Tag Archives: margot fonteyn

A Simply Sibley Cinderella

11 Jul

I love libraries, and I hope you do too. My latest string of acquisitions includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. This pair of Royal Ballet dancers achieved such legendary status that books are written about them, like the coffee table tome also on loan from the library entitled Sibley and Dowell, which features photography by Leslie Spatt and text by Nicholas Dromgoole (which totally sounds like a Harry Potter name). With pages of gorgeous black and white photos, a few words from Dromgoole (hehe), and a great deal of transcriptions of interviews with Sibley and Dowell, the book offers great insight into the history and careers of these two dancers. Incidentally, in discussing differences between dancing wit the Royal Ballet and other companies, Dowell mentioned that in working with American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, ideas were shared but not a sense of humor. It then occurred to me to consider the prevalence of UK readership in regards to this blog—there may be some truth to those jokes I make about having a European sense of humor!

Anyway, Ashton’s Cinderella is widely regarded as the most prominent version today, and it is in fact the first full-length English ballet. There are two recordings of Ashton’s Cinderella available on film, both noteworthy for different reasons. The older one (filmed in 1957) is a made for television version featuring the illustrious Dame Margot Fonteyn (for whom the role was made, but due to illness, Moira Shearer debuted it instead). The film also has original cast member Michael Somes as the prince (Fonteyn/Somes being another legendary pairing in their own right) and the unique occasion of having Sir Fred himself and Sir Kenneth MacMillan as the Ugly Stepsisters. The very thought of Ashton and MacMillan (two gods of ballet choreography!) as the Ugly Stepsisters has me losing my mind, and although clips of this performance reveals a grainy, black and white film, that doesn’t detract from its historical significance. I’m not sure I understand complaints about the film quality anyway, as if people cared that the recently found footage of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes isn’t HD!

However, the original Ugly Stepsisters were actually Sir Fred and Sir Robert Helpmann, appearing in the debut on December 23rd, 1948. Twenty-one years later, Sibley and Dowell’s performance is filmed, and includes both Ashton and Helpmann in their signature character roles (also, Alexander Grant, the original Jester, appears in both films, which is quite the span since the 1948 debut!). The Ugly Stepsisters are characters often met with some controversy, because they’re these over-the-top, squabbling, vulture-like caricatures whose antics a lot of people find annoying. While I can agree with some of those complaints, I still think they’re necessary—without the Stepsisters, there isn’t much of a story! Ashton also paid tribute to the tradition of British pantomime (or “panto” as they apparently like to say), which dates back to the Middle Ages and almost always has campy characters played by men in drag. For me, the humor of Cinderella would just be incomplete, and there are such delicious moments when Sir Fred is in the role because he’s so willing to mock his own art. Nowhere else will you see Sir Fred, performing “the Fred step” with a complete disregard for aesthetics. Although, I suppose it’s possible part of what made the Ugly Stepsisters special may have died with the originators, something Sibley and Dowell might agree with, having said that getting to dance on the same stage with Ashton and Helpmann had a special sense of occasion.

While I’m notorious for an aversion to Prokofiev, I didn’t entirely mind the score. It helps that Ashton appears to have been heavily inspired by the music because it is some of the most unique choreography I’ve seen of his, and by unique I also mean wicked—especially the corps work. Much of the choreography for the corps de ballet is quite zippy and moves in unusual patterns, which fits Prokofiev’s music so well, and it’s hard to keep those lines clean when things are faster. Cinderella also has a difficult variation, where she has to do a series of flickering turns in a circle, not just once but twice, and just watching is dizzying enough. The ball pas de deux with her Prince is an interesting one, containing references to clock hands and the countdown to her midnight curfew. The way she beats her legs together midair mimics the seconds ticking away, and all kinds of straight limbs in arabesque and penchée indicate time’s influence on her allotment with the Prince. It’s not as though the shapes tell you exactly what time it is, but the way they’re jumbled together is an obvious statement as to how she loses herself in time as she is falling in love.

Cinderella’s Variation:

 

Cinderella Pas de Deux, with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg:

 

Speaking of the ball, however, it’s Cinderella’s entrance that is perhaps one of the finest moments, as she descends a staircase and simply bourées forward. The bourée being one of the most elementary of movements on pointe, it is often relegated as a way to get from A to B when a sort of shimmering, or floating effect is desired. Rarely does the bourée by itself get respect as a choreographed step, and this particular usage has to be up there with the most poetic instances of it (the other one I think of being Myrtha’s entrance in Giselle. Fokine’s The Dying Swan is of course all bourées, but is a piece that is really told through the arms rather than the feet)

Cinderella’s Entrance, with Margot Fonteyn:

 

As for Sibley and Dowell, they are of course the image of perfection in DVD. Dowell has been filmed numerous times but there is an unfortunate shortage of Sibley, so it’s a treat to even have just this one with her in a principal role. An elfin blonde, Sibley makes the role of Cinderella look completely natural, with gracious acting and strong balances (she had many an arabesque on pointe that were just brilliant, the trademark of classical lines and correct placement). It’s impossible to not love Dowell as well, even if the role of the Prince is not a particularly deep one. He is genuine, reserved, and elegant and quite young here. It wasn’t his first appearance on film (he danced Benvolio in the Fonteyn/Nureyev Romeo and Juliet), but his second and he even looked just a little shy. What’s also interesting is that the Prince’s solo has a lot of jumps in it, something that Dowell mentions not being his strength (and is completely evident when he spins a quadruple pirouette into a perfect extension of his leg to the side, maintaining a flawless center), and that he was happier with it after changes were made to it during a tour to Australia. It was also during that tour Sibley and Dowell had a humorous incident during a performance in which her costume got caught on his in a lift:

Dowell: I was trying to bring you down from a shoulder lift and your tutu caught on the hooks of my coat, and you were quite immovable, pinned to me like a brooch.

Sibley: You kept saying ‘Get down, get down!’ and I could only say ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

Dowell: Eventually we had to run off, or rather, I mean I had to run off, with you just dangling.

(Bonus pointes if you read the above with an accent! Unless you speak British-English, in which case I guess you were just reading it)

While we are without a more current production of Ashton’s Cinderella on film (though there has been outcry to have the BBC broadcast of the Cojocaru/Kobborg performance released on DVD), the Sibley/Dowell is more than sufficient—it’s stunning. The only thing missing (literally) is an entr’acte where the Prince searches the world for Cinderella and some critics lament that the omission of that scene eliminates character dances, although character dances, like Ugly Stepsisters can be controversial too; maybe you’re one of those people that finds them vile, time consuming, and a little racist…maybe not (boy, that’s a blog topic for another day—are character dances racist?). Regardless, despite pockets of Ashton all over the United States, for audiences in America our only chance to see it is to commence an odyssey to Chicago, and see the Joffrey Ballet, who added it fairly recently to their repertory in 2006. The rest of us can (and should) enjoy the Sibley/Dowell, and believe me when I say there are few things as sacrosanct as Georgina Parkinson’s Fairy Godmother!

Behind the scenes look at the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Cinderella:

 

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë

23 Jun

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).

At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.

The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.

Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.

Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:

Photo of original cast members Michael Somes (Daphnis) and Violetta Elvin (Lykanion) Photo ©Royal Opera House/Hulton Deutsch

The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:

The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.

Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.

The Royal Ballet in 1994; Vaughan also said that the costumes “look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy.” What do you think? Photo ©Robbie Jack/CORBIS

There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).

Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.

As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.

So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!

Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)

 

Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.

Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

The third installment of Swan Lake Month spotlights a supposedly special one, the performance of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with the Vienna State Opera.  Theirs is a legendary partnership and from what I can find, this Swan Lake, along with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet are the only commercially available full length recordings starring them.  There are a few more videos of various pas de deux that offer glimpses into the depth of their partnership, but the emotional involvement of a grand pas de deux just isn’t the same if you don’t get to see the context from which it was born.

Now I’m no Swan Lake connoisseur, but I really don’t think I liked this one.  I wanted to, because after all it is Fonteyn/Nureyev but there was a lot going on that didn’t sit well with my personal preferences.  This staging had choreography by Nureyev himself, and it should come as no surprise that this too would be the story of Prince Siegfried.  However, I think Nureyev took it just a wee little bit too far.  First of all, this was quite the hack job of Tchaikovsky’s score, which is fairly common for Swan Lake but there were some things that were just bizarre choices.  For example (and the easiest for me to pick out) is the use of the supplementary Pas de Deux music.  The pas de deux itself is used in Act III as intended, for Siegfried and Odile, however both variations and the coda are used in Act I, with the female variation being performed by an unnamed character at Siegfried’s party, the male variation being performed by Siegfried and the coda as a pas de cinq with Siegfried.  If it feels like I’m writing Siegfried as every other word, it’s because I pretty much am…Nureyev may as well have called his staging: SIEGFRIED! (and a swan). The juggling around of music is forgivable because like I said, it’s common in Swan Lake to sort of pick and choose…but while not a glaring flaw it wasn’t exactly favorable (I did however appreciate some of Nureyev’s choreography here, like in the female variation he has the dancer do some work in épaulée).

