Tag Archives: jennifer penney

Live from Lincoln Center…

27 Jun

…it’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Shoeman Peaces

31 Jan

As in any creative endeavor, the artist is bound to encounter obstacles and for the past two weeks I’ve had a monkey-sized writer’s block on my back.  For various reasons, I couldn’t seem to pull ideas together…I had plenty, but when I started to develop those thoughts they just faded away.  It’s frustrating, depressing, disheartening and requires the time old medicine of confections—my current delight being the new Andes Crème de Menthe cookies, which are even better than their after dinner mints…you know, those little rectangular chocolates with a layer of mint, wrapped in the signature green foil that is often distributed as little tokens of gratitude for having dinner at the Olive Garden (though the Olive Garden is very stingy, and will never give you more than one per person…I’ve asked.  On several occasions).  Thanks to these refreshing treats, the restoration process has begun.

I operate under the assumption that eating the whole box in a couple of days means fewer calories...but I was never good at math.

So!  In the spirit of renewal, I wanted to write about a dance completely new to me, and inspired by the anniversary of its debut, thirty-six years ago today at Covent Garden, I’ve selected Four Schumann Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen to music by Robert Schumann (Quartet in A major, Op.41, No.3).  I’ve never seen Van Manen’s work before, nor have I seen a ballet to Schumann, whose music I’ve always felt has a distinct refinement and intimacy.  Four Schumann Pieces seems to follow suit with this assessment and so it was impossible to be disappointed.  Overall, I found Van Manen’s style to be quite classical and at times academic, with the occasional dash of modern choreography.  It is however, the kind of piece that requires very disciplined training because placement is key and not having a certain squareness in the hips would result in a faceplant for sure.  It’s deceiving because it’s not a ballet that would strike you immediately as being particularly virtuosic, but it has exceptionally wicked choreography, especially for the lead male dancer.

In the performance I’m including in this post (filmed around 1980), this guy named Anthony Dowell danced the male lead, with Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling and Julian Hosking in featured roles.  The ballet has no plot, though the backdrop has horizontal lines could suggest a music staff and with Dowell beginning alone on stage I imagined him as a composer or maestro.  The other dancers I saw as representations of the notes themselves and Van Manen has all of the dancers doing these airy phrases that repeat in canon and truly embody this idea of music coming to life.  I don’t know if this would be a pertinent distinction (well, I guess it has to be if I’m writing it down!) but the difference I saw in this ballet was that it was very conscientious of not just dancing to the music but becoming it and letting the music speak for itself.  The result is quite reserved in terms of choreography as there’s nothing too flashy but when you watch the first male solo, you realize what makes this ballet so insanely difficult.  For example in this first part, at about 2:40 Dowell does the most beautiful, gooiest grand plié in fifth, springs up to passé, stays up on relevé and ever so gently place his foot down into fourth position before going into a pirouette.  So yeah, academic but also ridiculously hard and in order to make it look easy, placement is everything.  I actually laughed out loud when he did it a second time and sprung up to an arabesque on relevé.  I know nothing about ballet is normal, but that is incredibly not normal.

Van Manen gave Dowell a lot of work on relevé, which isn’t unusual for a ballet dancer but sustained movements on relevé are generally reserved for women (as is sliding into the splits and a penchée, both of which Dowell did above, and I though were absolutely fantastic).  There is more of that later on in the piece but the next segment elaborates on Van Manen’s style, which maintains simple lines and minimal port de bras.  While Dowell takes a nap on stage, Penney, Collier, Eagling and Hosking perform a quartet as a pair of duos, which was one of my favorite moments because Van Manen chose beautiful shapes to frame the women with, and I found it sensual without being romantic.  That’s followed by dancers executing simple steps with pseudo-V is for victory arms, which might seem stiff or awkward but it draws attention to the pulse of the music. I have to say there’s something really pleasing about a tempo in a three, especially a waltz.

Following are some different pas de deux, with Dowell partnering both Penney and Collier in beautiful fashion but the most intriguing is perhaps the duet between Dowell and another male dancer (sorry, I can’t tell who it is)…a little male-on-male action, but like I said before this is a ballet not about romance but intimacy which doesn’t have to be sexual, and such choreography is a rarity in neoclassical ballet (and practically nonexistent in anything earlier).  A friend once asked me if I’ve ever had to do a promenade a la seconde and I’m pretty sure I haven’t, though there are plenty in this little duet.  By this point Dowell is understandably sweating like a beast, having been on stage and dancing for a good twenty minutes, there’s an ease and softness to the brief partnership that makes me wish we could see more of such things in new works.  Although talk about unusual partnering, what could be a more fitting end to this section than Jennifer Penney supporting Dowell’s hand as he balances in an arabesque?  It’s no Rose Adagio, but I love the role reversal.

In the last section Van Manen gives snippets of bravura technique, with Dowell having to perform a series of piqué and tombé piqué turns (or piqué tour en dehors, but most certainly NOT “lame duck”…it has a name, people), which I would actually consider to be more along the lines of “women’s work” as well, as this is a very common series to see in pointe work (like in the female variation of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, or something a ballerina would often do in a coda en manège).  I think Van Manen is on to something here because I feel like his choreography has very few gender biases…and I like it!  The choreography isn’t what I would call innovative, but there are subtle hints of imagination that I find scrumptious…it’s like finding some wild berries on a forest path (yes, when I was little I used to eat such things without knowing or caring that it could potentially be poisonous.  I sort of know better now).

