Tag Archives: helgi tomasson

Live from Lincoln Center…

27 Jun

…it’s me.

I thought it might be fun to write a post from the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, so here I am next to the Metropolitan Opera House (where ABT’s Wednesday matinee of Swan Lake just so happens to be going on), writing this here blog. I had a little bit of time to check out the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, and one of my missions for this trip was to watch some archival footage. Nowhere else would I be able to see a full recording of Violette Verdy in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and see it I did! The entire collections here are much too vast, and any dance researcher could spend a lifetime here trying to see it all. As annoyed as I am that I can’t take materials home, it is pretty amazing that these materials are available to the public. Going to the library isn’t just for students/teachers/researchers people–one can easily come here to just watch some amazing ballets for fun!

First, I selected two Tchai Pas with Verdy, partnered in one by Edward Villella and the other by Helgi Tomasson. It’s almost unfair that anyone has to go without seeing a performance of Verdy, who radiates more joy than any dancer I’ve ever seen. Even in blurry old films you can see her charisma, the purity of her technique, and her incredible musicality. There were so many moments of subtle playfulness, as if she were teasing the music with her hands and feet. Now Verdy didn’t have super high legs in various extensions, but it hardly mattered because when the leg is just above the waist in a la seconde for example, you actually get to see the whole torso and face! Imagine that! And when it comes to Verdy, trust me when I say you want to see her upper body in entirety! Of course you want to see her feet and legs as well (not many dancers will do a flying leap into each of their piqué turns), but really it’s the whole picture that made her performances so special, and makes the idea of bemoaning the lack of artistry today a legitimate thing.

Both Villella and Tomasson were quite good, energetic, and wonderful partners. I believe it was the Villella video though where I saw some steps in his variation and coda that I had never seen before. There was an entrechat six de volé en tournant (which, if you don’t know ballet steps very well is as beastly as it sounds), and when he did a series of grand jetés in a circle, rather than insert one turn in between, there were two, which seemed to add excitement and speed. I’m fascinated by the idea that Balanchine had so many ideas for seldomly seen steps and also how his tastes evolved over time to incorporate them more into his vocabulary or never used them again. Having the opportunity to see these performances on film though, was everything and more than what I wanted, and I’m still basking in the glow of Verdy’s charm and wit, sparkling through decades to move and inspire me today.

Seeing as how I had to prioritize with what precious time I have, my other selection was Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, in a Granada film featuring Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Ann Jenner, Gary Sherwood, Jennifer Penney, and Michael Coleman. I had seen an all-too-brief clip of it from a documentary fragment posted on YouTube, and am so fortunate to have found it at the library because the performance is simply breathtaking. What was immediately noticable to me was the slower tempo at the beginning, with softer lines and patience. Contemporary performances seem to accent the music a bit sharper, but what I loved about this one was that the softness allowed for a gradual build towards more succinct lines by the end. You almost don’t notice how it almost carves itself out of its own form, and polishes to an even more lustrous shine before your eyes. If only this were commercially available, it would be such a definitive performance of this work (though, I’m still bitter enough to remind you that NO staging of Symphonic Variations is commercially available, so to label this one of the finest isn’t really valid I suppose).

For anyone who gets a chance to see this film, what was also made so clear was the often discussed partnership between Sibley and Dowell. When the two dancers themselves have discussed it in documentaries they often mention how the proportions between them were perfect–how she, in reaching for his arm would always meet it at just the right distance, etc. Perfection being the key word, you see it many times throughout the film. There’s a pose where Dowell perches Sibley in an arabesque, and when she tilts her head backwards it rests perfectly on his shoulder, and when she frames his face with her arm the picture is flawless. Even the length of their limbs are just in perfect harmony throughout, and against Sophie Fedorovitch’s winding backdrop of wavy patterned lines the effect is stunning. Though Symphonic is indeed abstract and often praised for its luminous sanctity, I saw more story in it today than I had in previous viewings of film as well as live with San Francisco Ballet.

The best I can do is relay the original clip I saw, so enjoy this for now, and remember to make a trip to the NYPL at least once in your lifetime!

