Tag Archives: frederick ashton

Master Class with Herman Cornejo

24 Sep

Indianapolis is a city in a rather unique situation—the Indianapolis City Ballet is actually trying to establish a regional classical ballet company, which contradicts certain images we harbor of dance companies struggling, making cuts, or folding altogether. In this world where the arts are constantly under attack there seem to be more forces that destroy rather than create, and yet here in the Midwest, a little seed is trying to take root in a land often depicted as far more agricultural than cultured (P.S. Stop that.). And yet it’s here that people are trying—so much so that even non-dancer friends of mine in Indy have taken notice of ICB’s efforts to make their presence known at arts festivals and such. ICB has founded a school, is now looking to develop an audience and I find the prospects exciting—I mean, how often are ballet companies created? It’s like watching the birth of a volcanic island…an obscure but rarefied phenomenon that really begs us to take notice and appreciate the magnitude of what is happening, and just like how a volcanic island can eventually blossom into a tropical paradise, a newly formed ballet company can proliferate into something incredible.

Part of ICB’s efforts include an annual gala that invites internationally acclaimed ballet stars from all over the world, as well as master classes with some of those dancers and other well known teachers. This year, one of the classes was with Herman Cornejo, Argentine dynamo and principal extraordinaire with American Ballet Theatre. Ever since my first pilgrimage to New York in 2012, I’ve seen Herman dance in many roles—and I was never disappointed. In fact, he’s one of the few dancers who have ever exceeded my expectations. I knew him to be great (duh, you don’t get to be a principal with ABT if you aren’t), but watching him live was an experience that can’t be conveyed within the confines of a YouTube screen (though his performance as Puck in the DVD of Ashton’s The Dream comes pretty close to capturing his spirit and it’s well known to be one of his best roles). When I saw him on the list of guest teachers, I figured it’s only a three-hour drive—I’ve done a lot worse—and I like dancers who can do Ashton justice so I figured why not take his class? Okay, and maaaybe, I wanted to make my friend Robin, who’s obsessed with him a little jealous. Or CRAZY jealous…you’ll have to ask her (even though she’s already taken a master class with him in New York, so…we’re even? I don’t know.).

So I signed up, knowing that I’d be the only adult to participate, and the kiddies didn’t disappoint—there were plenty of younglings half my age and less, stretching like rubberbands while I massaged the hell out of my legs after the morning drive. I took a barre spot near the corner, wearing more layers to get warm in all of my senior citizenship glory, slightly horrified by some of the drastic oversplits some of them were doing. When Herman entered the room, he took a few minutes to mark exercises out, which of course set my intellectual gears into motion because while I didn’t have flexible tendons, my brain has always been my asset as a dancer, and I would of course, evaluate what I thought of him as a teacher. Let’s be real, his physique is beautiful for ballet—great line through the legs and feet, nice broad shoulders with good posture. So the question remained—could he teach? The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches and the best dancers not always the best teachers, and I’ve been wary in the past of great dancers who were unable to prove themselves as great pedagogues, so my critical thinking cap was on.

He began with a short warm up facing the barre and went right to tendus in first—at which point I panicked because I thought “where are the pliés?! I need pliés!!!” but those came right after and everything was okay. Actually, everything was great—aside from the slippery floor, which often causes my right calf to have a mind of its own and instinctively develop a charley horse (which I remedied with Tiger Balm, again showing my age as a dancer), Herman gives a comprehensive barre, with nothing crazy, and really stresses correct alignment with square shoulders and hips. “Nothing changes” he would often say, whether you move from fifth to retiré or do a fondu to relevé a la seconde—nothing changes. It reminded me a bit of the Maggie Black philosophies that were filtered down to me through students of hers, to keep the body in neutral alignment and keep things simple. Furthermore, I really appreciated that he respects individual bodies…it would be easy for someone with his physical attributes to say “turn out more, rotate more, stretch more” etc., but he never asked for “more”; he said things like “find your own balance,” which he later explained as important because we all have different things we need to learn to work with—different turnout, leg length, feet, toes, etc. A prime example would be his own feet, which have a superb arch, but he actually trains a super high relevé that goes past the metatarsals because of a freak accident that completely broke his big toe and never healed properly. So bonus points for emphasizing the idea of working with what you have in a way that can be both correct and pain free (and kudos for overcoming that adversity!)

