Tag Archives: kent stowell

Newfangled by Nutcracker

30 Dec

The end of the year is a wonderful thing—looking back at the various milestones and kilometerstones I’ve had, I feel nothing but blessed to be alive to have been through it all. Some marked changes rather than a benchmark experience, with the last of 2012 coming from my recent attendance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’. During this unseasonably warm and mild-weathered winter, it dawned on me that I was excited to see ‘The Nutcracker’…because…well…I love it. (There, I said it!) If I was a skilled hiker I’d shout it from the top of Mt. Rainier that I love the Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell Nutcracker, and this is without the onus of decades of family tradition to twist my arm into feeling this way. Nutcrackers generally fall into two camps of a traditional production like that of Balanchine’s or something loosely in the image of Petipa/Ivanov, and then a myriad of ultra modern stagings (e.g., versions by Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne, and Maurice Bejart to name a few). PNB’s Nutcracker is something in between and I love that it’s unique in that way—it’s evidence that we can re-imagine conventional ballets just enough to infuse them with creativity while never straying too far from the original. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who is attending school at Columbia told me that she saw Ratmansky’s Nutcracker this year, and now home to see PNB’s, she realized the artistic fulfillment the latter provides, while others seem to relegate themselves to a certain level of pageantry. Last year I had written about Sendak’s interpretation of Clara’s dream intertwining with a journey along the Silk Road, and even the second time around I still can’t get over how brilliant an idea that was. May Sendak—who passed away this year—rest in peace.

This year I made it a point to see the seraphic Carla Körbes as Clara, and I even splurged a little on an orchestra level ticket. At fifty dollars, it was the most I had ever spent on a ticket to see PNB, but I wanted to have that experience of seeing the company as I had never seen them before. I should mention that I have in fact seen a few programs from orchestra level—but not from the fourth row! Some people spend their fair share of income to be that close to artists at rock concerts and I’m proud to say that it’s ballet that demands of me a certain proximity to the stage. What else to do but oblige? Inevitably, part of me missed my second-tier nosebleed seat that I had become accustomed to because patterns among the corps de ballet are indeed more evident, but up close you really get to hear that magical pitter-patter of pointe shoes, so there’s some give and take. Unfortunately, a far less ambient addition to the soundtrack came from restless children and when the toddler behind me started screeching during the grand pas de deux, among my sighs of pleasure may have been a sigh of despair. I know, I know, “magical experience for kids” and what-have-you but let’s be real—some kids just can’t handle sitting still for two hours (although, given the heated argument the married couple next to me had during intermission, I had some severe doubts about some adults too—awkward! Gah!). I’m of the opinion that rambunctious kids should live true to their nature; there are plenty of wintertime activities like sledding or ice skating that can tire out even the rowdiest of little folk, and really, at that age they’re practically indestructible anyway so it’s the best time to engage in activities that as adults we have to think twice about (or drink enough) to do without fear.

At any rate, the dancing was superb, and despite numerous performances preceding the one I saw, the company still looked fresh as daisies. I quite liked Jerome Tisserand as the Sword-Dancer Doll (one of the gifts from Herr Drosselmeier), and the Masque—a short pas de trois to a duet from Tchaikovsky’s opera Pique Dame—was a picture of elegance with mile-long arabesques from Emma Love, Price Suddarth, and Steven Loch. Though not original to Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker, I love the inclusion of this music and adore the choreography for it, the style of which is reminiscent of courtly dances. In the larger ensemble pieces like ‘Snowflakes,’ corps dancer Angelica Generosa really stood out to me, which is quite the feat in a literal flurry of fake snow, sixteen dancers, and a lot of allegro work, but Generosa has the most marvelous port de bras—crisp but not forceful and finished with beautiful hands. The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ was just as pretty, with Margaret Mullin leading the floral cascade with effervescence and lucidity. The “Silk Road” divertissements were great fun, and I especially loved Benjamin Griffiths in ‘Commedia’ as the lead harlequin. Clement Crisp once wrote that the jester is “a despicable figure in all ballets” but he’d be wrong about this one—it was wonderfully appropriate to the ‘Danse des Mirlitons’ (and Griffiths has a wicked penché—I love it when men get to do that!). With a common thread of splendid performances by Körbes as a halcyon Clara, and Batkhurel Bold as a quiet but majestic prince, I couldn’t help but feel an immense amount of satisfaction in being in the audience that night—it was truly gratifying to be treated to such marvelous performances by so many talented individuals.

All in all, I had a genuinely great time and now have a hard time imagining another Nutcracker living up to this standard and being so enjoyable to me. As I left McCaw Hall for the last time in 2012, I reminisced about how much Pacific Northwest Ballet has made my year so wonderful, and felt a great sense of contentment. Earlier in the year I decreed 2012 as the year of my dreams coming true, as evidenced by the following tweet that a certain favorite celebrity of mine responded to:

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that's who!

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that’s who!

She couldn’t have been more right, as there certainly have been a LOT of “YAYYYYYs” throughout the year! Now, I find myself looking forward to 2013, but with a new perspective on what I want to accomplish. More than ever I feel a need to take decisive action, to do things I’ve never done before, and experience the unknown. It’s exciting and maybe a little scary (actually, a LOT scary), but I think I’m ready—or maybe, I know I’m ready! Regardless, my new Moleskine planner shall provide the inspirational words I need to see every day, with a boldly embossed movie quote that I find accurately describes the outlook I want to have in life:

Immortal words...

Immortal words…

Happy New Year friends! Let’s make 2013 a year of “doing” and not trying, shall we? And thanks ALWAYS, for reading!

-♡-

Steve

“Carlarella”

30 Sep

Today I attended the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Kent Stowell’s Cinderella. Yes, I know what you’re thinking—“Steve! You avoid Prokofiev like the plague!” and that I typically do, but times are a-changing and there are things about Sergei Prokofiev that are beginning to win me over (more on this latest development for another day!). Also, if Carla Körbes is the star of the show, then it’s impossible to be disappointed. However, the unfortunate truth is that I think Stowell’s choreography and staging are quite problematic—and not just because of the Ashton trump card up my sleeve. The program notes made mention of how Stowell wanted to make a departure from the comic tragedy, opting for a more romantic interpretation, because the former and its derivatives “boast more theatrical variety than narrative or emotional cohesiveness.” Okay, so I’m a little irked by the ding at Ashton, but I’m on board for a different perspective, and I was intrigued by this production’s intention to highlight the contrast between Cinderella’s experiences in reality and her dream world. In fact, from the outset, it sounded like the kind of psychoanalysis that would blend really well with the peculiarity of Prokofiev’s melodies.

That’s not what I got. There were a lot of discrepancies between what the program notes said, and how I felt about what was presented. First of all, Stowell opted to do some compositional surgery and added other selections by Prokofiev into the score, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I don’t even listen to Prokofiev on a regular basis and wasn’t familiar with the added music at all, and the discontinuity was still pretty obvious, which never bodes well for the narrative. The main problem though, was that the choreography didn’t really match with the music or say anything about the characters. Prokofiev’s score is rich like dark chocolate, and ever so slightly bittersweet, but the choreography didn’t highlight the subtleties and was quite often “louder” than the music, either in the step itself, or as a matter of being overdone, with too many steps. This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to choreography, especially in narrative ballets—it’s not just a matter of sequencing steps together on the downbeat of the music. A ginglyform mytacism sabrages a knismesis of jentacular witzelsucht if a dompteuse estrapades its callipygian cagamosis. You can’t just string words together and assume you’re communicating a message just because a sentence is grammatically correct; likewise, the art of narrative choreography must have some kind of method beyond counting steps to the time signature of the music in order to progress the story. It’s hard because there are more literary devices to make a story interesting than there are choreographic ones, but there has to be some minimum amount of attention paid in order to avoid a haphazard-looking result. Although one of the motifs Stowell does give was too blatant—a dozen kids in pumpkin costumes encircling Cinderella, jumping on each beat to represent her midnight curfew, which is later repeated at the ball when twelve couples do the same, albeit in a prettier lift. Rather than being a novel idea, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the obvious, which happens to be my other pet peeve.

[The final pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. Some pretty moments and danced with a lot of heart, but I can’t help but feel that it’s…overcooked. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the pas they’re showered with glitter! (dancers are principal Rachel Foster, and former principal Lucien Postlewaite)]

 

Misuse of the score aside, rather than do something different, I found Stowell’s Cinderella to be somewhat derivative of Ashton’s after all (and just made me miss Ashton more!). The structure was relatively the same, with two comic stepsisters, fairy godmother, four seasons soloists, jester, one-dimensional prince…you know, the standard assortment. Some of the insertions into the plot include triple casting the role of the fairy godmother, as Cinderella’s mother in flashback sequences, as well as a masked fairy at the ball, performing a divertissement. The idea was to emphasize Cinderella reminiscing about her past and the likeness between her mother and the fairy (though they are not one and the same), but what does this really contribute to the story? It would be one thing if the fairy godmother WAS in fact her deceased mother, but as a godmother that looks like her? It doesn’t make sense! Cinderella’s father also plays a bigger role, showering Cinderella with affection, but then not really acting on her behalf until the final act, when he actually espies Cinderella dancing with the glass slipper, stands up to the stepmother and stepsisters, and later on presents the slipper to the prince. This, for me, was an egregious error—we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for her father, because when he is truly preoccupied with the dastardly dames, Cinderella’s isolation is highlighted, thus giving significance to her dream of falling in love with the handsome prince. Trust me, I’m an escapist (aka, professional daydreamer) and I dig the libretto for Cinderella, but that’s why her desolation is so crucial; the emotional impact of living her fantasies becomes much more effective.

I was hoping for something darker and moodier, and was practically blinded by the second act when the entire corps de ballet came out in BRIGHT red costumes. Even from my nosebleed seat in the second tier, this was hard to look at. Not to mention the fact that the stepmother was dressed in maroon, and the stepsisters in orange and coral, there was a lot of clashing in the overall color scheme. The costuming was otherwise gorgeous, although some of the theatrical changes lacked drama. Using Ashton as a reference point, he handled Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches by actually having her change offstage during a divertissement and then reappearing fully dressed in her coach, but Stowell has the fairies simply put a cloak over her shmata-dress and send her off, appearing in her ball gown at the beginning of the next act. In Ashton, when the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella runs offstage and a double in her ragged frock runs through the scene (facing away from the audience), while Stowell has her run into the coach, which then rolls away. From a theatre perspective (and speaking as someone who had to stand backstage for high school plays like a human coat rack, with unzipped costumes draped over my limbs and safety pins in my mouth for emergencies), the effect was lackluster.

Still, I did think the entire cast was wonderful, and Carla is truly in a league of her own. I could go on and on about everything I love about her, but she has such a gift to make her performance look natural. Her character is believable because it seems so real, and the fact that she has flawless technique helps to make her the superstar she is. I’d imagine she’d be a choreographer’s dream to work with because they may ask her to do certain things, but she surely isn’t the type of dancer you’d have to wrestle it out of—one need simply ask, and she’ll just do it, and make it her own. Her Cinderella had generosity and warmth, and the way she floated through her pirouettes was absolutely heavenly. Karel Cruz, as her prince, was a quiet nobleman but no less chivalrous, and really, bravo to the entire cast for a marvelous performance. I have to say that one of my favorites, Margaret Mullin, was exceptional as Autumn—what makes her so special is the way she uses her upper body and head, which was on full display in a commanding variation where she just ate up the stage with her presence. Even when dancing in unison with the full corps you see that detailing when she does simple waltz steps and it really is a treat, so watch that space (and face).

Suffice to say, I enjoyed standout performances by PNB dancers and really the whole cast lived up to their reputation as a world-class company. A full length story ballet is a behemoth, and the amount of work, rehearsal, and effort that goes into putting on the show was all there—I just wish Cinderella could have suited them better and really showed off their finest qualities, rather than a pastiche of clichés.

