Tag Archives: kenneth macmillan

Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina

12 Sep

Photo ©Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau (I think!)

When I reviewed Paris Opera Ballet’s La Source for SeattleDances, I initially left the theater wondering what the heck I was going to write about, and subsequently found myself exceeding the word limit by quite a bit. Somehow I have even more to say, though I think I covered enough of what I thought about La Source in my review. Still, I can’t rave enough about how much I love Jean-Guillaume Bart’s choreography—the musicality and details are exceptional, and inevitably, I began to think about Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, who are heralded as this generation’s torchbearers of classicism. I’ve seen handfuls of ballets by both, both on film and with my own eyes and while I do admire both choreographers greatly, I have to be honest—Bart’s La Source, which is essentially his debut as a choreographer (I’ve read that previous pieces were only for students), was a home run, and impressed me in ways that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon did the first time I saw any of their ballets. The opening scene of La Source, featuring a band of swift elves and awakening nymphs, had me completely drawn in—from the unusual set, to the delicious allegro for the elves, with shades of Bournonville and Ashton, but still very much in Bart’s unique voice.

Opening scene of La Source, featuring Matthias Heyman as the green elf, Zaël:

I was sold on Zaël from the get-go (not to mention that gargantuan pas de chat he does as he enters!), as the character also provides some comic relief a la Puck and is just generally delightful. Petit allegro served as the motif for the elves throughout, and Bart’s sequences are so creative, miraculous, and charming—using a number of my absolute favorite steps—that when they’re paired with the elegance of French schooling, they achieve divinity. It’s quite interesting that Bart is able to downplay virtuosity without hiding it, such that the most difficult movements can look so natural and so fitting in a certain phrase. In the above clip, one of the subtleties I loved was the series Zaël does beginning at 4:10, where the first jump is a cabriole where the rebound is delayed. I remember seeing French dancers do this before—finding fifth position in air and holding that shape before opening the legs and the effect is stunning. I don’t know if the French have a specific term for it, but they certainly make a distinction between a cabriole with an immediate rebound (which they also perform at 5:17) and this delayed cabriole (or perhaps hybrid “assemblé-pas de poisson” for the pedants out there—what shall we call it: Assembloisson? Pas de poissemblé?).

Unfortunately, the rest of La Source proved to be difficult. Not every classical ballet has a great story behind it, and I thought having seen my fair share and reading the plot synopsis would be enough to follow the action, but I was completely confused. I went with a friend who is also a dancer and seasoned ballet-goer and she too was lost, and when we talked about it, we realized anyone who would’ve seen La Source as their first experience with ballet would have been even more confounded, and possibly turned off by the experience. I mentioned the obscurity of the magic flower in my review, and if you think about The Dream or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-in-idleness flower casts a very specific spell—to make one fall in love with the first creature they see, something that is made very clear throughout both ballets. However, the magic flower in La Source is ambiguous—it heals people, teleports nymphs into palaces, freezes time…one would think it omnipotent, and yet it doesn’t save Naïla from death. Lack of common sense is just too prevalent, when you have a nymph sacrificing herself for a hunter who never reciprocates her love, and he himself in love with a woman he barely knows and doesn’t have affection for him either. When this is stretched over two hours of beautiful dancing with no mime, it becomes a very long two hours, especially when the presented characters fail to strike an emotional chord.

Thus, I found myself wondering a few things: What makes for a successful story ballet? Why do we crave them so much? Why haven’t we had a truly great one in so long? These are far from new questions as the dearth of new narrative ballets seems to always be on the mind of balletomanes worldwide. The saying goes that there is a human need to be told stories, and something I pointed out in my review was that the art of choreography is a transmissible folklore, very much like an oral tradition. Stories, fables, idioms, etc. are passed from one generation to the next and sometimes bits are kept/altered/lost, and ultimately, provide the greatest gift by teaching us something about ourselves, or re-illuminating emotions that we’ve already experienced. The typically favorite romantic and classical ballets fulfill this at basic levels—betrayal and forgiveness in Giselle, naivety and exploitation of innocence in La Sylphide, fragility in Swan Lake, hopes and dreams in The Sleeping Beauty, and arguably more, though I tend to think these are the most successful at really connecting with audiences. For example, it’s not that the modern woman (or man!) fantasizes about BEING an Odette, but I can easily imagine a person today relating to her fragility, someone who has perhaps felt vulnerable in her/his life, and would simply hope that someone could love her/him even in that state. Advertisements today bombard us with images that “confidence is sexy” and thus, outwardly attractive, but what about the times you feel insecure? Is it perhaps in our weakest moments that we need to feel loved the most? Questions like these keep Swan Lake relevant.

When it comes to the next “wave” of great story ballets, I look to Ashton and MacMillan, who created a fair number of ballets between them, though there are a few that have truly achieved “classic” status in my mind, based on frequency of performance by companies worldwide. We have Ashton to thank for Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, and The Dream, where he delighted us with themes of escapism, youth, romance, the fickle nature of love, and many spritzes of humor. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon have permeated into countless repertories, and he gave us insight into love, hatred, desperation, lust, corruption, and grief. The truth is, we see bits of ourselves in those characters, which is why the events within the story mean something to us. An art like ballet works an incredible magic when it draws empathy from people, and it’s fascinating when you find yourself affixing to an unlikely character, or having a change of heart after repeated viewings. The following is a statement of the obvious, but the more multi-dimensional a character is, the more chance a dancer has to resonate with an audience in presenting that person, hence, an innate love for character development.

