Tag Archives: frederick ashton

Face Your Fear

22 Jun

I don’t know how one normally faces the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but for me there was an astonishing amount of fear involved. By no means did I think ABT would disappoint—and they didn’t—just that even in reward there is still an element of fear. I liken it to graduating or winning a Nobel prize…on the day of the award ceremony all the work has already been done, but that doesn’t mean your stomach isn’t in knots leading up to the moment when you get that diploma or medal in your hands. Looking back on how difficult things have been in my personal life, from giving up on graduate school, forsaking what I spent years on studying as an undergraduate, to moving across the country with the hopes that I could learn more about dance completely on my own, to working myself to the bone so that I could eke out a living…it has all brought me to this day and I’ve decided that I had every right to fear it, out of sheer amazement that it did in fact happen. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed.

The day started out with a class at Steps on Broadway, yet another bulb on the string of lights that comprises the dancer’s rites of passage, and that was a somewhat rough experience. My expectations were that the class would be crowded and I’d fumble but manage to get through it, but I had no idea I’d freeze like a deer in the headlights! Sure, there were ABT principals who took barre standing right behind me, but I don’t think I was star-struck (having PNB dancers drop in on open classes in Seattle may have helped to desensitize me to it—over time). I think it came down to dancing in a new city, with a new teacher, with no friends in the class, which stripped me of a confidence that I wasn’t fully aware of, and despite what I told myself internally, my body responded to my emotions. It wasn’t pretty…dancing like a nervous wreck looks a lot like just that—a wreck, and it was so weird to feel like I was telling my legs to do one thing and not be able to feel them doing it! There are people who can will themselves to get through such things without a problem (we tend to call them professionals), but it certainly was a humbling reminder of the courage dancers summon every time they put themselves on stage for everyone to see. Interestingly enough, sometimes we may never know the extent to which a dancer rises to the occasion because they so often deliver what is demanded of them.

With that in mind, I can relay the wonderful news that ABT’s production of The Dream was perfection! And this comes from an Ashton enthusiast who watched the film of Anthony Dowell many, many, MANY times before today. Of course there are certain things that I would have preferred, but they were just that—a matter of preference. Overall, The Dream wove a spell that simply couldn’t be broken and I think Ashton smiled upon us tonight. I do enjoy that the Royal Ballet uses a children’s chorus for the vocal parts, which adds a certain charm to the fairy divertissement that contains Titania’s big solo—but I can easily live without it too. Also still missing is the kiss between Lysander and Demetrius during the lover’s confusion scene, reduced to just an emphatic hug, but again, something I can live without (I just think the kiss is funnier). The sets are beautiful and evocative, the costumes wonderful…everything was gorgeous. I couldn’t have asked for more, and I felt so transported into this fantasy that it didn’t even seem like I was watching a ballet anymore. There is something of a consensus among the Twitterfolk that Giselle is a ballet that ABT does incredibly well, and I’d like to submit that their staging of The Dream should be right up there too.

Casting was of course superb, and Marcelo Gomes’s Oberon is so brilliant and so devilishly cunning. Not that you need me to tell you, but everything they say about his acting skills is true, and his technique is also faultless. The make-or-break moment is of course the scherzo, and a few steps were altered from what Dowell originally did, though the choreography is so virtuosic it’s almost like a variation anyway. If I had to nitpick—and I really mean absolutely forced to do it—I did miss one little detail where at the end of Oberon’s first entrance, he does a pirouette and finishes it by diving forward into an immediate penché, a precarious move that could easily end in a faceplant. I had a teacher (she knows who she is) give us this death-defying stunt in class once and I remember my hands became well acquainted with the floor that day. Marcelo ended in an arabesque—something he happens to be very good at I might add, for those of you who have seen his Von Rothbart—but when all is said and done, I do prefer clean dancing and though the penché enhances a dramatic hit in the music and perhaps inflates Oberon’s ego, the effect isn’t entirely lost. In fact what I was most impressed with by Marcelo’s scherzo was how he wove in and out of the music, at times bending it to his will, highlighting his power as the king of the forest. During the manège of tour jetés en tournant, that tricky guy inserted an extra turn coming out of one of the jumps and somehow managed to find the time for an extra step in an already brisk dance.

Having watched The Dream every other day of my life you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised by anything, but seeing it live added such wonderful dimensions to my understanding of it. I used to think Oberon was just a selfish brat, but the way in which Marcelo simply spied on the lovers made me sympathetic towards him, because despite his power and regality, Oberon desires the love that Lysander and Hermia have for each other in effect, wanting to be human. One of the keys to great story ballets is characters we can relate to and although Oberon is mythical, we respond quite easily to the idea of quarreling with a lover, but beneath the surface we also respond to the jealousy and longing he feels. After all, despite his cruel prank on Titania, he does have a sense of justice in righting the wrongs between the four lovers. He could’ve easily left them to their own devices once he got what he wanted, but does in fact absolve their issues before his own. Watching it live also seemed to paint more hues into this watercolor of love, making it messy, wounded, repaired, confusing, imperfect, selfish, unreciprocated, manipulative, beautiful, and a slew of other adjectives that we all have used to describe love at one time or another. We see so much of ourselves in The Dream that it’s virtually impossible not to follow the story with incredible ease.

Meanwhile, Julie Kent was stunning as Titania, a picture of elegance with a hint of sass. Though I never doubted her talents, I feel lucky to now know why she is so beloved by the New York audience. Daniil Simkin was also a fun Puck to watch, with a wonderfully airy, playful quality. Simkin is so light on his feet I couldn’t hear a sound when he landed from a jump, and he is entirely believable as a slippery, wily elfin creature. Kenneth Easter was great as Bottom, and I enjoyed all four lovers immensely (Adrienne Schulte as Helena, Kristi Boone as Hermia, Gennadi Saveliev as Demetrius, and Roman Zhurbin as Lysander). Between the above roles and the four fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Moth, and Mustardseed, I have to say that Ashton really did well to create such fine dancing roles, and incorporate them seamlessly into a one-act ballet, while giving so many the chance to shine. I think any accomplished dancer can be proud to dance any role in The Dream, and though the following generalization may come back to bite me in the ass someday, I also kind of think that it’s a ballet that would be difficult to look awful in. And just so we’re clear, I’m not looking to be proven wrong about this! With an obvious bias for the genius of Ashton, it’s how I felt leaving the opera house today.

As for Ratmansky’s Firebird…well, it ended up being essentially what I was afraid of and unfortunately I’m not one who enjoyed it, though a second viewing may (but probably won’t) change that. Still, I have reservations with writing about it in a euphoric state because I don’t want to end on a sour note. Already odd references to tube worms and a Muppets version of Balanchine’s Jewels (which, for the record, is an observation I made, in case Eric Taub steals it!) are invading my mind, so let us (well, at least me) dream of fairies tonight and I’ll talk Firebird tomorrow. Just to give a little snippet though, I did think Isabella Boylston was both impressive and enchanting.