Nut-cranky

25 Dec

On a rare day off, I treated myself to a performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This may come as a shock to some of you longtime readers as I, Ebe-Steve-r Scrooge, have often grumbled about how much I dislike it—or rather, what Nutcracker stands for but to make a semi-longer story shorter, I dislike that Nutcracker is such a necessity in American culture and that so much economic value is attached to it. I’m also not a huge fan of seeing children perform on stage because while there are roles that required a significant amount of technique, there were moments that had me wondering what was the artistic purpose of having mini-people dance with turned in arabesques. More than anything, they invoke thoughts of huge egos, parents flaunting the idea of their children becoming professional dancers, which all comes full circle to money because of course proud parents are going to spread the word to friends and relatives to buy tickets. I don’t blame them (entirely), but there are always people who go off the deep end and develop unrealistic expectations for their kids and take for granted how difficult a dance career is to earn. The bottom line is that getting cast in the Nutcracker guarantees nothing about a young dancer’s future and far too many people lose sight of that.

Okay, so the children thing is a little salty on my end because logically, I can see some value in giving kids the opportunity to be on stage and have a significant, inspirational experience. Dancers themselves are sentimental about it because new roles in the Nutcracker benchmark a step in one’s career and there really isn’t any other ballet that tracks progress from such an early age. Admittedly, I also kind of like that Nutcracker is indeed such a tradition, especially in the US which is a relatively young country compared to European countries with such vast histories that are rich in cultural traditions. However, a tradition is something to look forward to, and yet for many dancers the music can be like a trigger that sends them into Gollum-esque fits of rage or make them want to take up a hobby like aerial skiing where ACL injuries are like a rite of passage. Dancers (or artists, I should say because the musicians are pretty much in the same boat of monotony) shouldn’t be sacrificial lambs for the sake of money and tradition. Ideally, they would look forward to a Nutcracker run, which means performances could stand to be reduced, maybe even—wait for it—every other year! The Royal Ballet doesn’t have to do Nutcracker annually and doesn’t suffer for it, though I’d imagine the uproar in the States would make a biennial Nutcracker impossible. Well, that and limited funding…

I suppose I could learn to accept Nutcracker’s stranglehold on the holiday season, if I could get just ONE consolation prize—you see, Nutcracker is lauded for boosting ticket sales and introducing people to ballet, but by the time the next repertory program rolls around, a lot of people will have lost interest and I would like to see companies make an effort to “strike while the iron is hot,” perhaps in the form of a New Year’s Gala. If Nutcracker gets the pointe shoe in the door, than use a Ratmansky-fied cannon to blast it open! There is a real opportunity to take the audience a step further and introduce them to a style of ballet that will help them learn more about it, instead of meekly saying “thanks for coming to Nutcracker, see you next year!” In my mind, something like a New Year’s Gala would call for bold, symphonic works where virtuosity can be taken advantage of to adhere to a theme of “unleashing the fireworks” so to speak. There would be a great fervor over a one-night-only performance that included a lineup of something like Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and then closing the night out with Symphony in C, which has the added bonus of giving the dancers something to look forward to, instead of a couple of deflated, post-Christmas performances of Nutcracker. So the timing is perfect, audiences go from a classical story ballet to symphonic, neoclassical works, the dancers get to end on a lively note, a savvy marketing department would advertise the limited seating of the gala during Nutcracker to create a buzz, tickets sell out (at least, I’m convinced they would) and everybody wins! It’s genius, right?

Anyway, enough nonsense and on to PNB’s Nutcracker—quite frankly, it’s awesome! PNB’s production is famous for using set and costume designs by world-renowned children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, and I was wildly impressed. It’s hard to describe, but the way the set pieces move and transition from one scene to another is absolutely riveting and gives such a neat glimpse at Sendak’s imaginative vision. The collaboration between Sendak and choreographer Kent Stowell was also a brilliant move as well, reminiscent of something Diaghilev would do, which was to really seek out the great artists of the time to design productions. Act I of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker has its unique moments but is fairly standard in terms of setting up the story, though there is an interesting psychological element to Herr Drosselmeier’s relationship with Clara, as he orchestrates her nightmare first in the prologue with three dolls of the Nutcracker, Mouse King, and Princess Pirlipat, once more in the party scene in an elegant masque variation, and then of course there’s Act II—which in this version is a theatrical treasure. Usually Act II will take place in a generic, saccharine fantasy world but Sendak’s design has elements from the Ottoman Empire and while typical productions of Nutcracker have a hodge-podge assortment of ethnic dances that are sugary themed (e.g. Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Russian Candy Cane), Sendak/Stowell so cleverly re-imagine them into the Moors (North Africa), Peacock (India), Chinese Tiger, and Dervishes (Persia). As I watched the divertissements unfold, it dawned on me that they intended this not only to be an adventure into Clara’s dreams but with an overlying journey on the ancient Silk Road. I was blown away by the ingenuity of Sendak/Stowell’s REAL concept here and it’s hard to imagine another Nutcracker with so creative an idea for Act II that unifies the ethnic dances so seamlessly.

There is a motion picture version of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker, though before I post some clips, from what I’ve seen there are some differences between the current live production and the one filmed in 1983. I don’t know if the production has evolved over time or if the changes made were specific for the film, but overall I do think the live version is better. The camera editing in the filmed version is kind of a pain and cuts away from the dancing a lot to zoom in on faces, and other things are diminished too like “the tree,” which is this miraculous feat of stagecraft where a small tree unfolds and burgeons like a lava flow into a monstrous version of itself. The timing is slightly different in the live version because the tree definitely gets featured alone, now has blinking lights, and yes, everyone claps for it (as they should—who knows how many stagehands it requires to pull that off!)

The Masque:

Transformation (the Mouse King is completely different in the live version as well, though you can get some idea of what the sets are like):

“Silk Road” Dances:

I was really surprised by the choreography throughout, as there were a lot of interesting transitions and use of little steps. The Masque for example has nothing particularly difficult, but it’s very tasteful and has a lovely baroque quality to it—especially the presentation of the feet. I actually think it’s the type of divertissement that really allows the dancers to accentuate their lines not by physical length but by the imaginary kind, which is far more difficult to get the audience to invest in. The “Silk Road” dances were also right on the money, with the Peacock being the clearly coveted favorite. With Nutcracker being so thematic in terms of freedom and escaping reality, Peacock is actually a crucial role—her solo is this pivotal moment in the ballet because amidst Clara’s fantasy, you have this mysterious, exotic bird being held captive, and it’s a little tragic. Peacock really gives the story some depth that other Nutcrackers fail to achieve which is probably why the audience is so fascinated with her. However, I’d like to take a moment to point out that for birds (and definitely peacocks) it’s generally the male of the species that has the more ornate plumage…which begs the question: how would a male dancer fare in this role? Nobody knows, but here’s a neat video of corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis talking about the role a bit, with some rehearsal/performance footage (the cast I saw had Laura Gilbreath dance it, and I held my breath the entire time! And this is no exaggeration—Gilbreath has to be close to six feet tall.):

Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths danced Clara and the Nutcracker Prince respectively, and I had seen them last year dance the principal roles in Coppélia and if I recall correctly they performed well though I wasn’t necessarily blown away (then again, maybe Coppélia is just a really underwhelming ballet in general) but they were amazing in Nutcracker! That first pas de deux when they woke up in their adult bodies and dance together in this pure, winter wonderland with Tchaikovsky’s score swelling with romanticism? Not gonna lie, I teared up a little. There, I said it. I got all schmaltzy and “emotional”—it truly was a divine experience and they had a perfect balance of youth, freedom, maturity, and regality in their movements. Who knew even I could be de-Grinched?

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed myself, and really the only things that ended up bothering me were the “Toy Theatre” dancers (an octet of very small children) dancing to the first half of the coda music of the grand pas de deux, namely because the tiny bodies with their tiny, not-so-nimble legs failed to capture the grandeur and buoyancy of the famous melody, causing the coda to just completely deflate instead of create excitement. Also, the writhing toddler (and negligent parents) next to me didn’t exactly enhance the experience, and if you were at a certain Tuesday matinee and heard a child literally shriek from the first tier during “Sugar Plum Fairy” (the solo is actually danced by Clara in this production)…well, one guess as to who was sitting right next to her. Let’s take a moment to remember that going to the ballet is in fact a privilege, not just for you, but for many, so be ready to get something out of it—I know I certainly did. For next year, can I put a “25-and-older” Nutcracker performance on my Christmas list? Another opportunity to sell out tickets I think—pretty sure I’m not the only Scrooge in Seattle!

