Tag Archives: jeffrey stanton

Now, it’s personal…

4 Aug

I’ve been avoiding writing something about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I really felt like it was only yesterday that I reviewed a live performance by them…but that was in April, which was longer ago than I thought. First, I have to say that whoever made it happen so that the Seattle Public Library finally obtained some copies of PNB’s production—thank you! I don’t know if my “suggestions” had any impact on the library’s fairly recent acquisition of it, but I’ll let my ego inflate a la Oberon. If you’ve read here long enough, you may recall that I have watched the La Scala production with Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and in retrospect, that was a mistake! La Scala’s Midsummer is quite bland in comparison, hindered greatly by unimaginative sets that suck the charm out of the entire ballet. Although Ferri and Bolle are beautiful dancers, I don’t know that their performances really enhanced the production either. Having heard Francia Russell say that she didn’t like working with La Scala (she was not however, the one to restage Midsummer for them), as well as Lady Deborah MacMillan’s difficulties in working with them (a controversy over compromising the creativity of the set designers, coincidentally), La Scala seems to have a lot of woes they need to sort out for some of their ballets.

Anyway, the point is La Scala’s Midsummer didn’t really leave a great impression, but I’m learning to love Balanchine’s ballet, which is quite unusual for me because my opinions can be rather stubborn. I actually watched about three-fourths of PNB’s DVD before falling asleep at my computer, so the next day I watched only Act II, which proved to be a much more fulfilling experience, since it is rather disconnected from the story anyway. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I love Act II now, and for me, the Divertissement Pas de Deux was the highlight of the DVD (though I still love Oberon’s Scherzo in Act I). Watching the DVD with fresh eyes also provided a revelation—I had seen the Divertissement Pas before! Back in my golden years as a newly minted student of dance at Ohio State University, I took “Dance 161: Dance and Theatre, 1945 to Present” with Annie Kloppenberg and Ashley Thorndike (who I have to take a moment to thank, because they told me from the beginning that I had a gift as a dance writer), and in that class one of the video clips we watched was this very Divertissement Pas. I remember now because Annie specifically pointed out to us the partnered cabrioles, and asked us to think about what we thought the meaning of that movement was. I wish I could remember what I thought, because at that time, like ninety-nine percent of the class, I had no idea what a cabriole was!

Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers in the Divertissement Pas de Deux (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

My personal journey with Midsummer is proving to be a strange one with some odd twists of fate. I’m now positive that the Divertissement Pas was in fact my first experience in watching Balanchine choreography. In the film, the pas is danced by Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers, the latter of whom I would eventually meet and see perform it live ten years later in one of his farewell performances. In addition to Wevers, Jeff Stanton (Demetrius), Ariana Lallone (Hippolyta), and Batkhurel Bold (Theseus) would reprise the same roles from they did at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the performance I saw at McCaw Hall. There were a lot of other goodies too, like Kaori Nakamura as Butterfly (she did the Divertissement Pas with Wevers in April), and a handful of dancers I spotted in the corps like Carrie Imler, Maria Chapman, and Mara Vinson went on to become principal dancers (though Vinson retired from PNB last year). On top of that, several of the dancers like Paul Gibson, Timothy Lynch, Julie Tobiason, and Alexandra Dickson are people I’ve taken class from! It’s probably one of the most amazing things about the ballet world, how traditions are spread and passed from one to another and in a way, I almost feel connected to Midsummer now, even as an outlier on this vast and intricate web. Or maybe I’m just getting mushy and sentimental, but I definitely have a newfound nostalgia for the Divertissement Pas in particular and thus I’ve come to understand more that ballet survives when we can make the experience of viewing it personal, and that as a ballet student, even recreational, I would do well to remember the legacy that is passed on via teaching in the studio.

Overall, it’s nice DVD with some of PNB’s most legendary ballerinas, like the lovely Nadeau, Lallone, and of course Patricia Barker as Titania. I only moved to Seattle after Barker retired, and have only heard things—which I find to be true. She really is not the most emotive dancer via facial expressions, but she has some of the longest lines I’ve ever seen, and has an uncanny ability to move like water and contrast that fluidity with real attack to certain steps. It’s all a matter of taste though, as I’m the type of audience member who zeroes in on faces before anything else (then feet I suppose), so it’s important to see appropriate animation in a dancer’s face and eyes and I didn’t get that from Barker all the time…it was there in some moments and in others a little vacant. However, it could be considered a more enigmatic approach and one way to get an audience to see how you express yourself through your body. Barker was partnered by Paul Gibson as Oberon, who I felt gave a well-rounded performance, with sharp technique and fortitude in the mime. He’s not one blessed with long limbs, a freakish turning ability, or the highest jumps but he executes everything clarity and belief, so it’s a virtually faultless performance. The company as a whole looked so well rehearsed that it would be easy to sit back and enjoy—were it not for some artistic issues with the story. I know it’s sacrilege, but for me Midsummer contains a great deal of beautiful dancing that delights, but can’t do much more than that because it’s simply stretched too thin to elicit a deeper, emotional investment (Divertissement Pas aside).

Still, I learned my lesson though—they say you can’t judge a book by its cover and I should really know better than to judge a ballet by a first viewing even if it’s guaranteed that visceral reactions to any number of ballets will ensure I’ll make the same mistakes again in the future, and won’t be able to find some personal meaning each time, which is okay too because conviction in oneself is also a good thing. So check it out from your library! If they don’t have it, complain like I did–results require putting the idea out there in the first place!

Or at the very least, check out the trailer:

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New/Old” Giselle

5 Jun

I feel very distraught over blogging about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s world premiere staging of Giselle, because it’s such a beloved ballet and this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill production unique to a particular company—a lot of scholarly work went into it to the point of warranting a presentation at the Guggenheim. Furthermore, it’s the star attraction for the Dance Critics Association Conference this year, which is focusing on the topic of reconstruction, which means there are a lot of people who will be here next weekend discussing things it in intelligent ways. In the face of tremendous pressure, I can only arm myself with the fortitude gained from half a dozen Snickers ice cream bars.

As far as the academic approach is concerned, I think PNB did an excellent job of providing educational materials for the audience. The program is chock full of information, including the libretto, program notes, a historical timeline of Giselle, a three page article with photos of the original Titus, Justapant, and Stepanov manuscripts, and a breakdown of the score and sources of choreography (which is a mish-mash of the above three with interpolations by Peter Boal). It was almost too much information, even for me, who has interest in such fine details. However, one of the cooler things was the ‘Mime Guide,’ which had illustrations of many of the gestures used throughout. Here is but a small close up (sorry for the awful picture, I don’t own a scanner so this will have to do):

The one for wings I don't think I've seen before.

For the mime lovers out there, this Giselle has the most miming I’ve ever seen in my entire life. There was even some miming before the show, as Peter Boal did a funny bit where he used miming to encourage the audience to donate money. As for mime in the performance itself, for better or worse it really slows the pace of the ballet (granted, I’m not always the most patient person). While I respect mime’s historical significance in ballet, it kind of drives me crazy…but I will say that the mime in this production makes a lot of sense musically. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing artistically, which is where the production runs into some problems—the artistic and the logical just seemed to be at odds several times throughout. Clearly, the notations used are indicative of a Giselle that was more focused on telling what would have been viewed as a coherent story at that time, and the edited versions we see today have moved far more into the realm of fantasy. However, depending on what you want to get out of the ballet, you could also see this as a more integrated story with a more sensible plot. It’s kind of like how movies and television, even sci-fi or fantasy still reflect our society in recognizable ways. The modern Giselle to us is a romanticized anachronism but if ballet fulfilled the role of entertainment in the nineteenth century than perhaps it needed to have more instances of sequential action.

Aside from the copious amounts of pantomime, I found Act I to be familiar enough, probably the one major difference being the timing in the mad scene. Normally, there’s that chaotic flurry of notes where Giselle will burst through between Bathilde and Albrecht in melodramatic fashion, but that’s not what happened here. Instead, the mad scene is more of a gradual deterioration of Giselle’s sanity, and internalized for a time before she starts reliving her romance with Albrecht. Major differences did show up, however, in additional scenes in Act II. Some productions of Giselle still do the scene with the hunters in the woods before they are scared off by the Wilis but probably not to this extent, and there is a second scene where a handful of incorrigible youths engaging in tomfoolery are warned by an old man of the Wilis, who they barely manage to escape from when the latter appear. Also, Wilfride accompanies Albrecht when he arrives at Giselle’s grave and finally at the very end, Bathilde and few of the noblemen arrive, in a brief reconciliation where the fading ghost of Giselle indicates to Albrecht that he should return to Bathilde.  The closing tableau is of Albrecht lying on the ground and facing Giselle’s grave, but with one arm extended behind him to Bathilde, who rests her head on it.

In terms of fleshing out the plot my brain was telling me the Act II additions made sense, but in the end I found them problematic because they kind of marred the sanctity of the ballet blanc. They also simultaneously undermined and enhanced the threat of the Wilis, because there was some really neat choreography in the scene where the youths and old man encounter them, but the overall effect is almost a little goofy because those characters are indeed a bit comical. Given, some stagings can take the ballet blanc too far and make it much too moony, but what I like about keeping Act II as “pure” as possible is that it has such a poetic effect. I also find such an Act II much more fascinating because it can be seen as a metaphor for dealing with grief; Hilarion succumbs to it and Albrecht must live with his remorse. However, the most interesting way to look at it would be to see the Wilis as a manifestation of that grief, which raises the question of whether they’re even real or not. Perhaps Hilarion and Albrecht were so beside themselves with sorrow, they danced (or nearly danced) to their deaths, and the Wilis were mere figments of their imaginations. I find that to be a neat juxtaposition of literal insanity in Act I with Giselle’s mad scene, to a prolonged, psychological hallucination that would be Act II. This is of course impossible to do with this version of Giselle because the additional interactions make the Wilis very real.

The "ballet blanc" or "white ballet," with Maria Chapman as Myrtha. (the Wilis' veils were flown away on wires!) Photo ©Angela Sterling

Artistic controversies aside, I’ve been worried all along that as a company that trains in the method a la Balanchine that Romantic era ballet would expose some weaknesses and it did. Overall, I think the company was just way too ahead of the beat, arriving early in certain positions and not finding ways to “fill the music” with their arms (more evident in Act I than Act II). Also, of course the open hip arabesque made a few appearances, like in the beginning when Giselle and Albrecht first dance together (in what one of my teachers called “the most notorious 6/8 in all of ballet”), I was at first interested by how low they kept their legs in the ballottés because it drew attention to the action of the feet, but on the fourth one where the dancers do an arabesque in demi-plié—zoom!—there it was. What was kind of odd was that Kaori Nakamura showed that line in the penchés in her first solo where I think she looked just a little tentative, but she was much more square in Act II and I thought she looked sensational. She was one of the dancers that really stood out to me as having the patience in musicality. (Update: I found out that Kaori’s shoe broke right before her solo! Considering the circumstances, she handled it like a pro!)