Image

Herman Cornejo (American Ballet Theatre) with his freakish relevé and Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) at the Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado
Photo © 2012 Erin Baiano

After a brief adagio (something I find to be symptomatic amongst male teachers…not that I mind a short adage), he went through the typical assortment of pirouettes and allegro combinations, all of which were phrased well and quite Romantic, borrowing a few steps from the classical repertory. The first of his petit allegroS (yes, more than one, which gets more bonus points in my book), had a bit of Giselle and Albrecht’s first little romp (which one of my teachers once called “the most notorious 6/8 in the history of ballet), and the second had a bit of James’s first variation from La Sylphide (that wicked brisé volé-ballonné battu-jeté battu thing—I swear, some of the kids went cross-eyed trying to figure that one out, but I loved it). I was having such a great time until grand allegro, which started with my favorite step (the cabriole, the double of which is Herman’s favorite step, but I like mine singular), but then went into double tours of imminent death for the boys. Here’s the thing—I started ballet when I was 23, so I never really properly learned tours en l’air; I can count the number of times on one hand that I ever had teachers give them. They’re simple in theory—jump straight up, spin around two times, land with your feet together, but there’s something about it that my body is so terrified of that I can’t commit to it. Even my singles are wonky because I’m so scared I just want to bail every time, so I settled for doing the preparation into a simple passé relevé and closing in fifth. Kids don’t have this fear—the boys all went for it, but when you’re an adult and you’re not comfortable with a step, it’s okay to say “not yet”—which is far better to do than continue having nightmares about breaking your ankles. Although, I do have to say that Herman pointed out that in the preparation I wasn’t assembling onto two legs, so maybe that’s something I can start with. We’ll see…

Anyway, the class overall was great and for the first master class I’ve ever taken, a hell of a lot of fun. I would’ve preferred repeating the center exercises because we only did them once each (and class still went a little over time!), because Herman gives these great concepts and corrections to think about, like making jumps dynamic and negotiating alignment, but there’s no chance to try it again and really focus on something differently (then again, sometimes I forget that not everyone is the machine that I am). All in all, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in Indy; I went in wanting to learn something new, dance cleanly and artistically, and I feel I did just that. Honestly, most of those kids had no épaulement, so in some ways, I think my maturity showed in a good way. I could’ve been embarrassed about being 29 amongst a bunch of youths and adolescents, but I chose to see it as something great, that this art form can bridge across generations and bring different people with different backgrounds together for a common purpose. And really, I was like the poster child of minority affairs—I was one of only two non-white dancers, by far the oldest, definitely the worst feet, and considering that I’ve only been dancing for about six years, among those with less time in ballet. But I was proud to represent a different kind of dancer and I hope that any other adults reading this get the message that anything—even a master class with one of the best dancers in the world—is possible, and if ballet is something you enjoy, just do it. Nobody laughed at me to my face and dancers like Herman are exemplary in generosity because he just wants to share the information and his knowledge without judgment, so there’s really nothing to be afraid of (until you get to double tours—that’s legitimate fear right there).

Meanwhile, Indianapolis City Ballet did an interview with Herman after class and they typically post those videos so I’d keep an eye out on their website (http://indianapoliscityballet.org), where you can also click on ‘Media Gallery’ to see interviews with previous guest teachers. I mean, if you want to know the secret to double cabrioles or find out why he likes dancing with Iana Salenko…darn it, I guess you’ll have to wait and keep checking their site for updates.

cornejo

Proof this actually happened. Photo © Me

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ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

So I helped myself to the buffet of talent that is American Ballet Theatre for a second helping of the mixed repertory program. I wondered if perhaps another viewing might change my mind on Mark Morris’s Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes, and it didn’t. My first impressions are generally stubborn, but not entirely unforgiving—I thought Joseph Gorak’s performance in one of the leading roles was some of the most beautiful dancing I’ve ever seen. Critics don’t like to toss around the word “perfection” but in this alabaster reverie he ascends to something beyond flawless. The unwavering control of his pirouettes, generously presenting his leg forward and then to the side commanded the audience’s attention in a way rarely seen by mere technically impressive dancing—it’s the way his affluent technique serves his artistry that makes it so spellbinding to watch him. New Yorkers have been talking about Gorak for a few years now and he’s also made a name for himself as a winner of the Erik Bruhn Prize, and I generally try to avoid hype but this time everything that’s being said about him is true. I even remember watching ABT in rehearsal for Swan Lake last year and noticing him, upon which I turned to my friend Robin and asked: “Who is that?!” Just stunningly gorgeous and it’s going to be really exciting to see where his career takes him.

I suppose what I do take away from watching Drink is that you a dancer’s quality of movement can really catch the eye. Two of my teachers who also attended opening night (and also in town specifically for A Month in the Country—I’m not crazy, THANK you) noticed the same dancer for his beautiful legs and soft landings and by process of elimination we’ve deduced that the dancer in question is Thomas Forster. With a softer, lyrical choreographic tone, it’s the men in particular who really get to shine in Drink because we don’t often get to see these qualities encouraged in male dancing—if only the same could be said for women in stronger, airborne roles but I digress. The point is, it’s quite easy to find Drink intriguing simply by letting the eye wander and fall upon whatever it happens to see, but I maintain that without a more definitive overall concept, it’s just not dissimilar enough from other Morris dances. And call me crazy but I really don’t like arbitrarily titled work. It’s not that a title has to beat you over the head with symbolism or explicit details, but there is a point when a title is so abstruse it doesn’t connect the content to the observer. It’s a pet peeve of mine because I don’t find it clever or deep to alienate an audience before something even begins.