After a certain drought, we find ourselves today depending on Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and now Bart, but the re-doing of lost classics and the seeking out of fairy tales that have yet to be done has become a bit banal. Is it enough to love the score and see the steps, or simply have a desire to do a particular ballet? Are any of these choreographers so moved by a particular story, that they can’t rest until they express it in dance? As it is, the above trio of men have been creating ballets that audiences do enjoy, but are they relevant to what audiences want (need)? Have their experiences as accomplished dancers prevented them from really being able to understand the general public? How does one negotiate choreographing for dancers, a dance audience, and people? With the Balletomanes librettistis being a critically endangered species, who will communicate the relevant stories to choreographers? Could choreographers themselves benefit from creative writing workshops—not to write publishable short stories, but to reveal something new about the process of character development, of crafting a story arc, driving a plot, etc.? I have no idea…though I suppose asking difficult questions is a place to start.

Oh well—more Zaël!

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

Ahoy! I can’t believe I’ve neglected my blog for virtually all of September, and I’m not happy about it, but I shan’t dwell because I have a lot of words to cram into this one post on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of ‘All Wheeldon,’ a program that consisted solely of Christopher Wheeldon ballets. As those of you more obsessive readers know, I attended a preview with the man himself, where he discussed some of his works while the dancers rehearsed on stage, and wrote a synopsis for SeattleDances. There was much I couldn’t include, and luckily, I can be almost as loquacious as I want here, so here’s a little more to the story.

Life began for Christopher Wheeldon in England, where he described himself as very much a “Billy Elliot.” Stop. Okay, so I have to disagree with Mr. Wheeldon a little bit (Chris, if you’re on a first name basis), because I adore Billy Elliot and there’s more to Billy than simply being a male dancer in the UK; Billy faced a great deal of adversity in not having family who understood his curiosity in ballet. Wheeldon’s mother trained in dance (though she was forbidden to have a career in it because her father thought it inappropriate) and his father comes from a background in theatre (which is actually how his parents met), so a passion for the performing arts is not a foreign idea for his parents. Becoming a professional dancer is a major accomplishment, but it’s how Billy makes his father and brother understand him that is the triumph of the film…but I digress. The point is, Wheeldon’s formative and professional years were perhaps more sanctified. He recalled watching Sir Frederick Ashton as a student, working with two girls on a ballet in honor of the Queen’s birthday, a long, ashy cigarette in hand and after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon would also come face to face with Sir Kenneth MacMillan (I believe he mentioned that he was in the corps when MacMillan choreographed The Prince of the Pagodas). Incidentally, it was Peter who even brought up Ashton and MacMillan; let’s just say it required every ounce of discipline I had to NOT leap out of my chair and praise in jubilation, though the sad fact is the majority of the audience probably didn’t know much (if anything) about them. I get that some of the Ashton or MacMillan repertory is too much to ask for right now, but bits and pieces would be nice!

At any rate, Wheeldon has told the story of the Hoover vacuum countless times, and how he always has to retell it which is why I’m going to skip it; all you really need to know is that a vacuum cleaner got him to New York. Still recovering from an injury that kept him from competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize (where he was slated to perform the pas de deux from…The Dream! When he said it was his favorite and I just about died…can you imagine him as Oberon?), he merely sought to take class at NYCB. Somehow he was confused with some dancers auditioning for the company, and miraculously, Peter Martins offered him a contract. It worked out well for the lucky teenager, as he was quick to credit Balanchine as his greatest source of inspiration (beginning with a graduation performance of Valse Fantaisie) because his ballets taught him was a sense of structure and shape, because they would “never pull your eye the wrong way.” When Wheeldon joined NYCB, however, Jerome Robbins was still working with NYCB, and Wheeldon has some interesting comments regarding him and how he and Peter Boal were perhaps the last generation to put up with the idea of “success through intimidation and fear.” However, Robbins did impart emphasis on understanding who you are in a ballet, and encouraged dancers to be human.

The introduction ended with a sort of hodgepodge of information, like some general information about his production of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, how it’s his largest production to date, with a new score, etc. and also some of his future plans, like NYCB performing DGV, which will be a first because NYCB has never imported a ballet made on another company before. Wheeldon will also expand his artistic pursuits a bit with a first time outing as a choreographer for a Broadway production. He’s busy, he’s sensational, and he had fascinating things to say about the ballets PNB performed.

First came the lovely Carousel, which is a romantic, light-hearted fantasy celebrating music by Richard Rogers, and originally intended for a gala program. In this piece, Wheeldon sought to use pure movement to create an atmosphere (with no budget!) so the costumes are simple, minimal set design, and just enough lighting to enhance the mood. The work definitely has that “carnival” feel, and a central pas de deux that plays out like an awkward first date. The pas de deux to me definitely had a little MacMillan in it (I definitely saw steps from Manon), and struck me as a game of cat and mouse between two people who had a romanticized idea of what love is, as if they’ve seen the movies and have preconceived notions but the truth is turning out to be not as interesting as the myth. It definitely has a dark cloud hanging over it, though still playful and lush as it is, and Wheeldon had high praise for the original cast of Damian Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli, complementing the bravura of the former and the great imagination of the latter. I saw Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in both rehearsal and performance, and I absolutely adored them in it—flawless casting! High praise too for Margaret Mullin, who I got to see up close during the lecture demonstration (my subscriber tickets are up in the balcony, so for general seating I beeline for the third row), really taking notice of her lovely épaulement and beautiful hands…she has a wonderful refinement that really stood out to me. Carousel was easily my favorite Wheeldon ballet because I’m a sappy romantic and it’s one of those pieces that you just have to smile at while watching, while getting just a dash of Busby Berkely-ish, oh-so-satisfying cinematic geometry.

Meanwhile, Polyphonia was the complete opposite. I found it funny that Wheeldon picked the music—a scattering of piano notes somehow composed into song by György Ligeti—while browsing at Tower Records. I don’t know why the image of Christopher Wheeldon at a retail music store, listening to samples of tracks on headphones is so endearing, but it is. With the score being so difficult to almost listen to (apparently when he played it for his dad, he almost drove off the road), I had a sinking feeling Polyphonia was going to disagree with me and while it wasn’t my favorite, I was surprised that I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s what Wheeldon called “a sketchbook,” the title meaning “multiple voices” and it depicts…not people, but beings? For me it was like staring through a microscope into a Petri dish, and seeing these curious creatures that were both alien and terrestrial…like deep-sea plankton. It’s rather bizarre but then you get these interesting pictures like the duet between two men that was a sort of “question and response,” with one dancer shadowing the other, it’s becomes something recognizable like a younger brother imitating his elder sibling and Polyphonia made many such shifts between the foreign and familiar that I found fascinating. Wheeldon himself said it took choreographing (and finishing!) the work to unlock the score’s mysteries, to find order in disorder, and create something not chaotic but mathematical (help us Dave Wilson!).

The last previewed work was After the Rain, or as I like to call it, “the Yoga Pas de Deux.” This piece was made for Jock Soto’s final season, an odyssey of partnering that often created the illusion of independent movement. There were times when the couple would reach for each other without making eye contact, and the danseuse just had to trust that her partner would lift her into the next step. For fans of Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon mentioned that she was visibly upset when told she would be dancing barefoot (he said “there may have been a tear”) but that After the Rain was a fascinating insight into her gentler side, beyond her fabulous technique. Meditative, tranquil, and often inviting a sense of loss, After the Rain achieved its purpose so perfectly the Seattle audience (who definitely loves their yoga!) responded to it very enthusiastically…even if I didn’t. I did yoga for a couple of years and I didn’t have the attention span for it then and certainly don’t now, so I didn’t find myself really interested. It’s not what I would call a “let down,” but when the theoretically strongest work is your least favorite, you’re sent on a different emotional roller coaster than the rest of the audience and that can be tricky to figure out.

Closing out the actual performance evening was Variations Sériuses, a comedic story ballet about a ballerina with a diva attitude who essentially gets in her own way and ends up being replaced by a younger dancer (et tu…Lily?). The neat thing about this piece is that the set is built to show a view from the wings as this fictitious ballet company rehearses and puts on a production of an unnamed ballet, which clues the audience into what it’s like backstage and of course, hamming it up a little. It has just enough melodrama to appeal to the general audience, though professional dancers and those familiar with the stage life will certainly derive a little extra here and there. The ballet within the ballet is a generic sort, with Romantic tutus and floral headwear, and the most heinously neon pink costumes you might ever see. American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg once referred to their production of Theme and Variations as the “pink monster,” but this ballet-within-a-ballet should then be called the “pink behemoth.” We are talking about the most offensive to the eyes, highlighter pink imaginable, obviously intentional because we’d be fools if we believed dancers enjoyed every costume they have to wear (and just in case you were wondering…they don’t). Laced with hilarity, I quite enjoyed Variations Sériuses, and really enjoyed Carrie Imler as the Ballerina. It’s a role in which a dancer could easily flail around and indulge in too much melodrama, but she always gives intelligent performances and trust me when I say she has some mean (literally) echappés!

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this crash course in Christopher Wheeldon’s work, having only seen a couple of pieces by Corella Ballet prior to PNB’s program. I did kind of yearn for something bigger, as there is something pleasing about having that big, symphonic ending (as ubiquitous as it may be), but you don’t curate a Chagall exhibit and spray the paintings with glitter because there isn’t enough “razzle-dazzle.” In these instances one must respect the creator’s perspective and when it comes to Wheeldon, I found every piece to be tasteful, coherent, and wonderfully made—a marvelous start to the performance season!

Here are some excerpts of the lecture/demonstration with Wheeldon, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel:

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:

 

The Right Time for Ragtime and Never the Wrong Time

28 Feb

I had a “moment”—I could have sworn I wrote an entry about Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, and the reality is I have not.  I know I watched it maybe a week or so ago, but apparently managed to be so scatterbrained that I convinced myself of a purported entry’s existence.  Those who laud the power of the mind and mental imagery aren’t joking around…how many times have you woken up from a dream utterly confused as to how your hotel room in New York happens to look like your bedroom, and once you realize it is indeed your own bed, how you got from New York to Seattle so quickly?  Needless to say, rational thinking and good judgment have never been my strengths first thing in the morning.  If there’s ever a time to make an attempt at pulling the wool over my eyes (a feat that has a dismal success rate mind you) it’s in the wee morning hours…or rather, all morning hours.

The reason why I wanted to do a write up of Elite Syncopations is not unlike the reason MacMillan himself wanted to choreograph it.  Every now and then, every person needs a good laugh and despite the psychological depth of MacMillan’s ballets, he has this one odd bauble in Elite Syncopations.  Obviously, I adore humor in ballet and just because comedy doesn’t make us cry it doesn’t mean it’s any less moving than a tragedy.  Who’s to say that tears are more valuable than laughter?  In the same way we dissect the ways in which artists interpret emotional distress and heartbreak, I am equally (well, probably more) interested in the various ways choreographers have expressed humor in their dances.  I tend to think Ashton was the mastermind of comedy, but his work is funny in ways vastly different from MacMillan’s. Jiří Kylián is also quite the humorist and like MacMillan, even Martha Graham decided to engage her funny bone for one piece, mocking her own dance technique in her Maple Leaf Rag, a favorite of mine.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Graham and MacMillan turned to ragtime music by Scott Joplin…there’s something so infectiously cheery about a good rag that it’s virtually impossible to not tap your feet.  Sure, The Entertainer is the bane of every piano player’s existence in addition to being the perennial serenade of choice for ice cream trucks around the United States (though thankfully, not in Seattle, where we have the fabulous locally owned Molly Moon’s trucks and their truck exclusive ice cream sandwiches!), Joplin’s music never fails to put a smile on my face or put a bounce in my step.  One of the neat things about Elite Syncopations too is that it’s the type of piece that any audience member will have an easy time appreciating not just because of its comical nature but also because a lot of the music will sound familiar.  Even if audiences can’t name the rags MacMillan used (well, I got about half of them) the familiarity is a great way to establish connections between musicians, dancers and audience.  That relationship is strengthened by the fact that the ragtime band is actually visible on stage the entire time and the whole thing just screams comfort and approachability.  Too often I’ve heard people who have never experienced ballet say that they’re afraid that they “wouldn’t get it,” and I even used to be one of those people but with Elite Syncopations you get to throw all that nonsense out the window.

The costumes for Syncopations are out of this world.  I think they are best described as outfits Fraggles would wear to a dinner party in Wonderland (if you have to Google “fraggle,” I feel sorry for you…unless you’re not from the US and your country didn’t air Fraggle Rock, in which case it’s not your fault).  What I’m about to describe is going to sound like a nonsensical train wreck, but somehow the assemblage of checkered patterns, pinstripes, graphic designs, and even stars on the tucchus, in an explosion of both primary and neon colors you think would clash but manages to work for this piece.  What should be utterly offensive to the eyes is surprisingly not and as a spectator you get to a point where it doesn’t even occur to you how ridiculous the costumes are.  Designer Ian Spurling incorporates stylistic elements and some accessories from a number of vintage eras and the effect is at times dizzying (which I’m sure is intentional).  For example, there are two men’s costumes are fairly similar, with a pinstripe design except one is plain pinstripe and the other has additional bands around the knees that break the lines and you almost lose your sense of equilibrium.  I highly suggest a visit to The Ballet Bag’s post on the costumes of Elite Syncopations, for more detailed information.

What’s fascinating is that this piece could easily go the road of being too over the top, but somehow MacMillan manages to downplay the startling visual effects by finding subtleties in the choreography.  As silly as the characters are and as jolly as ragtime can be, the music is actually rather soothing and I think MacMillan made sure to emphasize that.  There’s a naturalness to it that evokes images of a pianist playing rags in the studio and ballet dancers (in what little free time they have) hamming it up and goofing around.  They use steps and vocabulary they know, like pirouettes and extensions but will throw in an off-kilter, bizarre looking move or do something that would make Petipa roll in his grave, just for the heck of it.  It’s the closest I think I’ve seen of ballet dancers literally playing and I know MacMillan just wanted to get some laughs but the amazing thing is he really succeeds in showing a different side of dancers with this piece, in a colorful, but tasteful manner.  It seems that even in something psychedelically silly, MacMillan still managed to capture the human spirit and show you people you know in your personal lives.

I have to say that in this performance (now available on DVD), Valeri Hristov turns in a most enjoyably smarmy performance (he appears as the first male solo, his unitard pained with a blue and white striped shirt, white vest, black and white striped pants with bands around the knees and a beige top hat) but the entire cast dances it exceptionally well so if you’re feeling blue like I was, find a giant cookie and sit yourself down to this pick me up:

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.

Pacific Northwest Ballet: ‘Director’s Choice’ Review

3 Oct

Welcome to October, and the beginning of what I shall deem “Reader Appreciation Month.”  As far as I’ve planned (which truthfully isn’t that far in advance) I’m dedicating every entry I write this month to faithful and friendly readers.  I’ve been inspired by a few suggestions of what readers have said they would like to see and have actually begun the process of doing the necessary thinking and research—it’s pretty exciting for me.  However, to kick off the festivities I shall be doing a review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s October 2nd performance of their season opener, “Director’s Choice,” which includes works by Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Jerome Robbins.  I dedicate this entry to Karena, who tolerated me in class, taught me things I needed to know, continues to encourage my potentially unhealthy obsession with ballet and simply told me that she wanted to hear my thoughts on the show.

First of all, I have to say it’s been months since Coppélia and I’ve been dying without live performances.  Dying.  So I was really looking forward to this.  It was also a night of firsts for me, as I’ve never seen Kylián, Duato or Robbins ballets live before.  I have seen the film version of Petite Mort (performed by the Nederlands Dance Theatre), and actually this is one of the first dances I ever saw, way back in the heyday of my introductory ballet classes, so I have a particular affection for it.  While I wasn’t as familiar with dance vocabulary at the time (as in, I knew virtually nothing) I remember falling in love with the piece and more specifically the mood of it.  The whole dance is washed in beautiful golden tones and has the most cleverly devised choreography.  Now having seen it live, I see with a new perspective how Kylián can take movements that should look (and feel) awkward like bent elbows, turned in legs, flexed feet etc. but give them a musical place and flow that makes them just as graceful as any romantic ballet step.  What’s more, it’s the way in which he manipulates those movements with classical lines that creates a visual feast for the eyes.  What I found most fascinating was his use of symmetry—symmetry down the middle of a single body or mirrored lines that were formed between two dancers.  The symmetry was not just vertical either, but horizontal, on varying angles and crisscrossing that created a kaleidoscopic effect—even if you turned your head just a little bit the shapes would take on a new life.

I was a little nervous for PNB because they started the dance a little jittery tonight.  Towards the beginning of the dance the male dancers pull a gigantic piece of billowing fabric from the back of the stage to the front and when they run to the back of the stage again, it’s as if the smoke clears to reveal a group of female dancers lying on the floor.  Unfortunately, a couple of the dancers were a little late and I could see them hurriedly laying down which may seem like I’m nitpicking a detail, but you have to understand that Petite Mort is Kylián’s spell—which can easily be broken.  In that sense, his choreography is so fragile because timing is paramount.  However, such is the nature of live performance and the whole fabric thing is repeated a second time in the dance and they pulled it off flawlessly.  I enjoyed the rest of the piece immensely and it is so gratifying to have seen it on living, breathing people.  That being said, I think the film version is still excellent, and can’t stress how much you should watch it, like right now:

After Petite Mort came Kylián’s Sechs Tänzes, which is speaking my language…a ballet comedy if you will, and I have to say that I was impressed.  Dancing a lot of Balanchine can make one…I hate to say wooden, but perhaps a little frigid just because of the nature of the Balanchine repertory.  However, PNB assembled a great lineup of comical dancers that delivered a wonderfully lighthearted performance, matching note for note with Mozart’s Six German Dances.  The piece is absolutely ridiculous—in the good way.  From the powdered wigs to the bubbles at the end, the audience was clearly into the humor and of course you know I was.  In many ways I identified with this piece quite a bit on a personal level and feel that it somehow legitimizes my whimsical nature and the way in which I live my life.  So many thanks PNB for your performance of Sechs Tänzes on this fine evening was a real treat.

Now I was on a high after that and Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat was a real buzz kill.  I have to be honest in that I didn’t feel that the piece really matched the occasion, if that makes sense.  It’s something I could see being much more interesting to me in a small studio theater, up close in a performance where I expect modern dance but it really sticks out in a ballet company’s repertory.  Apparently it’s a “fan favorite” amongst PNB patrons, which I have a hard time believing…although tonight’s cast was stacked with principals so maybe I’m missing something after all.  As earthy as the residents of this city are though, I’m unable to convince that Jardí Tancat is something people would want to see over and over again. Don’t get me wrong…it was really well danced and the movement quality was there but problems for me ranged from limited use of the stage and just bland choreography.  I don’t know what the logic is behind it, but what I do know is that this proves Seattle is in desperate, and I mean DESPERATE need of Tudor and MacMillan ballets.  It’s not that Tudor or MacMillan ever choreographed anything of the same nature, but I think the level of sophistication they achieved in their works is what Jardí Tancat seeks and for me, fails to achieve.  Duato does have works that I absolutely adore, and he can waltz into the Mikhailovsky and be all “none of you have ever danced” but quite frankly, all I can say is when I win the lottery, I’m donating a huge chunk to PNB’s “Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”  Actually, make that “ATM” for “Ashton/Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”

Meanwhile, the night closed with Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, which thankfully proved to be the highlight of the evening.  It’s a piece that sort of describes an urban hustle to minimalist music by Philip Glass, with dancers dressed in color against a stark, white graph paper backdrop.  It’s divided into three sections, each of which focused on a particular grouping, though there were many bodies on stage.  For example the first, Rubric, points out three different couples who I wish I could name but because I sit far up in the balcony I can’t see too much in terms of facial characteristics so I’ll by the colored unitards they were wearing, which I shall describe as Gold, Sunburn and Spring.  Springman had the biggest jumps but it was Sunburnman who I thought displayed this effortless, effortless, positively effortless technique.  The way he did his grand battements was too easy—it’s like when my friend Magelachachka (and yes, I do call her that to her face) would say at barre: “lifting your leg up takes…so much work.”  I know it’s cliché, but Sunburnman was born to dance because work doesn’t describe him at all.  As three couples they had wonderful interactions aided by Robbins’s extraordinary choreography.  What I love about Robbins’s ballets is that he selects the most appropriate movements and is very reserved when it comes to the big, flashy, bravura steps.  There’s a real sense of contrast and a love for transitional steps that you don’t always see (though this is more apparent in the last section).

The second section focused on a single couple, dressed in scarlet and gray (Go Bucks!), featuring the divine Miss Carla Körbes, who I could recognize.  I’m telling you, this woman moves like a goddess of the clouds.  I lost count of how many times I got chills during her pas de deux with fellow principal Batkhurel Bold, because she has a lyricism that can’t be taught.  Credit must also be given to Bold as well because despite one’s own talents, beautiful dancing in a lift can’t be achieved if you can’t trust the one holding you up.  It’s interesting because the pas de deux is not romantic at all, but they still have chemistry in their partnership.  What’s also interesting is that because it’s not romantic, there has to be a certain intangibility to it while maintaining a lyrical quality.  I think it’s actually quite a complex “role” in that it’s not a role at all but requires a similar sensitivity in the technique.  Miss Körbes is a revelation and as PNB looks to really expand their repertory this season by doing a shockingly small amount of Balanchine and doing a romantic ballet with Giselle, I’m predicting that she will be the superstar Giselle come June 2011.  Although to be fair, I’m pretty sure a lot of people are thinking the same thing…

At any rate, the third section featured the corps de ballet, in a truly kaleidoscopic interpretation of the organized chaos that is a developed infrastructure.  While not explicitly dancing as vehicles or machines, I think systematized, linear movements that gave the feel of advanced technology and economic prosperity achieved the effect.  The end had the dancers turning in all kinds of directions, weaving in and out of each other like clockwork and despite its frenetic appearance it was never haphazard…always meticulously placed to contribute to the bigger picture like the pieces in a mosaic.  I thought it was flawless (minus a mini-spill a dancer in orange tights took…which I only noticed because I have freakish hawk eye vision for uncharacteristic movement.  He actually recovered remarkably well) and despite never being a Philip Glass fan (not a hater, but not a fan) I really came to appreciate his score.  Normally I like a melody, with a beginning, middle and end but his music was symbiotic with the dancing…they were meant for each other.

I had a great time…and did I mention how awesome it is to be seeing live dance again?  I would recommend that you go, but chances are if you’re in Seattle and you read this blog, you go to all of PNB’s shows anyway and if you wait for my reviews you’re giving me more credit than one should give.  There is but one more show in like…eleven hours.  Have fun with that.

