Tag Archives: bournonville

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.

Spring is here! Oh wait…no.

8 Sep

I’m currently in the process of switching things over to my shiny, new MacBook so things are a little helter-skelter.  I find myself without some resources and definitely lacking in brainpower.  This was most evident in my futile efforts to accomplish just about anything yesterday.  The day started out grand enough, thinking I would take a morning class at Pacific Northwest Ballet, but lo and behold adult classes wouldn’t start for another day.  No harm done, a decent stroll (twelve blocks, though the walk back is uphill and less…charming) and I had other errands for the day so I went back to my apartment, changed into real people clothes and set about my business, which included stopping by d’Ambrosio Gelato to drop off a résumé.  So I walk again for sixteen blocks this time to catch a bus that goes to Ballard, and what do you know…I forgot my wallet.  Another trek back to the apartment, and I set off for a third time.

After treating myself to pistachio and biscotti flavored gelatos, I set off for the library downtown to pick up books on Frederick Ashton…after all, it’s Ashton month!  Okay, just kidding, last month was technically Ashton month, but really there’s no such thing as Ashton month, and it’s just “Ashton life.” Anyway the library should really just give the Ashton books to me because I’m the only person that bothers checking them out, but I’ll share.  I was really excited because last week the ladies over at The Ballet Bag posted a new video of Frederick Ashton’s Voices of Spring pas de deux, and I wanted to learn more about it.  While lugging the two tomes back home, much to my chagrin I discovered both books were published before Voices of Spring premiered (one of them only a year before!). Fortunately, David Vaughan, author of Frederick Ashton And His Ballets also has a website that lists the chronology of Ashton’s works and Voices of Spring premiered in 1977 as a part of Ashton’s choreography for the Royal Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. It didn’t officially take the title of Voices of Spring until a gala performance in Los Angeles the next year, although I was much more pleased to read that it made its debut as Voices of Spring at the Royal Opera House on April 2nd, 1981.  Why?  April 2nd is my birthday!  That’s the second Ashton ballet (the first being The Dream) to share its debut date at Covent Garden with my date of birth.  The point is, I hauled ass with those books that weigh more than I do and ended up with no further information on the actual piece I wanted to research.

Since I couldn’t find any history on the piece to discuss, it looks like I’m going to have to fly solo.  First of all, it has to be said that nobody, and I mean nobody does a cheerful waltz like Johann Strauss II.  The famous overture has long been a regular in my iPod, and if neither that nor Voices of Spring (aka, Frühlingsstimmen—isn’t German fun?) are able to put a smile on your face, you are truly dead on the inside.  There isn’t a particularly complex idea behind the piece; it’s a celebration of springtime.  While dissimilar from Bournonville stylistically, I do find that it evokes a similar buoyancy and delight to his work (and not just because his Flower Festival in Genzano appears in the related videos!).  Ashton’s work has more symmetry here, with the dancers posing in crossed attitudes and arabesques as well as more free-flowing arm movements overall.  I love the sort of “skipping” leaps he choreographed, with the man carrying the woman as she appears to weightlessly bound from one leg to another.  For me it evokes this image of a fluffy dandelion seed just barely touching the ground before being picked up by the wind again.  Even though the male dancer is physically supporting her, I still find the ballerina to have a certain intangibility, like if you were to try and catch her out of the air you’d open your hands to find nothing, just as dandelion seeds always seem to evade our grasp.

I am a huge fan of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg’s performance of Voices of Spring.  She is almost sickeningly saccharine and Kobborg is the kind of man who could probably at age fifty still convince you he’s a young lad, as if he and Alina met at this spring festival and were crushing on each other for the first time…circa, age ten.  Just the grin he has when they burst onto the stage, Alina in the air with rose petals fluttering behind them (props being a must for an Ashton ballet) leads you to believe in their youth and innocent bliss.  How could you not chuckle at Alina’s cheeky little moment where she lifts one arm and when Johan pushes it down she lifts the other?  I kept sighing with nostalgia, wishing I could be at that age where frolicking in meadows and mischief were acceptable and didn’t result in physical strain or reprimanding.  The only real disappointment to the piece is that it’s much too short and the way it builds in speed at the end is almost cruel in that there’s no extended fast section to close.

