Tag Archives: monica mason

An Awakening to the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

21 Aug

The last ‘Ballet in Cinema’ presentation to be shown in Seattle was the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. Given my antsy attention span, Sleeping Beauty can be a difficult one for me to sit through, but having watched the DVD with Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli (the only other time I’ve watched any Sleeping Beauty) I knew what to do this time—abide by a mantra of “no plot, no character development.” Lo and behold, I found the experience to be quite enjoyable, and despite having seen the DVD, a different cast and a desire to do my part to support the ‘Ballet in Cinema’ series had me wanting to go. Unfortunately, attendance in Seattle gets a 1 out of 10—as in literally, I was one of ten people in the audience. I thought maybe Polunin’s abrupt resignation from the Royal Ballet would make this performance something of interest to more people, but that clearly wasn’t the case. The SIFF theatre is small so it was easy enough to eavesdrop (I swear I wasn’t trying!) and the couple behind me did in fact know about Cuthbertson’s bout with glandular fever and the subsequent, debilitating, post-viral fatigue syndrome, but not about Polunin’s departure, so it was interesting to see what news had made it across the pond.

Well, at least I had interest in seeing Polunin! There really isn’t much of him on YouTube, but I had heard the rave reviews through the grapevine and then the aforementioned abandonment heard ’round the world (or at least ’round Balletomanotopia). I have to admit that it was essentially impossible to separate that knowledge from my viewing of the performance, and I found myself wondering if he would look vacant or miserable, but he was far from it—in fact, he was brilliant. True, the “loss” of his talent on the stage at the Royal Opera House is unfortunate, but so too, would’ve have been the loss of his sanity. Tamara Rojo once said in an interview that oftentimes, extraordinary artists die tragic deaths (and that she enjoyed being sane too much to fully let herself go), and given that Polunin has candidly admitted to using some serious drugs, it’s scarily easy to picture him on that path.

A recent, must-read article, ‘A Dancer’s Demons’ by Julie Kavanagh illuminated some of Polunin’s past, and is probably the most honest portrayal of him, shedding light onto much of what happened, but without any scandal or sensationalism. From familial difficulties, to the fear he felt in the moments before he quit, I felt sorrow for him, and the simple fact remained that he admitted that he had no passion for ballet, and I know for me, living a life without passion is a fate worse than death. We so want to believe that every dancer is passionate about their job but it just isn’t true, and it’s not as black and white as dancers who are passionate and those who aren’t. Personally, I make a distinction between people who love ballet and those who are passionate about it, and then you also have dancers who are more in love with being good at something than they are ballet itself, and some like Polunin who only tolerate certain aspects of it, which for him is performing on stage. Regardless, even though it’s impossible to walk a mile in his shoes, at the very least, every human being knows what it’s like to be miserable so I’m glad he left the Royal Ballet, because he obviously needs to find inner peace more than anything else. I’m also glad he’s not giving up dancing entirely for the time being, now having joined the Stanislavsky Ballet and it’s also satisfying to know that he parted with the Royal Ballet amicably, since he’s agreed to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo again this coming season. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m an Ashtonian Rojonian, but it’d be foolish not to film one of those performances!

Coincidentally, Polunin being cast as Armand (a role made on Nureyev) as well as the lead in Rhapsody (made on Baryshnikov) not to mention the incessant hailing by the media of Polunin as the next Nureyev/Baryshnikov, I have to wonder if casting in those roles exacerbated his feeling of entrapment, on top of the rigid discipline often employed in classical ballet. It has to be difficult to feel like you can be yourself when the public is asking you to be a carbon copy of someone that has existed before. I never thought that Prince Florimund would be a particularly desirable role for a danseur—forget one dimensional, he’s almost no dimensional! However, it’s funny how the lack of depth for the Prince also made him a blank canvas for Polunin to color as he wished. I also never expected to feel anything significant for the Prince, but with Polunin you could really get a sense that he was a true daydreamer, longing for more than what his mundane life had to offer—which, given everything that’s happened since Sleeping Beauty was broadcast, is easy to say in retrospect! Still, in partial thanks to Cuthbertson too, their chemistry really worked because their free-spiritedness translated into their roles so well.

For example, when Cuthbertson danced the Rose Adagio, I could really see the young woman’s silent protest to her father’s hackneyed scheme to marry her off ASAP to some random suitor before she could prick her finger on a spindle. Her Aurora wasn’t just innocent, shy, or elegant as the character is often danced, but truly searching for a way to reject the suitors without creating a kerfuffle (<–awesome word). Though I don’t necessarily think it was Petipa’s intention, I think today, the Rose Adagio can be played up as quite an empowering moment for women. In fact, something that occurred to me while watching this Sleeping Beauty was that a complete overhaul of the ballet has the potential to do so much for women—give Carabosse way more, amp up the tension between her and the Lilac Fairy, tweak the context in which the Rose Adagio is presented (but not the choreography), and all of a sudden you have a story revolving around powerful women (hell, even Genesia Rosato’s Queen magnanimously persuaded Gary Avis’s King Florestan to show mercy to the three girls with knitting needles he wanted to behead!). It’s interesting that in interviews right before the film began, Dame Monica Mason and others discussed the historical significance of the current production of Sleeping Beauty, which is a reconstruction of the staging that re-opened the Royal Opera House right after World War II. After such a dreadful period, Sleeping Beauty gave the audience something beautiful, even encouraging them to attend in less formal dress than was expected at the time because resources had been depleted by the war. How incredibly astute of Dame Ninette de Valois, to respond so wisely to the needs of society at the time, giving something to the people to inspire hopes and dreams, and an escape from the horrors they had just overcome via the war. Wouldn’t it be grand if a modernized Sleeping Beauty could do that for feminism today?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that Cuthbertson will no longer be able to partner with Polunin, because they’re so achingly beautiful together. The vision scene was so exquisite I almost cried (again, just can’t seem to cry in public!), and both Cuthbertson and Polunin have such incredible acting skills that it was one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen (the music alone is enough to make you weep). It’s interesting because the Cuthbertson/Polunin partnership is something that must’ve added to the pressure cooker that Polunin was caught in—with Cuthbertson holding the mantle as the only English principal ballerina, there’s a lot of national pride being stirred into the mix, so partnering her comes with additional expectations and responsibilities…not good, for the already troubled Polunin. It’s funny—and a little upsetting—that in Kavanagh’s article, the Royal Ballet School director, Gailene Stock, said of his audition: “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions—before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’” Ballet has arrived at a point where teachers can identify physical attributes suited for ballet, and advancements in knowledge of kinesiology, anatomy, and medicine have made the care of dancers’ bodies take on a far greater role than in the past…but who’s nurturing the artists? A dancer like Polunin, who has trouble with finding passion and motivation needs a different kind of psychological encouragement to allow him to perform. If physical therapists can develop treatment specific to dancers, surely there can be a team of people catering to individual needs in terms of mental health too. I’m sure the practice exists to some extent, but at its current level, it may not be enough. Even Dame Monica admitted the longest she had spoken with Polunin was when he quit, and not even teachers in a ballet student’s formative and professional years are necessarily equipped to deal with psychological and emotional issues—though some are and they are truly amazing.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in the Vision Scene:

In the end, Cutherbertson/Polunin were both unrestrained and refined, and it made for a riveting Sleeping Beauty. I know I haven’t exactly sang the praises of Imperial Russian ballets…but as far as Sleeping Beauty is concerned, I find it growing on me like a briar rose—thorns remind me of things I detest *cough* Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood *cough*, but the moments of magnificence that blossom before your eyes are wondrous spectacles to behold.

Aaand because I couldn’t fit this anywhere else in the post, I have to briefly praise Yuhui Choe’s Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux—so delicate, so ADORABLE. Love. Her. So. Much.

Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the Bluebird Pas de Deux:

A Call to Ashton

8 Jul

Not much could cure these post-New York blues, but luckily, I’ve been holding onto a secret weapon for some time now—the ‘Frederick Ashton’ DVD featuring Les Patineurs, several divertissements, and Scènes de Ballet. Notorious for saving something special for a rainy day (well, sunny lately in Seattle!), I can’t think of anything better to inspire me than a mélange of Ashton ballets. While the DVD is well worth the money, with it being relatively new it’s still on the expensive side. Luckily, there is a more affordable option for Ashton aficionados, over at OperaPassion, where they sell a recording of a broadcast of the Ashton Centenary in 2004, for a virtual steal $4.95! In fact, most of what’s released on the Opus Arte DVD is actually the same—Scènes de Ballet and the divertissements among them, with the only differences being that the Opus Arte DVD comes with Patineurs and the recorded DVD by OperaPassion comes with Daphnis and Chloë instead. Bonus features come with both, including interviews and rehearsal footage, but it’s here where the OperaPassion DVD actually takes the cake, offering many interviews throughout with some original cast members, while the Opus Arte DVD only has extras for Patineurs. So, really, the solution is to stop worrying about an inconsequential amount of money and buy them both—you know I did!

As much as I loved both DVDs, I can’t say that they’re right for everyone because I do think you have to have a minimal amount of admiration for Sir Fred to get the most out of viewing them. Most of the divertissements simply won’t stand alone, and are much more interesting as glimpses into different phases of Sir Fred’s illustrious career as a choreographer. While most of the works were new to me, I’d have to say that none of them really rank above my favorite Ashton ballets. Still, their inclusions are important for both historical and sentimental purposes, and Dame Monica Mason was right to include them for the Ashton Centenary. While it’s easy to lament a list of Ashton ballets that have yet to be released commercially, the variety is unparalleled (although, I secretly thought that a DVD containing Ashton’s most famous abstract ballets like Scènes de Ballet, Symphonic Variations, Rhapsody, and even Birthday Offering would have been ideal).

What I’ve come to realize is that one of the things I love most about Ashton is that his dances have a way of capturing the spirit of an idea. Scènes de Ballet pinpoints the intricacy and quirkiness of Stravinsky’s score; Five Brahms Waltzes couldn’t possibly be a complete reconstruction of Isadora Duncan’s choreography (Ashton having choreographed it over fifty years after having seen her), but summons the essence of her style and brings to life the very inspiration Ashton felt having seen her with his own eyes; Les Patineurs is not merely a direct translation of figure skating skills into ballet steps, but plays on the quality of movement that gliding over ice allows for. Somehow Ashton managed to communicate ideas so clearly that it took out the guesswork for the audience without inundating them with blatancies. It makes more and more sense why I would fall in love with Ashton ballets so much because I’m an escapist with a classicist aesthetic. I don’t always need “happy” ballets but I can always count on Ashton to transport me to another world or invoke such strong emotions that I forget about my real ones for a while. Speaking as someone who tends to be more in thought than not, watching an Ashton ballet is truly a gift every time.

Though Ashton is typically known for his cleverness and charm (especially in narrative ballets), I was quite surprised by how much I liked his Scènes de Ballet. I don’t always find it easy to listen to Stravinsky’s music, but the purity of line throughout is just too interesting to see! What’s also fascinating is to see an interpretation of Stravinsky by a ballet genius that is not Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky was famous for collaborating with. Rather than modernize as Balanchine often did with his interpretations of Stravinsky, Scènes still uses classical vocabulary and was heavily inspired by Euclidean geometry. It’s mentioned that Ashton set choreographic patterns in Scènes to be pleasing to look at from any angle. Stylistically, Scènes finds such simple pathways that there’s a lot of “point A to point B” with no excessive flourishes and the overall effect is so tastefully chic that I couldn’t help but appreciate the score way more than I would listening to it on its own. Yoshida Miyako (though my Japanese is dwindling in quality, it’s still too weird to me to refer to her as “Miyako Yoshida”) was perfect in Scènes, with a tempered charisma that is sweet and transparent like honey. With crisp arabesques and nimble arms, a photographer could’ve taken photos in rapid succession and each one of them would’ve been clear as crystal.

Yoshida performing a solo from Scènes de Ballet:

Another favorite was the Thaïs Pas de Deux, which was prefaced by an interview with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who told a funny (and somewhat horrifying) story of Sir Fred, while taking a curtain call, asking the audience if they wanted to see the pas de deux again. Sibley and Dowell were relieved just to get through it the first time with no mistakes because they had very few rehearsals, but obliged the audience anyway with an encore performance. The pas de deux is set to Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, and with my tastes being much more suited to Massenet, I find the music absolutely gorgeous. Unsurprisingly, I find the choreography very moving as well, with the male role searching, in a dreamlike state for a lost soul mate. It’s tragic because the female character is detached and aloof for the most part, as if her spectral form can’t recognize the man she once loved. It’s not until she bestows a kiss upon him, does she recall their affections for but a second before disappearing into the ether. On the DVD Thiago Soares danced the quixotic lead made on Dowell, a vision of strength and soulful dark eyes, while Mara Galeazzi performed Sibley’s role like an astral breeze. It’s one of those pas de deux that left me breathless without even realizing it, as if time hadn’t passed at all.

Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares in the Thaïs Pas de Deux:

While I’d like to give a quick shout out to Voices of Spring, one of my favorite pas de deux (danced with aplomb by Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta), I do have to dedicate this last paragraph to Tamara Rojo and her arresting performance in Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. To see her dance barefoot is jaw-dropping for one, but the conviction in which she performed this piece is unbelievable. There aren’t many dancers who have the pathos to dance Five Brahms Waltzes appropriately, which is probably why it doesn’t make it into even the Royal Ballet’s repertory very often, however, as is often the case, Tamara is the exception to the rule. Opposite to Scènes, I have no problem relating to Chopin and it’s modern choreography that I have to work to discern for myself, but Five Brahms Waltzes doesn’t ask for much else than to simply delight in the presence of this magnificent woman. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Rojo and Ashton couldn’t be a more heavenly combination to me. This, is truly happiness!

Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes:

What goes around comes around

27 Aug

So I’ve been in a bit of a shlump and was having an uninspired couple of weeks.  The best remedy for this is really to go back to the basics and go with what you know.  What do I know?  Manon.  I mean, I don’t know EVERYTHING about the ballet, but I know that it is by far my favorite full length ballet (keep that in mind kitties, there will be a pop quiz someday…) and I’m familiar with it to a point where I don’t need program notes or anything of the sort.  Instead of the usual goddess Rojo however, this time I got the chance to watch the Royal Ballet production with Jennifer Penney and Sir Anthony Dowell, the latter of which originated the role of Des Grieux.  I’ve actually had this on loan for a while but was saving it for a rainy day (in Seattle?  The very idea…although it did actually rain today and it has been a fairly sunny summer).  In fact, most of the cast in this production (filmed in 1982) were the dancers who originated their respective roles…hot!

I have to say one of the most fascinating things about this recording is that even though it was filmed a good twenty-five years before the Rojo/Acosta version, the performance isn’t dated at all.  Despite changes in approaches to technique and desired body types in ballet, imagining both productions as different casts two nights in a row is completely realistic.  I felt differences in technique and physiques were evident in between the 1984 and 2008 La fille mal gardée recordings, but not so for the Manon performances.  This speaks volumes about Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography—it’s timeless, it’s most definitely a classic and it defies technique.  Obviously it takes a great deal of technique to be able to perform it but when all is said and done the physical act of having bodies dance the choreography reveals so much about characters and story that there’s this rich depth that I’m not sure any other choreographer has ever achieved in story ballets.

Accordingly, the Penney/Dowell interpretation of Manon was vastly different from Rojo/Acosta.  I felt that Penney portrayed a Manon who was very much aware of her ability to manipulate men, as opposed to Rojo who grew to be aware of it but concerned herself more with the internal struggle of wealth versus love.  I never felt that Penney’s Manon was in love with Des Grieux…I found their relationship to be very hunter and prey, like a cat and bird (to see an actualization of this eternal conflict, see Simon’s Cat: Snow Business).  Dowell’s Des Grieux is catlike in so many ways—for his use of plié and he has this charm about him that completely belies his predatory nature.  Acosta’s Des Grieux, like Rojo’s Manon is more about an internal struggle, with his being between the path of virtue and temptation.  This is where things get really nifty, because conflict in the Penney/Dowell performance manifested in their actual relationship as a power struggle between the two characters and not as internal turmoil.  What? I suggest watching these first:

Notice how it’s almost violent in the way Dowell pulled Penney toward him, ten seconds into the first pas de deux, like a cat clawing at a bird?  And how in his luxurious solo he’s like a predator—mesmerizing his prey by trying to lure her and toy with her.  To continue with the house cat metaphor, you see Dowell’s coy, innocent face, his beautifully soft movements and you know his character wants to be a righteous man but without hesitating he gives in to his desire for Manon which is exactly like how the cat that rubs up against your legs and purrs with affection is the same cat that will shred your couch even if s/he knows it’s wrong.  Manon is obviously the bird…a free spirit that is captured (but not loved) by Des Grieux.  However, in the second act there is a shift of momentum and it’s Manon who takes on the role of the hunter and becomes the cat.  It’s in the second act where we see her seductive solo that mirrors the purpose of Des Grieux’s solo in Act I.  She’s bewitching her prey, whether it’s the various men at Madame’s party or Monsieur G.M.  The reason why I felt Penney’s Manon never truly loved Des Grieux is because in her performance of that solo, she blatantly ignores him, symbolizing her ability to captivate whoever she wants.  The jewelry she receives from Monsieur G.M. then become not a symbol of wealth but of her powers of ensnarement.

In Act III, Des Grieux reassumes the role of the hunter, but this time manipulates his prey as if willing it to live again so he can hunt it anew.  By this time, Manon is disgusted by jewelry, as it recalls memories of when she was the hunter and how she suffered from the consequences of those times.  I know I’ve been saying that I never believed Penney/Dowell’s portrayals of the characters to be that of two people in love but that’s the heart-rending aspect of the performance—you want to believe it’s this romantic tryst but you know better and you can see how their relationship is quite dysfunctional.  However, when they get to the concluding swamp pas de deux…it’s like taking an anvil to the soul.  Manon realizes that her only salvation in breaking the cycle of manipulation and lust that she’s trapped in is the very hunter that destroys her while Des Grieux no longer wants to be predator or prey and wants to try to love this girl.  It occurred to me that there are some similarities with La Sylphide here; trying to own a fairy is what will inevitably kill her and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon is almost exactly the same, just told in a more corporeal, sans-supernatural-bells-and-whistles (aka, enchanted forests) story.  As we all know, she dies and let me tell you I have never cried for a ballet before and I was in tears this time around.  It’s such an emotional roller coaster to watch Manon and Des Grieux go through the motions of loving each other only to realize they truly do when it’s too late.

This DVD is a MUST buy.  It is such a treat it was to see Dame Monica Mason dance as Lescaut’s mistress.  She was rather brassy and I loved her bewilderment during the drunken pas de deux with Lescaut.  Just amazing work…and what can you say about Anthony Dowell?  When I watched his performance as Oberon in The Dream, I thought to myself “if I could be reborn as a professional dancer, that’s the role I’d want to do” but having watched him in Manon makes me want to BE reborn as Anthony Dowell.  Better start stocking up on good karma.