However, watching this Swan Lake has reinforced what I’ve long known to be true about Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; it is by far the most harmonious and precise interpretation of the music.  In fact, other than a few moments I wasn’t terribly impressed by Nureyev’s choreography.  While staying true to classical structure, I felt a certain lack of phrasing and smooth transitions between the phrases.  There were a lot of pauses in certain poses and not always musically accented…it felt like the choreography just wasn’t finding the right space in the score.  Speaking of space, there wasn’t much of the physical variety either; the Vienna State Opera corps de ballet was incredibly cramped and could barely keep from bumping into each other.

However, Nureyev is a compelling dancer.  I found his makeup garish (heavy on the blue eye shadow!) and while I understand the need for some exaggeration in stage makeup, it appeared that this was a version made for film, thus offering closer views.  As a “made for film” version, there was no audience and possibly no live audio track (though the faint scuffing of shoes could be heard if there was no music playing).  Still, there was an odd, slightly boyish charm about Nureyev paired with an interesting technique; I didn’t feel Nureyev’s technique was the purest and most refined—in fact, maybe even a little stiff—but there was a rawness to it that drew me in.  Similarly, it was Fonteyn’s emotional rawness that I enjoyed in her performance as Odette/Odile.  There was something genuinely magical about the way she would even tilt her head to rest on Siegfried’s shoulder, or when in the fourth act, Siegfried rushes in and ruffles the feathers of every swan until he finally finds his Odette, a heavy-hearted mix of grief and joy.  I also loved when she entered as Odile in Act III, she gave this perfectly timed shifty glance to Von Rothbart, a fleeting cue to let us know she’s an imposter before she begins acting like Odette.

As far as some differences are concerned, there is a pretty substantial truncation of soloist roles, like Von Rothbart, who essentially doesn’t dance at all.  Also, there is no Benno and even the maidens from which Siegfried is initially to choose his bride are lumped into one dance with no distinctions between them.  Act III becomes a traffic jam of divertissements, with the maidens, a few of the national dances (which now serve absolutely no purpose) and then the Black Swan pas de deux.  An interesting choice in Act III though was the omission of Odette—it’s Siegfried who gradually comes to the realization that Odile and Von Rothbart have duped him, again highlighting Siegfried’s internal dialogue.  Act II was mostly untouched (I think Nureyev added…surprise, a solo for Siegfried), and it seems most productions tend to leave the Ivanov-Gorsky choreography alone…I suppose it has the auspicious “no touchie” aura.  Nureyev’s Act IV, however, contains a strange ending in which Siegfried dies in a flood, unleashed by Von Rothbart by the lake.  It’s awfully melodramatic, and Nureyev was quite indulgent in his death, dark fabric billowing around him as the deadly water.  Each time I thought he was submerged and drowning, he came up again, still fighting and he even manages to cling on to a tree to see Odette flying away as a swan, before finally drowning.  It wasn’t an ending I found particularly satisfying or even all that tragic…but I also had the issue of trying to rationalize in geological terms how a lake could violently flood like that (conclusions included the breaking of a natural dam in what would have had to have been a fairly mountainous region, the breaching of a crater wall at a lake that formed in an extinct volcano, or a jökulhlaup…had Nureyev thought to set his Swan Lake near a glacier).

All in all, probably my least favorite of the three so far.  Perhaps my expectations were too high given the circumstances of a Fonteyn/Nureyev recording but while there were some wonderful moments but for various reasons I felt disengaged with the ballet as a whole.  I know looking for logic is somewhat futile in a classical ballet, but this was just too indulgent in Nureyev’s fancies…I’m all for expanding certain roles if necessary but not without purpose.  I have a feeling this probably isn’t on the top of the list when it comes to a woman’s favorite Swan Lake.  I suppose it’s a good one for the die-hard Fonteyn/Nureyev fan, and they have a truly genuine chemistry that shines in their pas de deux, but I suspect they’ve been better in other filmed performances.

 

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

This entry’s dedicatees are the wonderful Bag Ladies of The Ballet Bag, who have truly helped make my blog the…whatever it is today.  It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to increase readership and reach new audiences, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing…and look at me now!  Five readers!  Just kidding…I know there are more of you and I appreciate each and every click of a link that brings you here, but to the Bag Ladies go the heartiest thanks.  They were among the first to believe that something worthwhile is written here, and this is but a small token of appreciation.  Much obliged, Ladies…much obliged.

The Bag Ladies requested I do some more “detective work” like I did for the Black Swan grand pas de deux.  If you recall, it was a mess of information on the different variations, where they came from and a ‘where are they now?’ sort of deal.  At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another ballet mystery I would be able to research, but lo and behold one day it revealed itself to me—Les Sylphides.  In short, Les Sylphides is also a catastrophe.  At least for the Black Swan pas de deux, there was some logic behind substitutions that were made but there’s a lot to the history of Les Sylphides that doesn’t really make sense…like why is it sometimes called Chopiniana?  Tracing the lineage of this ballet is literally like collecting butterflies…we have to gather samples of the same species, note minute differences and determine whether any of it is significant or not.  So join me as I make a fool’s attempt at the Darwinian task of pinning sylphs and mounting them for display (a disturbing image, is it not?).

Library books in tow, my first order of business was analyzing the title.  The story  goes that when Michel Fokine originally choreographed the ballet for a charity performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, the title was indeed Chopiniana.  However, this ballet was set to a completely different selection of Chopin orchestrations by Alexander Glazunov, with the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 (trust me, you’re going to want to know the numbers) being a later addition, and pretty much the only piece from Chopiniana that survives in modern productions of Les Sylphides today.  Wait for it…Chopiniana had an entirely different theme!  Different theme, different music, different title…I’m pretty sure this constitutes a different ballet.  For this reason I would argue that Chopiniana refers to Fokine’s original character ballet, which is most assuredly lost (it is ballet history after all).  However, in his memoirs Fokine does provide some details about Chopiniana, which I shall quote below:

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 -In gorgeous costumes, a large ensemble performed Polish ballroom dances

Nocturne in F Major, Op.15 No.1 –The curtain opens disclosing Chopin sitting at the piano in a monastery on the island of Majorca, where during the night, the ill composer suffers nightmarish hallucinations.  He sees dead monks rising from their graves and slowly approaching him to the accompaniment of a monotonously beaten rain.  Frightened, he rushes away from the piano, trying to seek safety from the horrible visions.  He finds salvation in his Muse.  Again he sits at the piano and finds calm in the sounds of the Nocturne.

Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3 –(A wedding in a Polish village)  An unfortunate girl is being married to an elderly man whom she does not love.  In the course of the general dancing, her beloved finds his way to her.  As a result of his passionate pleas, she throws the wedding ring at the unwanted suitor and flees with her beloved.

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Hi, it’s me, Steve here and Fokine doesn’t describe the waltz in the manner that he did the other dances, only that it had Anna Pavlova (in a Taglioni costume, a la La Sylphide) and Michael Oboukhov (in a “very romantic black velvet costume” from the ballet Fairy Doll) dancing a pas de deux with “choreography [that] differed from all other pas de deux in its total absence of spectacular feats.”  Fokine goes on to describe the choreography that had “not a single entrechat, turn in the air or pirouette.  There was a slow turn of the ballerina, holding her partner’s hand, but this could not be classified as a pirouette because the movement was not confined to the turn but was used for a change of position and grouping.”  This sounds about in line with the Waltz we see in Les Sylphides today, but I can’t say for sure if it’s actually the same.

Tarantelle Op.43 –This was performed by Vera Fokina assisted by a large ensemble.  I tried to project the authentic character of the national dances which Vera and I had observed on our trip to Italy, when we studied them in detail on the island of Capri.

As you can see, Chopiniana was a plotless ballet in five tableaux, most of them depicting character dances, except for the Waltz.  So what does this mean?  For now, just remember three things: character dances, Alexander Glazunov orchestration, and it was performed by students at the Maryinsky.

Following is a video recording of the Russian National Orchestra performing Chopiniana, however this footage doesn’t contain the Polonaise and actually the order appears to be messed up (as if this wasn’t all confusing enough already) but for the record, the orchestra is playing Mazurka-Waltz-Tarantelle-Nocturne.  The order I have listed above is the official order of Chopiniana.

Things get messy the following year…in 1908, according to one text I have, Chopiniana was danced again at a Maryinsky benefit, under the title of Dances to Music by Chopin.  In 1909, a new version was performed, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin.  I’m not entirely sure, but by conglomerating information from several books, I believe this would be the same ballet Fokine refers to as Second Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique in his memoirs, and thus the prototype of Les Sylphides. Second Chopiniana had a new set of Chopin pieces for the score, orchestrated by Maurice Keller, while also retaining Glazunov’s orchestrated Waltz.  Fokine mentions a pretty funny story regarding the Waltz, which actually has an Etude in C Sharp Minor as the introduction.  This didn’t go well with one of the Maryinsky singers, Ivan Ershov (also a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music), who overheard it while walking by and threw a hissy fit in the middle of one of Fokine’s rehearsals.

“What are they doing?  What are they doing, these ballet people?” he began to yell in colorful tenor.  “They are combining an Etude with a Waltz!”

I always find it funny when musicians are so disagreeable when it comes to ballet…but even funnier was Fokine’s response:

“Ivan Vasilievich, this was not done by the ballet people.  Your director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazounov, has combined the Etude and the Waltz.  Go across the street”—the Conservatory of Music was located just across the street from the Maryinsky Theater—“and yell there.  And we will resume our rehearsal as soon as you leave.”

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

Anyway, from what I’m reading, this version actually had Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 too, but as an overture.  Here is the full listing of Chopin pieces used, and if I’m reading his memoirs correctly, the “glorious” cast who performed in the 1908 premiere at the Maryinsky (though don’t quote me on this):

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 (overture)

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

*Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 –Vaslav Nijinsky

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7 –Olga Preobajenska

*Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2 –Anna Pavlova

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Tamara Karsavina

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Now there’s a reason why the Mazurkas are starred.  For the woman’s Mazurka (danced by Pavlova), some productions today use the order goes as it is above, but in others the Mazurka comes after the first Waltz.  I couldn’t find any information as to why this is, and I’ll get to the man’s Mazurka later but I list the order above because the one film I could find of Les Sylphides that actually uses the Polonaise overture is a 1958 film of the Maryinsky.  So I’m assuming, without concrete evidence that the Maryinsky version is closest to what debuted in 1908.

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

So you would think, Les Sylphides pretty much has it together, right?  Silly mortal…you’d be very wrong.  Les Sylphides officially earned its title from Diaghilev, when it premiered in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (much of the cast from above was the same, except with Alexandra Baldina instead of Preobajenska).  Diaghilev purposely named it Les Sylphides to recall Marie Taglioni and La Sylphide, and there were even more changes to the orchestrations.  The newly orchestrated score is credited to Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Taneyev, Anatole Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnine and Nicolas Sokolov.  At this point, I have such a headache trying to sort this out I don’t WANT to know what’s different.  I could spend hours listening to actual scores and seeing if I can decipher any differences in the counter melodies, but I already drove myself to the brink of insanity trying to work on the man’s Mazurka, for you see, some productions use Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 and others use Mazurka in C, Op.67 No.3 and I was trying to find video of it and had a surprisingly difficult time of separating them.  The major companies I could find (Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, ABT) all used Op.33 No.3.  The only example I could find of Op.67 No.3 was this excerpt of the poet’s solo:

You could compare them for yourself, but it’s maddening.

Now as for that heinous mess of a score, according to a copy I borrowed of the piano music, this was the order as presented by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House:

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Notice the Polonaise is gone and that the placement of the Mazurka in D (the woman’s Mazurka) is also different.  The Prelude serves as a new overture, and the above arrangement can be heard in this performance by The Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in three parts:

*A Roy Douglas is credited with the arrangement…I’m going to bury my head in the sand for that one.

Well, this isn’t an exhaustive history, but I’m certainly exhausted by thinking about it.  Regardless of the finer details, after watching many (too many) videos of Les Sylphides, what I love about this signature Fokine ballet is how unpretentious it is…it requires the art of subtlety because there are so few virtuosic movements to inspire the typical audience response.  Fokine discusses this in his memoirs, in that he wasn’t looking to please the audience at all, in fact one of his goals with the piece was to prove he understood and could indeed choreograph classical dancing on pointe!  Fokine had some interesting thoughts on Nijinsky dancing the role of the poet, telling him not to admire himself and to simply admire the beauty of the Sylphs around him…but for more on that you’d have to read his memoirs, and speaking of the books that may or may not have been used in research for this post (I honestly can’t remember what bits of information came from what) here’s a list:

The Art of Enchantment, by Nancy Van Norman Baer & others

Birth of Ballets-Russes, by Prince Peter Lieven and translated by L. Zarine

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

Memoirs of a Ballet Master, written by Michel Fokine and translated by Vera Fokina

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

And just for giggles, here are other productions of Les Sylphides by the Bolshoi and Kirov that I watched in researching for this entry.  They didn’t really contribute much…but it was either that or hit the books again!

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Bolshoi in three parts:

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Kirov in four parts:

Moira Shearer

21 Sep

It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance.  Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones.  There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known.  I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.

The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives.  It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr.  I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked.  Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni?  Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.

I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.”  It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!).  At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding.  Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer.  I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days.  I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.

Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored.  It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence.  De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room.  This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen.  Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine.  Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately).  De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly.  It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?).  Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet.  It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…

It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances.  The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard.  Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no?  At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer.  Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well.  I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody.  The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them.  In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton!  I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.

(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)

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.

No Contrapposto for you

18 Sep

Upon the recommendation of my former ballet teacher Karena, I sat down, read about and watched Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.  All I can say is j’dore.  Of all the Ashton ballets I’ve been teaching myself about, this has officially become the one I want to see live the most.  This necessitates a trip to London, because it’s exclusively a part of the Royal Ballet repertory, but unlike the rizzle-frazzle Balanchine Trust, the Royal Ballet is kind enough to allow (or at least I hope they’re okay with) a user having put it on YouTube.  You know, YouTube is so much better than television these days…no commercial interruptions, shorter clips with easy access to related and recommended videos.  For those of us with squirrely attention spans, it’s fantastic.  There’s a lot of crap too, but it’s easy to avoid, no?  Just thought I’d say that.

Anyway, Symphonic Variations is set to César Franck’s piece of the same name, and surprisingly I don’t know all that much about Franck.  I might have played his Symphony in D…but who’s to know.  By virtue of an article Karena also forwarded to me, (which people should check out because it’s pretty extensive and there’s no Wikipedia entry on this ballet) I learned that the costumes and set design were done by Ashton’s “more-than-a-collaborator-BFF” Sophie Fedorovitch.  I had to chuckle when I read that both Ashton and Fedorovitch had an epiphany where they both realized they would be better at something than what they were doing.  Ashton a good dancer, realized he would be a great choreographer and Fedorovitch went from painter to costume/set designer.  This makes me want to throw tomatoes and baguettes at all those wingnuts that think you have to decide your entire future by the time you graduate college (or even scarier, sometimes before).  I love it when people realize as adults the different things they can do with their lives thus finding themselves in a world they never foresaw.

Kind of a pity that this wasn’t the first home grown British ballet to be created at Covent Garden, due to an injury to Michael Somes, so Robert Helpmann’s Adam Zero got that honor instead, but as Carlos Acosta’s papito would say, “if something bad happens, it’s always for a good reason!”  (No offence to Helpmann, but Adam Zero isn’t in The Ballet Goer’s Guide, while Symphonic Variations is.  Need I say more?)  During that period, Ashton revised, trimmed, edited, reworked, refined, and fine-tuned the details.  I’m reminded of the parallels between gemcutters and choreographers…in this case, taking some rough material and faceting it in such a way to show it off in its purest form.  You don’t have the bulk of the original stone (i.e. diamonds often lose around half their weight in the cutting process), but you’re left with its brilliant soul.  According to Dame Margot Fonteyn (who also danced in its debut), it was the purity of Symphonic Variations that made it Ashton’s masterpiece.  I’m inclined to agree.

Although plotless, it calls upon some imagery from classical Greek art, and overall I felt that a lot more in Symphonic Variations than I did in Balanchine’s Apollo.  Accordingly, Symphonic Variations has displaced Apollo as my favorite classical Greek-ish themed ballet.  However, the author of the article discusses Ashton’s use of the classical Greek contrapposto in the opening and ending pose (and throughout the ballet), grounded in the fact that Fedorovitch was well versed in art history, but I would actually argue against this.  I’m no expert, and I certainly fell asleep many times during my one and only art history class (the teacher mumbled and was so old he literally could have died at any moment.  Parthenon?  I think he was there.), one of the few things that I do remember is the contrapposto pose.  Although Ashton uses the idea of bearing all the weight on one leg with the other one relaxed, really the main characteristic of contrapposto is the way in which standing on one leg  displaces the hips and twists the shoulders, creating a flexuous line through the body instead of a straight, symmetrical one.  Obviously ballet dancers are taught not to sit in their hips and to lift lift lift, but in contrapposto there is waviness that is created by lifting and dropping certain sections of the body.  Although Ashton’s choreographed pose still conjures images of Greek statues, I say nay on the contrapposto.  I did get an A in art history and this is one of the few things I retained (in addition to cave paintings, the pharaoh’s striding pose which is very square with one flexed foot in front, and the pubic triangle of the Venus of Willendorf…you never forget when a hundred and fifteen year old man says “pubic triangle” to you) so you have to give me some credit here.

Anywhodle, I absolutely love the simplicity of the ballet, the geometry, the interplay, the way it comes full circle to begin and end with the same pose (thus making the neurotic happy), and the way in which dancers assume the instrumentation and mood of the music.  I actually read an article on a psychology website that talked about the euphoria we get from moving on the beat to music, because it pleases the brain’s pleasure circuits or something like that, and certainly Symphonic Variations is tapping on the same part of the noggin.  Balanchine was known for really pinpointing phrases in the music and having it show through his dancers, but I have to say that Symphonic Variations is more musical than anything I’ve seen of Balanchine, with even more accuracy and attention to the nuances of Franck’s composition.  Which might have something to do with there being more available space to work with, having only six dancers compared to Balanchine’s legions, but yeah…oh snap, I went there.

So here’s Symphonic Variations, performed by dancers of the Royal Ballet (Steven McRae, Roberta Marquez, Federico Bonelli, Belinda Hatley, Laura Morera and Ludovic Ondiviela), plus a short interview for some background info and the dancers talking about dying from dancing for twenty minutes straight (although sorry dude, it’s more like eighteen…seventeen and a half.)  User has embedding disabled so you’ll have to walk the extra mile and click the extra link.

Thanks Karena!

“Diana was no slut” – Mythology and Ballet

5 Aug

Today an odd series of coincidences happened…first, I went to OSU’s new Thompson Library, which is massive and sparkly with lots of windows and new computers and such, to borrow a book that contained an essay I was looking for (Toeing the Line: In Search of the Gay Male Image in Contemporary Classical Ballet).  I figured I might as well look for other materials, and checked the library catalog and also found Peter Stoneley’s A Queer History of the Ballet.  When I located that book, nearby was this wonderful photography book published by the Royal Opera House, on Sir Frederick Ashton (who is pictured on the back doing a jig as the hedgehog “Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” from his The Tales of Beatrix Potter ballet.  I have a feeling Sir Ashton and I are going to get along nicely).  When leaving the library, several books in tow I happened upon five (yes FIVE) four leaf clovers and a five leaf clover, all in this little patch that was less than a square foot.  It made me recall that I had a fortune cookie just two days ago that said “an unexpected event will bring you riches.”  Maybe the cookie meant the Ashton book, or maybe it meant the clovers…but I hope my luck continues. (and finds me a JOB or a position with Americorps!)

Part of me thinks the fortune cookie should have said "He who has all the luck in the world will never find job."  Maybe there is something to what that Siamese cat in Disney's Aristocats said..."Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg fu yung, fortune cookie always wrong."

Part of me thinks the fortune cookie should have said "He who has all the luck in the world will never find job." Maybe there is something to what that Siamese cat in Disney's Aristocats said..."Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg fu yung, fortune cookie always wrong."

Oh, and if you’re wondering “why the queer ballet reading?” That’s independent research for a SEKRET project that’s going to take light years to finish, but know that I fully intend to make it known to the world.

Back to Ashton, I had been meaning to get more into his work because I’m mostly intrigued by his ballet Ondine.  I became enamored with the myth of Undine thanks to a positively divine flute sonata by the German composer Carl Reinecke (although some might argue The Little Mermaid was my first exposure to an Undine-influenced story, but with a Disney-fied ending since Prince Eric doesn’t die).  The second movement of the sonata is this tornado of sixteenth notes in a key with 2 sharps, and a swarm of additional sharps, double sharps and naturals.  It also has a nice little key change to FIVE sharps and is a complete nightmare to read.  I do fancy fast music, but ironically it’s the slow melody in this Intermezzo that captivates me the most; in fact, it’s probably my favorite melody ever written for the flute.  I actually wish Reinecke’s Undine was turned into a short ballet of some kind…Hans Werner Henze’s score for Ondine is a’ight, but Reinecke’s sonata will always be my first love.  Plus, his sonata is romantic era so it’s a little more conducive to storytelling (although Reinecke didn’t have a Margot Fonteyn).  Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m switching between Undine/Ondine, Ondine is the anglicized version of Undine…so blame the Germans and Brits if you must, not me.  Anyway, I have a request for the world…someone out there, for the love of Billy Elliot, PLEASE choreograph a ballet to Reinecke’s Undine!  Just listen to virtuoso Emanuel Pahud play it (the aforementioned favorite melody begins at the 1:50 mark…le sigh.  The other 3 movements are also available from the same user.  It listens to the first movement too):

For whatever reason, I’m in a “myth-based ballet” phase these days.  Hence, my interest in Ashton’s Sylvia too, which I didn’t even know was based on a myth until flipping through the book quickly just today.  I’ve also been watching a lot of Diana and Acteon on YT, and I dig the coda.  It’s a catchy little number (well, I guess they all are…but I’m ranking it no.2 in my favorite codas list) and I finally located an mp3 of it to listen to while vacuuming (you’d be surprised how much more fun average chores are when you listen to ballet codas on your ipod as you do them.  I’m serious).  Although it’s conducted by Richard Bonynge, who I’m thinking hasn’t conducted this ballet live because he takes the Diana variation at light speed, and I can’t even imagine some poor ballerina trying to dance at his tempo, and he has a history of this because his Le Corsaire recording is monstrously fast too.  Terrence Kern did a recording of Le Corsaire too, and his was worse if you can believe it.

Anyway, Diana and Acteon is kind of like the leftover sesame chicken of the ballet world.  It’s well known, but doesn’t stand alone because it’s 12 minutes of leftovers from Petipa’s Le Roi Candaule, and Vaganova-ized (microwaved) for consumption today.  I continue this metaphor by pointing out that sesame chicken isn’t even authentic Chinese food (and before I get angry e-mails from Jews up in arms, nobody orders sesame chicken more than I do, this isn’t an insult), and likewise Diana and Acteon the ballet doesn’t follow the myth at all.  First of all, according to wikipedia, in Le Roi Candaule Petipa originally had it as Diana and Endymion, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because Endymion is associated with Selene, although sometimes Selene and Diana were mixed up so I suppose it’s a reasonable mistake.  However, when Vaganova herself changed the character to Acteon, any argument for authenticity flies out the window because the myth between Diana and Acteon doesn’t have a happy ending.  It goes that Acteon, a strapping young hunter sees her bathing in the nude.  Now Diana was no slut…she was mad as a hornet and forbade him to speak of that indecency, and if he did he would turn into stag.  Long story short, he calls out to his hunting party, turns into a stag, and is killed and eaten by his own hunting dogs.  Somehow, I think a flirtatious exchange with Acteon was the last thing on iron-chaste Diana’s mind.

But we all know the point of ballet isn’t to stick to the story…although there is that one little reference to the stag when at the very end the male dancer does a stag leap offstage while Diana is doing an arabesque onstage (shooting an arrow at him?).  Besides, Diana is the one who is supposed to be nekkid and yet it’s always the male dancer in this variation that’s showing a lot more skin (we’re talkin dance belt + loincloth.  A large loincloth if they’re lucky).  I’m perfectly fine with adaptations of stories and artistic liberties for the purposes of ballet movement (I have to be for the SEKRET project).  Plus Diana and Acteon is fun to watch because it includes a lot of witchy goodies that requires hefty technique.  My favorite Acteon (and this should come as no surprise) is Carlos Acosta.  He just has that “hunter machismo” which can especially be seen in Alicia Alonso’s version (after Petipa) because it includes this gargantuan lift where he sets down the ballerina just using one arm.  She also gave the ballerina even more fouettes to do, doing them on a diagonal with a flourish of the arms in a double pirouette, changing the spot later on mid-fouette to be en face and the whole shebang ends with a partner assisted pirouette where the guy then just lets go and she’s supposed to keep going.  Crazy and amazing (henceforth “cramazing?”) is the only way to describe it.

Now the following video features Carlos and Viengsay Valdes, and it’s neither of their best performances.  This performance is known though because Viengsay was sick and the poor thing is practically dying by the end.  But the show must go on, and I also include it for this inhuman leap Carlos does, which I’m not sure exactly what it is…it could be called a cabriole of some kind or a grand jeté battu…whatever it is, it’s a mystical leap that will take your breath away, and you’ll know it when you see it (not to mention he also does a revoltade, or as I like to call it, “the deathwish”):

And just to show that Viengsay is a more than capable and wonderful dancer; check out her Diana coda here:

This was a better performance for Carlos too: