Tag Archives: frederick ashton

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011-2012 Season Tidbits

2 Feb

Here’s some exciting news…I received my subscription renewal package to Pacific Northwest Ballet in the mail today, where a few tidbits about next season have been revealed.  This season I chose to do a mini-subscription which entailed selecting four of the six programs they are doing because I knew there would be something I didn’t want to see (this year’s omissions being Kent Stowell’s Cinderella and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though I may cave on the latter, even if it betrays my beloved Ashton ballet, The Dream).  The mini-subscription has the advantage of purchasing additional tickets at a discounted price and I like having that flexibility, though the one problem with it is that they prioritize full season subscriptions and sell the mini ones later.  Perhaps this is there way of encouraging me to buy a full subscription, but I’m stubborn and it’s not going to work.

So what’s in store for Seattle area residents and the travelling fan?  Four juicy mixed bills, including an All Balanchine/Stravinsky program.  ‘Twas a special relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky, one of the last significant collaborations between choreographer and composer in the world of ballet.  A great number of works were born out of their creativity, including Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée and Apollo, which are confirmed to be a part of the program.  Any number of works could flesh out the evening, as PNB has several Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets in their repertory and could easily learn another one (in fact, Divertimento will be a premiere for the company).  I saw excerpts of Apollo when PNB did their ‘Balanchine’s Petipa’ lecture demonstration (which is where I fell in love with the dancing of Carla Körbes), and am eager to revisit the piece as well as see anything new for the first time so I’m all in for this one (even if some of Stravinsky’s music occasionally gives me insomnia).

Another mixed bill will be an All Robbins program, which doesn’t have any details listed in the newsletter, but Karena confirmed after attending a post-performance talk of the program that included Robbins’s Glass Pieces, that Dances at a Gathering would be on the menu.  I couldn’t be happier…Dances at a Gathering has been my holy grail for the longest time and I might just buy tickets for a good five to seven performances just to permanently burn it into my retinas.  With Dances being a good meaty hour or so, it will be interesting to see what else will be included.  Perhaps it will be a night of Chopin, with In The Night and The Concert, or maybe it will be a diversified selection of Jerome Robbins works and showcase variety with the lighthearted Fancy Free or popular West Side Story Suite.  All of the above are in the rep, though there are other iconic ballets like Afternoon of a Faun that are not, so surprises could be in store.  Regardless, I’m not going to get greedy…just give me Dances and I will gladly pay the money to see it over and over again.

Rounding out the mixed bills are an All Wheeldon program (obviously, featuring ballets by Christopher Wheeldon) and a Director’s Choice, which will showcase contemporary works.  I have no idea what to expect from either of these, as PNB has many pieces they’ve done before to choose from and possible new pieces being learned, though I’ve never seen any Wheeldon ballets so that program is a must for me.  No details were revealed about the Director’s Choice program, so I will probably end up skipping it by default, and purchasing a ticket later.

As is tradition there must be full-length ballets in the lineup and unfortunately I was a little disappointed with the selections for the upcoming season, but that has nothing to do with the ballets themselves, it really is just me being cranky about it.  They will bring back Balanchine’s Coppélia, which they just did last year and it’s simply not among my favorites to warrant a strong enough desire to see it again.  It’s a good production—I just don’t want to go again so soon and I think part of the reason why it’s a little disappointing is because there are other full-lengths they haven’t done in a while, like Swan Lake or Jewels (the latter being most preferable!).  The other story ballet will be Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote, a new ballet for PNB and while I haven’t seen Ratmansky’s version, it’s not a ballet I’m a huge fan of.  I find it a little ridiculous and on the cheesy side, with a score that isn’t anything special.  However, I feel the need to give it a chance, and to date I’ve never seen Ratmansky’s choreography live either so I’m going to give it a go.  It really could be worse…like they could be doing Paquita, but even if I’m not exactly fond of Don Quixote, I do feel it important to check off Petipa based classics on my “Live Performance List,” which sadly, only contains Bolshoi’s production of Le Corsaire so far (clearly, I need to get out more…or REALLY get out and move to London).

Despite certain aversions and personal yearnings, I commend Peter for putting together what looks to be an exciting, well-balanced season.  There’s a great deal of variety that honors the classical traditions, highlights the neoclassical masterminds and brings fresh blood in with new works.  However, my plight of lacking Ashton, MacMillan and Bournonville continues, and I was never foolish enough to think that this would change in the upcoming year, but next weekend I will be running off to San Francisco to see San Francisco Ballet perform Ashton’s Symphonic Variations in a mixed bill with Symphony in C and RAku (which is obviously, what I will be doing instead of seeing Cinderella).  I guess I lied earlier when I said I couldn’t be happier about Dances at a Gathering…because I am over the moon about Symphonic Variations!  Be looking forward to that review, which will also include a Giselle with the lovely Maria Kochetkova.  If you were hoping to hear my thoughts on PNB’s Cinderella…too bad.

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Take two pliés and call me in the morning

10 Dec

I’m definitely feeling the love from your votes for my entry into the Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest and the question that keeps popping into my mind is if I’m so intelligent and funny then why am I still single?  Joking aside, I figured that because I am entering as a student of dance, it would be relevant to assess what I’ve been doing in the studio, since the majority of my posts have been more academic in nature.  It just so happens that I recently traveled home to Ohio for the holidays, spending time in Dayton with family and then in Columbus for a few days with friends before heading out again for a wedding in Savannah, Georgia, where I found out one should never touch the Spanish moss.  My friends and I thought it would be funny to use them as dwarf beards a la Gimli from the Lord of the Rings franchise (you don’t need to know why…it’s a long story that will never make sense), but we were luckily stopped by a home grown Georgian friend, who warned us of “chiggers,” little red mites that will burrow into your skin and cause fierce itching (I made the mistake of Googling for pictures—I suggest that you do not).  The point is,  I was in Savannah, but before that I was in Columbus.

In Columbus, I visited with lovely ballet teacher friends, dropping in for a few classes for a “regular check up.”  As one of the many adult students of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s open program, most of the teachers I’ve encountered are in fact trained in the Balanchine method.  I’ve documented a few of these differences in previous entries, but a while ago I began to wonder if somehow certain changes have been creeping in.  The catalyst was a freak pique in attitude, where I was horrified to see in the mirror that my leg was way out to the side.  I should clarify that it’s not that I’m opposed to Balanchine entirely, but I understand much of the training methods to be unsuited for my body type, hence the “check up.”  I think revered Balanchine muse Violette Verdy said it best…she said that she didn’t think she was a Balanchine dancer because he had a company of greyhounds and borzois, while she was a French poodle (which makes me a kiwi bird—small, quirky, and flightless).  Anyway, for many reasons, I am incredibly thankful for the foundation I received at Ohio State, which was probably more Russian based, with bits of the French, Italian and British schools mixed in because PNB classes present certain challenges that I can’t always overcome.

For example, the fact of life is that I don’t have great turnout.  It’s one thing to have fairly open hips to say, 160° or 170° and cheat a little to 180°, as the teachers often tell their students to take their legs completely out to the side in an extension a la seconde.  However, if you have a mere 100° or so like I do, going that far to the side does one of two things: it contorts you into some weird position that makes you fall over or you turn in your standing leg.  I was taught to bring the leg forward in line with my natural turnout, because that’s where I can access rotation in my hips.  I haven’t much, but it’s all I’ve got and I’d rather work with that than look awkward trying to achieve the impossible or worse, injure myself in the process.  Also, I am of the school of thought that rotation in the hips has a certain aesthetic appeal because of the way the feet can be presented…but one’s preference for that or the Balanchine look is strictly a matter of opinion.

There are certain corrections in ballet that are more or less universal so I apply what I can but sometimes I do end up disregarding others.  I’m not trying to be a know-it-all, in fact, I’m completely open to trying the advice PNB teachers give at least once.  However, if I’m falling out of turns or finding it impossible to get a good balance, I go back to what I know and concepts that have proven to be the most successful for me in the past—all things I learned from my teachers at OSU.  There’s nothing wrong with having the courage to stand your ground on what works best for you and I would even go as far as saying that it is a responsibility every student, whether of ballet or even school should take on for themselves.  Learning isn’t just about the absorption of information; an understanding of what percentage of that information is beneficial is equally important.  This is not to say when I disagree with the Balanchine method I have the right to make a scene…it’s also my responsibility to try new things, internalize what it is teachers are telling me and compare that to the knowledge I have and come up with my own resolutions.  Although…if I’m going to be impudent, the gremlin in me desperately wants to mount a protest against Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in favor of Ashton’s The Dream…but I bet that you didn’t see that one coming!

Meanwhile, I loved taking class with my teacher friends again and liked the challenges I faced at barre, with (as much as I hate it) lots of work on relevé.  We even did a mini-Rose Adagio in one class, and to think that a year ago, I would have had no idea what that meant!  I felt a new sense of freedom in returning to those studios, and I could feel a certain energy that made me dance better.  I suppose time apart makes the heart grow fonder indeed, and everything just seemed stronger.  I even managed a couple of triple pirouettes and threw in extra beats whenever I could in the allegros.  For the longest time, I wasn’t really sure how to add a beat to a balloné and once I figured it out I wasn’t even sure if I could, but gosh darn it I went for it in good old Studio 3 and I did it!  So now I have that to carry with me though the million-dollar question is, have I been Balanchine-ified?  Well, I received confirmation that my technique looks stronger so the answer would be “no.”  That was the greatest news because it means that through my self-corrections I’m  succeeding as a bastion of my preferred technique, and improving as well.

Ironically, after all the efforts to make sure I wasn’t becoming a Balanchine dancer (I am an Ashton worshipper after all!), one of my friends told me that she would be doing a tiny excerpt of Balanchine choreography in her class.  While it may sound like I would have avoided it, the truth is that whenever given the opportunity I’d rather dance than not.  So it went that she taught us a short phrase from The Four Temperaments, but rather than have us dance it to Hindemith’s famous score, we danced it to Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance instead.  Rock.  On.  I totally toned down my usual emotiveness and did my “serious face,” busting out some School of American Ballet fingers and relishing the opportunity to “whack” my leg up into the air instead of an elegantly elastic grand battement.  Every now and then it’s good to let loose…even I can get a little too serious in ballet sometimes.

HER way

30 Nov

If I watched Natalia Makarova in Swan Lake, it seemed to make sense to then watch her own staging of Swan Lake as I find myself on the penultimate page of the Swan Lake Month chronicles.  Makarova’s production was performed by the London Festival Ballet (now called the English National Ballet), with Evelyn Hart as Odette/Odile and Peter Schaufuss as Prince Siegfried.

In many ways, Makarova’s staging is a sort of female equivalent to Nureyev…she added much more depth to Odette’s character though I can’t say she added more choreography for her.  This Swan Lake was made for film, as evidenced by an abundance of superimposed images of Von Rothbart as an owl, menacingly flapping his wings.  I wasn’t a huge fan of them…but with experimentations in video technology being the innovative thing at the time (it was filmed in 1988) I can see why people thought it would be a good idea.  Anyway, I point this out because it’s divided into two acts and each act has an introduction by the woman herself, speaking with her beautiful Russian accent and wearing this fabulous eighties garb with shoulder pads (since Makarova refers to the Prince as “Ziegfried,” I feel inspired to do the same).  It’s in these introductions where Makarova gave some insight into how she felt Odette should be portrayed, including some unusual tidbits like how for her, Odette knew Ziegfried would screw things up but decided to allow herself to fall in love with him anyway, and a slight twist to her ending where Odette knows she can save Ziegfried by sacrificing herself, though oddly, they both die anyway.  It seems many significant changes Makarova made were in the acting of the role, as opposed to the dancing.

The production was fairly close to what she performed with the Royal Ballet, though a bit woodsier with an Arthurian feel.  The choreography was the typical after Petipa and retained a few of the additions Frederick Ashton had made.  Makarova did include Benno in the story, though he doesn’t seem to have much significance despite having quite the meaty dancing role.  In fact, she kept the Danse Napolitaine from the Royal Ballet production (which I’m sure is Ashton’s) but has Benno dance it instead.  He serves no real purpose in the first scene by the lakeside as Ziegfried loses him while loping through the woods.  This chase scene was rather long, with various shots of Benno and Ziegfried doing arabesques in the forest and again, I found it an unnecessary exploration of the film medium.  Many of the solos are rearranged a bit though, as Ziegfried’s Act I solo (which was glorious on Anthony Dowell) is gone, though he does get a brief solo in the final scene.  Other additions include a pas de deux between Ziegfried and Odile after the famous Black Swan pas de deux, something I think I only saw in the Fonteyn/Nureyev version too.

Odette’s choreography is definitely modeled after Makarova, though I don’t know that Eveyln Hart pulled it off.  In fact, some of the adagios and the Odette variation I think are even slower than Makarova herself did them, and because Odette’s variation does include a few jumps there’s no way to not look labored at such a slow tempo.  Hart is a beautiful dancer with some extraordinary balances in this performance, but because of the stagnancy of the timing her legs almost look rigid. She is also so dainty that I felt like the music is swallowing her at times.  However, while I generally appreciated her dancing, I don’t think I’m a fan of an attitude position that’s too long in a demi-arabesque.  At one time (or perhaps it’s just depending on the school) an attitude position had a ninety-degree angle at the bent knee and for some, it’s now an elongated curve.  Hart’s is even further, a legitimate choice, but I do prefer a rounder attitude.  Regardless, I enjoyed her acting of the dual roles and didn’t have a problem with her interpretation of the characters at all.

Schaufuss on the other hand, is a prodigious technician—his pirouetting ability is truly remarkable, which of course put on full display in the Black Swan pas de deux as well as other choreography in the same ballroom scene.  He opted for a melancholy portrayal of the Prince, playing up his naivety and gentle character which makes sense because Makarova wants the Prince to be seen as a victim of Von Rothbart’s trickery, thus making her rescue of him at the end more pertinent.  I found the pairing of Hart and Schaufuss to be almost ironic because Hart was almost stiff in comparison to the soft plies of the exceptionally clean Schaufuss (in the next life, I seriously need me some Danish ballet training).  Even though the Black Swan pas de deux is more or less the stereotypical  moment everyone waits for, I have to say that it really was the highlight for me.  Interestingly enough, the Black Swan pas de deux is started with a few lifts between Von Rothbart and Odile (not seen below), something unique to this production and almost makes it seem as if Von Rothbart is forcing Odile onto Ziegfried as his way of trying to convince him she is in fact Odette.