PS. I legitimately knew a dancer in the cast this year, as my friend’s daughter Madison Abeo was cast in the Chinese Dance, one of the coveted pointe roles for PNB School Students, so a little shout out to her—proud of ya’ girl! I even waited by the stage door with a gift to congratulate her on a good show. Meanwhile, when one of my favorite dancers walked by as I waited, I was so dumbstruck all I could do was manage an awkward smile instead of saying something nice. After my ‘Open Letter to Famous Dancers’ you’d think I would’ve learned something, but the more things change—the more I’m going to avoid my issues apparently.

The Last Unicorn…a ballet?

7 Oct

In continuance with Reader Appreciation Month, I present to you an entry on the topic of turning Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn into a ballet.  This idea was put forth in the Twitter-verse by user Fleegull, who I’m not saying was the first to think such a thing, but is the first to share it with these ears of mine…and I couldn’t agree more!  The Last Unicorn would make an extraordinary ballet, and due to recent radical ideas of becoming a professional impresario (which wouldn’t be so radical if I could just inherit a billionaire’s estate), I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to imagine what I would do if I actually had the resources to make this happen.

Mundane as it may sound, a monumental task requires a checklist.  I’ll need a libretto, a choreographer, designers of many ilks (sets/costumes/lighting, etc.), and of course dancers.  The libretto is more or less set and I actually think such an endeavor would be a momentous chance to create a full length, narrative ballet in the classical tradition that is in a way, distinctly American.  There really aren’t many American story ballets, with the most prominent being of the Western genre, with works like Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and Fall River Legend, neither of which are full length.  Unfortunately the Western genre may indeed be too American because I don’t think de Mille’s ballets are performed regularly abroad and I’m willing to bet there’s little interest by European companies to do so.  When it comes to story ballets, America does seem to be stuck on a one-way street where it’s okay to perform ballets with Eurocentric librettos and folklore, but exporting an American ballet just isn’t happening.  This is not to say Europe is evil, or life is unfair, etc. only that historically, that’s been the norm.

I should note that The Last Unicorn has made a transition to the theatre in a couple of productions, including one that Beagle himself wrote the script for in 1988, for Intiman Playhouse of…Seattle!  I didn’t research this thoroughly, but apparently Pacific Northwest Ballet was involved in the musical production, and there was choreography by Kent Stowell.  However, I’ve heard some critical views on Stowell’s choreography, including a stranger at a bus stop who started a conversation with me because of my New York City Ballet tote bag; she flat out said that she didn’t like Stowell’s choreography (she did however love Balanchine, and actually used to live in New York during the glory years, regularly watching the likes of Suzanne Farrell).  Finding a video of Intiman’s production is not a priority for me since it’s not technically a ballet, but credit is due for what must be the first attempt at expressing Beagle’s writing in movement.

In terms of a choreographer, what The Last Unicorn needs is a Frederick Ashton and actually, despite the novelty of having an “American ballet,” the truth is that it’s more suited for a British choreographer and audience.  Balanchine’s influence on modern ballet here is perhaps too great; the aesthetic tends to be sleek, streamlined and “new.”  The chances of finding a better suited choreographer in the UK is much higher thanks to the influence of Ashton, because this kind of mystical, charming story is exactly the kind of thing he was known for and only he took choreographing animals seriously.  One might think that sticking a horn on a ballerina’s head and making her walk on all fours would be a ridiculous sight indeed, but that’s taking it too literally.  When Ashton choreographed dancers as animals, there was always a special attention paid to capturing the essence of an animal’s movement and not simply reproducing an animal with a human body.  Dances like the chickens in La fille mal Gardée, Bottom in The Dream, and of course the ultimate, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and it’s vast array of woodland creatures showcase his ability to create ingenious and technically brilliant choreography for “animals.”  To anyone who may still find the idea of animal choreography silly, I have two words for him (because it’s most likely a man who would think such a thing)…Swan. Lake.  Women certainly don’t have wings or the proportions of a swan but it’s all about the interpretation and the quality of movement that makes them believable as swans and cygnets (come to think of it, there are actually a number of parallels between Swan Lake and The Last Unicorn).

Well, fingers crossed that a choreographer can be found…but perhaps more challenging would be finding a composer.  The state of classical music composition is even direr than ballet I think, let alone classical ballet scores.  Still, someone out there must be capable and need only the chance.  Although I haven’t seen Blancanieves (Spanish for ‘Snow White’) in its entirety, it’s an example of a newer ballet (premiered in 2005) that did have a new score, written by Emilio Aragón.  I’ve watched extracts from the ballet because it was choreographed on Tamara Rojo and it does have some wonderful musical moments and while it may not achieve the legendary status of a Tchaikovsky score, it’s a relief to know that the genesis of a ballet score can still be done in this modern age of…how do you say, neglecting classical talents?  I was horrified though that Aragón included enough music for Tamara to do forty-eight fouettes…but this may have been a request by the choreographer as opposed to a musical choice because I find it impossible that so many counts could be considered musical.  At any rate, a score for The Last Unicorn would have to be mysterious, yet elegant, capricious at times and stylistically…how do you say, French?  Le sigh…this whole ‘American’ thing isn’t working out, is it?  I hear in my mind something very Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now assuming I was this billionaire impresario that could lure artists (particularly of the Royal Ballet) with million dollar contracts, I would cast the principle roles as follows (in order of appearance):

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea……….Sarah Lamb

Schmendrick……….Bennet Gartside

Molly Grue……….TBA

Prince Lír……….Steven McRae

The Red Bull……….Thiago Soares

King Haggard……….Edward Watson

*All images are ©ITC Entertainment

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea

Sarah Lamb is the perfect Lady Amalthea…she has a wonderful, elfin look with beautiful, big eyes and an ethereal touch to her dancing.  When I watched her in The Sleeping Beauty DVD as the Bluebird, I couldn’t believe how delicate she was.  While I can’t comment on her abilities in grittier roles, I do think the Lady Amalthea is one that offers great acting opportunities.  She is not simply a unicorn that is turned into a human and falls in love with a man—she must deal with additional adversity as she searches for the other unicorns and the realization of loneliness.  It’s a loneliness that begins as solitude from being the last unicorn, and takes on new meaning when she is forced to relinquish her love for Prince Lír.  She begins as a rather cold and indifferent creature, and when she is turned into a human while she eventually learns to love she is at first horrified as she comes to grips with her mortality.  I think there is more acting potential here than Odette/Odile.

Schmendrick

The unicorn is the opposite of Schmendrick, who in becoming a fully-fledged wizard actually becomes mortal—a fact that is only known to readers of the novel.  As well as the movie does adapt from the book (about 92% I’d say) this was one detail that was left out.  It actually gives Schmendrick another dimension and makes him less of a buffoon (although a lovable buffoon).  It’s an interesting juxtaposition against the Unicorn’s revulsion of mortality, in that Schmendrick would rather live a mortal life as that which he wishes to be rather than immortal with sporadic magical powers.  I would cast self-proclaimed funnyman Bennet Gartside as the magician, as I know him to have a healthy sense of humor, which is essential for a good Schmendrick.

 

 

Molly Grue

Now Molly Grue is a fascinating character, perhaps my favorite (hence my difficulties in casting her).  For a ragamuffin she is incredibly intuitive, bold and passionate.  She is unafraid of sassing people and being straightforward with the truth.  She scolds other characters regardless of their status, including the unicorn herself, who she held in such high regard.  This was one of my favorite scenes of the film (which by the way, later DVD versions edited because of her swearing…but to edit “damn” is awfully prude. Damn damn, damn damn damn damn. Damn…damn.)  As I said, I wouldn’t know whom to cast because Molly needs to have an earthy, intelligent, rough around the edges portrayal…in fact, I think she should be barefoot just like she is in the movie (only the unicorns should be on pointe).  Ideas, anyone?