For anyone who didn’t already see the dance, enjoy:

Realizing that this entry is a little short, I shall flesh out the end with a music request (haven’t done one of these in a while!).  As I work on transferring music from computer to computer, one of the first pieces to make the maiden voyage onto the MacBook was Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No.12 in F major.  It’s often referred to as the “American quartet” based on the timing of its creation (Dvořák was in rural Iowa during that summer).  It has for movements with these wonderful pastoral moments and although not to waltz tempi, I can sort of visualize this music as something similar to Voices of Spring…except summery instead.  If there’s anyone out there in the world who choreographs something to this music (or maybe already has) I would love to see it.  Voices of Summer perhaps?

So long, summer session

14 Aug

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer session of classes has drawn to a close and I am beat.  It was immense amounts of fun and I really look forward to taking classes there on a regular basis, but not as much as I have been for you see, I made the mistake of purchasing a twenty-class card without fully recognizing that it would expire in a mere five weeks, thus I had to go to class four times a week to ensure that I got my money’s worth.  Going from not having danced in a year to four (and even five classes a week because I dropped in for a couple of classes at Cornish College of the Arts) was really stupid and I suffered appropriately.

I joke when I say I’m old, but the truth is I’m no spring chicken…those were swarming the sacrosanct chambers of the PNB school, participating in the academy’s prestigious summer intensive program.  Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of hope, I couldn’t help but admire their enthusiasm…the kind where you still think you’re invincible and actually need people to tell you how important it is to warm up.  Fact: When you realize you NEED to warm up and when you no longer crave fruit-flavored candy (i.e. Nerds, Airheads, Laffy Taffy, SweetTarts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers and the like)…YOU ARE OLD.  This is not to say we olden folk don’t enjoy candy…in fact, when you become old, chocolate officially becomes a food group.  However, you notice disturbing things like how when you buy saltwater taffy, none of the flavors are fruity (I went to a shop down by Seattle’s waterfront and the flavors I got were cinnamon roll, pumpkin pie, caramel corn and chocolate chip cookie.  The aversion is scary, isn’t it?).  At any rate, spring chickens…they’re adorable.  Although their enthusiasm was slightly less appreciated when the adult class was over and I was in the process of peeling myself off the floor and they were stampeding in ready to go.  Throw this mid-twenty-something, decrepit tree branch a bone, kitty cats!

I have enjoyed the process of learning School of American Ballet…technique (don’t argue with me, please…I’m not THAT knowledgeable so it’d be like shooting an ocean sunfish in a barrel).  I know I’ve discussed some new ideas that I encountered like the class I took with Peter Boal, but other faculty members are also of course heavy on the SAB training.  They certainly like their jetés at barre (even though they’ll always be degagés to me) and it was difficult getting used to new ways of doing petit allegro.  Oftentimes the teachers would include a stop, like a sous-sus to relevé or just a plain hold after a certain step and that drove me insane.  One of my early coping strategies for petit allegro was to just keep bouncing no matter what (ESPECIALLY Bournonville!) so every time there was a pause of some kind, I kept going even though I knew there was no step to be done.  Isn’t that the story of ballet class though?  How often does the mind know better and yet the body does not obey…

Meanwhile, there is one teacher in particular (who shall remain nameless for no reason) whose class I enjoyed immensely.  It seemed less SAB-y (whatever that means) than others and I really liked the structure of the class.  But have you ever had a teacher who sings while demonstrating every combination?  Oddly enough, it actually helped with remembering the sequence of steps and knowing where to place the accents but it was always the same song.  Slow rond de jambes at barre?  Same song.  Grand allegro?  A variation on the same song.  So now I’ll be walking down the street to the library and surprise, guess what little diddy is stuck in my head—or worse, it’s the kind of thing that like my flute teacher always said of the “augmented scale,” will keep you lying awake at night.  And that it does (this problem is exacerbated by the fact that my iPod is broken).  Who would have thought a ballet teacher could give you insomnia…it almost makes me wish there was a court of some kind just for funsies that would try farcical lawsuits to see what the outcome could have been in a real court.  I’d play.

