Tag Archives: felix mendelssohn

PNB presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…surprise! I went.

10 Apr

So I did the unthinkable…I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coincidentally, exactly one week after the anniversary of The Dream’s premiere and my birthday.  My fellow Ashtonians may be shocked, but not to worry—my dedication to The Dream hasn’t wavered, despite some new perspective on Balanchine’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  For starters, I’ve only seen the DVD of La Scala’s production, and we all know that a live performance is an entirely different experience.  Inevitably, as a balletomane I had to give the live version a chance and make an honest effort at being open-minded.  It helped immensely that my two favorite dancers with the company, Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes, danced the principal roles of Oberon and Titania (my “dream” cast, pun intended).  It was also something of a special occasion as this run of Midsummer serves as a means to an end for a few principal dancers who will officially retire at the end of the season.  It’s almost eerily poetic in a way, to use Midsummer as a farewell given the plot itself and how it’s all about returning to reality after a whirlwind fantasy, which is very much what a ballet career can be like.  Or so I assume.

It made for quite the occasion, as three of the dancers that are retiring (Olivier Wevers, Ariana Lallone, and Jeffrey Stanton) all performed major roles and the audience was quite sentimental about it, really embracing “their dancers” (to the point where some of the things they were applauding were a little ridiculous!  The saut de chat is a beast, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every single one is extraordinary!).  Though they all danced incredibly well, it was one of those moments where you realize the best dancing transcends technique by virtue of that mystifying relationship between performer and audience.  In fact, I was jealous!  Ballet was not a part of my life until adulthood and I haven’t lived in proximity to a large ballet company long enough to establish that kind of sentimentality.  Even though I found it odd that the applause was so generous, it was also endearing in how pure it was; the audience was just enjoying the whole moment, not caring whether something fell under good or brilliant, or whether they even liked the ballet or not.  Moments like these really are far too few, and things to be cherished.

That being said, Balanchine’s Midsummer still makes no sense to me.  There were also times where I felt that Balanchine really just didn’t use the music well, and I’ve concluded that for much of it, he stuck too literally to the story, which doesn’t work without the dialogue.  However, some things were much better this time around, like PNB’s set designs, which are absolutely stunning.  La Scala’s sets pale in comparison, resorting to very plain backdrops, whereas PNB frames the stage with huge painted roses, a glistening spider web, trees, and other elements that add to the fantasy (the giant painted frog I could have done without…but, okay).  As for Act II, the triple wedding of Hippolyta/Theseus, Helena/Demetrius, and Hermia/Lysander, it is of course still out of place, as Balanchine basically crammed the entire story of Midsummer into the first act, and decided to incur some kind of temporal anomaly to make for a lengthy wedding scene.  Artistically I find this an odd decision because it devotes a lot of emphasis to the wedding, which has very little significance in the play, however, the sets again made a huge difference; with garlands, columns, and a starry sky, the atmosphere was far more romantic.

If I think of Act II as a completely different ballet, like a Symphony in C, I have a much easier time accepting it.  Regardless, the PNB dancers really delivered a beautiful performance with the Divertissement Pas de Deux and their entourage pas de six (six couples that is, so twelve dancers).  Though the Divertissement Pas de Deux has absolutely nothing to do with the story, it is quite possibly, one of the most beautiful pas de deux Balanchine ever choreographed (and no, my dedication to the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux has not wavered either…but this one is definitely up there).  Last night’s performance featured Wevers and Kaori Nakamura (her return to the stage after going on maternity leave), who have known each other for many years not just at PNB but also the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (where they also danced with Alexei Ratmansky by the way).  The chemistry was a wonderful balance of genuine love and trust, perfectly matched to some of the subtlest choreography I’ve ever seen by Balanchine.  The brightness of the stage was toned down from a starry sky to a crescent moon, and the quiet strings provided an utterly utopian nocturne (for my fellow music geeks, it’s an interpolation of the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings no. 9 in C Major).  It’s the epitome of serenity and tranquility, in many ways serving as the perfect farewell for Wevers and Stanton (who is partnering Körbes), as night falls on their stage careers.  In a word, it was unforgettable, and I feel so lucky to have been in the audience for it.

Meanwhile, I don’t have to sing the praises of Carla Körbes’s Titania, because you already know I’m going to tell you she’s flawless.  The lovely port de bras, her beauty, her expressiveness…she just has a special glow.  Lucien Postlewaite is also amazing as Oberon, being in my humble opinion one of the most well-rounded dancers with the company and having a gummy bear plié.  Seriously, he lands so softly it’s not fair…though he took a little spill during his Act I solo, which is an absolutely wicked display of bravura steps.  Maybe he gets really nervous if I’m watching…or maybe the truth is they’ve been having issues with the floor, as the tape is apparently very slippery.  Isn’t it ironic how one of the few spots where he had to land in a tight fifth position, which, if you think about it, is a spot so small it’s a decimal percentage of the stage, also happened to be covered with slippery tape?  It’s like a stilt walker slipping on an olive…but he wasn’t the only one, because another dancer took a spill in the same spot, which was less noticeable because it was Lysander getting flung around by Puck during one of the confusion scenes.  May you never look at a dancer falling the same way again!  Here’s a video too where you can get some glimpses at the aforementioned wicked solo (and the giant frog):

Speaking of Puck, Jonathon Porretta was brilliant and absolutely hysterical (overall PNB “got” the humor in performance much better than La Scala did on film).  What was also funny was the woman behind me, who I think had a Russian accent and said “oh, Jonathon Porretta, I love HIM.”  Especially with the accent, how fabulous is that?!  I wish I could have heard more, but then she started speaking to her friend in Russian and alas, I could no longer understand.  She was also far less enthusiastic about Postlewaite, and I wanted to turn around and be all “oh no you didn’t!” but then I realized I would have looked like a crazy person.  Although, like I always say, we’re an eclectic bunch up in that balcony—who else would manage to give himself a paper cut on the program during intermission, and ask one of the bartenders for a napkin to stop the bleeding?  Right…that was me, and beside the point.  Despite being an Ashton junkie, I really did enjoy myself and hey, Wevers himself told me that he danced The Dream at Winnipeg, and liked it better so even in my darkest hour (which wasn’t that dark) Sir Fred smiles upon us.

Advertisements

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: