Tag Archives: herman cornejo

Master Class with Herman Cornejo

24 Sep

Indianapolis is a city in a rather unique situation—the Indianapolis City Ballet is actually trying to establish a regional classical ballet company, which contradicts certain images we harbor of dance companies struggling, making cuts, or folding altogether. In this world where the arts are constantly under attack there seem to be more forces that destroy rather than create, and yet here in the Midwest, a little seed is trying to take root in a land often depicted as far more agricultural than cultured (P.S. Stop that.). And yet it’s here that people are trying—so much so that even non-dancer friends of mine in Indy have taken notice of ICB’s efforts to make their presence known at arts festivals and such. ICB has founded a school, is now looking to develop an audience and I find the prospects exciting—I mean, how often are ballet companies created? It’s like watching the birth of a volcanic island…an obscure but rarefied phenomenon that really begs us to take notice and appreciate the magnitude of what is happening, and just like how a volcanic island can eventually blossom into a tropical paradise, a newly formed ballet company can proliferate into something incredible.

Part of ICB’s efforts include an annual gala that invites internationally acclaimed ballet stars from all over the world, as well as master classes with some of those dancers and other well known teachers. This year, one of the classes was with Herman Cornejo, Argentine dynamo and principal extraordinaire with American Ballet Theatre. Ever since my first pilgrimage to New York in 2012, I’ve seen Herman dance in many roles—and I was never disappointed. In fact, he’s one of the few dancers who have ever exceeded my expectations. I knew him to be great (duh, you don’t get to be a principal with ABT if you aren’t), but watching him live was an experience that can’t be conveyed within the confines of a YouTube screen (though his performance as Puck in the DVD of Ashton’s The Dream comes pretty close to capturing his spirit and it’s well known to be one of his best roles). When I saw him on the list of guest teachers, I figured it’s only a three-hour drive—I’ve done a lot worse—and I like dancers who can do Ashton justice so I figured why not take his class? Okay, and maaaybe, I wanted to make my friend Robin, who’s obsessed with him a little jealous. Or CRAZY jealous…you’ll have to ask her (even though she’s already taken a master class with him in New York, so…we’re even? I don’t know.).

So I signed up, knowing that I’d be the only adult to participate, and the kiddies didn’t disappoint—there were plenty of younglings half my age and less, stretching like rubberbands while I massaged the hell out of my legs after the morning drive. I took a barre spot near the corner, wearing more layers to get warm in all of my senior citizenship glory, slightly horrified by some of the drastic oversplits some of them were doing. When Herman entered the room, he took a few minutes to mark exercises out, which of course set my intellectual gears into motion because while I didn’t have flexible tendons, my brain has always been my asset as a dancer, and I would of course, evaluate what I thought of him as a teacher. Let’s be real, his physique is beautiful for ballet—great line through the legs and feet, nice broad shoulders with good posture. So the question remained—could he teach? The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches and the best dancers not always the best teachers, and I’ve been wary in the past of great dancers who were unable to prove themselves as great pedagogues, so my critical thinking cap was on.

He began with a short warm up facing the barre and went right to tendus in first—at which point I panicked because I thought “where are the pliés?! I need pliés!!!” but those came right after and everything was okay. Actually, everything was great—aside from the slippery floor, which often causes my right calf to have a mind of its own and instinctively develop a charley horse (which I remedied with Tiger Balm, again showing my age as a dancer), Herman gives a comprehensive barre, with nothing crazy, and really stresses correct alignment with square shoulders and hips. “Nothing changes” he would often say, whether you move from fifth to retiré or do a fondu to relevé a la seconde—nothing changes. It reminded me a bit of the Maggie Black philosophies that were filtered down to me through students of hers, to keep the body in neutral alignment and keep things simple. Furthermore, I really appreciated that he respects individual bodies…it would be easy for someone with his physical attributes to say “turn out more, rotate more, stretch more” etc., but he never asked for “more”; he said things like “find your own balance,” which he later explained as important because we all have different things we need to learn to work with—different turnout, leg length, feet, toes, etc. A prime example would be his own feet, which have a superb arch, but he actually trains a super high relevé that goes past the metatarsals because of a freak accident that completely broke his big toe and never healed properly. So bonus points for emphasizing the idea of working with what you have in a way that can be both correct and pain free (and kudos for overcoming that adversity!)