Meanwhile, I thought I loved Julie Kent in Month, but everything changed when I saw Hee Seo in the same role. Her partnership with David Hallberg has been blossoming and they were breathtaking together here. It’s been one of the definite highlights of MET season for me thus far and the pas de deux between Natalia and Belaiev, when they first gave in to indulging their feelings for one other, had me on the verge of tears. We know what to expect with Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet but this was an entirely different heartache and layered with much more complex emotions that are incredibly relatable. This was really my first time seeing Seo (a late starter by the way, at age twelve!) in a true blue principal role, and I had no idea how amazing she is as a dramatic ballerina. She had the facial expression of a spoiled, indulgent aristocrat both flirtatious and austere, but her suffering in the blasé felt so real to me that I couldn’t help but feel sorrow and sympathy for her. Hallberg proved to be a vivacious Belaiev, and it’s no secret that comparisons have often been drawn between him and Sir Anthony Dowell, the role’s originator, famous for seamless transition from one movement to another and ludicrously long lines. Together, they’re magical and I think this will go down—albeit quietly—as one of the most outstanding performances this season. I can’t stress enough that with one performance remaining, it’s not to be missed. It’s a shame because I don’t know that a revival would be in the cards anytime soon because I’m not convinced Month received as much attention as it should have, but ABT boasts other ballerinas that I think would be fascinating in the role of Natalia Petrovna. Initially, I said Vishneva, but one of my teachers mentioned Gillian Murphy—who dances Ashton VERY well—and I concurred that Murphy would be fabulous. Veronika Part would be a compelling choice and even Stella Abrera, who was perhaps the most engaging actress of all in the first night’s cast as the maid Katia could be equally provocative.

Coincidentally, Abrera performed the opening lead in Symphony in C, and she was a radiant beauty who exhibited patience and grace in every step, though never behind the music and nicely partnered by Eric Tamm. Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes descended from the heavens for the second movement, though I actually found myself missing Veronika Part’s soulful rendition of the adagio while Semionova was a little perfunctory; she’s a technical phenom but sometimes appears as though she’s checking off a list of shapes and lines she has to create and it didn’t strike me as poetic as Part, who dances Symphony in C like a ghostly queen, the world around her fading in and out of reality. The third movement starred the jumping wunderkinds Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the male half of the pair being one I especially adore for his unconventional physique, having a stockier build with the most muscular legs known to ballet and he certainly knows how to use them. There’s always been more diversity in body type amongst male dancers than female, but it’s both necessary and exciting to see anyone who breaks the mold and dances within his/her own body. Lastly, the fourth movement was its usual, exciting, grand finale self, led by Sarah Lane and Sascha Radetsky with great vigor and lovely smiles.

Okay, so the fourth movement was still a hair slow to me—but let me explain. Georges Bizet briefly uses a rhythm of two eighth notes, a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, which equals…Answer: a galop, which you may not necessarily know by name but it’s a rhythmic structure used a lot in ballet just like mazurka, polonaise, waltz, tarantella, etc. There are galops in Coppélia, Sylvia, Giselle…so if all the popular girls have them why not Symphony in C? I doubt Bizet used a galop rhythm intentionally, but it does occur during the men’s first entrance when they perform a series of sissonnes and I do think it conjures images of chivalrous knights on the backs of mighty steeds leaping through the air. The thing about galops too is that they are often comically fast, and when the fourth movement is really taken at a blistering speed it drastically changes its temperament to something much more gallant, a quality that dies with a slower tempo. If you want to go nuts, I’d recommend finding a recording with Jean Martinon conducting because musically, he gives it the life I think it deserves. However, realistically, a Martinon tempo isn’t possible, but the closer a company can get to galop-ing, the better. ABT isn’t actually too far off with what I’ve been hearing, and each performance of Symphony in C is looking more and more crystalline. The matinee performance even enjoyed a surprise second curtain call so they’re dancing it well and don’t let my musical preferences ruin it for you. You really should be seeing Seo/Hallberg on Thursday night anyway.

ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

Mighty Metamorphin’ Choreographers

3 Dec

The other day I found myself enjoying a nice cup of tea and this article at the Wall Street Journal about Alexei Ratmansky, like you do. The article is a great read, but what’s this? A certain nugget leapt out at me like a ferocious goblin and STABBED—like mortally wounded—me right in the heart.

“Balanchine was a genius. Ashton, maybe, was close.”

