Tag Archives: camille saint-saëns

Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’

10 May

The skeptic in me often finds that versatility can be overrated and at its worst, an exercise in mediocrity that masquerades at mastery. However, Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’—named for Christopher Wheeldon’s comedy choreographed to the famous music of the same name by Camille Saint-Saëns and including two different works from the grab bag of Balanchine—proved the company’s genuine skill at handling everything from deviant classicism to abstract modernism, and throwing in many a laugh for good measure. From start to finish the program was thoroughly engaging, informative, and intelligently designed to fan out the possibilities of what ballet can do. Opening night at the Academy of Music, with its plush red interior and ornate décor certainly played out in the company’s favor, displaying the great variety with incredibly strong performances throughout the ranks of Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers as well as the musicians of Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra.

First came Ballo della Regina, a notoriously difficult ballet in which Balanchine famously challenged his then anointed muse Merrill Ashley (now a repetiteur of the piece, along with Sandra Jennings) with steps he didn’t think she could do.  Set to ballet music from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘Don Carlos’—and often cut from the opera itself—Ballo pays homage to the original story of a famous pearl that belonged to the Queen of Spain, but mostly in color via the pastel costumes painted in the icy tones of iridescent luster. Balletomanes may have noted the omission of fouettés en dedans, a series of consecutive pirouettes on one leg that turns in the opposite direction that dancers normally train, but that’s a horrifyingly difficult and unnatural step, the effect of which isn’t lost when Amy Aldridge performed the more intuitive version. Aldridge had sharpness and angularity, sure-footed in the formidable series of jumps and hops that land en pointe, and partnering with the soft landings and long lines of Zachary Hench made for an arresting, breezy flight through the choreography. Especially enjoyable was the vitality Evelyn Kocak, Abigail Mentzer, Rachel Maher, and Gabriella Yudenich brought in featured solos, as well as the immaculate timing and marvelous unity of the entire ensemble with the corps de ballet.

Far different was the austerity of The Four Temperaments, one of Balanchine’s signature “leotard ballets” in which the costumes were pared down to plain black leotards and pink tights for the women, white shirts and black tights for the men. Set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, the choreography is barbed and often peculiar, making references to ancient Greek theories of imbalances of bodily fluids as the catalysts of mood and human behavior. As a ballet, The Four Temperaments is both harsh and quirky in appearance, meaty in content, and grand in scale. Although the entire cast turned in strong performances in the Melancholic, Sanguinic, and Choleric sections, the audience saved the loudest ovation for Jermel Johnson’s spine tingling Phlegmatic solo. Johnson’s movements utilized the whole body with a smoothness rarely seen, his focused gazes of detachment inducing chill after chill. He created a magic both eerie and limpid, which had me feeling like I was having an out of body experience as a spectator. As far as The Four Temperaments is concerned, it was one of the most impressive and astonishing performances I’ve ever seen (full disclosure, I know it’s ballet heresy but I don’t really even like 4T’s that much! Don’t tell anyone?).

Switching gears to end with something light-hearted and playful, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals took to the stage, a stampede led by celebrated actor John Lithgow, also an author of children’s books. Wheeldon and Lithgow devised a clever premise for the famous music by Saint-Saëns, in which a young boy falls asleep in a natural history museum, and his dreams are a mish-mash of people from his reality coming to life as the animals in the exhibits. Nothing could have been a more appropriate visualization of human dreams, where illogical and fantastical things happen without giving them a second thought, which perfectly matched the pastiche of medleys that even cheekily uses orchestral instruments to produce animal-like sounds. The concept for Wheeldon’s Carnival is unique, and Lithgow’s rhyming narration was delightful. The entire creative team behind Carnival, from the costumes to the sets, is to be lauded for telling a fun story that can enchant both children and adults. Though it’s not the type of ballet in which individual dancers stand out because the dancing doesn’t take precedence, it’s a wonderful fusion work of dance theatre in which the company can show its funny bone, and the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers impressed with their aplomb. It’s difficult to do comedy well, and while Lithgow is certainly no stranger to it, it’s wonderful to see Wheeldon put something together that respects the art of humor. I never thought I could like Carnival of the Animals as a ballet, but Wheeldon has definitely changed my mind.

