Tag Archives: ethan stiefel

I Dreamed a Dream

2 Jul

So I just bought my subscription to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2010-2011 season, opting for a mini-subscription which means I get to choose four of the six shows I want to see.  Jigga-what?  Surprised I’m not going to see them all?  I’m not.  For one thing, Cinderella is running the exact same time San Francisco Ballet will be doing Symphonic Variations and quite frankly, I have priorities.  The other show I chose to omit was A Midsummer Night’s Dream mostly for two reasons…the first being that I’m a little wary of Shakespeare and the second being it’s hard for me to accept Balanchine’s version knowing Ashton’s The Dream is out there too.  I can always purchase additional tickets later so I may end up seeing it anyway but I’m a bit skeptical.  I thought of watching the recording of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is actually the PNB production but ironically the Seattle Public Library doesn’t have it.  Of ALL the libraries in the world, Seattle Public Library doesn’t have PNB’s Dream.  Of course the Balanchine version isn’t available on YouTube and after the virtual bitchslap the Balanchine Trust sent me for posting excerpts of Balanchine choreography, I’m not really all that enthusiastic to seek it out.  Thus, I find myself deterred and unmotivated to see it live.  Mission accomplished Balanchine Trust…mission accomplished.  Besides, from what I gather, the Balanchine production has children in it, which is an automatic check in the minus column.

Anyway, I’m all about the Ashton love.  In fact, I might just make July Ashton month.  I have all kinds of reading material, from a tiny pocket-sized book entitled Façade to a couple of epic tomes on Ashton ballets.  Façade was a quick read…a mini-book of about a hundred pages so really it’s hardly more than a pamphlet but it covers many of Sir Fred’s earliest works and traces his lineage, from studying under Marie Rambert, influences from Ninette de Valois, Sergei Diaghilev, Bronislava Nijinska and even a little Balanchine.  I also noticed in one of the original cast lists that Antony Tudor danced for Ashton…which I find fascinating for reasons that I’m sure will make more sense in the years to come.  Façade doesn’t discuss The Dream because it was published in the fifties but it was interesting to get a glimpse at Sir Fred’s history.  He was quite young when he began as a choreographer in his twenties and of his earliest ballets only Façade and Capriol Suite survive (which is tragic for obvious reasons but even more so when I read that some of the lost works include a wealth of Greco-Roman themed ballets like Mars and Venus, Leda and the Swan and Pomona).  It was fascinating to read snippets of reviews from that period though which echo exactly how I feel today, like the genius of his patterns or his sense of comedy (except those reviewers used words like truquage).  I always feel “comfortable” with Ashton choreography and maybe it’s because I can relate to him in some ways (a late starter in ballet with a slight build) and the more I learn about him the more the addiction consumes me.

So back to The Dream, Shakespeare-aversion aside, I decided to watch it and who better to learn from than Anthony Dowell, who originated the role?  Here’s a fun fact for you…the ballet debuted April 2nd, 1964 and twenty years later I would be born!  Another twenty years later in 2004 ABT would record their own version for DVD.  So what happens in 2024?  Your guess is as good as mine…but because it is a shorter ballet I decided to make an afternoon of it, watch the Dowell and Merle Park performance, then the master class with Dowell/Antoinette Sibley and Ashton himself, then watch the ABT version with Ethan Stiefel/Alessandra Ferri.  I won’t nitpick every difference and I think ABT did a fine production but it has to be said that the Royal Ballet performance is definitely my preferred of the two for many reasons.  Under the assumption that the general populace is familiar with the story and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m going to skip the synopsis and get right to the point (if you don’t know at least the basics of Dream, you seriously need to read more.  Sheesh!).  First, I love that Ashton did a Victorian interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and ABT kind of watered down the costumes and hair (Hermia and Helena being the most noticeable) to a more modern aesthetic.  Second, the lover’s quarrel between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius is one of the funniest choreographed scenes in the history of ballet including a moment where Lysander and Demetrius are fighting over Helena, who slips away from the both of them and they accidentally kiss.  ABT changed it to a mere hug, which is so very American of them and dulls the humor quite a bit.  I hate to say that I find it a little shady in a homophobic kind of way…but maybe it’s for the benefit of an uptight American audience and my sense of humor is perhaps more in line with the British.  My aesthetic certainly is, as the Royal Ballet prefers a straighter line through the wrist and the ABT corps likes to flourish with the hands a lot, which came across as a little too floppy for me.  To quote Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the phrase “Hands!  Hands in new places!” comes to mind.