So, good night, with lullaby.

-William Shakespeare

P.S. I did go to the stage door today, though I cheated and went after most of the dancers had left. I think I’m going to do it for real tomorrow!

Help…me?

4 Feb

When American Ballet Theatre announced that they would perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream as a part of their 2012 MET season, I made up my mind then and there—I would go. Ashton is my hero, The Dream debuted on April 2nd, 1964 and my birthday is April 2nd so while I don’t like to throw around the word ‘destiny’ it is pretty nifty if you’re as geeky as I am. Plus, I’ve never been to New York and have obviously never seen ABT and both are necessary experiences in a dancer’s life. In anticipation, I’ve been crossing my fingers like crazy that Marcelo Gomes would dance Oberon for one of the four performances, but ABT hasn’t posted casting yet (though upon hearing the recent news that Gomes would be partnering Alina Cojocaru in London next week for a performance of The Dream with The Royal Ballet, I’d like to believe that the outlook is good!). My initial solution to this conundrum was to see all four casts—after all, my most eminent teacher and fellow Ashton devotee Karen Eliot (who saw Anthony Dowell perform The Dream in London mind you!) attended the performance with Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg cast as Titania and Oberon and said it was perfection. A Gomes Oberon or not, I really figured I couldn’t go wrong if I saw every cast. And maybe I will…or maybe I need to “Dream” (har har) bigger.

I suppose I’m a struggling dance writer, scraping by at minimum wage and writing when I can. For the past few months I was excruciatingly busy with work and the frequency of my writing suffered as a result. Fortunately, the days of two jobs are over for now and I’m slowly regaining focus on the things that truly matter. However, luxury is something I can’t afford and a few days in one of the most expensive cities in the world is the best I can do—though I’m lucky and grateful that I can treat myself to that much! Still, June is chock full of great ballets I want to see and it’s painful to have to choose. I’ve even entertained the idea of forsaking The Dream and going in the first weekend of June to see The Bright Stream, a great mixed rep from New York City Ballet, and Onegin because variety is the spice of life and being a patron of the arts requires that you expose yourself to the unfamiliar. In a weird way there’s a parallel built into the semantics—do I follow my “Dream,” or do I do what’s practical and see as much ballet in the same period of time? Too often in life we’re asked to make decisions that follow the heart’s desire versus what’s logical and it’s the worst!

But what if I didn’t choose? What if, I spent the entire month of June in New York? When that thought occurred to me, the wheels immediately started turning. What if I made this a project and raised the funds to allow me to live in New York for a month, see lots of ballet, write like crazy, and live like that critically endangered species we know as the paid, professional dance writer? I’ve seen Kickstarter be so successful for so many artistic ventures I thought—why not me? Maybe, as an independent dance writer, I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands and create the opportunity for myself. I even did a little preliminary math, and if all of my followers on Twitter donated just a few dollars, I’m pretty sure I’d be set! However, this raises a LOT of questions, including the big one of whether my writing is even worth it. Is my perspective on ballet of interest enough to warrant special treatment? On the one hand, it feels selfish and greedy to ask people for money to send me to shows, but on the other, is it unreasonable to believe that if I were to write an entire magazine, for example, that people would pay for it? It’s a new landscape with social media and maybe this is my chance to use it to my advantage and promote myself.

But what exactly, would the funds go towards? Practical necessities like housing and transportation aside, these are some general ideas I have for blog posts:

  • Show reviews – ABT is performing almost every day in June (though I wouldn’t attend every show!) and NYCB has a few programs as well. I believe The Australian Ballet is also touring, but I’d want to see more than major ballet companies.
  • Classes – At the heart of it all, I’m still a student and I want to document the experience of taking classes in New York, with a few different teachers just for variety’s sake but I’d also want to settle down to have some consistency (it’s difficult to see improvement otherwise).
  • New York Public Library – I would DEVOUR the materials there and write some articles about my findings. I’d arm myself with only two books: Gail Grant’s Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet and Mary Clarke/Clement Crisp’s The Ballet Goer’s Guide so the Performing Arts Library will be my home base for research—right after several viewings of Violette Verdy in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.
  • Interviews – This would be the time to take advantage of social media and some of the connections I have to talk to people involved in the ballet world. I’d love to interview readers as well!
  • ??? – Who knows. I go (sometimes very foolishly) where the wind takes me. Even the above is more than enough fodder for writing a quality post every day, and probably even more than that if there was enough time!

Basically, this would be my summer intensive of dancing and dance writing. It would be a heck of a lot of work but I’m apprehensive too. I’m scared to put my life in Seattle on hold for a month, not to mention it’s always difficult to get to know new surroundings and New York is a beast! There are also a lot of dance writers already established in New York, so it’s not like I’m doing anything new and I’m afraid to death of “failure,” which in this case would be finding out that there is no future for YouDanceFunny beyond what I already do. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE blogging and will continue to write no matter what, but despite the benefits of this proposed project, I could walk away knowing that writing will always be a labor of love. It’s a far cry from leaving empty handed though and maybe it would be healthy—necessary even—to have that clarity, but it’s a frightening prospect to consider because I want to believe that I can affect change and that what I’m doing can be worth even more to the community.

So, the real question here isn’t whether this idea is crazy (because it is!) but if it’s actually crazy enough to work! I beseech you readers near and far, before asking for your support, to discuss with me your thoughts on this. If there ever was a time to comment or de-lurk, now is the time! Defining moments! Seize them!

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part Two

1 Feb

Be sure to read “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One” first!

For the past year or so I’ve been on a mission to hunt down some recording of Ashton’s Rhapsody, and sometimes being a locomotive pays off because I managed to find it! Only, I didn’t even know it was Rhapsody until close inspection of the choreography because the design of the production was completely different. In 1995 English artist Patrick Caulfield overhauled Rhapsody with new costumes and sets that were rather odd. In a way, I can see where he was coming from because Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini does have a certain quirk and mischief to it that wasn’t quite captured in Ashton’s pink and gold pastel-topia, but Caulfield seemed to have some kind of “art-deco-Alice-in-Wonderland” in mind, complete with playing card-like shapes on the costumes. I’m not fond of the designs or the color scheme (okay, I hate it), and the Paris Opera Ballet didn’t seem to be either. According to a review written by John Percival, POB wanted to commission a new design for Rhapsody when they staged it in 1996, but weren’t allowed to, and the Caulfield designs apparently lasted for one season (in which case, video of it is a treasure indeed!).

Successful or not, I like that The Royal Ballet has made a habit of injecting contemporary ideas into older works to see if it invokes new perspective on it. There are of course many instances of directors/choreographers staging their own versions of the warhorse classics, but they still revolve around a certain set of standards that make drastic changes rare, and significant makeovers for abstract ballets even more scarce. Many symphonic ballets don’t require highly specific costumes so colors, beadwork, ornamentation etc. will vary from company to company, but what Caulfield did to Rhapsody is pretty extreme. While alterations may be questionable, it’s still refreshing to see works being performed in new ways, and there’s bound to be audience members who may enjoy something more as a result. There are of course times when sets and costumes are far too crucial to a work to, but experimentation has to be just as important as authenticity. Oddly enough, Rhapsody has since gone under another transformation; in 2005 Jessica Curtis washed the work in a golden sunset, and her simpler vision remains the current production of The Royal Ballet. I can’t comment on it since I’ve only seen photos of Curtis’s designs, but I wonder if the Caulfield designs were perhaps so controversial there was a conscious effort to go with something rather neutral. Still, sometimes it’s a better decision to dress the dancers in something that doesn’t draw attention away from the choreography.

Steven McRae and artists of The Royal Ballet in their current production of Rhapsody, with costume and set designs by Jessica Curtis (photo ©Tristram Kenton)

Edited to Add (4/30/12) Miyako Yoshida and Yohei Sasaki perform the pas de deux, in the costumes by Jessica Curtis:

 

Ah, the choreography! It’s definitely some of Ashton’s most wicked work, and despite the plethora of bravura steps, it’s actually the quick changes of direction that are likely the trickiest aspect of Rhapsody. Though it’s hard to imagine anything being tricky for Baryshnikov (considering how easy he made everything look), it’s still quite a test for the primer danseur, almost as if to goad one into mastering it. I actually find Rhapsody rather funny and charming in a cheeky sort of way, as the choreography seems to play with the audience too. There’s a section where six male dancers line up in a row and one by one alternate between double tours and entrechat sixes, and when the last dancer finishes and the sequence starts over again, dancers who did double tours switch to entrechats and vice versa—it’s the kind of understated comedy that makes you smirk just a little bit. It’s so damn clever and I absolutely love it, and there are many such moments all throughout Rhapsody (especially just before the end, where all I can say is that fourth position has never made me laugh out loud before). I invite you to see for yourself:

Rhapsody (designs by Patrick Caulfield) Part 1 of 2:

 

Rhapsody Part 2 of 2:

 

According to the user who posted the videos above (and many thanks to you, friend!) Carole Arvo and José Martinez danced the principal roles. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet comprise the rest of the chamber ensemble, and while all performers have impeccable technique, Martinez is flawless—literally, perfect. I can imagine a performance from other dancers that are perhaps more sly and witty, but elegance tends to prevail in Paris and Martinez is a pleasure to watch in this one. Arvo is also a beautiful dancer with a cool demeanor, though having watched the central pas de deux with Lesley Collier/Baryshnikov, I missed many of the skyward glances Collier did, as Arvo’s upper body presentation was mostly focused forward towards the audience. Ultimately, it’s a fine and beautiful performance, hindered by the costumes and sets perhaps, with my only criticism being that when the ‘Virtuoso’ makes his second entrance (at about 5:30 in the first video), I think the tempo is too slow. Given, I was notorious for being a bit of a speed demon as a musician, but that’s a section of the music that needs to have a little fury, and not fall victim to the tendency in ballet to slow music down to allow for bigger jumps. Martinez was even ahead of the accent just a little bit on the sissonnes in the manège, so I think they could have pushed the tempo to something musically appropriate.

In the end, I’m just plain happy that I’ve finally gotten to watch Rhapsody! Even as a rather humorous ballet, there’s still an austerity to it that sates that speck of darkness on my soul. I think it’s safe to say that Ashton’s Rhapsody is probably the definitive Rachmaninoff ballet for the time being, having enjoyed its fair share of performances over the past three decades, though perhaps not enough outside of Covent Garden (I don’t know if Paris Opera has revived it in recent years, and the only other company I could find that has it in their repertory is K-Ballet of Tokyo). Besides selfishly wanting a more feasible opportunity to see Rhapsody live, on a serious note I do think it would do well in the repertory of ABT and/or Corella Ballet. Angel Corella has often been compared to Baryshnikov, and I can imagine him performing the role exceptionally well. We know he has the technical brilliance, and he really has the personality for it, and I don’t mean this to be presumptuous, what a treat it would be if Baryshnikov could coach him in the role!

While the future of Rhapsody appears steady, to bring this series of posts full circle back to the idea of ballet and Rachmaninoff in general, it’s worth noting that there are of course choreographers who are trying. It’s funny that Ashton’s first choreography to Rachmaninoff appeared in a film because it just so happens that another English choreographer has followed suit—surely, you can picture in your head Jonathan Reeves’s ballet to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor’ in everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, Center Stage? Well, the real choreographer behind that was Christopher Wheeldon, who has also created a piece entitled Rhapsody Fantaisie, to selections by Rachmaninoff. However, the bread and butter may be revealed this spring when two hot ticket choreographers will debut world premiere works to Rachmaninoff, one being none other than Alexei Ratmansky, who is probably the most well known (and busiest!) ballet choreographer in the world right now, and the other is Liam Scarlett, who is regarded as the most promising up and coming talent. Ratmansky is setting his work on Miami City Ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece intended to be a ballet which initially never happened because Fokine died amidst collaborative efforts between the two to make it happen and although Ratmansky isn’t the first to do a Symphonic Dances (Peter Martins’s ballet to the music remains current in the New York City Ballet repertory), he is the man with the “golden touch” so this could be big. Scarlett’s untitled work will debut a month later on The Royal Ballet, and while information about it is currently being kept under wraps, considering the success of his Asphodel Meadows, this could be huge too. Let’s hope they join the ranks of Rhapsody and help to establish a more prominent place for Rachmaninoff in the world of ballet!

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One

28 Jan

I’m not happy with the way 2011 ended, and am determined to improve things for 2012, and what better way to kick off a reinvigorated stance than with a couple of posts dedicated to my beloved hero, Sir Frederick Ashton? For many a moon, a video of Sir Fred’s Rhapsody has been on my wish list, as it combines a choreographer I adore with a composer I equally admire, Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s something about Rachmaninoff’s melodies—which are some of the boldest and most romantic you’ll ever hear—that ignites within me what I believe to be something akin to a “dark side.” Those that have met me know I’m not exactly a menacing creature, but we all have different facets of ourselves and somehow Rachmaninoff’s music unleashes this ominous, rather austere presence in my soul that I can’t access on command. Before you get the wrong idea I don’t mean dark as in brooding and evil (or worse, emo)—what I’m talking about I suppose is best described as impassioned and just a little murky. Call me crazy (assuming you don’t already), but it’s emotionally quite satisfying to feel something like that, especially when it doesn’t come to me naturally.

Unsurprisingly, Rachmaninoff has inspired many choreographers, though curiously absent is a notable work from one Mr. Balanchine. You’d think of all people, Balanchine would love the whirling abyss of intensity that is a Rachmaninoff concerto, but there’s quite a story behind his refusal to choreograph to anything of his. Alexandra Danilova recounts a story of her and Balanchine seeing Rachmaninoff perform in Vienna (she never gives a specific date, though it was before Balanchine’s defection, so we’ll say pre-1924) and Balanchine was so inspired he and Danilova went to Rachmaninoff’s dressing room, where Balanchine asked to stage a ballet to his music. Rachmaninoff was so indignant over the idea he threw them out. Upon reading this, I like to recall one of my favorite quotes about Rachmaninoff, ironically, by a composer who collaborated with Balanchine on many occasions:

“Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and–a-half-foot-tall scowl.”

-Igor Stravinsky

Legend has it, from that moment on, an embittered Balanchine did his fair share of scowling, and any time Rachmaninoff’s name was mentioned, he would respond with “lousy music.” Regardless, Balanchine did in fact choreograph a handful of small works to Rachmaninoff, though some of them before he left the Soviet Union, one just after, and his last was actually a re-choreographed work by Léonide Massine. The proverbial ending to this story is that none of the works survived.

Still, what’s funny is that Rachmaninoff would eventually ask Michel Fokine in the late 1930’s to make a ballet to one of his compositions! The reason for Rachmaninoff’s change of heart is anyone’s guess, but the music Fokine used was in fact Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simply entitled Paganini, Fokine created the work for de Basil’s Ballet Russes and Rachmaninoff even had a hand in co-writing the libretto! (taken from australiadancing.org):

The libretto evoked the legend surrounding the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose playing was so extraordinary that he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for perfection in art.

The ballet is in three scenes. In the first the gaunt figure of Paganini performs on stage. As he plays, the allegorical figures of Guile, Scandal, Gossip and Envy weave through the audience and an evil spirit seems to guide his hand. Scene two is set in a Florentine landscape where a young girl is bewitched by Paganini’s playing and dances as though possessed. In scene three Paganini is tormented by enemies who appear in his likeness. At the conclusion a Divine Genius guides his spirit to heaven and his talent is vindicated at last. A significant component of the choreography is mime, particularly in the role of Paganini, while the roles of Guile, The Florentine Beauty and The Divine Genius execute highly technical episodes of pure dance.

Sounds pretty interesting and surely would have been lost had husband and wife dancer duo Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin not staged it for Tulsa Ballet in 1986. Though I suppose it remains in Tulsa Ballet’s repertory, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been performed since 1990, so one can only hope it will be revived again—who would’ve thought that such a gem of ballet history would be hidden in Oklahoma! It’s worth noting that a similar libretto would also be used by a production staged by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1960, which “stressed the diabolical aspects of Paganini’s art and the consolation he derived from a muse and a beloved.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond and unafraid of Rachmaninoff (though he probably never met him), Ashton took on the task of choreographing to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, although his first venture with that music was not Rhapsody, but a segment from the 1953 film The Story of Three Loves, in a scene featuring James Mason and Moira Shearer (this was of course, long after Rachmaninoff’s death so whether he had an opinion on it is a matter for the afterlife). Ashton’s choreography for the film is completely different from the ballet that would come to be almost thirty years later, though there are some things distinctly Ashtonian (I invite you to see for yourself, take a hop back in time and read my post on Moira Shearer, which has a video link). Now, at last, we fast forward to 1980 and Ashton choreographs Rhapsody, in honor of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. In addition to being a gift to the Queen, Rhapsody was also a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Apparently, Baryshnikov’s condition for guesting with the Royal Ballet was that Ashton create a ballet on him, as he intended for it to be an opportunity to learn the English style of dancing. However, the end product could go down in history as one of the few times Baryshnikov didn’t get exactly what he wanted, because Ashton wanted him to dance a la Russe—big, bold, and virtuosic.

Ashton paired Lesley Collier with Baryshnikov to originate the principal roles, and on August 4th, 1980, Rhapsody debuted at Covent Garden, with the Royal Family in attendance. Ashton designed the sets, William Chappell the costumes, and something that almost never happens did—part of the inaugural performance was captured on film!

Rhapsody pas de deux, with Lesley Collier and Mikhail Baryshnikov:

 

There’s no narrative to this ballet, though it’s suggested that the role created for Baryshnikov has some intention of playing the virtuoso like Paganini. Mostly the ballet has a sort of regal atmosphere and coincidentally, it’s in the same vein to what Balanchine often did, which was pure neoclassical ballet to a symphonic score (Tchaikovsky Suite no.3, Symphony in C, Ballet Imperial…you get the idea). I get chills watching this pas because it’s so dreamy, and Ashton certainly loved those lifts where the danseuse hovers just off the floor—and the part where she leaps into his arms in an arabesque and he spins around? Just makes the heart sing. Still, it’s hard to ascertain the dramatic impact of the pas de deux, without placing it in a larger context of the entire ballet. Phooey.

This post is way too long and has been broken into two parts. Read Part Two Here! 

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

Ahoy! I can’t believe I’ve neglected my blog for virtually all of September, and I’m not happy about it, but I shan’t dwell because I have a lot of words to cram into this one post on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of ‘All Wheeldon,’ a program that consisted solely of Christopher Wheeldon ballets. As those of you more obsessive readers know, I attended a preview with the man himself, where he discussed some of his works while the dancers rehearsed on stage, and wrote a synopsis for SeattleDances. There was much I couldn’t include, and luckily, I can be almost as loquacious as I want here, so here’s a little more to the story.

Life began for Christopher Wheeldon in England, where he described himself as very much a “Billy Elliot.” Stop. Okay, so I have to disagree with Mr. Wheeldon a little bit (Chris, if you’re on a first name basis), because I adore Billy Elliot and there’s more to Billy than simply being a male dancer in the UK; Billy faced a great deal of adversity in not having family who understood his curiosity in ballet. Wheeldon’s mother trained in dance (though she was forbidden to have a career in it because her father thought it inappropriate) and his father comes from a background in theatre (which is actually how his parents met), so a passion for the performing arts is not a foreign idea for his parents. Becoming a professional dancer is a major accomplishment, but it’s how Billy makes his father and brother understand him that is the triumph of the film…but I digress. The point is, Wheeldon’s formative and professional years were perhaps more sanctified. He recalled watching Sir Frederick Ashton as a student, working with two girls on a ballet in honor of the Queen’s birthday, a long, ashy cigarette in hand and after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon would also come face to face with Sir Kenneth MacMillan (I believe he mentioned that he was in the corps when MacMillan choreographed The Prince of the Pagodas). Incidentally, it was Peter who even brought up Ashton and MacMillan; let’s just say it required every ounce of discipline I had to NOT leap out of my chair and praise in jubilation, though the sad fact is the majority of the audience probably didn’t know much (if anything) about them. I get that some of the Ashton or MacMillan repertory is too much to ask for right now, but bits and pieces would be nice!