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!

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 1

13 Feb

Billy Elliot, did I have a busy week! Most of it was just in the last couple of days during a whirlwind trip to San Francisco to see San Francisco Ballet, but before I get to that, a little housekeeping…Nichelle over at DanceAdvantage has started a group called Terpsichorus, which will do book club-style open discussions for anyone who wants to participate.  Terpsichorus will pick various dance media, from books to the latest in dance films, like those made available for rent by TenduTV.  In fact, the first discussion will be focused on Wayne McGregor’s Entity, already available for rent (just $3.99) or permanent download on iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand (UK participants can purchase a DVD from SadlersWells.com).  The discussion on Entity will open on February 24th, 2011 and all you have to do is watch it beforehand and collect some thoughts you’d like to share.  It is also most desirable that you encourage your friends to participate as well, no matter their dance background!  Terpsichorus is a great opportunity for people who may not know much about dance to ask questions and share their thoughts without fear of being shot down…you have my guarantee, which is important because I am on the moderating team!  Surprise!  Nichelle, friend Robin and myself comprise team Terpsichorus and trust me when I say we value all opinions equally.  So please head over to DanceAdvantage for more details, and I hope to see you on the 24th!

Okay, so back to my trip, I took a brief vacation (if you can call it that, considering how tired I am now) to San Francisco mainly to see Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.  It is applicable to say that my obsession with the piece is well documented, and with San Francisco Ballet being one of the few companies outside of the Royal Ballet to perform it (and quite possibly the only American company to have done it for a good decade), I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.  Symphonic Variations was part of a mixed bill that the company performed on the 11th, and the mixed bill was staggered with performances of Giselle, which I saw on the 10th.  San Francisco Ballet is one of the few companies in the US that overlaps their programs, which is great for out-of-towners because we can catch multiple, different performances in just a couple of days.  Smaller ballet companies will do two week runs of just the same show and it seems the bigger (and richer) the companies are, the more overlapping you will see.

The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Photo ©Steve (you can tell because it's blurry!)

Before seeing Giselle on Thursday, I did of course, do some sight seeing which I must preface with saying that I despise super-touristy activities.  I like to do things on my own, with plenty of time to wander and muck about.  I also hate touristy souvenir shops and I probably hate tourists too (even though I was one…it’s completely irrational, so don’t expect me to explain it).  Outside of the ballet, the highlight for me was going to the California Academy of the Sciences, where I got my geek on.  I adore geeky science stuff, and the Academy of the Sciences has an indoor rainforest biodome, a planetarium, an extensive aquarium (my second priority in life after ballet…I could spend, okay I did spend hours in the aquarium alone. Three words…’leafy sea dragons’), and many other exhibits (including an albino alligator).  Admission was a whopping $30, but I recommend a visit!  Although, while inside the rainforest biome, I urge you to exercise caution and know that there are poison dart frogs roaming freely in the habitat…which I did not know until after I got close to a couple in order to snap some photos.  Not the best idea I’ve had, but I also have a history of unwittingly getting close to wild animals when I should not (like the prairie dogs in the Badlands, or the hawks at the beach in Yokohama, one of which snatched a sandwich right out of my hand).

Outside the planetarium. You can see part of the mangrove shallow water exhibit on the lower left and the bluer water on the right is one of the coral reefs. Photo ©Steve

Meanwhile, the worst part of the day award goes to Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist attraction to the extreme, with heinous shops that had more shotglasses, keychains, magnets and t-shirts than I ever want to see in my entire life.  Interestingly enough, Fisherman’s Wharf is something of an equivalent to Seattle’s own Pike Place Market (the latter of which is much more focused on local artists, farmers, etc., and thus, in my humble opinion much more charming, as I actually enjoy Pike Place), but here’s something very telling—San Francisco residential areas are PACKED…all the buildings are connected together and walking the streets makes you feel like you’re in a giant labyrinth, while the shops at Fisherman’s Wharf are fairly spaced out.  Meanwhile, in Seattle, residential areas are the ones with breathing room and Pike Place is crammed into a very small section of the city, which says it all about Seattle’s perhaps “thorny” attitude towards visitors (which is further emphasized by the fact that San Francisco actually has bus maps at all the bus stops, while Seattle has no bus maps available, except for the brochures you can pick up AFTER boarding the bus).  Let’s just say tourism is a much bigger industry in San Francisco and leave it at that (and I’m okay with it!).

Anywho, San Francisco is fun and games for sure, but I was on a mission to see ballet, and I had the pleasure of seeing Giselle with Maria Kochetkova in the title role and Gennadi Nedvigin as Albrecht.  My first time seeing Giselle live as well as my first time to see San Francisco Ballet would be an all-Russian affair as far as the principal roles were concerned, and they certainly have a wonderful chemistry.  The petite Kochetkova is as refined as a porcelain doll and I mean this in the best way possible, is unlike any Russian trained dancer I’ve ever seen.  Sometimes I have some issues with Russian training, like too much legato, forced turnout, or hyperextension on these string bean, Amazonian frames but Maria’s technique is far more prudent.  For example, in her Act I variation, she kept many of her extensions lower, drawing attention to the shaping of her feet and presentation of her arms and upper body.  It was night and day (well, literally) in Act II, where she proved she has the litheness to promote ethereal wonder.  Maria’s Act II is simply sensational—it highlights the softness of her arms and innocence in her demeanor.  I was a big fan of the squareness in her arabesque, the use of her flexible torso and the sincerity with which she approached the role.  I’m so thrilled to have had her be the first Giselle I ever saw live, and will never forget it.

Gennadi Nedvigin (apparently returning from injury) was a boyish but crooked Albrecht, with an elastic plié that allowed for smooth jumps.  His partnering was wonderfully attentive, his solos brilliant, and his Act II variations near death experiences (in a good way of course).  Many seasoned Giselle fans will be happy to know that in the second act, he did the twenty-something entrechats, and they were HUGE.  An entrechat six is a beast by itself, the twenty-something in succession a Herculean task, but to do them with the buoyancy with which he did (to an achingly slow tempo) makes your calves burn just watching.  I also thought he was very playful with the miming sections throughout, drawing audible chuckles in the unabashed way he plucked the petal from Giselle’s fortune-telling flower and I know I sighed a little bit when he collapsed on Giselle’s grave and mourned her.

Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle is quite playful throughout, like Hilarion (danced by Pascal Morat) showing such a sardonic disgust when he was mocking Albrecht was a definite highlight.  In fact, the whole production had a lighthearted feel, and it seemed by embracing some of the more absurd elements in ballet, the production succeeded in really captivating the audience.  For instance, in the opening of Act II, when Hilarion is loping through the forest, some of his companions flee when they get creeped out by the Wilis.  This can be done a number of ways, and Tomasson chose to actually have one of the Wilis fly overhead, suspended by wires or what have you.  It’s not something that is intended to be funny, and yet its inclusion is funny indeed and even though the second act is supposed to be more tragic, it somehow makes the audience laugh while not damaging the integrity of the ballet as a whole.  I’m sure there are some that may feel a flying Wili is just too ridiculous, but I didn’t think it detracted from the performance at all (I’ll admit it—part of me wanted to be that flying Wili of doom).

San Francisco’s corps de ballet also deserves a LOT of credit—they were exceptional.  Frances Chung cast a spell in her dynamic solo as Myrtha, and the corps ran with it.  They had precision in their timing and wonderful detail in their lines and their interweaving arabesque pattern received well-deserved applause.  San Francisco is a lucky company to have such a fine corps, especially because they have the added challenge of trying to unify dancers with so many different backgrounds and training methods, which tends to be the case for many American companies.

However, everything about their production of Giselle was tastefully done, and I could find no faults worth mentioning.  It was well worth the trip!

…or was it?  To be continued!

P.S. To see clips of Maria dancing Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle, visit San Francisco Ballet’s website! Their interactive media gallery as a whole is amazing.