PNB teachers really know how to dish it though…never have I had so many teachers inflict punishment by virtue of my mortal enemy, the temps de cuisse (which for non-dancer types, is basically a sideways jump from two feet with this little “hiccup” where one foot goes from back to front and then jump.  Sound easy?  SHUT IT.).  Sure, I had a teacher at OSU give it every now and then but at PNB it’s almost every other class and it’s brutal.  I don’t know what it is about this step, but I can never seem to take off of two feet equally so it looks and feels awkward, or during the “hiccup” I’m thinking so much about shaping the foot the jump is already over.  I got some good advice from a tweeter to really stay in plié before going after it and finally, today I actually managed a run through where I had it down…but that was eclipsed by two failures.  I shouldn’t complain though because progress is progress.

Oy, I have to tell you though the class this morning was rough.  Maybe it was because it was the last class of the summer but it was freakin’ hard.  A really intense barre, oodles of center work, multiple allegros (with the aforementioned step of Satan, the temps de cuisse) and guess what the teacher ended class with…(and say this in your most ominous, master-of-the-universe voice possible) the ENTRECHAT SIX (courtesy of ABT’s online dictionary).  Maybe this is pathetic, but I can actually remember exactly three instances of encountering this beastly little jump in class: One, the teacher said we could do it and nobody did because we thought she was joking; Two, the teacher asked for it and WAS joking; Three, the teacher had us try ONE at the end of a jump sequence.  Today, we were asked for eight in a row (fortunately, with a life saving sous-sus in between…though a trampoline would have been better) and I almost died.  Maybe I even died and came back to life, but I’m pretty sure I was not all that successful—there may have been some cheating with a royale or entrechat quatre thrown in.  As much as I suffered, in retrospect I’m glad the teacher had us do it.  I recognize the danger of complacency and I’m not always one to test my limits on my own.

One of my limits is the SAB way of pirouetting though.  When doing a pirouette en dehors, they like a straight back leg in fourth position and to pull the arms into a compact position.  I was always taught to plié on both legs and bring the arms to first.  Neither way is wrong, but what I like about the way I was taught is that when you spring up from two legs, you’re moving the whole torso in one piece, whereas I’ve found with the straight back leg, there’s a tiny little contraction that has to happen in order to bring the pelvis completely underneath you.  That little shift has a tendency to wreak havoc on me and there’s always the chance that I can adjust and eventually adapt but what I’ve also noticed in people who use that preparation is that they often have a harder time finishing a pirouette on relevé or finishing in a clean fifth position…I think it’s the snappiness of the preparation that makes it difficult.  For me, there have been days where I have had some really satisfying single pirouettes, leading to clean doubles and I don’t want to fix what isn’t broken.  I guess this is the big dirty secret as an adult student of ballet and probably the worst thing I could divulge but you don’t always have to do everything a teacher asks you to do.  Sometimes, you’re allowed to do what works for your body (and more importantly, your mind).

Looking back I think this post may come off as a roasting of PNB but that’s not my intention.  Even if it is I would do so with great love because I LOVE taking classes at PNB.  It’s kind of like getting to peek in on the company class every now and then…sure it’s a little creepy, but I watch in awe with complete admiration.

Bournonville’s Sylph = Baltic amber

13 Nov

So I’ve been missing in action this week, and this may or may not be my only entry (but it’s a good one!).  After all, when your two best friends are in town, you gotta do what you gotta do (which for us, means eating a lot of tasty treats and taking pictures of ourselves in this wooden cutout of prairie dogs at the Columbus zoo…among other perfectly normal things).  And what I gotta do is play!  Ellen DeGeneres was on Oprah recently, and one thing she said that I absolutely loved and whole heartedly agree with was that “everybody stops playing when they get older.”  It’s so applicable to dance as well…I think that one should be able to go into a studio, at any age, laugh, have a good time and make the studio your happy place.  I know I do, and it’s pretty easy if you’ve had teachers like a Karen Eliot (if that’s her real name), who always manages to make me laugh.  I also think nurturing the inner child is what delights ballet audiences and brings us back again and again.  Some stick in the mud pragmatic adult would convince themselves to spend the money on other things or that ballet is for dreamers, while we dance audiences can barely wait until the next show and never cease to be amused by the ethereal.  So brava dance fans…you’re doing wonderful things for your inner child.

Anywhodle, I just finished watching The Royal Danish Ballet’s production of La Sylphide, choreographed by August Bournonville.  All I can say is, I immediately added this one to my amazon.com wish list.  It’s a gem…Baltic amber if you will recall (because amber perfectly preserves a plant or creature inside of it, blah blah blah while other ballets are fossils that only offer traces of what once existed, blah blah blah, I’m a paleontology geek, and that’s the metaphor that works for me.  I nurture my inner child via dance and dinosaur bones).  I will say that I might like the score for the original La Sylphide better, but Herman Løvenskiold’s quite wonderful as well.  Maybe you get what you paid for, and it’s not that I disliked Løvenskiold’s score, just musically I’m pretty sure I liked the other one better.  Bournonville’s Sylphide wins everything else though, and the score may have even worked against Lacotte.  For one thing, Bournonville’s Sylphide is just over an hour while Lacotte had roughly an additional half an hour.  Now having watched Bournonville’s, and how he decided to interpret the libretto, I almost feel like Lacotte didn’t know what to do with the extra thirty minutes.  I’ll chalk it up to poor time management skills because he crammed Gurn and Effie’s “engagement” into the first act as an afterthought, while Bournonville placed a significant exchange with Madge in the second act, which to me gave Effie and Gurn’s relationship (as well as the character of Gurn himself) much more significance.  Even the procession is brought downstage, right in front of James, rather than being distant in the background, which for lack of a better term was totally rubbing it in his face.  It makes his devastation over having lost both the Sylph and Effie more believable.

Lacotte’s costuming was an eye sore too.  The bright red and sky blue plaids were bizarre, and The Royal Danish Ballet’s plaids were predominantly the typical reds, greens and yellows, with the shades being earthier and not so crayon-ish.  Reminds me of my days as the assistant stage manager for my high school’s production of Brigadoon, sifting through our massive costumes closet with the costumes crew, looking for plaids and kilts…it was a lot of dust and a lot of sneezing.  But I digress (although on the topic of costuming, I also liked Effie’s pigtails, because I am a proponent of pigtails for no logical reason, but then later on when it was revealed to be this odd bun plus pigtails hybrid contraption I was unnerved).  It’s weird to look back at the Lacotte Sylphide now, because I thought it was perfectly lovely at the time, but now there’s just so much that doesn’t make sense…like the whole pas de trois with James, Effie and the Sylph.  Bournonville’s Sylph has more nerve and sort of flits in and out when the characters besides James have their backs turned, but Lacotte’s inclusion of the Sylph in that pas de trois makes things confusing, as if to say James was hallucinating because he had the most epic case of cold feet ever, which doesn’t fall in line with the libretto at all.

I liked the portrayal of Madge a lot more in Bournonville’s Sylphide…she wasn’t so crone-ish.  Sorella Englund was fantastic, and she made this hilarious face at James when she’s telling him to hide the “scarf of doom” from the Sylph that actually made me snort from laughing (that and the moment when Gurn falls on his bum when the chair is pulled out from beneath him…totally didn’t see that one coming.  Oh, early 19th century humor.)  Lis Jeppesen was a gorgeous Sylph, and she has this wonderfully open chest, or as friend Svetlana would say, a “beautiful bony sternum” (man, I need to figure out how to get one of those!).  One thing I really noticed, and I’m not entirely sure if it was part of the choreography itself or the Bournonville style was how creamy the port de bras of all the Sylphs were.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such soft arm movements, and it really added to the spritely, floating quality of the Sylphs, and sharply contrasted the rigidity of Jeppesen’s arms at the end during her death scene.  It wasn’t some romanticized, lyrical death like a swan a la Fokine, but a butterfly’s final twitches before it dies.  I felt Jeppesen’s interpretation of the Sylph to be much more indicative of an otherworldly fairy, while Lacotte’s choreography had Dupont looking more like a shy, tentative child.  Nikolaj Hübbe was…flawless (and quite handsome) as James, and there was this wonderful moment in the second act, where he’s walking amongst the Sylphs, and he had this fascination like a child in the summertime, walking amongst fireflies.  Of course his dancing was superb, with such clean batterie and quick, articulate legs and feet.  I almost think Bournonville saw legs as being equal to arms; the same speed and control with which we can maneuver are arms should be possible with the legs.

