Tag Archives: diana vishneva

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson

18 May

My time in Boston actually poisoned me with some doubts, as the penultimate leg of this journey was in fact the only time when I questioned whether zigzagging nearly ten thousand miles across the country to see ballet was worth it. My arrival in New York was without fanfare (as if anybody gets that besides the Royal Family anyway) and bedraggled, I crawled into the city relieved to have all the traveling be over with. Regardless of what happens next—not to mention the insurmountable mountain of work left to be done—I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, privileged to call this place home even for a few weeks. Still, traveling comes with its baggage and mine came in the form of Onegin, as the production on loan from the National Ballet of Canada seems to have crossed the US with me. Nearly two months ago I saw Onegin on San Francisco Ballet, and now (probably en route back to Toronto) here it is in New York with American Ballet Theatre, the ballet that has come to define John Cranko’s choreographic legacy. Adapted from Aleksander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko masterfully distilled important plot devices from the novel, selected infinitely danceable music, and created a captivating ballet. The only real problem with it is that it rides quite heavily on the acting abilities of the lead dancers, a quality that has become regrettably rarefied in this age of extremely technical ballet. However, Onegin reminds us of the power of subtleties and the dramatic impact of theatre. Also crucial is chemistry, which Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes have in spades, a virtually legendary partnership that I had even heard about through the grapevine long before I ever set foot on New York soil/concrete/asphalt—whatever.

This was my first time to see the sensational Vishneva, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre. I had some reservations because I’ve experienced a disillusionment to the current Russian style of ballet, which in my opinion has become a grossly distorted version of what Vaganova training intended to be and raises several questions about what makes for good training and good teaching. However, artists do emerge, and Vishneva is like no other. She can jump and she can move fast, hurtling herself into Cranko’s menagerie of immaculate lifts without hesitation and for all her limberness, she doesn’t abuse it. She certainly gives the full range but uses that to her advantage to add depth to her performances and really flesh out the characters she portrays. As Tatiana, the gentle soul who goes from lovelorn to crown jewel, she maintains an engaging presence throughout, coloring it with all the hues of innocence, heartbreak, nobility, and inner turmoil. It’s a relatively simple story of a young woman falling in love with a man who rejects her, and a passage of time reveals her marriage to another, as the original object of her affection futilely attempts to win her back. Watching Vishneva has a sense of living through every moment with her and the final duet in which she rejects Onegin was a ping-pong match of “Do it! Wait—stop! Get him! Don’t do it! Eek! You go girl!” and the final image of her alone on stage, staring off into the distance is an arresting one, lips pursed with a grim solace. It’s appropriate for a ballet with no happy ending, no forgiveness or reconciliation, which is so satisfyingly discomforting.

Onegin is kind of a male dancer’s ballet though, and more importantly, a great actor’s ballet, o which Gomes gave the master class. You love to hate to see him as a reprehensible character, and even the way he first appears, stalking in the background like a panther was alluring yet eerie, with an air of mystery that makes you want to know more about this man. There’s a moment in the opening solo where he steps into an arabesque and reaches out with one arm and recoils it back in a seductively feline way and really makes it a predatory gesture. Even the beginning of the famous mirror pas de deux, when Tatiana dances with a specter of an imaginary Onegin, of course I knew he was going to appear but I nearly ducked underneath my chair to hide anyway when he did, because Gomes hovered behind her reflection with this spooky, really menacing posture. I do so love the mirror pas de deux—transformation is an iconic theme in ballet for women, but hardly ever for men. Giselle turns into a Wili, Nikiya a shade, and even Cinderella gets a fancy new dress, but the bread and butter role has to be Odette/Odile, and Onegin/Onegin’s visage can be seen as something of an inverse. Just like how Odile appears only briefly to dispatch her trickery, Onegin’s reflection is the ephemeral, deceptive one, but is instead the idealization. However, without a dramatic costume change and because of the realistic story, the differences have to be tempered with both showmanship and subtlety—he can’t just emerge a valiant gentleman because he still has to retain certain qualities and characterization of the real man.

I wasn’t nearly as engrossed by the acting of Isabella Boylston and Jared Matthews, both fine dancers but perhaps miscast with Vishneva/Gomes. The relationship between Olga (Boylston) and Lensky (Matthews) has to be believable because its perceived breakdown sets the events in motion for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. I find Boylston charming enough as Tatiana’s coquettish sister, but actually I think the relationship between her and Vishneva’s Tatiana is what I didn’t find plausible. They certainly don’t look alike and it’s not that siblings have to resemble each other, but each dancer’s unique physicality and portrayal of their respective characters made it apparent that they had nothing in common, and even the most divergent of siblings still have some thread of similarity indicative of kinship. Even Tatiana feels the need to protect Lensky, begging him not to duel with Onegin, but her relationship with Olga is what makes that powerful. Matthews’s Lensky is a stand-up guy, and I found his solo prior to the duel quite moving, smooth as satin and wrought with despondency, but I couldn’t help feel that the sorrow was more based in a resignation to die, rather than anguish at the horrifying idea of aiming a pistol at his friend. When it comes to theatrics you have to make the audience wait for it, and I prefer to see Lensky with both poignancy and valor. In San Francisco, when Joan Boada’s Lensky fell to the ground, it was like my world had shattered and I had to fight back the tears.

It’s really important for performers not to give too much away when they know what’s going to happen next. It’s an area where Gomes excels; that first release of his head and upper back right after he kills Lensky is the first, fleeting sign of remorse and vulnerability, but when he returns in the third act he still has remnants of that pompous cynicism which he brought to the previous acts. When Onegin sees a matured and married Tatiana (Vishneva is a stunner in red, by the way), Gomes allows for the decay of that exterior to happen, rather than making it obvious. This is another moment I find fascinating because of its likeness to Giselle’s mad scene—although we see the events he relives take place behind a scrim, the gestures of reaching out to the phantoms of his past and burying his face in his hands have to be done with the same amount of integrity. At long last, when he and Tatiana are finally alone, do we see him completely disintegrate into a pitiable wretch, and the differing perspectives on the source of his regrets make for a roller coaster as Tchaikovsky’s music runs away with histrionics. Is Onegin apologetic for hurting Tatiana? Rueful of killing Lensky? Or shamefully wanting what he now can’t have…it’s certainly a mixed bag and if you have the magnetism and emotional capacity of Vishneva/Gomes, you may as well go for broke and do it all.

As the super secret formula for superlative storytelling continues to elude modern day choreographers (to a certain extent), I love that Onegin can still be so enthralling and relevant—I’m now more excited than ever to see Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a matter of days, which is going to provide an interesting contrast on a similar time period of early 19th century Imperial Russia. The only problem with doing Onegin and Month so closely to one another though is that casting is too formulaic. Some of the same principal couples of Onegin are cast as the leads in Month, and unfortunately, Vishneva/Gomes not among them. It’s a shame for Vishneva in particular because I think Month is more centered on Natalya Petrovna’s quiescent distress and I would have loved to seen her portrayal. Count me a fan.

It’s okay to laugh in ballet

4 Feb

I find it hard to believe that anything could be more important in life than laughter.  So today’s post is all about ballet and comedy…ballemedy if you will.  Especially in a world is so grounded in tradition and formalities I think humor is often overlooked in ballet and it’s important to remind ourselves to think of humor as a completing element; nobody is truly human without it (is that not the essence of this blog…or of my life for that matter?).  Dancers themselves don’t always take things so seriously but when we see this scrupulously polished finished product on the stage, we forget that fact as the performers whisk us away into a world of fantasy and splendor.  So I present to you some evidence that ballemedy is alive and well, kicking us in the gut so we double over in laughter:

The first is a piece entitled Le Grand Pas de Deux, with choreography by Christian Spuck (the resident choreographer of the Stuttgart Ballet).  The music is Gioachino Rossini’s overture from his opera La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie).  A fine piece with plenty of furious strings and a flittering piccolo melody that sounds like fun (although I’d rather shoot myself then play piccolo again.  While the piccolo itself is very cute, playing it can feel like trying to squeeze your face through a keyhole).  The overture certainly inspires a comedic air and is often used as such in popular culture, like that video on youtube of cats doing funny things…it should come as no surprise that the overture makes a fine incidence of ballemedy as well.  So Le Grand Pas de Deux debuted in 2000 (to who knows what kind of reviews…and who cares anyway?  It’s a great piece) and has all kinds of giggle-worthy moments.  I love that there’s a cow in a tutu onstage, wonderful little touches of odd looking choreography amongst a dazzling array of classical steps.  It’s one of those pieces that you can’t imagine would ever be boring for the performers.  Especially for such professionals I would think it would even be therapeutic to be able to take to the stage and get a laugh every now and then, amongst the plethora of applause, flowers and even tears.  There are a few performances of this on YouTube, of them I most enjoyed  Julia Krämer and Robert Tewsley of the Stuttgart Ballet:  

Next we have a gala…performance (not quite a piece) with lots of cross-dressing, role reversals and a large hammer.  This came from the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, where principals from top companies all over the world gathered to dance like they never have before.  You have Vladimir Malakhov as Giselle, partnered by Diana Vishneva as Count Albrecht and Malakhov is surprisingly proficient at pointe, a rare talent for a danseur.  Their lifts were absolutely breathtaking and set a new standard for dancers aspiring to perform the principal roles.  Aren’t you glad my last post was about Giselle so you know what I’m talking about?  Moving on, the gala performance included many famous variations like the Bluebird variation from Sleeping Beauty (with a tragic end) but they saved the fireworks for last; Natalia Osipova doing the male variation from The Flames of Paris.  With a giant hammer (of which I couldn’t discern the purpose of such an implement, but if I know Japan, I know they love their giant hammers.  Purpose?  Not necessary.).  The crowd goes nuts when she leaps onto the stage, ascending to heights that earn her own strata in Earth’s atmosphere that is aptly named the Osipovasphere.  I’m amazed that she basically does the male variation in its entirety (with a few interpolations…although I highly doubt she’s incapable of a pas de ciseaux, aka “switch leap”).  Great to see her get to jump in regular ballet shoes instead of pointe shoes as well…that has to be liberating.  Enough talk, now video:

For the last shred of ballemedy I would like to draw your attention to a former ballet dancer, Megan Mullally.  Prior to her days (much prior, actually) as the martini soaked, piccolo-voiced Karen Walker on the NBC sitcom Will and Grace, Mullally was in fact a soloist with the Oklahoma City Ballet when she was in high school, dancing with them for five years and attending summer intensives at the School of American Ballet.  During interviews in promotion of the remake that must not be named (Fame), Mullally recalled her experiences at SAB (housed in the Juilliard building), talking about how strict and disciplined it was and how old Russian ladies would say mean things while wearing sunglasses (“Make plié!” Perhaps?).  It was the acting in ballet that she was most drawn to and actually inspired her to leave ballet and pursue acting as a career instead.  But you know what they say…you can take the dance out of a dancer but you can’t take the dancer out of…mmmkay.  You know what they say.  At any rate, in more recent years she became a fan of SYTYCD and even had the nerve to skip a meeting for her own talk show that was set to premiere, just to attend the finale.  For which, not only did she not have a ticket, she was also busted for snapping photos inside, which they so kindly announced over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, Megan Mullally is in the house and she’s taking pictures illegally.”  She obviously continues to enjoy dance, even if it isn’t the main priority in her life and it’s funny where your past experiences can take you.  We all know the benefits of having experience in dance because it develops internal rhythm and musicality, but whoever thought such talents could be called upon in a situation like this:

Oh Megan.  How I heart you.  My friend Liz said that she hopes Megan was paid a lot for that (a shorter, edited version ahs been hitting the television waves as a commercial), to which I merely replied, “Hell, I’d do that for free!” (and videotaping?  Not necessary).  Clearly, Liz has also forgotten what it’s like to go grocery shopping with me in the first place.

Maurice Béjart’s Bhakti

31 Aug

In my effort to educate myself more about ballet history, here’s one that I’ve been obsessed with for about half a year now…Maurice Béjart’s Bhakti, inspired by the Hindu gods.  I used to think it was kind of strange when people would get obsessed with other cultures and I used to associate it with a dissatisfaction with oneself, but I realized I needed to tone down the judgmental behavior and make a distinction between whackadoodles that wish they were someone they aren’t versus those that simply have a genuine curiosity for learning about something different or an innate ability to identify with something outside the world they grew up in.  After all, I’ve developed a completely harmless interest in India, which began after a tradition I began while studying in Tokyo.  For whatever reason, there’s quite a few Indian restaurants there and after we realized we could get all you can eat naan during the lunch special, I coined a legendary tradition we called “Indian Friday,” where you eat Indian food on Friday.  No special reason…just Friday always put us in a good mood and my friends and I were always done with class around lunch.  So we would hop around to the different Indian restaurants, where the owners and waiters/waitresses were always extremely friendly and I’d kick it back with a mango lassi.  Since then, I’ve even tried to dabble in Indian cooking, but so far all I’ve done is buy a horde of spices I haven’t used, and copied recipes into a notebook while sitting in Barnes and Noble.  One of the naan recipes called for turning on the oven as hot as it will go, which I pictured ending in undesired pyrotechnics.  Not to mention Indian cooking requires some massive skills and knowledge like toasting seeds and “cooking the saffron until it gently unfurls and emits a pungent fragrance.”  The point is, in my perfectly healthy quest to learn more about India, I happened upon Béjart’s Bhakti on the tube.  And the other point is, I’m kind of a fraud, because during my studies in Japan I also befriended an Aussie, and now secretly wish I was Australian.  But you didn’t hear that from me!

Anyway, “Bhak on topic” I absolutely love this ballet.  Béjart’s creativity, vivid coloring and understanding of geometric shapes really captured the opulence and patterning I see in Hindu art.  Obviously, there’s been some controversey that it’s not an authentic portrayal of the Hindu gods or Indian aesthetics, but people who say that don’t get art.  No Indian ballet is ever going to be authentic (La Bayadère?  As if!), so it’s all about his interpretation of an aesthetic and how it inspired him.  I wouldn’t even call Bhakti a fusion piece.  Perhaps the music makes people expect something authentic, but people who view art and especially dance, with a stranglehold on too many expectations are narrow-minded and not very much fun to be around.  So don’t poo on the party, yeah?

To the best of my knowledge (which isn’t saying much), the ballet is never performed in its entirety these days, only the “Shiva pas de deux” is ever put on stage.  There are a few videos on the tube of Shiva, with the most well known contemporary dancers probably being Diana Vishneva  and Igor Kolb.  While I enjoyed Kolb, Vishneva didn’t really do it for me…it’s almost as if her technical prowess hindered her ability to present the dance in its truest form.  It was, quite frankly, too pretty.  Another reason why I didn’t completely jump on the bandwagon with Vishneva is because I had seen Maïna Gielgud, a dancer with the Béjart Ballet, perform the role of Shakti in what I think is the original film version from 1969.  I can’t seem to find any information on the history of Bhakti, and although The Ballet Goer’s Guide has Béjart works, it’s a negatory on this one.  Based on the film version it almost seems like it was intended for film, because of some of the editing that was done, as there are modern (well, modern for 1969) scenes randomly inserted, like escalators, malls, Paolo Bortoluzzi and Hitomi Asakawa…on a date…Hitomi eats some snow…Jorge Donn playing with a Siamese kitty…

Anyway, Gielgud was really invested in the dance, and she may not have Vishneva’s lines but there was a certain believability to her performance that made me prefer her.  Gielgud kind of alluded to how Béjart would even cast dancers with less concern for perfection when she wrote a tribute to him after he died in 2007:

As a dancer, I had the privilege of working with Béjart for four years between 1967 and 1971 — some would say the golden years. Certainly they were intensely creative, and it was at that time that the touring and performing in vast venues was at its peak. There was amazing male talent, from Paolo Bortoluzzi to Jorge Donn. Germinal Casado was still dancing, and my first year, a number of very ‘classical’ dancers were engaged, including Daniel Lommel, Angele Albrecht and myself. We were rather looked down upon by the oldies, as having a long way to go to ‘learn the style.’ Nevertheless this did not seem to stop Maurice from creating a number of roles on us, and we thrived on it.

That’s food for thought and there was something special indeed about Gielgud, and I’m not just talking about her freakishly flexible neck (there’s one part during her solo in Shiva where she slides down into an open split, cambrés backwards, and her chest stays forward but her neck is so arched that her entire face is looking behind her.  It kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies…actually, it REALLY gives me the heebie-jeebies.  But, I can deal.)  I really love her energy and the uninhibited manner in which she danced.  Her performance in the film makes you forget about technique.

Totally random, but another neat moment is in Rama, when Bortoluzzi supports Asakawa while she’s on pointe, turning her leg as she slowly rond de jambs into attitude devant.  It’s very mystical and ethereal, but not in a sylphish sort of way.

So here’s as much of the ballet as I could find…I think part of Krishna is missing, but it’s almost complete.  I really hope Béjart Ballet decides to restage the entire work with a corps and everything.  I’d be down with that.  Enjoy!  It’s trippy, but spiritual and awesome.  Shiva is the last movement, with Germinal Casado as the title role and Gielgud as Shakti, and is by far the highlight of the film.


Rama (with Paolo Bortoluzzi as Rama, Hitomi Asakawa as Sita)

Krishna (Jorge Donn as Krishna, Tania Bari as Radha, Siamese kitty as Cat)

Shiva (Germinal Casado as Shiva, Maïna Gielgud as Shakti)