Tag Archives: léo delibes

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.

Greek Geek it Out

4 Mar

It has to be said; I’ve yet to see a Frederick Ashton ballet I wasn’t completely in love with.  Hence, I am giddy with excitement for the DVD release of Ondine (scheduled for April 1st, the day before my birthday!) with Miyako Yoshida in the title role and Edward Watson as Palemon.  However, my latest Ashton adventure has been a viewing of Sylvia, with Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle.  While I’ve seen clips of both, this is the first full length work I’ve seen them perform in.  I like Bussell a lot; her dancing is so pure and regal.  An elegant ballerina is far from an original concept but Bussell pulls it off with a certain modesty that sets her apart.  And when it comes to Bolle <insert collective dreamy sigh> I get it.  Handsome face with a ridiculously favorable bone structure, tall, long limbed but not gangly and immense amounts of talent for dancing.  Ladies and gentlemen all over the world are utterly enchanted by him; one YouTube user claims that he’s the reincarnation of a Greek god, which is quite an artistic tribute (although Antinous was technically not a god and the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had a thing for Antinous deified him after his mysterious death.  Take from that what you will!).

Classical mythology is of course perfectly suited for a discussion on Sylvia, since that’s what the story is grounded in.  Unfortunately Sylvia, while loosely based on Torquato Tasso’s play Aminta, doesn’t have much of a plot or substantial character development (I intended to read the play for further insight—didn’t happen).  So the story is very simple and requires no in-depth analysis of the program notes.  Man loves warrior nymph, warrior nymph denounces love.  Warrior nymph kills man, and Eros god of love intervenes. Hunter man kidnaps warrior nymph who now loves man, Warrior nymph gets hunter man drunk, Eros intervenes again.  Lovers reunite, hunter man killed by Diana, Diana about to kill man but Eros intervenes (see a theme?).  The end.  Ashton did his best to flesh out the story a bit but it’s not a riveting plot.  I was interested though, in how at the very beginning when Aminta is in love with Sylvia but she refutes his advances, she shows her disdain in the lifts.  Even though Aminta is the one to lift her, it’s as though she commands him and yet the hunter Orion barely has to touch her and she wilts like a flower.  Aminta does have a transformation (being resurrected by a god will do that to you) and shows more vitality in the end, which was in my opinion, the only significant growth in any character (I wouldn’t count Sylvia because being shot by an arrow of love doesn’t really prove anything).  Weak plot and characters aside, the magic of the ballet is in the score and Ashton’s delightful choreography.  Léo Delibes’s score is effervescent and incredibly difficult as well.  The grand pas de deux between Aminta and Sylvia in Act III sounds like it’s from a violin concerto.

As for Ashton’s choreography…it is of course brilliant.  I’ve mentioned before that Ashton is a genius when it comes to staging dances with props, which aren’t added just for the sake of theatrics but are at times used in cleverly aesthetic ways.  Sylvia has a following of nymphs carrying large bows which are obviously cumbersome and not only do they have to dance with them in hand they have to pull on the strings at certain moments which creates more interesting shapes and lines, in addition to the curvature of the bow itself.  Sylvia is given a dinkier bow, since she has bigger movements to do but the nymphs have considerable dancing to do as well, including a brief moment of fouettés in unison.  Unison fouettés always strikes me as a little too “dance team,” but I love Ashton’s work so I’ll let him get away with it.  I do believe dance team is an American innovation anyway, so I can take comfort in knowing there’s virtually no connection there.  Choreographic intent makes the difference here.  Apologies for harping on dance team a bit…but if you know me you know I firmly believe you can mix business with pleasure but I prefer to keep my art and competition separate.

Another signature of Ashton is to personify animals through dance which he does during a bacchanal (a festival in honor of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) at the Temple of Diana, with two dancers as goats (if it’s a proper bacchanal, little do they know they’re going to be sacrificed at some point during the festivities).  Ashton of course had a wonderful sense of humor, especially to have Sylvia and Aminta perform their virtuosic variations, followed by this pair of dancing goats (you know that joke you do with fortune cookies where you add “in bed” to the end of every fortune?  Try adding “in bed with a goat.”  It makes everything so much funnier).  The goats have quirky, playful movements which are much less literal then the chickens in La Fille, but you can’t help but smile when watching the goat pas de deux.

As for the variations and pas de deux, Bussell showed crisp, clean lines and superb control.  One of the things I love about Ashton choreography is the way he uses smaller steps and movements which don’t always look like the most difficult, even though they often are.  In a lot of other classical variations you’ll typically see ballerinas indulging in huge extensions, big leg kicks, multiple pirouettes or impressive leaps, while in Ashton’s variation for Sylvia you don’t really see any of that.  There’s a lot of little steps and jumps that are perfectly suited to the pizzicato melody played by the strings, which really gives you a sense that Ashton had more concern for the choreography than he did a dancer’s ego.

I also found Aminta’s variation pleasing as well.  For one thing the music is nice and light, as I sometimes find music for male variations to be really heavy on the “oom-pa” (like DonQ, Corsaire, Flames of Paris, etc.).  However, Aminta’s variation has buoyancy without the heavy brassiness.  There’s a wonderful symmetry to the choreography for the variation, since most typically ask a dancer to “show their good side,” but Ashton repeats certain phrases giving it a nice balance and satisfying us neurotics.  He also uses some creative jumps, the way Bolle tucks his leg underneath in the opening diagonal is a nice touch but my favorite step comes after the sequence of cabrioles (which happen right after the first two diagonals of leaps) and he does a variation on the failli-assemblé, except the assemblé has a rond de jambe with the leading leg, opens to second midair and closes to fifth.  If you have no idea what that means, that’s okay…just watch for him to go to the corner, then travel in a diagonal doing a little hop into another jump where the front leg does a wiggly-do.

Obviously, I enjoyed Sylvia a lot.  It’s uncomplicated, light and sweet…like cotton candy.  In bed.  With a goat.

(Sylvia is available in full on YouTube, but the video size seems to be distorted and will drive you crazy.  Getting your hands on the DVD is highly recommended and now that I’ve returned my overdue copy to the Ohio State library, you can!  Or if you’re super lucky, you can see the Royal Ballet perform it this fall.  I will if I win the lottery.)