GAH!!! To his credit, Ratmansky went on to say that he loves Ashton, but the damage was already done, and my psyche fell to the floor, bleeding a slow and agonizing death. Obviously, I disagree with Ratmansky’s assessment and of course I’m not the only one—luckily, a restorative elixir of life remained close, as I’ve never forgotten the following words I read in an interview with Baryshnikov: “Ashton’s not a lesser choreographer than Balanchine. Ashton’s a warmer choreographer—his skin is warmer, warmer as a person. I miss him.”

Post-resurrection, I began to consider the reverence of Balanchine and its effects on this generation’s dancers, choreographers, and even the audience. Balanchine was all the rage in Jennifer Homans’s book Apollo’s Angels, and he has throughout history been recognized for revolutionizing ballet. He is a wonderfully prolific figure and I don’t need to delve into his legacy because it’s so frequently discussed. However, I can’t seem to come to terms with such stringent standards for what defines a genius. I found Ratmansky’s words to be surprisingly rigid, and it made me wonder if he sees himself as a choreographer or a genius; but then that raises questions as to whether anyone who is genius truly seems themselves as such, because if someone is born with a certain aptitude, they only know their own point of view…so wouldn’t his/her self-image seem entirely normal in reflection? Ratmansky is rather humble anyway, and like most artists I’m certain he just wants to create, actualize his visions, and be proud of the results.

I’m not letting go of this “Balanchine-on-a-pedestal” business though. It’s not as though he doesn’t belong there, I just don’t think he should be alone, nor do I think it impossible for new choreographers to join him. I have a tendency to accept the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies and if idolatry of Balanchine goes too far, then no choreographer will ever surpass him because they’re indoctrinated with the belief that they can’t, which is indeed the fatal error. Actually, I should rephrase that because surpass is the wrong word—it’s not necessary to “surpass” Balanchine—the idea is to create in ways he didn’t, knowing that he couldn’t. “Compare and contrast” is a dangerous thing to do because it can be such a double-edged sword; one must be able to assess oneself relative to others without getting overwhelmed with competitiveness. Don’t get me wrong—there is a wealth of Balanchine ballets that I absolutely adore, but even a love of his work on a deeply personal level warrants some analysis. For example, I have no problem with admitting that Balanchine’s batterie is not the most interesting part of his work to me, but the batterie in ballets of Bournonville and even Ashton never fail to throw me into a stupor of fascination. If only I could bottle the essence of Bournonville’s ability to create such intricate sequences…I’d contaminate everyone’s drinking water, after taking a healthy swig or two myself.

Meanwhile, I also find it curious that some of Balanchine’s ballets that have not survived the test of time are rarely discussed. A few years ago I was doing a little research on his Metamorphoses, as it was created to Paul Hindemith’s ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis,’ a piece of music that I love to bits and pieces. Unfortunately, my research revealed two things: one, that the ballet has never been revived after Tanaquil LeClercq (upon whom it was made), was stricken with polio, and two, that the description and photos of it revealed a ballet that didn’t fit what I had imagined. Balanchine interpreted the music as a fantasy on insect life, which was perhaps too literal, though I don’t object to the idea as there are trills and such which can conjure images of swarms of fluttering insects. At any rate, the full title of Hindemith’s score is actually ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,’ and it’s that musical transformation that remains the central idea for me, as opposed to a biological metamorphosis. Having played ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis’ as a part of a wind symphony, I suppose I had experienced the music as quite grand in scope, beyond something terrestrial like the livelihood of insects—the music itself is far too menacing. The last movement (and by far my favorite) is epic—it’s the kind of music that raises your heart rate and can have the audience leaping out of there seats by the end, and yet Balanchine had the dancers fitted with giant feathered wings, and according to LeClercq, there was “lots of running around with poses [and] not much dancing.” It just doesn’t seem right and from photos the wings looked cumbersome and to a modern eye, rather dated.

Reviews generally noted the exhilarating spectacle of Metamorphosis and seemed to like Karinska’s bizarre costumes for it, but there is a possibility that Metamorphosis offered nothing profound. A vehicle for LeClercq yes, but a masterpiece? Impossible for me to say, and the number of people who have seen it is only dwindling. Still, I can’t help but feel that even if Metamorphosis were to be revived, the reality may very well be that it wouldn’t resonate with the audiences of today for any other reason than nostalgia for something Balanchine and an appetite for something different of his. To update it now would be something of a revisionist history anyway, and the ballet itself almost sounds a bit loony—a madhouse of strange costumes, Chinese/Balinese inspired movements, metal springs, and even a pas de deux between a dragonfly and a beetle, where the beetle partners the dragonfly entirely on his knees merely because Balanchine wondered if it was possible, and challenged himself to do it. As the remnants of Balanchine’s Metamorphoses gather dust on shelves, would choreographers today challenge themselves to take on the score he once used, with a belief that they could succeed with it, or more importantly, do—dare I use this ever precarious word—better? And is it audacious to think it possible, or is it a necessary human characteristic? And how does the human tendency to blur the lines between ego and belief play a factor?

Tanaquil LeClercq in 'Metamorphoses' (if the Beetle is the original cast, that would be Todd Bolender). Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

Tanaquil LeClercq in ‘Metamorphoses’ (her partner might be Todd Bolender) Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

I have no idea, but what I do know is that to live a life in fear (or perhaps in this case, inferiority) is a folly. Especially in ballet—we’re all about fine lines and balance so surely a healthy and honest harmony between the awe of others can be woven with a cherishment of oneself. Although it’s never guaranteed, every great achievement begins with a seed of belief. And so does every…uh…“less-than-stellar” one. After all, even the choreographer of “the Chicken Dance” can claim an immortality that Balanchine can’t, even if I’d rather have Serenade danced at my wedding.

“Carlarella”

30 Sep

Today I attended the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Kent Stowell’s Cinderella. Yes, I know what you’re thinking—“Steve! You avoid Prokofiev like the plague!” and that I typically do, but times are a-changing and there are things about Sergei Prokofiev that are beginning to win me over (more on this latest development for another day!). Also, if Carla Körbes is the star of the show, then it’s impossible to be disappointed. However, the unfortunate truth is that I think Stowell’s choreography and staging are quite problematic—and not just because of the Ashton trump card up my sleeve. The program notes made mention of how Stowell wanted to make a departure from the comic tragedy, opting for a more romantic interpretation, because the former and its derivatives “boast more theatrical variety than narrative or emotional cohesiveness.” Okay, so I’m a little irked by the ding at Ashton, but I’m on board for a different perspective, and I was intrigued by this production’s intention to highlight the contrast between Cinderella’s experiences in reality and her dream world. In fact, from the outset, it sounded like the kind of psychoanalysis that would blend really well with the peculiarity of Prokofiev’s melodies.

That’s not what I got. There were a lot of discrepancies between what the program notes said, and how I felt about what was presented. First of all, Stowell opted to do some compositional surgery and added other selections by Prokofiev into the score, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I don’t even listen to Prokofiev on a regular basis and wasn’t familiar with the added music at all, and the discontinuity was still pretty obvious, which never bodes well for the narrative. The main problem though, was that the choreography didn’t really match with the music or say anything about the characters. Prokofiev’s score is rich like dark chocolate, and ever so slightly bittersweet, but the choreography didn’t highlight the subtleties and was quite often “louder” than the music, either in the step itself, or as a matter of being overdone, with too many steps. This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to choreography, especially in narrative ballets—it’s not just a matter of sequencing steps together on the downbeat of the music. A ginglyform mytacism sabrages a knismesis of jentacular witzelsucht if a dompteuse estrapades its callipygian cagamosis. You can’t just string words together and assume you’re communicating a message just because a sentence is grammatically correct; likewise, the art of narrative choreography must have some kind of method beyond counting steps to the time signature of the music in order to progress the story. It’s hard because there are more literary devices to make a story interesting than there are choreographic ones, but there has to be some minimum amount of attention paid in order to avoid a haphazard-looking result. Although one of the motifs Stowell does give was too blatant—a dozen kids in pumpkin costumes encircling Cinderella, jumping on each beat to represent her midnight curfew, which is later repeated at the ball when twelve couples do the same, albeit in a prettier lift. Rather than being a novel idea, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the obvious, which happens to be my other pet peeve.

[The final pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. Some pretty moments and danced with a lot of heart, but I can’t help but feel that it’s…overcooked. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the pas they’re showered with glitter! (dancers are principal Rachel Foster, and former principal Lucien Postlewaite)]

 

Misuse of the score aside, rather than do something different, I found Stowell’s Cinderella to be somewhat derivative of Ashton’s after all (and just made me miss Ashton more!). The structure was relatively the same, with two comic stepsisters, fairy godmother, four seasons soloists, jester, one-dimensional prince…you know, the standard assortment. Some of the insertions into the plot include triple casting the role of the fairy godmother, as Cinderella’s mother in flashback sequences, as well as a masked fairy at the ball, performing a divertissement. The idea was to emphasize Cinderella reminiscing about her past and the likeness between her mother and the fairy (though they are not one and the same), but what does this really contribute to the story? It would be one thing if the fairy godmother WAS in fact her deceased mother, but as a godmother that looks like her? It doesn’t make sense! Cinderella’s father also plays a bigger role, showering Cinderella with affection, but then not really acting on her behalf until the final act, when he actually espies Cinderella dancing with the glass slipper, stands up to the stepmother and stepsisters, and later on presents the slipper to the prince. This, for me, was an egregious error—we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for her father, because when he is truly preoccupied with the dastardly dames, Cinderella’s isolation is highlighted, thus giving significance to her dream of falling in love with the handsome prince. Trust me, I’m an escapist (aka, professional daydreamer) and I dig the libretto for Cinderella, but that’s why her desolation is so crucial; the emotional impact of living her fantasies becomes much more effective.

I was hoping for something darker and moodier, and was practically blinded by the second act when the entire corps de ballet came out in BRIGHT red costumes. Even from my nosebleed seat in the second tier, this was hard to look at. Not to mention the fact that the stepmother was dressed in maroon, and the stepsisters in orange and coral, there was a lot of clashing in the overall color scheme. The costuming was otherwise gorgeous, although some of the theatrical changes lacked drama. Using Ashton as a reference point, he handled Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches by actually having her change offstage during a divertissement and then reappearing fully dressed in her coach, but Stowell has the fairies simply put a cloak over her shmata-dress and send her off, appearing in her ball gown at the beginning of the next act. In Ashton, when the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella runs offstage and a double in her ragged frock runs through the scene (facing away from the audience), while Stowell has her run into the coach, which then rolls away. From a theatre perspective (and speaking as someone who had to stand backstage for high school plays like a human coat rack, with unzipped costumes draped over my limbs and safety pins in my mouth for emergencies), the effect was lackluster.

Still, I did think the entire cast was wonderful, and Carla is truly in a league of her own. I could go on and on about everything I love about her, but she has such a gift to make her performance look natural. Her character is believable because it seems so real, and the fact that she has flawless technique helps to make her the superstar she is. I’d imagine she’d be a choreographer’s dream to work with because they may ask her to do certain things, but she surely isn’t the type of dancer you’d have to wrestle it out of—one need simply ask, and she’ll just do it, and make it her own. Her Cinderella had generosity and warmth, and the way she floated through her pirouettes was absolutely heavenly. Karel Cruz, as her prince, was a quiet nobleman but no less chivalrous, and really, bravo to the entire cast for a marvelous performance. I have to say that one of my favorites, Margaret Mullin, was exceptional as Autumn—what makes her so special is the way she uses her upper body and head, which was on full display in a commanding variation where she just ate up the stage with her presence. Even when dancing in unison with the full corps you see that detailing when she does simple waltz steps and it really is a treat, so watch that space (and face).

Suffice to say, I enjoyed standout performances by PNB dancers and really the whole cast lived up to their reputation as a world-class company. A full length story ballet is a behemoth, and the amount of work, rehearsal, and effort that goes into putting on the show was all there—I just wish Cinderella could have suited them better and really showed off their finest qualities, rather than a pastiche of clichés.

Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina

12 Sep

Photo ©Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau (I think!)

When I reviewed Paris Opera Ballet’s La Source for SeattleDances, I initially left the theater wondering what the heck I was going to write about, and subsequently found myself exceeding the word limit by quite a bit. Somehow I have even more to say, though I think I covered enough of what I thought about La Source in my review. Still, I can’t rave enough about how much I love Jean-Guillaume Bart’s choreography—the musicality and details are exceptional, and inevitably, I began to think about Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, who are heralded as this generation’s torchbearers of classicism. I’ve seen handfuls of ballets by both, both on film and with my own eyes and while I do admire both choreographers greatly, I have to be honest—Bart’s La Source, which is essentially his debut as a choreographer (I’ve read that previous pieces were only for students), was a home run, and impressed me in ways that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon did the first time I saw any of their ballets. The opening scene of La Source, featuring a band of swift elves and awakening nymphs, had me completely drawn in—from the unusual set, to the delicious allegro for the elves, with shades of Bournonville and Ashton, but still very much in Bart’s unique voice.

Opening scene of La Source, featuring Matthias Heyman as the green elf, Zaël:

I was sold on Zaël from the get-go (not to mention that gargantuan pas de chat he does as he enters!), as the character also provides some comic relief a la Puck and is just generally delightful. Petit allegro served as the motif for the elves throughout, and Bart’s sequences are so creative, miraculous, and charming—using a number of my absolute favorite steps—that when they’re paired with the elegance of French schooling, they achieve divinity. It’s quite interesting that Bart is able to downplay virtuosity without hiding it, such that the most difficult movements can look so natural and so fitting in a certain phrase. In the above clip, one of the subtleties I loved was the series Zaël does beginning at 4:10, where the first jump is a cabriole where the rebound is delayed. I remember seeing French dancers do this before—finding fifth position in air and holding that shape before opening the legs and the effect is stunning. I don’t know if the French have a specific term for it, but they certainly make a distinction between a cabriole with an immediate rebound (which they also perform at 5:17) and this delayed cabriole (or perhaps hybrid “assemblé-pas de poisson” for the pedants out there—what shall we call it: Assembloisson? Pas de poissemblé?).

