Tag Archives: Natalia Osipova

ABT’s Mixed Bill: Elaborations

22 May

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviewing Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’

24 Jun

It’s bittersweet that ABT has now finished its all too brief run of The Dream, though repeated viewings with different casts were well worth it. Obviously this trip to New York has been filled with firsts, so seeing Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg live was of course a new experience. Coincidentally, when I took class this morning, Gillian did barre to warm up and left, so it was actually a neat experience to see her at work as a person, and then transform into a fairy queen. And not just any fairy queen—Gillian’s Titania has a wild side that deserves a new title I’d like to call “Divatania.” She has an energy and an aura in that role that made me love her the most of all three ballerinas I saw dance it. On that note, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Xiomara Reyes in the evening performance, who is softer in temperament, but had a little firepower too—when she shot an indignant glare towards Oberon after he tried to purloin her changeling, I only wished that Cory Stearns had given a more emphatic reaction. Stearns certainly has a majestic carriage, fine technique, and I think he can act too but I also felt that he may be unsure of where he wants to go with his interpretation of Oberon, perhaps beyond what he’s told to do with it. Watching Gomes last night was a lesson in attack and full out dancing at eighty-five million miles an hour, while David showed more contrast and really played with pushing and pulling the music in today’s matinee.

Some of the same dancers reprised roles from last night, though I was very pleased that I got to see Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, Sascha Radetsky, and Jared Matthews perform as the Lovers because they’ve clearly done it before and have polished the comedic timing to perfection. Also right on the funny money were both Craig Salstein and of course Herman Cornejo as Puck, the former showing a more raw interpretation with dynamism and speed, the latter the epitome of carefree and clever. Though Puck has sort of become the token substantial consolation role for the short dancer ever since Wayne Sleep originated it, to be honest I wouldn’t mind seeing Cornejo as Oberon. There’s something to be said for developing a conscious ability to present oneself in a way that is contrary to what people tend to think, and many times those who can tap into that are more successful. Tall dancers like Gomes, Hallberg, and Stearns may not even be aware of how their stature affects people’s perceptions of their dancing. I could go on, but I really do need to explain myself in regards to Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird.

I tried to like it, in fact, I tried to like it three times. Unfortunately it never happened and I couldn’t bring myself to back the concept Ratmansky and the designers of the production had in mind. First off, the sets invoked images of deep sea tubeworms that proliferate around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (watch ‘Blue Planet’ on the Discovery Channel if you just failed to follow my geekery), and second the costumes made me think this Firebird was like some kind of collaborative production between the Muppets and Cirque du Soleil to perform Jewels—under the sea, teeming with ruby sea urchins, emerald jellyfish, and diamond…Elvises. I always say that those who try to be edgy or avant-garde inevitably fail because those are things you can’t try to be. Cirque du Soleil for example is known for similar costumes to the firebirds, but with much more innovative choreography and amazing acrobatics so it’s a concept that works, and the same look didn’t seem to highlight Ratmansky’s use of classical steps. Even the more modern stylized movements lacked purpose and the use of some repeated motifs didn’t really contribute to the story.

Oh the story…it hardly made any sense, and leaves you with so many unanswered questions I can’t even begin to ask them all.  The plot elements that are somewhat logical are either drawn out to fill the music, or are told in probably the last five minutes of the ballet. Essentially, Ivan wakes up alone in a room (we’re never told how or why), enters the tubeworm forest where he find firebirds, captures one who gives him a feather to summon her in a time of need. He then happens upon a group of maidens in green, recognizes one as his long lost love and tries to get her to remember. Enter the maniacal sorcerer Kaschei, controller of the maidens, and the conflict presents itself. Ivan summons the Firebird, there’s dancing, and then she reveals an egg that Ivan smashes to defeat Kaschei. The maidens reveal themselves in white gowns and blonde wigs, their long lost loves are freed from within the tubeworm trees and the starry people are jubilant. I actually found the ending quite beautiful, but most of the significant action literally takes place in the last few minutes when the meat of the story is revealed, but that’s after almost an hour of choreography that is stretched very thin. I’m rather shocked that this is in fact Ratmansky because it seems so unlike him and when I passed him in the theatre I almost wanted to ask: “what happened?”

