Tag Archives: enchanted forests

‘Tis the season

25 Dec

Wonderful news leaping ladies and merry gentlemen, by virtue of your most gracious support I’ve made it to the final voting round of the Dance Advantage Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest, in both my category and in the running for overall top blog!  There is no better gift to me this Christmas than the blessings I have received from you the readers, and hope that the love continues in your reading of this blog and perhaps a vote or two in a couple of days…but before that, what is the meaning of Christmas?  Gifts.  I have no religious affiliations therefore the holiday means spending time with loved ones and exchanging gifts for me, and I feel no shame in that.  Believe me when I say I don’t buy into commercialism, but I enjoy bestowing tokens of gratitude on those I care about and letting them know how valuable they are to me.  The phrase “it’s the thought that counts” is no joke.  Meanwhile, thinking funny thoughts, here’s my gift to you, brought to you by my odd, but distinct brand of humor:

Merry Marcelo Christmas! -Steve

With “gifts” in mind, I decided to treat myself to a gift I had bought for myself a few weeks ago, which is the Royal Ballet production of Giselle, starring Alina Cojocaru in the title role and Johan Kobborg as Albrecht.  Having expanded my ballet DVD collection to a substantial three, Giselle was put in queue because of Swan Lake month and I felt today would be a good day for the initial viewing because I feel “the gift” is sort of a theme in the ballet.  The only other Giselle I’ve seen is the American Ballet Theater made-for-film version with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn (read my review), much of which I’ve forgotten because I have the memory of a platypus but having never seen a version on stage, in front of an audience, I was excited to watch this new one as if seeing the ballet for the first time.  It’s a good time to re-familiarize myself with Giselle because Pacific Northwest Ballet will be doing a studio presentation on their production in the first week of January, discussing the Stepanov notation score they used to construct their staging.  I’m not going to lie…I’m worried for PNB because historically, they have not had Romantic era ballets in their repertory and its style is so specific (and anti-Balanchine—let us not forget who coined the term “Gisellitis!”), but they seem to be taking a thoughtful, academic approach.  They have their notation guy, a coach and it’s also nice to see that the company is willing to take a huge risk with Seattle audiences by doing something different.  Besides, Carla Körbes (who I predicted early on would be a Giselle to watch) and the fabulous Carrie Imler will be dancing in the studio preview, which I should also note for the New Yorkers, will be presented at the Guggenheim on January 10th, so mark your calendars!

Anyway, back to the Royal Ballet, their production is staged by Sir Peter Wright, with additional choreography by him, supplementing the typical “Petipa after Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot” meat and potatoes.  After enjoying Wright’s production of Swan Lake, I unsurprisingly enjoyed his Giselle too, in which he seemed to make it relatable to a modern audience.  For example, rather than have Giselle die of a broken heart, she actually stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword.  With society being less imaginative than that of two hundred years ago, it’s a decision that makes sense because the last thing a choreographer wants is for some little anachronism to be that one thing the audience refuses to accept, thus putting a damper on the whole experience.  I found the sets delightfully realistic, albeit rather dark…I know it’s supposed to have a luminous, “enchanted forest” feel, but it could have done with just a little more lighting.   However, I loved that the Myrtha and Wilis entered with chiffon veils to simple bourée steps…the effect is mesmerizingly ghostly.

The reason why I feel this ballet is about gifts should be fairly obvious; in Act I Giselle gives the gift of her heart to Albrecht and in Act II her gift is forgiveness by saving his life.  What is less apparent is the gift of remorse—come again?  In this sense, it is perhaps relevant to bring up that in German, “gift” means poison and Giselle arguably poisons Albrecht with remorse, thus destroying him as we see him throughout the ballet (a rather sleazy, borderline salacious cad) and thus liberating him of his insincerity.  Whether Albrecht lives the rest of his days a wiser man is unknown to us, but I can see Wright’s Giselle as sort of empowering for women—while the suicide is unfortunately melodramatic, it’s a step above death by a broken heart because it puts Giselle in control of her own fate, and then it’s Albrecht’s fate in Act II that she calls the shots on.  Also, we see a formidable villain in Myrtha, though in a way, I actually came to understand her more through Marianela Nuñez’s interpretation of the character.  Throughout her opening solo, I couldn’t help but feel that Nuñez’s Myrtha wasn’t merely a man-hater, but also a woman scorned welcoming Giselle to her sisterhood of Wilis and as a result, not entirely evil.  Nuñez brought a wonderful depth to the character, beyond the icy carapace most dancers of the role will opt for.

Alina Cojocaru’s dancing of Giselle is a gift in itself, and what I love about both her and Johan Kobborg is that neither is perhaps the typical (or expected) ballet body.  Coco is quite tiny, far from the amazons seen in the Russian ranks or Balanchine America and Koko doesn’t have the long limbs seen in the male counterparts (and particularly the French—I swear the dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet must be giants).  However, both Coco and Koko have beautifully trained physiques, wonderful proportions and superior technique, conducive to what is exactly needed for Romantic ballet; she with the lithe torso and he with the barrage of batterie, thanks to his training with the Royal Danish Ballet, which can be considered the last bastion of true Romantic ballet, given their Bournonville tradition.  Don’t get me wrong, many companies can dance Bournonville and Giselle in stunning fashion; when it comes to the Danish, it’s ingrained into their method while other dancers must learn or be coached in the style later in their careers.  At any rate, I even think Alina’s face makes for the perfect Giselle because her facial features seem to lend themselves to a near permanent look of timid worry…

Alina is 3rd from the right...smile, girlfriend! (and yes, Johan is giving Marcelo bunny ears) Photo ©Ilya Kuznetsov

That face, combined with her infinite lightness made for a wonderful partnership, which highlighted Koko’s jumps and acting ability in waves of pure chemistry.  When Myrtha beckons Albrecht to do a series of entrechat six, I literally gasped at Koko’s ballon (translation: height) and superb technique.  Spectacular beats of the legs require more than just fluttering feet, but a rebound—meaning, once the legs beat, the more they can separate in the air before beating again, the loftier the effect.  I felt the whole production was spot on, with the only exception being Martin Harvey’s Hilarion, who was a little over the top for my tastes.  At moments he had some bug-eyed looks (and I’ve had this problem before in watching Ethan Stiefel) which might be less distracting in a live performance, but for me, is a one-way ticket to looking like a lunatic.  I guess it’s my pet peeve in watching ballet, but the crazy eyes never work for me and really just make dancers look insane.  Hilarion is temperamental and maybe even a little chivalrous, but not demented.

Overall, this is a fantastic Giselle, a must for the ballet library and in case you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas, you won’t regret buying this DVD for yourself.  In the meantime, I leave you with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the iconic Act II pas de deux, to entertain your thoughts until your purchase arrives:

Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

What goes around comes around

27 Aug

So I’ve been in a bit of a shlump and was having an uninspired couple of weeks.  The best remedy for this is really to go back to the basics and go with what you know.  What do I know?  Manon.  I mean, I don’t know EVERYTHING about the ballet, but I know that it is by far my favorite full length ballet (keep that in mind kitties, there will be a pop quiz someday…) and I’m familiar with it to a point where I don’t need program notes or anything of the sort.  Instead of the usual goddess Rojo however, this time I got the chance to watch the Royal Ballet production with Jennifer Penney and Sir Anthony Dowell, the latter of which originated the role of Des Grieux.  I’ve actually had this on loan for a while but was saving it for a rainy day (in Seattle?  The very idea…although it did actually rain today and it has been a fairly sunny summer).  In fact, most of the cast in this production (filmed in 1982) were the dancers who originated their respective roles…hot!

I have to say one of the most fascinating things about this recording is that even though it was filmed a good twenty-five years before the Rojo/Acosta version, the performance isn’t dated at all.  Despite changes in approaches to technique and desired body types in ballet, imagining both productions as different casts two nights in a row is completely realistic.  I felt differences in technique and physiques were evident in between the 1984 and 2008 La fille mal gardée recordings, but not so for the Manon performances.  This speaks volumes about Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography—it’s timeless, it’s most definitely a classic and it defies technique.  Obviously it takes a great deal of technique to be able to perform it but when all is said and done the physical act of having bodies dance the choreography reveals so much about characters and story that there’s this rich depth that I’m not sure any other choreographer has ever achieved in story ballets.

Accordingly, the Penney/Dowell interpretation of Manon was vastly different from Rojo/Acosta.  I felt that Penney portrayed a Manon who was very much aware of her ability to manipulate men, as opposed to Rojo who grew to be aware of it but concerned herself more with the internal struggle of wealth versus love.  I never felt that Penney’s Manon was in love with Des Grieux…I found their relationship to be very hunter and prey, like a cat and bird (to see an actualization of this eternal conflict, see Simon’s Cat: Snow Business).  Dowell’s Des Grieux is catlike in so many ways—for his use of plié and he has this charm about him that completely belies his predatory nature.  Acosta’s Des Grieux, like Rojo’s Manon is more about an internal struggle, with his being between the path of virtue and temptation.  This is where things get really nifty, because conflict in the Penney/Dowell performance manifested in their actual relationship as a power struggle between the two characters and not as internal turmoil.  What? I suggest watching these first:

Notice how it’s almost violent in the way Dowell pulled Penney toward him, ten seconds into the first pas de deux, like a cat clawing at a bird?  And how in his luxurious solo he’s like a predator—mesmerizing his prey by trying to lure her and toy with her.  To continue with the house cat metaphor, you see Dowell’s coy, innocent face, his beautifully soft movements and you know his character wants to be a righteous man but without hesitating he gives in to his desire for Manon which is exactly like how the cat that rubs up against your legs and purrs with affection is the same cat that will shred your couch even if s/he knows it’s wrong.  Manon is obviously the bird…a free spirit that is captured (but not loved) by Des Grieux.  However, in the second act there is a shift of momentum and it’s Manon who takes on the role of the hunter and becomes the cat.  It’s in the second act where we see her seductive solo that mirrors the purpose of Des Grieux’s solo in Act I.  She’s bewitching her prey, whether it’s the various men at Madame’s party or Monsieur G.M.  The reason why I felt Penney’s Manon never truly loved Des Grieux is because in her performance of that solo, she blatantly ignores him, symbolizing her ability to captivate whoever she wants.  The jewelry she receives from Monsieur G.M. then become not a symbol of wealth but of her powers of ensnarement.

In Act III, Des Grieux reassumes the role of the hunter, but this time manipulates his prey as if willing it to live again so he can hunt it anew.  By this time, Manon is disgusted by jewelry, as it recalls memories of when she was the hunter and how she suffered from the consequences of those times.  I know I’ve been saying that I never believed Penney/Dowell’s portrayals of the characters to be that of two people in love but that’s the heart-rending aspect of the performance—you want to believe it’s this romantic tryst but you know better and you can see how their relationship is quite dysfunctional.  However, when they get to the concluding swamp pas de deux…it’s like taking an anvil to the soul.  Manon realizes that her only salvation in breaking the cycle of manipulation and lust that she’s trapped in is the very hunter that destroys her while Des Grieux no longer wants to be predator or prey and wants to try to love this girl.  It occurred to me that there are some similarities with La Sylphide here; trying to own a fairy is what will inevitably kill her and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon is almost exactly the same, just told in a more corporeal, sans-supernatural-bells-and-whistles (aka, enchanted forests) story.  As we all know, she dies and let me tell you I have never cried for a ballet before and I was in tears this time around.  It’s such an emotional roller coaster to watch Manon and Des Grieux go through the motions of loving each other only to realize they truly do when it’s too late.

This DVD is a MUST buy.  It is such a treat it was to see Dame Monica Mason dance as Lescaut’s mistress.  She was rather brassy and I loved her bewilderment during the drunken pas de deux with Lescaut.  Just amazing work…and what can you say about Anthony Dowell?  When I watched his performance as Oberon in The Dream, I thought to myself “if I could be reborn as a professional dancer, that’s the role I’d want to do” but having watched him in Manon makes me want to BE reborn as Anthony Dowell.  Better start stocking up on good karma.

In a word…Giselle

29 Jan

I finally watched (a) Giselle in its entirety, with my maiden viewing going to the made for film production with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn by ABT.  I honestly didn’t think I would like Giselle all that much…I was sure it would be quaint, lovely, but more than likely a little too sappy for my tastes.  You know, the kind of mooniness that provoked Balanchine to coin the term “Gisellitis,” and probably want to shake her and say “get a grip, girl!”  I didn’t “get” Giselle, but I also knew that having only seen the pas de deux performed once as well as a few video clips really wasn’t enough to make a good judgment on the ballet (but judge did I want to!).  Turns out I kind of like it…maybe even really like it and despite the ever dreaded enchanted forest scene, I actually added a Giselle to my Amazon wish list (that one being the Royal Ballet of course, with Alina and Johan.  So magnanimous is that pairing one need not even refer to their surnames).

The film version has some great things going for it…among them, Erik Bruhn as Count Albrecht, who has the most beautiful pair of legs I’ve ever seen (man or woman).  It’s one of those moments where you hesitate to use the word perfect because you try to convince yourself that everyone is flawed, but really his legs are perfect…pencil straight in arabesque and always landing in impeccable fifths in his jumps.  He’s the kind of dancer you watch, then think about your own legs, give yourself a moment to sulk while a trombone goes “wah-waaaaaah” and then remind yourself that dance is not about comparing yourself to others and their genetic gifts, but being the dancer you are with the body you have.  Public service announcement aside, it’s worth the watch for him alone and I believe it’s the only full length performance of his ever recorded so it’s a wonderful piece of history.

He partnered Carla Fracci in the title role, who showed a wonderful range of doe-eyed innocence as a young girl in Act I to a forlorn yet forgiving ghostly apparition in Act II.  I always figured it was the dramatic range (along with technical skill and grace) that drew women to want to perform Giselle so much (here’s looking at you Veronique Doisneau) but I wonder if there’s more to it.  Especially considering the fact that on the surface, Giselle would seem to be a…clingy, antifeminist character.  This day in age, if a man pulls a stunt like Count Albrecht and cheats on his fiancée (Berthilde, with Giselle as the “mistress”), both women are expected to dump him because a cheater is still a cheater and is inevitably bad news to the both of them.  However, my interpretation of Giselle was not antifeminist at all.  The fact that she forgives him strikes me as more empowered, with her death only being symbolic.  We can’t look at a romantic era ballet and realistically compare it to a relationship between actual people and yet I see more truth in Giselle than I do in say, the countless pop songs about breakups you hear on the radio.  Maybe this is hopelessly romantic (or sappy) of me, but I think if you really love someone, a part of you always does and that’s why it’s hard to let go of relationships even when people you trust get in your face and tell you to dump his/her ass.  Giselle is the representation of love itself…she doesn’t technically love Albrecht (she didn’t even know who the hell he was!) but she was in love with the idea of being in love and I think her purity is the language of the heart.  She is the “butterflies in your stomach” feeling and because she is love personified, she is the most powerful character in the story…able to stand up to Myrtha, queen of the Wilis and ensure that Albrecht survives Myrtha’s forcing him to dance to death.  She is the heroine even if she dies…but as I said, her death and transformation into a Wili is symbolic.  Love changes when somebody hurts you and you may be able to forget about it someday but it probably never goes away for good.  Which Bruhn probably understood better than anyone, given his relationship with Nureyev…which by the way, HELLO.  I had no idea that ever happened…how behind the times am I?  Bruhn & Nureyev is huge…like bigger than Alina & Johan huge…hell, bigger than Brad & Angelina huge.  This is galactic huge.

At any rate, I didn’t really feel sorry for Bruhn’s Albrecht…not enough Jewish guilt for me to sympathize.  Naturally, I would feel more for a character like James in La Sylphide because he forsakes a relationship he doesn’t want to be in only to accidentally kill the Sylph he pursues…Albrecht knows full well what he’s doing all along, that he’s fooling Giselle into thinking he’s just a villager named Loys and not Count Albrecht, fiancée of Berthilde.  Rather than finding him passionate or romantic I kind of wanted to whack him on the schnoz with a rolled up newspaper (which by the way, I don’t think is very effective for training dogs.  Humans on the other hand…they can be taught).  But I do understand him…if Giselle is the personification of love, we have to remember that love makes us do stupid things.  More than understand, I can forgive him too.

As far as the film itself, there were some interesting moments of cinematography that added another dimension to the ballet, particularly in the second act with having Albrecht dance in the middle of the Wilis in the round (which I think makes them more menacing and enhances the sense that Albrecht is really trapped), with some beautiful aerial shots that would make Busby Berkeley proud.  Also the way the camera focus was blurred for when the Wilis would materialize from in and out of the trees added to the etherealness.  However, I think the editing needed to be edited…as in, there was too much different camera angles and unimportant shots of random animals in the first act or rippling reflections in the second act (like, yeah I got it the first time…but it was quite unnecessary).  There’s even a scene with a hunting part on horseback and they shot it from the horse’s perspective, so the camera is tossed around while the horse gallops and you get lovely images of another horse’s ass getting all jiggy with it in front of you.  I really could have done without that.  But all in all, a good first Giselle experience and I enjoyed Fracci and Bruhn very much.  If you’re impervious to motion sickness and frenetic editing, you may want to give this one a watch.  Whole thing on YouTube, in nine parts:

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

30 Oct

Dear readers, today I have a special treat for you, a review of Othello, as performed by the Joffrey Ballet and written by my friend Hilary with one L (who you may remember hates enchanted forests and she’s the one I went to see Le Corsaire with).  She is also the author of her own blog, The Cupcake Avenger, which includes a great assortment of recipes and reviews of various gourmet bakeries.  So if you ever get the opportunity to see the Joffrey in Chicago, be sure to check out her blog for advice on where to get sumptuous cupcakes.  We all know ballet fans have refined tastes, so accordingly, your run of the mill grocery store cupcake or even the slightly higher end Starbucks variety simply won’t do.  We have more eclectic and often seasonal tastes, like pumpkin or apple spice in the fall.  So be sure to check out her blog for the benefit of your taste buds.  Seriously, she’s doing the work to find these hole-in-the-wall bakeries so take advantage of it.

So onto her review!  (with a few comments here and there from yours truly) *Also, all pictures are copyright of whomever took them.  This is totally educational.

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

The playbill for the Joffrey Ballet tells us that they are “America’s Company of Firsts.”  The first dance company to perform at the White House, the first to appear on television, the first to visit Russia, you get the idea.  However, I would also add that they may be the first to field an Othello with a six-pack. I mean, look at him. Seriously, just look. *drool*

Picture1

Steve says: Approved!

Ok. On to matters of substance.

On my trip to Chicago last weekend I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Joffrey’s presentation of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, which ran through October 25th at the gorgeous Auditorium Theatre.  In another first for the Joffrey, this presentation was the Midwest premiere for Lubovich’s 1997 work. Having already shown on both coasts in New York and San Francisco, it seems appropriate that this incredible piece finally makes its heartland debut in Chicago, Lubovitch’s hometown.  Another first you might notice is that this is a full-length American ballet (possibly the only American commissioned full-length work?  I’ll leave that research to Steve) [I looked into it and couldn’t find any info.  Most American ballets are one act, with the only full-length ones I can think of being A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jewels and I don’t believe either was commissioned.  So I’ll go with “yes” and recklessly deny whatever the truth is]  Anyways, though the piece was a full evening with three acts, it did not feel lengthy in any way and, in fact, I could have watched all night.

What I loved about this work was that, though it re-enacts Shakespeare’s tale of love, lies, jealousy, revenge and murder, it does so not by painstakingly acting out each scene from the play, but rather by creating moving portraits that evoke the raw emotions of the characters.  By leaving much of the backstory relegated to the program notes, it was possible to portray just as much plot as was necessary to frame the beautiful range of emotion.  I also loved the seamless blending of classical and modern; the ornate costuming and regal poses that belie Shakespeare, but also the modern rolled shoulders and flexed ankles that allow us to experience the true depth of the characters’ anger and anguish.  From the very opening scene this juxtaposition of the sumptuous life of warlord Othello and the ominous fog of ever-present foreshadowing snake through every movement. [Tingles!]

I also have to give a shout out to the amazing score by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal [Totally a Jew] and its equally amazing performance by the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Add to this that the Auditorium Theatre was designed by famous Chicago architects Adler & Sullivan in 1889 with an aim to produce the best acoustics in the world. Not too shabby.  Sometimes I take for granted that ballets will be accompanied by a live orchestra (here’s looking at you, Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center…), but until you’ve seen a full-length ballet performed to canned music you may not appreciate how much live music contributes to the atmosphere of the production [TOTES truesies]. For example, in the opening act, although Othello, Desdemona and the townsfolk all seem to be happily enjoying wedding festivities, the ominous tone prevails with Goldenthal’s shrieking oboes and flaring horns telling us that something is amiss with Othello’s right hand man, Iago (no, not a parrot perched on the shoulder of an evil emir named Jafaar [RAAAAWK! Cave of Wonders!]).  And again in act two, while we’re promised a sunny tarantella, Goldenthal keeps with the ominous minor keys and gives us more of a Danse Macabre to guide the company, dancing Thriller-like with arms outstretched and wrists limp. [You know I love a good macabre danse.  Dance.  Whatever]

Picture2

Steve says: Tis the season! Speaking of which, I have like four leftover bags of Kit-Kat bars because like ten trick-or-treaters came to my door (my favorites being a pair of boys, one dressed as a hot dog and the other as a banana). What to do with so much chocolate...

As for the actual movement, the more modern aspects definitely prevailed.  While there was the typical partnering, company and pas de deux work that you would typically expect with a full-length work (but no ghosts or enchanted forests!!) [Huzzah!  Clear skies prevail!] , there were very few of the flashy steps usually associated with classical counterparts, for example only a handful of grand jetés, and no stunning series of 16/32/138 fouettés rond de jambe en tournant.  [Although I’m sure the record is probably around 138, I believe the longest choreographed set of fouettes that I can think of is 96 counts, as opposed to 64 (which equates to 32 fouettes).  The 96/48 fouettes is done in Ricardo Cué’s Snow White that was choreographed on Tamara Rojo.  And because she’s a goddess, she tosses in triples and doubles like it’s no big deal]  There were, however, an inordinate number of fish dives…[It’s still one of my lifelong goals to find someone who can throw me into a fish dive]

Anyways, I have no doubt that the success of this piece was in no small part a result of the amazingly trained company.  Down to every last person on stage it was clear that only impeccable training could result in a performance that conveyed the modern aspects of powerful love, hatred, fear, betrayal and anger while still portraying the restrained, classical atmosphere we would expect from a Renaissance court.  If this production ever tours to your area, don’t think twice.  You can bet that any ballet graphically depicting execution and strangulation must be unique and I cannot recommend this powerful piece highly enough. 

Picture3

Steve says: Okay, so I haven't actually read Othello, and I don't know what's going on here.

 Thank you Hilary with one L for such an awesome review!  You’ve got me interested, and I’ve added the San Francisco ballet DVD featuring Desmond Richardson and Tan Yuan Yuan to my wishlist.  I also checked out some clips on youtube of the main pas de deux, and there’s one of Alessandra Ferri and Marcelo Gomes that is STUNNING.  No words…just goose bumps!

The Bolshoi Ballet! But WWNOD? (What Would Natalia Osipova Do?)

20 Jun

I went with my friend Hilary to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Le Corsaire.  Now before I continue, we both feel cheated (and rightfully so) because we were slated to see Natalia Osipova perform when we purchased our tickets, however (and I’ve mentioned this before) that they changed the principal casting after we bought our tickets.  Yes, I know it’s a fact of life and they always write “casting subject to change,” but indulge me and allow me to be a little bitter about it.  In the end, it’s still Bolshoi, so you know whoever performs is still going to be glorious, and I was excited to see a famous Russian company put on a production for the very first time anyway.  When you’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio almost your entire life, opportunities to see a Russian ballet company virtually never happen, unless you’re the St. Petersburg Ballet and you perform Swan Lake in New Albany (the middle of nowhere) for ONE night, on a Tuesday of all nights (no joke and obviously I didn’t get to go).

As a complete side note, Hilary and I go way back, to high school, where we partook in such activities as band and orchestra together.  I mentioned a nightmare I once had about trying to hold 8 or so flutes in my lap, and because they kept slipping off and falling to the floor I was panicking from dropping them and the orchestra director started yelling at me, except there was nothing I could do.  Turns out she still has nightmares about playing the oboe too, so I’m not entirely crazy.  Seeing (and hearing, duh) the pit orchestra for the ballet made us nostalgic and yearn for our art.  But I digress.

Medora was danced by Yekaterina Shipulina, who was lovely overall (beautiful pencheé), although I was a little disappointed that in the coda she did regular fouettes instead of throwing in some doubles (or if you’re Katherine Healy, throwing anything from a quadruple up to seven pirouettes) for a little variety.  It made me think, what would Natalia Osipova do?  I’ll tell you what she’d do…she’d do pirouettes a la seconde and throw in some doubles before doing 16 counts of regular fouettes.  Normally pirouettes a la seconde are a bravura move for the men, but I’m sure Natalia does them just to prove she can.  After all, if she can do double tours and leap her heart out into the rafters like the men, there’s no reason not to.  Interestingly enough, youtube videos of her performing the Le Corsaire pas de deux/variation/coda have her doing the Gamzatti variation from Le Bayadere instead of the “true” Medora variation, probably to showcase her leaps (like her beastly huge saut de chat) since the latter (also being what the Bolshoi uses) is mostly a series of turns (including the heinously evil en dedans turns a la seconde).

You can compare Bolshoi principals Nikolay Tsiskaridze and Maria Alexandrova’s coda (which is basically what I saw, except even Maria threw in some doubles!) to excerpts of Natalia Osipova’s variation she performed at a festival for yourself. 

And embedding is disabled for Natalia’s video (which for the record I don’t get in general why people don’t like to have their videos on youtube embedded…but, at least it’s out there for us to enjoy anyway), so you’ll have to put in the extra strenuous amounts of effort to click on this link:

Now that I think about it though, even if I didn’t get to see Natalia, perhaps there’s a chance the Bolshoi wouldn’t have let her do the Gamzatti variation or a la seconde turns anyway, just for artistic purposes or authenticity.  Which for the record, I appreciated the Bolshoi’s integrity in really producing Le Corsaire as a story of Mediterranean pirates, and not all “Pirates of the Caribbean meets Aladdin,” which ABT kind of did.  The Bolshoi actually had Conrad perform the “Slave Ali” variation, meaning no nekkid torso with shiny blue pants that is typically seen in other productions as a pas a trois with Conrad and Medora or as a single variation in ballet competitions.  So thumbs up Bolshoi!  There’s nothing really wrong with having the slave Ali as a separate role with shiny blue pants per se…after all, that’s what Rudolf Nureyev did, but there was a certain integrity to the Bolshoi production that I really enjoyed.

On the topic of that variation, tonight’s Conrad was danced by Alexander Volchkov.  I don’t know if it was an off night for him, but he wasn’t exactly the most gifted turner.  Both times in the variation and coda he kind of zonked out on finishing his turns…the first of which just didn’t quite finish cleanly and the second which was supposed to be an en dehors attitude turn that never really came to fruition (although I sympathize, because en dehors en attitude is pure evil).  He is however, a gifted jumper and got some major airtime.  In all the variations I’ve seen on youtube and the recordings I have on my ipod, I have never heard the orchestra slow down that much, so you know he can fly.  He has good feet too, which isn’t exactly easy to show in character boots.

Some lovely moments with the corps, although Hilary has a thing against them.  Most of the good stuff happens in the first act, and the second (and third if applicable) typically involves a lengthy scene showing the corps, and as she put it “ghosts and/or enchanted forests” (I told her Giselle would probably drive her nuts then).  To her, those corps scenes could be done with less people and in less time.  And the garden scene in Bolshoi’s production was quite long.  At one point there were around fifty people on the stage waving wreaths around and when the melody repeated I too wondered if it was going to ever end.  It was during this scene where disaster almost struck though as Medora danced around a set of four wreaths beneath her, she stepped on them twice in a series of furious turns and the second time was about an inch away from doing a pique right onto the wreath which could have sent her spiraling to her doom.  There were some audible gasps in the audience, but she was unphased.  Hilary joked that if she was a true diva she’d be yelling at the corps members backstage for misplacing the wreaths. Ha! Oh to be a fly man backstage…

All in all, a wonderful performance, with excellent dancing, beautiful sets, ridiculously ornate costumes, and a GREAT venue.  The John F. Kennedy Center in DC is just gorgeous, with these crystallized starry light fixtures that I am somehow going to have to figure out how to get some of my own.  Just outside of the theater some of Suzanne Farrell’s original costumes (I didn’t get to see them up close, but I’m pretty sure one of them was the tutu from “Diamonds” in Jewels) were on display as well.

I have so much more I could say, but tired I be for now.  But what a wonderful feeling to be tired from a day filled with ballet at its finest!

Oh and because this doesn’t fit anywhere else, one of the variations included gargoulliades!  Sha-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh!!!