Unfortunately, the rest of La Source proved to be difficult. Not every classical ballet has a great story behind it, and I thought having seen my fair share and reading the plot synopsis would be enough to follow the action, but I was completely confused. I went with a friend who is also a dancer and seasoned ballet-goer and she too was lost, and when we talked about it, we realized anyone who would’ve seen La Source as their first experience with ballet would have been even more confounded, and possibly turned off by the experience. I mentioned the obscurity of the magic flower in my review, and if you think about The Dream or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-in-idleness flower casts a very specific spell—to make one fall in love with the first creature they see, something that is made very clear throughout both ballets. However, the magic flower in La Source is ambiguous—it heals people, teleports nymphs into palaces, freezes time…one would think it omnipotent, and yet it doesn’t save Naïla from death. Lack of common sense is just too prevalent, when you have a nymph sacrificing herself for a hunter who never reciprocates her love, and he himself in love with a woman he barely knows and doesn’t have affection for him either. When this is stretched over two hours of beautiful dancing with no mime, it becomes a very long two hours, especially when the presented characters fail to strike an emotional chord.

Thus, I found myself wondering a few things: What makes for a successful story ballet? Why do we crave them so much? Why haven’t we had a truly great one in so long? These are far from new questions as the dearth of new narrative ballets seems to always be on the mind of balletomanes worldwide. The saying goes that there is a human need to be told stories, and something I pointed out in my review was that the art of choreography is a transmissible folklore, very much like an oral tradition. Stories, fables, idioms, etc. are passed from one generation to the next and sometimes bits are kept/altered/lost, and ultimately, provide the greatest gift by teaching us something about ourselves, or re-illuminating emotions that we’ve already experienced. The typically favorite romantic and classical ballets fulfill this at basic levels—betrayal and forgiveness in Giselle, naivety and exploitation of innocence in La Sylphide, fragility in Swan Lake, hopes and dreams in The Sleeping Beauty, and arguably more, though I tend to think these are the most successful at really connecting with audiences. For example, it’s not that the modern woman (or man!) fantasizes about BEING an Odette, but I can easily imagine a person today relating to her fragility, someone who has perhaps felt vulnerable in her/his life, and would simply hope that someone could love her/him even in that state. Advertisements today bombard us with images that “confidence is sexy” and thus, outwardly attractive, but what about the times you feel insecure? Is it perhaps in our weakest moments that we need to feel loved the most? Questions like these keep Swan Lake relevant.

When it comes to the next “wave” of great story ballets, I look to Ashton and MacMillan, who created a fair number of ballets between them, though there are a few that have truly achieved “classic” status in my mind, based on frequency of performance by companies worldwide. We have Ashton to thank for Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, and The Dream, where he delighted us with themes of escapism, youth, romance, the fickle nature of love, and many spritzes of humor. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon have permeated into countless repertories, and he gave us insight into love, hatred, desperation, lust, corruption, and grief. The truth is, we see bits of ourselves in those characters, which is why the events within the story mean something to us. An art like ballet works an incredible magic when it draws empathy from people, and it’s fascinating when you find yourself affixing to an unlikely character, or having a change of heart after repeated viewings. The following is a statement of the obvious, but the more multi-dimensional a character is, the more chance a dancer has to resonate with an audience in presenting that person, hence, an innate love for character development.

After a certain drought, we find ourselves today depending on Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and now Bart, but the re-doing of lost classics and the seeking out of fairy tales that have yet to be done has become a bit banal. Is it enough to love the score and see the steps, or simply have a desire to do a particular ballet? Are any of these choreographers so moved by a particular story, that they can’t rest until they express it in dance? As it is, the above trio of men have been creating ballets that audiences do enjoy, but are they relevant to what audiences want (need)? Have their experiences as accomplished dancers prevented them from really being able to understand the general public? How does one negotiate choreographing for dancers, a dance audience, and people? With the Balletomanes librettistis being a critically endangered species, who will communicate the relevant stories to choreographers? Could choreographers themselves benefit from creative writing workshops—not to write publishable short stories, but to reveal something new about the process of character development, of crafting a story arc, driving a plot, etc.? I have no idea…though I suppose asking difficult questions is a place to start.

Oh well—more Zaël!

Lovely Love

1 Aug

It kills me that Seattle doesn’t get live screenings of ballet, and logically it makes sense because people who live with Pacific Standard Time aren’t going to get up at 9:00am to see a live stream of a ballet—but balletomanes are illogical and I would go, so I get to be bitter. Nobody complains more about not having Ashton in Seattle more than I do, so I’m going to begrudgingly eat my sour grapes and whine as much as I want. At any rate, I did write a review of the recent broadcast of La Fille mal gardée for SeattleDances (despite our screening being months after the original live airdate), a downright scintillating and CRAZY fascinating read, so as usual, I would ask that you read that before proceeding here.

Done? Good.

Obviously, I had a great time, marred only by the lack of attendance for the screening! Well, that and the fact that an old man lay his cane across three of the best seats in the house…I thought he was saving them for someone, but no, apparently he just wanted to take up as many seats as possible. What I did find interesting—or perhaps a little disheartening—was that I didn’t see any of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s staff or company dancers in attendance. Is there really no interest in choreographers outside of Balanchine/Robbins, some after Petipa, and contemporaries? On the one hand, to be a dancer and watch dance can be a strange thing, especially when it isn’t live, but on the other, isn’t the responsibility of proactively seeking out new choreographers or repertory something that naturally comes with the job? Or maybe, nobody really even knows about these screenings (the advertising leaves a lot to be desired) or perhaps, nobody likes funny, happy story ballets here (although, I’m a total hypocrite because I didn’t go to Coppélia this season…shh, nothing!). La Fille is often referred to as “Ashton’s sunny comedy” and it has not been a summer of sun here so maybe that’s part of it too. There’s also a possibility that everybody owns the DVD like I do…but who are we kidding—that’s not likely! What is likely is that not everyone is as Ashton-obsessed as I am, and that people like to have a life outside of work. It’s not like I eat pizza when I’m off the clock—wait, correction—it’s not like I MAKE pizza when I’m not working so the problem is really just me and my expectations.

At any rate, how adorable are Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae? I loved them both tremendously in the roles of Lise and Colas, and found their chemistry quite endearing. I had only seen them before in a video of Symphonic Variations, which as an abstract, ensemble piece doesn’t (and shouldn’t) inspire any visions of romance. However, in La Fille, they can be as sweet as they want, and they certainly showed a blissful affection for each other in the iconic ribbon pas de deux. As saccharine as that pas de deux can be, I can’t help but delight in it every time I see it because it relates so well to my personal views of love. My belief is that love is something that must be created between two people, a force that is mysterious, powerful, and yet intangible, while “love” that is one-sided is what I would call an infatuation—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because an infatuation can certainly spark the beginning stages of a romance, but it alone isn’t what I would deem love. Ashton hit the nail on the head with this one, by choreographing the ribbon into a physical and visual representation of love. While many classical story ballets can leave you with questions like: “Is Albrecht truly in love with Giselle?” or “Does James love the Sylph, or is he searching for a reason to break his engagement to Effie?” or “Does Odile’s manipulation of Siegfried, thus leading to his betrayal of Odette actually confirm the fallacy of love at first sight?” there are no such questions with Lise and Colas because Ashton shows in plain sight that their love is true and pure.

Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae performing the “Ribbon Pas de Deux”:

Though I find it impossible to not be filled with hope after that pas de deux, there is another moment that always gets me, which is the one where Lise professes her love for Colas to her mother, begging her to accept their relationship. A month or two ago, I was actually watching the La Fille DVD, you know, for fun, and my eyes started welling up with tears during that scene. As comically ornery as the widow Simone may seem at times, she’s not a villainess; sexist as it is, maybe her betrothal of Lise to Alain is a way for her to ensure that Lise is taken care of (Simone is a widow after all), which renders Lise’s plea for understanding all the more powerful. Asking Simone to accept that happiness in love is far more important than anything material is a simple request for unconditional love on her part, which moved me to tears again in the theater…almost. Apparently I have this notion that I shouldn’t cry in public or in front of people I know, so I held it together, but I was close. It just goes to show that strong emotions aren’t only evoked by drama (as say, the Academy Awards would like us to believe), and that a sentimental response that arises from comedy is equally genuine and valid.

It’s a perplexing shame that La Fille mal gardée isn’t performed more regularly in the US. Major companies like San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey haven’t revived it in decades, and ABT last did it in 2002. Houston Ballet carries the torch for the most part, performing it as recently as 2010, but something I didn’t know is that Sarasota Ballet in Florida is apparently a treasure trove of Ashton repertory! Last season alone they did five Ashton ballets (including Les Patineurs, and Two Pigeons), with an evening program featuring only his work (Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Monotones I & II, and Façade)! I’m actually mad at myself for not having a clue about the company, and next season they appear to be doing Symphonic Variations, Birthday Offering, Les Rendezvous, and yes, La Fille mal gardée with a live orchestra! GAH! Who knew?! Obviously people who live in Sarasota did and I’d be interested in hearing more about what the residents there think of the wealth of Ashton repertory that’s presented to them. While I continue to starve on the West Coast, it is comforting to know that there is an American ballet company dedicated to performing Ashton ballets as regularly as say, Balanchine (which Sarasota also does). I’ll certainly have to keep a visit to Sarasota in mind for the future—white sandy beaches and Ashton ballets? It’s very, VERY tempting…