Tag Archives: gary avis

An Awakening to the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

21 Aug

The last ‘Ballet in Cinema’ presentation to be shown in Seattle was the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. Given my antsy attention span, Sleeping Beauty can be a difficult one for me to sit through, but having watched the DVD with Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli (the only other time I’ve watched any Sleeping Beauty) I knew what to do this time—abide by a mantra of “no plot, no character development.” Lo and behold, I found the experience to be quite enjoyable, and despite having seen the DVD, a different cast and a desire to do my part to support the ‘Ballet in Cinema’ series had me wanting to go. Unfortunately, attendance in Seattle gets a 1 out of 10—as in literally, I was one of ten people in the audience. I thought maybe Polunin’s abrupt resignation from the Royal Ballet would make this performance something of interest to more people, but that clearly wasn’t the case. The SIFF theatre is small so it was easy enough to eavesdrop (I swear I wasn’t trying!) and the couple behind me did in fact know about Cuthbertson’s bout with glandular fever and the subsequent, debilitating, post-viral fatigue syndrome, but not about Polunin’s departure, so it was interesting to see what news had made it across the pond.

Well, at least I had interest in seeing Polunin! There really isn’t much of him on YouTube, but I had heard the rave reviews through the grapevine and then the aforementioned abandonment heard ’round the world (or at least ’round Balletomanotopia). I have to admit that it was essentially impossible to separate that knowledge from my viewing of the performance, and I found myself wondering if he would look vacant or miserable, but he was far from it—in fact, he was brilliant. True, the “loss” of his talent on the stage at the Royal Opera House is unfortunate, but so too, would’ve have been the loss of his sanity. Tamara Rojo once said in an interview that oftentimes, extraordinary artists die tragic deaths (and that she enjoyed being sane too much to fully let herself go), and given that Polunin has candidly admitted to using some serious drugs, it’s scarily easy to picture him on that path.

A recent, must-read article, ‘A Dancer’s Demons’ by Julie Kavanagh illuminated some of Polunin’s past, and is probably the most honest portrayal of him, shedding light onto much of what happened, but without any scandal or sensationalism. From familial difficulties, to the fear he felt in the moments before he quit, I felt sorrow for him, and the simple fact remained that he admitted that he had no passion for ballet, and I know for me, living a life without passion is a fate worse than death. We so want to believe that every dancer is passionate about their job but it just isn’t true, and it’s not as black and white as dancers who are passionate and those who aren’t. Personally, I make a distinction between people who love ballet and those who are passionate about it, and then you also have dancers who are more in love with being good at something than they are ballet itself, and some like Polunin who only tolerate certain aspects of it, which for him is performing on stage. Regardless, even though it’s impossible to walk a mile in his shoes, at the very least, every human being knows what it’s like to be miserable so I’m glad he left the Royal Ballet, because he obviously needs to find inner peace more than anything else. I’m also glad he’s not giving up dancing entirely for the time being, now having joined the Stanislavsky Ballet and it’s also satisfying to know that he parted with the Royal Ballet amicably, since he’s agreed to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo again this coming season. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m an Ashtonian Rojonian, but it’d be foolish not to film one of those performances!

Coincidentally, Polunin being cast as Armand (a role made on Nureyev) as well as the lead in Rhapsody (made on Baryshnikov) not to mention the incessant hailing by the media of Polunin as the next Nureyev/Baryshnikov, I have to wonder if casting in those roles exacerbated his feeling of entrapment, on top of the rigid discipline often employed in classical ballet. It has to be difficult to feel like you can be yourself when the public is asking you to be a carbon copy of someone that has existed before. I never thought that Prince Florimund would be a particularly desirable role for a danseur—forget one dimensional, he’s almost no dimensional! However, it’s funny how the lack of depth for the Prince also made him a blank canvas for Polunin to color as he wished. I also never expected to feel anything significant for the Prince, but with Polunin you could really get a sense that he was a true daydreamer, longing for more than what his mundane life had to offer—which, given everything that’s happened since Sleeping Beauty was broadcast, is easy to say in retrospect! Still, in partial thanks to Cuthbertson too, their chemistry really worked because their free-spiritedness translated into their roles so well.

For example, when Cuthbertson danced the Rose Adagio, I could really see the young woman’s silent protest to her father’s hackneyed scheme to marry her off ASAP to some random suitor before she could prick her finger on a spindle. Her Aurora wasn’t just innocent, shy, or elegant as the character is often danced, but truly searching for a way to reject the suitors without creating a kerfuffle (<–awesome word). Though I don’t necessarily think it was Petipa’s intention, I think today, the Rose Adagio can be played up as quite an empowering moment for women. In fact, something that occurred to me while watching this Sleeping Beauty was that a complete overhaul of the ballet has the potential to do so much for women—give Carabosse way more, amp up the tension between her and the Lilac Fairy, tweak the context in which the Rose Adagio is presented (but not the choreography), and all of a sudden you have a story revolving around powerful women (hell, even Genesia Rosato’s Queen magnanimously persuaded Gary Avis’s King Florestan to show mercy to the three girls with knitting needles he wanted to behead!). It’s interesting that in interviews right before the film began, Dame Monica Mason and others discussed the historical significance of the current production of Sleeping Beauty, which is a reconstruction of the staging that re-opened the Royal Opera House right after World War II. After such a dreadful period, Sleeping Beauty gave the audience something beautiful, even encouraging them to attend in less formal dress than was expected at the time because resources had been depleted by the war. How incredibly astute of Dame Ninette de Valois, to respond so wisely to the needs of society at the time, giving something to the people to inspire hopes and dreams, and an escape from the horrors they had just overcome via the war. Wouldn’t it be grand if a modernized Sleeping Beauty could do that for feminism today?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that Cuthbertson will no longer be able to partner with Polunin, because they’re so achingly beautiful together. The vision scene was so exquisite I almost cried (again, just can’t seem to cry in public!), and both Cuthbertson and Polunin have such incredible acting skills that it was one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen (the music alone is enough to make you weep). It’s interesting because the Cuthbertson/Polunin partnership is something that must’ve added to the pressure cooker that Polunin was caught in—with Cuthbertson holding the mantle as the only English principal ballerina, there’s a lot of national pride being stirred into the mix, so partnering her comes with additional expectations and responsibilities…not good, for the already troubled Polunin. It’s funny—and a little upsetting—that in Kavanagh’s article, the Royal Ballet School director, Gailene Stock, said of his audition: “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions—before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’” Ballet has arrived at a point where teachers can identify physical attributes suited for ballet, and advancements in knowledge of kinesiology, anatomy, and medicine have made the care of dancers’ bodies take on a far greater role than in the past…but who’s nurturing the artists? A dancer like Polunin, who has trouble with finding passion and motivation needs a different kind of psychological encouragement to allow him to perform. If physical therapists can develop treatment specific to dancers, surely there can be a team of people catering to individual needs in terms of mental health too. I’m sure the practice exists to some extent, but at its current level, it may not be enough. Even Dame Monica admitted the longest she had spoken with Polunin was when he quit, and not even teachers in a ballet student’s formative and professional years are necessarily equipped to deal with psychological and emotional issues—though some are and they are truly amazing.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in the Vision Scene:

In the end, Cutherbertson/Polunin were both unrestrained and refined, and it made for a riveting Sleeping Beauty. I know I haven’t exactly sang the praises of Imperial Russian ballets…but as far as Sleeping Beauty is concerned, I find it growing on me like a briar rose—thorns remind me of things I detest *cough* Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood *cough*, but the moments of magnificence that blossom before your eyes are wondrous spectacles to behold.

Aaand because I couldn’t fit this anywhere else in the post, I have to briefly praise Yuhui Choe’s Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux—so delicate, so ADORABLE. Love. Her. So. Much.

Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the Bluebird Pas de Deux:

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.