Tag Archives: moira shearer

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One

28 Jan

I’m not happy with the way 2011 ended, and am determined to improve things for 2012, and what better way to kick off a reinvigorated stance than with a couple of posts dedicated to my beloved hero, Sir Frederick Ashton? For many a moon, a video of Sir Fred’s Rhapsody has been on my wish list, as it combines a choreographer I adore with a composer I equally admire, Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s something about Rachmaninoff’s melodies—which are some of the boldest and most romantic you’ll ever hear—that ignites within me what I believe to be something akin to a “dark side.” Those that have met me know I’m not exactly a menacing creature, but we all have different facets of ourselves and somehow Rachmaninoff’s music unleashes this ominous, rather austere presence in my soul that I can’t access on command. Before you get the wrong idea I don’t mean dark as in brooding and evil (or worse, emo)—what I’m talking about I suppose is best described as impassioned and just a little murky. Call me crazy (assuming you don’t already), but it’s emotionally quite satisfying to feel something like that, especially when it doesn’t come to me naturally.

Unsurprisingly, Rachmaninoff has inspired many choreographers, though curiously absent is a notable work from one Mr. Balanchine. You’d think of all people, Balanchine would love the whirling abyss of intensity that is a Rachmaninoff concerto, but there’s quite a story behind his refusal to choreograph to anything of his. Alexandra Danilova recounts a story of her and Balanchine seeing Rachmaninoff perform in Vienna (she never gives a specific date, though it was before Balanchine’s defection, so we’ll say pre-1924) and Balanchine was so inspired he and Danilova went to Rachmaninoff’s dressing room, where Balanchine asked to stage a ballet to his music. Rachmaninoff was so indignant over the idea he threw them out. Upon reading this, I like to recall one of my favorite quotes about Rachmaninoff, ironically, by a composer who collaborated with Balanchine on many occasions:

“Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and–a-half-foot-tall scowl.”

-Igor Stravinsky

Legend has it, from that moment on, an embittered Balanchine did his fair share of scowling, and any time Rachmaninoff’s name was mentioned, he would respond with “lousy music.” Regardless, Balanchine did in fact choreograph a handful of small works to Rachmaninoff, though some of them before he left the Soviet Union, one just after, and his last was actually a re-choreographed work by Léonide Massine. The proverbial ending to this story is that none of the works survived.

Still, what’s funny is that Rachmaninoff would eventually ask Michel Fokine in the late 1930’s to make a ballet to one of his compositions! The reason for Rachmaninoff’s change of heart is anyone’s guess, but the music Fokine used was in fact Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simply entitled Paganini, Fokine created the work for de Basil’s Ballet Russes and Rachmaninoff even had a hand in co-writing the libretto! (taken from australiadancing.org):

The libretto evoked the legend surrounding the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose playing was so extraordinary that he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for perfection in art.

The ballet is in three scenes. In the first the gaunt figure of Paganini performs on stage. As he plays, the allegorical figures of Guile, Scandal, Gossip and Envy weave through the audience and an evil spirit seems to guide his hand. Scene two is set in a Florentine landscape where a young girl is bewitched by Paganini’s playing and dances as though possessed. In scene three Paganini is tormented by enemies who appear in his likeness. At the conclusion a Divine Genius guides his spirit to heaven and his talent is vindicated at last. A significant component of the choreography is mime, particularly in the role of Paganini, while the roles of Guile, The Florentine Beauty and The Divine Genius execute highly technical episodes of pure dance.

Sounds pretty interesting and surely would have been lost had husband and wife dancer duo Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin not staged it for Tulsa Ballet in 1986. Though I suppose it remains in Tulsa Ballet’s repertory, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been performed since 1990, so one can only hope it will be revived again—who would’ve thought that such a gem of ballet history would be hidden in Oklahoma! It’s worth noting that a similar libretto would also be used by a production staged by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1960, which “stressed the diabolical aspects of Paganini’s art and the consolation he derived from a muse and a beloved.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond and unafraid of Rachmaninoff (though he probably never met him), Ashton took on the task of choreographing to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, although his first venture with that music was not Rhapsody, but a segment from the 1953 film The Story of Three Loves, in a scene featuring James Mason and Moira Shearer (this was of course, long after Rachmaninoff’s death so whether he had an opinion on it is a matter for the afterlife). Ashton’s choreography for the film is completely different from the ballet that would come to be almost thirty years later, though there are some things distinctly Ashtonian (I invite you to see for yourself, take a hop back in time and read my post on Moira Shearer, which has a video link). Now, at last, we fast forward to 1980 and Ashton choreographs Rhapsody, in honor of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. In addition to being a gift to the Queen, Rhapsody was also a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Apparently, Baryshnikov’s condition for guesting with the Royal Ballet was that Ashton create a ballet on him, as he intended for it to be an opportunity to learn the English style of dancing. However, the end product could go down in history as one of the few times Baryshnikov didn’t get exactly what he wanted, because Ashton wanted him to dance a la Russe—big, bold, and virtuosic.

Ashton paired Lesley Collier with Baryshnikov to originate the principal roles, and on August 4th, 1980, Rhapsody debuted at Covent Garden, with the Royal Family in attendance. Ashton designed the sets, William Chappell the costumes, and something that almost never happens did—part of the inaugural performance was captured on film!

Rhapsody pas de deux, with Lesley Collier and Mikhail Baryshnikov:

 

There’s no narrative to this ballet, though it’s suggested that the role created for Baryshnikov has some intention of playing the virtuoso like Paganini. Mostly the ballet has a sort of regal atmosphere and coincidentally, it’s in the same vein to what Balanchine often did, which was pure neoclassical ballet to a symphonic score (Tchaikovsky Suite no.3, Symphony in C, Ballet Imperial…you get the idea). I get chills watching this pas because it’s so dreamy, and Ashton certainly loved those lifts where the danseuse hovers just off the floor—and the part where she leaps into his arms in an arabesque and he spins around? Just makes the heart sing. Still, it’s hard to ascertain the dramatic impact of the pas de deux, without placing it in a larger context of the entire ballet. Phooey.

This post is way too long and has been broken into two parts. Read Part Two Here! 

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:

 

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)