Inner Petipa…are you sleeping?

15 Sep

In an attempt to get in touch with my inner Petipa, I sat my seat down and watched the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.  Truth be told, it really seemed more like “the story of the omnipotent Lilac Fairy,” a role in which Marianela Núñez shined…but more on that later (and props to Laura Morera as the…”spicy fairy.” I forget what the official name was).

As I said, the whole purpose of this exercise was to get in touch with my inner Petipa.  I’ve definitely been going through a “Peti-blah” funk towards the great classics because quite frankly, once you go MacMillan/Ashton you can never go back.  Well, I shouldn’t say “never,” but the more I come to appreciate that dynamic duo of British choreographers, the harder it becomes to enjoy the Petipa classics that are plagued with divertissements (translation, a dance for people on stage that probably have nothing to do with the story), leading to a tendency to stretch out stories that don’t have that much substance in the first place.  Sleeping Beauty was LONG.  I was genuinely shocked to discover that it’s only a mere eighteen minutes longer than my beloved Manon, because it does drag a bit and coming out of something feeling like you spent ten hours of your life in a mere two is generally not a good sign.

The problem is, Petipa is to be respected—NOT optional.  His great classics have been a driving force in securing ballet’s continual success and its place in history.  At first I thought maybe I was watching the wrong ballets.  The only one I’ve seen live is Le Corsaire, which I used to like a lot more than I do now and then there’s Don Quixote (meh) and La Bayadère that I’ve seen on film (the latter being one I still appreciate quite a bit actually).  I still have yet to watch a Swan Lake, which generally seems to be the most popular one, especially amongst women.  Why women anyway?  Rarely have I heard men say it’s their favorite or for male dancers, that it’s their favorite to perform but women are crazy about it!  However, this is a topic of research for another day so back to regularly scheduled programming…I had some hopes for Sleeping Beauty because I do adore the Disney movie oh so very much.  A hackneyed reference, I know…but the force is strong with my inner child.

I had trouble with the plot of Sleeping Beauty…I know it’s a fairy tale but there were a number of things that either didn’t make sense or were just disappointing—the biggest of these disappointments being the demise of the villainess, Carabosse.  She is a fantastic character but her demise is weak and is mostly at the hands of the Lilac Fairy, whose spell, once actualized in the awakening of Aurora by virtue of Florimund’s kiss is what destroys Carabosse.  I mean really, if the Lilac Fairy’s magic had this potential all along, why the wild goose chase and the one hundred year delay?  I had the same problem with Disney too…Maleficent is one of the most badass villains of all time and the movie went from the legendary line of: “now shall you deal with me, oh prince…and all the powers of Hell!” to having the fairies enchant the sword with a convenient “accuracy spell” so that when Prince Phillip threw it, it was guaranteed to hit its target.  It’s a disservice to these amazing villains to have them perish so easily, especially when it’s not even the main characters who overcome them…there was no sense of triumph for me.

At least in the Disney movie Phillip and Aurora meet before the whole sleep spell so their coupling at the end seems more serendipitous but in the ballet, Florimund kisses Aurora and they meet for the first time (after of course, the Lilac Fairy has him dance with her…ghost?  Where?  In an enchanted forest.).  First of all, shouldn’t Aurora be disturbed that she and her kingdom basically “Brigadooned” it and appeared as anachronisms in a completely new world?  And second, waking up to a stranger kissing you should be kind of creepy…like, “where’s your pepper spray” creepy.  Call it romantic if you must, but the nonsensical aspects of this ballet have me thinking Romeo and Juliet actually makes sense.

Regardless, the ballet IS pretty and Tchaikovsky’s score for it is one of the finest ever.  I think how I’ve come to differentiate the purely classical choreography by Petipa and the sort of neoclassical work of Ashton or MacMillan is that Petipa would be like what I would call “a great writer” while I would categorize Ashton/MacMillan as “great storytellers” (in addition to being great “writers” as well!).  To me, writing and storytelling have always been different arts, sometimes overlapping but still distinct.  I don’t even consider my own writing to necessarily be “good writing” but more often “good storytelling.”  When I came to this epiphany in regards to ballet, all of a sudden Sleeping Beauty became much more digestible.

The whole ballet is rather…“sugar and rainbows” so to speak and speaking of rainbows, I was oddly fascinated by the procession of fairies and their cavaliers in Act I.  I was somehow reminded of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering which has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty; it was just funny to me how the pastel color palettes were almost the same, the number of dancers was almost the same (twelve for Beauty, ten for Gathering), but obviously featured classical choreography with heavily embroidered and ornate tutus for one while the other has contemporary choreography with unadorned chiffon dresses.  The similarity in colors created in my mind a relationship between the two pieces that transcended time.  With both being so exemplary of their respective periods, I couldn’t help but feel the expansiveness of ballet’s timeline and be amazed at how much it has evolved.

In addition to the glitter and sparkle, it has to be said that Alina Cojocaru is in a category of her own.  Her impeccable balances and youthful nature make for a sweetheart Aurora that is sure to make your teeth hurt.  Federico Bonelli (or as I like to refer to him, BoBo…which I guess makes Alina: CoCo) is equally youthful and has a wonderfully boyish look that screams innocence.  What I love so much about his dancing is that he has such beautiful placement and dances very “squarely”—nothing is contorted to get a higher leg or turn out that is forced to unhealthy degrees.  It makes his dancing efficient and clean and it is in fact when dancers are struggling to get their legs higher or forcing their turnout that ballet actually looks hard.  BoBo also has a superb lightness; you would never be able to hear him land a jump and he rolls through his feet and uses his plié so well his steps seamlessly transition from one to another.  He is a perfect partner for CoCo, who is equally light and technically strong.  She has an ability to indulge her lines when she wants to, like in some of the attitude positions she’ll open her hip a bit but when it comes to those tough balances in attitude, she knows how to square her hips off as well.  (This is actually something I sort of learned for myself recently…given, I never dance on pointe but I’ve found a sense of balance that I never had before and now when I microwave leftovers for thirty seconds, I use that time to see if I can hold an attitude on relevé.   And yes, I can!  Even longer some days…I figure if the average human being can’t do that, it warrants a pat on the back)

Observe CoCo and BoBo in their “Happy Ending Pas de Deux”

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sleeping Beauty, and certainly CoCo and BoBo’s dancing of it.  Regardless of some plot issues I think I can enjoy Petipa after all…although considering the Royal Ballet’s production has revisions and choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon, it’s kind of a hot mess of different choreographers.  Then again, every Petipa ballet today is.

Meanwhile, this might be the most fantastic Rose Adagio ever (at the 3:19 mark):

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.

The Doctor is In

18 Jul

At long last, the quasi-wife has watched Manon!  After insisting for so long that she would like the ballet, she has seen it and the conclusion is matrimonial.  I should be like a ballet doctor or something…study as many ballets as I can and diagnose people who haven’t seen much with the proper remedy.  Enjoy a good story, period pieces, expensive things and consider yourself to be an indecent Francophile?  Take a Manon and call me in the morning.  It’s all a part of a much larger and grander scheme to MacMillanify the residents of Seattle, one at a time (although I’m sure there are many Seattleites who have long enjoyed MacMillan ballets of their own accord).  It’s unfortunate that Seattle doesn’t get exposed to the British choreographers via live performance and I don’t know that Pacific Northwest Ballet would (or should for that matter) change its philosophy on modeling itself after New York City Ballet (although they’ve announced that they will perform Giselle in the upcoming season.  Very out of character but also incredibly exciting).  I’m not even sure PNB even has the resources to pull off a MacMillan full length (damn you privatized funding for the arts!) but regardless of PNB’s artistic direction I will assist in being a catalyst anyway; the demand must be created and like a pyramid, it has to start from the bottom up.  Now that my track record includes an earth-shattering two people, construction of MacMillan monument has begun.

Speaking of catalysts let it be known (or reiterated, depending on what you know) that Manon was the ballet that changed my life.  You know how everyone has that one performer/performance that inspired them and for me it was Tamara Rojo in this role, just over a year ago.  Rojo herself said it in the special features of the DVD that she was similarly inspired, that she had no idea that a story could be told through ballet like it is in Manon and that it was one of the main reasons why she wanted to join the Royal Ballet.  I felt exactly the same way (not the joining the Royal Ballet part, the storytelling thing) and as a result became disillusioned with Russian dancing.  Don’t get me wrong…they have their greats, their moments and some of the most expensive productions in the world but Manon helped me to affirm aspects in ballet that I have come to love.  As I see it in the arts, it’s not a matter of love or hate (although we inevitably have these reactions) but a conscious decision to prefer something over something else.  It’s the kind of preference that has me longing for London, as the Royal Ballet announced they will perform Manon in the spring.  There is little chance for me to go because I’m not a jet-setter who can zip off to London on a whim but OY do I hunger!

At any rate, quasi-wife took to Manon like a bee to honey, appreciative of the ballet as a whole and a fan of the chemistry between Rojo and Carlos Acosta.  It’s something she tends to look for in a ballet (noting earlier this year that the performance of PNB’s Coppelia she saw was lacking in chemistry between the principals) and I’m guessing it’s probably because she has issues with men or whatever.  The point is, while she was skeptical about the romance between Manon and Des Grieux, she found the connection between them genuine.  I had to retrain her way of thinking and forced her to watch the DVD extras which includes a bit where Dame Monica Mason explains that while love doesn’t blossom as quickly as it does in a five minute pas de deux, from a theatrical standpoint the audience accepts it.  It was odd that quasi-wife didn’t quite buy into that, nor did she really buy into the fact that Manon would allow herself to be manipulated by Lescaut for jewels and lavish clothes…but we went shopping earlier that day and between the two of us, one of us bought a one hundred dollar, Donna Karan New York olive green trench coat and one of us did not.  I’ll let you take a wild guess as to who did what now.

Meanwhile, remember in my Chaconne post that partnered pivot I discussed?  Let us revisit the bedroom pas de deux for just a moment…

Wheee!

Like many, quasi-wife found it rather disturbing.  It’s funny to me that Tamara’s feet are so visible throughout the ballet but they don’t come across as freakish until that particular move.  It’s all “she’s so gorgeous!” and then “HELLO.”  She also thought that the rolling movement Manon does in the pas de trois with Lescaut and Monsieur G.M. where she leans forward in an arabesque but then her other foot snakes forward to lead her over Monsieur G.M.’s back disturbing too…I said we could find a third person and try it but she didn’t seem to keen on the idea.  I guess quasi-wife still needs to be seasoned a little to get past odd, perhaps inhuman looking movements to see the beauty and genius of MacMillan’s choreography, but all in due time.  I know for me, the more I watch Manon (and I never tire of it) the more I fall in love with it and understand it on a deeper level.  I was stumped though when she asked me what type of ballet Manon would be and I settled on answering with neoclassical, even though I kept picturing Balanchine’s abstract works.

Despite my obsession with Manon (it is by far my favorite full length ballet), I don’t know that I’ll ever consider myself a true balletomane until I see another run of it and do that balletomane thing where you see multiple casts.  I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t do it when I had the chance…so little did I know at the time.  If I could go back in time, I would have been all over the opportunity to see Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dance it together.  This will have to do for now:

Eureka! Jinx…

21 May

Thanks to the Seattle Public Library, I’ve been watching Choreography by Balanchine (vol.1), which features full recordings of several Balanchine ballets.  Of course I was more interested in the “leaning-towards-classical-neoclassical” dances on the DVD, including Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (pas de DUH—it’s my favorite!), Chaconne and Ballo della Regina. I was thinking about writing a comparison/contrast(ison) between Chaconne and Ballo della Regina, because they have a lot in common.  They both use opera music, premiered around the same time and I think the style is pretty consistent between the two, BUT I didn’t really enjoy Ballo as much as I thought I would.  It’s crazy fast with ridiculously…no, HEINOUSLY hard footwork but there was something missing.  The dynamics of the piece didn’t sit well with me for some reason and I was stuck feeling like the ballet was going nowhere.  Maybe I need more time to absorb it…or maybe, it’s just not that good.  Besides, Chaconne is more relevant right now anyway since NYCB will perform it over the next few weeks and not a Ballo in sight.

At any rate, I adore Chaconne.  First of all, it’s set to music from Cristoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the popular Greek myth of Orpheus, who went into the Underworld to retrieve his wife (Euridice) and the deal was that she would follow him but he was forbidden to turn around to see her.  When he did (because heterosexual men often have questionable judgment) he lost her forever.  I’m going to geek out for just a moment here and inform you that the ubiquitous “Can-Can” music I’m sure you’ve heard in movies or cartoons is from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, Orpheus in the Underworld, which is actually a comedy that takes some jabs at Gluck’s version.  I often find that the concept of “six degrees of separation” is often halved when it comes to the arts…so even if you knew nothing of either opera, Orpheus or Chaconne, you’re still connected to the piece in some way, which is by far much more fascinating than discerning how close you are to Kevin Bacon.

As a flute player, I know Orfeo ed Euridice extremely well. Trust me when I say ALL flute players know it because we’re synonymous with a section of it better known as Dance of the Blessed Spirits (which is specifically what Balanchine uses in the ballet).  We’ve all played the solo at one point or another and it’s the type of piece that for lack of a better phrase, “makes you feel pretty” and I assume similar emotions are invoked choreographers and dancers alike.  When Pina Bausch staged her own Orfeo ed Euridice, even she created this ghostly, romantic ballet to the music which is far from what she’s known for and I find it interesting that her danced opera debuted in 1975 while Chaconne debuted in 1976.  Bausch and Balanchine employed vastly differing interpretations of the ethereal, with Bausch’s using more gestures and organic movement while Balanchine opted for subtlety, having the dancers drifting in and out of each other, creating an effect like clouds rolling in the sky.  The costumes are somewhat similar in style and color which I find fascinating because it’s improbable that the choreographers/costume designers were aware of the other’s work, especially when the dances premiered within a year of each other.  I have to say though, that I found Bausch’s choreography to be much more embracing, as if the dance was loving me and not the other way around.  See for yourself:

Balanchine’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Bausch’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Chaconne begins with a pas de deux followed by the ensemble dance from above, which I found unusual because the women have their hair down, wear plain costumes and the style of the dance is soft and lyrical.  When the dancers reenter the stage, they all have their hair tied up in typical buns and have quick-changed into costumes that have a hint of opulence.  I find it odd that Balanchine would go from casual intimacy to a regal, courtly dance but the contrast certainly provides space for the dance to explore the in betweens (perhaps what I felt was lacking in Ballo della Regina).  However, one thing that stood out to me in the pas de deux was a move, a partnered move where the man and woman link arms and the woman has one foot on point, leaning away from it in a sort of faux-arabesque.  The reason why it stood out was because I had seen it before—it’s one of the iconic moves in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, from the bedroom pas de deux.  Now Manon premiered in 1974 (two years before Chaconne) and while Balanchine and MacMillan couldn’t be any more different on the ballet spectrum, they arrived at creating the same movement, at almost the same time.  It gives new meaning to the words “great minds think alike,” although there’s a chance that any pair of five-year-olds on a playground could “invent” this movement as well.  It does bring into question though, if there is ever a limit to choreography; at some point dance will (if it hasn’t already) plateau in terms of movement vocabulary and while new dances can always be created the search for new steps becomes futile.  I think that’s what sometimes bothers me about newer dances; it seems like everyone is pushing for new and innovative, but there’s not as much effort to incorporate historic styles.  That’s a topic for another decade though…

Note: The more freakish your feet are, the easier this move is. Carlos Acosta/Tamara Rojo on the left, Peter Martins/Suzanne Farrell on the right.

When Chaconne transitions into its more formal setting, the choreography immediately becomes quicker and crisper.  In the film version, the principal roles are danced by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, both of whom deserve more exposure than YouTube allows.  What I love about Farrell’s dancing, whether it’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux or Chaconne is the way she uses her feet—she’s like a sewing machine, pinpointing her placement on the floor in dainty little stitches.  Martins on the other hand, with his Bournonville training from the Royal Danish Ballet, has exceptional beats in a myriad of little jumps (and you know Balanchine liked to put in some brisé volé!).  They are of course quintessential Balanchine and it’s difficult to imagine say, Russian ballerinas being able to keep up with the pace since their training encourages lingering to indulge movements.  The wonderful thing about Farrell and Martins is that they were trained to “go up” and “come down,” so they can come down from relevé or find fifth efficiently and without making the subsequent movement look forced.

So here’s an excerpt from the faster section of Chaconne…unfortunately I can’t post the whole thing because I’ll get in trouble, but hopefully these excerpts will give a decent idea of what the ballet is like.  I wish I was in New York to see it…but I have to say writing about it has been rather therapeutic.  I almost feel like a part of the action and I can pretend like that’s enough for a little while.