At any rate, Wheeldon has told the story of the Hoover vacuum countless times, and how he always has to retell it which is why I’m going to skip it; all you really need to know is that a vacuum cleaner got him to New York. Still recovering from an injury that kept him from competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize (where he was slated to perform the pas de deux from…The Dream! When he said it was his favorite and I just about died…can you imagine him as Oberon?), he merely sought to take class at NYCB. Somehow he was confused with some dancers auditioning for the company, and miraculously, Peter Martins offered him a contract. It worked out well for the lucky teenager, as he was quick to credit Balanchine as his greatest source of inspiration (beginning with a graduation performance of Valse Fantaisie) because his ballets taught him was a sense of structure and shape, because they would “never pull your eye the wrong way.” When Wheeldon joined NYCB, however, Jerome Robbins was still working with NYCB, and Wheeldon has some interesting comments regarding him and how he and Peter Boal were perhaps the last generation to put up with the idea of “success through intimidation and fear.” However, Robbins did impart emphasis on understanding who you are in a ballet, and encouraged dancers to be human.

The introduction ended with a sort of hodgepodge of information, like some general information about his production of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, how it’s his largest production to date, with a new score, etc. and also some of his future plans, like NYCB performing DGV, which will be a first because NYCB has never imported a ballet made on another company before. Wheeldon will also expand his artistic pursuits a bit with a first time outing as a choreographer for a Broadway production. He’s busy, he’s sensational, and he had fascinating things to say about the ballets PNB performed.

First came the lovely Carousel, which is a romantic, light-hearted fantasy celebrating music by Richard Rogers, and originally intended for a gala program. In this piece, Wheeldon sought to use pure movement to create an atmosphere (with no budget!) so the costumes are simple, minimal set design, and just enough lighting to enhance the mood. The work definitely has that “carnival” feel, and a central pas de deux that plays out like an awkward first date. The pas de deux to me definitely had a little MacMillan in it (I definitely saw steps from Manon), and struck me as a game of cat and mouse between two people who had a romanticized idea of what love is, as if they’ve seen the movies and have preconceived notions but the truth is turning out to be not as interesting as the myth. It definitely has a dark cloud hanging over it, though still playful and lush as it is, and Wheeldon had high praise for the original cast of Damian Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli, complementing the bravura of the former and the great imagination of the latter. I saw Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in both rehearsal and performance, and I absolutely adored them in it—flawless casting! High praise too for Margaret Mullin, who I got to see up close during the lecture demonstration (my subscriber tickets are up in the balcony, so for general seating I beeline for the third row), really taking notice of her lovely épaulement and beautiful hands…she has a wonderful refinement that really stood out to me. Carousel was easily my favorite Wheeldon ballet because I’m a sappy romantic and it’s one of those pieces that you just have to smile at while watching, while getting just a dash of Busby Berkely-ish, oh-so-satisfying cinematic geometry.

Meanwhile, Polyphonia was the complete opposite. I found it funny that Wheeldon picked the music—a scattering of piano notes somehow composed into song by György Ligeti—while browsing at Tower Records. I don’t know why the image of Christopher Wheeldon at a retail music store, listening to samples of tracks on headphones is so endearing, but it is. With the score being so difficult to almost listen to (apparently when he played it for his dad, he almost drove off the road), I had a sinking feeling Polyphonia was going to disagree with me and while it wasn’t my favorite, I was surprised that I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s what Wheeldon called “a sketchbook,” the title meaning “multiple voices” and it depicts…not people, but beings? For me it was like staring through a microscope into a Petri dish, and seeing these curious creatures that were both alien and terrestrial…like deep-sea plankton. It’s rather bizarre but then you get these interesting pictures like the duet between two men that was a sort of “question and response,” with one dancer shadowing the other, it’s becomes something recognizable like a younger brother imitating his elder sibling and Polyphonia made many such shifts between the foreign and familiar that I found fascinating. Wheeldon himself said it took choreographing (and finishing!) the work to unlock the score’s mysteries, to find order in disorder, and create something not chaotic but mathematical (help us Dave Wilson!).

The last previewed work was After the Rain, or as I like to call it, “the Yoga Pas de Deux.” This piece was made for Jock Soto’s final season, an odyssey of partnering that often created the illusion of independent movement. There were times when the couple would reach for each other without making eye contact, and the danseuse just had to trust that her partner would lift her into the next step. For fans of Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon mentioned that she was visibly upset when told she would be dancing barefoot (he said “there may have been a tear”) but that After the Rain was a fascinating insight into her gentler side, beyond her fabulous technique. Meditative, tranquil, and often inviting a sense of loss, After the Rain achieved its purpose so perfectly the Seattle audience (who definitely loves their yoga!) responded to it very enthusiastically…even if I didn’t. I did yoga for a couple of years and I didn’t have the attention span for it then and certainly don’t now, so I didn’t find myself really interested. It’s not what I would call a “let down,” but when the theoretically strongest work is your least favorite, you’re sent on a different emotional roller coaster than the rest of the audience and that can be tricky to figure out.

Closing out the actual performance evening was Variations Sériuses, a comedic story ballet about a ballerina with a diva attitude who essentially gets in her own way and ends up being replaced by a younger dancer (et tu…Lily?). The neat thing about this piece is that the set is built to show a view from the wings as this fictitious ballet company rehearses and puts on a production of an unnamed ballet, which clues the audience into what it’s like backstage and of course, hamming it up a little. It has just enough melodrama to appeal to the general audience, though professional dancers and those familiar with the stage life will certainly derive a little extra here and there. The ballet within the ballet is a generic sort, with Romantic tutus and floral headwear, and the most heinously neon pink costumes you might ever see. American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg once referred to their production of Theme and Variations as the “pink monster,” but this ballet-within-a-ballet should then be called the “pink behemoth.” We are talking about the most offensive to the eyes, highlighter pink imaginable, obviously intentional because we’d be fools if we believed dancers enjoyed every costume they have to wear (and just in case you were wondering…they don’t). Laced with hilarity, I quite enjoyed Variations Sériuses, and really enjoyed Carrie Imler as the Ballerina. It’s a role in which a dancer could easily flail around and indulge in too much melodrama, but she always gives intelligent performances and trust me when I say she has some mean (literally) echappés!

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this crash course in Christopher Wheeldon’s work, having only seen a couple of pieces by Corella Ballet prior to PNB’s program. I did kind of yearn for something bigger, as there is something pleasing about having that big, symphonic ending (as ubiquitous as it may be), but you don’t curate a Chagall exhibit and spray the paintings with glitter because there isn’t enough “razzle-dazzle.” In these instances one must respect the creator’s perspective and when it comes to Wheeldon, I found every piece to be tasteful, coherent, and wonderfully made—a marvelous start to the performance season!

