Tag Archives: gillian murphy

The Irony of Byron-y

7 Jun

The first time and only other time I saw Le Corsaire was four years ago when the Bolshoi Ballet brought it to Washington D.C.—and I don’t remember a damn thing. Well, except at one point during the infamous ‘le jardin animé’ scene where a bunch of people are dancing in a garden for no reason, I distinctly remember silently counting the number of bodies on stage in my head—seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eightyCorsaire really is kind of like that morning donut; not good for you, but certainly edible, not something you’d necessarily seek out but you’ll eat it if it’s right in front of you, and sometimes you don’t care if it’s a bad idea at the time even when you know you’ll regret it later. I can’t imagine Corsaire as being on top of any balletomane’s list, but it caters to a different audience and has some importance in the art form’s history, even if the famous pas de deux is the bane of every gala’s existence. Begrudgingly, we deal with it and might even enjoy it a little. I wouldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure ballet because somehow, you don’t even feel bad delighting in its ludicrousness.

I should’ve known it would come to this–a little over a month ago I was in Fort Worth, Texas, visiting the Kimbell Museum of Art. In it, I was immediately drawn to a work called ‘Selim and Zuleika’, a 19th century oil painting by Eugène Delacroix. As I read the placard, I felt a chill as a shadow I had once cast off made itself known to me once more. Bearing in mind I had actually forgotten everything I learned about Corsaire, but in reading the following, the familiarity was too great not to re-plank old bridges (via the Kimbell’s website):

Like many of his contemporaries, Delacroix took inspiration from the best-selling Romantic poetry of Lord Byron. This painting is the last and most developed of the four canvases that the artist devoted to “The Bride of Abydos,” first published in 1813 and available in French translation by 1821. Set in the Dardanelles of Turkey, Byron’s poem relates the tragic fate of Zuleika, the daughter of the Pasha Giaffir, and her lover, the pirate Selim. In order to avoid a loveless marriage arranged by her father, Zuleika escapes at night from the harem tower in which she has been held. In the scene shown in Delacroix’s painting the lovers await rescue in a grotto by the sea, pursued by Giaffir and his men, armed and bearing torches. When Selim fires his pistol to summon the aid of his comrades, who are waiting offshore, the shot signals their position to Giaffir. Sensing the approach of her pursuers, Zuleika tries to restrain Selim. In the tragic climax of the tale, Selim is shot dead by Giaffir, and his body washed out to sea. Zuleika dies of grief.

'Selim and Zuleika': 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

‘Selim and Zuleika’: 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

Wait a minute…I thought to myself, dusting cobwebs off the recesses of my memories—Lord Byron…Mediterranean…pasha…harem…pirate…loveless marriage…grotto by the sea…GAH! Shades of Corsaire had insidiously made its way into my life again, when I least expected it, and I even liked the blasted painting with its rich jewel toned focal points and carefully etched facial expressions. Parley? I didn’t really have much of a choice because I knew in a couple months time, I’d be seeing Corsaire on American Ballet Theatre. Initially I hoped to artfully dodge the whole ordeal, but when I heard Steven McRae from the Royal Ballet would perform as a guest artist, I resigned myself to that rare opportunity. Though McRae’s role was strangely minor, his jumps were fiery and his partnering of Misty Copeland as Gulnare was quite strong—which wasn’t something that occurred to me when I watched videos of McRae in other things, and Copeland, with her extremely hyperextended knees needs an acutely aware partner to be able to help her find her center, and McRae did a phenomenal job.

The story of the ballet Le Corsaire is nearly impossible to describe without laughing or wanting to beat your head against a wall, but to put it crudely, the pirate Conrad falls in love with Medora, a slave girl, and with her fellow slave girl Gulnare, are sold to the Pasha Seyd by the slave trader, Lankendem. Conrad then instructs his slave Ali to kidnap Medora, and they escape to his grotto, where the good stuff happens. Conrad’s pirates have also taken other slave girls, and Medora beseeches Conrad to free them all, much to the annoyance of Conrad’s friend Birbanto, who ignites a mutiny. Conrad quells the uproar, but Birbanto is still bitter about the ruckus and sprays a flower with a sleeping potion (stay with me!) and has it given to Medora, who bestows it on Conrad, who takes a whiff and passes out. Birbanto and the pirates come to take Medora away, but she avoids capture and cuts Birbanto’s arm with a dagger in the process—and is promptly captured by Lankendem, who gives her back to the Pasha. The Pasha, falls asleep and has outrageously pink dreams of his wives (remember the aforementioned inconsequential garden scene?). Meanwhile, Conrad and his pirates manage to sneak into the palace and everything goes bananas. At one point, Birbanto makes a move for Gulnare, and upon seeing him, Medora is finally able to expose him as a traitor. Conrad shoots Birbanto, and then he, Medora, Ali, Gulnare (maybe Lankendem? I forget) escape from the alerted palace guards and flee by ship. A violent storm then sends them—well, most of them—to the bottom of the sea, and only the lovers Conrad and Medora survive, washing upon a rocky shore. And scene.