Image

Herman Cornejo (American Ballet Theatre) with his freakish relevé and Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) at the Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado
Photo © 2012 Erin Baiano

After a brief adagio (something I find to be symptomatic amongst male teachers…not that I mind a short adage), he went through the typical assortment of pirouettes and allegro combinations, all of which were phrased well and quite Romantic, borrowing a few steps from the classical repertory. The first of his petit allegroS (yes, more than one, which gets more bonus points in my book), had a bit of Giselle and Albrecht’s first little romp (which one of my teachers once called “the most notorious 6/8 in the history of ballet), and the second had a bit of James’s first variation from La Sylphide (that wicked brisé volé-ballonné battu-jeté battu thing—I swear, some of the kids went cross-eyed trying to figure that one out, but I loved it). I was having such a great time until grand allegro, which started with my favorite step (the cabriole, the double of which is Herman’s favorite step, but I like mine singular), but then went into double tours of imminent death for the boys. Here’s the thing—I started ballet when I was 23, so I never really properly learned tours en l’air; I can count the number of times on one hand that I ever had teachers give them. They’re simple in theory—jump straight up, spin around two times, land with your feet together, but there’s something about it that my body is so terrified of that I can’t commit to it. Even my singles are wonky because I’m so scared I just want to bail every time, so I settled for doing the preparation into a simple passé relevé and closing in fifth. Kids don’t have this fear—the boys all went for it, but when you’re an adult and you’re not comfortable with a step, it’s okay to say “not yet”—which is far better to do than continue having nightmares about breaking your ankles. Although, I do have to say that Herman pointed out that in the preparation I wasn’t assembling onto two legs, so maybe that’s something I can start with. We’ll see…

Anyway, the class overall was great and for the first master class I’ve ever taken, a hell of a lot of fun. I would’ve preferred repeating the center exercises because we only did them once each (and class still went a little over time!), because Herman gives these great concepts and corrections to think about, like making jumps dynamic and negotiating alignment, but there’s no chance to try it again and really focus on something differently (then again, sometimes I forget that not everyone is the machine that I am). All in all, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in Indy; I went in wanting to learn something new, dance cleanly and artistically, and I feel I did just that. Honestly, most of those kids had no épaulement, so in some ways, I think my maturity showed in a good way. I could’ve been embarrassed about being 29 amongst a bunch of youths and adolescents, but I chose to see it as something great, that this art form can bridge across generations and bring different people with different backgrounds together for a common purpose. And really, I was like the poster child of minority affairs—I was one of only two non-white dancers, by far the oldest, definitely the worst feet, and considering that I’ve only been dancing for about six years, among those with less time in ballet. But I was proud to represent a different kind of dancer and I hope that any other adults reading this get the message that anything—even a master class with one of the best dancers in the world—is possible, and if ballet is something you enjoy, just do it. Nobody laughed at me to my face and dancers like Herman are exemplary in generosity because he just wants to share the information and his knowledge without judgment, so there’s really nothing to be afraid of (until you get to double tours—that’s legitimate fear right there).

Meanwhile, Indianapolis City Ballet did an interview with Herman after class and they typically post those videos so I’d keep an eye out on their website (http://indianapoliscityballet.org), where you can also click on ‘Media Gallery’ to see interviews with previous guest teachers. I mean, if you want to know the secret to double cabrioles or find out why he likes dancing with Iana Salenko…darn it, I guess you’ll have to wait and keep checking their site for updates.

cornejo

Proof this actually happened. Photo © Me

ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

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!

I Dreamed a Dream

2 Jul

So I just bought my subscription to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2010-2011 season, opting for a mini-subscription which means I get to choose four of the six shows I want to see.  Jigga-what?  Surprised I’m not going to see them all?  I’m not.  For one thing, Cinderella is running the exact same time San Francisco Ballet will be doing Symphonic Variations and quite frankly, I have priorities.  The other show I chose to omit was A Midsummer Night’s Dream mostly for two reasons…the first being that I’m a little wary of Shakespeare and the second being it’s hard for me to accept Balanchine’s version knowing Ashton’s The Dream is out there too.  I can always purchase additional tickets later so I may end up seeing it anyway but I’m a bit skeptical.  I thought of watching the recording of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is actually the PNB production but ironically the Seattle Public Library doesn’t have it.  Of ALL the libraries in the world, Seattle Public Library doesn’t have PNB’s Dream.  Of course the Balanchine version isn’t available on YouTube and after the virtual bitchslap the Balanchine Trust sent me for posting excerpts of Balanchine choreography, I’m not really all that enthusiastic to seek it out.  Thus, I find myself deterred and unmotivated to see it live.  Mission accomplished Balanchine Trust…mission accomplished.  Besides, from what I gather, the Balanchine production has children in it, which is an automatic check in the minus column.

Anyway, I’m all about the Ashton love.  In fact, I might just make July Ashton month.  I have all kinds of reading material, from a tiny pocket-sized book entitled Façade to a couple of epic tomes on Ashton ballets.  Façade was a quick read…a mini-book of about a hundred pages so really it’s hardly more than a pamphlet but it covers many of Sir Fred’s earliest works and traces his lineage, from studying under Marie Rambert, influences from Ninette de Valois, Sergei Diaghilev, Bronislava Nijinska and even a little Balanchine.  I also noticed in one of the original cast lists that Antony Tudor danced for Ashton…which I find fascinating for reasons that I’m sure will make more sense in the years to come.  Façade doesn’t discuss The Dream because it was published in the fifties but it was interesting to get a glimpse at Sir Fred’s history.  He was quite young when he began as a choreographer in his twenties and of his earliest ballets only Façade and Capriol Suite survive (which is tragic for obvious reasons but even more so when I read that some of the lost works include a wealth of Greco-Roman themed ballets like Mars and Venus, Leda and the Swan and Pomona).  It was fascinating to read snippets of reviews from that period though which echo exactly how I feel today, like the genius of his patterns or his sense of comedy (except those reviewers used words like truquage).  I always feel “comfortable” with Ashton choreography and maybe it’s because I can relate to him in some ways (a late starter in ballet with a slight build) and the more I learn about him the more the addiction consumes me.

So back to The Dream, Shakespeare-aversion aside, I decided to watch it and who better to learn from than Anthony Dowell, who originated the role?  Here’s a fun fact for you…the ballet debuted April 2nd, 1964 and twenty years later I would be born!  Another twenty years later in 2004 ABT would record their own version for DVD.  So what happens in 2024?  Your guess is as good as mine…but because it is a shorter ballet I decided to make an afternoon of it, watch the Dowell and Merle Park performance, then the master class with Dowell/Antoinette Sibley and Ashton himself, then watch the ABT version with Ethan Stiefel/Alessandra Ferri.  I won’t nitpick every difference and I think ABT did a fine production but it has to be said that the Royal Ballet performance is definitely my preferred of the two for many reasons.  Under the assumption that the general populace is familiar with the story and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m going to skip the synopsis and get right to the point (if you don’t know at least the basics of Dream, you seriously need to read more.  Sheesh!).  First, I love that Ashton did a Victorian interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and ABT kind of watered down the costumes and hair (Hermia and Helena being the most noticeable) to a more modern aesthetic.  Second, the lover’s quarrel between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius is one of the funniest choreographed scenes in the history of ballet including a moment where Lysander and Demetrius are fighting over Helena, who slips away from the both of them and they accidentally kiss.  ABT changed it to a mere hug, which is so very American of them and dulls the humor quite a bit.  I hate to say that I find it a little shady in a homophobic kind of way…but maybe it’s for the benefit of an uptight American audience and my sense of humor is perhaps more in line with the British.  My aesthetic certainly is, as the Royal Ballet prefers a straighter line through the wrist and the ABT corps likes to flourish with the hands a lot, which came across as a little too floppy for me.  To quote Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the phrase “Hands!  Hands in new places!” comes to mind.

As for the lead dancers, there was kind of a split—few ballerinas can tell a story like Alessandra Ferri, and who better to be the “Ferri Queen” (ha…ha…oh) Titania?  Ferri is magnificent and her partner Stiefel as Oberon is in all likelihood the cleanest dancer on Earth.  Unfortunately, Stiefel’s acting was a little off for me…he does a lot of wide eyed, crazy expressions that make his Oberon look a little loony.  You can’t take away from his technical brilliance and classical line but the characterization wasn’t my favorite.  To me, Oberon is immature, arrogant and a little abusive, but not crazy.  Enter Anthony Dowell, who has a sort of brazen, chafed look that really makes you believe he is displeased with Titania’s defiance.  Merle Park is sweet and impish, like a sassy little butterfly but what I preferred in Ferri was an ability to combine that delight with a sense of regality.  Titania doesn’t defy Oberon simply because they’re married, but because she is quite used to being royalty in her own right.  Meanwhile, the Pucks of both productions were enjoyable though, with Herman Cornejo literally flying about the forest and the Royal Ballet dancer (who I can’t identify unfortunately) being much more of a ham.

Ashton’s choreography is of course perfect and wonderfully unbiased.  He has the same love for transitional steps as he does the big flashy bravura ones with more attention towards overall effect rather than making a singular impression.  Choreographing Oberon on Dowell as he did, he took full advantage of his line and plié, giving Oberon many arabesques when the typical choreographer will give a male role maybe a step into an arabesque to start a variation or maybe a turn in that position.  Meanwhile, Ashton makes the arabesque a motif for Oberon, putting in arabesques in demi-plié, tipping over in a penchée (a move usually reserved for women), tour sauté (a series of little hops that turn in place) as well as working in and out of the position.  Para example, Ashton has Oberon do this heinously beastly series of different pirouettes, all of which have to end in a little penchée which is insanely hard given the quiet, sustained notes from the music…the effect can easily be ruined.  I had a teacher who once gave us similar exercises in class and contrary to what your brain may tell you, you have to be pretty aggressive when diving forward because hesitation won’t get you to where you need to be.  It really is as simple as getting from Point A to Point B, but ballet is kind of ridiculous.

For music aficionados, The Dream has an AMAZING score my Felix Mendelssohn (as if there were another!).  Mendelssohn has been kind of underrated in the ballet world, with this probably being the most prominent work with his name attached to it.  Ashton uses a John Lanchberry orchestration of the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote that was inspired by the play.  It fits the mood so perfectly and kindled images of fireflies in dusky forests for me, which I sorely miss for you see, there are no fireflies west of the Rocky Mountains…I don’t get how Seattle people know when summer has arrived without fireflies!  Although given the weather as of late I’d say summer is still not here yet…it can’t be…but I digress.  I think the Mendelssohn score is one of the finest I’ve heard in ballet…although I’m holding out for something spectacular to his violin concerto.  Anyone up for the challenge?

I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I’ve fallen in love with The Dream (oh Ashton, you cad, you!) and that I can say I love a Shakespearean ballet.  It’s definitely up there in my top ten.  So do partake and pick your poison below (Royal Ballet or ABT as well as the master class with Sir Fred):

The Royal Ballet’s The Dream in six parts:

American Ballet Theater’s The Dream in six parts:

Titania and Oberon’s pas de deux master class in five parts: