Tag Archives: cesare pugni

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Men + Dance = Men in Dance

11 Oct

I’m pretty sure (as in I know) I write for a predominantly female audience…historically, women have found me more entertaining than men have.  However, I would like to dedicate this post to my male audience…all three and a half of you, and in particular the homosexual readers in honor of National Coming Out Day.  As far as I know, I shall attempt to tie this in with a review of a festival showing I went to yesterday, Men in Dance, featuring all male dancers in works by various choreographers.

First, a little anecdote.  I was in a bit of a foul mood yesterday…but lock yourself out of your apartment, lose your key and not so happy you will be!  Normally I’m a very careful person and I don’t make mistakes but when I do they tend to be of the catastrophic variety.  You know the saying: “go big or go home” and that’s what I manage to do…except I couldn’t go home because I lost my key in the taxi, which of course dropped me off within feet of my doorstep.  Irony tastes like crap, and I’ve been mentally vomiting on myself since (which will probably continue until I fix this mess).  So of course because I’m one of those people that has to beat myself up I didn’t sleep well and was quite tired after a restless night at a friend’s house.  Not to mention I had to do the whole “walk of shame” wearing the same clothes from the day before as my landlord let my roommate and I in with the spare key.  The whole condition was exacerbated by the fact that I had to leave my contacts in overnight thus irritating my eyes, and also because I didn’t have time for a shower before heading to Capitol Hill for Men in Dance.  I don’t even remember how I got there—all I remember is zombie-walking to the bus stop messy-haired and red demon eyed, then somehow managing to appear in front of the Broadway Performance hall.

The show featured a great variety of dance styles, beginning with a preshow where a group of men danced outside, in the lobby, on the stairs leading to the theatre and eventually on one corner of the stage.  As they explored these spaces, sometimes they danced at you…not for you, at you (I almost tripped over one going up the stairs).  The preshow also included a small tap ensemble, clad in black, white and shades of grey pedestrian clothing, executing complicated footwork with such ease I wanted to believe that I too, could do such a thing…but that’s the mark of great hoofers; they make it look insanely easy.  In this sense, I often feel tap is the most deceiving dance form.

Following the preshow came Cypher, a male pas de trois that consisted of a number of dizzying turns and leaps…perhaps, too many.  Here’s the thing about bravura steps…when you have a lot of pirouettes and leaps it’s one of two things; it’s a variation/coda or the piece is being overpowered by an excess of such movements.  When it comes to a modern ballet, I don’t look for specific turns or jumps but what is the effect of a turn or jump?  Does it emphasize a musical phrase or show visual contrast in levels?  I wasn’t feeling much of a sense of purpose, other than to show off…which is an entirely legitimate choice but I felt that the pirouettes and leaps actually detracted from some of the more interesting choreography.  There were wonderful moments of texture—smooth classical lines as well as smaller staccato movements, set to a compelling score entitled Trilobita, which I assume translates into trilobite (and you know I’m a huge fossil geek).  It’s a fine line any time you put in a coupe jeté followed my multiple pirouettes because it can get competition dance-y very quickly.

Following that was an interesting piece with a group of young men performing a…running(?) dance, with a lot of acrobatic maneuvers and tiny jogging shorts.  It was one of those pieces with no music, which tends to freak me out but what’s interesting is that without music, dancers have to tap into a sort of mass, innate, biological rhythm that we often lose touch with.  I imagine it’s the same “force” that informs a school of fish to change directions at the exact same time or a flock of geese to fly in a V.   Speaking of mysterious forces, then came Wade Madsen’s pas de deux, Breath of Light.  This piece was stunning—an intimate duet for two men that really investigated the connection between two people.  There was of course close contact in the partnering but there were also moments where one dancer would run his hand along the contours of his partner’s body without touching him, making tangible the energy that can be felt radiating from another person.

After that sensual pas de deux, came the most amazing pas de quatre…linked to Jules Perrot’s famous divertissement for the four legendary ballerinas, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.  Using Cesare Pugni’s same score, choreographer Eva Stone made the piece in the image of four modern women with contemporary choreography and set to out to do the same for four men, but decided to keep the women’s choreography and simply had men perform it.  Under the title Me Over You, the new pas de quatre had four men with diva attitudes trying to outshine one another on stage in a myriad of movement styles, from balletic to modern and even gestures of vulgarity (“the finger” if you must know).  The result was a comedic dance that drew raucous laughter from the audience and squees of glee from those who could tell that Stone even quoted a bit of Perrot’s Pas de Quatre.

The first piece after intermission was a nice solo…modern, lyrical, with interesting points of origin and alighting.  The standout of the afternoon however, was an excerpt from artistic director of Whim W’Him, Olivier Wevers’s new work Monster, which debuted at the festival (Whim W’him will perform the full version of Monster in January).  Monster embodied the anguish felt by homosexuals over the disenfranchisement that comes from being a part of a marginalized population.  The performance was dedicated to the teens that committed suicide because of bullying based on their sexual orientation (although the piece was obviously created and rehearsed before—that kind of dance doesn’t happen overnight…usually).  I’m so pleased to see that such a topic is so forthrightly observed in Seattle’s dance community.  I think this subject matter is often avoided because some people in the dance community feel that evasion of it is the best way to combat so called “negative” stereotypes about male dancers while others are so beyond acceptance that it’s completely a non-issue.  There’s not as much open dialogue about the “middle” and I think that’s whom this dance is for.  Not everyone can grow up in a liberal city like Seattle or New York and those who don’t tend to suffer the most.  I certainly had my share (if not the brunt) of it growing up so I could relate to the piece a lot.  For example, normally in a promenade in ballet, the danseuse is in a position like an attitude or arabesque—something expansive that really fills a space but Monster had these low promenades in a tucked, almost fetal position, trying to make the body look as small as possible as if shrinking away from society.  The truth is, sometimes diminishing (and inadvertently belittling) oneself was the only way to avoid being hurt by others.  At other times there were these huge, sprawled out extensions that expressed the impossibility of trying to contain one’s own spirit.  Both dancers (PNB company members) were sublime, and I really enjoyed watching Lucien Postlewaite in this performance.  I remember seeing him in Balanchine’s Square Dance earlier this year and Monster is such a departure from that it’s great to see such versatility in a performer.  Random note, I’d like to ask him what it feels like to have super strong, obedient legs…does it feel as awesome as it looks?

At any rate, I think it’s noteworthy that Wevers and Postlewaite are actually married, and because this is Seattle it’s not gossip but casual information.  It’s interesting because the sexuality of dancers is as I said, often not discussed because most people in the dance community don’t care one way or another.  Unfortunately it’s jerks outside of the dance community that exploit stereotypes and make fun of dancers, both professional and aspiring.  For that reason, I think some dancers also avoid discussing it for fear that public interest in their personal lives will supersede their professional ones…it’s all very “Anderson Cooper” if you will, who is believed/known to be gay and is sometimes harshly viewed by the gay community for not publically discussing his personal life.  The resentment is perhaps understandable—people want role models but at the same time nobody should be required to discuss something so personal and in that sense I think people who take that route represent an ideal, of the way society should be.  On the other hand, society isn’t there yet and we do need role models and for that we can look to Marcelo Gomes who did publically “come out” and it hasn’t affected his career at all—in fact, he’s often crowned “the most in demand partner in the world.”  So young friends who are gay and struggling with confidence, look to the likes of these gentlemen and know that your success is possible, regardless of stupid people around you.

The penultimate piece was a solo by former New York City Ballet principal, who apparently came out of retirement (though the end of the piece seemed like a farewell to the stage) to dance an Agon-esque solo choreographed by Donald Byrd.  There was something oddly Agon-y about the solo, and perhaps because Boal has danced Agon what, eighty-five million times?  I likened it to a “West Coast Agon” though, Seattle-fied with jeans and a t-shirt (a comment from the peanut gallery noted that the only thing missing was the Birkenstocks).  Then came the final dance of the evening; sharp, modern, percussive and with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Lots of changes of direction, reversals and athletic lifts that made for a high-energy conclusion of the afternoon.

So what started out as a crappy day (for me) improved vastly by concert’s end.  The festival goes for two weeks and will showcase a different set of works for this upcoming weekend and if this past weekend was any indication, attendance is highly recommended.  Let me just say the audience simply enjoyed watching men dance…because men don’t dance enough (obviously the world would be a better place if they did).  If you are a man (or boy!) in dance and people give you a hard time for it, know that you are or will be loved, so hang in there.  If ignoramuses give you a really hard time…well that calls for a swift kick to the shins.  What do you think the REAL purpose of frappes at barre is?

Perspective on Winter Perspective

12 Feb

To kick off the pre-weekend, I attended Winter Perspective, the MFA concert for four graduate students of Ohio State University’s Department of Dance.  The concert featured Romantic era ballet solos made famous by the legendary Fanny Elssler, restaged from hieroglyphics (labanotation…you say tomato, I say tomato) as well as contemporary works also staged from notation score.  After intermission (during which I foolishly abstained from using the restroom…it was almost as bad as the time I had a twelve hour flight from Tokyo to Washington D.C. and had the “coveted” window seat, except the ogre man next to me in the aisle seat was approximately fifty feet tall and slept like a baby during the whole flight.  His wall of legs meant that I would have to crawl over him or wake him, neither of which I had the courage to do, so I held it and almost died.), the second act featured brand new works by OSU faculty and graduate students.  Plenty of variety, plenty of good times.

When one thinks of Romantic ballet, the concept is pretty much dominated by Giselle and La Sylphide, or even the dynamic duo of Cesare Pugni (the composer) and Jules Perrot’s (the choreographer) Ondine, ou La naïade (the Frederick Ashton/Hanz Werner Henze Ondine for the Royal Ballet came much later, while Perrot/Pugni’s has been lost.  Pierre Lacotte “reconstructed” Perrot’s Ondine for the Mariinsky, but if it’s anything like his “reconstruction” of Paul Taglioni’s La Sylphide, it’s too grounded in modern technique and most likely an unfortunately inaccurate interpretation of what the ballet could have looked like.  At least we get to hear Pugni’s score for Ondine though).  The title roles for La Sylphide, Giselle and Ondine are all fairies and ghosts, roles that would define the careers of the great Romantic ballerinas such as Carlotta Grisi (the first Giselle), Marie Taglioni (the first Sylphide), Fanny Cerrito and Lucille Grahn (the first Bournonville Sylphide).  Together with Elssler they were the fab five, but Elssler was missing from that picture of her own accord; she had a different style that contrasted greatly with the ethereal qualities of the others.  Elssler even declined to participate in a Perrot/Pugni ballet that Perrot choreographed on the superstars of the time, which would come to be known as simply Pas de Quatre.  Facts aside, Elssler was pretty bad ass for sticking to her guns.

Two character solos were performed, the first being a Polish folk dance entitled La Cracovienne, from Joseph Mazilier’s La Gypsy, complete with boot spurs and snakelike braids down to knee level and La Cachucha, from Jean Coralli’s Le Diable boiteaux.  Both had intricate footwork and a lot of articulation through the ankle and top of the foot in particular.  It looked…hard…I mean, I’m sure it was hard too but to be able to soften through the ankle and move in and out of a fully lengthened foot is not as simple as one would think.  I liked La Cachucha in particular though because it had stronger rhythms that were emphasized by stomping on the heels and castanets.  These dances sort of touched on what made Elssler different, which was an earthier robustness as opposed to light and fluttery.  I think appreciating Elssler’s contribution to Romantic ballet is important in order to understand what else was going on at the time and what wasn’t necessarily mainstream (incidentally, La Cachucha is on YouTube for anyone interested…but I would recommend going to see the remaining shows of Winter Perspective this weekend if you’re in Columbus!).  Regardless, Elssler was wildly famous and toured all throughout Europe, making buckets of cash (almost sounds like she was freelance).  Told you she was bad ass.

Fanny Elssler as Florinda in La Cachucha

So what else…a modern solo dealing with death and another ballet solo, also dealing with death.  The ballet solo was from Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, which dealt with a community in mourning (I *think* they were portraying Mennonites…but I always get that kind of stuff wrong) with the soloist surrounded by members of the community who are there passively, merely to provide solace.  I’m not too familiar with Tudor works, but from what I’m reading quickly online and in the program notes he’s sort of championed for exploring “psychological realism.”  I’m not sure I can put into words how I felt about the piece (except that I was definitely feeling I needed to see more), but I liked the coldness of it.  It’s rather stark, and for some it’s a reminder that with mourning comes a sense of isolation, in that nobody else could truly understand your relationship with the deceased.  They’re there, with you, but still distant.  Or perhaps they are the ones who are there and you are the one who is distant.

Next was intermission and then three premieres.  The first, Artemis and Aphrodite in the Garden of Give and Take, choreographed by Melanie Bales on Karena and Jolene, both of whom were fittingly, classics majors as undergrads.  I like to dabble in mythology so I really enjoyed this piece, with Artemis as the bully and Aphrodite as the sweetheart.  It was even reflected in their body language, like during certain unison phrases Aphrodite dances with more an open chest and subtle épaulement while Artemis is much stiffer in the shoulders (and why wouldn’t she be?  Girl is the goddess of CHASTITY…that’s no fun).  It was very much in the character of the goddesses, with Aphrodite being rather naïve, dancing with her golden apple (how soon she forgets that she STARTED THE TROJAN WAR because of that thing).  At any rate, this piece helped inspire a most magnanimous “MFA Project Gift,” where I bought for my friends, three items.  And here’s the secret to gift giving…first, you must begin with three items because good things come in threes.  Here’s my formula:

  1. One item must be universally appreciated. (in this case, flowers…because dancers get flowers.  Something about the ephemerality of cut flowers and a performance, methinks)
  2. One item must be edible. (in this case, I attached a Cheryl & Co. cookie to the gift, because bows are stupid)
  3. Then, and only then have you earned the right to make the last item something you wish to impart to them. (this time it was the novel Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, SO perfectly appropriate for the situation at hand.  Except Karena already read it…which I knew going in there was a chance she had because she reads everything…but OWN it, she did not)

Oh and handmade cards of low quality are not necessary but highly recommended.  I made a one of a kind card where a pair of giant ballerina legs in pointe shoes were standing on the Sydney Harbor, like the Colossus of Rhodes and the other side was a picture of a dancer holding a giant point shoe, a reference to Sisyphus.  All it takes is some old magazines and a pair of scissors.  Sometimes…I think I’m brilliant.

Back to the concert, the conclusive piece was a somewhat long, but intriguing modern dance, with a series of vignettes that at first I didn’t quite understand.  The music choices and styles of movement for each section seemed disjointed to me, but then I heard from one of the dancers that it was the story of the choreographer’s life, divided into decades, with each person representing an influential figure in the choreographer’s life.  NOW, it all makes sense.  One of the decades was a beautiful pas de deux that was so poetic…I was very moved.

I have much more to say on that dance as well as other pieces that appeared in the concert (one SWEET modern piece with these portable lights that really played with dimensional movement through shadows and due to its unpredictable nature is probably different every night), but really if you’re in Columbus, you should brave the arctic tundra and go to one of the remaining two shows (2/13 at 8pm and 2/14 at 2pm for a matinee, in Sullivant Theater).  I hope I’ve previewed enough to make you hungry to see them…or hungry for a Cheryl & Co. cookie.  Mine today was a buttercream frosted chocolate and peanut butter.