The initial pas de deux where Ivan captures the Firebird didn’t convince me that she couldn’t get away from him, and even duets between Ivan and his lost Maiden didn’t illuminate any sort of romantic possibilities. Later there’s a quartet between Ivan, Firebird, Maiden, and Kaschei that moves through molasses and like much of the other sections in the ballet is too long and nonsensical. Still, the production isn’t entirely without merit but I fear that Ratmansky’s ballet relies entirely on casting. Isabella Boylston and Natalia Osipova were the two Firebirds I saw in three casts, and Boylston was lovely (the crowd was going wild for her), though Osipova had a certain kookiness that I found convincing. The role of the Firebird itself is oddly insignificant, and the Maiden isn’t really one I found relatable either. When Simone Messmer performed it, there was a moment at the end where she stripes off the green dress and hair net after Kaschei’s spell over her is broken, and she really tore off those clothes with shock and disgust, which was the first time I truly felt anything for the character. All three Ivans (Alexandre Hammoudi, Gomes, Cornejo) were fantastic, however, I did feel Herman was the most believable. I know some of you may be shocked because you think Marcelo gets the trump card but I’m not entirely without objective thought! While Gomes dances full out, Cornejo’s interpretation has such innocence and honesty that it really fits the image of a prince in white. Hallberg as Kaschei was deliciously maniacal and sinister, and it’s very gratifying to see him in a role that breaks the convention of him as such a regal, classical dancer. Again, though, Firebird can’t simply rely on the opportunity to see Hallberg go crazy…there has to be more substance than that and when the gimmick of the strange designs wears off, I didn’t feel the choreography really offered much substance.

While I appreciated the invested performances of the dancers in Firebird, and in some ways the fact that Ratmansky decided to take a risk and step outside of his comfort zone, but his Firebird simply isn’t for me. Maybe it was an error in programming to put something flawless like The Dream before it, because Firebird doesn’t tell the story with the same sort of wit and charm. What’s interesting though is I don’t know that it’s particularly controversial, though it does divide opinions rather easily. It’s hard for me to imagine this particular ballet as a masterpiece that will stand the test of time, though it will be fascinating to see how the audience reacts differently since it’s a joint commission for the Dutch National Ballet. For those who get that opportunity, I do encourage you to take my words with a grain of salt and see it for yourself before you join the club or discern for me what it is I’m missing!

2011: Giselle’s Space Odyssey

13 Jul

Yesterday, like many around the country, I watched the 3-D broadcast of the Mariinsky’s production of Giselle, with Natalia Osipova in the title role and Leonid Sarafanov as Count Albrecht. First of all, it was quite an ordeal to get to this theater in a city forty minutes outside of Seattle, and thanks to faulty directions from Google maps, my friend (and fellow dance writer for SeattleDances) Mariko and I somehow wound up in a residential area. Luckily, I have no shame in asking for directions and we eventually found the theater, though we were twenty minutes late and missed some key moments, so I haven’t anything to say in regards to Giselle and Albrecht’s first meeting or the peasant pas de deux. To be honest, at some point during our tardy approach, I thought that if we could at least get there in time for Act II it would be worth it, since for me, that’s the bread and butter of any Giselle. In the end, I was grateful to even make it in time for Giselle’s Act I variation, and of course the ubiquitous mad scene.