Hats off to artistic director Roy Kaiser, who will lead Pennsylvania Ballet into its 50th anniversary season, having been a part of the company’s history for over thirty years as a dancer rising through the ranks from corps de ballet member to principal, as a teacher in the role of ballet master, and finally directorship. Knowing the company’s history so intimately has obviously helped him to develop a clear image for it, in which they can perform an incredible array of ballets by Balanchine, full scale classics, contemporary work, etc. always to live music and of course, with many talented dancers, who looked strong, vibrant, and well rehearsed. The programming from this season and next are evidence of Kaiser’s great leadership, and I’m really jealous of the Philadelphia residents that get to enjoy the fruits of the entire company’s labor. With a handful of performances of ‘Carnival of the Animals’ to go, there’s also ‘Forsythe & Kylián’ in one month’s time, and Balanchine’s illustrious Jewels to look forward to after the summer, all of which I highly recommend. I can’t praise the company enough for its polish and yes, true versatility, and can only hope to have the opportunity to enjoy seeing them again in the future.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet (Photo ©Alexander Iziliaev)

Ballet Arizona’s ‘Director’s Choice’

29 Mar

My time in Arizona has been a series of exceptions—thanks to Easter weekend, I could only take class at Ballet Arizona School once and apparently, they’ll be moving into a new facility this summer so if I’m ever able to come back to Phoenix, the images I have in my mind will be but distant memories (and how they managed to sustain momentum for that long term project through the recession is a miracle—bravo!). Meanwhile, the opening night performance of ‘Director’s Choice’ I attended took place at the Orpheum Theater, which is not their usual venue, and despite the theater’s beautiful classical styling and capabilities, my rifling through the program became frantic when it began to dawn on me that there would be no live music for the evening. Ballet Arizona does typically perform with the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall—just for this particular repertory program they did not. It could be a budget thing (doubtful) or maybe an installation thing (possible), or maybe they just felt like it (why not?). After all, there is something to be said for different venues drawing different crowds…as in, it happens.

In general, Ballet Arizona seems to do things a bit differently. For one, they don’t have a hierarchy within the company’s dancers. I can’t say that it’s necessarily better or worse for making casting decisions, and it may very well be there’s a sort of unspoken hierarchy, but democratization is an interesting idea here because the audience can pick their favorite dancers without bias solely based on rank. Another neat thing the company did was have the executive director show a preview clip of Topia, a site-specific work to be performed at the Desert Botanical Garden at the end of May. Site-specific work, while a common practice in modern dance, is not seen as often in ballet (Fire Island comes to mind), and the outdoor stage looked breathtaking at night in the video. Before ‘Director’s Choice’ began, I was thoroughly impressed with Ballet Arizona’s initiative.

The program consisted of three pieces, Alexei Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval des Animaux, the world premiere of Second to Last by Alejandro Cerrudo, and artistic director Ib Anderson’s Diversions (Anderson also choreographed Topia). Ratmansky’s ballet opened the show and…well, I didn’t like it. While I’m fully aware that a disinterest in Ratmansky’s work is nothing short of ballet heresy, Ratmansky’s Carnaval lacked clarity to me. He mostly followed the structure of the score, which is divided into several movements, each characterizing an animal, and subsequently abstracted into the choreography. I don’t know if there was an oversight on the casting sheet, but certain movements like ‘Aquarium’ of Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition had no roles listed, although it was definitely used, and in the manner expected (tutu girl = jellyfish). I knew the music well enough on my own, but it was a bit confusing anyway. Some animals were clearly outlined in the choreography, but others had me second-guessing what I knew—like the kangaroos that had me wondering if there was a ‘Rabbits’ movement I was missing. When it came to the ‘Swan,’ the obvious reference to Fokine’s Dying Swan drew some chuckles, but there was no content after the novelty of pastiche wore off. The concept for Ratmansky’s Carnaval was almost at war with itself, finding a middle ground between some bits of amazing choreography but never finding cohesion (‘Personages with Long Ears’, ‘Pianists’, and ‘Fossils’ were mostly ensemble dances with no common thread). Still, Amber Lewis’s ‘Elephant’ solo was clever and danced with charm and I loved the silky smooth movement quality Nayon Iovino had as a cockerel.