This Corsaire (for better or worse!) plays out much like a movie rather than a ballet. Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair of which the ballet…is based…er, loosely draws elements from, offers much more rich complexities, especially in the characterization of Conrad. Curiously, Delacroix also painted “Episode from The Corsair”, which depicts a scene in which Gulnare confesses her love for the imprisoned pirate and offers to kill the Pasha, so that he may be freed. Conrad and Gulnare actually have a bit of a fling, and she’s the one Conrad comes to rescue, even though his true love is still Medora. Conrad even betrays Medora with a kiss to Gulnare, and there we have our symbolic gesture of the inner conflict. Still, the Byronic hero is a sort of bad boy with a hidden virtue—a cunning, suave, foolhardy, dashing, and gallant man of questionable morals but not entirely reprehensible. As Conrad, Marcelo Gomes was the epitome of debonair in Wednesday’s matinee. My friend Robin and I were DYING because it’s sort of a screwball role and requires some amount (but not too much) mindfulness not to ham it up to the point of buffoonery, but Gomes was brilliant. Chivalrous but also adorably preposterous, it made sense with the absurdity that is Le Corsaire, and his acting made it infinitely more enjoyable. He makes it so easy to forget about how illogical ballet can be, because regardless of what’s happening on the stage, there’s always something gratifying when you can see someone enjoying what he’s doing to the fullest.

Equally relishable was the epic slave run of James Whiteside as Ali, scampering into the wings with arms outstretched to the sides, head tossed back—it was magnificent. Together with Gomes and Gillian Murphy as Medora, they performed the central pas de trois the best I’ve ever seen—I was actually quite moved. Sometimes performed as a pas de deux for galas, this except is performed way too much for competitions and galas all over the world, so a variety of videos exist on the Internet in overabundance. The standards are high and the tolerance is low (Adolphe Adam’s score will haunt you for the rest of your life), so I don’t say this lightly, but Gomes/Murphy/Whiteside were truly wonderful. Such gracious, steadfast, and tender partnering from both Gomes and Whiteside and good heavens, Murphy’s got moxie. She looked so radiant and yet calm—she does all of the difficult turns and tricky steps without an ounce of trepidation. There are perhaps more refined dancers, but there are a great deal less who can dance the way she can. While so many dancers obsess over the pursuit of perfection, Murphy dances within her own mind and body, which gives her the freedom to play with her technique. She does things differently and it’s wonderful like multiple pirouettes with her arms simultaneously (and slowly) floating  up over her head, which is one of the hardest things to coordinate while your body is turning because it can so easily throw you off balance. She’s a riot in the best possible way and holds her own against the bravado of the men, which is typically what Corsaire is designed to do—show off the men.

Any ballet that can be described as “swashbuckling” is going to make me suppress a downcast gaze accompanied by a disgruntled slump of the shoulders, but if I had to see Le Corsaire every few years it would certainly be at ABT. The current production is on loan from Teatro Colon from Buenos Aires, and the costumes are indeed quite beautiful. Choreographically, there’s not too much one can do to Corsaire, though I think the moment where Ali and Conrad share an exchange and then all of a sudden Conrad bursts into consecutive pirouettes a la seconde is strangely placed behind a “v” of pirates, obscuring a relatively pointless insertion of a bravura step anyway. Also, one of the lifts in the bed…bed-grotto(?) scene was awkward looking, with Medora inverted overhead Conrad and clinging to his shoulders in a push-up position, and then she lifts one arm, which was hidden by her dress and looked like pilates or figure skating (and not even good figure skating!). But, none of that really matters and ABT’s Corsaire is a relatively smooth sailing ship as they say, and I even liked it better than DonQ. I could even love it…if anyone decides to reinvent Le Corsaire in a way that is truly romantic in the manner of Lord Byron, with more anguish for our beloved hero Conrad, and a tragic ending. Just a thought!

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My first ‘Swan Lake’

27 Jun

Now that my pulse has returned to normal, I think I can write a competent review of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. The Wednesday evening cast had Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette/Odile and Marcelo Gomes as Siegfried. Though I had some idea of what to expect having watched the dress rehearsal, I didn’t expect myself to get so caught up in the whole spectacle! By the end of their white swan pas de deux there may have been a tear in my eye, by the end of the third act I had already forgotten about some of the things I don’t like about Kevin McKenzie’s particular production, and by the fourth I was a few blips away from a heart attack. In short, I had a blast and Gillian and Marcelo absolutely killed it. I sort of hate the crudeness of that phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the magic that happened on stage in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Since I prefer to talk about good things, I’m going to keep all the complaints to this one paragraph and be done with it so I can rave like a lunatic. I still don’t like the blatancy of McKenzie’s staging, and feel the prologue where you see von Rothbart transform Odette ruins a few things like her entrance in Act II, where you don’t see her change from a swan into a human but it’s symbolized by a single leap in flight. It’s a much more poetic entrance, and even von Rothbart’s entrance as a human sorcerer in the third act has more excitement and drama than what we see in the prologue (seriously, ask the music). There’s also a lot of choreography during the overtures which I didn’t like because the overtures are in fact a part of the experience of going to the ballet—they offer a reprieve from the action, a moment to absorb the music and even process what you’ve seen or are about to see. It almost felt like McKenzie was trying to add to the story, but the result was a ballet super-saturated with superfluous dance. I appreciate that he wanted to develop the plot, but I wish he picked elements that would actually contribute, and choreographed in a way that was more than just haphazardly stringing steps together because some of the corps patterns and pas de trois work had me constantly wondering what I was supposed to be directing my attention to. And choreography has to be more than just a sequence of steps that hits the obvious accents, because the art of phrasing necessitates more thoughtfulness. Also, I like a tragic end so the apotheosis where Odette and Siegfried are reunited in heaven is questionable for me, not to mention the fact that we see that after an excruciatingly long death scene for von Rothbart. I would be happy to see the suicide leaps simply be the end!

Meanwhile, I’m ambivalent about the maypole in Act I. I wasn’t bothered by it, but I would like to point out that Frederick Ashton’s use of a maypole in La Fille mal Gardée is far superior in every respect. I helps that ribbons are a motif in La Fille, but Ashton’s use of it has more charm and creativity in weaving it together. So, I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that ABT should do La Fille. Last week I had a chance to speak with Ashtonians Karen Eliot and David Vaughan (author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets and the companion website, the Ashton Archive), who both agree the company would be lovely in La Fille.

But I digress—the dancing throughout Swan Lake tonight was superb by the entire cast. Gillian was especially bewildering and I was quite moved by her Odette. I know many like their Odette’s fragile, but Gillian’s has a bit of diva in her and sometimes it’s nice to see an Odette that gives some meaning to her title as Queen of the Swans. She still gave us delicacy, but I enjoyed seeing that melt away as her pas de deux with Siegfried continued, as if her trust in him were blooming in front of our eyes. She of course delivered the fireworks in style as Odile, capitalized by one of the most inconceivable series of fouettés I’ve ever seen. I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it is to coordinate moving your arms WHILE pirouetting, but to give some idea, dancers center pirouettes by supporting themselves with their backs, which is also where arm movements must originate. Many people instinctively move their arms from their shoulders, but in ballet this looks superficial and can also make the torso appear very stiff. However, somehow Gillian has figured this all out and can do a moving port de bras a la seconde while turning, and the effect is breathtaking. I remember seeing her try this in a video from the Vail Festival, and thought she was just sort of fooling around, but she’s obviously perfected it and bravely did it tonight in her only Swan Lake this season (alternating them with triple pirouettes of course). While I’ve aligned myself in the school of thought that believes things that already have a name need not be named again (I’m looking at you “B-plus,” aka, “attitude a terre”), these should be called “Murphy turns.” (seen at 0:21 below)

I have to say that after seeing her voluptuous, Renaissance Titania, and now her exciting Odette/Odile, I have fallen in love with Gillian Murphy. She has a wild side and I can’t get enough of it! When Odile has the audience in the palm of her hand, tricking Siegfried is almost an afterthought.

As for Siegfried—what can I say about Marcelo? Oh, that he’s a gracious partner, has fabulous technique (the way he rolls through his feet when coming down from relevé in his Act I solos is DIVINE and highly underappreciated), the finest of acting skills, and a million dollar smile. I’m pretty sure even all that isn’t enough praise, but it’s impossible to not love it when someone dances their heart out. It’s such an appropriate quality to have as Siegfried because with just the right amount of naïveté it makes the idea of love at first sight believable, which is crucial for his first encounter with Odette. The same characteristic can be magnified to become tempestuous and foolhardy, making the scam Odile and von Rothbart pull off on him also authentic. Sure, Siegfried is a chump, but you do empathize with him because we’ve all had a taste of deception in our lives and know how horrid and bitter it is. Thus, Marcelo’s Siegfried is one we can easily forgive in Act IV, which succeeds in only intensifying Odette’s amnesty. It’s dangerously close to being more drama than the soul can handle, but despite my aversion for vulnerability, precariousness, and the pearly gates of Heaven, it’s an adventure worth dying for.

With only one more Swan Lake that I’ll be attending on Friday, the end of my time in New York looms on the horizon. Still, milestones have been achieved and I am happy to report that yes, I waited by the stage door to meet Marcelo and present him with a small gift, in person this time. This also proved to be a near-death experience when at one point while waiting, Catherine and I turned around to screams of young girls, finding ourselves practically swimming upstream in a stampeding horde of budding ballerinas. Still, what a treat for them to see their idols! Though Gillian was mobbed for what seemed like ages, she took her time for pictures and autographs. I patiently waited my turn to see Marcelo, because A. I’m not a teenage girl and B. I don’t need pictures or autographs (the stage door is in the parking garage and who even wants to be photographed in a subterranean dungeon with fluorescent lighting?). For me, the memories are enough and a great performance from a dancer is like a gift—they literally give themselves to us on the stage, which is why I felt the need to give back. Obviously, I avoided doing it in person the first couple of times, but I was almost mad at myself for being such a scaredy-cat. I’m almost thirty for crying out loud, I can’t have the same fear equivalent of a baby bunny! Wounding my own pride may have done the trick though because I was determined (and stubborn enough) to get over it, and so I did. I gave him his gift, had a lovely conversation, and he was incredibly gracious. Best of all, I didn’t feel crazy or stupid, and with Catherine as my witness, I got a hug!

It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago I had written “An Open Letter to Famous Dancers” and it’s even harder to believe I might’ve just achieved freedom from my fears. It appears as though many gifts went around tonight!

Behind the scenes at ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’

26 Jun

(Well, not literally behind the scenes as in backstage.)

There’s nothing like having the opportunity to observe the process that produces the final product and attending the dress rehearsal for American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake was pretty damn sweet. I purchased the incredibly inexpensive ticket through an exclusive deal for Mastercard holders, and first of all, the seats ended up being in the parterre section, which at the Metropolitan Opera House are the prime seats that cost way more than I could ever afford! So in addition to seeing how a high caliber ballet company rehearses, I also got to feel what it would be like to have buckets of money and splurge on the best that money can buy. Well, maybe quasi-best because I could have done without the tall lady in front of me (or the crabby one to her left), but I was too excited to be really bothered by it. Second, I got to share the experience with friends and readers, which—like Mastercard so often tells us—is something priceless. Lastly, as an added bonus, while Denise took a picture of Robin and I standing in front of the Swan Lake poster in front of the MET, David Hallberg was taking a picture of the Corsaire poster right behind us! David Hallberg! In street clothes!

Anyway, the average person may not know what a dress rehearsal looks like so I’ll try to paint a picture. The sets are of course up, though there is no full orchestra—only the conductor and pianist. Some of the dancers are in regular warm up clothes, some are half in costume, others in full costume. Lighting is more or less there, though the technicians fiddle with it from time to time to make sure everything is in working order. The artistic director and ballet mistress sit smack dab in the middle of the orchestra section, speaking into microphones to fine tune several details. Sometimes the action stops to correct an error, sometimes the show goes on. For ABT, pausing meant that on a few occasions they would switch the principal cast members briefly to give them an opportunity to find their bearings on the stage. For the most part, the audience saw the young pairing of Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin, set to make their debuts as Odette/Odile and Siegfried respectively on Wednesday, while Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes were listed to perform the fourth act.

Though the fabulousness overload was indeed a treat, what I found incredibly fascinating was the difference between the veterans and the newcomers. For Murphy/Gomes, they’ve done this rodeo a great many times and the experience shows. For Boylston/Simkin, the talent is all there but the maturity isn’t, though I don’t mean that to be interpreted negatively. It’s generally touted to be one of the ballet dancer’s greatest achievements to dance the lead in Swan Lake, and with it comes tremendous pressure from outside and within. There’s nothing heavier than bearing the weight of a historical tradition, because of the numerous responsibilities to uphold it. Rehearsal was really just business as usual with a couple of bumps along the road, so there’s nothing dramatic to report. I think it’s fair to expect that their debut may not be Earth-shattering, but these things take time and I’d venture to say that for the majority of dancers, their first Swan Lake is never the one they’re happiest with. Youth seems to be on their side too, because it definitely brings something fresh to a warhorse classic. After all, the easiest way to give Swan Lake a quick makeover is to simply put new dancers in it.

Inevitably, one of my favorite things about rehearsals is when things go wrong—though not “bad” wrong—like when they started to rehearse Act IV and Marcelo came out to find that Isabella was perched on the lakeside cliff as his Odette. Hilarity ensued when Marcelo went to get Daniil, who, already half out of costume was sure it was a mistake. Eventually Gillian showed up, and the image of two Odettes posing on the cliff, with two Siegfrieds laughing is one that will remain permanently etched in my memories. Now, about that cliff though…in many Swan Lakes any combination of Odette or Siegfried and both of the above will make a suicide jump into the lake, and it appeared as though it was in fact, Isabella and Daniil’s first time actually getting to do the fateful vault. Isabella seemed tentative—after all, dancers are used to landing on their feet so landing prone on a mat isn’t exactly a comfortable idea. Both she and Daniil made attempt after attempt, and while he played around with it, unafraid of a little silliness, it’s definitely harder for her because if his jump isn’t perfect, he can get away with it, but you know the swan’s dive is expected to look graceful. I suppose one need not look further than Marcelo’s dive, which has all the drama and passion a Swan Lake could handle.