The Black Swan Pas de Deux

This is a well-rounded Swan Lake with no major surprises and one that definitely favors Odette’s point of view.  The London Festival Ballet corps is exceptionally clean and the soloists provide other moments of brilliance (in particular the pas de quatre at the beginning of the ballet stands out to me as one of the best I’ve seen).  The only things I really didn’t like were the video effects…but like shoulder pads, they were the trend at one time.  Regardless, with Makarova being one of the model Swan queens of her generation, it is worth seeing what she believes are the critical details in a Swan Lake.  Though I can’t seem to procure it at the moment, I can’t help but feel this performance has sewn the seeds of the answers I’ve been looking for on my quest to “solve” the feminine mystery of Swan Lake

 

Resistance is futile

28 Nov

You know I love the Royal Ballet, so of course I have to include at least one of their productions for Swan Lake Month, in this case the one featuring Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried.  Right off the top I think it’s important to note that a Makarova performance as Odette is quintessential; it’s her thing and she does not disappoint in this DVD.  It’s one of those performances where you don’t know why or how, but you can feel how much she loves that role.  Of course, Anthony Dowell is no slouch and they had a wonderful, memorable partnership—I would even go as far to say that this was the most memorable Odette/Siegfried I’ve seen thus far.  I would also say that this production is probably my favorite of the classically oriented versions of Swan Lake I’ve seen as well.

The structure is pretty standard fare for a Swan Lake, beginning with Siegfried’s birthday (though this one is outdoors…an unusual, but refreshing choice) with plenty of hearty, festive dancing.  When Anthony Dowell enters, he flashes a devilish grin to his subjects and it’s one of those utterly charming, handsome heartbreaker smiles and all you can think is “oh, Anthony…” and heave a heavy sigh.  We all know Siegfried screws up, but as soon as Dowell smiled the way he did, I just knew this going to be a Soviet-era happy ending.  Sometimes I worry I think I see that smile in real life and think I might be going insane, but that’s another story…anyway, the choreography is nice (definitely some Ashton in there) and I’d like to point out that in the coda for the pas de trois, one of the women ends a diagonal series of jumps with FOUR, yes FOUR entrechat six in a row, which is something quite common in choreography for men, so not only does that deserve a high-five but it also means the ladies out there can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to those nasty little entrechat six!  Meanwhile, that wasn’t the only challenging of the status quo in male/female specific choreography as later on in Act III, in a male pas de deux one of the men does a saut de chat with his arms in third, which in some schools of thought could be considered a vile emasculation of the male danseur.  Well, maybe vile emasculation is exaggerating a bit, but it sounds funny…anyway, Act I ends with Siegfried’s solo, and I kid you not when I say Dowell’s performance in it was quite possibly the most perfect bit of dancing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Act II is again a “no touchie” zone, with the only major difference I could see being a moment where Siegfried’s hunting party actually appears on stage and they’re about to shoot at the flock of swans and Siegfried comes in to stop them.  This of course comes after Siegfried and Odette’s flawless, first pas de deux.  When Makarova enters, she does the most beautiful arm movements, the most luxurious backwards arches of her back and she even makes a simple lunge sing.  Together, I love the way Makarova and Dowell shade the characters because it isn’t entirely love at first sight; Dowell’s Siegfried is bewildered for most of the pas de deux, recognizing the fact that oh, he just saw a swan turn into a woman and doesn’t really give into love until later.  Similarly, Makarova holds back a little as a frightened and timid Odette, running from Siegfried until the end of the first pas de deux where she lets her curiosity take over.  This is of course, when Von Rothbart enters in his strigine glory…well, at least it should have gone something like that but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Von Rothbart owl costume.  In fact, it’s probably my only major criticism because I felt the design made him look more like a pterodactylic peacock (for the record, the word used to describe a peacock-like animal is “pavonine”).  It’s also unfortunate that Von Rothbart isn’t much of a dancing role (his massive wings being so unwieldy and all) but the focus of Act II, Odette and Siegfried’s romantic first meeting is tender, which is aided by the fact that Makarova works to a snail pace tempo.  I actually think rubato is often abused today, with many dancers using slower tempos but without purpose.  I’m not a fan of slowing the tempo just for the sake of slowing the tempo—it has to be done if the dancer feels it will allow them to add something to the character, and not just be seen as additional time to show off an extension.  I had no problems with Makarova’s tempo, because she works it brilliantly.

What also makes Makarova’s slower adagio more successful is the contrast it provides when she appears as Odile in Act III.  She actually uses faster tempi like in the Black Swan variation, which makes quite a difference.  Makarova’s Odile is very business-like; she enters, she seduces, she laughs maniacally when Siegfried realizes what’s going on and she leaves.  It’s the complete opposite of say, Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake, where Odile is able to seduce Siegfried in a much different manner.  I forgot to write this in my review, but in that staging Odile lures Siegfried by coming close enough for him to get a glance, but then one of Von Rotbart’s other maidens will get in his way.  This happens I think four times and by the fourth time Siegfried is blinded with frustration and the thought that Odile could be an imposter doesn’t even cross his mind.  The Royal Ballet, on the other hand takes the direct approach and no qualms are made as to Odile’s true identity.  Makarova is marvelous as Odile, spicing things up a little bit with a little more élan and a little determination to get through those fouettés.  Every Odile I’ve seen thus far has done thirty-two single fouettés, which doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, thirty-two singles may very well be harder than throwing in some doubles because if you do a double pirouette you get to pull in and just worry about holding yourself up, but doing two singles in the same span of time means having to work through the foot, plié, rond de jambe and spring back up to relevé again.  That’s a lot of work. (Side note: the national dances are pretty typical but the Italian dance is awesome and gets tremendous, well deserved applause)

Finally, it’s time for Act IV; reconciliation, suicide pact, and happily ever after (life).  What I loved about this act was that again, we’re made to wait for it.  Odette doesn’t forgive Siegfried immediately and the act of forgiveness and the apology, are danced out.  Sometimes these redemptive moments in ballet can be reduced to a hurried set of mimed gestures immediately followed by the pretty pas de deux, rather than sustaining the emotions throughout.  With Makarova/Dowell, you get to see the whole process unfold.  Well, I suppose you would REALLY see it if I posted the clip:

All in all, I’m sold on this Swan Lake.  Makarova is the epitome of the cygnine (I’m totally about these animal adjectives today!) and if anybody asks why I would add this to my collection I’d say “Anthony Dowell made me do it.”  Nobody could resist that Act I smile.

The Last Unicorn…a ballet?

7 Oct

In continuance with Reader Appreciation Month, I present to you an entry on the topic of turning Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn into a ballet.  This idea was put forth in the Twitter-verse by user Fleegull, who I’m not saying was the first to think such a thing, but is the first to share it with these ears of mine…and I couldn’t agree more!  The Last Unicorn would make an extraordinary ballet, and due to recent radical ideas of becoming a professional impresario (which wouldn’t be so radical if I could just inherit a billionaire’s estate), I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to imagine what I would do if I actually had the resources to make this happen.

Mundane as it may sound, a monumental task requires a checklist.  I’ll need a libretto, a choreographer, designers of many ilks (sets/costumes/lighting, etc.), and of course dancers.  The libretto is more or less set and I actually think such an endeavor would be a momentous chance to create a full length, narrative ballet in the classical tradition that is in a way, distinctly American.  There really aren’t many American story ballets, with the most prominent being of the Western genre, with works like Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and Fall River Legend, neither of which are full length.  Unfortunately the Western genre may indeed be too American because I don’t think de Mille’s ballets are performed regularly abroad and I’m willing to bet there’s little interest by European companies to do so.  When it comes to story ballets, America does seem to be stuck on a one-way street where it’s okay to perform ballets with Eurocentric librettos and folklore, but exporting an American ballet just isn’t happening.  This is not to say Europe is evil, or life is unfair, etc. only that historically, that’s been the norm.

I should note that The Last Unicorn has made a transition to the theatre in a couple of productions, including one that Beagle himself wrote the script for in 1988, for Intiman Playhouse of…Seattle!  I didn’t research this thoroughly, but apparently Pacific Northwest Ballet was involved in the musical production, and there was choreography by Kent Stowell.  However, I’ve heard some critical views on Stowell’s choreography, including a stranger at a bus stop who started a conversation with me because of my New York City Ballet tote bag; she flat out said that she didn’t like Stowell’s choreography (she did however love Balanchine, and actually used to live in New York during the glory years, regularly watching the likes of Suzanne Farrell).  Finding a video of Intiman’s production is not a priority for me since it’s not technically a ballet, but credit is due for what must be the first attempt at expressing Beagle’s writing in movement.

In terms of a choreographer, what The Last Unicorn needs is a Frederick Ashton and actually, despite the novelty of having an “American ballet,” the truth is that it’s more suited for a British choreographer and audience.  Balanchine’s influence on modern ballet here is perhaps too great; the aesthetic tends to be sleek, streamlined and “new.”  The chances of finding a better suited choreographer in the UK is much higher thanks to the influence of Ashton, because this kind of mystical, charming story is exactly the kind of thing he was known for and only he took choreographing animals seriously.  One might think that sticking a horn on a ballerina’s head and making her walk on all fours would be a ridiculous sight indeed, but that’s taking it too literally.  When Ashton choreographed dancers as animals, there was always a special attention paid to capturing the essence of an animal’s movement and not simply reproducing an animal with a human body.  Dances like the chickens in La fille mal Gardée, Bottom in The Dream, and of course the ultimate, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and it’s vast array of woodland creatures showcase his ability to create ingenious and technically brilliant choreography for “animals.”  To anyone who may still find the idea of animal choreography silly, I have two words for him (because it’s most likely a man who would think such a thing)…Swan. Lake.  Women certainly don’t have wings or the proportions of a swan but it’s all about the interpretation and the quality of movement that makes them believable as swans and cygnets (come to think of it, there are actually a number of parallels between Swan Lake and The Last Unicorn).

Well, fingers crossed that a choreographer can be found…but perhaps more challenging would be finding a composer.  The state of classical music composition is even direr than ballet I think, let alone classical ballet scores.  Still, someone out there must be capable and need only the chance.  Although I haven’t seen Blancanieves (Spanish for ‘Snow White’) in its entirety, it’s an example of a newer ballet (premiered in 2005) that did have a new score, written by Emilio Aragón.  I’ve watched extracts from the ballet because it was choreographed on Tamara Rojo and it does have some wonderful musical moments and while it may not achieve the legendary status of a Tchaikovsky score, it’s a relief to know that the genesis of a ballet score can still be done in this modern age of…how do you say, neglecting classical talents?  I was horrified though that Aragón included enough music for Tamara to do forty-eight fouettes…but this may have been a request by the choreographer as opposed to a musical choice because I find it impossible that so many counts could be considered musical.  At any rate, a score for The Last Unicorn would have to be mysterious, yet elegant, capricious at times and stylistically…how do you say, French?  Le sigh…this whole ‘American’ thing isn’t working out, is it?  I hear in my mind something very Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now assuming I was this billionaire impresario that could lure artists (particularly of the Royal Ballet) with million dollar contracts, I would cast the principle roles as follows (in order of appearance):

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea……….Sarah Lamb

Schmendrick……….Bennet Gartside

Molly Grue……….TBA

Prince Lír……….Steven McRae

The Red Bull……….Thiago Soares

King Haggard……….Edward Watson

*All images are ©ITC Entertainment

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea

Sarah Lamb is the perfect Lady Amalthea…she has a wonderful, elfin look with beautiful, big eyes and an ethereal touch to her dancing.  When I watched her in The Sleeping Beauty DVD as the Bluebird, I couldn’t believe how delicate she was.  While I can’t comment on her abilities in grittier roles, I do think the Lady Amalthea is one that offers great acting opportunities.  She is not simply a unicorn that is turned into a human and falls in love with a man—she must deal with additional adversity as she searches for the other unicorns and the realization of loneliness.  It’s a loneliness that begins as solitude from being the last unicorn, and takes on new meaning when she is forced to relinquish her love for Prince Lír.  She begins as a rather cold and indifferent creature, and when she is turned into a human while she eventually learns to love she is at first horrified as she comes to grips with her mortality.  I think there is more acting potential here than Odette/Odile.

Schmendrick

The unicorn is the opposite of Schmendrick, who in becoming a fully-fledged wizard actually becomes mortal—a fact that is only known to readers of the novel.  As well as the movie does adapt from the book (about 92% I’d say) this was one detail that was left out.  It actually gives Schmendrick another dimension and makes him less of a buffoon (although a lovable buffoon).  It’s an interesting juxtaposition against the Unicorn’s revulsion of mortality, in that Schmendrick would rather live a mortal life as that which he wishes to be rather than immortal with sporadic magical powers.  I would cast self-proclaimed funnyman Bennet Gartside as the magician, as I know him to have a healthy sense of humor, which is essential for a good Schmendrick.

 

 

Molly Grue

Now Molly Grue is a fascinating character, perhaps my favorite (hence my difficulties in casting her).  For a ragamuffin she is incredibly intuitive, bold and passionate.  She is unafraid of sassing people and being straightforward with the truth.  She scolds other characters regardless of their status, including the unicorn herself, who she held in such high regard.  This was one of my favorite scenes of the film (which by the way, later DVD versions edited because of her swearing…but to edit “damn” is awfully prude. Damn damn, damn damn damn damn. Damn…damn.)  As I said, I wouldn’t know whom to cast because Molly needs to have an earthy, intelligent, rough around the edges portrayal…in fact, I think she should be barefoot just like she is in the movie (only the unicorns should be on pointe).  Ideas, anyone?

Aforementioned scene with Molly:

Prince Lír

As mentioned before, the movie is incredibly close to the novel.  The only character that is cheated is Prince Lír, as the town of Hagsgate (part of King Haggard’s domain) is Lír’s birthplace, and there was a prophecy that foretold King Haggard’s fall would come at the hands of one born in Hagsgate.  At the end of the novel, we see more about Prince Lír’s character as he bitterly pines for Lady Amalthea, as well as an interesting scene when Lír (now king) meets his birth father.  Unfortunately, a ballet may have to be edited similarly to the film because the third act necessitates a dramatic finish.  Still, Prince Lír is naïve but chivalrous and would be wonderfully portrayed by Steven McRae, whose vibrancy would give great energy to the dashing prince.

 

King Haggard

I struggled with whether King Haggard should be a character role or danced role because he is so…haggard and decrepit, but I realized that King Haggard must absolutely be danced because of his interactions with the unicorn (which would make for a very haunting pas de deux).  Furthermore, he is very much in the same vein as Von Rothbart, in that he wants to own the unicorns.  I don’t think it’s ever made known why Von Rothbart has trapped Odette though, while it is revealed that a chance sighting of two unicorns, one resting its head on the back of another was the only thing that ever made King Haggard happy.  Although he is the selfish, frightful antagonist of the story, he’s not entirely sinister—he technically never harms anyone, which makes him a fascinating villain to me.  Such emotional depth and regality requires the talents of Edward Watson, who with the right make-up would look positively ghastly…in the good way, of course.

The Red Bull

Not much for words, the Red Bull is the prison guard of the unicorns, the manifestation of their worst fears and the creature that keeps them at bay, cowering in the sea.  When I was younger I didn’t think much of him…he was simply King Haggard’s monstrous beast.  However, the novel has given me further insight that makes him a far more interesting character.  For one thing, the movie never mentions the fact that he’s blind but the most fascinating line about the Red Bull is omitted from the film.  Towards the end when the Red Bull enters the sea and the unicorns escape, the Red Bull seems to give up, something I didn’t notice before and it’s Schmendrick who explains this in the book: “The Red Bull never fights…he conquers, but he never fights.”  The Red Bull actually has a sense of pride and honor that isn’t so obvious in the movie.  Thiago Soares is my pick for this role, because of his smoldering performance as the hunter Orion in The Royal Ballet’s DVD of Sylvia.

There are also many potential solo roles, like Butterfly (who is indeed male!), Captain Cully, Autumn Cat, Skull and character roles like Mommy Fortuna and Mabruk.  Hell, if you go by the novel there’s even a Bluebird pas de deux!  Lots of great options here, but the most spine tingling scene is perhaps reserved for the corps de ballet, when the herd of unicorns come rushing out of the sea.  I think it could go down as one of the most iconic corps de ballet moments:

They'd have to wait until Act III juuuuuuust for this...

I think the only major challenge in terms of production values for The Last Unicorn would be the scene of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival.  There are animals that have illusions cast on them to appear as things they are not (a lion as a manticore, an ape as a satyr, etc. and actually much more in the book than is shown in the novel as Mommy Fortuna puts herself in an exhibit as well) so the challenge would be whether to show the animals as they are, or as their illusory counterparts, or to edit them out somehow (the Unicorn must still be captured by Mommy Fortuna though, because that’s how she meets Schmendrick).  Speaking of spells there is also the matter of transforming the Unicorn into Lady Amalthea on stage…a horn is easily removed but there’s the decision of whether she should appear nude when she is transformed into a human leave her in her white Unicorn costume (which I imagine to be a pretty simple white leotard/short skirt combo…her beauty needs to be told in her steps and gestures) and leave the rest to poetic imagination.  There’s going to have to be some smoke and mirrors, but this is far from the most difficult illusion ever attempted on stage.

Conclusion?  The Last Unicorn ballet needs to happen.  As soon as this impresario gig works out for me, I’ll get on it if someone hasn’t beaten me to it.

Moira Shearer

21 Sep

It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance.  Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones.  There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known.  I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.

The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives.  It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr.  I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked.  Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni?  Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.

I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.”  It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!).  At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding.  Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer.  I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days.  I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.

Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored.  It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence.  De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room.  This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen.  Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine.  Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately).  De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly.  It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?).  Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet.  It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…

It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances.  The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard.  Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no?  At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer.  Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well.  I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody.  The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them.  In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton!  I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.

(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)

Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

Inner Petipa…are you sleeping?

15 Sep

In an attempt to get in touch with my inner Petipa, I sat my seat down and watched the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.  Truth be told, it really seemed more like “the story of the omnipotent Lilac Fairy,” a role in which Marianela Núñez shined…but more on that later (and props to Laura Morera as the…”spicy fairy.” I forget what the official name was).

As I said, the whole purpose of this exercise was to get in touch with my inner Petipa.  I’ve definitely been going through a “Peti-blah” funk towards the great classics because quite frankly, once you go MacMillan/Ashton you can never go back.  Well, I shouldn’t say “never,” but the more I come to appreciate that dynamic duo of British choreographers, the harder it becomes to enjoy the Petipa classics that are plagued with divertissements (translation, a dance for people on stage that probably have nothing to do with the story), leading to a tendency to stretch out stories that don’t have that much substance in the first place.  Sleeping Beauty was LONG.  I was genuinely shocked to discover that it’s only a mere eighteen minutes longer than my beloved Manon, because it does drag a bit and coming out of something feeling like you spent ten hours of your life in a mere two is generally not a good sign.

The problem is, Petipa is to be respected—NOT optional.  His great classics have been a driving force in securing ballet’s continual success and its place in history.  At first I thought maybe I was watching the wrong ballets.  The only one I’ve seen live is Le Corsaire, which I used to like a lot more than I do now and then there’s Don Quixote (meh) and La Bayadère that I’ve seen on film (the latter being one I still appreciate quite a bit actually).  I still have yet to watch a Swan Lake, which generally seems to be the most popular one, especially amongst women.  Why women anyway?  Rarely have I heard men say it’s their favorite or for male dancers, that it’s their favorite to perform but women are crazy about it!  However, this is a topic of research for another day so back to regularly scheduled programming…I had some hopes for Sleeping Beauty because I do adore the Disney movie oh so very much.  A hackneyed reference, I know…but the force is strong with my inner child.

I had trouble with the plot of Sleeping Beauty…I know it’s a fairy tale but there were a number of things that either didn’t make sense or were just disappointing—the biggest of these disappointments being the demise of the villainess, Carabosse.  She is a fantastic character but her demise is weak and is mostly at the hands of the Lilac Fairy, whose spell, once actualized in the awakening of Aurora by virtue of Florimund’s kiss is what destroys Carabosse.  I mean really, if the Lilac Fairy’s magic had this potential all along, why the wild goose chase and the one hundred year delay?  I had the same problem with Disney too…Maleficent is one of the most badass villains of all time and the movie went from the legendary line of: “now shall you deal with me, oh prince…and all the powers of Hell!” to having the fairies enchant the sword with a convenient “accuracy spell” so that when Prince Phillip threw it, it was guaranteed to hit its target.  It’s a disservice to these amazing villains to have them perish so easily, especially when it’s not even the main characters who overcome them…there was no sense of triumph for me.

At least in the Disney movie Phillip and Aurora meet before the whole sleep spell so their coupling at the end seems more serendipitous but in the ballet, Florimund kisses Aurora and they meet for the first time (after of course, the Lilac Fairy has him dance with her…ghost?  Where?  In an enchanted forest.).  First of all, shouldn’t Aurora be disturbed that she and her kingdom basically “Brigadooned” it and appeared as anachronisms in a completely new world?  And second, waking up to a stranger kissing you should be kind of creepy…like, “where’s your pepper spray” creepy.  Call it romantic if you must, but the nonsensical aspects of this ballet have me thinking Romeo and Juliet actually makes sense.

Regardless, the ballet IS pretty and Tchaikovsky’s score for it is one of the finest ever.  I think how I’ve come to differentiate the purely classical choreography by Petipa and the sort of neoclassical work of Ashton or MacMillan is that Petipa would be like what I would call “a great writer” while I would categorize Ashton/MacMillan as “great storytellers” (in addition to being great “writers” as well!).  To me, writing and storytelling have always been different arts, sometimes overlapping but still distinct.  I don’t even consider my own writing to necessarily be “good writing” but more often “good storytelling.”  When I came to this epiphany in regards to ballet, all of a sudden Sleeping Beauty became much more digestible.

The whole ballet is rather…“sugar and rainbows” so to speak and speaking of rainbows, I was oddly fascinated by the procession of fairies and their cavaliers in Act I.  I was somehow reminded of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering which has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty; it was just funny to me how the pastel color palettes were almost the same, the number of dancers was almost the same (twelve for Beauty, ten for Gathering), but obviously featured classical choreography with heavily embroidered and ornate tutus for one while the other has contemporary choreography with unadorned chiffon dresses.  The similarity in colors created in my mind a relationship between the two pieces that transcended time.  With both being so exemplary of their respective periods, I couldn’t help but feel the expansiveness of ballet’s timeline and be amazed at how much it has evolved.

In addition to the glitter and sparkle, it has to be said that Alina Cojocaru is in a category of her own.  Her impeccable balances and youthful nature make for a sweetheart Aurora that is sure to make your teeth hurt.  Federico Bonelli (or as I like to refer to him, BoBo…which I guess makes Alina: CoCo) is equally youthful and has a wonderfully boyish look that screams innocence.  What I love so much about his dancing is that he has such beautiful placement and dances very “squarely”—nothing is contorted to get a higher leg or turn out that is forced to unhealthy degrees.  It makes his dancing efficient and clean and it is in fact when dancers are struggling to get their legs higher or forcing their turnout that ballet actually looks hard.  BoBo also has a superb lightness; you would never be able to hear him land a jump and he rolls through his feet and uses his plié so well his steps seamlessly transition from one to another.  He is a perfect partner for CoCo, who is equally light and technically strong.  She has an ability to indulge her lines when she wants to, like in some of the attitude positions she’ll open her hip a bit but when it comes to those tough balances in attitude, she knows how to square her hips off as well.  (This is actually something I sort of learned for myself recently…given, I never dance on pointe but I’ve found a sense of balance that I never had before and now when I microwave leftovers for thirty seconds, I use that time to see if I can hold an attitude on relevé.   And yes, I can!  Even longer some days…I figure if the average human being can’t do that, it warrants a pat on the back)

Observe CoCo and BoBo in their “Happy Ending Pas de Deux”

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sleeping Beauty, and certainly CoCo and BoBo’s dancing of it.  Regardless of some plot issues I think I can enjoy Petipa after all…although considering the Royal Ballet’s production has revisions and choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon, it’s kind of a hot mess of different choreographers.  Then again, every Petipa ballet today is.

Meanwhile, this might be the most fantastic Rose Adagio ever (at the 3:19 mark):