Alejandro Cerrudo’s world premiere came as a pleasant surprise—visually simple with six dancers half dressed in black and a hanging installation of squares with speckled designs, Second to Last put on full display Cerrudo’s fluid yet punctual style to music by Phillip Glass and Arvo Pärt. It’s almost as if the choreography finds specific points where energy bounces or is transferred, but never stops, rendering the few moments of stillness in his work some of the most powerful indeed. Like a marble in a never-ending labyrinth, the movements are fluid and steady, avoiding gaps and pauses with calm. The cast of three couples (Tzu Chia Huang & Junxiong Zhao, Raychel Weiner & Myles Lavallee, Amber Lewis & Joseph Cavanaugh) suspended themselves in the piece with subtlety and still produced an exceptionally powerful performance. For the seasoned balletomane, it may be hard to ignore that Cerrudo used the same music Christopher Wheeldon did for his After the Rain pas de deux, but comparing notes on different artists’ perspectives is fun when the mind is open and willing to new possibilities.

Last came Anderson’s Diversions, a neoclassical piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21’. A whimsical ensemble work that seemed to peer into an almost ritualistic dance of twenty-two dryad like beings, two of the immediate impressions left by the piece are the amazing lighting design by Michael Korsch, and Anderson’s arresting musicality. The steps are succinct and derive so strongly from the essence of the music that it’s impossible to imagine anything else to that score, a feeling that as an audience member, I associate with mastership by the choreographer. When you can feel the choreographer’s interest in the music and see the thought process unfold, then you really become a participant of the art and it’s an incredible sensation. Nothing is trite in Diversions, though some of the partnering bordered on excessive manipulation of the female dancers, overall the foundation of intricate patterns, variety of steps, a true journey with highs and lows, not to mention wonderfully clean execution by the dancers makes Anderson’s piece a thoroughly engaging dance to behold. Tzu-Chia Huang and Junxiong Zhao’s poetic duet highlighted Diversions with generous warmth, simplicity, and serenity.

To see Ballet Arizona in top form was a treat, and I only wish I could stay around for their ‘All Balanchine’ program coming up in May. For a ballet company to have maintained a trajectory of growth through the recession is inspiring to say the least, and it’s a testament to the company’s talent that there has been no evidence of artistic qualities falling to the wayside. The new facilities are sure to give Ballet Arizona momentum and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the company improving upon what I had the pleasure of seeing, which was already fantastic indeed.

The Prince and the Pauper

27 Mar

This is not a post, as the title may suggest, on reasons why Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper should be a ballet (though the idea has merit).  It is how I would describe my recent experiences with seeing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Contemporary 4.  I guess I earned my balletomane stripes these past couple of weeks, because I’ve finally graduated to that level of crazy where one sees the same ballet more than once, in order to see different casts.  Although contemporary ballets are often not the best medium for really identifying individual performers, Alexei’s Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH has enough narrative such that different casts for the two performances I saw made a huge difference in temperament.  However, this goes beyond just seeing the same dances more than once—I went opening night as a dance reviewer for SeattleDances (read that review here), and attended the final show (a Sunday matinee) up in the nosebleed seats thanks to my season ticket as a subscriber.

So what were the differences?  Well, getting to go as a reviewer was pretty rad.  I received two complementary tickets at orchestra level (my first time seeing the company from there I might add), quite close to where Ratmansky himself was seated for the PNB premiere of his work.  I also got to hang out in the pressroom where there were free drinks and chocolates (I had three sips of wine which was enough to burn my face off) and had a chance to talk to some of the administrative people of PNB who were floating around and socializing.  I found out that this here blog is something of a known entity amongst them and in fact, the media relations guy Gary recognized me when I picked up my tickets and told me that some of my entries get forwarded throughout.  This is simultaneously insanely awesome and alarming; I can’t tell you how grateful I am that people out there are reading because it’s one of the most rewarding things about being a writer but this means there’s a possibility I could say something that will get me into trouble.  So, I would like to take a moment to remind everyone that we live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty…

Obviously, there was no special treatment for the Sunday matinee, which in many ways is more indicative of the real dance writer…you know, the majority of us who don’t make a living off of our creative output.  I often laugh at the stereotype of the “starving artist,” the struggling dancer in New York, waiting tables to pay an exorbitant amount for rent, surviving on ketchup packets and tap water as they channel the difficulty of their lives through the medium of dance, because that means the people who write about them should have an even sadder existence.  Perhaps it’s true to a certain extent…dance writing is a labor of love, but just as the “struggling dancer” takes a “by any means necessary” approach, we also do as we do because quite frankly, we have things to say.  I don’t mind not having the glamour of orchestra level seating and such (though I’ll take what I can get!) because sitting in the balcony has its perks too.  As a most casual mortal, I can wear jeans up there and nobody’s going to say anything (and believe me, I wasn’t the only one…this is Seattle after all).  Also, some ballets look even more amazing with a near bird’s eye view.  Paul Gibson’s Piano Dance was one that I appreciated more from higher up.  Pacific and Concerto DSCH were just as lovely (though I liked being closer for DSCH) and no seat in the house was going to help me enjoy Place a Chill.