Here are some excerpts of the lecture/demonstration with Wheeldon, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel:

It Takes a Team to Raise a Dancer

23 Jul

Perhaps the greatest challenge artists face is how to shape their career, when there is never a clear-cut path. In the development of a professional ballet dancer, most of the time there is the added obstacle of having to figure it all out at an early age. It would be like trying to graduate with a master’s degree at the age of eighteen—that’s a lot of work (understatement of the century!) and it’s a decision that requires a sensibility and maturity not always found in teenagers (those of us who are older and wiser know this to be true). While I do find that there are many adolescent dancers who are mature beyond their years, they’re still kids and that means parents have to make some decisions and provide guidance along the way. Unfortunately, the “stage parent” (a term I hate because it implies that overbearing parents are a problem exclusive to performing arts) is a stereotype closely linked to ballet, and while there are some seeds of truth, stereotypes are useless when it comes to seeing reality. Thus, my feeling is that healthy relationships between parent and dancer need to be a part of the discussion.

I became interested in the topic of the dancer/parents relationship upon learning in the Twitterverse that two people I followed separately, are in fact related. Dylan Gutierrez, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet was trained by his mother Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, an accomplished ballet dancer in her own right (having danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet among many other professional endeavors) and is now President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Obviously, Andrea comes from a different perspective from other dancer parents, having been a dancer herself, but it could have easily been a double edged sword—maybe she knows too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time an impassioned stance led to irrational behavior. Having a parent who was also a dancer is like the set of ingredients needed for the perfect storm—though a storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just tumultuous. The end result for the Gutierrezes is a good one, with Dylan living the dream in Chicago, and judging by their interactions on Twitter, they’re close. Curious as to how they’ve gotten to where they are, I asked them if they would discuss their past and the nature of their relationship.

YDF: When did you both realize Dylan had what it takes to be a professional dancer? 

Andrea Paris Gutierrez (Photo ©Rose Eichenbaum)

Andrea: Well I knew he had a lot of passion, but because he was one of the first boys I trained I did not realize the things he could do were quite exceptional for his age. He really loved it [ballet] and after a trip away and an inspiring conversation with a certain prima ballerina, he began to talk about becoming a professional dancer. Being that I was also a professional dancer I did not find this unusual or daunting which I think some parents might. We got a lot of positive feedback whenever people saw him dance but I had no idea where it all was leading us. We took things slowly and methodically and did not rush into any offers or programs that many people wanted to scoop him up into. He rode his skateboard, played basketball and other sports like all of his friends. He didn’t leave home until he was sixteen years old and going into eleventh grade.

Dylan: When I was ten years old I decided I didn’t want to play basketball and that I wanted to pursue ballet; it interested me more as I had been inspired by Angel Corella, Patrick Bissell, my mother, and Susan Jaffe (who I heard speak at a summer program). I realized [Jaffe] felt the same way as I did when she was young; she said that she always knew she was going to make it but never said it out loud.

YDF: Andrea, how did being a dancer affect your approach in teaching him? Did you ever set boundaries for yourself and what would you say was your biggest concern during his formative years?

Andrea: Well I was very fortunate; I was trained in dance by my mother Bernice McGough at her school in New Zealand and we always had a great relationship. I modeled how I teach my children (I have a dancing daughter as well) on how she taught me. [Dylan and I] sort of compartmentalized our relationship. When we were at home I was mom, when we were at the studio I was the teacher. I can’t say there is no ballet talk at home—there is—however, I tried really hard not to play favorites at the studio or be overly hard on my own children. Ethics and impartiality are important for my children and for everyone else. Many people at the studio did not know that Dylan and Veronica are my children. I think that treating everyone fairly is important and then if my children did get a special role they knew they earned it like everyone else.

YDF: What was it like to transition from working together as a team for so long, to sending him off to The Royal Ballet School? Dylan, what was it like to train there under new teachers and different circumstances?

Andrea: I knew when Dylan was offered a scholarship to Royal Ballet School it was an amazing opportunity and a chance of a lifetime. I was confident that the training was the best in the world and when we visited the school in the summer I was given plenty of information on how the school ran and what was expected. Once he got there, it was hands off for me…I know that teachers and directors do their best work when they are given the freedom to do so. I never spoke to any teachers or the director until I came to visit at the end of the first year when I had a short conference. I did all the support from behind the scenes. I let them do their job and just supported and encouraged Dylan through the tough times and the good times. I did work with him when he came home on breaks but the school supported that. But I was happy to have them work with him their way, and I was thrilled with the training and support he received at the Royal Ballet School.

Dylan Gutierrez (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

Dylan: I had [already] learned how to work with other teachers and was comfortable with that, but The Royal Ballet School is a whole other beast. They have the luxury of expecting greatness, not good or okay, and I was no longer in the position of being one of two boys everyone thought was good.  I had to prove myself, and thanks to my mother and my father (who is also a huge support to me) I understood that. I didn’t expect anything, and I wasn’t given much at first. They were actually a little weary of me early in the school year; they thought I was a troublemaker, that I had to shape up, be willing to be tamed and pay attention. I started out a troublemaker and about six months into the year I was going on special trips with two of the best boys in the class. One of whom was Vadim Muntagirov, which I am sure if you know that name you know what kind of talent I was holding my own with. 

YDF: Obviously, Andrea, you’ve passed down a lot of your schooling to your son but do you see qualities you had as a dancer in him, or is he his own entity? Has he seen any of your performances and if so, what did he think?

Andrea: When I was dancing we did not tape everything like we do now. I have some pictures but not much tape of myself. Also professional productions are not taped although I have a few things. We are similar in many ways…both tall—but fast movers. I used to love fast allegro and quick footwork. I was a turner and jumper and he is too. I was also very competitive and still am—I love the struggle to be the best and I think he does too. I always used to watch and wonder at dancers who wished their careers away or worse yet complained their careers away. All of sudden its over and you did not enjoy the experience. I try to instill in him to appreciate the gift of dance and enjoy the experience. It goes by fast so make sure that you LOVE every experience you have. Dylan always compliments my demonstrations or my classes. We have mutual admiration of each other. It’s fun.

YDF: Are there ever any “I told you so” moments now between the two of you?

Andrea: Oh yes many, haha. When he was younger he would often “try” things for the first time on stage. I would beg him not to. If you were to tell him for example, that the director of the Nutcracker would be upset with him if he fell on his pirouette by trying to do too many, he would go for the extra one or two or three anyway—it would make me so nervous. He also did a double sissone for the first time on stage and as he ran by the wings he said “how did you like that mom!” as I almost collapsed! He was a daredevil.

Dylan: DEFINITELY! Example one: My mother always told me to think about quality not quantity and at the time I was so obsessed with pirouettes I didn’t care about much else. One day I was doing a Nutcracker where the guests were Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorevenko and I went up to Maxim and I asked “How many pirouettes can you do?” and he answered “It is not about the QUANTITY it is about QUALITY” and my mom looked at me [with that look of] “I told you so.”

