Tag Archives: joffrey ballet

Otherworldly Othello at The Joffrey Ballet

25 Apr

Chicago rocks my world and the Joffrey Ballet is a huge part of the earthshaking. The opening performance of Othello, choreographed by Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch was by far one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this year. I thought I loved the DVD (and I still do) but the opportunity to see it live on a prestigious company like the Joffrey for the first time was something else. And not just the performance itself, but attending the Joffrey Ballet yielded something new—I even received a swanky electronic press kit complete with bios and photos on a CD (a commodity of pure class if you ask me) and I was immediately impressed by how accommodating the Joffrey is to the press (if I could even call myself that!). Like any non-profit arts organization, they want to make themselves known, and I appreciate that they make it easy, so three cheers to the public relations and media team for outstanding operations! To feel respected as a writer was a tremendously generous gift.

Meanwhile, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, a grand hall gleaming with the Midas touch and illuminated by vast arches of incandescent lights, provided a venue more than worthy of a great Shakespearean tragedy. Lubovitch’s Othello loosely follows a distilled summation of Shakespeare’s play, taking necessary plot details and making some alterations in order to make the story compatible with ballet. Though the ballet picks up partway through the play, the meatier elements of Othello the Moor’s marriage to the noblewoman Desdemona, the resentment from his ensign Iago, a sinister plan of betrayal framing Desdemona for infidelity with Othello’s lieutenant Cassio, and subsequent death for pretty much everyone involved are all present (Cassio is executed, Iago murders his wife and Desdemona’s attendant Emilia, Othello kills Desdemona, Othello commits suicide, and the villain outlives them all). There are many times in movies, art, etc. where I find people try too hard to be dark and dramatic but certainly not here—it just is. Lubovitch certainly knows theatre and he succeeded in creating this grisly and macabre world without resorting to any form of antics, which reigned supreme with a refreshing authenticity.

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Lubovitch was definitely aided by the score, composed by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal (I have to geek out for a moment and mention that Interview with the Vampire is one of my FAVORITE film scores). One of the best things about Othello is not the fact that Goldenthal actually wrote a part for alto flute (apologies for geeking out again) but that a contemporary choreographer brought to life an untapped, non-fairy tale libretto and utilized an original score by a contemporary composer. Though the aesthetic of this ballet has modern elements, it still follows the story ballet tradition, and is arguably the most phenomenal ballet to have done so in the past couple of decades. I can’t praise Lubovitch’s storytelling abilities enough and find it interesting that while he did work professionally as a ballet dancer (as well as other forms of dance), he didn’t necessarily have a famed career as a performer. Still, he did study under ballet great Antony Tudor at Juilliard, but diversified his studies with modern dance artists like Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, and Martha Graham, the multi-faceted influences woven into his education very much apparent in his choreography. If Lubovitch was a dancing smorgasbord (er, not literally), Goldenthal was something of a musical equivalent, composing concert works, ballets, film scores, Broadway musicals, and more. They both had lives, work, and perspectives outside of ballet and it made the ballet they fashioned together all the more compelling.

I would go as far as to say that the non-balletic choreography Lubovitch created were the most fascinating. One of my favorite steps had three Venetian dancers (danced jovially by Erica Lynette Edwards, Amber Neumann, and Kara Zimmerman) perform a simple pencil turn en pointe, a simple pirouette with a straight body but the choreography called for a flexed foot instead of a pointed one, and while I often find that the flexed foot can be overused simply because it’s considered a “modern aesthetic” and therefore automatically makes a piece seem “edgier”, it wasn’t at all trite in that moment and even surprised me. And then there’s the tarantella of Act II, where women and men rapturously celebrate the latter group’s safe return to a seaport in Cyprus…let’s just say there are times in ballet where it can be said that the choreography given to the corps de ballet is actually far more interesting than that given to the dancers in the lead roles. From a purely movement based perspective, the corps work was hands down the pinnacle of excitement. To see a bunch of ballerinas let their hair down and throw themselves into a wild style of movement with reckless abandon was great fun. With undulating spines and dynamic jumps stripped of the virtuosity that we expect of classical ballet, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral urge to join them.

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

The colossal Fabrice Calmels, towering at least a head above the rest of the cast gave a foreboding presence to the title role. It’s not so easy for a 6’5” guy to dance because that’s a lot of musculature and a high center of gravity to throw around but Calmels was very much in control of his performance and psychologically deep into the character. The diminutive April Daly was so tiny in his arms as Desdemona, with the beauty and appearance of fragility like a porcelain doll, but with a great deal of emotional integrity. To show a full range of romance, resolve, and resignation only scratched the surface at what was indeed a masterful performance by her. I also quite enjoyed Aaron Rogers as Cassio, who had a certain elasticity to his arms and hands that finished every movement. My friend I attended with noted how he used his head to look up and out at his surroundings, not presenting only frontally to the audience, but really observing the world around him and really living in that moment. But let’s be real—the entire cast (with Matthew Adamczyk as a sleazy Iago, Valerie Robin as a skittering and pitiable Emilia), was fantastic and showed a marvelous union of ideas and energy. Combined with Lubovitch’s narrative talents, my mind never wandered for a second, and I found myself engaged the entire time.

It’s hard to believe the Joffrey Ballet will retire Othello from the active repertory (although I find the wording of that statement unclear…what is active vs. inactive repertory? Will they never perform it again? Will they simply put it on hold until they activate it again? I’m not sure), but with several performances remaining through the weekend and next, limited opportunities exist. I only wish I could be in Chicago still, to see the Joffrey’s outstanding Othello once (or twice) more, to relive the mighty drums that make your heart explode, and observe other dancers in the company taking flight in various debuts in one of America’s finest achievements in theatrical ballet. To miss out is a tough pill to swallow, but after all is said and done, the optimist in me wonders if maybe a final bow with the Joffrey could mean passage for the Moorish martyr to unmarked territory, and the lurid wonder that is Othello can indulge the fancy of new audiences.

Fabrice Calmels's suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels’s suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

It Takes a Team to Raise a Dancer

23 Jul

Perhaps the greatest challenge artists face is how to shape their career, when there is never a clear-cut path. In the development of a professional ballet dancer, most of the time there is the added obstacle of having to figure it all out at an early age. It would be like trying to graduate with a master’s degree at the age of eighteen—that’s a lot of work (understatement of the century!) and it’s a decision that requires a sensibility and maturity not always found in teenagers (those of us who are older and wiser know this to be true). While I do find that there are many adolescent dancers who are mature beyond their years, they’re still kids and that means parents have to make some decisions and provide guidance along the way. Unfortunately, the “stage parent” (a term I hate because it implies that overbearing parents are a problem exclusive to performing arts) is a stereotype closely linked to ballet, and while there are some seeds of truth, stereotypes are useless when it comes to seeing reality. Thus, my feeling is that healthy relationships between parent and dancer need to be a part of the discussion.

I became interested in the topic of the dancer/parents relationship upon learning in the Twitterverse that two people I followed separately, are in fact related. Dylan Gutierrez, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet was trained by his mother Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, an accomplished ballet dancer in her own right (having danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet among many other professional endeavors) and is now President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Obviously, Andrea comes from a different perspective from other dancer parents, having been a dancer herself, but it could have easily been a double edged sword—maybe she knows too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time an impassioned stance led to irrational behavior. Having a parent who was also a dancer is like the set of ingredients needed for the perfect storm—though a storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just tumultuous. The end result for the Gutierrezes is a good one, with Dylan living the dream in Chicago, and judging by their interactions on Twitter, they’re close. Curious as to how they’ve gotten to where they are, I asked them if they would discuss their past and the nature of their relationship.

YDF: When did you both realize Dylan had what it takes to be a professional dancer? 

Andrea Paris Gutierrez (Photo ©Rose Eichenbaum)

Andrea: Well I knew he had a lot of passion, but because he was one of the first boys I trained I did not realize the things he could do were quite exceptional for his age. He really loved it [ballet] and after a trip away and an inspiring conversation with a certain prima ballerina, he began to talk about becoming a professional dancer. Being that I was also a professional dancer I did not find this unusual or daunting which I think some parents might. We got a lot of positive feedback whenever people saw him dance but I had no idea where it all was leading us. We took things slowly and methodically and did not rush into any offers or programs that many people wanted to scoop him up into. He rode his skateboard, played basketball and other sports like all of his friends. He didn’t leave home until he was sixteen years old and going into eleventh grade.

Dylan: When I was ten years old I decided I didn’t want to play basketball and that I wanted to pursue ballet; it interested me more as I had been inspired by Angel Corella, Patrick Bissell, my mother, and Susan Jaffe (who I heard speak at a summer program). I realized [Jaffe] felt the same way as I did when she was young; she said that she always knew she was going to make it but never said it out loud.

YDF: Andrea, how did being a dancer affect your approach in teaching him? Did you ever set boundaries for yourself and what would you say was your biggest concern during his formative years?

Andrea: Well I was very fortunate; I was trained in dance by my mother Bernice McGough at her school in New Zealand and we always had a great relationship. I modeled how I teach my children (I have a dancing daughter as well) on how she taught me. [Dylan and I] sort of compartmentalized our relationship. When we were at home I was mom, when we were at the studio I was the teacher. I can’t say there is no ballet talk at home—there is—however, I tried really hard not to play favorites at the studio or be overly hard on my own children. Ethics and impartiality are important for my children and for everyone else. Many people at the studio did not know that Dylan and Veronica are my children. I think that treating everyone fairly is important and then if my children did get a special role they knew they earned it like everyone else.

YDF: What was it like to transition from working together as a team for so long, to sending him off to The Royal Ballet School? Dylan, what was it like to train there under new teachers and different circumstances?

Andrea: I knew when Dylan was offered a scholarship to Royal Ballet School it was an amazing opportunity and a chance of a lifetime. I was confident that the training was the best in the world and when we visited the school in the summer I was given plenty of information on how the school ran and what was expected. Once he got there, it was hands off for me…I know that teachers and directors do their best work when they are given the freedom to do so. I never spoke to any teachers or the director until I came to visit at the end of the first year when I had a short conference. I did all the support from behind the scenes. I let them do their job and just supported and encouraged Dylan through the tough times and the good times. I did work with him when he came home on breaks but the school supported that. But I was happy to have them work with him their way, and I was thrilled with the training and support he received at the Royal Ballet School.

Dylan Gutierrez (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

Dylan: I had [already] learned how to work with other teachers and was comfortable with that, but The Royal Ballet School is a whole other beast. They have the luxury of expecting greatness, not good or okay, and I was no longer in the position of being one of two boys everyone thought was good.  I had to prove myself, and thanks to my mother and my father (who is also a huge support to me) I understood that. I didn’t expect anything, and I wasn’t given much at first. They were actually a little weary of me early in the school year; they thought I was a troublemaker, that I had to shape up, be willing to be tamed and pay attention. I started out a troublemaker and about six months into the year I was going on special trips with two of the best boys in the class. One of whom was Vadim Muntagirov, which I am sure if you know that name you know what kind of talent I was holding my own with. 

YDF: Obviously, Andrea, you’ve passed down a lot of your schooling to your son but do you see qualities you had as a dancer in him, or is he his own entity? Has he seen any of your performances and if so, what did he think?

Andrea: When I was dancing we did not tape everything like we do now. I have some pictures but not much tape of myself. Also professional productions are not taped although I have a few things. We are similar in many ways…both tall—but fast movers. I used to love fast allegro and quick footwork. I was a turner and jumper and he is too. I was also very competitive and still am—I love the struggle to be the best and I think he does too. I always used to watch and wonder at dancers who wished their careers away or worse yet complained their careers away. All of sudden its over and you did not enjoy the experience. I try to instill in him to appreciate the gift of dance and enjoy the experience. It goes by fast so make sure that you LOVE every experience you have. Dylan always compliments my demonstrations or my classes. We have mutual admiration of each other. It’s fun.

YDF: Are there ever any “I told you so” moments now between the two of you?

Andrea: Oh yes many, haha. When he was younger he would often “try” things for the first time on stage. I would beg him not to. If you were to tell him for example, that the director of the Nutcracker would be upset with him if he fell on his pirouette by trying to do too many, he would go for the extra one or two or three anyway—it would make me so nervous. He also did a double sissone for the first time on stage and as he ran by the wings he said “how did you like that mom!” as I almost collapsed! He was a daredevil.

Dylan: DEFINITELY! Example one: My mother always told me to think about quality not quantity and at the time I was so obsessed with pirouettes I didn’t care about much else. One day I was doing a Nutcracker where the guests were Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorevenko and I went up to Maxim and I asked “How many pirouettes can you do?” and he answered “It is not about the QUANTITY it is about QUALITY” and my mom looked at me [with that look of] “I told you so.”

Example two: I had auditioned for Houston Ballet, ABT,  Staatsballet , Dutch National, and I had NO OFFERS. I had one more audition to do and it was San Francisco Ballet…after company class Helgi Tomasson said “well I will contact you tomorrow and let you know if we have a spot.” When I came out my mom was really worried saying “You have to audition with smaller companies, you have too” and being young and stupid I said “NO—I want this.” She [kept] saying things like I don’t think he’s going to give you a contract and I just said “wait until tomorrow.” She had a lot of doubts and was really worried. The next day around noon the phone rand and it was Helgi offering me the job, and I thought: “Mom, told you so.”

YDF: Andrea, Dylan spent a year with San Francisco Ballet and now he’s been with the Joffrey since 2009, both two of the top companies in the U.S. Have you been able to attend most of his performances? What’s it like to be a teacher/mother/audience member? It’s still early in his professional career, but is there a performance that stands out to you?

Andrea: That’s a loaded question! In the first performance he danced with SF Ballet, he danced the first Temperament in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I had an ominous feeling. I worried that it was too much responsibility for an eighteen-year-old apprentice and that he would look too young next to the very experienced SFB soloists and principals. It was a good performance but I felt that he needed to be developed more slowly and methodically. I feel that [this] has happened for him at Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater seems to know what to put him in and when is the right time. The Joffrey also seems to prepare him very thoroughly. I was so thrilled to see him dance with Jaime Hickey in Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the pas de deux chosen for them suited them and they handled the material very well, but honestly the moment I saw him step out on stage in Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker as the Snow King I was [even more] thrilled. He looked so mature and confident and matched with Christine Rocas so magically that I honestly could not believe it was him. I don’t get nervous anymore because it is out of my hands now and I know he is prepared. I sit back, enjoy it and think how fantastic he is. It’s really such a pleasure to see my students and my own son in the professional environment. I absolutely love it.

YDF: Dylan, does having your mom in the audience add additional pressure, nerves, or excitement for you?

Dylan: It used to make me really nervous when I was still a student; my mother seriously knows a lot and she is not afraid to tell me when I look bad—professional, Royal Ballet School student—she doesn’t care. It’s her job to let me know and she does, but once I went pro I [began] working properly and she seems to be ecstatic every time she sees me dance now. I do always get a little nervous because she is my teacher and mother and I want her to be proud—she’s my teammate.

Dylan the "Daredevil" (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

YDF: Okay, so…because I’m an Ashton junkie, I have to ask—how was it to dance in his Cinderella? Besides that, what have been your favorite roles/performances so far?

Dylan: Oh I love his version—it’s so classy and glamorous and tells the story extremely well. This is also special for me—it was like my first soloist, first cast role. I was one of the prince’s friends the “Summer Cavalier” and it was so challenging. It takes so much technique to execute that men’s dance and it’s really exciting. Also, my little sister Veronica was an extra in the ballet when we did it in LA so that was fun because we get along so well and she got to meet the company. Other then that I have two favorite performances and one is when I danced the Aria II pas de deux in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Jaime Hickey. This was my first principal role that I had ever danced professionally and it was so liberating and freeing to be onstage by myself and just go at it with that intricate choreography. I used all the space I could, I focused and my mind was right. Our pas de deux went well for both shows and I feel like we really understood it. My MOST favorite performance to date was when I danced the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux at The Joffrey Ballet’s Spring Gala. The man who was supposed to do it (who is also my friend) hurt himself unfortunately and that was not fun to hear about but getting to step up was a great challenge and triumph. I had about four hours of rehearsal total and I had no choice but to go out, relax and just dance it. After the pas de deux, doing my solo [alone on stage] was incredible—it was some of the most fun I have ever had dancing and those two roles will always have a special place in my heart. 

Andrea: May I mention Steve, that as student at the New Zealand School of Dance we did Cinderella for our end of the year performance and I danced the role of the Fairy Godmother so seeing the Joffrey dance this version of the ballet bought a lot of memories for me too. 

YDF: Finally Andrea, what did you take away from the experience of simultaneously raising and training Dylan, and are those experiences helping in teaching your other children now?

Andrea: Well the road to becoming a professional dancer is long, tedious, complicated, and thrilling and traveling that road as a dancer myself and then with Dylan as his teacher and mother, I feel that I am able to see and understand many facets of the process. I think that helps me to guide and mentor my students and to be able to see what their parents are dealing with as well as the dancers. I feel I have a unique and special view of the process and am in the fortunate position to help young dancers and their parents navigate their way through. All situations are different though and as a teacher you learn something new with every dancer. My daughter has aspirations of being on Broadway so now I am learning all about that process and path. It’s quite different and equally as interesting. I’m glad I get to go on this journey with my son. He always asks for my perspective, he always shares things with me, and I’m always so happy when he arranges for me to watch a class or rehearsal. I love to have a special peek at the process and the Joffrey Ballet is always so warm and welcoming when I go to Chicago to visit. I’m already planning my trip(s) for this season. I cannot wait. 

Ballet parents need to remember that the motivation needs to come from the dancer. The parents’ job is to facilitate and support the dancer and the teacher. It’s very hard for a young dancer to travel this road alone—they need a back up who can remain calm in the difficult times. However, my advice is to make sure you take the time to sit back and appreciate the privilege of being in the profession and enjoy the process as much as the product.

* * * * *
Well friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed interview as much as I have and if you ever hear anyone making some wisecrack about stage parents in ballet, I encourage you to kindly point them to this article! Even if it’s common sense to us, the world needs to know that stereotypes represent certain extremes (as they always do) and that the healthy, happy people are never discussed as much in comparison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andrea and Dylan Gutierrez or have any questions you’d like to ask them, follow them on Twitter! Dylan says a lot of things like “swaggin” and “balcony life,” the meaning of which elude me (best explained by a generational or coolness gap I suppose), but he’s a good kid. Also be sure to check out Dylan’s Facebook page, for a bunch of awesome photos and his YouTube channel for videos of him dancing. For more information about Andrea’s work as a teacher and artistic director of LA Ballet, please visit their website at www.laballet.com

Follow Dylan Gutierrez on Twitter @DylanthaVillain
Follow Andrea Gutierrez on Twitter @drummamamma

A Simply Sibley Cinderella

11 Jul

I love libraries, and I hope you do too. My latest string of acquisitions includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. This pair of Royal Ballet dancers achieved such legendary status that books are written about them, like the coffee table tome also on loan from the library entitled Sibley and Dowell, which features photography by Leslie Spatt and text by Nicholas Dromgoole (which totally sounds like a Harry Potter name). With pages of gorgeous black and white photos, a few words from Dromgoole (hehe), and a great deal of transcriptions of interviews with Sibley and Dowell, the book offers great insight into the history and careers of these two dancers. Incidentally, in discussing differences between dancing wit the Royal Ballet and other companies, Dowell mentioned that in working with American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, ideas were shared but not a sense of humor. It then occurred to me to consider the prevalence of UK readership in regards to this blog—there may be some truth to those jokes I make about having a European sense of humor!

Anyway, Ashton’s Cinderella is widely regarded as the most prominent version today, and it is in fact the first full-length English ballet. There are two recordings of Ashton’s Cinderella available on film, both noteworthy for different reasons. The older one (filmed in 1957) is a made for television version featuring the illustrious Dame Margot Fonteyn (for whom the role was made, but due to illness, Moira Shearer debuted it instead). The film also has original cast member Michael Somes as the prince (Fonteyn/Somes being another legendary pairing in their own right) and the unique occasion of having Sir Fred himself and Sir Kenneth MacMillan as the Ugly Stepsisters. The very thought of Ashton and MacMillan (two gods of ballet choreography!) as the Ugly Stepsisters has me losing my mind, and although clips of this performance reveals a grainy, black and white film, that doesn’t detract from its historical significance. I’m not sure I understand complaints about the film quality anyway, as if people cared that the recently found footage of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes isn’t HD!

However, the original Ugly Stepsisters were actually Sir Fred and Sir Robert Helpmann, appearing in the debut on December 23rd, 1948. Twenty-one years later, Sibley and Dowell’s performance is filmed, and includes both Ashton and Helpmann in their signature character roles (also, Alexander Grant, the original Jester, appears in both films, which is quite the span since the 1948 debut!). The Ugly Stepsisters are characters often met with some controversy, because they’re these over-the-top, squabbling, vulture-like caricatures whose antics a lot of people find annoying. While I can agree with some of those complaints, I still think they’re necessary—without the Stepsisters, there isn’t much of a story! Ashton also paid tribute to the tradition of British pantomime (or “panto” as they apparently like to say), which dates back to the Middle Ages and almost always has campy characters played by men in drag. For me, the humor of Cinderella would just be incomplete, and there are such delicious moments when Sir Fred is in the role because he’s so willing to mock his own art. Nowhere else will you see Sir Fred, performing “the Fred step” with a complete disregard for aesthetics. Although, I suppose it’s possible part of what made the Ugly Stepsisters special may have died with the originators, something Sibley and Dowell might agree with, having said that getting to dance on the same stage with Ashton and Helpmann had a special sense of occasion.

While I’m notorious for an aversion to Prokofiev, I didn’t entirely mind the score. It helps that Ashton appears to have been heavily inspired by the music because it is some of the most unique choreography I’ve seen of his, and by unique I also mean wicked—especially the corps work. Much of the choreography for the corps de ballet is quite zippy and moves in unusual patterns, which fits Prokofiev’s music so well, and it’s hard to keep those lines clean when things are faster. Cinderella also has a difficult variation, where she has to do a series of flickering turns in a circle, not just once but twice, and just watching is dizzying enough. The ball pas de deux with her Prince is an interesting one, containing references to clock hands and the countdown to her midnight curfew. The way she beats her legs together midair mimics the seconds ticking away, and all kinds of straight limbs in arabesque and penchée indicate time’s influence on her allotment with the Prince. It’s not as though the shapes tell you exactly what time it is, but the way they’re jumbled together is an obvious statement as to how she loses herself in time as she is falling in love.

Cinderella’s Variation:

 

Cinderella Pas de Deux, with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg:

 

Speaking of the ball, however, it’s Cinderella’s entrance that is perhaps one of the finest moments, as she descends a staircase and simply bourées forward. The bourée being one of the most elementary of movements on pointe, it is often relegated as a way to get from A to B when a sort of shimmering, or floating effect is desired. Rarely does the bourée by itself get respect as a choreographed step, and this particular usage has to be up there with the most poetic instances of it (the other one I think of being Myrtha’s entrance in Giselle. Fokine’s The Dying Swan is of course all bourées, but is a piece that is really told through the arms rather than the feet)

Cinderella’s Entrance, with Margot Fonteyn:

 

As for Sibley and Dowell, they are of course the image of perfection in DVD. Dowell has been filmed numerous times but there is an unfortunate shortage of Sibley, so it’s a treat to even have just this one with her in a principal role. An elfin blonde, Sibley makes the role of Cinderella look completely natural, with gracious acting and strong balances (she had many an arabesque on pointe that were just brilliant, the trademark of classical lines and correct placement). It’s impossible to not love Dowell as well, even if the role of the Prince is not a particularly deep one. He is genuine, reserved, and elegant and quite young here. It wasn’t his first appearance on film (he danced Benvolio in the Fonteyn/Nureyev Romeo and Juliet), but his second and he even looked just a little shy. What’s also interesting is that the Prince’s solo has a lot of jumps in it, something that Dowell mentions not being his strength (and is completely evident when he spins a quadruple pirouette into a perfect extension of his leg to the side, maintaining a flawless center), and that he was happier with it after changes were made to it during a tour to Australia. It was also during that tour Sibley and Dowell had a humorous incident during a performance in which her costume got caught on his in a lift:

Dowell: I was trying to bring you down from a shoulder lift and your tutu caught on the hooks of my coat, and you were quite immovable, pinned to me like a brooch.

Sibley: You kept saying ‘Get down, get down!’ and I could only say ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

Dowell: Eventually we had to run off, or rather, I mean I had to run off, with you just dangling.

(Bonus pointes if you read the above with an accent! Unless you speak British-English, in which case I guess you were just reading it)

While we are without a more current production of Ashton’s Cinderella on film (though there has been outcry to have the BBC broadcast of the Cojocaru/Kobborg performance released on DVD), the Sibley/Dowell is more than sufficient—it’s stunning. The only thing missing (literally) is an entr’acte where the Prince searches the world for Cinderella and some critics lament that the omission of that scene eliminates character dances, although character dances, like Ugly Stepsisters can be controversial too; maybe you’re one of those people that finds them vile, time consuming, and a little racist…maybe not (boy, that’s a blog topic for another day—are character dances racist?). Regardless, despite pockets of Ashton all over the United States, for audiences in America our only chance to see it is to commence an odyssey to Chicago, and see the Joffrey Ballet, who added it fairly recently to their repertory in 2006. The rest of us can (and should) enjoy the Sibley/Dowell, and believe me when I say there are few things as sacrosanct as Georgina Parkinson’s Fairy Godmother!

Behind the scenes look at the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Cinderella:

 

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

30 Oct

Dear readers, today I have a special treat for you, a review of Othello, as performed by the Joffrey Ballet and written by my friend Hilary with one L (who you may remember hates enchanted forests and she’s the one I went to see Le Corsaire with).  She is also the author of her own blog, The Cupcake Avenger, which includes a great assortment of recipes and reviews of various gourmet bakeries.  So if you ever get the opportunity to see the Joffrey in Chicago, be sure to check out her blog for advice on where to get sumptuous cupcakes.  We all know ballet fans have refined tastes, so accordingly, your run of the mill grocery store cupcake or even the slightly higher end Starbucks variety simply won’t do.  We have more eclectic and often seasonal tastes, like pumpkin or apple spice in the fall.  So be sure to check out her blog for the benefit of your taste buds.  Seriously, she’s doing the work to find these hole-in-the-wall bakeries so take advantage of it.

So onto her review!  (with a few comments here and there from yours truly) *Also, all pictures are copyright of whomever took them.  This is totally educational.

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

The playbill for the Joffrey Ballet tells us that they are “America’s Company of Firsts.”  The first dance company to perform at the White House, the first to appear on television, the first to visit Russia, you get the idea.  However, I would also add that they may be the first to field an Othello with a six-pack. I mean, look at him. Seriously, just look. *drool*

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Steve says: Approved!

Ok. On to matters of substance.

On my trip to Chicago last weekend I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Joffrey’s presentation of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, which ran through October 25th at the gorgeous Auditorium Theatre.  In another first for the Joffrey, this presentation was the Midwest premiere for Lubovich’s 1997 work. Having already shown on both coasts in New York and San Francisco, it seems appropriate that this incredible piece finally makes its heartland debut in Chicago, Lubovitch’s hometown.  Another first you might notice is that this is a full-length American ballet (possibly the only American commissioned full-length work?  I’ll leave that research to Steve) [I looked into it and couldn’t find any info.  Most American ballets are one act, with the only full-length ones I can think of being A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jewels and I don’t believe either was commissioned.  So I’ll go with “yes” and recklessly deny whatever the truth is]  Anyways, though the piece was a full evening with three acts, it did not feel lengthy in any way and, in fact, I could have watched all night.

What I loved about this work was that, though it re-enacts Shakespeare’s tale of love, lies, jealousy, revenge and murder, it does so not by painstakingly acting out each scene from the play, but rather by creating moving portraits that evoke the raw emotions of the characters.  By leaving much of the backstory relegated to the program notes, it was possible to portray just as much plot as was necessary to frame the beautiful range of emotion.  I also loved the seamless blending of classical and modern; the ornate costuming and regal poses that belie Shakespeare, but also the modern rolled shoulders and flexed ankles that allow us to experience the true depth of the characters’ anger and anguish.  From the very opening scene this juxtaposition of the sumptuous life of warlord Othello and the ominous fog of ever-present foreshadowing snake through every movement. [Tingles!]

I also have to give a shout out to the amazing score by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal [Totally a Jew] and its equally amazing performance by the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Add to this that the Auditorium Theatre was designed by famous Chicago architects Adler & Sullivan in 1889 with an aim to produce the best acoustics in the world. Not too shabby.  Sometimes I take for granted that ballets will be accompanied by a live orchestra (here’s looking at you, Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center…), but until you’ve seen a full-length ballet performed to canned music you may not appreciate how much live music contributes to the atmosphere of the production [TOTES truesies]. For example, in the opening act, although Othello, Desdemona and the townsfolk all seem to be happily enjoying wedding festivities, the ominous tone prevails with Goldenthal’s shrieking oboes and flaring horns telling us that something is amiss with Othello’s right hand man, Iago (no, not a parrot perched on the shoulder of an evil emir named Jafaar [RAAAAWK! Cave of Wonders!]).  And again in act two, while we’re promised a sunny tarantella, Goldenthal keeps with the ominous minor keys and gives us more of a Danse Macabre to guide the company, dancing Thriller-like with arms outstretched and wrists limp. [You know I love a good macabre danse.  Dance.  Whatever]

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Steve says: Tis the season! Speaking of which, I have like four leftover bags of Kit-Kat bars because like ten trick-or-treaters came to my door (my favorites being a pair of boys, one dressed as a hot dog and the other as a banana). What to do with so much chocolate...

As for the actual movement, the more modern aspects definitely prevailed.  While there was the typical partnering, company and pas de deux work that you would typically expect with a full-length work (but no ghosts or enchanted forests!!) [Huzzah!  Clear skies prevail!] , there were very few of the flashy steps usually associated with classical counterparts, for example only a handful of grand jetés, and no stunning series of 16/32/138 fouettés rond de jambe en tournant.  [Although I’m sure the record is probably around 138, I believe the longest choreographed set of fouettes that I can think of is 96 counts, as opposed to 64 (which equates to 32 fouettes).  The 96/48 fouettes is done in Ricardo Cué’s Snow White that was choreographed on Tamara Rojo.  And because she’s a goddess, she tosses in triples and doubles like it’s no big deal]  There were, however, an inordinate number of fish dives…[It’s still one of my lifelong goals to find someone who can throw me into a fish dive]

Anyways, I have no doubt that the success of this piece was in no small part a result of the amazingly trained company.  Down to every last person on stage it was clear that only impeccable training could result in a performance that conveyed the modern aspects of powerful love, hatred, fear, betrayal and anger while still portraying the restrained, classical atmosphere we would expect from a Renaissance court.  If this production ever tours to your area, don’t think twice.  You can bet that any ballet graphically depicting execution and strangulation must be unique and I cannot recommend this powerful piece highly enough. 

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Steve says: Okay, so I haven't actually read Othello, and I don't know what's going on here.

 Thank you Hilary with one L for such an awesome review!  You’ve got me interested, and I’ve added the San Francisco ballet DVD featuring Desmond Richardson and Tan Yuan Yuan to my wishlist.  I also checked out some clips on youtube of the main pas de deux, and there’s one of Alessandra Ferri and Marcelo Gomes that is STUNNING.  No words…just goose bumps!

“The Company” Review – Where’s the tuchus?

12 Jul

So I borrowed “The Company” from the library, starring (but not really) Neve Campbell as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet.  It’s not really a movie, but it’s not really a documentary either because there’s no ongoing commentary or interviews.  So I don’t know what to call it…you’re basically along for the ride in a real life situation with real people, except for like 3 of them who were played by actors.  If anything, the entire “movie” is told from the view of the cameraman who stands in the corner and watches things unfold but is forbidden from making his presence known.  So if you want to know what a cameraman filming a ballet company feels like, “The Company” will show you without making you lift any heavy equipment (disclaimer: bend at the knees, not at the waist).

If you haven’t seen it, there is no plot, so don’t expect one.  In fact, I can’t even remember the name of Neve’s character.  But at least Neve can actually dance (en pointe even) and there were no stunt doubles…in fact, it’s been said that the Joffrey Ballet offered her a position with the company after the movie wrapped, which she declined because of injuries and a desire to “act” (mm hmm).  Somebody seriously needs to tell her that not all of us (well not me…but people who can actually dance) can train exclusively with a top ballet company for two years, promote the company by making a movie about them and have the fortuitous serendipity to be offered a position.  She should have stuck with the injury excuse…saying she wants to continue acting kind of makes me want to think less of her.  But, I’m a snob with a bias for dance that has to constantly remind myself that people have a right to and should pursue a life that they’re passionate about, because ultimately, motivation is born from passion, while complacency is born from prestige and money.  It’s like what the classical Chinese poet Du Fu once said…“without pork one only becomes thin…without bamboo, one becomes vulgar.”

But does the sun make noise?

Anyway, the best parts about this cameraman story are the dance sequences by the Joffrey Ballet.  They mostly contemporary works, some of which I don’t think the Joffrey has released on DVD elsewhere, so that makes it a decent buy.  You can even watch just the dance sequences in the special features section of the DVD (although they are still edited with snippets from backstage and such), which might even be the better option so you don’t have to put up with the in between fluff that serves no purpose since the cameraman story doesn’t have a plot.  If you’re cheap, you can do what I did and get it from the library, and if you’re even cheaper AND lazy, I believe all of the dances are posted on youtube.  My personal favorite is the opening dance, “Tensile Involvement,” choreographed by Alwin Nikolais.  If the molecules of a quartz crystal had a party, I imagine it would look like this:

However, there is a great variety of pieces, including a couple of classical pieces, a contemporary pas de deux, a salsa, a nifty piece to Arabic music, a whooshy solo using a suspended rope, and of course the ending dance which was BIZARRE.  It was very Cirque du Soleil meets ballet, and apparently the choreographer of that piece is Canadian, and Cirque is based in Canada as well.  I’m telling you, they must be smoking the bacon now, because they come up with some trippy, otherworldly costumes, with the finale of the piece being a monstrous ogre face with mobile hands as the set, and the hands grab at the dancers and the ogre face swallows them whole, like Hungry Hungry Hippos from Hell.  Not to mention one of the dancers, dressed in a purple unitard, doing fouettes with a purple balloon tied to her head.  Although that kind of seems like fun.

Speaking of fun, there is a fun little scene of the company’s Christmas party, where the dancers do imitations of choreographers and mock the dances they put on throughout the season.  Sounds like something I would do.  So there’s a little humor for the comedic, a couple of injuries for the morbidly curious (a nasty scene where you can hear a girl’s Achilles snap), and boobage for the bored boyfriends who are being forced to watch.  Curiously missing in the locker room scenes are any views of a male tuchus in a dance belt to even things out, but I suppose you’ll have to settle for James Franco (Neve’s boyfriend) as the eye candy.

Overall, I approve, and it’s a really good, authentic look at the ins and outs of a ballet company.  Although if you do dance, it’s obviously not earth-shattering, and if you’re like me at some point you’ll wonder when is it going to end, and I was actually confused when it did end, to which I won’t say more so I don’t “spoil” it (even though there’s hardly anything really to spoil.).  I mean, I’m all for the realistic portrayal, but I do wonder if they wanted said realistic portrayal so badly, why did they bother hiring actors at all?

But that’s too deep for a Sunday night.  So rent it, and feast your eyes on brilliant dancing by the Joffrey, and consider skipping the other stuff if you’re really interested in saving time.