Tag Archives: chopin

ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011-2012 Season Tidbits

2 Feb

Here’s some exciting news…I received my subscription renewal package to Pacific Northwest Ballet in the mail today, where a few tidbits about next season have been revealed.  This season I chose to do a mini-subscription which entailed selecting four of the six programs they are doing because I knew there would be something I didn’t want to see (this year’s omissions being Kent Stowell’s Cinderella and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though I may cave on the latter, even if it betrays my beloved Ashton ballet, The Dream).  The mini-subscription has the advantage of purchasing additional tickets at a discounted price and I like having that flexibility, though the one problem with it is that they prioritize full season subscriptions and sell the mini ones later.  Perhaps this is there way of encouraging me to buy a full subscription, but I’m stubborn and it’s not going to work.

So what’s in store for Seattle area residents and the travelling fan?  Four juicy mixed bills, including an All Balanchine/Stravinsky program.  ‘Twas a special relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky, one of the last significant collaborations between choreographer and composer in the world of ballet.  A great number of works were born out of their creativity, including Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée and Apollo, which are confirmed to be a part of the program.  Any number of works could flesh out the evening, as PNB has several Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets in their repertory and could easily learn another one (in fact, Divertimento will be a premiere for the company).  I saw excerpts of Apollo when PNB did their ‘Balanchine’s Petipa’ lecture demonstration (which is where I fell in love with the dancing of Carla Körbes), and am eager to revisit the piece as well as see anything new for the first time so I’m all in for this one (even if some of Stravinsky’s music occasionally gives me insomnia).

Another mixed bill will be an All Robbins program, which doesn’t have any details listed in the newsletter, but Karena confirmed after attending a post-performance talk of the program that included Robbins’s Glass Pieces, that Dances at a Gathering would be on the menu.  I couldn’t be happier…Dances at a Gathering has been my holy grail for the longest time and I might just buy tickets for a good five to seven performances just to permanently burn it into my retinas.  With Dances being a good meaty hour or so, it will be interesting to see what else will be included.  Perhaps it will be a night of Chopin, with In The Night and The Concert, or maybe it will be a diversified selection of Jerome Robbins works and showcase variety with the lighthearted Fancy Free or popular West Side Story Suite.  All of the above are in the rep, though there are other iconic ballets like Afternoon of a Faun that are not, so surprises could be in store.  Regardless, I’m not going to get greedy…just give me Dances and I will gladly pay the money to see it over and over again.

Rounding out the mixed bills are an All Wheeldon program (obviously, featuring ballets by Christopher Wheeldon) and a Director’s Choice, which will showcase contemporary works.  I have no idea what to expect from either of these, as PNB has many pieces they’ve done before to choose from and possible new pieces being learned, though I’ve never seen any Wheeldon ballets so that program is a must for me.  No details were revealed about the Director’s Choice program, so I will probably end up skipping it by default, and purchasing a ticket later.

As is tradition there must be full-length ballets in the lineup and unfortunately I was a little disappointed with the selections for the upcoming season, but that has nothing to do with the ballets themselves, it really is just me being cranky about it.  They will bring back Balanchine’s Coppélia, which they just did last year and it’s simply not among my favorites to warrant a strong enough desire to see it again.  It’s a good production—I just don’t want to go again so soon and I think part of the reason why it’s a little disappointing is because there are other full-lengths they haven’t done in a while, like Swan Lake or Jewels (the latter being most preferable!).  The other story ballet will be Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote, a new ballet for PNB and while I haven’t seen Ratmansky’s version, it’s not a ballet I’m a huge fan of.  I find it a little ridiculous and on the cheesy side, with a score that isn’t anything special.  However, I feel the need to give it a chance, and to date I’ve never seen Ratmansky’s choreography live either so I’m going to give it a go.  It really could be worse…like they could be doing Paquita, but even if I’m not exactly fond of Don Quixote, I do feel it important to check off Petipa based classics on my “Live Performance List,” which sadly, only contains Bolshoi’s production of Le Corsaire so far (clearly, I need to get out more…or REALLY get out and move to London).

Despite certain aversions and personal yearnings, I commend Peter for putting together what looks to be an exciting, well-balanced season.  There’s a great deal of variety that honors the classical traditions, highlights the neoclassical masterminds and brings fresh blood in with new works.  However, my plight of lacking Ashton, MacMillan and Bournonville continues, and I was never foolish enough to think that this would change in the upcoming year, but next weekend I will be running off to San Francisco to see San Francisco Ballet perform Ashton’s Symphonic Variations in a mixed bill with Symphony in C and RAku (which is obviously, what I will be doing instead of seeing Cinderella).  I guess I lied earlier when I said I couldn’t be happier about Dances at a Gathering…because I am over the moon about Symphonic Variations!  Be looking forward to that review, which will also include a Giselle with the lovely Maria Kochetkova.  If you were hoping to hear my thoughts on PNB’s Cinderella…too bad.

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

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

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

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

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

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

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

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

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

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

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

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

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

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

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

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

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

Ashton’s Month in Ashton Month

22 Jul

Continuing with the celebration of my unofficial Ashton month, what could be more appropriate than viewing A Month in the Country?  You may recall that this was the ballet that got away from me…when I visited Washington D.C. to see Manon, the Royal Ballet also brought a mixed bill which included this Ashton work.  Obviously I knew about it, but just like it never occurred to me to see multiple casts of Manon, it also never occurred to me to see both shows, because for whatever reason I thought you just buy your one ticket and then that’s it.  Or perhaps my wallet knew better and was communicating with me telepathically or I was too preoccupied with plotting to steal the Hope Diamond.  Regardless, I missed out and feel rather ashamed that I’ve still yet to see an Ashton ballet live.  The fact that I got to see a MacMillan was serendipitous; the fact that I completely failed to cash in on an Ashton opportunity is just stupid.  Balanchine’s stranglehold on the repertories of most American companies is just salt in the wound—neoclassical British choreography is much too scant here.

No commercial recording of the complete A Month in the Country is available for sale, but somehow it is on YouTube (perhaps a videotape of a broadcast performance).  It’s a unique opportunity in that the principal roles of Natalia Petrovna and Beliaev were originated by Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell respectively who also dance them in the taped performance.  I read in the Façade mini book too that Ashton was a stickler for first casts and the only time he ever got into an argument with Dame Ninette de Valois was over casting.  I forget exactly how it was cited in the book, but it was just a tidbit about Ashton being unhappy with the idea of a second cast because creating a ballet with certain dancers in mind is like a masterpiece painting—that’s how the choreographer originally sees his work.  However, as artistic director, de Valois also had concerns about money and I’m guessing the dancers’ health as well.  Guessing, or hoping.

A Month in the Country is based on novelist/playwright Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name.  Interestingly enough, like Ashton did with The Dream and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his Month is an extraction from the play.  I’m curious to know what prompted Ashton to trim the content of his ballets from the plays since obviously, he has done amazing full length works but on the other hand how many times has Tim Gunn spoken of the importance of editing?  Many a time, friends…many a time.

Month is accompanied by a John Lanchberry orchestration of Chopin works, which is so perfectly matched with the mid-nineteenth century setting in an aristocratic Russian home (Turgenev himself grew up in a wealthy family).  It’s fascinating how theatrical the ballet is, with attention to authenticity; the set is realistic rather than “tricking the eye” (i.e. painting something two dimensional to look three dimensional) and the costuming is closer to actual clothing.  For example, the men aren’t wearing tights and ballet slippers but trousers and character shoes.  Were it not for the shortened dresses on the women and the pointe shoes, much of the set and costumes could really be used for a production of the actual play.  What I find most extraordinary about these production values is how it alters the way the dancing tells the story.  When I think of one of MacMillan’s story ballets, the choreography tells the story which is very much “danced,” but in Ashton’s Month it’s almost as if the choreography and music replace the dialogue.  I don’t know that this is all that significant of a distinction (either that or I’m not making the distinction very clear) but you (well, I) could actually hear Chopin’s notes and see the movements as words that proceeded to divulge the story as opposed to watching movements to music that might express an idea or show a relationship between two characters.

Of the Ashton works that I’ve seen, the choreography for Month struck me as Ashton’s most innovative use of port de bras.  I tend to think that choreographing arms is the hardest thing to do without making it look like a bunch of flailing.  Right away, in the opening solo for Natalia there’s all this amazing arm movement with a myriad of different positions of the head, just icing on the cupcake.  It’s unusual in that it was one of the few times I was completely drawn away from what the legs and feet were doing and watching (mouth agape and utterly enamoured mind you!) at what was going on from the waist up.  Other characters follow suit with their introductory solos except for Natalia’s son Kolia, who does this INSANE solo, dancing while manipulating a ball.  I find the idea absolutely terrifying because anything that is designed to roll is unpredictable and personally I don’t do so well with large round objects that hurtle through space (needless to say, I’m not good at sports or catching things) and here’s Kolia leaping and pirouetting with a fleet-footed ease.  Ashton’s choreography is brilliant here, not only in styling Kolia to be a boyish youth, but also in how the prop is danced with, one of Ashton’s signature choreographic devices.

However, this is the story of Natalia and Baliaev, and in this case, Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell.  Natalia is…essentially, a bored housewife.  Though she is married to a wealthy man, has a son and also has the attention of a doting admirer named Rakitin,  there’s still something missing.  Enter Baliaev, who is supposed to be Kolia’s tutor, but seems to catch the eye of all the women in the household including Natalia’s adopted daughter Vera and one of their maids.  It all gets just a little too soap opera crazy and thankfully the original play is indeed a comedy so it’s not meant to be taken too seriously.  Natalia is perhaps embittered by a life of empty decadence and is the original queen cougar as she is in love with the young Baliaev.  They share a loving pas de deux, but things get crazy when Vera discovers them and it’s Rakitin who convinces Beliaev that the two of them must leave.  I’m sure this is all explained in the play in better detail, but the minor tragical point is, Beliaev is forced to leave, thus forcing Natalia back into her life of boredom.

Seymour is superb in this role (duh) and gives a commanding performance as the two faced Natalia, who hides her love for Baliaev from her husband.  It’s an interesting role that requires quite a mature ballerina and technique is almost useless because it’s the range of emotions including boredom, love, anger and devastation in such a short period of time that make the role so demanding.  Dowell’s acting skills are no less inferior (he even looks like a different person in every video I’ve ever seen of him.  Were it not for those gorgeous giraffe legs I’m not sure I’d recognize him every time) and even though Baliaev is kind of a hound dog, the dancing is sublime.  There were moments where you really get to see the stretch of Dowell’s plié (one of the most underestimated moves in all of ballet).

Can’t say enough about how wonderful the ballet is and what a blessing it is that it’s on YouTube (the user quillerpen has one of the best YouTube channels…subscribe or die).  Without further ado, here’s Ashton’s A Month in the Country (in five parts):

Classes at Balletmet…FINALLY

11 Jul

So I’ve been taking a lot of ballet classes this week…Mon/Wed/Fri. morning with Karen Eliot (if that’s her real name…I keep forgetting to ask) at OSU and I also took a couple of classes at BalletMet with foreign teacher men people, at least one of which is Russian (YES! Or should I say…DA!).  BalletMet is Columbus’ premier ballet company, and you would think after 20ish years of life in C-bus I would have taken some classes before, but sadly this is not the case.  My parents never even took me to see the NUTCRACKER.  I had to get my Nutcracker fix from the Care Bears VHS version (which has its misgivings…but oh that Grumpy Bear…what a hoot).  We’re talking the ONE ballet everyone in their mother of pearl knows (well that and Swan Lake) and my parents deprived me.  Which some may say is a good thing I suppose…since it’s known to some as “ugh, THAT ballet.”

Anyway, so I wanted to give BalletMet classes a try just because they’re a Columbus thing and their classes are pretty good, even if the schedule is really bizarre.  During the summer they only have classes for adults for 4 weeks in July.  Early summer is understandably reserved for summer intensives for the little ballet bambinas aspiring to be professionals, but the sporadic schedule is still unpleasant.  Criticism aside, I had class with Dmitri on Tuesday, and at first I found him difficult to understand, but he demonstrated well enough so that I didn’t have to (a skill I developed while studying abroad…when you live in a foreign country, you learn to survive without understanding everything.  Or sometimes, anything).  Pretty standard class, nothing too crazy…although I guess some of the students looked a bit out of sorts and he asked if this was their first class since classes had ended in the spring to which they replied “yes.”  A HA!  A negative consequence of BalletMet’s helter skelter wonky schedule.  Although the fact that he even asked at all makes me wonder what was he doing during the month off?   Obviously he wasn’t teaching, but then what?  Who?  Where…oh well.

Now Thursday night’s class was taught by George, this diminutive and elderly man who was even harder to understand and didn’t really demonstrate.  His foot would kind of shuffle around a little and then before I knew it he’d be asking the pianist to play and somehow everything flew right by me.  The weird thing though, is there were dancers in the class who DID understand and apparently derived some kind of structured exercise from said foot shuffles, so clearly it’s not him, it’s me.  I suppose only time can give me the skills to decode this secret language…time and practice.  When I was able to get a grasp on what he was saying he definitely knew what he was talking about, and told me to keep my chest open and lengthen my neck more (even though I have a short neck…poo).  And come to think of it, he complimented my saut de basque.  Although I do think he was a lot more optimistic about my abilities than I am…I’m not flexible at all (hamstrings of steel) and in this rond de jambe en l’air-ish thrown leg thingie he wanted me to kick over his hand, which he held just under my shoulder and that wasn’t going to happen.  And he also had me hold my leg out to the side as high as possible, proceeded to poke me in several places to get me to stand up straighter and wanted me to keep it there after I let go and that wasn’t going to happen either.  But at least one of us sees the potential, and he gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder at the end of class.

Then this morning it was back to Karen, who told us today not to shoot our arms towards the sky because we don’t “seek the heavens for help” and we need to shape our arms and maintain the shape as we move.  It was a rather odd day though…a lot of giggles in the background, but apparently some of the grad students were joking around about building a community for retired dancers called “Shady Pines,” even though I’m sure they’re all in their 20’s and MAAAAYBE early 30’s.  But it’s like I said before, dancers see their careers in terms of dog years.  But I can’t really speak for people who have had major injuries since I never have (and to think I used to feel left out for never having broken a bone).  Although I did sustain a minor injury today, and not in the studio mind you…because dancers never get injured in the studio.  But I’m pretty sure I sprained my finger when I whacked it against the turn signal handle switch while I was driving today.  Still hurts, the stupid little extremity.

One lovely thing that did happen this week was that the accompanist played a song I requested, for adagge on Wednesday AND Friday.  If you want a lovely song, try Chopin’s Nocturne no.2 in E-flat major, Op.9, no.2.  It’s one of my all time favorites, and because it’s a 12/8 it can even be played faster too for waltzy enchaînements.  But all good things must come to an end, and one un-lovely thing was the barrage of sissones this week.  What is it about sissones that make me get stuck?  Grande allegro this morning was failli-assemblé-3 x changement, SISSONE en avant step through assemblé-3 x changement, sissone ouverte coupe assemblé- 3 x changement, then your run of the mill tombé-pas de bourée-glissade-saut de chat (with arms in THIRD!  AHAHAHAHA! Or as they say in Brazil, AHUAHUAHUAHUA!).  But seriously, everytime, right before the sissone it was like landing in a puddle of molasses.  I hesitate, I freak, and then I’m 2 counts behind.  Damn me and my slow reaction time!

Grumpy Bear don't play when it comes to the sissone

Grumpy Bear don't play when it comes to the sissone

Meanwhile, in other news, I am officially on twitter now.  Don’t know if it’s a good idea, and my feeble brain is having problems keeping up with technology these days, but what the heck.  I’ll try almost anything once.