Example two: I had auditioned for Houston Ballet, ABT,  Staatsballet , Dutch National, and I had NO OFFERS. I had one more audition to do and it was San Francisco Ballet…after company class Helgi Tomasson said “well I will contact you tomorrow and let you know if we have a spot.” When I came out my mom was really worried saying “You have to audition with smaller companies, you have too” and being young and stupid I said “NO—I want this.” She [kept] saying things like I don’t think he’s going to give you a contract and I just said “wait until tomorrow.” She had a lot of doubts and was really worried. The next day around noon the phone rand and it was Helgi offering me the job, and I thought: “Mom, told you so.”

YDF: Andrea, Dylan spent a year with San Francisco Ballet and now he’s been with the Joffrey since 2009, both two of the top companies in the U.S. Have you been able to attend most of his performances? What’s it like to be a teacher/mother/audience member? It’s still early in his professional career, but is there a performance that stands out to you?

Andrea: That’s a loaded question! In the first performance he danced with SF Ballet, he danced the first Temperament in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I had an ominous feeling. I worried that it was too much responsibility for an eighteen-year-old apprentice and that he would look too young next to the very experienced SFB soloists and principals. It was a good performance but I felt that he needed to be developed more slowly and methodically. I feel that [this] has happened for him at Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater seems to know what to put him in and when is the right time. The Joffrey also seems to prepare him very thoroughly. I was so thrilled to see him dance with Jaime Hickey in Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the pas de deux chosen for them suited them and they handled the material very well, but honestly the moment I saw him step out on stage in Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker as the Snow King I was [even more] thrilled. He looked so mature and confident and matched with Christine Rocas so magically that I honestly could not believe it was him. I don’t get nervous anymore because it is out of my hands now and I know he is prepared. I sit back, enjoy it and think how fantastic he is. It’s really such a pleasure to see my students and my own son in the professional environment. I absolutely love it.

YDF: Dylan, does having your mom in the audience add additional pressure, nerves, or excitement for you?

Dylan: It used to make me really nervous when I was still a student; my mother seriously knows a lot and she is not afraid to tell me when I look bad—professional, Royal Ballet School student—she doesn’t care. It’s her job to let me know and she does, but once I went pro I [began] working properly and she seems to be ecstatic every time she sees me dance now. I do always get a little nervous because she is my teacher and mother and I want her to be proud—she’s my teammate.

Dylan the "Daredevil" (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

YDF: Okay, so…because I’m an Ashton junkie, I have to ask—how was it to dance in his Cinderella? Besides that, what have been your favorite roles/performances so far?

Dylan: Oh I love his version—it’s so classy and glamorous and tells the story extremely well. This is also special for me—it was like my first soloist, first cast role. I was one of the prince’s friends the “Summer Cavalier” and it was so challenging. It takes so much technique to execute that men’s dance and it’s really exciting. Also, my little sister Veronica was an extra in the ballet when we did it in LA so that was fun because we get along so well and she got to meet the company. Other then that I have two favorite performances and one is when I danced the Aria II pas de deux in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Jaime Hickey. This was my first principal role that I had ever danced professionally and it was so liberating and freeing to be onstage by myself and just go at it with that intricate choreography. I used all the space I could, I focused and my mind was right. Our pas de deux went well for both shows and I feel like we really understood it. My MOST favorite performance to date was when I danced the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux at The Joffrey Ballet’s Spring Gala. The man who was supposed to do it (who is also my friend) hurt himself unfortunately and that was not fun to hear about but getting to step up was a great challenge and triumph. I had about four hours of rehearsal total and I had no choice but to go out, relax and just dance it. After the pas de deux, doing my solo [alone on stage] was incredible—it was some of the most fun I have ever had dancing and those two roles will always have a special place in my heart. 

Andrea: May I mention Steve, that as student at the New Zealand School of Dance we did Cinderella for our end of the year performance and I danced the role of the Fairy Godmother so seeing the Joffrey dance this version of the ballet bought a lot of memories for me too. 

YDF: Finally Andrea, what did you take away from the experience of simultaneously raising and training Dylan, and are those experiences helping in teaching your other children now?

Andrea: Well the road to becoming a professional dancer is long, tedious, complicated, and thrilling and traveling that road as a dancer myself and then with Dylan as his teacher and mother, I feel that I am able to see and understand many facets of the process. I think that helps me to guide and mentor my students and to be able to see what their parents are dealing with as well as the dancers. I feel I have a unique and special view of the process and am in the fortunate position to help young dancers and their parents navigate their way through. All situations are different though and as a teacher you learn something new with every dancer. My daughter has aspirations of being on Broadway so now I am learning all about that process and path. It’s quite different and equally as interesting. I’m glad I get to go on this journey with my son. He always asks for my perspective, he always shares things with me, and I’m always so happy when he arranges for me to watch a class or rehearsal. I love to have a special peek at the process and the Joffrey Ballet is always so warm and welcoming when I go to Chicago to visit. I’m already planning my trip(s) for this season. I cannot wait. 

Ballet parents need to remember that the motivation needs to come from the dancer. The parents’ job is to facilitate and support the dancer and the teacher. It’s very hard for a young dancer to travel this road alone—they need a back up who can remain calm in the difficult times. However, my advice is to make sure you take the time to sit back and appreciate the privilege of being in the profession and enjoy the process as much as the product.

* * * * *
Well friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed interview as much as I have and if you ever hear anyone making some wisecrack about stage parents in ballet, I encourage you to kindly point them to this article! Even if it’s common sense to us, the world needs to know that stereotypes represent certain extremes (as they always do) and that the healthy, happy people are never discussed as much in comparison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andrea and Dylan Gutierrez or have any questions you’d like to ask them, follow them on Twitter! Dylan says a lot of things like “swaggin” and “balcony life,” the meaning of which elude me (best explained by a generational or coolness gap I suppose), but he’s a good kid. Also be sure to check out Dylan’s Facebook page, for a bunch of awesome photos and his YouTube channel for videos of him dancing. For more information about Andrea’s work as a teacher and artistic director of LA Ballet, please visit their website at www.laballet.com

Follow Dylan Gutierrez on Twitter @DylanthaVillain
Follow Andrea Gutierrez on Twitter @drummamamma

A Simply Sibley Cinderella

11 Jul

I love libraries, and I hope you do too. My latest string of acquisitions includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. This pair of Royal Ballet dancers achieved such legendary status that books are written about them, like the coffee table tome also on loan from the library entitled Sibley and Dowell, which features photography by Leslie Spatt and text by Nicholas Dromgoole (which totally sounds like a Harry Potter name). With pages of gorgeous black and white photos, a few words from Dromgoole (hehe), and a great deal of transcriptions of interviews with Sibley and Dowell, the book offers great insight into the history and careers of these two dancers. Incidentally, in discussing differences between dancing wit the Royal Ballet and other companies, Dowell mentioned that in working with American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, ideas were shared but not a sense of humor. It then occurred to me to consider the prevalence of UK readership in regards to this blog—there may be some truth to those jokes I make about having a European sense of humor!

Anyway, Ashton’s Cinderella is widely regarded as the most prominent version today, and it is in fact the first full-length English ballet. There are two recordings of Ashton’s Cinderella available on film, both noteworthy for different reasons. The older one (filmed in 1957) is a made for television version featuring the illustrious Dame Margot Fonteyn (for whom the role was made, but due to illness, Moira Shearer debuted it instead). The film also has original cast member Michael Somes as the prince (Fonteyn/Somes being another legendary pairing in their own right) and the unique occasion of having Sir Fred himself and Sir Kenneth MacMillan as the Ugly Stepsisters. The very thought of Ashton and MacMillan (two gods of ballet choreography!) as the Ugly Stepsisters has me losing my mind, and although clips of this performance reveals a grainy, black and white film, that doesn’t detract from its historical significance. I’m not sure I understand complaints about the film quality anyway, as if people cared that the recently found footage of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes isn’t HD!

However, the original Ugly Stepsisters were actually Sir Fred and Sir Robert Helpmann, appearing in the debut on December 23rd, 1948. Twenty-one years later, Sibley and Dowell’s performance is filmed, and includes both Ashton and Helpmann in their signature character roles (also, Alexander Grant, the original Jester, appears in both films, which is quite the span since the 1948 debut!). The Ugly Stepsisters are characters often met with some controversy, because they’re these over-the-top, squabbling, vulture-like caricatures whose antics a lot of people find annoying. While I can agree with some of those complaints, I still think they’re necessary—without the Stepsisters, there isn’t much of a story! Ashton also paid tribute to the tradition of British pantomime (or “panto” as they apparently like to say), which dates back to the Middle Ages and almost always has campy characters played by men in drag. For me, the humor of Cinderella would just be incomplete, and there are such delicious moments when Sir Fred is in the role because he’s so willing to mock his own art. Nowhere else will you see Sir Fred, performing “the Fred step” with a complete disregard for aesthetics. Although, I suppose it’s possible part of what made the Ugly Stepsisters special may have died with the originators, something Sibley and Dowell might agree with, having said that getting to dance on the same stage with Ashton and Helpmann had a special sense of occasion.

While I’m notorious for an aversion to Prokofiev, I didn’t entirely mind the score. It helps that Ashton appears to have been heavily inspired by the music because it is some of the most unique choreography I’ve seen of his, and by unique I also mean wicked—especially the corps work. Much of the choreography for the corps de ballet is quite zippy and moves in unusual patterns, which fits Prokofiev’s music so well, and it’s hard to keep those lines clean when things are faster. Cinderella also has a difficult variation, where she has to do a series of flickering turns in a circle, not just once but twice, and just watching is dizzying enough. The ball pas de deux with her Prince is an interesting one, containing references to clock hands and the countdown to her midnight curfew. The way she beats her legs together midair mimics the seconds ticking away, and all kinds of straight limbs in arabesque and penchée indicate time’s influence on her allotment with the Prince. It’s not as though the shapes tell you exactly what time it is, but the way they’re jumbled together is an obvious statement as to how she loses herself in time as she is falling in love.

Cinderella’s Variation:

 

Cinderella Pas de Deux, with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg:

 

Speaking of the ball, however, it’s Cinderella’s entrance that is perhaps one of the finest moments, as she descends a staircase and simply bourées forward. The bourée being one of the most elementary of movements on pointe, it is often relegated as a way to get from A to B when a sort of shimmering, or floating effect is desired. Rarely does the bourée by itself get respect as a choreographed step, and this particular usage has to be up there with the most poetic instances of it (the other one I think of being Myrtha’s entrance in Giselle. Fokine’s The Dying Swan is of course all bourées, but is a piece that is really told through the arms rather than the feet)

Cinderella’s Entrance, with Margot Fonteyn:

 

As for Sibley and Dowell, they are of course the image of perfection in DVD. Dowell has been filmed numerous times but there is an unfortunate shortage of Sibley, so it’s a treat to even have just this one with her in a principal role. An elfin blonde, Sibley makes the role of Cinderella look completely natural, with gracious acting and strong balances (she had many an arabesque on pointe that were just brilliant, the trademark of classical lines and correct placement). It’s impossible to not love Dowell as well, even if the role of the Prince is not a particularly deep one. He is genuine, reserved, and elegant and quite young here. It wasn’t his first appearance on film (he danced Benvolio in the Fonteyn/Nureyev Romeo and Juliet), but his second and he even looked just a little shy. What’s also interesting is that the Prince’s solo has a lot of jumps in it, something that Dowell mentions not being his strength (and is completely evident when he spins a quadruple pirouette into a perfect extension of his leg to the side, maintaining a flawless center), and that he was happier with it after changes were made to it during a tour to Australia. It was also during that tour Sibley and Dowell had a humorous incident during a performance in which her costume got caught on his in a lift:

Dowell: I was trying to bring you down from a shoulder lift and your tutu caught on the hooks of my coat, and you were quite immovable, pinned to me like a brooch.

Sibley: You kept saying ‘Get down, get down!’ and I could only say ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

Dowell: Eventually we had to run off, or rather, I mean I had to run off, with you just dangling.

(Bonus pointes if you read the above with an accent! Unless you speak British-English, in which case I guess you were just reading it)

While we are without a more current production of Ashton’s Cinderella on film (though there has been outcry to have the BBC broadcast of the Cojocaru/Kobborg performance released on DVD), the Sibley/Dowell is more than sufficient—it’s stunning. The only thing missing (literally) is an entr’acte where the Prince searches the world for Cinderella and some critics lament that the omission of that scene eliminates character dances, although character dances, like Ugly Stepsisters can be controversial too; maybe you’re one of those people that finds them vile, time consuming, and a little racist…maybe not (boy, that’s a blog topic for another day—are character dances racist?). Regardless, despite pockets of Ashton all over the United States, for audiences in America our only chance to see it is to commence an odyssey to Chicago, and see the Joffrey Ballet, who added it fairly recently to their repertory in 2006. The rest of us can (and should) enjoy the Sibley/Dowell, and believe me when I say there are few things as sacrosanct as Georgina Parkinson’s Fairy Godmother!

Behind the scenes look at the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Cinderella:

 

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë

23 Jun

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).

At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.

The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.

Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.

Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:

Photo of original cast members Michael Somes (Daphnis) and Violetta Elvin (Lykanion) Photo ©Royal Opera House/Hulton Deutsch

The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:

The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.

Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.

The Royal Ballet in 1994; Vaughan also said that the costumes “look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy.” What do you think? Photo ©Robbie Jack/CORBIS

There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).

Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.

As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.

So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!

Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)

 

Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.

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.

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: