Tag Archives: jules massenet

A Call to Ashton

8 Jul

Not much could cure these post-New York blues, but luckily, I’ve been holding onto a secret weapon for some time now—the ‘Frederick Ashton’ DVD featuring Les Patineurs, several divertissements, and Scènes de Ballet. Notorious for saving something special for a rainy day (well, sunny lately in Seattle!), I can’t think of anything better to inspire me than a mélange of Ashton ballets. While the DVD is well worth the money, with it being relatively new it’s still on the expensive side. Luckily, there is a more affordable option for Ashton aficionados, over at OperaPassion, where they sell a recording of a broadcast of the Ashton Centenary in 2004, for a virtual steal $4.95! In fact, most of what’s released on the Opus Arte DVD is actually the same—Scènes de Ballet and the divertissements among them, with the only differences being that the Opus Arte DVD comes with Patineurs and the recorded DVD by OperaPassion comes with Daphnis and Chloë instead. Bonus features come with both, including interviews and rehearsal footage, but it’s here where the OperaPassion DVD actually takes the cake, offering many interviews throughout with some original cast members, while the Opus Arte DVD only has extras for Patineurs. So, really, the solution is to stop worrying about an inconsequential amount of money and buy them both—you know I did!

As much as I loved both DVDs, I can’t say that they’re right for everyone because I do think you have to have a minimal amount of admiration for Sir Fred to get the most out of viewing them. Most of the divertissements simply won’t stand alone, and are much more interesting as glimpses into different phases of Sir Fred’s illustrious career as a choreographer. While most of the works were new to me, I’d have to say that none of them really rank above my favorite Ashton ballets. Still, their inclusions are important for both historical and sentimental purposes, and Dame Monica Mason was right to include them for the Ashton Centenary. While it’s easy to lament a list of Ashton ballets that have yet to be released commercially, the variety is unparalleled (although, I secretly thought that a DVD containing Ashton’s most famous abstract ballets like Scènes de Ballet, Symphonic Variations, Rhapsody, and even Birthday Offering would have been ideal).

What I’ve come to realize is that one of the things I love most about Ashton is that his dances have a way of capturing the spirit of an idea. Scènes de Ballet pinpoints the intricacy and quirkiness of Stravinsky’s score; Five Brahms Waltzes couldn’t possibly be a complete reconstruction of Isadora Duncan’s choreography (Ashton having choreographed it over fifty years after having seen her), but summons the essence of her style and brings to life the very inspiration Ashton felt having seen her with his own eyes; Les Patineurs is not merely a direct translation of figure skating skills into ballet steps, but plays on the quality of movement that gliding over ice allows for. Somehow Ashton managed to communicate ideas so clearly that it took out the guesswork for the audience without inundating them with blatancies. It makes more and more sense why I would fall in love with Ashton ballets so much because I’m an escapist with a classicist aesthetic. I don’t always need “happy” ballets but I can always count on Ashton to transport me to another world or invoke such strong emotions that I forget about my real ones for a while. Speaking as someone who tends to be more in thought than not, watching an Ashton ballet is truly a gift every time.

Though Ashton is typically known for his cleverness and charm (especially in narrative ballets), I was quite surprised by how much I liked his Scènes de Ballet. I don’t always find it easy to listen to Stravinsky’s music, but the purity of line throughout is just too interesting to see! What’s also fascinating is to see an interpretation of Stravinsky by a ballet genius that is not Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky was famous for collaborating with. Rather than modernize as Balanchine often did with his interpretations of Stravinsky, Scènes still uses classical vocabulary and was heavily inspired by Euclidean geometry. It’s mentioned that Ashton set choreographic patterns in Scènes to be pleasing to look at from any angle. Stylistically, Scènes finds such simple pathways that there’s a lot of “point A to point B” with no excessive flourishes and the overall effect is so tastefully chic that I couldn’t help but appreciate the score way more than I would listening to it on its own. Yoshida Miyako (though my Japanese is dwindling in quality, it’s still too weird to me to refer to her as “Miyako Yoshida”) was perfect in Scènes, with a tempered charisma that is sweet and transparent like honey. With crisp arabesques and nimble arms, a photographer could’ve taken photos in rapid succession and each one of them would’ve been clear as crystal.

Yoshida performing a solo from Scènes de Ballet:

Another favorite was the Thaïs Pas de Deux, which was prefaced by an interview with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who told a funny (and somewhat horrifying) story of Sir Fred, while taking a curtain call, asking the audience if they wanted to see the pas de deux again. Sibley and Dowell were relieved just to get through it the first time with no mistakes because they had very few rehearsals, but obliged the audience anyway with an encore performance. The pas de deux is set to Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, and with my tastes being much more suited to Massenet, I find the music absolutely gorgeous. Unsurprisingly, I find the choreography very moving as well, with the male role searching, in a dreamlike state for a lost soul mate. It’s tragic because the female character is detached and aloof for the most part, as if her spectral form can’t recognize the man she once loved. It’s not until she bestows a kiss upon him, does she recall their affections for but a second before disappearing into the ether. On the DVD Thiago Soares danced the quixotic lead made on Dowell, a vision of strength and soulful dark eyes, while Mara Galeazzi performed Sibley’s role like an astral breeze. It’s one of those pas de deux that left me breathless without even realizing it, as if time hadn’t passed at all.

Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares in the Thaïs Pas de Deux:

While I’d like to give a quick shout out to Voices of Spring, one of my favorite pas de deux (danced with aplomb by Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta), I do have to dedicate this last paragraph to Tamara Rojo and her arresting performance in Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. To see her dance barefoot is jaw-dropping for one, but the conviction in which she performed this piece is unbelievable. There aren’t many dancers who have the pathos to dance Five Brahms Waltzes appropriately, which is probably why it doesn’t make it into even the Royal Ballet’s repertory very often, however, as is often the case, Tamara is the exception to the rule. Opposite to Scènes, I have no problem relating to Chopin and it’s modern choreography that I have to work to discern for myself, but Five Brahms Waltzes doesn’t ask for much else than to simply delight in the presence of this magnificent woman. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Rojo and Ashton couldn’t be a more heavenly combination to me. This, is truly happiness!

Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes:

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Talkin bout Bad Boys

4 Sep

I’ve been a little cranky the past few days, for no particular reason, just having a lot of frustration with different things.  Fortunately, my Manon soundtrack that I bought on Amazon arrived today and it brings back such good memories.  To date, this is by far my favorite soundtrack that I’ve purchased, because it’s not fluffy and grandiose like some of the classics or creepy like Prokofiev.  I was a musician before a wannabe dancer, so for me, what I love most about Jules Massenet’s works that are pieced together for the ballet is the depth and warmth.  My favorite part is the music after Des Grieux’s solo in the courtyard in the first act, where there is this stunning melody that deliciously harmonizes the oboe, violin and cello.  If I recall correctly, it’s the music for the first pas de deux between Des Grieux and Manon, and it makes me melt so much more than the famous bedroom pas de deux.  Overall, Massenet and the orchestrators (Leighton Lucas and Hilda Grant according to my handy dandy library copy of The Ballet Goer’s Guide) did a really wonderful job, especially because virtuoso violin work can get really screechy at times, but it remains really docile and sensual throughout the soundtrack.  Yum!

Meanwhile, yesterday was my first session with Horatio and it kinda sorta really hurt.  A lot.  Especially on my quads, where the recommendation is to stop on tender spots and wait for the discomfort to diminish but I had tenderness and pain every single millimeter so I’m getting the feeling that years of a sedentary lifestyle have left my quads a conglomeration of big fat knots.  I’m not really surprised, but I never expected that they were THIS bad.  Although on the topic of thighs, I read an article this morning that said larger thighs were possibly an indicator of longevity (although not necessarily associated).  People who gain the “spare tire” had higher incidences of heart disease, whereas people who gained weight in their thighs lived longer.  See, I knew there was no reason to be ashamed of having raw materials.

In other news, I’ve been watching the US Open, and they do these technique snippets where the commentators will demonstrate some moves for viewers at home, one of which they called “the pirouette.”  This involves an extended backhand usually, and then a quick pivot away from the court to run back towards the center, and of course geeky me was thinking “that’s no pirouette…it’s a détourné.”  I tried to be a good Samaritan nerd and find a way to contact the broadcasters and inform them of this little misunderstanding, but alas, I could not find such means of contact.  Looks like some dance vocabulary is going to make its way into tennis lingo, even if it is inaccurate.  I still love tennis though, although I wouldn’t recommend it for dancers because it makes your body develop very lopsided.  My right forearm is a lot bigger than my left one, my right shoulder rotates differently from the left…it’s just a hot mess.

Anyway, so back to dance related dance, last night I heard about a dancer, Rasta Thomas via twitter.  Having the time on my hands that I do, I checked out his website and looked for videos on the tube, and I really like his companies’ work.  For one thing, I was cranky at the time so I was kind of in the mood for something angsty, which is out of character because usually my friend Nacho is the one that goes for this kind of stuff (she has rage issues) while I gravitate towards…well I don’t know.  Anyway, one of his companies, The Bad Boys of Dance does some really dynamic, acrobatic dance that is grounded in ballet but draws influences from other forms of movement as well, including martial arts (urrrrgh).  Now normally, the so-called contemporary dance genre is not my favorite because it turns into a circus of gymnastic tricks in a sexualized “look what can I do!” display, but I have to say Bad Boys is the most intelligent and thoughtful presentation of this kind of dance, and I really enjoy it (even the martial arts influence…hoy!).  When it comes to “contemporary,” there’s a good way to do it and a bad way to do it and Bad Boys is very good.  There’s obvious concern for artistic intent, which to me makes the difference in this genre, because a lot of times there are plenty of athletic dancers who have the hat tricks, so how the dance is expressed becomes the cornerstone of defining it.  To me, weakness in expression is most exposed in “contemporary,” and a lot of dances end up looking the same with no differences between them.  But it’s great to see Thomas’ Bad Boys successfully present modernized virtuoso dancing that is easily absorbed by a range of audiences that include crotchety classicists like me and young-uns.

Here’s a trailer for Bad Boys, and apparently one of the pieces uses that song for Requiem for a Dream, which unfortunately I despise (that song and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero are two of my most hated songs in all of life), but I really hope to see them live someday!

And just for kickity-dees, a solo by Rasta Thomas to some MJ.  Love it!

More on Manon

19 Jul

It’s been almost a month since I saw the Royal Ballet do Manon in DC, but I’m still kind of basking in the afterglow.  This is encouraged by the fact that the RB just wrapped up a historic stint in Cuba, as that was their maiden voyage to Cuba and they are the first major ballet company to perform there since the Bolshoi, which was 30ish years ago.  Oh and there is that guy…Carlos whatshisface who’s only making his debut in his home country where ballet is somewhat respected.  And what I really mean by that is according to theballetbag on twitter, the Cubans are crazier than the Japanese fans.  And trust me when I say the Japanese put the fan in fanatic.  They love their girly-girl princess stuff like ballet and figure skating, and I actually went to the figure skating world championships when they were in Tokyo in 2007 (I was living in Tokyo at the time) and can confirm that the fans were certifiably nuts.  But mainstream popularity is good (NHK, one of their major networks regularly shows ballet competitions and documentaries…can you imagine if NBC did the same?) so long as the stars are safe.  In fact, Marcelo Gomes of ABT fame has a Japanese stalker who travels to see him perform, but he seems to appreciate that he was able to touch her with his dancing.  Meanwhile, I read about Marcelo in “The Advocate” and if I know Japan like I do, stalker lady has a blissful relationship with that river in Egypt if you know what I’m sayin.

Anyway, RB did Manon in Havana, of course starring Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta (by the way, what is it with the weird nicknames fans give him?  The ‘Flying Cuban’, the ‘Beast of Ballet’ and my personal favorite the ‘Cuban Sex Missile’), and I reflect fondly upon my experiences as an audience member.  I didn’t realize at the time how much I loved the score, and now that I do, I can’t get over how exquisite it is.  I was kind of biased when I saw it because I was confusing Jules Massenet with Jules Mouquet; both composers with the latter having written a piece I once played entitled “La Flute de Pan,” which quite frankly is kind of sheety.  This is why I so often second guess myself though, because half the time I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Jules Massenet on the other hand, does happen to be the composer of one of my favorite pieces of music, Meditation from his opera Thais.  This is a part of my “relaxing music” playlist that soothes the inner beast.  It’s also known in the ballet world for a pas de deux choreographed to it by Roland Petit, as well as track 16 on the CD “Ballet Technique.”  Have I digressed?  Anyway, Massenet is massively fabulous and I am now dying to get my hands on a CD of the score.

In other news, does anyone even know how “Manon” is actually pronounced?  Is it MA-non or ma-NON?  Every time I talk about it with people it seems like they say the opposite of what I say, and I end up feeing stupid, but even Tamara and Carlos don’t seem to agree, as seen in this studio footage and interview released by Royal Opera House:

I really loved hearing what Tamara had to say about Manon…I find her insightful in such a way that tells me this kind of ballet is right for her, as opposed to the flashy classics.  A lot of youtube commenters complain about her being a little stone-faced as a Kitri, and maybe Don Q isn’t the best role for her, but every dancer has their niche (although if you watch her do Don Q, there’s one video where she does triple fouettes while manipulating a fan.  MAD skills people…MAD skills).  The following was broadcasted on NHK (told you the Japanese love their ballet!) and she tells us more with an oh so subtle dig at the Soviets. (the brief statement in Japanese in the middle I can translate for you…the narrator just says “Act I: The Bedroom Pas de Deux.  Des Grieux and Manon express their deep, burning love for each other)

So I’ve been on this youtube kick to find as much footage from Manon as I can, and I already posted the bedroom pas de deux in my initial review (in “The Royal Ballet kicks royal Boo-tay“), and have now found a video of Carlos performing one of the “mandagges” I was talking about in addition to the pas de deux they’re rehearsing from the footage I posted above.  I think that one might be my favorite, and certainly the music is choice as that’s probably my favorite melody in the ballet.  Meanwhile, if you read my review, you may also recall that Tamara has the most freakishly flexible feet, and if you would like to see for yourself, pause the following video at 3:52 and take a moment…and consider what it is you’re really looking at.  Take another moment if you must…it’s a lot to process.  But she sure knows how to use them.

And now…a video of the SWAMP pas de deux.  The climactic, tragedrama ending, which still gives me goose bumps, unlike the person who left a comment on this youtube video.  (By the way, why is it that people who comment on ballet videos are some of the most toxic, vicious and overly critical people out there?  To call Tamara boring is just nasty.  Not even my dad, who knows zilch about ballet was bored, and tell the woman 2 seats down from me who was sobbing hysterically that Tamara was boring.  Mm hmm!)

There’s also a part 2 to the above clip, but it’s just the curtain call.

So, my little chicken pot pies, Manon was truly an epiphanous revelatory “eureka!” moment for me, because it completely changed the way I look at ballet.  I’m actually kind of mad at myself for having initially been more excited to see the Bolshoi do Le Corsaire, but aren’t the best moments in life the unexpected ones?  I mean hello, I still can’t stop thinking about the whole experience, and am dying for it to be released on DVD soon.  So to close, I give you a trailerish clip, where you can see more of the RB’s fabulous corps, lots of comedic moments (including a lot of slapping), and a bit from the “drunken variation.”  Not to mention the third act when Manon is sold into prostitution…reminds me of the little girl in the audience who after reading the program asked her parents “what’s a prostitute?” (or “prostie” for short, for anyone who happens to be a trendy Australian)  And there goes the prize for the most awkward question ever…bet they wished they were at the Nutcracker instead.  Oh the scandalosity!