Tag Archives: fraggle rock

The Right Time for Ragtime and Never the Wrong Time

28 Feb

I had a “moment”—I could have sworn I wrote an entry about Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, and the reality is I have not.  I know I watched it maybe a week or so ago, but apparently managed to be so scatterbrained that I convinced myself of a purported entry’s existence.  Those who laud the power of the mind and mental imagery aren’t joking around…how many times have you woken up from a dream utterly confused as to how your hotel room in New York happens to look like your bedroom, and once you realize it is indeed your own bed, how you got from New York to Seattle so quickly?  Needless to say, rational thinking and good judgment have never been my strengths first thing in the morning.  If there’s ever a time to make an attempt at pulling the wool over my eyes (a feat that has a dismal success rate mind you) it’s in the wee morning hours…or rather, all morning hours.

The reason why I wanted to do a write up of Elite Syncopations is not unlike the reason MacMillan himself wanted to choreograph it.  Every now and then, every person needs a good laugh and despite the psychological depth of MacMillan’s ballets, he has this one odd bauble in Elite Syncopations.  Obviously, I adore humor in ballet and just because comedy doesn’t make us cry it doesn’t mean it’s any less moving than a tragedy.  Who’s to say that tears are more valuable than laughter?  In the same way we dissect the ways in which artists interpret emotional distress and heartbreak, I am equally (well, probably more) interested in the various ways choreographers have expressed humor in their dances.  I tend to think Ashton was the mastermind of comedy, but his work is funny in ways vastly different from MacMillan’s. Jiří Kylián is also quite the humorist and like MacMillan, even Martha Graham decided to engage her funny bone for one piece, mocking her own dance technique in her Maple Leaf Rag, a favorite of mine.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Graham and MacMillan turned to ragtime music by Scott Joplin…there’s something so infectiously cheery about a good rag that it’s virtually impossible to not tap your feet.  Sure, The Entertainer is the bane of every piano player’s existence in addition to being the perennial serenade of choice for ice cream trucks around the United States (though thankfully, not in Seattle, where we have the fabulous locally owned Molly Moon’s trucks and their truck exclusive ice cream sandwiches!), Joplin’s music never fails to put a smile on my face or put a bounce in my step.  One of the neat things about Elite Syncopations too is that it’s the type of piece that any audience member will have an easy time appreciating not just because of its comical nature but also because a lot of the music will sound familiar.  Even if audiences can’t name the rags MacMillan used (well, I got about half of them) the familiarity is a great way to establish connections between musicians, dancers and audience.  That relationship is strengthened by the fact that the ragtime band is actually visible on stage the entire time and the whole thing just screams comfort and approachability.  Too often I’ve heard people who have never experienced ballet say that they’re afraid that they “wouldn’t get it,” and I even used to be one of those people but with Elite Syncopations you get to throw all that nonsense out the window.

The costumes for Syncopations are out of this world.  I think they are best described as outfits Fraggles would wear to a dinner party in Wonderland (if you have to Google “fraggle,” I feel sorry for you…unless you’re not from the US and your country didn’t air Fraggle Rock, in which case it’s not your fault).  What I’m about to describe is going to sound like a nonsensical train wreck, but somehow the assemblage of checkered patterns, pinstripes, graphic designs, and even stars on the tucchus, in an explosion of both primary and neon colors you think would clash but manages to work for this piece.  What should be utterly offensive to the eyes is surprisingly not and as a spectator you get to a point where it doesn’t even occur to you how ridiculous the costumes are.  Designer Ian Spurling incorporates stylistic elements and some accessories from a number of vintage eras and the effect is at times dizzying (which I’m sure is intentional).  For example, there are two men’s costumes are fairly similar, with a pinstripe design except one is plain pinstripe and the other has additional bands around the knees that break the lines and you almost lose your sense of equilibrium.  I highly suggest a visit to The Ballet Bag’s post on the costumes of Elite Syncopations, for more detailed information.

What’s fascinating is that this piece could easily go the road of being too over the top, but somehow MacMillan manages to downplay the startling visual effects by finding subtleties in the choreography.  As silly as the characters are and as jolly as ragtime can be, the music is actually rather soothing and I think MacMillan made sure to emphasize that.  There’s a naturalness to it that evokes images of a pianist playing rags in the studio and ballet dancers (in what little free time they have) hamming it up and goofing around.  They use steps and vocabulary they know, like pirouettes and extensions but will throw in an off-kilter, bizarre looking move or do something that would make Petipa roll in his grave, just for the heck of it.  It’s the closest I think I’ve seen of ballet dancers literally playing and I know MacMillan just wanted to get some laughs but the amazing thing is he really succeeds in showing a different side of dancers with this piece, in a colorful, but tasteful manner.  It seems that even in something psychedelically silly, MacMillan still managed to capture the human spirit and show you people you know in your personal lives.

I have to say that in this performance (now available on DVD), Valeri Hristov turns in a most enjoyably smarmy performance (he appears as the first male solo, his unitard pained with a blue and white striped shirt, white vest, black and white striped pants with bands around the knees and a beige top hat) but the entire cast dances it exceptionally well so if you’re feeling blue like I was, find a giant cookie and sit yourself down to this pick me up:

“Dance your cares away…worries for another day”

12 Aug

Last night I tried to stay up so I could watch the Perseid meteor shower, and was watching reruns of The Nanny to help me stay awake, but I’m feeble and old so of course I fell asleep anyway to Fran Drescher’s soothing caramel voice.  Unfortunately, I fell asleep sitting on the couch so this morning in ballet my hip flexors were tighter than a Sansha devil shoe.  So not only did I not get to see the meteors, I also struggled through ballet because I felt like I couldn’t even stand up on my legs.  Massive lose-lose for the home team.

About class, sometimes Karen will repeat a petite allegro from the previous class, since it’s good to have time to let things gel in your head even if you don’t actually do it in between classes.  However, Magelas only shows up sporadically for class and somehow manages to always comes in on the second day of the allegro, and gets a thrown into a “ballotté-ballotté-coupé-ballonné-glissade-brisé-glissade-jeté battu-pas de bourée-changement-glissade-jeté battu-coupé-assemblé-assemblé” with only a quick mark and a prayer.  I kind of imagine classes in New York to be something like that, except approximately three thousand times scarier, wall to wall with highly skilled people who know what they’re doing and have freakishly good short term memories.  It’s actually one of my long term goals to go to New York and drop in for a class, which should probably start with actually going to New York someday.  I was even born in Kingston and when I tell people I was born in New York they assume city instead of the state which inflates my ego a little and makes me feel closer to the American epicenter of dance, but the truth is I haven’t been since I was an infant and I’d probably have a hard time getting through a class without wanting to scamper into a corner and hide.  Meanwhile, I was silently laughing at Magelas in her befuddled state (we’re friends, it’s ok!), which meant that I promptly screwed up when it was my turn to go.  Karma always bites back and I never learn…

She divided the class for petite allegro into a faster tempo and a slower tempo, just based on whoever wanted to do what, and I picked faster but messed up so I did the slower tempo too.  We repeated the petite allegro, so I figured it would be good cardio too to just keep going.  This is quite the shock considering I never do any form of cardio (running hurts my hips and I’m like a cat and despise being submerged, thanks to years of misery as a competitive swimmer.  After twelve years you’d think I’d let it go, but I was also the kind of child that was TRAUMATIZED by The Goonies and an episode of Fraggle Rock where there were these cocoon thingies that hatched and made me cry hysterically).  I was a wee bit winded, but felt good about it.  It ended up being a huge mistake though, because for whatever reason, she had us do the grande allegro three times.  So I ended up doing petite x 4 and grande x 3, and my legs liquefied and are currently in some kind of gelatinous state.  At one point during the grande I just forgot what was happening and didn’t even do the assemblé and did a pas de chat (which was earlier in the combination), when midair I remembered what it was supposed to be, and so I improvised and tacked on an assemblé-ish creature, which didn’t come to fruition because I almost ran into the wall.  I turned around and made eye contact with Karen, who kind of made a face and pointed to her brain.

But I was a helpful little imp today when she was demonstrating a pique into attitude, moving the leg through passé and doing a tombé onto it, while staying on relevé.  She asked if she could borrow my shoulder and I was happy to oblige.  I’m sure the class would have erupted into chaos had I not been there to save the day.  That was during a waltzy combo that included an arabesque turn, which normally I have some issues with but I almost survived today.  It was one of those things where we did it across the floor and the first time they went really well (much to my surprise), were ok the second time and by the third time they completely deteriorated (and yes, we did that combination three times too…rough seas).  People often say you should stop while you’re ahead, but we don’t seem to get that option in dance.  I really psych myself out way too much.

Lately I’ve been really concentrating on trying to get my shoulders to stay relaxed but it’s really affecting my port de bras.  It’s almost as if I have to relearn them again, so I can figure out how to initiate movement from my back instead of just from the extremities, and I have good days.  However, it is making my fingers do funky things and my hands are weird enough as it is.  You see, besides my lower back, the only other part of my body that’s pretty flexible are my middle and ring fingers.  They’re actually hyper extended which allows me to bend just the top joint.  But isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?  Of all the joints to have natural flexibility, all I get are two fingers.  Like I couldn’t have prettier ankles or a nicer line through the knees, I had to get fingers.  And just the two, because my other fingers and wrists aren’t flexible at all (like those crazy people who can bend their thumbs backwards and touch their wrists…creepy)

The point is, my legs are so sore right now it’s actually borderline not funny.  At all.  Or is it?