can expect from classical Russian ballet—ceremonious and LONG. There is a great deal of beautiful dancing, and if there’s one thing I definitely give the Russians credit for is how they can mechanize a flawlessly synchronized corps de ballet. However, conventional issues with classical ballet aside, I cannot in good conscience, overlook the excessive racism in this production of Raymonda.

The story goes (and this won’t make any sense) is that Raymonda is betrothed to the knight Jean de Brienne, who sets off on a quest. In his absence, Raymonda has a dream about him, but also a mysterious figure that later appears at her birthday party. That would be Abherakhman, a Saracen knight (Saracen being another term for Arab), who oddly enough was invited by the Countess Sybil de Daurice who is throwing the party for her niece, Raymonda. Abherakhman falls in love with Raymonda upon first sight, tries to win her over, she rejects him, and he tries to abduct her. At that precise moment, Jean de Brienne returns, duels with Abherakhman and kills him, thus saving her. Then there’s a wedding, the end. As if that wasn’t bad enough Abherakhman has the most horrendous makeup, painted with exaggerated features and ghoulishly ashen skin that make him look certifiably insane. He also has an entourage with him, all dressed in fairly stereotypical Middle Eastern garb, including a pair in…purpleface? The other dancers were clearly bronzed beyond recognition as well, but there was in fact a couple painted in purple. The “lively character dances” they did were just as superficial and the overall effect is as horrifying as it sounds. Yes, we are far more politically correct now than when Raymonda debuted in 1898, which is precisely why care should be taken to revise a ballet to fit a more appropriate cultural context. Perhaps certain liberties would be too drastic a deviation from the libretto, but “purpleface”?! Really?! And why must Abherakhman be portrayed like he’s maniacal? The character dances are horrendous, and make no attempt to hide the contrast between that and the classical steps as performed by the French royalty (and the fact that during that scene both Jean de Brienne and Raymonda are dressed in pure white doesn’t exactly help the cause). Though plot is already irrelevant anyway, the idea that as soon as Jean de Brienne arrives, the first thing he and his unit of knights do is attack Abherakhman and his people also disturbed me. It’s difficult to imagine that even almost ten years ago, anyone thought this was a good idea, and that nobody has had the good sense to suggest some editing!

However, it’s not just the blatant racism that incites the “facepalm”—many of the costumes are quite awful throughout, with some lowlights being the helmets of the French knights (oddly reminiscent of the tinfoil variety donned by characters from M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’), the shattered glass patterns on the costumes of the Hungarian dancers, and the decrepit blue tutu Raymonda wears to her own wedding (yes, a blue tutu). Now we’ve moved from “facepalm” to “facepalmheaddesk” territory. Could it get worse? A bit. Though most of the choreography is stock, Abherakhman does a number of aerial somersaults during many of his dances in Act II. The complaints that ballet has become too acrobatic and gymnastic are obviously valid!

Though there was much to my dismay, I did in fact enjoy a few things. Number one: Maria Alexandrova is marvelous. I love her strength and energy, which give her a certain vitality you don’t always see in Russian dancers who are often so lyrical. Her regality radiates throughout, and I enjoyed her well-rounded performance. Ruslan Skvortsov was alright as Jean de Brienne I suppose, though I fear the knight is a character that just won’t resonate with me. Pavel Dmitrichenko danced Abderakhman and…did what he was supposed to do? Then there’s the rest of the huge cast, which has a number of variations that highlight the depth of the Bolshoi, though it was difficult to keep up with the names of who’s who unless you already had some familiarity with the company. It almost doesn’t matter a great deal anyway because there’s no character that you can relate to or empathize with—not even Raymonda, who in many ways doesn’t seem to realize that she’s a woman who can do more than…well, absolutely nothing, except for run in front of Jean de Brienne and Abderakhman as they swordfight, which distracts the latter.

While Raymonda wasn’t my favorite use of three hours, I’m glad I went and I think simply accepting that the Russian tradition is what it is will help me enjoy future performances. However, something I did realize is that if the Bolshoi, for example, were to tour to a city near enough to me, I’d make the effort to see them for sure—but not multiple casts. After chatting about the issue for a bit with Catherine, I postulate that the diversity in companies such as ABT or the Royal Ballet is what makes seeing multiple casts so exciting, while some of the Russian companies and even the Paris Opera are less so, because physical standards are so much stricter for young dancers who enter their schools. Of course people still do it, and principals and soloists will always offer their own interpretations of featured roles, but perhaps the price of that clockwork corps de ballet is room for greater individuality. I shall think about that and report back, but for now, you can enjoy the entire broadcast of Raymonda here:

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.

My First Swan Lake

12 Nov

And so it begins…welcome, to Swan Lake Month!  In case you weren’t aware of the historical background, until today, I had never watched a full production of Swan Lake (long story).  Of course I’ve seen many a Black Swan pas de deux but like my lack of understanding of the context in which it is set went from gust of wind to hurricane.  It seemed like everywhere I turned (well, on Twitter anyway) people would talk Swan Lake and it became increasingly evident that I wouldn’t be a fully fledged balletomane until I earned my Swan Lake badge.  However (and foolishly I might add), rather than try to pick one of the many productions and pluck away one by one at the others some day in the future, the impulsive Aries in me wanted to go all in and watch quite a few of them in a short period of time.  I’m only one DVD in and already I’m feeling like I should have given this more thought before embarking on this endeavor…but alas, it is much to late and I am a creature of my word.

The first DVD I decided to go with was the Bolshoi, starring Natalia Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile, Alexander Bogatyrev as Prince Siegfried and Boris Akimov as Von Rothbart.  Why Bolshoi?  Despite the fact that the Bolshoi version is actually a relatively new staging with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, culturally speaking, Swan Lake is kind of the Russian “thing.”  It debuted in Russia, had a Russian composter in Tchaikovsky and depending on whom you talk to, is based on Russian folklore.  I associate a certain sense of tradition with a Russian Swan Lake,  and it’s by virtue of that pride I think the Russians set the standard.

Since I obviously don’t know that much about Swan Lakes, I couldn’t tell you what makes Grigorovich’s staging unique…for that I shall turn to Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke (how many times do I have to sing the praises of their The Ballet Goer’s Guide?).  In it, they point out that Grigorovich chose to tell the story from Siegfried’s point of view, a post-war trend also exercised in Swan Lake choreography by Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.  Grigorovich’s Swan Lake is a venture of sorts into Siegfried’s psychology, made more apparent by some of the more abstract set designs (something I noticed on my own I might add…anytime you can arrive at the same conclusion as Mr. Crisp, consider yourself brushed by genius!) as well as his relationship to Von Rothbart.  Rather than an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart is this sinister eidolon, often shadowing Siegfried’s movements and skirting the lines between reality and a figment of his imagination…it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where a man on an airplane is driven nuttercrackers by a gremlin the plane that apparently, only he can see.

I should also note that Mr. Crisp and I agree on another thing…we despise jesters in ballet.  In this Swan Lake it was a pretty meaty, acrobatic dancing role, but they bother me and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one.  You may recall my aversion to jesters in my post about Romeo and Juliet; let’s just say nothing has changed since.  It’s incredibly worthwhile to post Mr. Crisp and Ms. Clarke’s comments on the matter:

In passing we must note the Jester—a detestable figure in all ballets—was first introduced into Swan Lake as a positive character by Alexander Gorsky, thus initiating the distracting capers of a completely unnecessary intruder into the ballet’s action.

I actually laughed out loud when I read that, because it’s so perfect I couldn’t imagine it worded any other way.

Anyway, overall I was into it…I had my concerns about divertissements going in, but I think the story moves along fairly well.  In Act I there’s a long procession of the court with lots of dancing (I think I even spotted Nina Ananiashvili in the pas de quatre), and while it was longer than I would prefer, it wasn’t as contrived as some classical ballets are.  I think this is where Swan Lake succeeds and other Petipa (or after Petipa) classical works don’t—the flow and movement of the story aren’t inhibited by extraneous choreography.  Also, (and this is going to sound really stupid) it helped that the longest assortment of divertissements were at the beginning, when as an audience member I still have that excitement to get me through it…having them at the end is a major dead weight.  Even in Act III (according to Crisp/Clarke, Act II remains largely the same as Ivanov-Gorsky), the set of national dances make sense as Siegfried is to choose one of those maidens to be his bride, although at that point he had just come back from his date with Odette and had fallen in love with her.  My only gripe with the logicality of the story was that I wasn’t clear as to why Von Rothbart wanted to trick Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile…from what I’ve read about other versions, they make sense because Von Rothbart is the key to breaking the spell on Odette that turns her into a swan and through this, Von Rothbart can torture Siegfried, while in the Grigorovich version Von Rothbart’s life or death is largely inconsequential…it makes his taunting of Siegfried almost trivial instead of malicious.  This is definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind as I watch other versions.

This version also lacked the iconic scene where Siegfried aims a crossbow at Odette…largely due to the fact that this is an exploit of Siegfried’s mind but I found it a little ironic that in a Swan Lake that seeks to glorify the male dancer, that such an image which would develop his character would be omitted.  When Siegfried almost kills Odette with an arrow but then doesn’t, he has to change from a brute to a remorseful, lovesick young man.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to display a range of his character, but now that I think about it, I can see why Grigorovich forsook it—it’s perhaps too romantic for his interpretation of Siegfried.  Other Siegfrieds must seek Odette’s forgiveness and the audience begins to see him as a hero as he transforms from hunter to pursuer, but perhaps Grigorovich wanted his Siegfried to be less heroic and more human.

I have to say that Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile turned in a particularly exceptional performance.  Nothing was overcooked and she tempered it with just the right amount of subtleties.  One thing I found fascinating was the way in which she first appeared as Odile, she almost seemed skeptical, as if her and Von Rothbart’s fraudulent ploy wouldn’t work, but clearly she overestimated the dopey Siegfried and when it came time for her moment, the famous Black Swan grand pas de deux, her confidence in herself as an imposter had fully fleshed out.  The performance was perhaps a bit dated (from 1989), but it was interesting to see how things have changed with the Bolshoi—the bodies, the technique—Bessmertnova didn’t have a six o’clock penchée but the very fact that she didn’t revealed something more interesting…Siegfried’s FACE.  There’s a whole new dimension added when we can actually see the male partner’s face as he’s supporting his danseuse and this art of shading is becoming a rarity in ballet as a whole.

As for the whole “feminine mystique” business, I want to draw my conclusions after I’ve watched them all, but my initial thoughts are that Swan Lake is about the pursuit…there’s something about the way in which women want to be approached (not chased, mind you) and probably something in there about being loved and adored but not merely because of sex appeal (the lustful side being Odile).  Overall, I think this has been a good first viewing of Swan Lake and the film is grainy, spotted but I love older films and think those things give it character.  Besides a few grumbles here and there, the only major downside of the DVD is that there’s no audience track, so you don’t hear applause or even the wonderful muted thuds of pointe shoes hitting the floor.  So, I give the Bolshoi Swan Lake four stars out of three squares, because I have nothing else to compare it to.  Anyway, it’s pretty.

And because you know it was going to be on YouTube, the Black Swan Pas de Deux (check out how Bogatyrev lands his double tours in the male variation…in perfect, upright arabesques! Crazy!)

(Random, but why does Von Rothbart take a seat next to the Queen?)

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

This entry’s dedicatees are the wonderful Bag Ladies of The Ballet Bag, who have truly helped make my blog the…whatever it is today.  It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to increase readership and reach new audiences, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing…and look at me now!  Five readers!  Just kidding…I know there are more of you and I appreciate each and every click of a link that brings you here, but to the Bag Ladies go the heartiest thanks.  They were among the first to believe that something worthwhile is written here, and this is but a small token of appreciation.  Much obliged, Ladies…much obliged.

The Bag Ladies requested I do some more “detective work” like I did for the Black Swan grand pas de deux.  If you recall, it was a mess of information on the different variations, where they came from and a ‘where are they now?’ sort of deal.  At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another ballet mystery I would be able to research, but lo and behold one day it revealed itself to me—Les Sylphides.  In short, Les Sylphides is also a catastrophe.  At least for the Black Swan pas de deux, there was some logic behind substitutions that were made but there’s a lot to the history of Les Sylphides that doesn’t really make sense…like why is it sometimes called Chopiniana?  Tracing the lineage of this ballet is literally like collecting butterflies…we have to gather samples of the same species, note minute differences and determine whether any of it is significant or not.  So join me as I make a fool’s attempt at the Darwinian task of pinning sylphs and mounting them for display (a disturbing image, is it not?).

Library books in tow, my first order of business was analyzing the title.  The story  goes that when Michel Fokine originally choreographed the ballet for a charity performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, the title was indeed Chopiniana.  However, this ballet was set to a completely different selection of Chopin orchestrations by Alexander Glazunov, with the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 (trust me, you’re going to want to know the numbers) being a later addition, and pretty much the only piece from Chopiniana that survives in modern productions of Les Sylphides today.  Wait for it…Chopiniana had an entirely different theme!  Different theme, different music, different title…I’m pretty sure this constitutes a different ballet.  For this reason I would argue that Chopiniana refers to Fokine’s original character ballet, which is most assuredly lost (it is ballet history after all).  However, in his memoirs Fokine does provide some details about Chopiniana, which I shall quote below:

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 -In gorgeous costumes, a large ensemble performed Polish ballroom dances

Nocturne in F Major, Op.15 No.1 –The curtain opens disclosing Chopin sitting at the piano in a monastery on the island of Majorca, where during the night, the ill composer suffers nightmarish hallucinations.  He sees dead monks rising from their graves and slowly approaching him to the accompaniment of a monotonously beaten rain.  Frightened, he rushes away from the piano, trying to seek safety from the horrible visions.  He finds salvation in his Muse.  Again he sits at the piano and finds calm in the sounds of the Nocturne.

Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3 –(A wedding in a Polish village)  An unfortunate girl is being married to an elderly man whom she does not love.  In the course of the general dancing, her beloved finds his way to her.  As a result of his passionate pleas, she throws the wedding ring at the unwanted suitor and flees with her beloved.

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Hi, it’s me, Steve here and Fokine doesn’t describe the waltz in the manner that he did the other dances, only that it had Anna Pavlova (in a Taglioni costume, a la La Sylphide) and Michael Oboukhov (in a “very romantic black velvet costume” from the ballet Fairy Doll) dancing a pas de deux with “choreography [that] differed from all other pas de deux in its total absence of spectacular feats.”  Fokine goes on to describe the choreography that had “not a single entrechat, turn in the air or pirouette.  There was a slow turn of the ballerina, holding her partner’s hand, but this could not be classified as a pirouette because the movement was not confined to the turn but was used for a change of position and grouping.”  This sounds about in line with the Waltz we see in Les Sylphides today, but I can’t say for sure if it’s actually the same.

Tarantelle Op.43 –This was performed by Vera Fokina assisted by a large ensemble.  I tried to project the authentic character of the national dances which Vera and I had observed on our trip to Italy, when we studied them in detail on the island of Capri.

As you can see, Chopiniana was a plotless ballet in five tableaux, most of them depicting character dances, except for the Waltz.  So what does this mean?  For now, just remember three things: character dances, Alexander Glazunov orchestration, and it was performed by students at the Maryinsky.

Following is a video recording of the Russian National Orchestra performing Chopiniana, however this footage doesn’t contain the Polonaise and actually the order appears to be messed up (as if this wasn’t all confusing enough already) but for the record, the orchestra is playing Mazurka-Waltz-Tarantelle-Nocturne.  The order I have listed above is the official order of Chopiniana.

Things get messy the following year…in 1908, according to one text I have, Chopiniana was danced again at a Maryinsky benefit, under the title of Dances to Music by Chopin.  In 1909, a new version was performed, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin.  I’m not entirely sure, but by conglomerating information from several books, I believe this would be the same ballet Fokine refers to as Second Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique in his memoirs, and thus the prototype of Les Sylphides. Second Chopiniana had a new set of Chopin pieces for the score, orchestrated by Maurice Keller, while also retaining Glazunov’s orchestrated Waltz.  Fokine mentions a pretty funny story regarding the Waltz, which actually has an Etude in C Sharp Minor as the introduction.  This didn’t go well with one of the Maryinsky singers, Ivan Ershov (also a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music), who overheard it while walking by and threw a hissy fit in the middle of one of Fokine’s rehearsals.

“What are they doing?  What are they doing, these ballet people?” he began to yell in colorful tenor.  “They are combining an Etude with a Waltz!”

I always find it funny when musicians are so disagreeable when it comes to ballet…but even funnier was Fokine’s response:

“Ivan Vasilievich, this was not done by the ballet people.  Your director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazounov, has combined the Etude and the Waltz.  Go across the street”—the Conservatory of Music was located just across the street from the Maryinsky Theater—“and yell there.  And we will resume our rehearsal as soon as you leave.”

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

Anyway, from what I’m reading, this version actually had Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 too, but as an overture.  Here is the full listing of Chopin pieces used, and if I’m reading his memoirs correctly, the “glorious” cast who performed in the 1908 premiere at the Maryinsky (though don’t quote me on this):

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 (overture)

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

*Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 –Vaslav Nijinsky

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7 –Olga Preobajenska

*Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2 –Anna Pavlova

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Tamara Karsavina

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Now there’s a reason why the Mazurkas are starred.  For the woman’s Mazurka (danced by Pavlova), some productions today use the order goes as it is above, but in others the Mazurka comes after the first Waltz.  I couldn’t find any information as to why this is, and I’ll get to the man’s Mazurka later but I list the order above because the one film I could find of Les Sylphides that actually uses the Polonaise overture is a 1958 film of the Maryinsky.  So I’m assuming, without concrete evidence that the Maryinsky version is closest to what debuted in 1908.

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

So you would think, Les Sylphides pretty much has it together, right?  Silly mortal…you’d be very wrong.  Les Sylphides officially earned its title from Diaghilev, when it premiered in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (much of the cast from above was the same, except with Alexandra Baldina instead of Preobajenska).  Diaghilev purposely named it Les Sylphides to recall Marie Taglioni and La Sylphide, and there were even more changes to the orchestrations.  The newly orchestrated score is credited to Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Taneyev, Anatole Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnine and Nicolas Sokolov.  At this point, I have such a headache trying to sort this out I don’t WANT to know what’s different.  I could spend hours listening to actual scores and seeing if I can decipher any differences in the counter melodies, but I already drove myself to the brink of insanity trying to work on the man’s Mazurka, for you see, some productions use Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 and others use Mazurka in C, Op.67 No.3 and I was trying to find video of it and had a surprisingly difficult time of separating them.  The major companies I could find (Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, ABT) all used Op.33 No.3.  The only example I could find of Op.67 No.3 was this excerpt of the poet’s solo:

You could compare them for yourself, but it’s maddening.

Now as for that heinous mess of a score, according to a copy I borrowed of the piano music, this was the order as presented by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House:

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Notice the Polonaise is gone and that the placement of the Mazurka in D (the woman’s Mazurka) is also different.  The Prelude serves as a new overture, and the above arrangement can be heard in this performance by The Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in three parts:

*A Roy Douglas is credited with the arrangement…I’m going to bury my head in the sand for that one.

Well, this isn’t an exhaustive history, but I’m certainly exhausted by thinking about it.  Regardless of the finer details, after watching many (too many) videos of Les Sylphides, what I love about this signature Fokine ballet is how unpretentious it is…it requires the art of subtlety because there are so few virtuosic movements to inspire the typical audience response.  Fokine discusses this in his memoirs, in that he wasn’t looking to please the audience at all, in fact one of his goals with the piece was to prove he understood and could indeed choreograph classical dancing on pointe!  Fokine had some interesting thoughts on Nijinsky dancing the role of the poet, telling him not to admire himself and to simply admire the beauty of the Sylphs around him…but for more on that you’d have to read his memoirs, and speaking of the books that may or may not have been used in research for this post (I honestly can’t remember what bits of information came from what) here’s a list:

The Art of Enchantment, by Nancy Van Norman Baer & others

Birth of Ballets-Russes, by Prince Peter Lieven and translated by L. Zarine

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

Memoirs of a Ballet Master, written by Michel Fokine and translated by Vera Fokina

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

And just for giggles, here are other productions of Les Sylphides by the Bolshoi and Kirov that I watched in researching for this entry.  They didn’t really contribute much…but it was either that or hit the books again!

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Bolshoi in three parts:

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Kirov in four parts:

Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur

25 Sep

You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teachers at Pacific Northwest mentioned how Maria Tallchief, who doesn’t have the best feet, would go crazy when dancers with great feet didn’t use them.  This entry shall be an amalgamation of various things the teachers I respect the most have told me and is perhaps geared towards the late starter or beginning/intermediate dance student.  For the accomplished dancer or teacher, there’s a good chance you have something better to do!

If you’re a late starter, fret not.  A late starter is someone who may start at the age of fifteen or sixteen and the good news is you’re NOT a late starter at all.  Many a fine dancer began their training at this age (particularly guys) and went on to professional careers.  One of the best examples I can think of is Melissa Hayden, a celebrated Balanchine muse, who started at fifteen…and you didn’t get to be a Balanchine muse if you didn’t have special qualities!  Hayden was every bit the technical virtuoso on pointe that other dancers who trained from an early age were and she had incredible passion—her true tour de force.  Another great dancer who started at fifteen is Thiago Soares, a current principal with The Royal Ballet, so even in this modern era can one start in their teenage years and achieve the highest ranks possible in dance.  So really, if you’re around this age, don’t call yourself a “late starter,” and think of it as a “delayed start” instead.

If you began past the age of twenty like I did, NOW you’re a true late starter (in my case, 23, so ANCIENT starter).  Professional aspirations are probably unrealistic, but that’s okay because if you’re anything like me, you just love to take class and dance.   Sometimes we’re not taken seriously because we don’t have those possibilities but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to achieve certain things like a double pirouette or a higher leg extension.  However, the approach is perhaps a little different with adult ballet and I will share what I’ve learned, in terms of the four goals that seem to be common:

I want MASSIVE amounts of turnout!

Your knees and hips are screaming—STOP.  Your turnout will improve with continued barre practice.  What people don’t realize though is that it isn’t necessarily how much turnout you have, but how you use it.  I always cite the example of one of the differences I noticed between the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi and The Royal Ballet.  The Bolshoi corps would all line up in perfectly turned out fourth positions but when they went up on pointe, wa-waaaah their legs actually turned in!  This inward rotation was actually very distraction because then they force their turnout on the way down, creating even more extraneous movement.  The Royal Ballet corps, on the other hand, had dancers who were not 180°, but moved in and out of a fourth or fifth position they could use, without extra rotation of the legs.  The cleanliness and efficiency supersedes less-than-180° turnout.

I want to développé SUPER high!

Ah yes…the ever-coveted high leg extension.  This is something like many that I have yet to achieve myself but I will tell you something a teacher told me that BLEW. MY. MIND.  There’s this idea that we need to develop the flexibility and strength to hold the leg up high to the front or to the side, which is true—the problem is once the flexibility is there, we think “strength, strength, strength!”  This actually promotes gripping in the quads and picking up the hip (which you don’t want to do) because you’re thinking about “lifting” the leg…but ballet is SO mental and this is the big dirty secret that I’ll never forget her telling us: The degree of extension that requires the MOST strength is…NINETY DEGREES!  Why?  Because that is when your leg is furthest away from you, and thus the weight is furthest away from you!  Behold, the power of common sense!  So then, how to get the leg above 90°?  She told us about her training and how she spent many months working below 90° at 45°, working only on placement, using the barre more and shifting her weight as little as possible.  That allowed her to train her muscles to extend properly and after the experiment was over she could développé to 120°.  Conclusion?  Getting above 90° is MENTAL.  Think about it (seriously).

I want a HUGE penchée arabesque!

One of the biggest myths in ballet is that every penchée needs to be ginormous and approach a full split.  Wrong!  The most important thing to keep in mind is the connection between the back and the leg, and the line it creates through the hips.  Lots of beginning students try to hike the leg up but then drop the torso, which is not pretty and doesn’t develop the strength in your back you actually need.  If penchées are new to you, start out with little tiny ones and think of the foot taking you up while the torso stays as upright as possible.  Here’s one of the big dirty secrets about penchées too…most of the time, I find getting into it to be the easiest part—it’s getting out of it that’s much more challenging.  A good penchée goes down and comes back up without shifting the foot and rolling around on it.  I used to try to penchée and my leg would literally go nowhere and what worked for me was actually learning to place myself in as square an arabesque as possible.  The Balanchine arabesque, which in my opinion flattens out the three dimensional quality of an arabesque by opening the hip didn’t improve my line at all because I don’t have the turnout.  When I stopped trying to do that and focused on squaring up my hips and rotating from the socket of my standing leg, slowly but surely I greatly improved my penchée…on one side.  My right side hasn’t figured it out yet, but there is a world of difference on my left!

I want to do 2983573982421903821 pirouettes!

Yeah, me too.  Here’s the deal with pirouettes…different things will work for different people, and chances are you will get an onslaught of various corrections.  My advice here is to remember as many as possible because even if you can’t get your body to physically achieve every correction every time, it’s very much a “checklist” sort of thing, and you’ll often find that different corrections will work for you on different days.  A lot of corrections teachers gave me of course made sense and I would try to do what they were asking but didn’t quite “feel it.”  You’d be surprised at how some corrections may make much more sense weeks, months or even years later.  A long time ago one of my teachers was always telling me to “feel wide in your back,” but only now, just the other day I actually FELT it and BAM! Triple pirouette (I’ve been chicken and sticking with doubles lately).

Hope this helps, from a fellow ballet class addict!  Let me know how this all goes…unless it makes stuff worse, then don’t sue me.  I can only hope to pretend to SOUND like a real expert.

Time for 2010

31 Dec

Seeing as how it’s time to ring in the New Year, it’s time for some kind of reflection.  Which, for perhaps the first time in my life is going to be relatively easy, because I’ve documented a great deal of the dance related significant events in this blog.  Normally, I can never remember anything, which is part of the reason why I wanted to start a blog in the first place.  It’s part of the double-edged sword when you’re the kind of person who has a lot of thoughts about a particular subject…you tend to forget a great deal of those ideas.  But no longer shall I cast them into the abyss!  So here are my thoughts on a few of things that made 2009 special for me.

1. Blogging

This was the year I started blogging.  It all began when at the beginning of the summer, I went to see the Bolshoi perform Le Corsaire and The Royal Ballet perform Manon in Washington DC.  Two major ballet companies within one week…it was a sweet deal.  Personally, although DC doesn’t have as frequent of performances as New York City, I think DC gets the better end of the arabesque because they get a much more interesting variety of companies.  Since NYC is almost monopolized by American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, they don’t always get a lot of touring companies.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that…since between the two companies there’s a solid coverage of classics, contemporary works and of course nowhere else can you sate your hunger for the Balanchine repertoire to your heart’s content.  However, both ABT and NYCB make a pilgrimage to DC (I’m pretty sure they go at least once every year), and DC is virtually the only city that ever gets the Mariinsky, Bolshoi and Royal Ballet.  So while shows aren’t as frequent, I think the quality and variety say it all…blasphemous, perhaps, but I would pick DC as the best place for ballet in the US (thankfully, from DC, New York is just a hop skip and a step away anyway).

So much rambling and nothing to do with blogging…anyway, so I wanted to document the whole experience and did so.  I also joined twitter, even though at the time I really didn’t “get it,” and I figured a couple of my friends would read the blog and that would be that.  Little did I know, that would lead to the catalyst that changed everything.  Somehow, the Bag Ladies over at TheBalletBag found my post on Manon, twittered it and before I knew it, people were actually visiting, reading and more importantly enjoying the things I wrote.  I don’t know how they found my blog, although I really shouldn’t have been surprised considering they’re the oracles of the ballet world…know all, see all (and that’s not an exaggeration).  Regardless, I got a lot of fulfillment from the idea that people enjoyed my writing.  Back in high school, several teachers told me I wasn’t a very good writer and so I kind of assumed they were right.  Fast forward to college and I had professors tell me I had a gift to write.  At first I didn’t believe them, but slowly I got used to the idea and that was the moment it dawned on me why so many people say high school sucks…the majority of the things people tell you there is a load of crap.  So many thanks to the Bag Ladies for helping get my blog out there and to all my friends and readers…you have been a significant highlight for 2009!

2. Sir Frederick Ashton

This was the year I discovered Sir Frederick Ashton (for myself obviously…one doesn’t “discover” a deceased man who is already famous).   I used to think Balanchine was probably my favorite choreographer, but there’s a number of his works that I don’t dislike but don’t appeal to my nature.  Meanwhile, I have yet to meet an Ashton work I didn’t find equally (if not more) musical than Balanchine and Ashton had an amazing ability to incorporate comedy into his ballets.  I have liked all of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets thus far, with the exception of Romeo and Juliet (and I realize Ashton has done one as well) but I think MacMillan’s ballets have a certain sophistication that…eludes me?  But this doesn’t prevent me (nor should it prevent anyone else) from enjoying his work.  At any rate, I think Ashton was incredibly versatile, and what I love about some of his ballets is that they are very child friendly and yet they can also appeal to the inner child in every adult.  I love his simplicity, clever use of props…just everything about his vision of ballet.  Of course, Symphonic Variations has ascended into the upper echelon of my favorite ballets because it embodies everything I love to see in a dance (my post on Symphonic Variations was definitely one of my favorites of the year).  Heck, 2009 was worth it just for Symphonic Variations alone!  Steven McRae of the Royal Ballet said that dancing it was like a “religious experience”…well Mr. McRae, I can tell you that viewing it was just as spiritual for me (and I didn’t even see it live!).  Man I love Australians.

3. Quadruple pirouette

Hell, that speaks for itself.  Even if it ends up being a once in a lifetime experience, it was worth it.

4. Tamara Rojo

I love you.  That is all.

So what does 2010 hold in store?  Nobody knows for sure…I’m never good with long term planning and I try to allow for spontaneity as much as possible because the older I get the more I feel like planning turns people into these zombie denizens (aka “adults”) that have no sense of adventure in life.  Total buzz kill

However, I do have some exciting (well I think they’re exciting) plans for my blog next year.  I am thinking of doing interviews with dancers…professionals?  Probably not.  But I know a lot of people who dance or are involved with dance in some way and I truly believe everyone has an interesting story to tell even if they aren’t in the upper echelon of whatever it is they do.  I’d like to think that I’m just the right person for eliciting those stories and polishing it for other people to read (and if I can spin it into something funny, then everybody wins).  If I’m not that person…well, I may as well practice so that I can be.

I also will also be begging people for more guest posts.  My quasi-wife Erina, who is currently teaching in some city in France, wants to vacation in Paris when her contract is up at the end of the spring before coming home to the US (and possibly going back under a new contract…but that’s another story.  I wish I knew details, but apparently it’s difficult to get the internet in France).  It just so happens that her end date coincides perfectly with Paris Opera Ballet’s La Bayadere.  I’ve demanded that she go, that it’s an “almost once in a lifetime experience” and to write a review or response of some kind.  I’m really excited for her because she’s seen Pacific Northwest Ballet growing up, but POB is a different beast.  It should be interesting because she’s not really a dancer, or the balletomane who knows the technical jargon.  She has the opportunity to see the production through virtually unjaded eyes, which I find a fascinating prospect.  So hopefully we’ll have that to look forward to…I keep badgering her every chance I get.  I’m *this* close to buying a ticket for her to make sure she goes.

Of course I promise posts a plenty from meself and beyond that I feel so encouraged by the response to this blog, I decided to really pursue a long (but ideally short) term goal, which is to write and publish a novel.  Since I was little, I’ve always known that I wanted to write a book, got discouraged in high school but now I feel that I’m at a point in my life when I can really achieve this.  Personally I don’t think there’s enough dance related fiction out there and the novels that are out there are kind of…melodramatic or dull.  As with this blog I endeavor to write lighthearted entertainment.  Humor is the name of the game and if I can contribute to the dispelling of the image of snobbery in ballet and make it more approachable to the average person, I’d be thrilled.  So 2010…let’s make it happen.  I’m ready for you.  Almost (still lots of research to do!).

May I take your order?

15 Dec

In honor of MusicMonday (which is technically when I started this entry), I thought I’d do a little detective work with the infamous Black Swan coda.  It has a really messy history, with three different versions at your disposal.  First, you’ve got the original coda from 1877 which was the finale to the Pas de Six.  The original coda is the one Anna Sobeshchanskaya didn’t like and had Léon Minkus write her one, which irked Tchaikovsky, who then wrote one for her, which has now become the coda in the Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  Tchaikovsky’s second coda may or may not have been influenced/adapted from that of Minkus, and as far as I know, this coda is actually never used for Swan Lake anymore.  To make matters more fun, the coda that is most used today is from Swan Lake, but was originally from Act I, intended as a Pas de Deux for Two Merry Makers, and then adapted/re-worked/(butchered?) by Ricardo Drigo into the Grand Pas de Deux familiar to most.  It’s a hot mess, and if I ever meet Tchaikovsky in the after life a question relating to the Black Swan pas de deux madness would probably be the first thing I asked him.  Which do you like, Pete?

A lot of ballet companies will mix and match as well, which can probably confuse a lot of people.  A Grand Pas de Deux is generally comprised of four parts, the grand adage, the male variation, the female variation and the coda.  Or if you prefer, the entrée, soup, salad, and dessert.  So I’ve devised a Swan Lake menu for your perusal:

This took way too long to make.

The Pas de Six – Andante con moto, Pas de Six – Moderato are never used (although Kenneth MacMillan reworked the Pas de Six music into a production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet, but probably not as a pas de deux ETA: This info came from Wikipedia…credibility?  Mmm…could be questionable.), while the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Allegro and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Coda are never used for Black Swan (to the best of my knowledge), despite being highly recommended by the chef.  Most choreographers go with the starred, “most popular dishes” as used originally by Petipa/Ivanov, while others have been a little more adventurous:

Bourmeister (La Scala)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

Grigorovich (Bolshoi)

  1. Tempo di Valse and Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Coda: Molto Allegro Vivace

Nureyev (Vienna State Opera)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

As you can see, anyone who doesn’t go with the standard picks whatever the heck they want apparently.  I’m sure they all had their legitimate reasons for their selections (and I don’t question them, mostly because I don’t really care), but unless you know ahead of time, it can be a kind of confusing to go see Swan Lake and expect one thing but then scratch your head when you realize the music is unfamiliar.

I only got interested in this whole mess because I myself got confused when I realized that there were two different codas that are commonly used, neither of them being the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda, and was thinking which coda appealed to me the most.  Predictably, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is still my favorite of the three, even if I ignore Balanchine’s choreography.  Musically, I think it’s the most exciting, although I was curious as to what a Swan Lake Pas de Deux would look like to it.  As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it has ever been used in a Black Swan pas de deux, and it made me wonder if the 32 fouettés was a part of the choreography as well.  It’s possible that the same place Balanchine put the fouettés in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (although he didn’t choreograph 32) is the same place where 32 fouettés could have gone because it’s long enough, but what makes that seem unlikely to me is the fact that in the other codas, the fouettés come pretty early on, while the possible break in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux which is thirty seconds longer than the other two, is towards the end.  Regardless, my questions ended up being irrelevant because 32 fouettés didn’t enter Swan Lake until the 1895 revival by Petipa/Ivanov, which is post-Sobeshchanskaya, who used the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux version in 1877 (the original Swan Lake, by Julius Reisinger was not a success).  Well, at least I learned something.

Turns out the most popularly known Black Swan coda is my least favorite, as I like the Pas de Six coda much better.  But, to each his/her own, so here are the three codas, so you can decide for yourself.  Although I did say the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux Coda was never used as a Black Swan coda, Nureyev did use it in Act I of his production of Swan Lake, so it has found a way back in (even though the Royal Ballet doesn’t perform this staging anymore.  I believe they’ve since gone to the Petipa/Ivanov).

Marianea Nuñez/Thiago Soares, standard Black Swan coda (beginning at 2:35)

Fonteyn/Nureyev, Pas de Six coda

Nureyev (Act I), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda

To make matters better, I’ve also uploaded all three codas onto SendSpace, in mp3 format for your listening pleasure.

Standard Black Swan Coda

Pas de Six Coda

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux  Coda

And because good things always come in threes, there is also free sheet music in PDF format available in a solo piano arrangement (full score is available as well, but that helps very few in the population) so now you can make a request to your accompanist to play your favorite coda for class.  The “popular” coda is on pp.61-64, Pas de Six coda on pp.178-180, and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda on pp.248-252.

Swan Lake for Solo Piano (PDF file)

Bon appétit!

PS.  This entry was a pain in the ass to write.

MacMillan makes it a little better

10 Oct

Autumn weather is settling in and I decided to avoid the chill, bunker down and have an English themed day.  I’m in the mood because I also baked a fruitcake yesterday, from an English recipe friends of our family gave us, and it is divine.  Americans typically have a bad impression of fruitcake, even though most have never eaten it, and those that do eat these nasty bricks of candied fruit and Billy knows what else.  It has to be done right (with minimal candied fruit, by the way), and there’s just no tradition here.  It takes a fair amount of effort to make, and there’s a lot of waiting involved because certain ingredients have to be cooked and then cooled to room temperature while covered, then the cake is baked for a couple of hours, and then that has to be cooled while wrapped in aluminum foil (which ironically, keeps heat in) until the final step, which is splashing the cake with spiced rum for added flavor.  Care has to be taken to cover the ingredients while cooling in order to preserve the moistness of the cake.  It’s a drawn out process, but it’s worth it, and even though I started yesterday it wasn’t ready until TO-DAY!!!  Isn’t it lovely, and harvest festive in its coloring?

And all for me...

And all for me...I can still smell the spiced rum.

So in continuance with the theme, I decided to make myself try and find something to like about Romeo and Juliet…after all, what could be more English than Shakespeare and Elizabethan times?  As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of this ballet…score is creepy, libretto grates on my nerves.  I saw BalletMet stage this a couple of years ago as my first full length classical ballet, although it was a newer staging by a David Nixon.  I don’t remember too many specifics about the production as a whole, but it followed the typical formula for an R&J and I remember thinking it was pretty good, despite my misgivings about the plot and music.  I did have one gripe though, which was a little trio of jesters danced by children.  The weird thing was that they would appear in what felt to me as inappropriate scenes, and I remember one did some gymnastics which was just out of place.  The worst part was that they were dressed in these phosphorescent neon-checkered eye sores.  That one scarred me for life.

But what is it about this story/ballet that makes people go gaga?  And why does it inspire so many choreographers?  There are stagings by contemporary choreographers like the one I saw, but then you have so many influential figures who have done it too like Lavrovsky, Grigorovich, MacMillan, Ashton, Tudor, Nureyev, Cranko to name a few…on the one hand it’s amazing that one story inspired so many legendaries, but on the other it’s a little overwhelming.  I don’t think any of those choreographers are ever going to get me to be able to “get it” in the way that most people do, but most people also drink coffee and I don’t, so I think it’s just my brain that has a loose wire (or several) that render me Shakespeare deficient (I read the play too, and didn’t like that either).  Regardless, I wanted to make the effort since life isn’t just about liking the things we like but learning to deal with the things we don’t.  So I got a Lavrovsky with Ekaterina Maximova and Vladdy-V performing with the Bolshoi, and a MacMillan with Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella performing with La Scala.  That’s a lot of Prokofiev for one day, but I was determined to get through it.

The Bolshoi production was the manifestation of my worst fears.  I loved Maximova as Juliet and her connection with Vladdy-V as Romeo was wonderful.  They were married at the time, so it would’ve been kind of hard not to have the right romantic chemistry.  Unfortunately, the rest of the production felt like a two hour quagmire that set up to a decent third act that I had kind of lost interest in.  There seemed to be very little dancing and a lot (I mean a LOT) of theatrics…expensive theatrics at that, with lavish sets and opulent costumes.  The excessive theatrics really took away from the production feeling like a ballet, and there was this nagging hierarchical separation between the stars and everyone else.  Only the stars really got to dance, with selected divertissements for others, but then the rest was a lot of people standing around or doing folk dancish stuff.  And you know Bolshoi…they can fit five hundred people on stage, so that’s a lot of people not dancing.  I hate to be critical, but it was rather slow and painful, and Mercutio’s death was taking so long I thought I was going to die first.  Plus, there was you guesed it, a jester scene.

La Scala on the other hand…they may not have had the money and the sizable corps, but MacMillan’s choreography made it tolerable (and a tolerable R&J to me should be considered a superb staging for the normal folk).  I should have known MacMillan could save it for me, and the more I see of his work the less I think of him as a choreographer, and more as a storyteller who speaks the language of dance.  He kept the theatrics to a minimum because the story was told through the movement.  He gave corps members a lot of difficult movement as well, which really brought the production together because every character was speaking dance, not just the principals and soloists like with the Bolshoi (in fact, Tybalt seemed to have very little dancing and although Mercutio’s death was slow, it felt like it made more sense).  It made the character interaction much more believable.  And no clowns!  A divertissement with mandolin players, but no clowns!  Overall, the production felt more reflective of human interaction than staged dance.  Corella was fantastic, and very clean in some of the exceptionally challenging MacMillan choreography, like some seriously sick pirouette combinations, but I was in love with Ferri (who has extraordinary feet).  Sweet little impish dove that she is, and yet inconsolable and capable of showing such disgust for Paris in their final pas de deux.  There were times when she gave me chills, and when she resigned herself to suicide, the cameras were able to zoom in on her face and it appeared there were tears in her eyes.  She was an incredibly invested and believable Juliet, and it’s interesting that there is another video of her dancing Juliet with the Royal Ballet some fifteen years earlier.  That would be an interesting comparison…if I could actually stomach watching R&J again.

There are plenty of clips on YouTube of Ferri/Corella and Maximova/Vasiliev, but I wasn’t moved enough to warrant posting them here.  That’ll be the day!  I know I should open myself to the possibility of watching Fonteyn/Nureyev, but not even my love for Tamara Rojo makes me want to get her and Acosta on DVD, so I’m afraid I might be a lost cause.  I’d have to be seriously coerced, or ambushed.

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

Kickin’ it OLD SKOOL with the Bolshoi Kitris

29 Jul

I’ve mentioned before how you get a lot of ballet crazies who go on youtube and criticize any dancer’s technique that they sink their teeth into, but I’d like to discuss a different species, the crotchety “git offa mah lawn!” people who lament for the golden era in ballet when there was more substance in artistry and less of the “more” (i.e. more turnout, more pirouettes, more flexibility, etc.).  Oh BILLY ELLIOT, do I want to be one of those people.  As it stands, I don’t know enough about ballet history to bunker down with these sages and converse in such a way that makes me seem legitimately intelligent, but despite my typical aversion to history in general I am interested.  You see, history is one of those classes that is almost always taught through reading and lectures, and quite frankly that sucks.  When it comes to history, unless it’s dance history or ancient like Greek or Egyptian, chances are I’m going to be bored. 

I’m going to mount the soapbox here and say that this is something that annoys me about our education system too in that it fails to recognize the importance of different approaches to learning, especially via performing arts.  For example, I suck at anatomy, but have learned various things about it through dance.  I learned foreign languages by using theatre skills of memorization and mimicry.  Teach me about the Cold War in the context of how it affected the Bolshoi and Kirov and I’ll pay attention.  And yet the system seems to be satisfied with a “if you lecture them, they will learn” method, and I’m shouting this loud and clear: it doesn’t work for everyone.  Even without being used as an accessory in education, something like dance needs to have its foothold in academia.  If American society can turn sports and sport strategy, technique, etc. into a friggin’ science, then dance too needs to be seen as more than “an extracurricular activity” or a second major.  Money doesn’t inspire creativity or make life worth living…the arts do.  And in the economic hellhole that is America, inspiration is needed now more than ever.  /rant.

So back to the quest to become a crotchety sage, I’ve learned that one must know at least a few names, especially the greats that made the Bolshoi a household name.  It’s almost uncanny, but a few years ago, before I even set foot in a studio, the first ballet youtube video I ever favorited was a Bolshoi great.  I had no idea at the time who she was, only that I know what I liked and I liked what I saw.  It was a video of Ekaterina Maximova (who passed away earlier this year…something is SRSLY in the air!) as Kitri, and I’m actually quite proud of having selected her to be my first youtube favorite, because it makes me feel as though there is hope for me to indeed be knighted a crotchety sage.  Anyway, there was something darling and electric about her that just made me want to watch her 85 million times in a row, and we’re talking a sheety little black and white film from the 60’s on a small youtube screen, not even the luxury of a live performance or HD.  She was the fastest Kitri I’ve ever seen, for a variation that is normally about a minute long she did it in half the time, which is utterly insane and would never be done today.  But you watch her, and you think to yourself with a Russian accent in your head, “DAAAA! ZIS eez DANSE…from SOUL!” To me, Katya is the ultimate Kitri.  Typically it’s treacherous territory in the arts to proclaim one’s favorite, especially with the youtube piranhas, but hell, I adore her.

One of the other primas with the Bolshoi at the time, Maya Plisetskaya is another one who did the lightning round Kitri variation.  Now Maya is the perfect example of “less of the more” that I wrote about earlier.  She didn’t have the developpé a la seconde above her head, the coveted 6 o’clock penchée, or double/triple fouettes etc.  But her technique being far from inferior, what I love most about her dancing is how unfettered she was by the pursuit of perfection.  Her technique supported her art, instead of becoming the focus of it.  When you start focusing too much on “how high” or “how many” dance becomes so mechanical.  We have these legions of leggy amazonerinas and some days it really seems like ballet has become a factory instead of an institution.  A friend of mine once told me that she had a music teacher tell her that when you take the human element out of music, it ceases to be music.  I think the same can be said for some of these balletbots…what we need are more souls.  That is not to say we should feel guilty for admiring some of these gorgeous dancers, but remember that the approachability of a Maya Plisetskaya probably has a great deal to do with what made her a true artiste.

Anyway, in the videos I am posting below of Maya and Katya, Maya is partnered by the wonderfully delicious Maris Liepa, and Katya by her beast husband Vladimir Vasiliev.  And that’s no insult…I LOVE Vladdy-V.  Gigantor jumps and a Godzilla-presence to match.  Whereas I actually prefer Maris as Basilio because of his charm, the video of Maximova actually has Vladdy-V doing the slave Ali from Le Corsaire as well as a variation from Laurencia.  I can’t even comprehend the insanity that is the double arabesque turn-double attitude-QUINTUPLE pirouette en dedans that he did.  Being the curious monkey I am, I tried that with single pirouettes and basically couldn’t do it.  Long way to go if I aspire to be like him, but I am a lefty…that’s one step down, right?

 

Vladdy-V variations and Lightning Kitri (Katya):

 

DonQ full grand pas de deux w/Maris Liepa and Goddess Plisetskaya:

 

DonQ full grand pas de deux w/Vladdy-V and a hair slower than lightning Katya (in technicolor!):

 

More of Liepa/Plisetskaya, from Act I with Maya’s CRAZY DIVINE castanet variation:

 

So videos for your enjoyment and a little poll with no right answers because that’s the beauty of art.  Don’t you love loving ballet?  I do.