I actually got a chance (thanks to Karena) to have a go at Bournonville petite allegros, and I have to say they were among the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in ballet.  If there’s ever an argument for muscle memory, Bournonville allegros would be it, because there is no way you can think your way through them; your body has to KNOW them.  Otherwise, you get lost and you’re screwed.  There were so many quick changes of facings, like a mini tour jeté in the opposite direction that you wouldn’t naturally think of, lots of little transition steps that required precision, and of course little tippity-dips and shooby-doos with beats and whatnot.  The sensation of doing Bournonville allegros can be likened to being thrown into a cotton candy machine…it’s sweet, light and fluffy, but you’re just kind of along for the ride.  You’re not in control of your own body (your mind is definitely not in control), but in some ways that almost feels more like…dancing.  Because your body is just doing it, and once it knows how, you’re free to dance with your face and add the icing.

So this DVD is a must, and although the full version isn’t on YouTube there are some really interesting videos like one of Ellen Price dancing the opening variation in 1903!  It really is incredible that the choreography is exactly the same, and delightful as ever.

Another video of note that I found particularly moving was Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci.  Bruhn, I think I read somewhere is said to be one of the greatest James of all time, although there is no full length recording of him in the ballet, just the grand pas de deux.  They left me speechless.  Must. See. More. Erik Bruhn.

And lastly, just for fun, current Royal Ballet principal Johan Kobborg, as Madge.  Why?  Because he’s awesome, and cross-dressing in ballet is fantastic. 


12 Oct

So I’m working my way through the stack of library DVD’s, ready to come back to the world of the living after a Romeo and Juliet overload.  Next in queue was La Sylphide, and I was really excited to see the Bournonville ballet especially because of its unique, completely authentic preservation.  Whereas most ballets are fossils that are spotty at best and can only give glimpses to their true histories, Bournonville’s Sylphide is like an insect preserved in a shiny piece of honey colored Baltic amber, leaving us with no questions as to what it looked like.  And yes, I have a thing for amber fossils…they fascinate me, and I totally ogled this piece of Dominican amber that had an extremely rare, fully preserved hymenaea blossom, which is a remarkable inclusion.  Insects are more commonly found because they were attracted to the tree sap and also because of their hard exoskeletons which didn’t degrade quickly, while soft organic materials like leaves and flowers are less common because they would rot quickly and needed to be covered faster, which would actually sometimes damage leaves and flower petals by rolling them.  So the circumstances for a blossom to be fully preserved with petals intact meant that a flower had to fall onto some tree sap, be covered quickly but carefully so that it remained open.  It’s an extraordinary occurrence, and the $2000 price tag certainly reflects that!

Anyway, I thought I was all clever because I had learned of the difference between La Sylphide and Les Sylphides beforehand, because when you’re knew to ballet it’s an easy mistake to make.  However, like the flower fossilized in amber, Bournonville’s ballet eludes me still, as it turned out I borrowed Pierre Lacotte’s staging with the Paris Opera Ballet.  Oops.  Serves me right for assuming I knew what I was getting myself into.  However, the Paris Opera DVD features the wonderful Aurélie Dupont, who I adore, partnered by the magnificent Mathieu Ganio, who I had never seen before.  The plot was the same, so the bits that I read about it still matched.  The staging was different in that Lacotte drew upon sparse notes and drawings of the original La Sylphide for Marie Taglioni who danced it with the Paris Opera Ballet.  Wait…what?  Ok, so it goes that the original La Sylphide was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie, who danced it in Paris in 1834, where August Bournonville saw it and wanted to do his own version so he staged his two years after seeing the original for a favorite pupil of his, Lucile Grahn, with the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836.  Long story short, the Taglioni was lost, the Bournonville preserved.  Lacotte draws upon sketches and notes to try and recreate what he thought the Taglioni would have looked like.

It’s always a shame (and kind of annoying) when ballet history is so fuzzy, but perhaps the ambiguity and mystery are what draws me to it (and fossils) and the opposite is what makes recorded history such a snooze.  I’m fascinated by Marie Taglioni, mostly because Pierre Lacotte said in the extras that the crossed position of the arms developed as a way to mask the uber-lengthiness of her arms and I was all “I have long arms!” and now the crossed arms is very much a part of the Romantic style.  Dupont also talked about having to wear a corset in rehearsals, which other cast members and various people were riled by as misogynist and whatnot, but Lacotte’s intention was to see how having to wear corsets (which the women did) affected the look and technique of the dancing.  Dupont said the corset sort of forces a forward posture of the torso, which changed the line of the arabesque leg, and sleeves changed how the port de bras moved (port de bras being something Taglioni was complimented on as well).  Kind of sucks for the dancers that had to wear the corsets for rehearsals, and Dupont said it took a while to get used to, but it’s an interesting detail nonetheless.

I actually loved Lacotte’s choreography, because it was so technically demanding with itsy-bitsy beats and such but I’m finding it hard to believe this is how they danced early/mid-19th century because quite frankly, it was very difficult.  Inspiration from Taglioni with a hefty dose of artistic liberties I’d say, but it’s still a wonderful Sylphide.  Ganio is so young in the video as well, a mere twenty years old, but he had these buoyant jumps, and incredibly clean beats.  I was very impressed by his dancing, and he did one of my favorite steps, the brisé volé,  So I had my “olé!” moment as well.  He was a truly naïve James, captivated by the Sylph and so sad when she died.  Watching Ganio dance the role made me feel as though he didn’t intend to hurt Effie, he was simply mesmerized by the unattainable, and it wasn’t until the penultimate moment did he realize what he had done.  Dupont was gorgeous in every way imaginable, and subtle in her teasing of James.  She was ethereal, curious, and yet so tragic at the end.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, this was a ballet that made me sad when everyone died.  Although I’m still not fully on board with the “go insane and die” in the way that James does and a la Giselle too…but I guess people at the time found that seriously romantic.

Some might argue that the Sylph was a figment of James’ imagination and never existed in the first place (the pas de trois between him, Effie and the Sylph could indicate that as a possibility), and so this ballet is a lesson about infidelity and chasing pipe dreams and myths, but those people need to get out of the 21st century and stop being so pragmatic.  HELLO!  Romantic ballet, key word, starts with an “R” and ends with an “omantic.”  Clearly, the character Madge (who I think I want to be one day) exists, and I see this story being more about man’s love for nature, and the destructive power of that love when he tries to possess it.  Like enjoying a bouquet of flowers inside of our home, as a belonging to us, inevitably kills them.  It’s similar to what Tamara Rojo had to say about Ondine, in that a fairy cannot be owned.  So I really enjoyed it, especially the score which I read that is different from Bournonville’s, because he was a cheapskate and couldn’t afford the original, so he bought a different one.  Lacotte’s Sylphide uses the original score Taglioni used, by Jean Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer (lord Billy that’s a mouthful!), which felt…I hesitate to say this, but Mozart-ish, and very classic-classical if you know what I’m saying (some crotchety music historian would probably slap me for this comparison, but there isn’t much information on Schneitzhoeffer.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made this kind of mistake either, so I’m okay with it.)

An excerpt featuring exceptional jumps by Mathieu Ganio (So many little beats!  Looks like men have to work on petite allegro after all!)

And the whole thing is also available on youtube in fourteen parts, this being the first.  The DVD is wonderful quality though, so I’d defos recommend it!