I suppose that’s all for Four Schumann Pieces, which I thought had a familiar charm along the lines of Les Sylphides, with the role of the poet and such.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say; I’m back boys and girls!  May February be a fruitful month for blogging!

What goes around comes around

27 Aug

So I’ve been in a bit of a shlump and was having an uninspired couple of weeks.  The best remedy for this is really to go back to the basics and go with what you know.  What do I know?  Manon.  I mean, I don’t know EVERYTHING about the ballet, but I know that it is by far my favorite full length ballet (keep that in mind kitties, there will be a pop quiz someday…) and I’m familiar with it to a point where I don’t need program notes or anything of the sort.  Instead of the usual goddess Rojo however, this time I got the chance to watch the Royal Ballet production with Jennifer Penney and Sir Anthony Dowell, the latter of which originated the role of Des Grieux.  I’ve actually had this on loan for a while but was saving it for a rainy day (in Seattle?  The very idea…although it did actually rain today and it has been a fairly sunny summer).  In fact, most of the cast in this production (filmed in 1982) were the dancers who originated their respective roles…hot!

I have to say one of the most fascinating things about this recording is that even though it was filmed a good twenty-five years before the Rojo/Acosta version, the performance isn’t dated at all.  Despite changes in approaches to technique and desired body types in ballet, imagining both productions as different casts two nights in a row is completely realistic.  I felt differences in technique and physiques were evident in between the 1984 and 2008 La fille mal gardée recordings, but not so for the Manon performances.  This speaks volumes about Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography—it’s timeless, it’s most definitely a classic and it defies technique.  Obviously it takes a great deal of technique to be able to perform it but when all is said and done the physical act of having bodies dance the choreography reveals so much about characters and story that there’s this rich depth that I’m not sure any other choreographer has ever achieved in story ballets.

Accordingly, the Penney/Dowell interpretation of Manon was vastly different from Rojo/Acosta.  I felt that Penney portrayed a Manon who was very much aware of her ability to manipulate men, as opposed to Rojo who grew to be aware of it but concerned herself more with the internal struggle of wealth versus love.  I never felt that Penney’s Manon was in love with Des Grieux…I found their relationship to be very hunter and prey, like a cat and bird (to see an actualization of this eternal conflict, see Simon’s Cat: Snow Business).  Dowell’s Des Grieux is catlike in so many ways—for his use of plié and he has this charm about him that completely belies his predatory nature.  Acosta’s Des Grieux, like Rojo’s Manon is more about an internal struggle, with his being between the path of virtue and temptation.  This is where things get really nifty, because conflict in the Penney/Dowell performance manifested in their actual relationship as a power struggle between the two characters and not as internal turmoil.  What? I suggest watching these first:

Notice how it’s almost violent in the way Dowell pulled Penney toward him, ten seconds into the first pas de deux, like a cat clawing at a bird?  And how in his luxurious solo he’s like a predator—mesmerizing his prey by trying to lure her and toy with her.  To continue with the house cat metaphor, you see Dowell’s coy, innocent face, his beautifully soft movements and you know his character wants to be a righteous man but without hesitating he gives in to his desire for Manon which is exactly like how the cat that rubs up against your legs and purrs with affection is the same cat that will shred your couch even if s/he knows it’s wrong.  Manon is obviously the bird…a free spirit that is captured (but not loved) by Des Grieux.  However, in the second act there is a shift of momentum and it’s Manon who takes on the role of the hunter and becomes the cat.  It’s in the second act where we see her seductive solo that mirrors the purpose of Des Grieux’s solo in Act I.  She’s bewitching her prey, whether it’s the various men at Madame’s party or Monsieur G.M.  The reason why I felt Penney’s Manon never truly loved Des Grieux is because in her performance of that solo, she blatantly ignores him, symbolizing her ability to captivate whoever she wants.  The jewelry she receives from Monsieur G.M. then become not a symbol of wealth but of her powers of ensnarement.

In Act III, Des Grieux reassumes the role of the hunter, but this time manipulates his prey as if willing it to live again so he can hunt it anew.  By this time, Manon is disgusted by jewelry, as it recalls memories of when she was the hunter and how she suffered from the consequences of those times.  I know I’ve been saying that I never believed Penney/Dowell’s portrayals of the characters to be that of two people in love but that’s the heart-rending aspect of the performance—you want to believe it’s this romantic tryst but you know better and you can see how their relationship is quite dysfunctional.  However, when they get to the concluding swamp pas de deux…it’s like taking an anvil to the soul.  Manon realizes that her only salvation in breaking the cycle of manipulation and lust that she’s trapped in is the very hunter that destroys her while Des Grieux no longer wants to be predator or prey and wants to try to love this girl.  It occurred to me that there are some similarities with La Sylphide here; trying to own a fairy is what will inevitably kill her and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon is almost exactly the same, just told in a more corporeal, sans-supernatural-bells-and-whistles (aka, enchanted forests) story.  As we all know, she dies and let me tell you I have never cried for a ballet before and I was in tears this time around.  It’s such an emotional roller coaster to watch Manon and Des Grieux go through the motions of loving each other only to realize they truly do when it’s too late.

This DVD is a MUST buy.  It is such a treat it was to see Dame Monica Mason dance as Lescaut’s mistress.  She was rather brassy and I loved her bewilderment during the drunken pas de deux with Lescaut.  Just amazing work…and what can you say about Anthony Dowell?  When I watched his performance as Oberon in The Dream, I thought to myself “if I could be reborn as a professional dancer, that’s the role I’d want to do” but having watched him in Manon makes me want to BE reborn as Anthony Dowell.  Better start stocking up on good karma.