Tag Archives: ludwig minkus

ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

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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.