As for the lead dancers, there was kind of a split—few ballerinas can tell a story like Alessandra Ferri, and who better to be the “Ferri Queen” (ha…ha…oh) Titania?  Ferri is magnificent and her partner Stiefel as Oberon is in all likelihood the cleanest dancer on Earth.  Unfortunately, Stiefel’s acting was a little off for me…he does a lot of wide eyed, crazy expressions that make his Oberon look a little loony.  You can’t take away from his technical brilliance and classical line but the characterization wasn’t my favorite.  To me, Oberon is immature, arrogant and a little abusive, but not crazy.  Enter Anthony Dowell, who has a sort of brazen, chafed look that really makes you believe he is displeased with Titania’s defiance.  Merle Park is sweet and impish, like a sassy little butterfly but what I preferred in Ferri was an ability to combine that delight with a sense of regality.  Titania doesn’t defy Oberon simply because they’re married, but because she is quite used to being royalty in her own right.  Meanwhile, the Pucks of both productions were enjoyable though, with Herman Cornejo literally flying about the forest and the Royal Ballet dancer (who I can’t identify unfortunately) being much more of a ham.

Ashton’s choreography is of course perfect and wonderfully unbiased.  He has the same love for transitional steps as he does the big flashy bravura ones with more attention towards overall effect rather than making a singular impression.  Choreographing Oberon on Dowell as he did, he took full advantage of his line and plié, giving Oberon many arabesques when the typical choreographer will give a male role maybe a step into an arabesque to start a variation or maybe a turn in that position.  Meanwhile, Ashton makes the arabesque a motif for Oberon, putting in arabesques in demi-plié, tipping over in a penchée (a move usually reserved for women), tour sauté (a series of little hops that turn in place) as well as working in and out of the position.  Para example, Ashton has Oberon do this heinously beastly series of different pirouettes, all of which have to end in a little penchée which is insanely hard given the quiet, sustained notes from the music…the effect can easily be ruined.  I had a teacher who once gave us similar exercises in class and contrary to what your brain may tell you, you have to be pretty aggressive when diving forward because hesitation won’t get you to where you need to be.  It really is as simple as getting from Point A to Point B, but ballet is kind of ridiculous.

For music aficionados, The Dream has an AMAZING score my Felix Mendelssohn (as if there were another!).  Mendelssohn has been kind of underrated in the ballet world, with this probably being the most prominent work with his name attached to it.  Ashton uses a John Lanchberry orchestration of the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote that was inspired by the play.  It fits the mood so perfectly and kindled images of fireflies in dusky forests for me, which I sorely miss for you see, there are no fireflies west of the Rocky Mountains…I don’t get how Seattle people know when summer has arrived without fireflies!  Although given the weather as of late I’d say summer is still not here yet…it can’t be…but I digress.  I think the Mendelssohn score is one of the finest I’ve heard in ballet…although I’m holding out for something spectacular to his violin concerto.  Anyone up for the challenge?

I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I’ve fallen in love with The Dream (oh Ashton, you cad, you!) and that I can say I love a Shakespearean ballet.  It’s definitely up there in my top ten.  So do partake and pick your poison below (Royal Ballet or ABT as well as the master class with Sir Fred):

The Royal Ballet’s The Dream in six parts:

American Ballet Theater’s The Dream in six parts:

Titania and Oberon’s pas de deux master class in five parts:

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Born to be NOT wild

19 Feb

How are you, world?  Good?  I don’t know about you, but it has been a long winter (for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  Spring is finally showing signs of life with the slightest rise in temperatures and more sun these days.  So right now I’m feeling like people could use a little encouragement, which I often find from one of my idols, Coach Valorie Kondos-Field (aka “Miss Val”) the head coach of UCLA’s women’s gymnastics programs.  I admire her for many reasons, including the fact that she was a professional dancer and yet she finds herself in a somewhat unrelated career field.  It’s a testament that you never know where your skills and knowledge can be valuable and that people don’t have to be defined by one career.  I think she has a wonderful outlook on life and on teaching and I thought I’d share a couple of quotes from a recently published interview where she discusses women’s issues but also touches on her experiences as a dancer and coach. (read the full interview here)

CC!: You were diagnosed with scoliosis when you were 12. That’s a challenging age for girls without that added burden. How did you get through that troubling time?

