Tag Archives: marcelo gomes

The Irony of Byron-y

7 Jun

The first time and only other time I saw Le Corsaire was four years ago when the Bolshoi Ballet brought it to Washington D.C.—and I don’t remember a damn thing. Well, except at one point during the infamous ‘le jardin animé’ scene where a bunch of people are dancing in a garden for no reason, I distinctly remember silently counting the number of bodies on stage in my head—seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eightyCorsaire really is kind of like that morning donut; not good for you, but certainly edible, not something you’d necessarily seek out but you’ll eat it if it’s right in front of you, and sometimes you don’t care if it’s a bad idea at the time even when you know you’ll regret it later. I can’t imagine Corsaire as being on top of any balletomane’s list, but it caters to a different audience and has some importance in the art form’s history, even if the famous pas de deux is the bane of every gala’s existence. Begrudgingly, we deal with it and might even enjoy it a little. I wouldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure ballet because somehow, you don’t even feel bad delighting in its ludicrousness.

I should’ve known it would come to this–a little over a month ago I was in Fort Worth, Texas, visiting the Kimbell Museum of Art. In it, I was immediately drawn to a work called ‘Selim and Zuleika’, a 19th century oil painting by Eugène Delacroix. As I read the placard, I felt a chill as a shadow I had once cast off made itself known to me once more. Bearing in mind I had actually forgotten everything I learned about Corsaire, but in reading the following, the familiarity was too great not to re-plank old bridges (via the Kimbell’s website):

Like many of his contemporaries, Delacroix took inspiration from the best-selling Romantic poetry of Lord Byron. This painting is the last and most developed of the four canvases that the artist devoted to “The Bride of Abydos,” first published in 1813 and available in French translation by 1821. Set in the Dardanelles of Turkey, Byron’s poem relates the tragic fate of Zuleika, the daughter of the Pasha Giaffir, and her lover, the pirate Selim. In order to avoid a loveless marriage arranged by her father, Zuleika escapes at night from the harem tower in which she has been held. In the scene shown in Delacroix’s painting the lovers await rescue in a grotto by the sea, pursued by Giaffir and his men, armed and bearing torches. When Selim fires his pistol to summon the aid of his comrades, who are waiting offshore, the shot signals their position to Giaffir. Sensing the approach of her pursuers, Zuleika tries to restrain Selim. In the tragic climax of the tale, Selim is shot dead by Giaffir, and his body washed out to sea. Zuleika dies of grief.

'Selim and Zuleika': 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

‘Selim and Zuleika’: 1857, oil on canvas, by Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Kimbell Art Museum.

Wait a minute…I thought to myself, dusting cobwebs off the recesses of my memories—Lord Byron…Mediterranean…pasha…harem…pirate…loveless marriage…grotto by the sea…GAH! Shades of Corsaire had insidiously made its way into my life again, when I least expected it, and I even liked the blasted painting with its rich jewel toned focal points and carefully etched facial expressions. Parley? I didn’t really have much of a choice because I knew in a couple months time, I’d be seeing Corsaire on American Ballet Theatre. Initially I hoped to artfully dodge the whole ordeal, but when I heard Steven McRae from the Royal Ballet would perform as a guest artist, I resigned myself to that rare opportunity. Though McRae’s role was strangely minor, his jumps were fiery and his partnering of Misty Copeland as Gulnare was quite strong—which wasn’t something that occurred to me when I watched videos of McRae in other things, and Copeland, with her extremely hyperextended knees needs an acutely aware partner to be able to help her find her center, and McRae did a phenomenal job.

The story of the ballet Le Corsaire is nearly impossible to describe without laughing or wanting to beat your head against a wall, but to put it crudely, the pirate Conrad falls in love with Medora, a slave girl, and with her fellow slave girl Gulnare, are sold to the Pasha Seyd by the slave trader, Lankendem. Conrad then instructs his slave Ali to kidnap Medora, and they escape to his grotto, where the good stuff happens. Conrad’s pirates have also taken other slave girls, and Medora beseeches Conrad to free them all, much to the annoyance of Conrad’s friend Birbanto, who ignites a mutiny. Conrad quells the uproar, but Birbanto is still bitter about the ruckus and sprays a flower with a sleeping potion (stay with me!) and has it given to Medora, who bestows it on Conrad, who takes a whiff and passes out. Birbanto and the pirates come to take Medora away, but she avoids capture and cuts Birbanto’s arm with a dagger in the process—and is promptly captured by Lankendem, who gives her back to the Pasha. The Pasha, falls asleep and has outrageously pink dreams of his wives (remember the aforementioned inconsequential garden scene?). Meanwhile, Conrad and his pirates manage to sneak into the palace and everything goes bananas. At one point, Birbanto makes a move for Gulnare, and upon seeing him, Medora is finally able to expose him as a traitor. Conrad shoots Birbanto, and then he, Medora, Ali, Gulnare (maybe Lankendem? I forget) escape from the alerted palace guards and flee by ship. A violent storm then sends them—well, most of them—to the bottom of the sea, and only the lovers Conrad and Medora survive, washing upon a rocky shore. And scene.

This Corsaire (for better or worse!) plays out much like a movie rather than a ballet. Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair of which the ballet…is based…er, loosely draws elements from, offers much more rich complexities, especially in the characterization of Conrad. Curiously, Delacroix also painted “Episode from The Corsair”, which depicts a scene in which Gulnare confesses her love for the imprisoned pirate and offers to kill the Pasha, so that he may be freed. Conrad and Gulnare actually have a bit of a fling, and she’s the one Conrad comes to rescue, even though his true love is still Medora. Conrad even betrays Medora with a kiss to Gulnare, and there we have our symbolic gesture of the inner conflict. Still, the Byronic hero is a sort of bad boy with a hidden virtue—a cunning, suave, foolhardy, dashing, and gallant man of questionable morals but not entirely reprehensible. As Conrad, Marcelo Gomes was the epitome of debonair in Wednesday’s matinee. My friend Robin and I were DYING because it’s sort of a screwball role and requires some amount (but not too much) mindfulness not to ham it up to the point of buffoonery, but Gomes was brilliant. Chivalrous but also adorably preposterous, it made sense with the absurdity that is Le Corsaire, and his acting made it infinitely more enjoyable. He makes it so easy to forget about how illogical ballet can be, because regardless of what’s happening on the stage, there’s always something gratifying when you can see someone enjoying what he’s doing to the fullest.

Equally relishable was the epic slave run of James Whiteside as Ali, scampering into the wings with arms outstretched to the sides, head tossed back—it was magnificent. Together with Gomes and Gillian Murphy as Medora, they performed the central pas de trois the best I’ve ever seen—I was actually quite moved. Sometimes performed as a pas de deux for galas, this except is performed way too much for competitions and galas all over the world, so a variety of videos exist on the Internet in overabundance. The standards are high and the tolerance is low (Adolphe Adam’s score will haunt you for the rest of your life), so I don’t say this lightly, but Gomes/Murphy/Whiteside were truly wonderful. Such gracious, steadfast, and tender partnering from both Gomes and Whiteside and good heavens, Murphy’s got moxie. She looked so radiant and yet calm—she does all of the difficult turns and tricky steps without an ounce of trepidation. There are perhaps more refined dancers, but there are a great deal less who can dance the way she can. While so many dancers obsess over the pursuit of perfection, Murphy dances within her own mind and body, which gives her the freedom to play with her technique. She does things differently and it’s wonderful like multiple pirouettes with her arms simultaneously (and slowly) floating  up over her head, which is one of the hardest things to coordinate while your body is turning because it can so easily throw you off balance. She’s a riot in the best possible way and holds her own against the bravado of the men, which is typically what Corsaire is designed to do—show off the men.

Any ballet that can be described as “swashbuckling” is going to make me suppress a downcast gaze accompanied by a disgruntled slump of the shoulders, but if I had to see Le Corsaire every few years it would certainly be at ABT. The current production is on loan from Teatro Colon from Buenos Aires, and the costumes are indeed quite beautiful. Choreographically, there’s not too much one can do to Corsaire, though I think the moment where Ali and Conrad share an exchange and then all of a sudden Conrad bursts into consecutive pirouettes a la seconde is strangely placed behind a “v” of pirates, obscuring a relatively pointless insertion of a bravura step anyway. Also, one of the lifts in the bed…bed-grotto(?) scene was awkward looking, with Medora inverted overhead Conrad and clinging to his shoulders in a push-up position, and then she lifts one arm, which was hidden by her dress and looked like pilates or figure skating (and not even good figure skating!). But, none of that really matters and ABT’s Corsaire is a relatively smooth sailing ship as they say, and I even liked it better than DonQ. I could even love it…if anyone decides to reinvent Le Corsaire in a way that is truly romantic in the manner of Lord Byron, with more anguish for our beloved hero Conrad, and a tragic ending. Just a thought!

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ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

So I helped myself to the buffet of talent that is American Ballet Theatre for a second helping of the mixed repertory program. I wondered if perhaps another viewing might change my mind on Mark Morris’s Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes, and it didn’t. My first impressions are generally stubborn, but not entirely unforgiving—I thought Joseph Gorak’s performance in one of the leading roles was some of the most beautiful dancing I’ve ever seen. Critics don’t like to toss around the word “perfection” but in this alabaster reverie he ascends to something beyond flawless. The unwavering control of his pirouettes, generously presenting his leg forward and then to the side commanded the audience’s attention in a way rarely seen by mere technically impressive dancing—it’s the way his affluent technique serves his artistry that makes it so spellbinding to watch him. New Yorkers have been talking about Gorak for a few years now and he’s also made a name for himself as a winner of the Erik Bruhn Prize, and I generally try to avoid hype but this time everything that’s being said about him is true. I even remember watching ABT in rehearsal for Swan Lake last year and noticing him, upon which I turned to my friend Robin and asked: “Who is that?!” Just stunningly gorgeous and it’s going to be really exciting to see where his career takes him.

I suppose what I do take away from watching Drink is that you a dancer’s quality of movement can really catch the eye. Two of my teachers who also attended opening night (and also in town specifically for A Month in the Country—I’m not crazy, THANK you) noticed the same dancer for his beautiful legs and soft landings and by process of elimination we’ve deduced that the dancer in question is Thomas Forster. With a softer, lyrical choreographic tone, it’s the men in particular who really get to shine in Drink because we don’t often get to see these qualities encouraged in male dancing—if only the same could be said for women in stronger, airborne roles but I digress. The point is, it’s quite easy to find Drink intriguing simply by letting the eye wander and fall upon whatever it happens to see, but I maintain that without a more definitive overall concept, it’s just not dissimilar enough from other Morris dances. And call me crazy but I really don’t like arbitrarily titled work. It’s not that a title has to beat you over the head with symbolism or explicit details, but there is a point when a title is so abstruse it doesn’t connect the content to the observer. It’s a pet peeve of mine because I don’t find it clever or deep to alienate an audience before something even begins.

Meanwhile, I thought I loved Julie Kent in Month, but everything changed when I saw Hee Seo in the same role. Her partnership with David Hallberg has been blossoming and they were breathtaking together here. It’s been one of the definite highlights of MET season for me thus far and the pas de deux between Natalia and Belaiev, when they first gave in to indulging their feelings for one other, had me on the verge of tears. We know what to expect with Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet but this was an entirely different heartache and layered with much more complex emotions that are incredibly relatable. This was really my first time seeing Seo (a late starter by the way, at age twelve!) in a true blue principal role, and I had no idea how amazing she is as a dramatic ballerina. She had the facial expression of a spoiled, indulgent aristocrat both flirtatious and austere, but her suffering in the blasé felt so real to me that I couldn’t help but feel sorrow and sympathy for her. Hallberg proved to be a vivacious Belaiev, and it’s no secret that comparisons have often been drawn between him and Sir Anthony Dowell, the role’s originator, famous for seamless transition from one movement to another and ludicrously long lines. Together, they’re magical and I think this will go down—albeit quietly—as one of the most outstanding performances this season. I can’t stress enough that with one performance remaining, it’s not to be missed. It’s a shame because I don’t know that a revival would be in the cards anytime soon because I’m not convinced Month received as much attention as it should have, but ABT boasts other ballerinas that I think would be fascinating in the role of Natalia Petrovna. Initially, I said Vishneva, but one of my teachers mentioned Gillian Murphy—who dances Ashton VERY well—and I concurred that Murphy would be fabulous. Veronika Part would be a compelling choice and even Stella Abrera, who was perhaps the most engaging actress of all in the first night’s cast as the maid Katia could be equally provocative.

Coincidentally, Abrera performed the opening lead in Symphony in C, and she was a radiant beauty who exhibited patience and grace in every step, though never behind the music and nicely partnered by Eric Tamm. Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes descended from the heavens for the second movement, though I actually found myself missing Veronika Part’s soulful rendition of the adagio while Semionova was a little perfunctory; she’s a technical phenom but sometimes appears as though she’s checking off a list of shapes and lines she has to create and it didn’t strike me as poetic as Part, who dances Symphony in C like a ghostly queen, the world around her fading in and out of reality. The third movement starred the jumping wunderkinds Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the male half of the pair being one I especially adore for his unconventional physique, having a stockier build with the most muscular legs known to ballet and he certainly knows how to use them. There’s always been more diversity in body type amongst male dancers than female, but it’s both necessary and exciting to see anyone who breaks the mold and dances within his/her own body. Lastly, the fourth movement was its usual, exciting, grand finale self, led by Sarah Lane and Sascha Radetsky with great vigor and lovely smiles.

Okay, so the fourth movement was still a hair slow to me—but let me explain. Georges Bizet briefly uses a rhythm of two eighth notes, a dotted eighth and a sixteenth, which equals…Answer: a galop, which you may not necessarily know by name but it’s a rhythmic structure used a lot in ballet just like mazurka, polonaise, waltz, tarantella, etc. There are galops in Coppélia, Sylvia, Giselle…so if all the popular girls have them why not Symphony in C? I doubt Bizet used a galop rhythm intentionally, but it does occur during the men’s first entrance when they perform a series of sissonnes and I do think it conjures images of chivalrous knights on the backs of mighty steeds leaping through the air. The thing about galops too is that they are often comically fast, and when the fourth movement is really taken at a blistering speed it drastically changes its temperament to something much more gallant, a quality that dies with a slower tempo. If you want to go nuts, I’d recommend finding a recording with Jean Martinon conducting because musically, he gives it the life I think it deserves. However, realistically, a Martinon tempo isn’t possible, but the closer a company can get to galop-ing, the better. ABT isn’t actually too far off with what I’ve been hearing, and each performance of Symphony in C is looking more and more crystalline. The matinee performance even enjoyed a surprise second curtain call so they’re dancing it well and don’t let my musical preferences ruin it for you. You really should be seeing Seo/Hallberg on Thursday night anyway.

ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson

18 May

My time in Boston actually poisoned me with some doubts, as the penultimate leg of this journey was in fact the only time when I questioned whether zigzagging nearly ten thousand miles across the country to see ballet was worth it. My arrival in New York was without fanfare (as if anybody gets that besides the Royal Family anyway) and bedraggled, I crawled into the city relieved to have all the traveling be over with. Regardless of what happens next—not to mention the insurmountable mountain of work left to be done—I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, privileged to call this place home even for a few weeks. Still, traveling comes with its baggage and mine came in the form of Onegin, as the production on loan from the National Ballet of Canada seems to have crossed the US with me. Nearly two months ago I saw Onegin on San Francisco Ballet, and now (probably en route back to Toronto) here it is in New York with American Ballet Theatre, the ballet that has come to define John Cranko’s choreographic legacy. Adapted from Aleksander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko masterfully distilled important plot devices from the novel, selected infinitely danceable music, and created a captivating ballet. The only real problem with it is that it rides quite heavily on the acting abilities of the lead dancers, a quality that has become regrettably rarefied in this age of extremely technical ballet. However, Onegin reminds us of the power of subtleties and the dramatic impact of theatre. Also crucial is chemistry, which Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes have in spades, a virtually legendary partnership that I had even heard about through the grapevine long before I ever set foot on New York soil/concrete/asphalt—whatever.

This was my first time to see the sensational Vishneva, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre. I had some reservations because I’ve experienced a disillusionment to the current Russian style of ballet, which in my opinion has become a grossly distorted version of what Vaganova training intended to be and raises several questions about what makes for good training and good teaching. However, artists do emerge, and Vishneva is like no other. She can jump and she can move fast, hurtling herself into Cranko’s menagerie of immaculate lifts without hesitation and for all her limberness, she doesn’t abuse it. She certainly gives the full range but uses that to her advantage to add depth to her performances and really flesh out the characters she portrays. As Tatiana, the gentle soul who goes from lovelorn to crown jewel, she maintains an engaging presence throughout, coloring it with all the hues of innocence, heartbreak, nobility, and inner turmoil. It’s a relatively simple story of a young woman falling in love with a man who rejects her, and a passage of time reveals her marriage to another, as the original object of her affection futilely attempts to win her back. Watching Vishneva has a sense of living through every moment with her and the final duet in which she rejects Onegin was a ping-pong match of “Do it! Wait—stop! Get him! Don’t do it! Eek! You go girl!” and the final image of her alone on stage, staring off into the distance is an arresting one, lips pursed with a grim solace. It’s appropriate for a ballet with no happy ending, no forgiveness or reconciliation, which is so satisfyingly discomforting.

Onegin is kind of a male dancer’s ballet though, and more importantly, a great actor’s ballet, o which Gomes gave the master class. You love to hate to see him as a reprehensible character, and even the way he first appears, stalking in the background like a panther was alluring yet eerie, with an air of mystery that makes you want to know more about this man. There’s a moment in the opening solo where he steps into an arabesque and reaches out with one arm and recoils it back in a seductively feline way and really makes it a predatory gesture. Even the beginning of the famous mirror pas de deux, when Tatiana dances with a specter of an imaginary Onegin, of course I knew he was going to appear but I nearly ducked underneath my chair to hide anyway when he did, because Gomes hovered behind her reflection with this spooky, really menacing posture. I do so love the mirror pas de deux—transformation is an iconic theme in ballet for women, but hardly ever for men. Giselle turns into a Wili, Nikiya a shade, and even Cinderella gets a fancy new dress, but the bread and butter role has to be Odette/Odile, and Onegin/Onegin’s visage can be seen as something of an inverse. Just like how Odile appears only briefly to dispatch her trickery, Onegin’s reflection is the ephemeral, deceptive one, but is instead the idealization. However, without a dramatic costume change and because of the realistic story, the differences have to be tempered with both showmanship and subtlety—he can’t just emerge a valiant gentleman because he still has to retain certain qualities and characterization of the real man.

I wasn’t nearly as engrossed by the acting of Isabella Boylston and Jared Matthews, both fine dancers but perhaps miscast with Vishneva/Gomes. The relationship between Olga (Boylston) and Lensky (Matthews) has to be believable because its perceived breakdown sets the events in motion for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. I find Boylston charming enough as Tatiana’s coquettish sister, but actually I think the relationship between her and Vishneva’s Tatiana is what I didn’t find plausible. They certainly don’t look alike and it’s not that siblings have to resemble each other, but each dancer’s unique physicality and portrayal of their respective characters made it apparent that they had nothing in common, and even the most divergent of siblings still have some thread of similarity indicative of kinship. Even Tatiana feels the need to protect Lensky, begging him not to duel with Onegin, but her relationship with Olga is what makes that powerful. Matthews’s Lensky is a stand-up guy, and I found his solo prior to the duel quite moving, smooth as satin and wrought with despondency, but I couldn’t help feel that the sorrow was more based in a resignation to die, rather than anguish at the horrifying idea of aiming a pistol at his friend. When it comes to theatrics you have to make the audience wait for it, and I prefer to see Lensky with both poignancy and valor. In San Francisco, when Joan Boada’s Lensky fell to the ground, it was like my world had shattered and I had to fight back the tears.

It’s really important for performers not to give too much away when they know what’s going to happen next. It’s an area where Gomes excels; that first release of his head and upper back right after he kills Lensky is the first, fleeting sign of remorse and vulnerability, but when he returns in the third act he still has remnants of that pompous cynicism which he brought to the previous acts. When Onegin sees a matured and married Tatiana (Vishneva is a stunner in red, by the way), Gomes allows for the decay of that exterior to happen, rather than making it obvious. This is another moment I find fascinating because of its likeness to Giselle’s mad scene—although we see the events he relives take place behind a scrim, the gestures of reaching out to the phantoms of his past and burying his face in his hands have to be done with the same amount of integrity. At long last, when he and Tatiana are finally alone, do we see him completely disintegrate into a pitiable wretch, and the differing perspectives on the source of his regrets make for a roller coaster as Tchaikovsky’s music runs away with histrionics. Is Onegin apologetic for hurting Tatiana? Rueful of killing Lensky? Or shamefully wanting what he now can’t have…it’s certainly a mixed bag and if you have the magnetism and emotional capacity of Vishneva/Gomes, you may as well go for broke and do it all.

As the super secret formula for superlative storytelling continues to elude modern day choreographers (to a certain extent), I love that Onegin can still be so enthralling and relevant—I’m now more excited than ever to see Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a matter of days, which is going to provide an interesting contrast on a similar time period of early 19th century Imperial Russia. The only problem with doing Onegin and Month so closely to one another though is that casting is too formulaic. Some of the same principal couples of Onegin are cast as the leads in Month, and unfortunately, Vishneva/Gomes not among them. It’s a shame for Vishneva in particular because I think Month is more centered on Natalya Petrovna’s quiescent distress and I would have loved to seen her portrayal. Count me a fan.

Cast thy vote for MARCELO!

29 Aug

All right kitties, it’s crunch time because we have a Herculean task in front of us—‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer,’ is up for “Project of the Month” at IndieWire and is in need of our help. Yes, OUR help. Through online voting, ‘MARCELO’ is one of four documentaries competing for a consultation with the Tribeca Film Institute—an invaluable opportunity to maximize the efficacy and quality of the documentary. No matter the depth of the material or the talent of everyone involved in the project, it’s never a bad idea to have an editing eye take a look—I mean, how ferociously would you compete if you were selected to be on an online ballot to have Tim Gunn assess and overhaul your wardrobe? Even if you considered yourself to be trendy and fashionable, we all know you’d be clawing tooth and nail for bits of wisdom from Tim Gunn. It’s now up to us balletomanes to roll up our tights and do everything we can to ensure ‘MARCELO’ stands a chance to win a “guide to style.”

Due to my reverence of free will, I don’t like to invoke my powers of persuasion (a black magic I inherited from my mother), but I would like to point out that helping this documentary isn’t just for Marcelo, or even ballet—it’s also for you! It’s safe to say that we all have people in our lives who don’t “get” ballet and thus render themselves incapable of understanding a passion for it. When I first requested/demanded/begged for pledges to assist in funding ‘MARCELO’ I had written that documentaries often highlight things that go unseen or are underappreciated, and in the grand scheme of things, ballet has had an incredibly difficult time in entering every day discussion. Especially in the U.S. where the arts are treated as hobbies and are thus seen as unprofitable, they’re undermined by a cycle that systematically oppresses the cultivation thereof. In this country, it’s the complete opposite for sports, where athletes are easily the most venerated figures. It’s reflected in the current standings of the poll, where the documentary about Greg Louganis has a sizable lead. Now, diving is far from being regarded as a lucrative sport, but it does enjoy extensive coverage every Olympics, and medal winning athletes win the hearts of millions. As a multiple gold medalist, Louganis’s success is easily conveyed to the public because of its measurability—the average person can’t tell you exactly what dives he performed, but they can tell you he has gold medals.

Now, this isn’t about comparing the two films or discerning whether diving or ballet is better because that comparison is silly (also, I love to watch diving. Not nearly as much as ballet, but it’s one of my favorite Olympic sports to watch. And indoor volleyball—talk about anxiety!). I just want to point out that measurable success doesn’t really apply to the arts, and there are no gold mementos to immortalize defining moments. In the arts, those moments live and die in the hearts and memories of people, sometimes being passed on in stories like an oral tradition. Not surprisingly, a healthy addiction to those memories, paired with a desire to create new ones is what keeps us coming back for more. It’s funny when people say they don’t “get” ballet because it’s hard for me to conceptualize how someone could have an aversion to an experience that can be so meaningful. This is why exposure is critical—though “diving-omanes” (not a word) surely lament at the lack of coverage of diving in the off-Olympic years, ballet gets a grand total of…nothing.

Yes, there has been a certain proliferation of ballet in popular culture lately, with films like Black Swan and Mao’s Last Dancer, as well as television shows like Breaking Pointe, Chance to Dance, and Bunheads, but I theorize that the aforementioned attempt to fit into molds that coincide with trends that the target audiences relate to, rather than find a way to connect what ballet IS to the audience—without manipulating its image (where are the films of performances, or the Vail International Dance Festival, or Jacob’s Pillow?). However, I have to admit that this is an uninformed assessment because I live in the Dark Ages and don’t even have a television, and am just basing my opinion on what I’ve heard from peers. Still, what we can crudely deem as “healthy exposure” of ballet is lacking, and an honest-to-goodness documentary like ‘MARCELO’ is just what we need. To see the man himself? Of course. But also, the success of that documentary can help inform people around us as a beacon of “healthy exposure,” and the more those people understand about ballet, the MORE THEY UNDERSTAND ABOUT YOU. YES, YOU. And don’t you want that image to be truthful?

So—the success of ‘MARCELO’ obviously contributes to ballet’s presence in current events, thus giving us an opportunity for validation because the more audiences it reaches as a documentary of interest, the more chances there are for the people around us to see it, to learn something, and to go from telling us “you’re crazy” to “you’re a balletomane—cool!” (okay, they probably won’t use the word “balletomane” because it’s archaic, but you get the idea). Quoth the Wicked Witch of the West: “fly my pretties, fly!” and take to your social media outlets and get the votes going! Go as far as telling your non-ballet friends to vote, just as a favor because you want them to understand something important to you! And don’t assume that posting a link on your Facebook profile or on your Twitter isn’t going to do much anyway—this blog’s readership is proof of the exact opposite. Were it not for a handful of tweets and Facebook posts that got me started, I’d be sitting in a dark corner writing about ballet with nobody to read or care about my musings…so for better or worse, I like being in the business of miracles.

We have until Friday (8/31–only two days!)—so remember, a vote for ‘MARCELO’ is a vote for you! Follow the link, vote (duh!), and share, share, SHARE!

Vote for ‘Project of the Month’ at IndieWire!

P.S. Are you sharing yet? You better be.

‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer’—this one’s for the boys…

17 Jul

I have a problem. So there’s this Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of a documentary, ‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer’—fantastic, right?! So, fun fact, there are almost one hundred and eighty backers that have pledged well over two-thirds of the $30,000 needed for the project, which is great! And kind of odd…had thirty thousand people donated one dollar, this would be a done deal, and the same goes for six thousand donating five dollars, or three thousand having donated ten. So why is it that a mere one hundred and eighty comprise the backbone thus far? Is the reach of ballet really so small? Are balletomanes apathetic? Poor? Does my math suck? Of the millions of ballet lovers worldwide, is this the best we can do? My mind is racing with questions as to why something that should be relatively simple didn’t happen instantaneously—although, I suppose patience is a virtue (unfortunately, it has a tendency to not be one of mine).

Sociological inquiry into the ethos of crowd-funding aside (whew!), there’s something larger at hand here. Forget for a moment who the documentary is about and consider what the topic is—the male ballet dancer. It’s not that danseurs are elusive, but they are massively underrepresented in society’s understanding of ballet. It’s even written into the culture and choreography of ballet itself; when a man partners a woman, he is to “frame the picture” so to speak. However, something I find interesting is that while ideals for women have changed over time to see a proliferation of higher extensions, the danseur has almost quite literally, disappeared. Of course in partnering, he is going to be obstructed from view on occasion, either by the ballerina or a face full of tulle, but the rise of the six o’clock arabesque penchée (no pun intended) for example, means that we see less of him when the ballerina’s leg moves in front of his face, or even block much of his torso, reducing the effect of his épaulement. These days, perhaps the photo has been rendered inappropriate for the frame—after all, if the danseur isn’t a part of the picture, then the craft of partnering has moved into the realm of puppetry. While young girls are green with envy when they see a ballerina hit that line, plotting schemes to achieve that same look for themselves, and audiences delight in an iconic pose that is immediately impressive, the erosion of the image of the ballerina’s partner goes unnoticed. It’s also easy to forget that the modern penchée is a late twentieth century construct in an art form that dates back to hundreds of years before, and that in changing the aesthetic of the step, the ballet now has changed its meaning too. In other words, for the majority of ballet’s existence, such “unbalanced” pictures in a pas de deux would never have occurred. Whaaat?!

This…wouldn’t have happened in most of ballet’s lifetime! Photo ©Gene Schiavone

Perhaps in the U.S., the issue is encouraged—or exacerbated—by the prominence of Balanchine who so famously said: “ballet is woman.” As sexist as that sounds, I actually think we can’t have a problem with it because he choreographed his ballets on women that inspired him, and to demand that he create more roles for men would have been far worse a crime than a mere sexist opinion, because it would have forced a hand upon his identity as an artist. It was never Balanchine’s responsibility to eliminate sexism in society—it’s the audience’s responsibility to approach the ballet without it, and enjoy his glorification of women as simply that, sexist or not (let’s not forget that women dancers have their own host of challenges like nurturing individuality, competition amongst the ranks, etc.). Still, Balanchine’s views have obviously had a profound influence in ballet in the U.S. and far from combat it, there is just a need to put forth different ones, and in doing so, highlight the male dancer. Is it too much to ask of ballet to change the current aesthetic or perhaps Balanchinian approach? Yes. I’m of the opinion that you can’t change people’s minds about anything and that you can only educate them with the hope that information will inspire a new perspective. Is it too much to ask for a few dollars to support a paradigm of something that could inspire a new perspective? It better not be! This is why documentaries are often made, isn’t it? To illuminate upon things that often go unappreciated? Like plankton or photosynthesis…

Meanwhile, documentaries are also made to record something rare or a phenomenon, and that would be Marcelo Gomes. Virtuoso dancer, gracious partner, stage presence…the list of accolades go on and on. You don’t achieve the rank of principal of ABT without a remarkable amount of dedication and talent, and really, any one of the principal dancers could probably be the subject of a fascinating documentary. These are people who lead extraordinary lives, and to document them is also important so that audiences can see them as people. Again, with bodies and technique having changed so much over the past couple of centuries, not to mention training beginning earlier and earlier, dancers lead lives that are practically inconceivable to the general public. Just as ballet has changed so much, the needs of the audience have changed as well and while it may have been chic to be an enigmatic superstar in the past, it’s quite possible that—especially in this age of technology—humanization of our idols is more crucial than ever, and I can’t think of a finer dancer to idolize than Marcelo. At least for me, when I saw him dance in New York, I hadn’t been so inspired by a performance since I saw Tamara Rojo in Manon, back in 2009, which just so happens to be what I still consider to this day, my life changing event. We’re talking on an epic scale, like Sir Frederick Ashton and Anna Pavlova, which if you know me, is just about the highest praise I can give.

So, I don’t like to solicit my readers (thanks to traumatic experiences in high school of going door to door asking for donations for the marching band—one house even had a sign that said “solicitors will be eaten”), but I implore you to take action! Don’t let this film slip through the cracks when its contribution to ballet can do something for the greater good. Set a few dollars aside…skip a meal if you have to—wait, don’t do that—but avoid eating out a night or two and you’ll easily have five, ten bucks to spare in no time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little or a lot—it’s times like these when I like to remind myself that pyramids are built from the bottom up, one brick at a time. People, let’s be the foundation, shall we?

Visit the Kickstarter page for ‘Marcelo Gomes: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer,’ a documentary film by David Barba and James Pellerito. Pass Go, collect $200 (or $2—whatever!) and donate!

My first ‘Swan Lake’

27 Jun

Now that my pulse has returned to normal, I think I can write a competent review of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. The Wednesday evening cast had Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette/Odile and Marcelo Gomes as Siegfried. Though I had some idea of what to expect having watched the dress rehearsal, I didn’t expect myself to get so caught up in the whole spectacle! By the end of their white swan pas de deux there may have been a tear in my eye, by the end of the third act I had already forgotten about some of the things I don’t like about Kevin McKenzie’s particular production, and by the fourth I was a few blips away from a heart attack. In short, I had a blast and Gillian and Marcelo absolutely killed it. I sort of hate the crudeness of that phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the magic that happened on stage in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Since I prefer to talk about good things, I’m going to keep all the complaints to this one paragraph and be done with it so I can rave like a lunatic. I still don’t like the blatancy of McKenzie’s staging, and feel the prologue where you see von Rothbart transform Odette ruins a few things like her entrance in Act II, where you don’t see her change from a swan into a human but it’s symbolized by a single leap in flight. It’s a much more poetic entrance, and even von Rothbart’s entrance as a human sorcerer in the third act has more excitement and drama than what we see in the prologue (seriously, ask the music). There’s also a lot of choreography during the overtures which I didn’t like because the overtures are in fact a part of the experience of going to the ballet—they offer a reprieve from the action, a moment to absorb the music and even process what you’ve seen or are about to see. It almost felt like McKenzie was trying to add to the story, but the result was a ballet super-saturated with superfluous dance. I appreciate that he wanted to develop the plot, but I wish he picked elements that would actually contribute, and choreographed in a way that was more than just haphazardly stringing steps together because some of the corps patterns and pas de trois work had me constantly wondering what I was supposed to be directing my attention to. And choreography has to be more than just a sequence of steps that hits the obvious accents, because the art of phrasing necessitates more thoughtfulness. Also, I like a tragic end so the apotheosis where Odette and Siegfried are reunited in heaven is questionable for me, not to mention the fact that we see that after an excruciatingly long death scene for von Rothbart. I would be happy to see the suicide leaps simply be the end!

Meanwhile, I’m ambivalent about the maypole in Act I. I wasn’t bothered by it, but I would like to point out that Frederick Ashton’s use of a maypole in La Fille mal Gardée is far superior in every respect. I helps that ribbons are a motif in La Fille, but Ashton’s use of it has more charm and creativity in weaving it together. So, I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that ABT should do La Fille. Last week I had a chance to speak with Ashtonians Karen Eliot and David Vaughan (author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets and the companion website, the Ashton Archive), who both agree the company would be lovely in La Fille.

But I digress—the dancing throughout Swan Lake tonight was superb by the entire cast. Gillian was especially bewildering and I was quite moved by her Odette. I know many like their Odette’s fragile, but Gillian’s has a bit of diva in her and sometimes it’s nice to see an Odette that gives some meaning to her title as Queen of the Swans. She still gave us delicacy, but I enjoyed seeing that melt away as her pas de deux with Siegfried continued, as if her trust in him were blooming in front of our eyes. She of course delivered the fireworks in style as Odile, capitalized by one of the most inconceivable series of fouettés I’ve ever seen. I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it is to coordinate moving your arms WHILE pirouetting, but to give some idea, dancers center pirouettes by supporting themselves with their backs, which is also where arm movements must originate. Many people instinctively move their arms from their shoulders, but in ballet this looks superficial and can also make the torso appear very stiff. However, somehow Gillian has figured this all out and can do a moving port de bras a la seconde while turning, and the effect is breathtaking. I remember seeing her try this in a video from the Vail Festival, and thought she was just sort of fooling around, but she’s obviously perfected it and bravely did it tonight in her only Swan Lake this season (alternating them with triple pirouettes of course). While I’ve aligned myself in the school of thought that believes things that already have a name need not be named again (I’m looking at you “B-plus,” aka, “attitude a terre”), these should be called “Murphy turns.” (seen at 0:21 below)

I have to say that after seeing her voluptuous, Renaissance Titania, and now her exciting Odette/Odile, I have fallen in love with Gillian Murphy. She has a wild side and I can’t get enough of it! When Odile has the audience in the palm of her hand, tricking Siegfried is almost an afterthought.

As for Siegfried—what can I say about Marcelo? Oh, that he’s a gracious partner, has fabulous technique (the way he rolls through his feet when coming down from relevé in his Act I solos is DIVINE and highly underappreciated), the finest of acting skills, and a million dollar smile. I’m pretty sure even all that isn’t enough praise, but it’s impossible to not love it when someone dances their heart out. It’s such an appropriate quality to have as Siegfried because with just the right amount of naïveté it makes the idea of love at first sight believable, which is crucial for his first encounter with Odette. The same characteristic can be magnified to become tempestuous and foolhardy, making the scam Odile and von Rothbart pull off on him also authentic. Sure, Siegfried is a chump, but you do empathize with him because we’ve all had a taste of deception in our lives and know how horrid and bitter it is. Thus, Marcelo’s Siegfried is one we can easily forgive in Act IV, which succeeds in only intensifying Odette’s amnesty. It’s dangerously close to being more drama than the soul can handle, but despite my aversion for vulnerability, precariousness, and the pearly gates of Heaven, it’s an adventure worth dying for.

With only one more Swan Lake that I’ll be attending on Friday, the end of my time in New York looms on the horizon. Still, milestones have been achieved and I am happy to report that yes, I waited by the stage door to meet Marcelo and present him with a small gift, in person this time. This also proved to be a near-death experience when at one point while waiting, Catherine and I turned around to screams of young girls, finding ourselves practically swimming upstream in a stampeding horde of budding ballerinas. Still, what a treat for them to see their idols! Though Gillian was mobbed for what seemed like ages, she took her time for pictures and autographs. I patiently waited my turn to see Marcelo, because A. I’m not a teenage girl and B. I don’t need pictures or autographs (the stage door is in the parking garage and who even wants to be photographed in a subterranean dungeon with fluorescent lighting?). For me, the memories are enough and a great performance from a dancer is like a gift—they literally give themselves to us on the stage, which is why I felt the need to give back. Obviously, I avoided doing it in person the first couple of times, but I was almost mad at myself for being such a scaredy-cat. I’m almost thirty for crying out loud, I can’t have the same fear equivalent of a baby bunny! Wounding my own pride may have done the trick though because I was determined (and stubborn enough) to get over it, and so I did. I gave him his gift, had a lovely conversation, and he was incredibly gracious. Best of all, I didn’t feel crazy or stupid, and with Catherine as my witness, I got a hug!

It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago I had written “An Open Letter to Famous Dancers” and it’s even harder to believe I might’ve just achieved freedom from my fears. It appears as though many gifts went around tonight!