Yes, it’s true…I’m obviously opinionated just like anyone else and I didn’t like Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill.  I gave it a fair review in SeattleDances because I respect its value as art; Goecke certainly has a concept and a clear vision, executed incredibly well by the performers…it just wasn’t my thing.  This is probably the biggest challenge for dance writers, is setting aside one’s ego and figuring out a way to be critical without making it personal.  It requires a lot of sorting, and a lot of what I didn’t like about the piece was indeed personal, with the only nugget of reasonable criticism being the fact that I did feel like the piece was too long.  On the one hand, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor is a beautiful piece of music not to be mangled with edits, but with the movement being so stylized and rather stationary, there’s only so much one can take of quick twitchiness before getting bored.  I of course had the same problems watching the piece both times, but recognizing what I like to see in my favorite ballets has helped me figure out what criticism is personal and what isn’t.

For example, a pattern amongst my favorite ballets is that they’re all very pure…simple, musical, and pristine, tending to side with lightheartedness and the plain old “pretty.”  The reason being, my approach to beauty is quite escapist.  Sure, a landscape of a beach is like a generic postcard photo, but I love them because I can imagine escaping into them.  Even a ballet like La Sylphide which ends tragically, still takes place in a fantastical world of delight and magic so it’s an escape from the reality we know.  One does not really escape into Place a Chill—it can draw you in, but it’s not a world I want to live in and that’s why I can’t say I really enjoyed it.  However, lambasting the work solely based on my personal issues would have been unfair—valid as an opinion sure, but as a legitimate art critique?  Boo-boo.  Especially considering the strong audience response to Place a Chill at both performances I attended, I was clearly in the minority.  Many people were completely fascinated by it…I was too busy being resistant.

Meanwhile, as for Concerto DSCH, I enjoyed both casts.  I think opening night may have had more energy, and with Carla Körbes and Carrie Imler (two of my favorites in the company) in the principal roles, it’s hard not to feel like that was my dream cast.  In the matinee, Lucien Postlewaite and Jerome Tisserand were more memorable in the trio for me, capturing a more youthful boyishness that went well with the character of Ratmansky’s choreography.  A second viewing of DSCH delivered as I thought it would…what did I say in my review? “Sure to reveal a myriad of individual company members’ personalities in different casts.”  Now, I’m not prophetic, but sometimes my intuition rocks (although in retrospect, the above quote is a statement of the obvious, no?).

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Ratmansky's effervescent Concerto DSCH. So...you can kind of see Carla in the center there, and a lot of people had a vehement hatred of the sage green. What say you? (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

Thank you, Mr. B (that’s Bernstein, not Balanchine)

10 Feb

Is it just me or does it seem like a lot of the major ballet companies have done or will do Sleeping Beauty this season?  Off the top of my head I can recall the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky (in Washington DC this weekend!), NYCB, Pacific Northwest and at the beginning of this summer ABT will have Alina Cojocaru as a guest.  That’s a lot of Sleeping Beauty…and yet I’ve never seen it.  Obviously, I don’t expect that the artistic directors of the world to have conference calls to discuss what they’re doing each season so that they don’t overlap, which really doesn’t matter anyway because I highly doubt anyone can afford to globe trot to all of these Sleeping Beauty productions.  It just seems like an odd coincidence considering the fact that the classics are generally done on two/three year cycles.  Anyway, just the thought of it all seems exhausting to me, but alas, I hate flying.  Although chances are if you could potentially afford such transnational adventures, you probably wouldn’t be flying economy class so perhaps the experience is more enjoyable under those circumstances.  The only time I’ve ever flown first class was on a half an hour flight from Detroit to Columbus which they put me on because I missed my original flight after being delayed in customs because I was caught with foreign tangerines in my bag.  Oops.

Anyway, I would like to devote today’s post to a book I came across at the library, entitled Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings edited by Josiah Fisk with Jeff Nichols as consulting editor.  It’s an amalgamation (I love that word) of various writings by composers themselves on other composers, on music, art movements, personal philosophies, you name it.  I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good stand alone resource, but it gives a lot of good tidbits, some just a paragraph or too, some more lengthy essays.  It also lists the source interviews, letters and writings that each passage comes from so if there’s more you need to know about the context in which the passage was written this book can show you the way.  Basically, it’s a nifty astrolabe that can guide you through an overview of composers and their thoughts.  Although I do have to say that the book is a little difficult to navigate.  For example, a composer like Tchaikovsky has a chapter of his own writings, but the index also provides page numbers for when other composers mention him by name so he’s all over the book.  It’s still pretty murky though because specific pieces aren’t always mentioned so there’s a lot of skimming with this one.

Obviously, the relationship between music and dance is hard to ignore.  In fact, I treasure and live by it (Merce Cunningham would argue otherwise and ironically I’ll be seeing the Legacy Tour inaugural show in just a couple of days.  Woot woot!).  It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s perspectives on music and ballets that are performed to their music.  In Stravinsky’s chapter, there are some of his thoughts on The Rite of Spring, how he loved the music, how he felt Nijinsky didn’t understand music and was not a good choreographer and of course the infamous premiere night in which people stormed out (among them, Camille Saint-Saëns apparently), holding Nijinsky by the coattails as Nijinsky shouted counts to his dancers over the jeers of the crowd with Diaghilev flicking the lights on and off in an effort to silence them.  And there’s also random facts like how Stravinsky and Balanchine actually watched Disney’s Fantasia together during Christmas, 1939 (Bet you didn’t know that!).  But most of all (since I find much of Stravinsky’s music jarring and somewhat unpleasant) he did share some poignant views on music and composers.  I’ve selected a couple of my favorites:

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.

Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic.  Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl.  He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.

Rachmaninoff hilarity aside, fast forward to the chapter on writings by Dmitri Shostakovich, who was a student of Alexander Glazunov (who is known to balletomanes as the composer of Raymonda).  Shostakovich said of Stravinsky and Glazunov:

Glazunov was the first to convince that a composer must make the performers submit to his will and not the other way around.  If the composer doesn’t need a triple or quadruple complement of brass instruments for his artistic vision, that’s one thing.  But if he starts thinking about practical matters, economic considerations, that’s bad.  The composer must orchestrate in the way he conceived his work and not simplify his work to please the performers, Glazunov used to say.  And for instance, I still feel that Stravinsky was mistaken in doing new orchestral editions of Firebird and Petrushka, because these reflected financial, economic and practical considerations.

Glazunov insisted that composing ballets was beneficial because it developed your technique.  Later I learned he was right about that, as well.

I find this all quite fascinating.  Needless to say I became intrigued with any Shostakovich ballets (he wrote three, none of which were successes in his time and have only recently been reconstructed by the Bolshoi and Kirov/Mariinsky.  Judith Mackerell’s article on Shostakovich ballets is a recommended read.  Link here).  I’m also drawn to how comparable it is in dance; tracing the lineage of influences through choreographers and their commentaries on each other, although I wish it were all collected in a single book for our perusal.  It would be interesting to know what MacMillan thought of Balanchine or Ashton of Petipa or whatever combination and see that intertwined into one source, like Composers on Music.  You would think for every composer there must be an equal amount of choreographers out there.  But perhaps it’s important to not make any generalizations about the arts.  Another passage I found particularly interesting, which addressed why music is different from all other arts (hey, everyone has their biases!) was by Leonard Bernstein (hold onto your hats, this is a doozy!):

We are constantly hearing negative phrases: anti-art, anti-play, anti-novel, anti-hero, non-picture, non-poem.  We hear that art has become, perforce, art commentary; we fear that techniques have swallowed up what used to be known as content.  All this is reputed to be lamentable, a poor show, a sad state.  And yet look at how many works of art, conceived in something like these terms, prosper, attract a large following, and even succeed in moving us deeply.  There must be something good in all this negativism.

And there is.  For what these works are doing is simply moving constantly towards more poetic fields of relevance.  Let us be more specific: Waiting for Godot is a mightily moving and compassionate non-play.  La Dolce Vita, which deals with emptiness and tawdriness, is a curiously invigorating film, even an inspiring one.  Nabokov’s non-novel Pale Fire is a thrilling masterpiece, and its hero, Charles Kinbote, is a pure non-hero.  Balanchine’s most abstract and esoteric ballets are his prize smash hits.  De Kooning’s pictures can be wonderfully decorative, suggestive, stimulating and very expensive.  This could become a very long list indeed; but there is one thing it could not include     a piece of serious anti-music.  Music cannot prosper as a non-art, because it is basically and radically an abstract art, whereas all the other arts basically deal with real images     words, shapes, stories, the human body.  And when a great artist takes a real image and abstracts it, or joins it to another real image that seems irrelevant, or combines them in an illogical way, he is poeticizing.  In this sense Joyce is more poetical than Zola, Balanchine more than Petipa, Nabokov more than Tolstoy, Fellini more than Griffith.  But John Cage is not more poetical than Mahler, nor Boulez more so than Debussy.

Why must music be excluded from this very prosperous tendency in the arts?  Because it is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living.  The only “reality” these tones can have is form     that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect.  And by form I mean the shape of a two-note motive as well as of a phrase, or of the whole second act of Tristan.  One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form; up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft.

And so the inescapable conclusion.  All forms that we have ever known     plain chant, motet, fugue or sonata     have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships.  This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them.  We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless. […] [T]he moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

Now that’s food for thought.  He may have been discussing the nature of music, but I think Bernstein also may have touched on what inspires expressivity in dance, what inspires us to dance in the first place and why each choreographer’s language is unique.  Although I didn’t fully grasp the nature of what he was saying, I do feel like this is a pretty sound explanation for why music is so crucial in how I personally relate to dance.  Good to know.

So…if you’re one of those dancers that is looking for that “artistry” button, sink your teeth into this book and see what happens.  Improving your understanding of music could inspire creative interpretations in your dancing.

Or maybe, send your orchestra pit/musicians a Valentine’s card.  The muses might reward you.


21 Nov

I went to another Ohio State University show this night, with the unimaginative title of Resident and Visiting Artists Dance Concert.  But there’s something to be said for a title that just tells you what it is in a few words, unfettered by flourishes trying to express some idea.  Unfortunately I was running late (not a surprise) so I missed getting into the theatre for the first piece and had to watch through a door window.  As a result of my tardiness, I also did not get a program, so as I did with the show earlier, I am going into this review with no information, no ideas, and no titles to clue me in on anything.  But there’s something to be said for that too…the idea of viewing a dance with no expectations (literally).  So it looks like I’m going to have to make up my own titles, although my reactions are of course always my own, and you better believe I believe that we are all entitled to that.  Could renaming the dances for my own purposes be potentially offensive to their respective choreographers?  Maybe…maybe not…it’s not really my problem.

I won’t review every piece (C-bus people should really go see the show on their own…it’s a really good show), just a few highlights of the group numbers to entice the imagination.  The first piece I saw through the window looked really interesting…mathematical formations, Earthy-brown costumes and lots of prayerish gesturing.  And prayer beads.  I shall call it, Goddess Hymn.  Svetlana was actually in the piece so I was mad at myself for missing the direct experience, but she had significant phrases stage left, which was the only side I could see so the glass was half full.  From what I could tell, all of the dancers were female (like that’s a surprise), but the music had soothing female vocals as well.  It was very much a “dance,” with codified movement like arabesque turns, chaînés and grand battements, and yet it was structured in such a way that gave it a real spirituality.  I don’t know if it was specific to any religion, but it felt specific to the sensations of spirituality.  I am not religious (when you have a Catholic father and a Buddhist mother, the last thing you want is more religion!), but I do consider myself somewhat spiritual.  If anything, I say yay Daoism…go with the flow and don’t ask questions because those who know the Dao don’t actually know it.  But the point is, when I see something in nature that pleases me, like a beautiful starscape or a simple oak tree, a certain feeling of spirituality is invoked because I believe those things to be spiritual, and that was something I felt a twinge of while watching this dance.

The piece right after it…er, I think…was Into the Æther (I’ve always wanted to use that symbol), and it was painted in varying shades of cool blues and set to a heinous violin soundtrack.  Like sustained, dissident notes that reminded me of one of my worst fears, which is dying in the vacuum of space.  I’ve never had nightmares of drowning or being burned alive, but somehow the image of my body floating in space is something I’ve unpleasantly dreamt of and fear for no logical reason (as if, I would ever go into space!).  Of course, the music is genius depending on who you are, but we all know me.  At the very least, the music was used effectively.  This piece had a lot of dancers doing some very turbulent and aggressive movement, synching in and out and constantly changing tempo.  This is why I was really getting the image of the sky, because to me, the sky is something scattered, especially as you get further away from Earth, oxygen and other gases become increasingly diffuse.  And yet the sky has this awesome power, arguably the most formidable influence on Earth, but it is a power that can neither be sustained nor harnesses.  It can only conglomerate and dissipate, with no will of its own.  At one point the dancers are following each other in a sinuous line like a current of air, following the same path but not in the same way, and another moment they’re all twitching before crystallizing into a certain pose, like snowflakes, and then evaporating into shapeless vapor.  It was all very atmospheric to me and the creative distance to which one is willing to go in modern dance has to be dependent upon how far into the exosphere one’s imagination goes…too bad neither distance is measurable.  It certainly gives new meaning to the phrase “head in the clouds.”

Me?  I like it terrestrial, with my feet firmly planted on mother Earth.  Hence, simple interpretations and a devout love for ballet.  And there was a touch of that, in a screwball, theatrical staging of a work set to Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.  Despite a nefarious decision to exclude the Aquarium movement (which I can only assume is a personal attack on my integrity), this was the action-packed and comical Looney Tunes performance to the classically romantic music.  I’m not kidding…there was a classic “search” scene, complete with exaggeratedly cautious steps and binoculars, a scene with dynamite, and a Scooby-Doo style chase for the finale.  But it wasn’t just people portraying animals, because there was a turning of the tables as well because most of the characters were actually human.  So it was really like a commentary on the animalistic characteristics of people…or, people, portraying animals, pretending to be people.  You’ll have to choose your own adventure I’m afraid.  With Aquarium absent, Fossils was my favorite musically, and the premise for it was a crotchety ballet teacher, who I shall call Madame Jelena Danyushka Baraksanova, and she basically dictates a class, without words in her old school way.  Of course The Swan was included, and paid tribute to Fokine’s Dying Swan, but with the dancer *ahem* as a child, who can barely walk on pointe, and has epic stage fright, which can only be resolved by a colossal, rainbow colored lollipop.  By the end she does evolve into the more familiar swan, complete with bourées and undulating arms, but instead of the tragic end where the swan settles into that pose on the floor we all know, laying her head to rest with her final breath to trickling piano notes, this swan gets her lollipop, and we are treated to the image of an undulating tongue.  I’ve never seen a tongue choreographed into a piece before, but there’s certainly a first for everything.  P.S. Tortoises will have you laughing until you can’t breathe.

Anyway it was a fantastic show and C-bussers have one last chance to see it on Saturday, November 21st, 8pm at Sullivant Hall.  And speaking of Sullivant Hall, that building needs to get its act together.  Apparently the swan was even questionable to dance for fears that the ill-supported stage would collapse under the concentrated weight of a dancer on pointe.  First of all, that’s one of the funniest images I could ever think of (up there with a mitten exploding because a cricket set one foot in it when there were already too many animals inside) and second, that stage is ridiculous.  Why it was ever built that way, and why it apparently has no support underneath is beyond me.

Rattle me bones

4 Oct

First post of October, one of my favorite months of the year!  I’m also writing this on about two hours of fragmented sleep, which is probably not a good idea and guarantees zero well thought out…content…but you only live once.  I love October because it puts me in the mood for many things…the changing leaves (I’ve always loved the smell of dead, wet leaves), anything involving pumpkins, and All Hallow’s Eve.  It doesn’t really make sense that Halloween would be one of my favorite holidays, considering I don’t go trick-or-treating, attend costume parties, or go to haunted houses, but there’s something about the cheery atmosphere, the symbolic characters, the massive amounts of discounted chocolate (the solution to all problems), and yes, pumpkins.  I do think some aspects of Halloween are pretty lame, and the lengths to which some people will go for costumes is wasteful, but I can’t help but admire the festive spirit.  Plus, one of my favorite memories of one of my best friends occurred on a beggar’s night, when a little child jumped out of a bush and startled her, and without thinking she said “God damn you!”  Good.  Times.

In terms of music, Halloween is ALL about Camille Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre for me, one of my absolute favorite pieces of all time.  Although in a past life I was definitely an orchestra patron who walked out of a Stravinsky concert outraged, I was most defos fascinated by Saint-Saëns.  Most balletomanes would know his name from The Dying Swan set to Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des Animaux.  Although, let it be known that Le Cygne is not my favorite movement, but rather Aquarium and Fossiles are instead.  It’s all a part of my geeky nature…just as I had aspirations to see Carlos Acosta, the Bolshoi Ballet, etc. so do I have aspirations to see certain sea creatures, with whale sharks being the current flavor (it was sea otters before, which was accomplished at the Seattle Aquarium where I bought a magnet).  Whale sharks are going to be tricky though because they’re raised in captivity in far fewer places, most of them in Asia, and I’m banking on my best bet being the Georgia Aquarium, which is also one of the few aquariums to house a manta ray.  Ideally, I would love to dive with whale sharks off the coast of Thailand or Australia, but that’s a much more complicated matter.  Anyway, Saint-Saëns, Aquariums, awesome, Fossiles, wonderful, and the latter quotes Danse Macabre in a major key, bringing us back to the original topic.

People who hang with me are forced to pose with dinosaur bones.  And yes, I've made her do this on more than one occasion.

People who hang with me are forced to pose with dinosaur bones. And yes, I've made her do this on more than one occasion.

I was fortunate to play Danse Macabre as a part of an orchestra, although my favorite arrangement is a chamber version for violin and piano, from the album Devil’s Dance, by Gil Shaham and Jonathon Feldman.  Another great track on there is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Caprice Fantastique, but the whole album is really good and highly recommended, with endless potential for great dances.  As far as Danse Macabre is concerned, I love the time signature (it’s a waltzy three), and the texture is a bizarre juxtaposition of lyrical and bony…a lot like me, which I guess makes it easy to feel at home with it.  It has an element of playfulness to it that you wouldn’t expect from a dance involving death, and interested in seeing how people would interpret this, I of course carried out my usual excavations through YouTube, this time coming up with three unique interpretations.  The first is a fairly run of the mill “the Wilis have come out to play” group dance called La Melodie, and I have to say that I wasn’t particularly moved.  It was a little too technical and got “stuck” in several places, and although not every dance needs a story, I do think that it should evoke some kind of feeling and it was rather flat.  Are the Wilis happy to be playing?  Or are they somber as they journey into the underworld?  In all fairness, the choreographer mentions that it was their first classical work, but I do wish there was some more risk taking.

Next we have a solo from now San Francisco Ballet principal Tan Yuan Yuan, performing a modern solo entitled “Startling Dream,” and accordingly stiffness in her port de bras and the pencil straight lines of her legs were used as a way to convey the awkwardness of the music itself.  It’s an interesting solo, marred by a heinous competition number fluttering from her leotard.  It doesn’t say who conceived the choreography, but I like the real sense of desperation and terror that we often feel in nightmares.  Interestingly enough, I’m not bothered by the lack of a setting, and I think the all black stage enhances the piece, kind of like a body floating in nothingness, which my nightmares sometimes look like.  And sometimes in those nightmares I’m wearing a high cut leotard too.

Last, is a brilliantly disturbing interpretation by a famous Norwegian choreographer, Kjersti Alveberg.  I looked for a website on her, and her bio alone screams “creative mind” (something about her being a gypsy living in the universe of her unconscious where it matters more “who we are than who we want to be.”  She’s deep…and this coming from someone who takes fortune cookies seriously).  Her Danse Macabre is by far the most imaginative and the most grotesque (maybe even too much…I mean speaking of nightmares, her dance might give me them for a week), and her imagery is so creative…reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil but without the concern for acrobatics and impressing audiences, just pure art.  I think it really touches on an innate morbid curiosity humans have, where you can’t look away no matter how unsettling it can be.  It’s an utterly fascinating video dance, although I was a little disappointed with the very end, because the end of Danse Macabre is a cheeky plucking of two notes, which is one of the moments in the music that I find just a little saucy, and pardon the imagery but it’s like a “giving of the finger” if you know what I mean.  It’s a great moment that was purposely edited out, but I have to question that decision.  Tan Yuan Yuan’s solo only used an excerpt and didn’t have this, and La Melodie had it, but didn’t give it enough pizzazz.

So, I’m exhausted, and I’m sorry this entry isn’t particularly funny…when I’m tired most of my humor manifests in slapstick, and I’m glad none of you saw how I tripped coming up the stairs or shampooed my hair twice because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing.  And WOW I had a lot of typos…