Tag Archives: ivan vasiliev

ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

So I helped myself to the buffet of talent that is American Ballet Theatre for a second helping of the mixed repertory program. I wondered if perhaps another viewing might change my mind on Mark Morris’s Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes, and it didn’t. My first impressions are generally stubborn, but not entirely unforgiving—I thought Joseph Gorak’s performance in one of the leading roles was some of the most beautiful dancing I’ve ever seen. Critics don’t like to toss around the word “perfection” but in this alabaster reverie he ascends to something beyond flawless. The unwavering control of his pirouettes, generously presenting his leg forward and then to the side commanded the audience’s attention in a way rarely seen by mere technically impressive dancing—it’s the way his affluent technique serves his artistry that makes it so spellbinding to watch him. New Yorkers have been talking about Gorak for a few years now and he’s also made a name for himself as a winner of the Erik Bruhn Prize, and I generally try to avoid hype but this time everything that’s being said about him is true. I even remember watching ABT in rehearsal for Swan Lake last year and noticing him, upon which I turned to my friend Robin and asked: “Who is that?!” Just stunningly gorgeous and it’s going to be really exciting to see where his career takes him.

I suppose what I do take away from watching Drink is that you a dancer’s quality of movement can really catch the eye. Two of my teachers who also attended opening night (and also in town specifically for A Month in the Country—I’m not crazy, THANK you) noticed the same dancer for his beautiful legs and soft landings and by process of elimination we’ve deduced that the dancer in question is Thomas Forster. With a softer, lyrical choreographic tone, it’s the men in particular who really get to shine in Drink because we don’t often get to see these qualities encouraged in male dancing—if only the same could be said for women in stronger, airborne roles but I digress. The point is, it’s quite easy to find Drink intriguing simply by letting the eye wander and fall upon whatever it happens to see, but I maintain that without a more definitive overall concept, it’s just not dissimilar enough from other Morris dances. And call me crazy but I really don’t like arbitrarily titled work. It’s not that a title has to beat you over the head with symbolism or explicit details, but there is a point when a title is so abstruse it doesn’t connect the content to the observer. It’s a pet peeve of mine because I don’t find it clever or deep to alienate an audience before something even begins.

Meanwhile, I thought I loved Julie Kent in Month, but everything changed when I saw Hee Seo in the same role. Her partnership with David Hallberg has been blossoming and they were breathtaking together here. It’s been one of the definite highlights of MET season for me thus far and the pas de deux between Natalia and Belaiev, when they first gave in to indulging their feelings for one other, had me on the verge of tears. We know what to expect with Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet but this was an entirely different heartache and layered with much more complex emotions that are incredibly relatable. This was really my first time seeing Seo (a late starter by the way, at age twelve!) in a true blue principal role, and I had no idea how amazing she is as a dramatic ballerina. She had the facial expression of a spoiled, indulgent aristocrat both flirtatious and austere, but her suffering in the blasé felt so real to me that I couldn’t help but feel sorrow and sympathy for her. Hallberg proved to be a vivacious Belaiev, and it’s no secret that comparisons have often been drawn between him and Sir Anthony Dowell, the role’s originator, famous for seamless transition from one movement to another and ludicrously long lines. Together, they’re magical and I think this will go down—albeit quietly—as one of the most outstanding performances this season. I can’t stress enough that with one performance remaining, it’s not to be missed. It’s a shame because I don’t know that a revival would be in the cards anytime soon because I’m not convinced Month received as much attention as it should have, but ABT boasts other ballerinas that I think would be fascinating in the role of Natalia Petrovna. Initially, I said Vishneva, but one of my teachers mentioned Gillian Murphy—who dances Ashton VERY well—and I concurred that Murphy would be fabulous. Veronika Part would be a compelling choice and even Stella Abrera, who was perhaps the most engaging actress of all in the first night’s cast as the maid Katia could be equally provocative.

Coincidentally, Abrera performed the opening lead in Symphony in C, and she was a radiant beauty who exhibited patience and grace in every step, though never behind the music and nicely partnered by Eric Tamm. Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes descended from the heavens for the second movement, though I actually found myself missing Veronika Part’s soulful rendition of the adagio while Semionova was a little perfunctory; she’s a technical phenom but sometimes appears as though she’s checking off a list of shapes and lines she has to create and it didn’t strike me as poetic as Part, who dances Symphony in C like a ghostly queen, the world around her fading in and out of reality. The third movement starred the jumping wunderkinds Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the male half of the pair being one I especially adore for his unconventional physique, having a stockier build with the most muscular legs known to ballet and he certainly knows how to use them. There’s always been more diversity in body type amongst male dancers than female, but it’s both necessary and exciting to see anyone who breaks the mold and dances within his/her own body. Lastly, the fourth movement was its usual, exciting, grand finale self, led by Sarah Lane and Sascha Radetsky with great vigor and lovely smiles.

Okay, so the fourth movement was still a hair slow to me—but let me explain. Georges Bizet briefly uses a rhythm of two eighth notes, a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, which equals…Answer: a galop, which you may not necessarily know by name but it’s a rhythmic structure used a lot in ballet just like mazurka, polonaise, waltz, tarantella, etc. There are galops in Coppélia, Sylvia, Giselle…so if all the popular girls have them why not Symphony in C? I doubt Bizet used a galop rhythm intentionally, but it does occur during the men’s first entrance when they perform a series of sissonnes and I do think it conjures images of chivalrous knights on the backs of mighty steeds leaping through the air. The thing about galops too is that they are often comically fast, and when the fourth movement is really taken at a blistering speed it drastically changes its temperament to something much more gallant, a quality that dies with a slower tempo. If you want to go nuts, I’d recommend finding a recording with Jean Martinon conducting because musically, he gives it the life I think it deserves. However, realistically, a Martinon tempo isn’t possible, but the closer a company can get to galop-ing, the better. ABT isn’t actually too far off with what I’ve been hearing, and each performance of Symphony in C is looking more and more crystalline. The matinee performance even enjoyed a surprise second curtain call so they’re dancing it well and don’t let my musical preferences ruin it for you. You really should be seeing Seo/Hallberg on Thursday night anyway.

Black Magic: I’m a believer!

5 Sep

Um…hello. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written, and it probably has something to do with acquiring this second job, as I am still learning how to manage my time better and figure this mess of a schedule out. It has also been an incredibly long time since I’ve written about some of my personal experiences inside the studio as an adult student of ballet, because I actually couldn’t afford to go. These past few months of eking out my existence and being devoid of dance have been rough, and have even led to the development of some stress related symptoms like eczema and temporomandibular joint disorder (I’m pretty sure I get all the weird diseases). While I can’t dispense medical advice, I do think being able to dance again has had a lot to do with healing these conditions. We all know the benefits of endorphins released into the body via physical activity, and obviously I really needed that. The positive emotional effects of returning to dance almost go without saying—I feel complete and alive again. I’ve always been grateful for every opportunity to dance I’ve ever had, and I will continue to do so because being grateful for something—anything—feels (for lack of a better term) magical.

On the topic of not being one to dispense advice, I would like to completely contradict myself and discuss in depth some issues on technique I’ve been exploring. I’m not really qualified in any way to teach anyone anything about ballet and can only comment on my experiences with my body, and how they relate to how I observe ballet technique in others. Disclaimer aside, in this one of my nine lives in dance, I decided to reevaluate myself and utilize the methods of Maggie Black, passed onto me by Jessica Zeller, one of my teachers from when I was at Ohio State. Before I proceed, this is by no means an exhaustive compendium on what Balanchine may have coined “Black Magic.” In fact, when Jess taught us a class a la Maggie, most of it didn’t make sense to me at the time. That’s the funny thing about ballet though—if you’re diligent about filing away the information in your mind, corrections and new ideas can take months, even years to manifest in physical practice, and all of a sudden you’ll find a little voice screaming “EUREKA!” in your head when you find a ridiculously awesome balance on relevé during center and best of all is the realization that such a feat was no accident.

While I have no firsthand experience as to how Black taught, there are a few basic principles I learned that are applied to barre exercises:

  • Work within the line of your own turnout (no, really)
  • Create a straight line through the ankle and foot, so as not to sickle or wing (no, really)
  • Try to shift your weight as little as possible
  • Keep your legs low, doing all of barre never passing forty-five degrees (optional)

Okay, now for the breakdown. Lots of teachers will often tell you to work within the line of your natural turnout, but us students make it a bad habit to cheat a little anyway. Those of us who don’t have a lot of turnout are desperate for more, and those that have a lot will cheat to get to 180° just because they can. However, Black’s method is very grounded in the anatomical, and even if you can touch toe to heel in a fifth position on flat, it’s almost certain that the same level of turnout cannot be maintained in a fifth position on relevé. To what extent the turnout disappears is going to be more or less obvious on different bodies, but if you’re working outside of your natural line, it’s guaranteed to happen. Similarly, maintaining a straight line through the ankle is taught, but not always put into practice. I find shaping the feet to be very difficult for myself, as my feet are turned in and naturally sickled, but I see in many other dancers feet that are “winged” or stretched too far outward. Especially for pointe work, this surely creates an uneven distribution of weight on the toes and just like forcing turnout on flat affects the turnout on relevé, a winged foot can inhibit the use of turnout going from demi-pointe to full pointe. I think. I really don’t know for sure, but it’s a tendency I’ve noticed in dancers who wing their feet a lot. All of a sudden, instead of moving through the joints like hinges, there are all kinds of obstacles in extraneous movements. More and more, I think Black’s way of moving is to make it as simple and efficient as possible, very point(e) A to point(e) B.

As far as this shifting weight business, it’s tricky—for good reason! When you train this way at barre, you will have to actually USE the barre more than you probably have been. Many teachers will have us students use only a light touch at the barre, theoretically able to pull your hand off at any given moment, which is certainly one way to do it…however, I see Black’s use of the barre to be a transition into class, meaning, you’re supposed to use the barre because something has to awaken, or alert your body that you will be dancing. Using the barre and not shifting your weight in essence keeps the body very square, and your entire foot grounded into the floor, as opposed to just the ball of your foot when standing on flat. This not only gives you a stronger feel for where your weight is (after all, you need to know what it feels to have your weight going into the floor if you want to push off of it!), but I think it makes further logical sense because when you do shift your weight to one leg and onto relevé, your body WILL react and training squarely at barre helps to ensure that the shape that goes on top of it is a balanced one that minimizes unevenness. It’s genius really—use the body’s natural response to make dancing easier!

Now for this forty-five degree business…an extension at forty-five is highly underrated (and ninety is a bigger beast than people might think!). The purpose of keeping the legs lower is to zero in on rotating your legs and training the muscles to move correctly. I’ll never forget what Jess said, that she worked this way at barre for six months or so and at the end of her experiment, could développé to 120°! It’s commonly known that one can be strong and not flexible, and also that flexible people are not necessarily strong. Something that always baffled me though is that I’ve seen people who are quite limber, take class regularly, and yet they can’t get past that barrier of getting their leg above ninety degrees. I’m beginning to understand more that technique isn’t about increasing some prescribed combination of strength and/or flexibility, but teaching your body HOW to move. Now, I’m not foolish enough to expect the results Jess had because our bodies are different, but I’ve already noticed a laundry list of things that have been much better at center for me.

So why did I decide to start training this way? Well, I guess I should start with the purpose, which is that I really want to be able to do a nice, attitude turn en dehors, a criminally difficult maneuver that isn’t necessarily a flashy sort of step, but for some reason makes me completely unravel. Mind you, I don’t even need to be able to do multiple turns—a clean single is fine—but all attempts have ended catastrophically and it occurred to me that I have a terrible habit of letting my ribs come too far forward in attitude and arabesque. It’s one thing to do this in an adagio, or strike the iconic pose from Swan Lake, but it’s not working for turning, and makes it impossible to use my back for spotting. So, I’ve been really focusing on keeping my ribs in, in addition to squaring my body, and what I like about Black’s method is that it helps to create three-dimensional shapes. Much of the Balanchine/School of American Ballet influence I’ve been getting has a lot of opening of the hip in second and arabesque, but a lot of what Black’s method will do is have you bring the legs forward where you actually can rotate it, and the same goes for the arms. My second position of the arms has been too far out to the side, which is part of the reason why my ribs and chest kept coming too far forward, and bringing my arms forward has actually helped me to engage my back much better, again, thinking in terms of three-dimensional shapes instead of some of the splayed out variety. I keep saying 3-D because this is a hugely important (and logical) concept for me—a ball for example, balances perfectly even though it only makes contact with a tiny amount of a surface, while trying to balance a sheet of paper is virtually impossible. Hence, my obsession with really trying to keep square hips/3-D shapes is because I’m convinced placement is the secret to good balance.

I was mostly inspired to really work at this by one of my favorite dancers, Sofiane Sylve, who has perfect attitude turns. I shall compare her with another of my favorite dancers, Ivan Vasiliev who has excellent ones, but goes about doing them a different way. This is not to say Sylve trained under Black because she most certainly didn’t—only that my interpretation of Black’s teachings are helping me to understand the body line that Sylve produces. Visual first:

The evolution of the turn, with Sofiane Sylve (L) and Ivan Vasiliev (R). And yes, I intentionally chose snapshots from clips of them in practice clothes.

It’s not perfect, but I tried to capture them at similar moments in the turn. As you can see, Sylve does a lot of the aforementioned: square pelvis, lower leg, even back, all on top of a turned out supporting leg. Vasiliev has a more open line, which is a very Russian thing to do, and has his leg further out to the side in that mysterious “a la sebesque” line (or in this case “a la sebesquitude”). It creates the illusion of length and height, offsetting his torso a bit, but inhibits the turnout of his standing leg, and in fact he’s kind of rolling onto the outside of his foot, which if you have tapered toes (and I know I do), this is a death sentence that ends in a fall. Keep your leg behind you like Sylve (almost like a detached retiré) and you stand a chance. Both are acceptable ways of turning, and Vasiliev can certainly wind around five or six times (check out his Basilio variations to see what I mean), so it really comes down to what works for your body. I do find Sylve’s prettier though, even if she only does a double or a triple, I think she has the kind of technique that lasts with you, and doesn’t rely too heavily on momentum or having the beastly strength and flexibility Vasiliev does.

Well folks, this post is getting too lengthy so I suppose it’s “choose your own adventure” time. Just know that the teachings of Maggie Black (as passed down to me by one of her students) is not a miracle cure. Although I can say that after such a long break and a mere four classes of doing this, I’m dancing cleaner than ever, with better balance, and the most control I’ve ever had. Even wonky pirouettes I have an easier time saving, and just so you know, during a round of kitchen fouettés I even did a double attitude en dehors! Was my leg very low? Absolutely. Did I feel like a rock star anyway? Absolutely. Results not typical…but what do you have to lose?

Bring it forward. Keep it rotated.

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.

‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review

20 Feb

It’s odd that Seattle has decided to invite the winter spirits, which was particularly cruel on a day like today, with cerulean skies and a radiant sun—accompanied with biting winds and sub-forty-five degree temperatures.  Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to the cold and anything below forty-five is all the same to me…I call it my “immobilization threshold.”  It’s possible that something like negative forty would have an even more profound effect such as cryogenic hibernation and in fact, I was recently told that if you step outside in those temperatures, your nose hairs will freeze (ask someone from Northern Canada…I’m sure they can confirm this).   The point is, all I wanted to do was wrap myself in blankets like a giant burrito and wait for spring to arrive.

I did manage to do the first part of that, but had to something productive, which I decided would be to attack my tower of library materials (some of which are probably overdue), including the documentary Dancing Across Borders.  The film was directed and produced by socialite Anne Bass, who saw Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced like “sea”) Sar as a young boy in Cambodia, performing in traditional Khmer dances.  He obviously had no knowledge of or exposure to ballet, but she could see quality in his movement, a knack for performance and the makings for a physique quite suitable for ballet.  She eventually brought him to New York and the School of American Ballet, where he received a great deal of private coaching from Olga Kostritzky and with one of the most freakish learning curves known to man, refined his raw talent into an accomplished ballet dancer.

Initially, I thought this would be a story similar to Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who grew up impoverished and learning the dances of his people (salsa and even break-dancing) before finding his way to ballet but there are significant differences.  Sy began his formal training at a much later age but what separates Sy from Acosta is that Cambodia has no tradition in ballet.  Acosta’s father, who was instrumental in ensuring his son’s pursuit of a ballet career held a great deal of admiration for the art, which had become a national treasure thanks to Alicia Alonso.  However, Sy’s parents understandably have a different perspective; they recognize their son’s talents and the opportunities it gives him but very little if anything beyond that.  His father even wishes Sy worked for the government, or became an engineer or doctor.  I don’t think he meant that in a “crush the artist’s dreams and get a ‘real’ job” sort of way, because I find it impossible to fault them for not understanding the impact and prestige of a ballet career.  This is perhaps the greatest difference of them all—as Acosta wraps up what has been one of the most prolific ballet careers of the past couple of decades as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet (donning the banana yellow tights in La Fille mal Gardée for what he must always hope is the last time), Sy still seems to be finding his identify as a dancer.

I say that because Bass herself even said that she wouldn’t want Sy to continue dancing if he didn’t want to, but after a few years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, he left to be a freelance artist.  It’s not a decision that surprises me because throughout the documentary he always struck me as someone who was a bit at odds with how much of his relationship with dance was talent and how much of it was passion.  After all, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not a huge fan of partnering so maybe his destiny isn’t really to be a classical ballet dancer.  Even though this is not my experience with dance, I felt like I could relate a bit because this was my approach to school.  I was a good (if anything, clever) student and when I was in control of my curriculum, I truly excelled.  I got better grades in college than I did in high school because I got so many opportunities to study things that interested me and yet I still managed good grades in subjects I hated, like math and chemistry so it baffled people (well, my parents really) when I refused to pursue a career in those fields.  It’s not enough to just be good at something because if the heart is unwilling, the result feels empty even if it looks brilliant.  Despite Sy’s unique qualities as a dancer, you can’t help but feel like dancing for a classical ballet company was like caging a magnificent, rare bird.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many like Peter Boal found Sy exciting—he has an effervescence that cannot be explained and can only be captured visually in photographs or film.  There’s a lot of great footage of him in class as well as performance selections and variations from competition footage with lots of favorites like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Sylphide, in addition to rehearsal footage with Benjamin Millepied and the actual performance of Millepied’s piece at the Vail International Dance Festival with live accompaniment from Philip Glass himself.  In Millepied’s contemporary work is where I thought Sy was most breathtaking.  There was a joy of movement in that work which is part of what leads me to believe Sy is suited more towards that style so I hope now as a freelance artist he is finding those opportunities because even if he’s pretty damn good at classical ballet, sometimes the things we’re born to do aren’t the things we look like we’re born to do.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dancing Across Borders because I think it tells the honest story of a dancer.  Oftentimes I think the problem with fictitious dance stories is the ridiculous, almost melodramatic, romanticized images you’ll often see when in fact many dancers lead extraordinary lives that don’t need to be enhanced, just told.  Seattleites will also get a kick out of seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, McCaw Hall and a few glimpses of familiar faces (I spotted Carla Körbes, and it’s interesting to note that both she and Sy were foreign dancers heavily recruited by Peter…very cool of him).  Actually, Varna had some fun cameos too, like an equally young Belarusian lynx Ivan Vasiliev (I was going to say panther, but there are no panthers in Belarus) doing some of his signature moon-jumping leaps.  At any rate, the only disappointment I had regarding the film was that it all went down just before I moved here…it would have been great to watch Sy dance live, though perhaps opportunities remain in the future to do so, and maybe for the better in a piece where he is truly in his element.  Check out the trailer for fun, or because I’m telling you to:

Bridging the Lake; a Black Swan discussion with an outsider

7 Jan

Rather than write my thoughts on Black Swan, I thought I’d do something a little different and get the perspective of someone completely outside of the dance community.  There are many wonderful reviews written by dancers and balletomanes (which I am just now catching up on, having avoided spoilers until I saw the movie), but what about the “common man?”  Well, the common man is my friend Derek, a movie buff who has graciously submitted to an interview, directed by yours truly in order to guide the conversation into a context that makes a connection between the dance world as we know it and the one he saw in film, perhaps illuminating for both sides how we can find common ground and bring new audiences to ballet.

Derek is older than me (just thought I’d throw that out there) and is the type of friend who never calls, unless I call him at least five times.  He hails from a quaint little village known as Fort Wayne, Indiana where you can park your horse at the local grocery stores, though he lives in the more metropolitan Indianapolis now (which is essentially a clone of my hometown, Columbus).  Despite my desperate pleas to get him to go see the ballet, he hasn’t—missing the likes of Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev at the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala in September of this year.  I KNOW.  I KNOW!!!  He had these superstars right on his doorstep and I implored that he go so I could live vicariously through him, with Kent/Gomes performing the pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias and Othello, and the Bolshoi wunderkinds doing the Don Quixote and Flames of Paris grand pas de deux (their best!), but he didn’t go.  Derek has no idea how embittered and hostile I still am over this most egregious failure and rest assured next time I see him violence will ensue.  Meanwhile, he saw his first Nutcracker this holiday season…if that’s not a knife to the gut I don’t know what is.

Putting aside his nefarious betrayal, he was in fact very excited for Black Swan.  As I said, he’s a fan of films; he makes Oscar predictions and watches all of the award shows, delighting in the prestige and glamour (while I perish at the mere thought of bowties and tuxedos).  He is of course a huge admirer of Darren Aronofsky and despite impeding my mission to get more people interested in our sacred art, Derek is a cheerful chap and occasionally his moral compass proves to be sound (though his spending habits beg to differ).

So first, what is your overall impression of Black Swan and what aspects of the film were most enjoyable/interesting to you?

Derek: My general impression of the movie was that it was pretty freaking cool.  I like Aronofsky as a film-maker, and I have seen all of his movies minus Pi, so when I noticed on IMDB that he was making a movie with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Winona Ryder (all are certain favorites of mine) I knew I would see this movie the first chance I got.  I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations because I was so excited to see it, but it didn’t fail me.  While watching, I was glued to the screen. When I left, my mind was racing.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My favorite things about the movie were definitely the performances.  Natalie Portman has long been a favorite of mine, and I’ve always known she is an amazing actress (not proven true by ANY of the Star Wars movies, but I held on to faith, and she finally did a 180 with the film, Closer).  Portman, in my honest opinion, has delivered one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Winona Ryder also did excellent jobs. They were all extremely effective in their supporting roles, and deserve recognition somehow.

I thought it was interesting that the movie was about ballet, and about a ballerina who wanted to be the best, but the story didn’t really end there. It was a character study about transformation, and perception.

Besides the obvious hallucinations, did anything strike you as unrealistic?  You mentioned the effectiveness of Portman’s acting and the supporting cast, but what did you make of some of the stereotypes they portrayed, such as Nina’s eating disorder, her perfectionism, her stage mother, or the bitchy fellow dancers?

Derek: I think what made this an interesting portrayal of an anorexic ballerina is that they never touched on the subject verbally… we saw images of Nina throwing up in a bathroom. It was never mentioned again.

Her mom was odd. She was a typical “stage mom”, living vicariously through Nina. What made her more corrupt is the fact that she knew Nina was sick, and even through we as an audience can only guess that Nina is schizophrenic, her mother knew it all along.

The perfectionism that Nina is striving for is unrealistic. Nothing is perfect, and anything that is perceived as perfect will falter in the end (Ryder’s character in a way was a representation of this). Nina ended up killing herself in her highest moment, and will be remembered forever for this one “perfect performance”, or what she thought was perfect. It’s like Romeo and Juliet’s perfect love; they died at the height of it, and had they survived it they would have lived to see it somehow die, and/or not be perfect.

How familiar are you with the actual story (what’s called the libretto) of Swan Lake?  The original plot is more or less revealed at certain points in the film but I kept wondering if it was enough for people who have never seen Swan Lake before and I’m curious as to whether the parallels between the plot of the ballet Swan Lake and the movie were apparent for you or not.  For example, in the ballet, the Swan Queen (Odette) is fragile and timid, while her imposter the Black Swan (Odile—and not Odette’s twin sister as stated in the movie!) is seductive, which is re-imagined into a modern, New York setting via Nina and Lily.

Derek: I’m not familiar with Swan Lake at all…however, I did a little reading before the movie. I read that Nina personified the White Swan perfectly, and that Lily personified the Black Swan even better, but that Nina had to become both to get the part. That’s all I knew…but I did see the parallels for sure. I think that it was very important for the filmmaker to show these similarities between Nina (Odette) and Lily (Odile).

To see this movie though I don’t think you need to see the ballet, although I think it may prove to have more of an impact. I’ve already said how much I loved this movie, but my roommate Anna did ballet for 10 years, had seen Swan Lake before and knows the music well.  She connected with that part of the movie better than I did.

That’s interesting considering I did a whole Swan Lake MONTH series on my blog, that you obviously did NOT read, “friend.”  However, I agree—Aronofsky maintained the integrity of Swan Lake; in the ballet, the story is told through music and movement but in his film the story is told through dialogue, acting and special effects, coincidentally taking place in the ballet world…at any rate, was there anything you would have liked to have seen in the film but didn’t?  Dare I ask, anything you would have changed?

Derek: Regarding both of your questions, my answer is no.  I liked it the way it was, and I can’t think of anything else I would have added to make it better.

Thank you…for that elaborate response.  Although his role had few lines, did you notice Benjamin Millepied at all (aka, David, Nina’s partner)?  What did you think of him? (I guarantee ballet fans were watching him with as much interest as they were watching Portman)

Derek: Yes, I did notice Benjamin Millepied. I knew going into the movie that he is a pretty accomplished dancer and choreographer, and that he did some, if not all, of the choreography for this film. He had great film presence, and with Portman had great chemistry (and it all makes sense now, being engaged and expecting a little bundle of “joy!”).

But, not being a particular dance fan, and not really knowing correct techniques, or knowing what to look for in a great dancer, I will say that Portman held her own. I was extremely impressed with her skill, but you could definitely see a difference in between Millepied and Portman. I could tell that he was an extremely experienced and good dancer. It was very good casting.

I kind of felt like Millepied needed to comb his hair…but that’s irrelevant.  Has this film changed your perception of ballet?  Are you more/less inspired to see a ballet on your own?  And don’t even think about telling me what you think I want to hear because I’ll know you’re lying.

Derek: I don’t think this movie has really changed my perception of ballet. In a way, I have always appreciated it, maybe not as much as you [Steve], but I think more so than the general population.

I think I would see a ballet, but I would prefer to go with someone who kind of knew ballet (maybe you!), or perhaps Anna, who like I said, is a big ballet fan. I wouldn’t know left from right or what was good or not, but I think I could enjoy a good ballet for the music and the artistry.

Well, the truth is, you don’t have to know what’s good or not…the important thing is having the freedom to decide what you like or dislike and to have conviction in your opinions, while accepting those of others.  If you choose to learn more about it, I think you’ll find the rewards more gratifying though.

Hey, remember when I gave you a dance belt for your birthday? How’s that going for you?

Derek: I’ve worn it.  Yes.  I can’t say why.  Or for whom.  But it’s gotten use.  It fits well.

Well thank you for your time, and just so you know, after missing the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala, you have a chance to redeem yourself.  On January 19th, Opus Arte Cinemas will be doing a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet performing Giselle in limited theaters (including the Carmike 20 in your hometown, Fort Wayne) with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather performing the principal roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  This is not a request and it is not an interview question…it is a demand that you not fail me again.  And look—I’ve even written a post about the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, so you can imagine me there with you…and if you don’t go, you can imagine my hands wringing your neck.

This concludes the interview with my friend Derek, a so-called “outsider” of ballet.  As Black Swan continues to delight audiences as well as stir up controversy for some professionals in the industry, the only safe thing to say is that dance movies (or in the case of Black Swan, a movie that happens to have dance in it) have a tendency to be divisive.   I think there’s a triangular relationship, between professional dancing, a well-developed storyline and good actors that has yet to be balanced to the satisfaction of many.  It seems two out of three just isn’t enough!

Like your mullet, your views are outdated

17 Jan

Okay, so here’s the deal.  I normally try to keep things in check and rarely find a reason to get snarky and mean in my criticisms of people because I find it unnecessary.  However, as it is with every normal human being there are occasions in which I find myself incapable of exercising restraint.  This, folks, is one of those moments.  Although I shan’t degenerate to reckless mudslinging (because I always aim of course), this may not end up being a particularly…how shall I say, “constructive” post.  But I have my reasons and if you’re a fan of ballet and men dancing I think you may find them agreeable.

So my topic for today is the relationship between figure skating and ballet.  ‘Tis the season for figure skating with the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver just a few weeks away and for Canada and the United States, national competitions are being held to determine who will represent their respective countries at the Olympics.  It is at the US nationals where two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko, while working as a correspondent had this to say about figure skating in an article published today:

This ain’t ballet.

First of all, DUH.  Second of all, “ain’t” is not standard English.  And lastly, if you knew the context of his comment, you would join me in a universal declaration of “oh no he di’nt!” (while I realize that my credibility is on the line by using improper English myself, annunciating “oh no he didn’t!” just doesn’t have the same effect.  Whatever, I’m not being published in the news!)

To summarize, what he really meant by that is men’s skating has become too “feminine,” or even worse, “too gay.”  Now, I have to attack and sink my teeth in for two reasons…one, he just insulted ballet with his ignorance (clearly he doesn’t know a thing about danseurs and is unfit to comment on them!) and two, ballet has had a tremendous influence on the aesthetics of figure skating, which should not be ignored.  I don’t even know where to start with this, but here goes.

Last year, Stojko spearheaded some kind of campaign to “butch up” figure skating, when Skate Canada (the governing organization over Canadian figure skating) had asked him to help in promoting the athleticism of the sport.  I guess he misinterpreted what they were asking for because he inserted his own opinions on masculinity into it and Skate Canada issued a statement that basically said they knew their demographics (obviously, gay people) and that the sport’s popularity is grounded in the combination of artistry and athleticism and that they didn’t want to alienate their fan base or see any reduction in artistry, just promote the athletic aspects to hopefully encourage sports-minded people to give it a try.  They also threw him under the bus and said he was not their spokesperson and didn’t represent the views of the leadership at Skate Canada.  Now THAT, was funny.

Some of the criticisms he had were entirely legitimate (like some really over the top, poorly made garrish costume decisions…which is a subject for another day) but he has a terrible  understanding of what artistry and musical interpretation are.  I’ve watched skating for many years and remember him skating at the Olympics, World Championships and such and I never liked his skating.  He did these gimmicky, martial arts “inspired” programs (or sometimes barbarian MAN programs) with heinous, unfulfilling choreography.  What he was known for was superb jumping (hey, even I’ll give credit where credit is due), widely respected for a consistent quadruple jump.  The problem is, a quadruple jump alone does not a skater make.  I think balletomanes (at least the smart ones) understand this better than anyone.  Do we gasp in awe when Ivan Vasiliev does a triple saut de basque?  Of course we do…but we know that there is more to him as a dancer then one move.  We always complain about those who obsess over quantity over quality (higher jumps/extensions or more pirouettes) because it encourages a world of robot technicians and void of artists.  Emphasis on difficulty has already ruined figure skating enough as it is and yet Stojko feels the quad is not worth enough.  The skaters he mentions as his favorites include Evgeni Plushenko, Brian Joubert and Tomas Verner, all of whom regularly land quads and if you’ve seen them skate, haven’t a shred of artistic ability.  They are among his picks for the medals for the upcoming Olympics and if you love dance, you’re going to wonder why.  (By the way, Joubert is from the same school of idiotic thought, as he threw a hissy fit when he lost the 2008 World title to Canadian Jeffrey Buttle, who is beloved for his artistry but did not perform a quadruple jump.  Nobody I know even likes Plushenko, Joubert, Verner, and Stojko.)

It’s ridiculous that Stojko would fail to recognize the importance of ballet’s influence on skating, not just from an artistic standpoint but also technical.  Jumps alone are more or less variations on tours en l’air and they always land in first arabesque.  The arabesque appears again as camel spins or the basic spiral position.  Or how about turnout?  A spread eagle is a gliding move with the legs turned out in second position and the Ina Bauer is a parallel gliding move with the legs in a turned out fourth position, the front leg in demi-plié.  Posture of the upper body, carriage of the arms (port de bras), movement of the head (épaulement), it’s all there.  Perhaps if Stojko understood this, his extension would have been better and he wouldn’t have looked so stumpy on the ice.  Stojko even had the nerve to say that Swiss skater Stéphane Lambiel is “on the cusp” for him because sometimes he is “too soft,” when Lambiel is easily one of, if not the best skater in the men’s field.  Lambiel has good flexibility, amazing spins and sees his sport as an art.  Check out this performance from the 2007 World Championships:

Note: I post this because I was there.  I’ve only attended a figure skating competition live once, and if you squint and look for an Asian in a black jacket with a blue/purple/gray/black striped scarf in the audience, that’s me!  By the way, this competition took place in Tokyo…

Another skater that TRUE skating fans are hopeful for in Vancouver is Daisuke Takahashi, who is a fine skater that blends the artistry and athleticism.  In this 2005 performance, he performed  a layback spin (cambré derrière with the leg in attitude), which men never do because it’s considered “feminine” but he does it well.  He does a beautiful interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto no.2, is lyrical, expressive, even does a “woman’s move” and yet I would hardly call his skating effeminate.  Takahashi skates with a lot of speed and power, which Stojko mentions as being “masculine,” which quite frankly is a stupid comment because speed and power is not synonymous with masculinity.  The women too, should skate with speed and power!

It really is ironic because both Lambiel and Takahashi can land quadruple jumps.  So take my advice and not Elvis’s and root for Lambiel and Takahashi as they will both compete in Vancouver and I don’t think either skate effeminately.  To me, masculinity is a quality that is much more ambiguous.  It’s like this saying in Taoism: “those who say they know the Tao, don’t.”  Likewise, those that describe themselves as masculine don’t come across that way.  Usually they come across as overcompensating morons because someone who is truly masculine doesn’t have to actually verbalize it to anyone…intelligent people will automatically see them that way.  It’s these people with arcane views on “masculinity” that make fun of boys in the ballet studio and could do with an education.  I know what I’m talking about…besides, he who has mullet has questionable taste, no?

To close, I shall end with a performance for the ages, from the 1976 Olympics.  This is the gold medal winning performance by John Curry, BELOVED by all skating fans (and if he’s not, they should be ashamed.  I’m not even joking.), famous for being a dancer on ice, and considered by many to be the greatest skater of all time.  In fact, when he was little, he wanted to be a dancer but his father disapproved of such activities for boys.  In a word, Curry was sublime…perfect skating skills and execution, amazing posture and beautiful lines.  He was even able to spin proficiently in both directions, which is virtually unheard of.  When he turned professional after the Olympics, he founded a skating company that performed very much like a dance company (and featured Katherine Healy, who I’ve discussed before), working with famous dance choreographers and doing dance inspired works (Afternoon of a Faun, Scheherazade, among others).  Curry was the ultimate skater, during a time when the sport had not advanced to the level of jumping that is performed today.  Surprise, nobody cares!  Coincidentally, nobody cared about Curry’s sexual orientation and nobody I know finds him effeminate either.  So suck it Stojko!  One need only listen to the music the legendary John Curry used and wonder…is this really not ballet?  Or in case a translation is needed: “really ain’t ballet?”

Steve’s letter to Santa

22 Dec

In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I’d do my own little dance-related wishlist.  Looking back over my posts, there were a lot of things I asked for…various DVD’s, requests to choreographers to use certain songs, that sort of thing…but due to the fact that I’m one of those “in the moment” type of people who doesn’t care to remember the past and is incapable of visualizing long term plans for the future, I would like to take this time to do a Christmas list that addresses my immediate needs.

Dear Santa,

If you fulfill my requests on my list somewhat soon, I shall leave for you Der Dutchman chocolate chip cookie dough.  While I have concerns regarding your obesity, it is scientific fact that Der Dutchman makes the best chocolate chip cookies on Earth, therefore I am resorting to this most luxurious bribery out of desperation.  Forget your health…I have demands.  Needs.  Things that have to happen or my world falls apart (and not like that movie 2012, which I think is a ridiculous exploitation of apocalyptic hysteria).

First, I would like to request some kind of recorded performance of Frederick Ashton’s ‘Symphonic Variations’.  There was one, and now there is not.  I used to watch it every other week or so, for the glory of Cesar Franck and the purity of Ashton’s choreography.  I loved the whole production, and especially the costumes.  Because my routine of regular ‘Symphonic Variations’ viewings has been maliciously cut off, the undue stress has caused a couple of minor breakouts of dyshidrotic eczema on my right hand.  The last time I had such blisters was when I was in elementary school (a stressful time for all), and being without ‘Symphonic Variations’ is like trying to go backwards from enlightenment.  My body is unhappy, and its resistance is manifesting into this chronic, incurable disease, that doctors know little about and can only treat the symptoms.  Therefore it is of utmost importance that the ability to see this ballet is restored to me in some way.  I would even be happy if nothing else on my wishlist is granted, so long as this first request comes to fruition.  Things just won’t be the same until we are reunited.

But…I said I had “demands” and “needs.”  I am therefore bound to writing multiple requests to reflect the aforementioned use of plurals.  My second item is a video of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev performing the ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’.  I know she has performed it before (at the International Ballet Competition in Luxemburg) so it is surely in her repertoire.  Unlike many other Russian ballerinas who seem to struggle with Balanchine-speed allegros, Natashenka moves like lightning and really, I mostly want to see her leap fifty feet into the air and land in a fish dive when her partner catches her.  Strong he must be…but capable she is.  And I’m loving on the growing partnership between her and Ivan Vasiliev.  He’s grown on me a lot recently and I like his rawness, but sometimes it’s the “flaws” draw me to a dancer because it almost highlights what they do well.  He’s proof that great dancing isn’t about who has the biggest splits and all that nonsense.  I laughed when I read he thinks his height is a flaw compared to the limby, gazelle-men we often see in ballet and he measures himself everyday, a short man complex if you will, at an “unfortunate” 175 cm (5’9”).  I’m thinking “child, you don’t even know short” (and he is a child…just a baby bunny at a spring green twenty years old!).  He’s still taller then I and I have the gangly limbs…like a deer in an awkward adolescent phase, doomed to never grow out of it.  Except he can do 21 pirouettes (his record…I can’t even visualize how that happens) while I…cannot.  At any rate, I love their energy, and would love to see them do the ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’ which I’ve decided (at least for now) is my favorite of all the grand pas.

Also, this is kind of a strange one…but Santa; I need some help writing a libretto.  Well, maybe not actual help writing it, but I have a top sekret one in mind that I’m doing some research for, and it would be awesome if it were successful someday.  I think it’s bizarre that one would write a libretto in their spare time and I really don’t even know how exactly it’s done, but I’m doing some reading and hopefully I’ll come up with something of interest.  How it gets into the hands of the right people is another matter altogether, but it’s something I’d like to do.  I’m not the kind of person who can necessarily envision specific choreography, but I do have an abundance of ideas swirling in my head for ballets I would like to see…so why not write a libretto?  I could always use more strange hobbies.

And now for some miscellaneous smaller, important wishlist items:

I would also like to request that people start filming a prima ballerina besides Svetlana Zakharova.  Egads, she gets everything!  Some of her performances I’ve seen online have left me indifferent to her dancing, and I get the feeling that without the hyper extensively extended hyper extension she’s a dancer with less substance than others.  I’ve been wanting to watch ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ for a while, but the only DVD available is of her, and I’d really prefer someone else (but it’s a ballet that has little chance of being released again.  I think only the Bolshoi stages it anyway).  It would just be nice to see a little more variety instead of shopping online for the “not Svetlana Zakharova version.”

I also have my eye on the black New York City Ballet tote bag.  I carry a lot of crap sometimes and I’m all for more opportunities to shout from the rooftops how much I love ballet.  While not the most extroverted of people, you can bet I’ll talk a stranger’s ear off about ballet given the opportunity.  Other companies make these pink monstrosities…leave it to New York to do something simple and sleek in black.

And finally, I would really like to just take class, all the time, all day.  Perform?  No.  Just take class and soak in the learning like a sponge.  After being inundated with the philosophy that academic learning is always the first priority, I’d be happy if the only learning I ever do from now on was in the physical realm.

That is all; give me a sign when you’re ready to make things happen.  I promise I’ve been morally sound this year.



To make, remake or not to make. What is the question?

1 Dec

I recently discovered a most egregious bit of news, that there are plans to do a remake (or as Hollywood is pretending to term it, “relaunch”) of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie.  The original BtVS movie was not very good (although I was enormously entertained by a twelve second appearance by a very young Ben Affleck as a basketball player with the number 10, and so my friends and I identify him as “Bar Mitzvah Ben number 10” because that’s what you always exclaim when you see a picture of someone when they’re young), however the story was made famous by the television series, which was much more compelling and had an excellent cast with memorable, beloved characters.  This is why it is so horrifyingly ghastly and upsetting that this planned remake will have nothing to do with the Buffy mythology created by writer and producer Joss Whedon, who basically made the franchise what it is.  You don’t mess with a classic (i.e. Fame…that went well) and you don’t mess with one of the most loyal fanbases in television history.  Fans are NOT happy about this, and alienating us is probably going to have an ugly ending.

However, this got me thinking: Aren’t ballet performances more or less remakes?  Can’t the same positive aspects of different productions of a particular ballet be said about television/movies?  For example, if we flock to see different castings and delight in seeing what each performer brings to a certain role, or enjoy comparing notes on different productions of the same ballet, shouldn’t we (well, I) be able to do the same for Buffy?  I mentally wrassled with this question for approximately seven seconds before deciding on a vehement and resounding “NO” from all the voices in my head.  After all, a BtVS remake would be like staging Mayerling without Sir MacMillan…if he were still alive.  It’s kind of insulting actually.  But I do have legitimate reasons in favor of my argument that I shall divulge.  First, dance is for the most part something that is grounded in the live performance, while movies are written to be preserved on film, and therein lies a huge difference because each must be approached differently.  Obviously a similar thought processes goes into casting, but for movies the purpose is to cast the ideal actor for a role, while in ballet it’s usually more of a “work with the dancers you’ve got” deal.  And as audience members of a live performance, we also have a relationship with the performers.  We are to be silent and applause when appropriate, in order to give dancers unspoken feedback as they perform, which changes our ability to get something from it.  We can watch a movie several times over and it generally elicits the same response, while the same ballet can move or inspire us in different ways because we are a part of it when it’s alive and in front of us.

Ideally, a film should last forever, because it is most often the “original vision” of the people involved.  And yet, there are some wildly successful, innovative interpretations of familiar stories ranging from Westside Story to The Dark Knight.  But why were these different?  Why do some remakes cross the line and offend us while others are brilliant?  Creativity.  While many remakes are motivated by money, because Hollywood sucks and has no concept of originality, the OCCASIONAL remake is fueled by a true artistic vision for a familiar character or story.  However, these successes are rare, and we are inundated by the overflow of failing remakes and sequels spewing from the money-motivated hacks of Hollywood.  In the case of Buffy, they are clearly trying to cash in on the vampire trend with Twilight, True Blood, and such.  For one thing, we’re only a few years removed from Buffy the television series which ended in 2003 with its spinoff Angel ending in 2004.  It’s like going to Disneyworld the day after a funeral…TOO SOON.  At least most ballets are reconstructions of originals from many years ago, so because nobody is completely authentic there is at the very least great attention and respect to the process of staging a ballet that are entirely missing in film.

In the end, some films and television series should never be touched or reinterpreted anyway because simply put, that is how good they are.  I’ll never forget a brilliant statement by a friend of mine who was heinously offended by the Star Wars special edition releases with bonus footage…he said something to the effect of “you don’t go in and paint a city skyline behind the Mona Lisa just because things are different now.”  Many times a piece has to be left the way it is because it also preserves part of the culture of the time which is often overlooked because some idiots can’t get past outdated fashions and hairstyles.  The fact that films and TV shows are a reflection of the times is part of what people should treasure about them.  This problem could be easily addressed if art appreciation was actually a required part of school curriculums.  Alas, one can dream.

It’s funny because there are a lot of criticisms in ballet about the lack of originality, of following the status quo and not taking enough risks.  There was a recent article (link here) about The Royal Danish ballet staging a new version of Bournonville’s Napoli in a postwar setting that the author deemed an “interesting experience.”  Taking risks and breaking the mold is going to be controversial no matter what, which I think choreographers seem to understand, while Hollywood producers ASSUME a remake is automatically going to be successful (and I strongly dislike assumers).  I’m not even entirely opposed to a Buffy remake if there was a genius of Joss Whedon’s caliber behind it, but Hollywood has proven time and time again that they don’t know how to find that talent anymore.  I have no faith; for good reason.

At any rate, on the subject of remakes and new interpretations I was in the mood for a little Le Corsaire, after a new video of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev performing the grand pas de deux at a recent gala surfaced on the net (via twitter for me).  It has a great angle from backstage which most of us don’t get to see, and the quality is great as well, making it seem like Osipova is going to leap into your face.  Talk about “remakes,” this pas de deux is NOT the version the Bolshoi normally performs, as the costuming indicates it is between Medora and the slave Ali instead of Medora and Conrad.  Vasiliev performs different jumps, and Osipova changes things up too.  Regrettably, she took out the pirouettes a la seconde (pirouettes with the leg held straight out to the side) which was something I loved about her when I saw a video of her doing the coda before, but in the female variation instead of a series of pirouettes along a diagonal at the 6:00 mark, she adds coupe jetés (the huge leaps) and runs into the curtain.  It’s give and take and changes CAN be great when thought goes into it.

Or here are some excerpts from the superhuman Andrei Batalov.  He has unusual technique, like how he starts by stepping into an arabesque that is way too open in the hip so that he can get his foot above his head or how later on at 0:55 seconds in he does a quintuple pirouette before throwing his leg into a huge grand rond de jambe, lifting the right side of his pelvis in a way that pretty much every teacher I’ve ever had has said not to do.  But even though these not examples of my preferred technique to see, I’m actually finding it really beautiful in his own sort of “f the establishment” kind of way.  At least he executes the maneuvers with exceptional control…plus he has amazing feet (although he does kind of turn on the outside of his foot in the arabesque turn at 0:13 which is not good mostly for his safety, but his épaulement/movement of the head at the very end of the turn was really lovely and made me not notice the first time.)  And have you ever seen such hyper extended splits on a man’s leaps?  Normally I’m not phased by massive extensions and such…but when there’s substance to the dancer otherwise I can enjoy it too.  I’m a fan.

P.S. I’ve received some feedback from not so dance inclined friends who don’t always understand all the terms I use, so I’m trying to describe movements a little more, point out exactly where they happen in a video or add a short definition to make things reader friendly.  I don’t want to alienate any readers, so I hope those that do know the terms will bear with me for all future blog posts.  It shouldn’t get in your way too much, but let me know if it does.  I might listen.

The Squirrel Burglar strikes again…and “What Would Natalia Osipova Do?”-Answered!

30 Jun

When we last left our hero, his ballet shoe had been cast away in the streets (we assume) of Washington DC.  So I bought a new pair of shoes (Bloch Prolites in white leather, just in case you were curious.  I was tired of black shoes anyway), and of course had to sew in the elastics, which I always use a machine for because it’s a quick zippity-do-dah and the stitches are more durable.  However, the resident squirrel burglar somehow managed to shroud the sewing machine and pedal in separate places.  They’re of course supposed to come apart, but the logic behind storing them in two separate locations can only be rationalized by those well versed in the ways of squirrel burglary.  I managed to find the machine, but no luck with the power cord/pedal.  Naturally the squirrel burglar denied any responsibility in the misplacement of the aforementioned valuables, claiming that the sensible thing to do would have been to keep them together.  OBVIOUSLY.

Abandoning the quest, against my better judgment I decided to try sewing them in by hand, despite a well recorded history of untrustworthy hand seamstering skills.  So of course, I poked my finger with the needle before I even got a stitch in.  However, it wasn’t until after I saw blood shmeared all over my shoes did I realize that the needle had drawn blood.  White shoes, if you’ll recall.  Frantically panicking, amidst making weird “freaking out” noises like I do, I washed my stab wound, and thankfully due to the leather composition of the shoes themselves, the bloodstains wiped off with ease.  Let this be a lesson…squirrel burglars and their trickery are not to be underestimated and that only *I* could manage to bleed all over brand new WHITE shoes that I obviously hadn’t worn yet.  I also forgot to mention this was about an hour before I had class, so I ended up just tying the elastics and doing the criss-cross-wrap-underneath-your-foot-while-stepping-on-the-knot-which-gets-kind-of-annoying thing.

Anyway, so this summer has been abnormal with doing the festival, then drop in classes at Washington Ballet and now drop in classes back at OSU, home sweet home!  Summer class is taught by Karen Eliot who danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  Incidentally, to ensure I got the spelling and her bio correct, I found out that Karen Eliot is also a nom de plume that “anyone is welcome to use for activist and artistic endeavours. It is especially popular within the Neoist movement. It was developed in order to counter the male domination of that movement, the most predominant multiple user-names being Monty Cantsin and Luther Blissett.”  Coincidentally, she has also written a book: Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham, and now I’m starting to wonder if Karen Eliot is her real name…but it doesn’t matter (or does it?).  She’s still this diminutive but amazing ballet teacher with super hyper extended everything and a leg line that inspires jealousy.  She’s quite a quirky character as well…last summer she had us do a saut de chat in a grande allegro, and told everyone to take their arms to third, and I joked that Jessica (the other ballet teacher I’ve had many times) always makes the gentleman take their arms to fifth, and Karen put her hands on her hips and said “well I have a wild side.”  Oh snap!

I told Karen of Balletfest ’09 and she agreed that the Royal Ballet is…well, better than the Bolshoi.  Suck it Bolshoi!  I’m kidding really…they’re still amazing in their own right and I loved watching them very much…we just happen to agree that the RB is amazinger.  I bring this up because I was looking for a way excuse to segue into discussing the Bolshoi briefly.  In response to my What Would Natalia Osipova Do? entry, lookie what I found on youtube (AKA, what I had originally paid to see):

So mystery solved.  No Gamzatti variation, just the Petipa/Cecchetti/Ivanov Cinderella variation that is more widely used.  Although she did shake things up a little bit since it normally has the pirouette a la seconde going en dedans (which Shipulina did) instead of en dehors (which is like ridiculously muy mucho easier), but Natalia also does it from a double, and fouettes into a double (that last one being a triple), so clearly what she’s doing is probably harder for most ballerinas.  Ivan Vasiliev seems to be quite a dynamic partner…a bit stockier than Volchkov, although their jumps are probably equal and Vasiliev is a much much better turner (triples a la seconde! Holy Billy Elliot!) although I don’t think his feet are quite as good.  Their coda was much more fun to watch, and although Natalia didn’t do the a la seconde turns like in that Mariinsky festival video, she does do some consecutive doubles with different arm variations.

I know I’m extremely fortunate to have even seen the Bolshoi and you bet I’d do it all over again, same dancers and all, but apparently there’s a chance I may never truly get over Bolshoi changing the castings…I mean the least they could have done was make Natalia one of the Odalisques as a consolation prize, and perform the double tours as seen here (which all other ballerinas normally do double pirouettes):

She’s incredible.  Someday Natalia, we shall rendezvous!