Tag Archives: misty copeland

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!

Too…complex…brain…meltdown…

6 Sep

The Guardian published on article yesterday asking ‘Where are the black ballet dancers?’ and the subheading makes the claim that a lack thereof is “dance’s biggest blind spot.” There’s a lot going on here and I hesitate to weigh in on the subject because racism is so complex…but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that article or the one published the day after in the New York Times, where Alastair Macaulay points out—or rather, reiterates—that classical ballets still employ racial, ethnic, and national stereotypes, making further claims that ballet companies do in fact exercise “race-blind casting.” Between the two articles, there is so much food for thought my brain is working in a clockwork frenzy to try and grasp what this all means about the current state of ballet. It’s difficult for me because I’m simple-minded—speaking as an audience member; race = not an issue. Of course this doesn’t mean I’m apt to recognize all the signs of racism in ballet—even in my precious favorite, ‘The Dream,’ I recently mentioned on Twitter that it bothers me that English ballet companies insist on having Titania wear a blonde wig. I didn’t like the way it looked, and loved that ABT has their ladies wear their hair down in Botticellian glory. This was all in response to a ballet company that had posted photos of their dancers in ‘The Dream’ and both Titanias were Japanese. I was slow to connect the dots because I didn’t give much thought as to why the wigs looked particularly unnatural and even missed the conformity Macaulay mentioned in his article altogether when I saw Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird.’ Poignant reminders that I too, need to constantly adapt my level of awareness, and that political correctness is not a state you simply achieve once in your lifetime.

At any rate, the article at the Guardian bothered me for a few reasons. First of all, we have to be able to separate some statistics from the racism. The minority ratios of Afro-Russian people in Russia and African-American people in the US are vastly different, and does account for part of the reason why the Bolshoi has no black dancers. Not to mention the fact that the Bolshoi barely has any dancers from outside of Russia, which could be in part due to racism, body fascism, a simple preference for dancers that graduate from the Bolshoi Academy, or all of the above. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that a black dancer growing up in Russia faces a different set of circumstances than one growing up in the US or the UK, and we can’t distill things into a simple solution for black dancers worldwide—it’s incredibly complex in relation to geography. It’s not just a matter of recruitment/promotion of black dancers, fair casting, elimination of pink tights, and outreach—ballet itself has to procure the conditions in which anyone can excel. Easier said than done…but I think Macaulay is definitely right about one thing—some of the beloved classics are definitely furthering the image of ballet as a primarily white art.

As it is, there’s a dearth of new narrative ballets these days. Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’ was the latest for ABT, something of a vehicle for Misty Copeland, who was the cover model for the advertisements. By all accounts, Copeland is an amazing dancer—unfortunately, injury meant that I didn’t get a chance to see her with my own eyes, but I don’t doubt the countless that have opined as such. Still, it’s kind of unfortunate that in a leading role, she’s wore a full body red unitard, and was type-cast a bit in something more “dynamic.” As she continues to inspire, it seems like there’s a lot riding on her successes, as if to brew the perfect storm for a ballet boom amongst black communities, but it’s not that simple. Copeland has already gained notoriety for many reasons, for having started in ballet so late and for being a muse of pop music star, Prince, but even she has said that she’s not really the first black soloist ABT has had—so I keep wondering, why has ballet systematically undermined the achievements of black dancers, such that we still have to pin our hopes on Copeland to make a difference? I honestly don’t know…it may be as Aesha Ash said, that donors are having their say, which sadly, wouldn’t surprise me. The people who claim to love ballet the most may be the most harmful towards it…which is ironic, because I’d like to think many ballet audiences wouldn’t bat an eye, and certainly members of the general public would be the same way. I’ve coerced friends into watching ‘Center Stage’—a guilty pleasure—and when they see Eva Rodriguez or Eric “O” Jones, nobody asks questions, or thinks it weird to see black dancers in a ballet setting.

There remains a tough question to ask though…Copeland, for example, could have all the success in the world, but what if nothing changes? There are still socioeconomic factors that hold black people back, not to mention the brutality of going through the corps de ballet that so strictly demands uniformity. I’m interested to know what enrollment demographics are like at the Houston Ballet Academy, where Lauren Anderson, a black woman, was in fact a principal dancer (touted as the first in the US). I first read about her in ‘Meet the Dancers’ (a book by Amy Nathan, geared towards kids and young adults…but whatever, it was a fun read!) and I instantly adored her, setting about to find out more. What I found was an awesome interview, where she was talkative, honest, witty, and had such an incredibly healthy perspective not just on being a role model, but being a dancer in general. It’s great, and she’s wonderful in so many ways that it’s an absolute must see:

As is her Don Quixote pas de deux with none other than Carlos Acosta (her perfectly centered a la seconde turns that melted into penche starting at 2:39 gave me chills!):

Coincidentally, it’s interesting that in her interview, she mentioned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as the only “white” role, which just so happens to be the most recent full length ballet created for the Royal Ballet, by Christopher Wheeldon. It made me wonder…Macaulay posed the question “are choreographers telling the stories for our time?” and is it possible that both Wheeldon and Ratmansky, despite their talents, aren’t equipped to respond to the needs of society, that they, like their institution are out of touch with reality and are either unwilling or complacent in taking risks? (I really hope that doesn’t sound like an attack on both of them because both have created work that I admire greatly) Let’s be honest…a young black girl having seen Copeland in ‘Firebird’ could easily think “I want to be just like Misty” but would she feel the same way about dancing the role of the Firebird? Visibility is crucial but so is desire; it’s not a matter of simply providing roles for black dancers—there needs to be roles black people will want to dance.

I feel like I’m just going in circles now and the more I try to think about it, the more lost I get…but on this topic of responding to the needs of society (and going back to why the Guardian article also bothered me), my final thoughts are that I’d like to put forth the suggestion that things are equally, perhaps more difficult for homosexual dancers. This was an idea first brought to my attention while watching a special by comedian Wanda Sykes, where part of her act is a hilarious enactment of what it would be like to “come out black.” While stereotypes can be used in intelligent ways to rouse a laugh, Sykes has since appeared in interviews to elaborate more seriously on her own statement, mentioning how there are groups who pay millions of dollars to ensure bans on gay marriage, and though she was quick to recognize grim times in the civil rights history of African Americans, right now, it’s harder to be gay. In terms of ballet, a black Odette/Odile has in fact happened, thanks to Anderson, but what are the chances of a purely classical Swan Lake production featuring Siegfried falling in love with a Swan Prince? Or a Princess falling in love with Odette/Odile? Purists would never let it happen because apparently the steps can’t tell the story if the Swan Prince can’t dance en pointe or if a Princess Siegfried equivalent couldn’t perform some kind of acrobatic lift with her partner, and to change Petipa’s choreography would be heresy, and so the oppression of gay dancers will persist.

Despite the prolific amount of same-sex partnering in contemporary ballet, the fact remains that nobody seems to trust that the classical steps can tell any story. People always talk about taking risks in the arts, which for dance has a tendency to be perceived as the invention of new movement styles, when maybe the risk that needs to be taken is having faith in classical ballet to be a versatile medium. The closest pas de deux we have is one from Roland Petit’s ‘Proust,’ but one could still go back to classical themes—I was reading Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ when it occurred to me that the myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus had marvelous potential as a classical ballet. The story goes that Apollo falls in love with a Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, who in another version is also the object of affection of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind. Long story short, when Apollo teaches Hyacinthus to throw a discus, a jealous Zephyrus deflects it to strike Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. The crestfallen Apollo, refusing to let Hades claim his love, transforms him into a flower (ironically, it’s believed to be a larkspur or iris). The destructive power of an Olympian god, the fragility of a mortal, and despite divinity, an immortal’s desire to love like a human…it’s a fairly rich story (okay, maybe as a one act), and is there anything we crave more in classical ballet than love triangles, death, and transformation? I think not. Still, I doubt anyone would be interested in funding or creating it.

And yet, there are always signs of hope for change—today, on New York City Ballet’s Facebook page, a wedding announcement was made for soloist Craig Hall, a gay black dancer, and his husband Frank Wildermann. Though not directly related to either article, reading that news after reading the Guardian and the New York Times was a breath of fresh air. Congratulations to the newlyweds!