Exhibit A:

(Photo ©Rosalie O’Connor)

However, where there’s a wrong, there’s always a right, and as an added bonus we were treated to Gillian and Marcelo’s white swan pas de deux, and a black swan pas de deux from Polina and David. Both couples were marvelous (the more I see of Gillian Murphy the more I like her), and I was in awe of Polina—the command she has over her technique is astonishing and I can’t wait to see her take on the full story for her Friday evening performance. Though there are still production elements and choreographic motifs that I disagree with throughout Kevin McKenzie’s staging, I do think his Act III is wonderful, and will provide a perfect atmosphere for any exceptional Odile like Polina. I’m also interested to see how Gillian has changed over the years since Swan Lake was filmed, as I think she was a bit rawer (yes, that’s a word, and yes, you totally said “rawr” in your head just now) at the time. Though I love her fearlessness, the preview she gave as Odette in the rehearsals were very promising that she has found more refinement.

Overall, the experience was well worth it and has set me up to enjoy some really exciting Swan Lake performances this week. I won’t get to see Boylston/Simkin, but I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to read the reviews. Apparently tickets for all performances are selling like mad (the box office employee said that even employees aren’t able to get discount tickets for themselves now) so I expect nearly full houses and a wild audience. It’s now really starting to hit me that Wednesday will be my first live Swan Lake ever, and with the excitement and anxiety starting to build, I’m beginning to worry it might be my last! I hope the paramedics will be at the ready…

Reviewing Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’

24 Jun

It’s bittersweet that ABT has now finished its all too brief run of The Dream, though repeated viewings with different casts were well worth it. Obviously this trip to New York has been filled with firsts, so seeing Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg live was of course a new experience. Coincidentally, when I took class this morning, Gillian did barre to warm up and left, so it was actually a neat experience to see her at work as a person, and then transform into a fairy queen. And not just any fairy queen—Gillian’s Titania has a wild side that deserves a new title I’d like to call “Divatania.” She has an energy and an aura in that role that made me love her the most of all three ballerinas I saw dance it. On that note, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Xiomara Reyes in the evening performance, who is softer in temperament, but had a little firepower too—when she shot an indignant glare towards Oberon after he tried to purloin her changeling, I only wished that Cory Stearns had given a more emphatic reaction. Stearns certainly has a majestic carriage, fine technique, and I think he can act too but I also felt that he may be unsure of where he wants to go with his interpretation of Oberon, perhaps beyond what he’s told to do with it. Watching Gomes last night was a lesson in attack and full out dancing at eighty-five million miles an hour, while David showed more contrast and really played with pushing and pulling the music in today’s matinee.

Some of the same dancers reprised roles from last night, though I was very pleased that I got to see Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, Sascha Radetsky, and Jared Matthews perform as the Lovers because they’ve clearly done it before and have polished the comedic timing to perfection. Also right on the funny money were both Craig Salstein and of course Herman Cornejo as Puck, the former showing a more raw interpretation with dynamism and speed, the latter the epitome of carefree and clever. Though Puck has sort of become the token substantial consolation role for the short dancer ever since Wayne Sleep originated it, to be honest I wouldn’t mind seeing Cornejo as Oberon. There’s something to be said for developing a conscious ability to present oneself in a way that is contrary to what people tend to think, and many times those who can tap into that are more successful. Tall dancers like Gomes, Hallberg, and Stearns may not even be aware of how their stature affects people’s perceptions of their dancing. I could go on, but I really do need to explain myself in regards to Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird.

I tried to like it, in fact, I tried to like it three times. Unfortunately it never happened and I couldn’t bring myself to back the concept Ratmansky and the designers of the production had in mind. First off, the sets invoked images of deep sea tubeworms that proliferate around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (watch ‘Blue Planet’ on the Discovery Channel if you just failed to follow my geekery), and second the costumes made me think this Firebird was like some kind of collaborative production between the Muppets and Cirque du Soleil to perform Jewels—under the sea, teeming with ruby sea urchins, emerald jellyfish, and diamond…Elvises. I always say that those who try to be edgy or avant-garde inevitably fail because those are things you can’t try to be. Cirque du Soleil for example is known for similar costumes to the firebirds, but with much more innovative choreography and amazing acrobatics so it’s a concept that works, and the same look didn’t seem to highlight Ratmansky’s use of classical steps. Even the more modern stylized movements lacked purpose and the use of some repeated motifs didn’t really contribute to the story.

Oh the story…it hardly made any sense, and leaves you with so many unanswered questions I can’t even begin to ask them all.  The plot elements that are somewhat logical are either drawn out to fill the music, or are told in probably the last five minutes of the ballet. Essentially, Ivan wakes up alone in a room (we’re never told how or why), enters the tubeworm forest where he find firebirds, captures one who gives him a feather to summon her in a time of need. He then happens upon a group of maidens in green, recognizes one as his long lost love and tries to get her to remember. Enter the maniacal sorcerer Kaschei, controller of the maidens, and the conflict presents itself. Ivan summons the Firebird, there’s dancing, and then she reveals an egg that Ivan smashes to defeat Kaschei. The maidens reveal themselves in white gowns and blonde wigs, their long lost loves are freed from within the tubeworm trees and the starry people are jubilant. I actually found the ending quite beautiful, but most of the significant action literally takes place in the last few minutes when the meat of the story is revealed, but that’s after almost an hour of choreography that is stretched very thin. I’m rather shocked that this is in fact Ratmansky because it seems so unlike him and when I passed him in the theatre I almost wanted to ask: “what happened?”

The initial pas de deux where Ivan captures the Firebird didn’t convince me that she couldn’t get away from him, and even duets between Ivan and his lost Maiden didn’t illuminate any sort of romantic possibilities. Later there’s a quartet between Ivan, Firebird, Maiden, and Kaschei that moves through molasses and like much of the other sections in the ballet is too long and nonsensical. Still, the production isn’t entirely without merit but I fear that Ratmansky’s ballet relies entirely on casting. Isabella Boylston and Natalia Osipova were the two Firebirds I saw in three casts, and Boylston was lovely (the crowd was going wild for her), though Osipova had a certain kookiness that I found convincing. The role of the Firebird itself is oddly insignificant, and the Maiden isn’t really one I found relatable either. When Simone Messmer performed it, there was a moment at the end where she stripes off the green dress and hair net after Kaschei’s spell over her is broken, and she really tore off those clothes with shock and disgust, which was the first time I truly felt anything for the character. All three Ivans (Alexandre Hammoudi, Gomes, Cornejo) were fantastic, however, I did feel Herman was the most believable. I know some of you may be shocked because you think Marcelo gets the trump card but I’m not entirely without objective thought! While Gomes dances full out, Cornejo’s interpretation has such innocence and honesty that it really fits the image of a prince in white. Hallberg as Kaschei was deliciously maniacal and sinister, and it’s very gratifying to see him in a role that breaks the convention of him as such a regal, classical dancer. Again, though, Firebird can’t simply rely on the opportunity to see Hallberg go crazy…there has to be more substance than that and when the gimmick of the strange designs wears off, I didn’t feel the choreography really offered much substance.

While I appreciated the invested performances of the dancers in Firebird, and in some ways the fact that Ratmansky decided to take a risk and step outside of his comfort zone, but his Firebird simply isn’t for me. Maybe it was an error in programming to put something flawless like The Dream before it, because Firebird doesn’t tell the story with the same sort of wit and charm. What’s interesting though is I don’t know that it’s particularly controversial, though it does divide opinions rather easily. It’s hard for me to imagine this particular ballet as a masterpiece that will stand the test of time, though it will be fascinating to see how the audience reacts differently since it’s a joint commission for the Dutch National Ballet. For those who get that opportunity, I do encourage you to take my words with a grain of salt and see it for yourself before you join the club or discern for me what it is I’m missing!

Seven Swans a Swimming

30 Nov

And here we are, at the end of an incredibly arduous journey that shall go down in history as Swan Lake Month, ending with ABT’s production starring Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella.  I don’t know why this one ended up being last, and I wouldn’t say it was my favorite one, though it is certainly popular.  Still, after viewing six Swan Lake productions from European companies I definitely felt that a great many characteristics made this Swan Lake distinctly American (and not because it’s American Ballet Theater, with an American ballerina in the lead role).

Have you seen that Eddie Izzard special where he talks about how nobody knows the lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas? Ten pygmies...farming...

The choreography was done by artistic director of ABT, Kevin McKenzie and as usual with the “after Petipa and Ivanov” tag.  Unfortunately, I had some issues with what seemed to be an incessant need to pummel the audience with perspicuous dance, meaning the art of subtlety was completely lost throughout the entire ballet.  He resorted to having the corps de ballet do the undulating swan arms at every available moment, as if to remind us that they were in fact swans (something we might never have guessed when attending Swan Lake) and the expressivity of the characters seemed to be on par with that philosophy.  I found Corella to be almost luminously bright with that megawatt smile of his (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so happy to receive a crossbow) and I didn’t feel that Murphy was the subtlest of dancers either.  Perhaps it’s the sort of “reach for the balcony” mentality that McKenzie prefers to see in dancers that encourages a Corella con brio or a Murphy a la mode and I suppose this means I prefer more tempered portrayals.  Even the miming McKenzie includes I felt was far too obvious and even excessive, like when Odette initially met Siegfried and told him of her plight with Von Rothbart, the gestures were straightforward and literal, rather than blending with any kind of dance language.  The nature of ballet reveals problems when the story isn’t told through the steps.

One addition I found interesting was the prologue (clearly filmed ahead of time so I’d be curious if ABT includes a similar prologue in live performances), where we see Von Rothbart transform into a man and lure Odette into a hollow tree and transform her into a swan.  While it is yet another statement of the obvious, I enjoyed it because no other production gives any thought to Odette’s origins and for this particular one, we are made to understand that she was a woman before she was a swan, which can change how we view her understanding and desire for love, and in this case her willingness to die for it (which is perhaps more human than animal).  The other bonus with this prologue is that because we see Von Rothbart seduce Odette as a man, he becomes a sexualized character…and with Marcelo Gomes as Von Rothbart in his human form, he becomes a sexy sexualized character indeed.  It was actually weird, after the onslaught of odd but villainous Von Rothbarts I’ve been watching to find one attractive and I kept wondering to myself if that was inappropriate.  However, great art makes us ask ourselves questions and considering how his solo during the ball seduces many of the attendees and that he even flirts with the Queen a bit, we are most definitely allowed to ogle.  It’s quite the virtuosic solo and my favorite moment is when he stands on relevé in fifth, slowly lifting one leg halfway to arabesque, then extending it fully which has a sort of mysterious quality that then bewitches the audience too.  Observe, Sexy Von Rothbart:

Given the scope of Gomes’s acting abilities, I almost feel like there needs to be a Swan Lake where he can perform both Von Rothbart and Siegfried…after all, duality is one of the central themes of every Swan Lake, so why not explore more types, in new imaginations?  Why should Odette/Odile or in ABT’s production, the weird, algae-ridden, fake abs demon-satyr Von Rothbart (a horrific costume) and Sexy Von Rothbart be the only dual roles?  I suppose there could be some logistical issues with trying to stage a Swan Lake where the same dancer has to be both Siegfried and Von Rothbart because they both appear at the same time in the ball and there’s the question of how a Siegfried/Von Rothbart role could be rationalized…but it’s ballet; ideas first, logic later.

Von Rothbart stole the show for me, despite Murphy’s athletic prowess.  Sure, she threw in triple pirouettes into her fouetté series (and in fact, of all seven Swan Lake DVDs I watched, she was the only dancer to do anything more than single fouettés, which is another detail I felt made this performance so American) but given how sinisterly seductive Sexy Von Rothbart was, the perfect prelude to an even more sinisterly seductive Odile may have hindered her because that Odile just never came to fruition.  Still, I would hate for anyone to get the sense that Gillian Murphy is just fouttés because she does have other wonderful qualities and I think she’s very expressive with her feet and has beautiful arms, among other things.  Her partnership with Corella is a bit of an odd one because she is quite tall and he looked as though he were hiding behind her in some of the partnering.  I wasn’t so devastated at the end of the ballet so I can’t say that I felt the chemistry between them, though it’s possible I was distracted by the dramatic leaps of death at the end (which looked fun too), which were of course followed by the image of Siegfried and Odette in the afterlife…and in case you didn’t get that Swan Lake is about duality; black and white, night and day…McKenzie has that image of the happy couple in the middle of a giant rising sun.

So what about all that feminine mystique business I had postulated about initially, wondering why women in particular love this ballet so much?  After much thoughtful deliberation…I have no idea.  All the various productions of Swan Lake are so different, trying to figure this all out would be like trying to survey every person on Earth and figuring out why they liked their favorite flavors (I’m a mint chocolate chip myself).  I would be buried in work for eternity and watching seven Swan Lakes was enough for me as it is.  Or maybe I found this whole experience so exhausting it doesn’t matter to me which Swan Lake anyone likes anymore, as long as they like one (or more) of them.  If you’re interested in discussing that further, you may as well head on over to The Ballet Bag, and enter their contest to win exclusive Black Swan movie posters while you’re at it!  Only a few days remain to enter, so check it out here!

The Nacho Project: Diagnosis

24 May

One of my ducklings (number five in the row, if I recall correctly) is headed to New York this summer and is in need of your help!  “Nacho,” as I call her, has never been there before and will be doing some kind of an internship this summer but more importantly, will have access to the splendiferous wonder that is NYCB and ABT.  Not only will this be her first time in Manhattan, she has yet to see such prestigious ballet companies (she has seen smaller dance performances before though).  Needless to say this is a crucial moment in her development as a human being and as my ducklings tend to do, she sought advice from me but there are many ballets on the programs I haven’t a clue about.  So I thought I’d pose the question to more knowledgeable folk.  We’re always wanting ballet to reach new audiences and this is our chance to tinker a la Frankenstein with one young woman’s perception of it!  The challenge here is that funds are not entirely limitless (she’s not the type to see five Swan Lakes) and yet between NYCB and ABT there’s an abundance of things to see.  She’s going to be a kid in a candy store, but she has to make the Big Apple her pie.  Selectiveness is key, so here is what I feel you need to know about Nacho:

  • She may be short, but she has a lot of angst.  She likes pretty, romantic ballets but if not that then they have to be pretty…raging
  • She’s one of those “danced since I was three” jazz babies.  Showing off big flashy jumps and fouettés go in the plus column, as do Fred & Ginger
  • This is educated conjecture, but she probably has no appreciation for classical music.  This isn’t to say she hates it, only that she’ll like what sounds pleasing to her ear, without deeper understanding of the finer details.
  • She has questionable taste in men (mostly because she dates people I disapprove of)
  • She’s Italian and her mom makes good sauce
  • She likes the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Roddick and Sex and the City (she thinks she’s Carrie Bradshaw if that means anything to you)
  • Her phone number is…

So those are some things about Nacho and after looking at NYCB calendar (link) I’ve convinced her that attending NYCB’s program on June 25th with After the Rain, The Lady with the Little Dog and Who Cares? would be an ideal choice (she will be in New York June 18th to August 18th).  There’s a short preview of After the Rain on YouTube I sent her and she likes the tragicalyricalness and I also sent her a clip of Who Cares? which she loved.  I have no idea about Little Dog, but I figured two out of three is more than sufficient for a happy evening.  Glancing at the other programs, the chances of her liking Prodigal Son are slim to none but I do think she would enjoy Western Symphony.  June 26th has a program with La Source, a new Martins ballet and Western Symphony but I don’t know what Peter Martins choreography is like and I’ve only heard of La Source in passing…so what say you, fellow balletomanes?  Then there’s the added allure of farewell performances including that of Darci Kistler, the last ballerina to be selected by Balanchine himself…do you miss the opportunity to witness something so epically historical?  I’m almost completely unfamiliar with the Kistler farewell program (minus Swan Lake of course) so suggestions para Nacho por favor!

She could watch Kistler in an excerpt from Swan Lake, but it turns out ABT (calendar link) will be doing Swan Lake the previous week as well so I say go all out and see the whole shebang.  But the casting!  Decisions, decisions…I’m thinking she should cat fight with the rest of the audience in attendance for the June 21st show with Roberto Bolle so she can fall madly in love with him (she does like them tall…and he’s Italian too) in addition to seeing the beautiful Veronika Part, but there are so many great casting options like Julie Kent/Marcelo Gomes or Jose Carreño/Gillian Murphy.  Now I don’t know if she’ll make it in time for Sleeping Beauty, but good heavens!  It’s the battle of the guest stars…do you opt for the saccharine innocence of Alina Cojocaru or the flight of the Osipova?  Then ABT does a week of mixed bills and I’m more obsessive about watching ballet than Nacho is but even I’m finding the selection overwhelming.  If it were me, I’d go with the All Ashton program on June 30th to sort of round out the experience and diversify the choreographers, but it’s Nacho and not me, so I would only strongly suggest/force that idea upon her if I had a legion of people who agreed with me (also keeping in mind she’s never seen a MacMillan and the Manon pas de deux is just…to DIE for).  ABT then does a week of Romeo and Juliet in early July before heading off to Los Angeles, and you know I’m a grouch when it comes to Romeo and Juliet so I’m in no position to be suggesting which casting I think would be lovely to see.

So friends, I beseech thee to diagnose Nacho and help her get the most out of her summer in New York!  Here’s a short interview I did with her which might help figure out which ballets/casts she should see:

YDF:  Do you like Roberto Bolle?

Nacho:  Sure.

YDF:  Liar.  Do you wear clothes from the Gap?

Nacho:  Roberto Bolle is fine…don’t really have an opinion of him and no I do not.

YDF:  Not the answer I was looking for.

Nacho:  Sorry friend.

YDF:  Do you even know who he is?

Nacho:  Yes, I YouTube’d him.

YDF:  Just now?

Nacho:  Yes…I’m not a little ballet freak remember? (oh NO she didn’t!)

YDF:  Did you know he’s Italian?

Nacho:  I kinda got that

YDF:  You’re Italian.

Nacho:  Indeed I am.  What was the answer you were looking for?

YDF:  The answer should have been yes, so I could tell you that he was a model for a Gap ad, and then you’d have something in common…but you ruined it.

Nacho: Sorry Charlie 🙂

YDF:  How do you like your male dancers?

Nacho:  Good?

YDF:  Fascinating.  Now describe your ideal ballerina.

Nacho:  Traditional yet not stiff?  I don’t know.  These are hard!

YDF:  Okay so final question (and this SHOULD be easy) what do you love about dance?

Nacho:  The expression through movement…the story that can be told without any word use.  The different interpretations of pieces, the emotion, the passion…I don’t know.

YDF:  Okay I lied, the REAL final question is, what are some characteristics of dances you like or dislike?

Nacho:  You know I don’t like too modern/abstract pieces… but I do like originality… generic pieces make me wanna scream.

And there you have it.  I’ll be sure to update on her progress as the summer progresses!