Tag Archives: la scala

PNB presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…surprise! I went.

10 Apr

So I did the unthinkable…I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coincidentally, exactly one week after the anniversary of The Dream’s premiere and my birthday.  My fellow Ashtonians may be shocked, but not to worry—my dedication to The Dream hasn’t wavered, despite some new perspective on Balanchine’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  For starters, I’ve only seen the DVD of La Scala’s production, and we all know that a live performance is an entirely different experience.  Inevitably, as a balletomane I had to give the live version a chance and make an honest effort at being open-minded.  It helped immensely that my two favorite dancers with the company, Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes, danced the principal roles of Oberon and Titania (my “dream” cast, pun intended).  It was also something of a special occasion as this run of Midsummer serves as a means to an end for a few principal dancers who will officially retire at the end of the season.  It’s almost eerily poetic in a way, to use Midsummer as a farewell given the plot itself and how it’s all about returning to reality after a whirlwind fantasy, which is very much what a ballet career can be like.  Or so I assume.

It made for quite the occasion, as three of the dancers that are retiring (Olivier Wevers, Ariana Lallone, and Jeffrey Stanton) all performed major roles and the audience was quite sentimental about it, really embracing “their dancers” (to the point where some of the things they were applauding were a little ridiculous!  The saut de chat is a beast, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every single one is extraordinary!).  Though they all danced incredibly well, it was one of those moments where you realize the best dancing transcends technique by virtue of that mystifying relationship between performer and audience.  In fact, I was jealous!  Ballet was not a part of my life until adulthood and I haven’t lived in proximity to a large ballet company long enough to establish that kind of sentimentality.  Even though I found it odd that the applause was so generous, it was also endearing in how pure it was; the audience was just enjoying the whole moment, not caring whether something fell under good or brilliant, or whether they even liked the ballet or not.  Moments like these really are far too few, and things to be cherished.

That being said, Balanchine’s Midsummer still makes no sense to me.  There were also times where I felt that Balanchine really just didn’t use the music well, and I’ve concluded that for much of it, he stuck too literally to the story, which doesn’t work without the dialogue.  However, some things were much better this time around, like PNB’s set designs, which are absolutely stunning.  La Scala’s sets pale in comparison, resorting to very plain backdrops, whereas PNB frames the stage with huge painted roses, a glistening spider web, trees, and other elements that add to the fantasy (the giant painted frog I could have done without…but, okay).  As for Act II, the triple wedding of Hippolyta/Theseus, Helena/Demetrius, and Hermia/Lysander, it is of course still out of place, as Balanchine basically crammed the entire story of Midsummer into the first act, and decided to incur some kind of temporal anomaly to make for a lengthy wedding scene.  Artistically I find this an odd decision because it devotes a lot of emphasis to the wedding, which has very little significance in the play, however, the sets again made a huge difference; with garlands, columns, and a starry sky, the atmosphere was far more romantic.

If I think of Act II as a completely different ballet, like a Symphony in C, I have a much easier time accepting it.  Regardless, the PNB dancers really delivered a beautiful performance with the Divertissement Pas de Deux and their entourage pas de six (six couples that is, so twelve dancers).  Though the Divertissement Pas de Deux has absolutely nothing to do with the story, it is quite possibly, one of the most beautiful pas de deux Balanchine ever choreographed (and no, my dedication to the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux has not wavered either…but this one is definitely up there).  Last night’s performance featured Wevers and Kaori Nakamura (her return to the stage after going on maternity leave), who have known each other for many years not just at PNB but also the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (where they also danced with Alexei Ratmansky by the way).  The chemistry was a wonderful balance of genuine love and trust, perfectly matched to some of the subtlest choreography I’ve ever seen by Balanchine.  The brightness of the stage was toned down from a starry sky to a crescent moon, and the quiet strings provided an utterly utopian nocturne (for my fellow music geeks, it’s an interpolation of the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings no. 9 in C Major).  It’s the epitome of serenity and tranquility, in many ways serving as the perfect farewell for Wevers and Stanton (who is partnering Körbes), as night falls on their stage careers.  In a word, it was unforgettable, and I feel so lucky to have been in the audience for it.

Meanwhile, I don’t have to sing the praises of Carla Körbes’s Titania, because you already know I’m going to tell you she’s flawless.  The lovely port de bras, her beauty, her expressiveness…she just has a special glow.  Lucien Postlewaite is also amazing as Oberon, being in my humble opinion one of the most well-rounded dancers with the company and having a gummy bear plié.  Seriously, he lands so softly it’s not fair…though he took a little spill during his Act I solo, which is an absolutely wicked display of bravura steps.  Maybe he gets really nervous if I’m watching…or maybe the truth is they’ve been having issues with the floor, as the tape is apparently very slippery.  Isn’t it ironic how one of the few spots where he had to land in a tight fifth position, which, if you think about it, is a spot so small it’s a decimal percentage of the stage, also happened to be covered with slippery tape?  It’s like a stilt walker slipping on an olive…but he wasn’t the only one, because another dancer took a spill in the same spot, which was less noticeable because it was Lysander getting flung around by Puck during one of the confusion scenes.  May you never look at a dancer falling the same way again!  Here’s a video too where you can get some glimpses at the aforementioned wicked solo (and the giant frog):

Speaking of Puck, Jonathon Porretta was brilliant and absolutely hysterical (overall PNB “got” the humor in performance much better than La Scala did on film).  What was also funny was the woman behind me, who I think had a Russian accent and said “oh, Jonathon Porretta, I love HIM.”  Especially with the accent, how fabulous is that?!  I wish I could have heard more, but then she started speaking to her friend in Russian and alas, I could no longer understand.  She was also far less enthusiastic about Postlewaite, and I wanted to turn around and be all “oh no you didn’t!” but then I realized I would have looked like a crazy person.  Although, like I always say, we’re an eclectic bunch up in that balcony—who else would manage to give himself a paper cut on the program during intermission, and ask one of the bartenders for a napkin to stop the bleeding?  Right…that was me, and beside the point.  Despite being an Ashton junkie, I really did enjoy myself and hey, Wevers himself told me that he danced The Dream at Winnipeg, and liked it better so even in my darkest hour (which wasn’t that dark) Sir Fred smiles upon us.

Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

May I take your order?

15 Dec

In honor of MusicMonday (which is technically when I started this entry), I thought I’d do a little detective work with the infamous Black Swan coda.  It has a really messy history, with three different versions at your disposal.  First, you’ve got the original coda from 1877 which was the finale to the Pas de Six.  The original coda is the one Anna Sobeshchanskaya didn’t like and had Léon Minkus write her one, which irked Tchaikovsky, who then wrote one for her, which has now become the coda in the Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  Tchaikovsky’s second coda may or may not have been influenced/adapted from that of Minkus, and as far as I know, this coda is actually never used for Swan Lake anymore.  To make matters more fun, the coda that is most used today is from Swan Lake, but was originally from Act I, intended as a Pas de Deux for Two Merry Makers, and then adapted/re-worked/(butchered?) by Ricardo Drigo into the Grand Pas de Deux familiar to most.  It’s a hot mess, and if I ever meet Tchaikovsky in the after life a question relating to the Black Swan pas de deux madness would probably be the first thing I asked him.  Which do you like, Pete?

A lot of ballet companies will mix and match as well, which can probably confuse a lot of people.  A Grand Pas de Deux is generally comprised of four parts, the grand adage, the male variation, the female variation and the coda.  Or if you prefer, the entrée, soup, salad, and dessert.  So I’ve devised a Swan Lake menu for your perusal:

This took way too long to make.

The Pas de Six – Andante con moto, Pas de Six – Moderato are never used (although Kenneth MacMillan reworked the Pas de Six music into a production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet, but probably not as a pas de deux ETA: This info came from Wikipedia…credibility?  Mmm…could be questionable.), while the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Allegro and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Coda are never used for Black Swan (to the best of my knowledge), despite being highly recommended by the chef.  Most choreographers go with the starred, “most popular dishes” as used originally by Petipa/Ivanov, while others have been a little more adventurous:

Bourmeister (La Scala)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

Grigorovich (Bolshoi)

  1. Tempo di Valse and Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Coda: Molto Allegro Vivace

Nureyev (Vienna State Opera)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

As you can see, anyone who doesn’t go with the standard picks whatever the heck they want apparently.  I’m sure they all had their legitimate reasons for their selections (and I don’t question them, mostly because I don’t really care), but unless you know ahead of time, it can be a kind of confusing to go see Swan Lake and expect one thing but then scratch your head when you realize the music is unfamiliar.

I only got interested in this whole mess because I myself got confused when I realized that there were two different codas that are commonly used, neither of them being the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda, and was thinking which coda appealed to me the most.  Predictably, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is still my favorite of the three, even if I ignore Balanchine’s choreography.  Musically, I think it’s the most exciting, although I was curious as to what a Swan Lake Pas de Deux would look like to it.  As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it has ever been used in a Black Swan pas de deux, and it made me wonder if the 32 fouettés was a part of the choreography as well.  It’s possible that the same place Balanchine put the fouettés in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (although he didn’t choreograph 32) is the same place where 32 fouettés could have gone because it’s long enough, but what makes that seem unlikely to me is the fact that in the other codas, the fouettés come pretty early on, while the possible break in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux which is thirty seconds longer than the other two, is towards the end.  Regardless, my questions ended up being irrelevant because 32 fouettés didn’t enter Swan Lake until the 1895 revival by Petipa/Ivanov, which is post-Sobeshchanskaya, who used the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux version in 1877 (the original Swan Lake, by Julius Reisinger was not a success).  Well, at least I learned something.

Turns out the most popularly known Black Swan coda is my least favorite, as I like the Pas de Six coda much better.  But, to each his/her own, so here are the three codas, so you can decide for yourself.  Although I did say the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux Coda was never used as a Black Swan coda, Nureyev did use it in Act I of his production of Swan Lake, so it has found a way back in (even though the Royal Ballet doesn’t perform this staging anymore.  I believe they’ve since gone to the Petipa/Ivanov).

Marianea Nuñez/Thiago Soares, standard Black Swan coda (beginning at 2:35)

Fonteyn/Nureyev, Pas de Six coda

Nureyev (Act I), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda

To make matters better, I’ve also uploaded all three codas onto SendSpace, in mp3 format for your listening pleasure.

Standard Black Swan Coda

Pas de Six Coda

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux  Coda

And because good things always come in threes, there is also free sheet music in PDF format available in a solo piano arrangement (full score is available as well, but that helps very few in the population) so now you can make a request to your accompanist to play your favorite coda for class.  The “popular” coda is on pp.61-64, Pas de Six coda on pp.178-180, and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda on pp.248-252.

Swan Lake for Solo Piano (PDF file)

Bon appétit!

PS.  This entry was a pain in the ass to write.

MacMillan makes it a little better

10 Oct

Autumn weather is settling in and I decided to avoid the chill, bunker down and have an English themed day.  I’m in the mood because I also baked a fruitcake yesterday, from an English recipe friends of our family gave us, and it is divine.  Americans typically have a bad impression of fruitcake, even though most have never eaten it, and those that do eat these nasty bricks of candied fruit and Billy knows what else.  It has to be done right (with minimal candied fruit, by the way), and there’s just no tradition here.  It takes a fair amount of effort to make, and there’s a lot of waiting involved because certain ingredients have to be cooked and then cooled to room temperature while covered, then the cake is baked for a couple of hours, and then that has to be cooled while wrapped in aluminum foil (which ironically, keeps heat in) until the final step, which is splashing the cake with spiced rum for added flavor.  Care has to be taken to cover the ingredients while cooling in order to preserve the moistness of the cake.  It’s a drawn out process, but it’s worth it, and even though I started yesterday it wasn’t ready until TO-DAY!!!  Isn’t it lovely, and harvest festive in its coloring?

And all for me...

And all for me...I can still smell the spiced rum.

So in continuance with the theme, I decided to make myself try and find something to like about Romeo and Juliet…after all, what could be more English than Shakespeare and Elizabethan times?  As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of this ballet…score is creepy, libretto grates on my nerves.  I saw BalletMet stage this a couple of years ago as my first full length classical ballet, although it was a newer staging by a David Nixon.  I don’t remember too many specifics about the production as a whole, but it followed the typical formula for an R&J and I remember thinking it was pretty good, despite my misgivings about the plot and music.  I did have one gripe though, which was a little trio of jesters danced by children.  The weird thing was that they would appear in what felt to me as inappropriate scenes, and I remember one did some gymnastics which was just out of place.  The worst part was that they were dressed in these phosphorescent neon-checkered eye sores.  That one scarred me for life.

But what is it about this story/ballet that makes people go gaga?  And why does it inspire so many choreographers?  There are stagings by contemporary choreographers like the one I saw, but then you have so many influential figures who have done it too like Lavrovsky, Grigorovich, MacMillan, Ashton, Tudor, Nureyev, Cranko to name a few…on the one hand it’s amazing that one story inspired so many legendaries, but on the other it’s a little overwhelming.  I don’t think any of those choreographers are ever going to get me to be able to “get it” in the way that most people do, but most people also drink coffee and I don’t, so I think it’s just my brain that has a loose wire (or several) that render me Shakespeare deficient (I read the play too, and didn’t like that either).  Regardless, I wanted to make the effort since life isn’t just about liking the things we like but learning to deal with the things we don’t.  So I got a Lavrovsky with Ekaterina Maximova and Vladdy-V performing with the Bolshoi, and a MacMillan with Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella performing with La Scala.  That’s a lot of Prokofiev for one day, but I was determined to get through it.

The Bolshoi production was the manifestation of my worst fears.  I loved Maximova as Juliet and her connection with Vladdy-V as Romeo was wonderful.  They were married at the time, so it would’ve been kind of hard not to have the right romantic chemistry.  Unfortunately, the rest of the production felt like a two hour quagmire that set up to a decent third act that I had kind of lost interest in.  There seemed to be very little dancing and a lot (I mean a LOT) of theatrics…expensive theatrics at that, with lavish sets and opulent costumes.  The excessive theatrics really took away from the production feeling like a ballet, and there was this nagging hierarchical separation between the stars and everyone else.  Only the stars really got to dance, with selected divertissements for others, but then the rest was a lot of people standing around or doing folk dancish stuff.  And you know Bolshoi…they can fit five hundred people on stage, so that’s a lot of people not dancing.  I hate to be critical, but it was rather slow and painful, and Mercutio’s death was taking so long I thought I was going to die first.  Plus, there was you guesed it, a jester scene.

La Scala on the other hand…they may not have had the money and the sizable corps, but MacMillan’s choreography made it tolerable (and a tolerable R&J to me should be considered a superb staging for the normal folk).  I should have known MacMillan could save it for me, and the more I see of his work the less I think of him as a choreographer, and more as a storyteller who speaks the language of dance.  He kept the theatrics to a minimum because the story was told through the movement.  He gave corps members a lot of difficult movement as well, which really brought the production together because every character was speaking dance, not just the principals and soloists like with the Bolshoi (in fact, Tybalt seemed to have very little dancing and although Mercutio’s death was slow, it felt like it made more sense).  It made the character interaction much more believable.  And no clowns!  A divertissement with mandolin players, but no clowns!  Overall, the production felt more reflective of human interaction than staged dance.  Corella was fantastic, and very clean in some of the exceptionally challenging MacMillan choreography, like some seriously sick pirouette combinations, but I was in love with Ferri (who has extraordinary feet).  Sweet little impish dove that she is, and yet inconsolable and capable of showing such disgust for Paris in their final pas de deux.  There were times when she gave me chills, and when she resigned herself to suicide, the cameras were able to zoom in on her face and it appeared there were tears in her eyes.  She was an incredibly invested and believable Juliet, and it’s interesting that there is another video of her dancing Juliet with the Royal Ballet some fifteen years earlier.  That would be an interesting comparison…if I could actually stomach watching R&J again.

There are plenty of clips on YouTube of Ferri/Corella and Maximova/Vasiliev, but I wasn’t moved enough to warrant posting them here.  That’ll be the day!  I know I should open myself to the possibility of watching Fonteyn/Nureyev, but not even my love for Tamara Rojo makes me want to get her and Acosta on DVD, so I’m afraid I might be a lost cause.  I’d have to be seriously coerced, or ambushed.