Lucien Postlewaite and Kaori Nakamura in Giselle. Photo ©Angela Sterling

Lucien Postlewaite was superb as Albrecht, although due to my issues with Act II toning down (if not eliminating) the tragedy, I don’t know that the production did his sincerity justice. For some reason, he does remind me a bit of Alina Cojocaru…he has a bit of that doe-eyed youthful look, but with a significant splash of devilry—like if Alina had a mischievous brother. Lucien showed marvelous batterie in Act II, and I really liked Albrecht’s choreography here…it was kind of weird to see the cabriole series (which normally come after Giselle’s iconic soubresauts) in the variation in lieu of the diagonal with double tours, but it wasn’t a bad change and overall there were a lot of jumps that aren’t seen so often in male dancing anymore. Lucien did do the entrechat sixes, and I didn’t want to count them but I knew you people would want to know and the answer is sixteen. They were followed by tour jeté city and a manège for good measure, in a truly exhausting danse macabre. I have to say that Albrecht spends a lot of time on the ground for this one, falling to the floor a grand total of something like four times (looks like my black cat powers are getting stronger…I swear, every time I see him!).

Lucien’s Albrecht variation:

In other news, a gold star for Jerome Tisserand, who was flawless in the Peasant Pas de Deux. He has the upper body carriage that is well suited for Romantic ballet, and though he is a corps member he did perform as Franz in Coppélia last year and I was really hoping he would get to do Albrecht, but unfortunately not this time around. I hope he rises through the ranks and gets promoted so he can have that opportunity in the future. I also enjoyed Chalnessa Eames as Berthe because she really invests a lot into her acting, as did Jeff Stanton in the role of Hilarion (they’re both leaving at the end of the season and will definitely be missed!).

Well, that just about wraps it up, though I have some links of interest if you’re hungry for more, including an archived video of the Works and Process presentation at the Guggenheim, as well as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel, which has several great videos of rehearsal footage and dancer interviews about Giselle.

PNB presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…surprise! I went.

10 Apr

So I did the unthinkable…I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coincidentally, exactly one week after the anniversary of The Dream’s premiere and my birthday.  My fellow Ashtonians may be shocked, but not to worry—my dedication to The Dream hasn’t wavered, despite some new perspective on Balanchine’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  For starters, I’ve only seen the DVD of La Scala’s production, and we all know that a live performance is an entirely different experience.  Inevitably, as a balletomane I had to give the live version a chance and make an honest effort at being open-minded.  It helped immensely that my two favorite dancers with the company, Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes, danced the principal roles of Oberon and Titania (my “dream” cast, pun intended).  It was also something of a special occasion as this run of Midsummer serves as a means to an end for a few principal dancers who will officially retire at the end of the season.  It’s almost eerily poetic in a way, to use Midsummer as a farewell given the plot itself and how it’s all about returning to reality after a whirlwind fantasy, which is very much what a ballet career can be like.  Or so I assume.

It made for quite the occasion, as three of the dancers that are retiring (Olivier Wevers, Ariana Lallone, and Jeffrey Stanton) all performed major roles and the audience was quite sentimental about it, really embracing “their dancers” (to the point where some of the things they were applauding were a little ridiculous!  The saut de chat is a beast, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every single one is extraordinary!).  Though they all danced incredibly well, it was one of those moments where you realize the best dancing transcends technique by virtue of that mystifying relationship between performer and audience.  In fact, I was jealous!  Ballet was not a part of my life until adulthood and I haven’t lived in proximity to a large ballet company long enough to establish that kind of sentimentality.  Even though I found it odd that the applause was so generous, it was also endearing in how pure it was; the audience was just enjoying the whole moment, not caring whether something fell under good or brilliant, or whether they even liked the ballet or not.  Moments like these really are far too few, and things to be cherished.

That being said, Balanchine’s Midsummer still makes no sense to me.  There were also times where I felt that Balanchine really just didn’t use the music well, and I’ve concluded that for much of it, he stuck too literally to the story, which doesn’t work without the dialogue.  However, some things were much better this time around, like PNB’s set designs, which are absolutely stunning.  La Scala’s sets pale in comparison, resorting to very plain backdrops, whereas PNB frames the stage with huge painted roses, a glistening spider web, trees, and other elements that add to the fantasy (the giant painted frog I could have done without…but, okay).  As for Act II, the triple wedding of Hippolyta/Theseus, Helena/Demetrius, and Hermia/Lysander, it is of course still out of place, as Balanchine basically crammed the entire story of Midsummer into the first act, and decided to incur some kind of temporal anomaly to make for a lengthy wedding scene.  Artistically I find this an odd decision because it devotes a lot of emphasis to the wedding, which has very little significance in the play, however, the sets again made a huge difference; with garlands, columns, and a starry sky, the atmosphere was far more romantic.

If I think of Act II as a completely different ballet, like a Symphony in C, I have a much easier time accepting it.  Regardless, the PNB dancers really delivered a beautiful performance with the Divertissement Pas de Deux and their entourage pas de six (six couples that is, so twelve dancers).  Though the Divertissement Pas de Deux has absolutely nothing to do with the story, it is quite possibly, one of the most beautiful pas de deux Balanchine ever choreographed (and no, my dedication to the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux has not wavered either…but this one is definitely up there).  Last night’s performance featured Wevers and Kaori Nakamura (her return to the stage after going on maternity leave), who have known each other for many years not just at PNB but also the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (where they also danced with Alexei Ratmansky by the way).  The chemistry was a wonderful balance of genuine love and trust, perfectly matched to some of the subtlest choreography I’ve ever seen by Balanchine.  The brightness of the stage was toned down from a starry sky to a crescent moon, and the quiet strings provided an utterly utopian nocturne (for my fellow music geeks, it’s an interpolation of the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings no. 9 in C Major).  It’s the epitome of serenity and tranquility, in many ways serving as the perfect farewell for Wevers and Stanton (who is partnering Körbes), as night falls on their stage careers.  In a word, it was unforgettable, and I feel so lucky to have been in the audience for it.

Meanwhile, I don’t have to sing the praises of Carla Körbes’s Titania, because you already know I’m going to tell you she’s flawless.  The lovely port de bras, her beauty, her expressiveness…she just has a special glow.  Lucien Postlewaite is also amazing as Oberon, being in my humble opinion one of the most well-rounded dancers with the company and having a gummy bear plié.  Seriously, he lands so softly it’s not fair…though he took a little spill during his Act I solo, which is an absolutely wicked display of bravura steps.  Maybe he gets really nervous if I’m watching…or maybe the truth is they’ve been having issues with the floor, as the tape is apparently very slippery.  Isn’t it ironic how one of the few spots where he had to land in a tight fifth position, which, if you think about it, is a spot so small it’s a decimal percentage of the stage, also happened to be covered with slippery tape?  It’s like a stilt walker slipping on an olive…but he wasn’t the only one, because another dancer took a spill in the same spot, which was less noticeable because it was Lysander getting flung around by Puck during one of the confusion scenes.  May you never look at a dancer falling the same way again!  Here’s a video too where you can get some glimpses at the aforementioned wicked solo (and the giant frog):

Speaking of Puck, Jonathon Porretta was brilliant and absolutely hysterical (overall PNB “got” the humor in performance much better than La Scala did on film).  What was also funny was the woman behind me, who I think had a Russian accent and said “oh, Jonathon Porretta, I love HIM.”  Especially with the accent, how fabulous is that?!  I wish I could have heard more, but then she started speaking to her friend in Russian and alas, I could no longer understand.  She was also far less enthusiastic about Postlewaite, and I wanted to turn around and be all “oh no you didn’t!” but then I realized I would have looked like a crazy person.  Although, like I always say, we’re an eclectic bunch up in that balcony—who else would manage to give himself a paper cut on the program during intermission, and ask one of the bartenders for a napkin to stop the bleeding?  Right…that was me, and beside the point.  Despite being an Ashton junkie, I really did enjoy myself and hey, Wevers himself told me that he danced The Dream at Winnipeg, and liked it better so even in my darkest hour (which wasn’t that dark) Sir Fred smiles upon us.