Aforementioned scene with Molly:

Prince Lír

As mentioned before, the movie is incredibly close to the novel.  The only character that is cheated is Prince Lír, as the town of Hagsgate (part of King Haggard’s domain) is Lír’s birthplace, and there was a prophecy that foretold King Haggard’s fall would come at the hands of one born in Hagsgate.  At the end of the novel, we see more about Prince Lír’s character as he bitterly pines for Lady Amalthea, as well as an interesting scene when Lír (now king) meets his birth father.  Unfortunately, a ballet may have to be edited similarly to the film because the third act necessitates a dramatic finish.  Still, Prince Lír is naïve but chivalrous and would be wonderfully portrayed by Steven McRae, whose vibrancy would give great energy to the dashing prince.

 

King Haggard

I struggled with whether King Haggard should be a character role or danced role because he is so…haggard and decrepit, but I realized that King Haggard must absolutely be danced because of his interactions with the unicorn (which would make for a very haunting pas de deux).  Furthermore, he is very much in the same vein as Von Rothbart, in that he wants to own the unicorns.  I don’t think it’s ever made known why Von Rothbart has trapped Odette though, while it is revealed that a chance sighting of two unicorns, one resting its head on the back of another was the only thing that ever made King Haggard happy.  Although he is the selfish, frightful antagonist of the story, he’s not entirely sinister—he technically never harms anyone, which makes him a fascinating villain to me.  Such emotional depth and regality requires the talents of Edward Watson, who with the right make-up would look positively ghastly…in the good way, of course.

The Red Bull

Not much for words, the Red Bull is the prison guard of the unicorns, the manifestation of their worst fears and the creature that keeps them at bay, cowering in the sea.  When I was younger I didn’t think much of him…he was simply King Haggard’s monstrous beast.  However, the novel has given me further insight that makes him a far more interesting character.  For one thing, the movie never mentions the fact that he’s blind but the most fascinating line about the Red Bull is omitted from the film.  Towards the end when the Red Bull enters the sea and the unicorns escape, the Red Bull seems to give up, something I didn’t notice before and it’s Schmendrick who explains this in the book: “The Red Bull never fights…he conquers, but he never fights.”  The Red Bull actually has a sense of pride and honor that isn’t so obvious in the movie.  Thiago Soares is my pick for this role, because of his smoldering performance as the hunter Orion in The Royal Ballet’s DVD of Sylvia.

There are also many potential solo roles, like Butterfly (who is indeed male!), Captain Cully, Autumn Cat, Skull and character roles like Mommy Fortuna and Mabruk.  Hell, if you go by the novel there’s even a Bluebird pas de deux!  Lots of great options here, but the most spine tingling scene is perhaps reserved for the corps de ballet, when the herd of unicorns come rushing out of the sea.  I think it could go down as one of the most iconic corps de ballet moments:

They'd have to wait until Act III juuuuuuust for this...

I think the only major challenge in terms of production values for The Last Unicorn would be the scene of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival.  There are animals that have illusions cast on them to appear as things they are not (a lion as a manticore, an ape as a satyr, etc. and actually much more in the book than is shown in the novel as Mommy Fortuna puts herself in an exhibit as well) so the challenge would be whether to show the animals as they are, or as their illusory counterparts, or to edit them out somehow (the Unicorn must still be captured by Mommy Fortuna though, because that’s how she meets Schmendrick).  Speaking of spells there is also the matter of transforming the Unicorn into Lady Amalthea on stage…a horn is easily removed but there’s the decision of whether she should appear nude when she is transformed into a human leave her in her white Unicorn costume (which I imagine to be a pretty simple white leotard/short skirt combo…her beauty needs to be told in her steps and gestures) and leave the rest to poetic imagination.  There’s going to have to be some smoke and mirrors, but this is far from the most difficult illusion ever attempted on stage.

Conclusion?  The Last Unicorn ballet needs to happen.  As soon as this impresario gig works out for me, I’ll get on it if someone hasn’t beaten me to it.