Watching a ballet in 3-D on a movie screen proved to be an odd experience though. It’s a brave new world without an established etiquette, and made me wonder what appropriate behavior would be for things like eating during the film. Snacks are perfectly acceptable in movies, but never for a live ballet performance, so where does this middle ground fit into the picture? At first I was a little annoyed with noshing noises, a similarly visceral reaction not unlike the one the Londoners who saw the Royal Ballet perform Romeo and Juliet at the massive O2 coliseum had, but I suppose it’s fair, considering the facts that it is a movie theater and a film, instead of a live performance (and let’s be frank, I’d be lying if I said I never feast on fruit and cookies while watching ballet at home). So if we qualify this as a viewing of a filmed performance, what about applause? I don’t applaud in private, but a movie theater is a more special, public occasion. Then again…does applause mean anything if dancers don’t hear it? If there’s no live connection between performer and audience, what exactly does a show of appreciation accomplish? This was particularly awkward for me as my mind raced to find an answer and never did. Regardless, to munch or not to munch, to clap or not to clap, choosing your own adventure as far as those two questions are concerned isn’t nearly as bad as filing your nails during the Act II Introduction et scene (yes, the woman behind us actually did this).

I also think there were some technical issues with filming in 3-D as well, like how images can seem to flicker at times, particularly images further in the background, and I found my eyes had a difficult time tracking them sometimes and despite 3-dimensionality, I sometimes felt like I was looking at layered cardboard cutouts. Tracking the action proved to be difficult at times, as poor Myrtha’s feet were cut off for much of her solo, and of course ballet relies on the feet to be expressive so this is problematic. There were also times where the angles with the 3-D filming weren’t particularly creative, but it’s important to remember that this is still new technology, far from perfect, and just trying something new (especially for ballet!) is a considerable, conscious effort to do things differently.  Overall, I had a pretty good time—not my most memorable experience in watching Giselle, and I didn’t leave the theater feeling strongly one way or the other in favor of more ballet in 3-D, but it was worth the try.

The Mariinsky’s production itself is a little bland, neither here nor there, and surprisingly, made me re-evaluate PNB’s production favorably. The pantomime in PNB’s staging is much more conversant, whereas the Mariinsky had less mime, but stretched it to fill more music, so in retrospect, it felt even longer than PNB’s mime sequences…like, painfully long (however, I remain steadfast in my assessment of Act II—a pure ballet blanc is better suited to my tastes). The overall tempi was also slower than I would have liked, which is quite a Russian thing to do, and I felt hindered Osipova a bit, who is famous for her jump, and not necessarily her adage work.  Many critics, especially in Russia, feel that she is not classical enough and while I did see her struggle at times to fill the music with her arms, I sometimes find this criticism of Osipova weird. She’s not the most lyrical dancer to have been born of Russian training, but she’s still quite good (even if that first rond de jambe en l’air in the grand adage, with the hiked up hip always bothers me—Svetlana Zakharova is the worst offender if you need to see what I mean).

At any rate, I thought she was surprisingly brilliant in the mad scene, a thoroughly invested actress who really gave breadth to each stage of madness she went through. I really enjoy watching her in Act II, if anything for her lofty jumps that give new meaning to that ghostly illusion of weightlessness (especially when she does her entrechat quatre series, Mariko said it looked like she was on a trampoline). Her transformation into a Wili makes me laugh a little, because the turning hops (or sautillé) or just about the fastest I’ve ever seen, and the following series of jumps is just about the slowest (slowing down the tempo for jumps is often expected of the men, so the fact that it is also done for her is kind of feminist awesome). The contrast in speeds is a little discombobulating, but a treat nonetheless.

From her debut Giselle with the Bolshoi:

 

Leonid Sarafanov was an interesting Albrecht, who looked like he was about twelve years old and was positively swimming in the capes he was wearing (which looked more like Snuggies), but he is brilliant, exceptionally light on his feet, and a fantastic virtuoso dancer. Some of the bravura steps I questioned like the double tours in passé into the immediate renversé, which looked much too off-kilter for Romantic era ballet and also his gestures/facial expressions during the entrechat six I understood the purpose of, but kind of looked like desperate flailing. Albrecht is dancing to his death, but this is a moment where I think the action of the feet, the beating of the legs and ideally the rebound in between those beats tells the story of Myrtha’s tormenting of him (speaking of Myrtha, while Ekaterina Kondaurova wasn’t the most fearsome, I liked her subtle brooding).

In conclusion, a fun evening but maybe not the most moving experience; it is however, nice to know that people are trying to integrate new technology into ballet production. I’m not so sure this is going to become commonplace, and quite frankly, I would much rather have access to more live broadcasts on a 2-D screen. Driving forty minutes to this theater was one thing, tacking on an additional three hours to venture deep into the heart of central Washington is another! So more than anything, availability means more to me than the latest inventions in media technology. Though the audience for this particular screening wasn’t large, much of them were quite into it so I think this is an arena where there is the potential to increase viewership. They may need a friendly reminder that opera houses don’t sell popcorn though!

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.

Bridging the Lake; a Black Swan discussion with an outsider

7 Jan

Rather than write my thoughts on Black Swan, I thought I’d do something a little different and get the perspective of someone completely outside of the dance community.  There are many wonderful reviews written by dancers and balletomanes (which I am just now catching up on, having avoided spoilers until I saw the movie), but what about the “common man?”  Well, the common man is my friend Derek, a movie buff who has graciously submitted to an interview, directed by yours truly in order to guide the conversation into a context that makes a connection between the dance world as we know it and the one he saw in film, perhaps illuminating for both sides how we can find common ground and bring new audiences to ballet.

Derek is older than me (just thought I’d throw that out there) and is the type of friend who never calls, unless I call him at least five times.  He hails from a quaint little village known as Fort Wayne, Indiana where you can park your horse at the local grocery stores, though he lives in the more metropolitan Indianapolis now (which is essentially a clone of my hometown, Columbus).  Despite my desperate pleas to get him to go see the ballet, he hasn’t—missing the likes of Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev at the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala in September of this year.  I KNOW.  I KNOW!!!  He had these superstars right on his doorstep and I implored that he go so I could live vicariously through him, with Kent/Gomes performing the pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias and Othello, and the Bolshoi wunderkinds doing the Don Quixote and Flames of Paris grand pas de deux (their best!), but he didn’t go.  Derek has no idea how embittered and hostile I still am over this most egregious failure and rest assured next time I see him violence will ensue.  Meanwhile, he saw his first Nutcracker this holiday season…if that’s not a knife to the gut I don’t know what is.

Putting aside his nefarious betrayal, he was in fact very excited for Black Swan.  As I said, he’s a fan of films; he makes Oscar predictions and watches all of the award shows, delighting in the prestige and glamour (while I perish at the mere thought of bowties and tuxedos).  He is of course a huge admirer of Darren Aronofsky and despite impeding my mission to get more people interested in our sacred art, Derek is a cheerful chap and occasionally his moral compass proves to be sound (though his spending habits beg to differ).

So first, what is your overall impression of Black Swan and what aspects of the film were most enjoyable/interesting to you?

Derek: My general impression of the movie was that it was pretty freaking cool.  I like Aronofsky as a film-maker, and I have seen all of his movies minus Pi, so when I noticed on IMDB that he was making a movie with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Winona Ryder (all are certain favorites of mine) I knew I would see this movie the first chance I got.  I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations because I was so excited to see it, but it didn’t fail me.  While watching, I was glued to the screen. When I left, my mind was racing.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My favorite things about the movie were definitely the performances.  Natalie Portman has long been a favorite of mine, and I’ve always known she is an amazing actress (not proven true by ANY of the Star Wars movies, but I held on to faith, and she finally did a 180 with the film, Closer).  Portman, in my honest opinion, has delivered one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Winona Ryder also did excellent jobs. They were all extremely effective in their supporting roles, and deserve recognition somehow.

I thought it was interesting that the movie was about ballet, and about a ballerina who wanted to be the best, but the story didn’t really end there. It was a character study about transformation, and perception.

Besides the obvious hallucinations, did anything strike you as unrealistic?  You mentioned the effectiveness of Portman’s acting and the supporting cast, but what did you make of some of the stereotypes they portrayed, such as Nina’s eating disorder, her perfectionism, her stage mother, or the bitchy fellow dancers?

Derek: I think what made this an interesting portrayal of an anorexic ballerina is that they never touched on the subject verbally… we saw images of Nina throwing up in a bathroom. It was never mentioned again.

Her mom was odd. She was a typical “stage mom”, living vicariously through Nina. What made her more corrupt is the fact that she knew Nina was sick, and even through we as an audience can only guess that Nina is schizophrenic, her mother knew it all along.

The perfectionism that Nina is striving for is unrealistic. Nothing is perfect, and anything that is perceived as perfect will falter in the end (Ryder’s character in a way was a representation of this). Nina ended up killing herself in her highest moment, and will be remembered forever for this one “perfect performance”, or what she thought was perfect. It’s like Romeo and Juliet’s perfect love; they died at the height of it, and had they survived it they would have lived to see it somehow die, and/or not be perfect.

How familiar are you with the actual story (what’s called the libretto) of Swan Lake?  The original plot is more or less revealed at certain points in the film but I kept wondering if it was enough for people who have never seen Swan Lake before and I’m curious as to whether the parallels between the plot of the ballet Swan Lake and the movie were apparent for you or not.  For example, in the ballet, the Swan Queen (Odette) is fragile and timid, while her imposter the Black Swan (Odile—and not Odette’s twin sister as stated in the movie!) is seductive, which is re-imagined into a modern, New York setting via Nina and Lily.

Derek: I’m not familiar with Swan Lake at all…however, I did a little reading before the movie. I read that Nina personified the White Swan perfectly, and that Lily personified the Black Swan even better, but that Nina had to become both to get the part. That’s all I knew…but I did see the parallels for sure. I think that it was very important for the filmmaker to show these similarities between Nina (Odette) and Lily (Odile).

To see this movie though I don’t think you need to see the ballet, although I think it may prove to have more of an impact. I’ve already said how much I loved this movie, but my roommate Anna did ballet for 10 years, had seen Swan Lake before and knows the music well.  She connected with that part of the movie better than I did.

That’s interesting considering I did a whole Swan Lake MONTH series on my blog, that you obviously did NOT read, “friend.”  However, I agree—Aronofsky maintained the integrity of Swan Lake; in the ballet, the story is told through music and movement but in his film the story is told through dialogue, acting and special effects, coincidentally taking place in the ballet world…at any rate, was there anything you would have liked to have seen in the film but didn’t?  Dare I ask, anything you would have changed?

Derek: Regarding both of your questions, my answer is no.  I liked it the way it was, and I can’t think of anything else I would have added to make it better.

Thank you…for that elaborate response.  Although his role had few lines, did you notice Benjamin Millepied at all (aka, David, Nina’s partner)?  What did you think of him? (I guarantee ballet fans were watching him with as much interest as they were watching Portman)

Derek: Yes, I did notice Benjamin Millepied. I knew going into the movie that he is a pretty accomplished dancer and choreographer, and that he did some, if not all, of the choreography for this film. He had great film presence, and with Portman had great chemistry (and it all makes sense now, being engaged and expecting a little bundle of “joy!”).

But, not being a particular dance fan, and not really knowing correct techniques, or knowing what to look for in a great dancer, I will say that Portman held her own. I was extremely impressed with her skill, but you could definitely see a difference in between Millepied and Portman. I could tell that he was an extremely experienced and good dancer. It was very good casting.

I kind of felt like Millepied needed to comb his hair…but that’s irrelevant.  Has this film changed your perception of ballet?  Are you more/less inspired to see a ballet on your own?  And don’t even think about telling me what you think I want to hear because I’ll know you’re lying.

Derek: I don’t think this movie has really changed my perception of ballet. In a way, I have always appreciated it, maybe not as much as you [Steve], but I think more so than the general population.

I think I would see a ballet, but I would prefer to go with someone who kind of knew ballet (maybe you!), or perhaps Anna, who like I said, is a big ballet fan. I wouldn’t know left from right or what was good or not, but I think I could enjoy a good ballet for the music and the artistry.

Well, the truth is, you don’t have to know what’s good or not…the important thing is having the freedom to decide what you like or dislike and to have conviction in your opinions, while accepting those of others.  If you choose to learn more about it, I think you’ll find the rewards more gratifying though.

Hey, remember when I gave you a dance belt for your birthday? How’s that going for you?

Derek: I’ve worn it.  Yes.  I can’t say why.  Or for whom.  But it’s gotten use.  It fits well.

Well thank you for your time, and just so you know, after missing the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala, you have a chance to redeem yourself.  On January 19th, Opus Arte Cinemas will be doing a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet performing Giselle in limited theaters (including the Carmike 20 in your hometown, Fort Wayne) with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather performing the principal roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  This is not a request and it is not an interview question…it is a demand that you not fail me again.  And look—I’ve even written a post about the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, so you can imagine me there with you…and if you don’t go, you can imagine my hands wringing your neck.

This concludes the interview with my friend Derek, a so-called “outsider” of ballet.  As Black Swan continues to delight audiences as well as stir up controversy for some professionals in the industry, the only safe thing to say is that dance movies (or in the case of Black Swan, a movie that happens to have dance in it) have a tendency to be divisive.   I think there’s a triangular relationship, between professional dancing, a well-developed storyline and good actors that has yet to be balanced to the satisfaction of many.  It seems two out of three just isn’t enough!

The Nacho Project: Diagnosis

24 May

One of my ducklings (number five in the row, if I recall correctly) is headed to New York this summer and is in need of your help!  “Nacho,” as I call her, has never been there before and will be doing some kind of an internship this summer but more importantly, will have access to the splendiferous wonder that is NYCB and ABT.  Not only will this be her first time in Manhattan, she has yet to see such prestigious ballet companies (she has seen smaller dance performances before though).  Needless to say this is a crucial moment in her development as a human being and as my ducklings tend to do, she sought advice from me but there are many ballets on the programs I haven’t a clue about.  So I thought I’d pose the question to more knowledgeable folk.  We’re always wanting ballet to reach new audiences and this is our chance to tinker a la Frankenstein with one young woman’s perception of it!  The challenge here is that funds are not entirely limitless (she’s not the type to see five Swan Lakes) and yet between NYCB and ABT there’s an abundance of things to see.  She’s going to be a kid in a candy store, but she has to make the Big Apple her pie.  Selectiveness is key, so here is what I feel you need to know about Nacho:

  • She may be short, but she has a lot of angst.  She likes pretty, romantic ballets but if not that then they have to be pretty…raging
  • She’s one of those “danced since I was three” jazz babies.  Showing off big flashy jumps and fouettés go in the plus column, as do Fred & Ginger
  • This is educated conjecture, but she probably has no appreciation for classical music.  This isn’t to say she hates it, only that she’ll like what sounds pleasing to her ear, without deeper understanding of the finer details.
  • She has questionable taste in men (mostly because she dates people I disapprove of)
  • She’s Italian and her mom makes good sauce
  • She likes the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Roddick and Sex and the City (she thinks she’s Carrie Bradshaw if that means anything to you)
  • Her phone number is…

So those are some things about Nacho and after looking at NYCB calendar (link) I’ve convinced her that attending NYCB’s program on June 25th with After the Rain, The Lady with the Little Dog and Who Cares? would be an ideal choice (she will be in New York June 18th to August 18th).  There’s a short preview of After the Rain on YouTube I sent her and she likes the tragicalyricalness and I also sent her a clip of Who Cares? which she loved.  I have no idea about Little Dog, but I figured two out of three is more than sufficient for a happy evening.  Glancing at the other programs, the chances of her liking Prodigal Son are slim to none but I do think she would enjoy Western Symphony.  June 26th has a program with La Source, a new Martins ballet and Western Symphony but I don’t know what Peter Martins choreography is like and I’ve only heard of La Source in passing…so what say you, fellow balletomanes?  Then there’s the added allure of farewell performances including that of Darci Kistler, the last ballerina to be selected by Balanchine himself…do you miss the opportunity to witness something so epically historical?  I’m almost completely unfamiliar with the Kistler farewell program (minus Swan Lake of course) so suggestions para Nacho por favor!

She could watch Kistler in an excerpt from Swan Lake, but it turns out ABT (calendar link) will be doing Swan Lake the previous week as well so I say go all out and see the whole shebang.  But the casting!  Decisions, decisions…I’m thinking she should cat fight with the rest of the audience in attendance for the June 21st show with Roberto Bolle so she can fall madly in love with him (she does like them tall…and he’s Italian too) in addition to seeing the beautiful Veronika Part, but there are so many great casting options like Julie Kent/Marcelo Gomes or Jose Carreño/Gillian Murphy.  Now I don’t know if she’ll make it in time for Sleeping Beauty, but good heavens!  It’s the battle of the guest stars…do you opt for the saccharine innocence of Alina Cojocaru or the flight of the Osipova?  Then ABT does a week of mixed bills and I’m more obsessive about watching ballet than Nacho is but even I’m finding the selection overwhelming.  If it were me, I’d go with the All Ashton program on June 30th to sort of round out the experience and diversify the choreographers, but it’s Nacho and not me, so I would only strongly suggest/force that idea upon her if I had a legion of people who agreed with me (also keeping in mind she’s never seen a MacMillan and the Manon pas de deux is just…to DIE for).  ABT then does a week of Romeo and Juliet in early July before heading off to Los Angeles, and you know I’m a grouch when it comes to Romeo and Juliet so I’m in no position to be suggesting which casting I think would be lovely to see.

So friends, I beseech thee to diagnose Nacho and help her get the most out of her summer in New York!  Here’s a short interview I did with her which might help figure out which ballets/casts she should see:

YDF:  Do you like Roberto Bolle?

Nacho:  Sure.

YDF:  Liar.  Do you wear clothes from the Gap?

Nacho:  Roberto Bolle is fine…don’t really have an opinion of him and no I do not.

YDF:  Not the answer I was looking for.

Nacho:  Sorry friend.

YDF:  Do you even know who he is?

Nacho:  Yes, I YouTube’d him.

YDF:  Just now?

Nacho:  Yes…I’m not a little ballet freak remember? (oh NO she didn’t!)

YDF:  Did you know he’s Italian?

Nacho:  I kinda got that

YDF:  You’re Italian.

Nacho:  Indeed I am.  What was the answer you were looking for?

YDF:  The answer should have been yes, so I could tell you that he was a model for a Gap ad, and then you’d have something in common…but you ruined it.

Nacho: Sorry Charlie 🙂

YDF:  How do you like your male dancers?

Nacho:  Good?

YDF:  Fascinating.  Now describe your ideal ballerina.

Nacho:  Traditional yet not stiff?  I don’t know.  These are hard!

YDF:  Okay so final question (and this SHOULD be easy) what do you love about dance?

Nacho:  The expression through movement…the story that can be told without any word use.  The different interpretations of pieces, the emotion, the passion…I don’t know.

YDF:  Okay I lied, the REAL final question is, what are some characteristics of dances you like or dislike?

Nacho:  You know I don’t like too modern/abstract pieces… but I do like originality… generic pieces make me wanna scream.

And there you have it.  I’ll be sure to update on her progress as the summer progresses!

It’s okay to laugh in ballet

4 Feb

I find it hard to believe that anything could be more important in life than laughter.  So today’s post is all about ballet and comedy…ballemedy if you will.  Especially in a world is so grounded in tradition and formalities I think humor is often overlooked in ballet and it’s important to remind ourselves to think of humor as a completing element; nobody is truly human without it (is that not the essence of this blog…or of my life for that matter?).  Dancers themselves don’t always take things so seriously but when we see this scrupulously polished finished product on the stage, we forget that fact as the performers whisk us away into a world of fantasy and splendor.  So I present to you some evidence that ballemedy is alive and well, kicking us in the gut so we double over in laughter:

The first is a piece entitled Le Grand Pas de Deux, with choreography by Christian Spuck (the resident choreographer of the Stuttgart Ballet).  The music is Gioachino Rossini’s overture from his opera La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie).  A fine piece with plenty of furious strings and a flittering piccolo melody that sounds like fun (although I’d rather shoot myself then play piccolo again.  While the piccolo itself is very cute, playing it can feel like trying to squeeze your face through a keyhole).  The overture certainly inspires a comedic air and is often used as such in popular culture, like that video on youtube of cats doing funny things…it should come as no surprise that the overture makes a fine incidence of ballemedy as well.  So Le Grand Pas de Deux debuted in 2000 (to who knows what kind of reviews…and who cares anyway?  It’s a great piece) and has all kinds of giggle-worthy moments.  I love that there’s a cow in a tutu onstage, wonderful little touches of odd looking choreography amongst a dazzling array of classical steps.  It’s one of those pieces that you can’t imagine would ever be boring for the performers.  Especially for such professionals I would think it would even be therapeutic to be able to take to the stage and get a laugh every now and then, amongst the plethora of applause, flowers and even tears.  There are a few performances of this on YouTube, of them I most enjoyed  Julia Krämer and Robert Tewsley of the Stuttgart Ballet:  

Next we have a gala…performance (not quite a piece) with lots of cross-dressing, role reversals and a large hammer.  This came from the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, where principals from top companies all over the world gathered to dance like they never have before.  You have Vladimir Malakhov as Giselle, partnered by Diana Vishneva as Count Albrecht and Malakhov is surprisingly proficient at pointe, a rare talent for a danseur.  Their lifts were absolutely breathtaking and set a new standard for dancers aspiring to perform the principal roles.  Aren’t you glad my last post was about Giselle so you know what I’m talking about?  Moving on, the gala performance included many famous variations like the Bluebird variation from Sleeping Beauty (with a tragic end) but they saved the fireworks for last; Natalia Osipova doing the male variation from The Flames of Paris.  With a giant hammer (of which I couldn’t discern the purpose of such an implement, but if I know Japan, I know they love their giant hammers.  Purpose?  Not necessary.).  The crowd goes nuts when she leaps onto the stage, ascending to heights that earn her own strata in Earth’s atmosphere that is aptly named the Osipovasphere.  I’m amazed that she basically does the male variation in its entirety (with a few interpolations…although I highly doubt she’s incapable of a pas de ciseaux, aka “switch leap”).  Great to see her get to jump in regular ballet shoes instead of pointe shoes as well…that has to be liberating.  Enough talk, now video:

For the last shred of ballemedy I would like to draw your attention to a former ballet dancer, Megan Mullally.  Prior to her days (much prior, actually) as the martini soaked, piccolo-voiced Karen Walker on the NBC sitcom Will and Grace, Mullally was in fact a soloist with the Oklahoma City Ballet when she was in high school, dancing with them for five years and attending summer intensives at the School of American Ballet.  During interviews in promotion of the remake that must not be named (Fame), Mullally recalled her experiences at SAB (housed in the Juilliard building), talking about how strict and disciplined it was and how old Russian ladies would say mean things while wearing sunglasses (“Make plié!” Perhaps?).  It was the acting in ballet that she was most drawn to and actually inspired her to leave ballet and pursue acting as a career instead.  But you know what they say…you can take the dance out of a dancer but you can’t take the dancer out of…mmmkay.  You know what they say.  At any rate, in more recent years she became a fan of SYTYCD and even had the nerve to skip a meeting for her own talk show that was set to premiere, just to attend the finale.  For which, not only did she not have a ticket, she was also busted for snapping photos inside, which they so kindly announced over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, Megan Mullally is in the house and she’s taking pictures illegally.”  She obviously continues to enjoy dance, even if it isn’t the main priority in her life and it’s funny where your past experiences can take you.  We all know the benefits of having experience in dance because it develops internal rhythm and musicality, but whoever thought such talents could be called upon in a situation like this:

Oh Megan.  How I heart you.  My friend Liz said that she hopes Megan was paid a lot for that (a shorter, edited version ahs been hitting the television waves as a commercial), to which I merely replied, “Hell, I’d do that for free!” (and videotaping?  Not necessary).  Clearly, Liz has also forgotten what it’s like to go grocery shopping with me in the first place.