Kondos Field: I danced classical ballet for 17 years. I didn’t have a dancer’s body, including the curve in my upper spine. However, I loved dancing so much that I never felt I had to be technically perfect to be a good dancer. My scoliosis was just a part of my body.

I’d also been told by ballet instructors that “Your neck’s too short,” “Your feet are too small,” “You don’t have natural turn-out,” and “You’re not flexible.” Okay… but I could dance! Because I didn’t let those disabilities bother me, I believed – and made everyone else believe – I was an amazing dancer.

CC!: What advice would you give other teacher-coaches to inspire and motivate young women to become the best they can be?

Kondos Field: Always recognize her weakness and then tell her the opposite. When I was growing up, I was the artistic one and my brother was the great student. He went on to become a rocket scientist. Literally. When I was 10, my mom told me I was just as smart as my brother, but I just didn’t care about school as much because I’d rather be playing the piano or dancing. I’ll never forget when she told me that. It hit me – I’m smart? Mom says I’m smart? I guess I am smart. From then on, I got good grades and graduated from UCLA with honors. My brother’s still a rocket scientist, and I’m still smart.

So when a student-athlete is struggling academically, I tell her she’s smart but just needs to learn how to study more effectively. When a student-athlete is struggling with her weight, I tell her she’s beautiful and can become anything she wants to be. If a student-athlete doesn’t compete well, I remind her that she has a very strong mind – so strong that she allows it to get in her way negatively. If she would take that same strength and think positively, she’d have different results.

I discuss this a lot with them: Your perception becomes your reality. When my perception shifted to realizing I was smart, I became a better student. When I danced, my perception was that I was an amazingly beautiful ballerina. Consequently, I got cast in many wonderful roles.

Agreed and agreed!  Nothing much else to say, except I hope that inspires some other people out there to keep chipping away at their weaknesses or maybe compliment someone out there (a student, friend, whatever) who is struggling.

But this really has little to do what I had planned for this entry, so I’m about to ambush you with a DVD review.  Surprise!

I’ve been distracted with the Olympics (hence the infrequent blogging, not to mention an overabundance of posts last week…I needed a little break) but yesterday I did squeeze in watching Born to be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theater.  A PBS special that was originally broadcast in 2002, it features ABT principals Ethan Stiefel, Vladimir Malakhov, Jose Manuel Carreño and Angel Corella.  I put off watching this DVD for a while because honestly, judging by the title I was prepared to be horrified.  Displays of machismo always fail to impress me and often make the subject of such a display look foolish, in my opinion.  Not to mention the fact that Born to be Wild recalls heinous sixth grade band concerts and marching band tunes that I did not care for.  My fears were somewhat actualized when the documentary opened with Ethan Stiefel, with a creature growing on his lower lip (a “soul patch?”), a bandana tied around his head, talking about how the best part of being a ballet dancer was getting to manhandle beautiful women.  I’m pretty sure (and hope to Billy Elliot) that the comment was tongue-in-cheek (he seemed to be getting a good laugh out of it), but I couldn’t help but feel the urge to “facepalm” and think “well that was two steps back for mankind.”

Once you get past that little calamity, it’s actually a really neat (albeit brief, less than an hour) documentary.  All four dancers come from different countries with different training backgrounds so it’s interesting to see all of that in action.  You get to see old competition footage, performance clips and rehearsal video for a piece entitled Non Troppo choreographed by Mark Morris, which is shown in full at the very end.  The documentary was anything but wild, which leads me to believe that the title given to it might very well be the worst title in the history of documentary title bestowing.  I don’t know who thought it would be some kind of effective marketing ploy, but really, such elegant and virtuosic dancing, insightful interviews, footage in the makeup chairs and a whimsical Mark Morris piece to a Schumann piano quintet aren’t going to convince the general populace that ballet is wild.  The only remotely wild element was the fact that Stiefel rides a motorcycle.  And maybe the part when the men were jumping on a trampoline and striking incredible aerial poses for a photo shoot.  I’m all for unconventional definitions of terms like “wild” and there are certainly wild ballets and dancers but this was not the way to do it.  Marketing FAIL.

My favorite profiles were on Corella and Malakhov, because of course I think they had the funniest anecdotes to tell, like how Corella found ballet because he wasn’t good at soccer and at karate some kid had kicked another one in the mouth so there was blood and screaming.  Or how one dance he performed, a Russian dance, included things he couldn’t do now (probably the move where he lands in a center split), not to mention Madrid is such a beautiful city.  Malakhov is far different, with the typical tragic Russian (Ukrainian) story of having to leave his family and also having to deal with politics that kept him out of the Bolshoi Ballet, which he decided on his own he didn’t want to be in anyway.  Through it all, he has a healthy sense of humor, a decidedly human appetite for junk food and of all the men, the loudest wardrobe.  You have to love that he’s daring with color in his dancewear.  While the other men are in black clothes, Malakhov doesn’t shy away from full body red or purple ensembles.  And why shouldn’t he?  He looks great in those colors!

Non Troppo rehearsals are interspersed throughout and Morris himself is quite an entertaining choreographer.  It was just fun to watch his process and see a choreographer who doesn’t take himself too seriously and yet he creates this beautiful work that is incredibly musical.  I love that he always carries the mini-score of the music he’s using (I love mini-scores…cute and useful) and his understanding of the music itself shows in the details of the choreography.  He’ll repeat certain phrases but change them the second time around to reflect differences in the dynamics of the music.  It’s capricious and very satisfying to watch.  It’s organized (again, anything but wild) and while there is no specific narrative there are moments of sensitivity like holding hands or the way they support each other in arabesque and spin their partners ’round in a promenade.  There is of course a “cross leaping” moment, which is signature Mark Morris, where dancers will leap downstage on diagonals crossing in front of each other.  Susan Hadley, a professor with OSU danced for Mark Morris and I remember when she choreographed a piece for BalletMet a few years ago, she too, had a cross leaping moment.  A good idea is a good idea.

While most parts of the documentary are indeed on YouTube, I definitely recommend a viewing of Non Troppo.  It’s seven and a half minutes that are entirely worth your time and you can really see the individual styles of each dancer.  Malakhov in particular (who you can easily identify because he’s the puma in the red shirt that is all limbs) tosses his head back in a way that is so distinctly Russian…you gotta love it.

Salute to Center Stage

4 Jul

I like to celebrate the glorious 4th of Jew-lai by watching a certain little movie called…CENTER STAGE!  Some people do barbecues, fireworks, pie…I do the dance movie du jour for us easily pleased ballet freaks and geeks (although I do like pie).  It just so happens that there’s a brief clip where Ethan Stiefel and Julie Kent perform the Fifth Campaign/Coda from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.  Even though it’s less than 3 minutes of the movie, making the patriotic connection a loosey goosey one, I consider it festive enough for me.  I’d post a clip of the coda, but the Balanchine Trust is really touchy about his material being on youtube, so too bad.  What I can say about the coda is that it’s typical Balanchine, using a Hershy Kay arrangement of John Phillip Sousa’s Manhattan Beach March, complete with pizzazz and those horribly awkward entrechat huit with flexed feet.  It’s an addicting little diddy too…even though as a former piccolo player, I have post-traumatic Sousa disorder, leaving me prone to the vapors whenever I hear his signature work.

As for Center Stage in its entirety, what a deliciously good and awful-in-a-good-way movie.  One of the best things about Center Stage is that it has mostly real dancers and a lot of quality dancing.  You have a few ABT dancers in Stiefel, Kent and also Sascha Radetsky (aka Charlie from Seattle).  Also Amanda Schull in the lead role of Jodie Sawyer, who danced with San Francisco Ballet.  Not to mention many well accomplished dancers in the background (I’m sure there are aficionados who would recognize many of them, and I don’t know enough about the upper echelon of ballet to know who’s who, although I do recognize the face of one guy who was in NYCB’s video dance revival of Jerome Robbins “Opus Jazz,” which I had researched a little for a project).  It’s a real treat to see them perform as well as in various stages of technique class.  Although not a completely accurate portrayal of the ballet world, it’s fun to indulge in the exaggerated ridiculousness.  It’s like a ballet soap opera…the movie.

How can anyone not like badass Eva Rodriguez, who in the real world would have been kicked out for her thorny attitude and mouthing off to the teachers, only to totally venga the smack.down. when prima bitcherina Maureen gave her the role that Eva somehow managed to do without rehearsals, not to mention changing into her costume and going backstage without anyone noticing (and technically Eva was in the corps for Jonathan’s ballet, so who replaced her?).  Oh the blatant logistical errors (of which there are many, many, more)…but that’s Hollywood for you.  They actually did a fairly decent job with the stunt doubles though, including Eva’s, the lovely Aesha Ash.  Zoe Saldana had some background in dance too, so it was fairly seamless.

And then there’s Charlie from Seattle…everyone loves Charlie from Seattle.  The girls love him, and the boys either want to be him, or like Eric O. Jones, love him too.  Incidentally, the scene where they’re all washing the studio mirrors as punishment for getting drunk the night before, Charlie from Seattle is wearing a shirt I recognize only because I used to own it myself.  Navy blue, long sleeves with 2 stripes down them and a little thingie across the middle near the elbow.  That garment hails from Old Navy, but does not make you dance like Charlie from Seattle.  And didn’t we all love the machismo face off he had with Cooper Nielson during the choreography phase of Cooper’s ballet?  Although, if you’ll notice during the actual pas de trois at the end, instead of matching Cooper’s double tour-double pirouette-double tour-double tour-double tour in passé, Charlie from Seattle only did a double tour-single pirouette-double tour-double tour in passé.  But Cooper acts surprised anyway and we’re not supposed to know the difference.  Remember, I have a freakish eye for detail.

And of course, how can we forget little Bambi herself, Jodie Sawyer. The bottom line is, aren’t we all, a Jodie Sawyer?  That’s probably what makes the movie so enjoyable for dancers, as it’s easy to relate to not being perfect and just trying to find your niche in the world instead of pursuing a dream with unrealistic expectations.  She wasn’t all that bad of an actress either…in fact, I found her quite believable.  Incidentally, she will be appearing in a new ballet-related movie called “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a film adaptation of Li Cunxin’s autobiography.  She plays his first wife, who was a dancer so it should be interesting to see how she looks and dances now (albeit a few years removed from retiring from SFB) compared to 9 years ago.

Some A+ music choices too…like Lucien’s variation from Paquita (which incidentally, a friend of mine once told me is the worst ballet ever…haha) and the mazurka from Coppelia in the technique classes, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no.2 for Jonathan’s ballet, and a medley of awesomeness including MJ’s The Way You Make Me Feel (aww, MJ) and Jamiro Quai’s “Just Dance.”  And saving the best for last, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of “Higher Ground” from the jazzzzzzzz classssss!  Definitely my favorite scene, for a number of reasons…like that crazy flexible guy who has this ridiculous look on his face when they’re doing battements on the floor, or Cooper Nielson’s slow mo temps ciseux (cause that’s how it happens in real life, yeah?), and it’s just a fun dance to a great song (I even taught most of it to myself just from watching the video).

I have to say though, that the absolute best part of the dance is Ethan Stiefel’s “angry face” that he makes all throughout.  It makes me think of that Mr. Potato Head scene from Toy Story where he says “Prepare to meet Mr. ANGRY EYES!”

Ethan Stiefel's Angry Eyes

Ethan Stiefel’s Angry Eyes

Watch the video:

“Look, just forget about the steps…just dance the shit out of iiiiiit.”

Best. Line. Ever.

Is Center Stage intelligent?  No.  But it’s probably the best dance movie for pure entertainment (any mention of the Step Up sand I’ll scream).  And whatever you do, do NOT, watch the sequel.  It’s a vastly inferior.  I’m still kind of mad at myself for watching it, and that was a few months ago.  And I didn’t pay to watch it either.

Stick with the original, have a seat and watch…and quote half the movie because I know you can.

PS. I’ve figured out the widgets thingie on WordPress, so hopefully my blog is a little more reader-friendly.  Happy 4th everyone!