Tag Archives: paris opera ballet

Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina

12 Sep

Photo ©Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau (I think!)

When I reviewed Paris Opera Ballet’s La Source for SeattleDances, I initially left the theater wondering what the heck I was going to write about, and subsequently found myself exceeding the word limit by quite a bit. Somehow I have even more to say, though I think I covered enough of what I thought about La Source in my review. Still, I can’t rave enough about how much I love Jean-Guillaume Bart’s choreography—the musicality and details are exceptional, and inevitably, I began to think about Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, who are heralded as this generation’s torchbearers of classicism. I’ve seen handfuls of ballets by both, both on film and with my own eyes and while I do admire both choreographers greatly, I have to be honest—Bart’s La Source, which is essentially his debut as a choreographer (I’ve read that previous pieces were only for students), was a home run, and impressed me in ways that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon did the first time I saw any of their ballets. The opening scene of La Source, featuring a band of swift elves and awakening nymphs, had me completely drawn in—from the unusual set, to the delicious allegro for the elves, with shades of Bournonville and Ashton, but still very much in Bart’s unique voice.

Opening scene of La Source, featuring Matthias Heyman as the green elf, Zaël:

I was sold on Zaël from the get-go (not to mention that gargantuan pas de chat he does as he enters!), as the character also provides some comic relief a la Puck and is just generally delightful. Petit allegro served as the motif for the elves throughout, and Bart’s sequences are so creative, miraculous, and charming—using a number of my absolute favorite steps—that when they’re paired with the elegance of French schooling, they achieve divinity. It’s quite interesting that Bart is able to downplay virtuosity without hiding it, such that the most difficult movements can look so natural and so fitting in a certain phrase. In the above clip, one of the subtleties I loved was the series Zaël does beginning at 4:10, where the first jump is a cabriole where the rebound is delayed. I remember seeing French dancers do this before—finding fifth position in air and holding that shape before opening the legs and the effect is stunning. I don’t know if the French have a specific term for it, but they certainly make a distinction between a cabriole with an immediate rebound (which they also perform at 5:17) and this delayed cabriole (or perhaps hybrid “assemblé-pas de poisson” for the pedants out there—what shall we call it: Assembloisson? Pas de poissemblé?).

Unfortunately, the rest of La Source proved to be difficult. Not every classical ballet has a great story behind it, and I thought having seen my fair share and reading the plot synopsis would be enough to follow the action, but I was completely confused. I went with a friend who is also a dancer and seasoned ballet-goer and she too was lost, and when we talked about it, we realized anyone who would’ve seen La Source as their first experience with ballet would have been even more confounded, and possibly turned off by the experience. I mentioned the obscurity of the magic flower in my review, and if you think about The Dream or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-in-idleness flower casts a very specific spell—to make one fall in love with the first creature they see, something that is made very clear throughout both ballets. However, the magic flower in La Source is ambiguous—it heals people, teleports nymphs into palaces, freezes time…one would think it omnipotent, and yet it doesn’t save Naïla from death. Lack of common sense is just too prevalent, when you have a nymph sacrificing herself for a hunter who never reciprocates her love, and he himself in love with a woman he barely knows and doesn’t have affection for him either. When this is stretched over two hours of beautiful dancing with no mime, it becomes a very long two hours, especially when the presented characters fail to strike an emotional chord.

Thus, I found myself wondering a few things: What makes for a successful story ballet? Why do we crave them so much? Why haven’t we had a truly great one in so long? These are far from new questions as the dearth of new narrative ballets seems to always be on the mind of balletomanes worldwide. The saying goes that there is a human need to be told stories, and something I pointed out in my review was that the art of choreography is a transmissible folklore, very much like an oral tradition. Stories, fables, idioms, etc. are passed from one generation to the next and sometimes bits are kept/altered/lost, and ultimately, provide the greatest gift by teaching us something about ourselves, or re-illuminating emotions that we’ve already experienced. The typically favorite romantic and classical ballets fulfill this at basic levels—betrayal and forgiveness in Giselle, naivety and exploitation of innocence in La Sylphide, fragility in Swan Lake, hopes and dreams in The Sleeping Beauty, and arguably more, though I tend to think these are the most successful at really connecting with audiences. For example, it’s not that the modern woman (or man!) fantasizes about BEING an Odette, but I can easily imagine a person today relating to her fragility, someone who has perhaps felt vulnerable in her/his life, and would simply hope that someone could love her/him even in that state. Advertisements today bombard us with images that “confidence is sexy” and thus, outwardly attractive, but what about the times you feel insecure? Is it perhaps in our weakest moments that we need to feel loved the most? Questions like these keep Swan Lake relevant.

When it comes to the next “wave” of great story ballets, I look to Ashton and MacMillan, who created a fair number of ballets between them, though there are a few that have truly achieved “classic” status in my mind, based on frequency of performance by companies worldwide. We have Ashton to thank for Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, and The Dream, where he delighted us with themes of escapism, youth, romance, the fickle nature of love, and many spritzes of humor. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon have permeated into countless repertories, and he gave us insight into love, hatred, desperation, lust, corruption, and grief. The truth is, we see bits of ourselves in those characters, which is why the events within the story mean something to us. An art like ballet works an incredible magic when it draws empathy from people, and it’s fascinating when you find yourself affixing to an unlikely character, or having a change of heart after repeated viewings. The following is a statement of the obvious, but the more multi-dimensional a character is, the more chance a dancer has to resonate with an audience in presenting that person, hence, an innate love for character development.

After a certain drought, we find ourselves today depending on Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and now Bart, but the re-doing of lost classics and the seeking out of fairy tales that have yet to be done has become a bit banal. Is it enough to love the score and see the steps, or simply have a desire to do a particular ballet? Are any of these choreographers so moved by a particular story, that they can’t rest until they express it in dance? As it is, the above trio of men have been creating ballets that audiences do enjoy, but are they relevant to what audiences want (need)? Have their experiences as accomplished dancers prevented them from really being able to understand the general public? How does one negotiate choreographing for dancers, a dance audience, and people? With the Balletomanes librettistis being a critically endangered species, who will communicate the relevant stories to choreographers? Could choreographers themselves benefit from creative writing workshops—not to write publishable short stories, but to reveal something new about the process of character development, of crafting a story arc, driving a plot, etc.? I have no idea…though I suppose asking difficult questions is a place to start.

Oh well—more Zaël!

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part Two

1 Feb

Be sure to read “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One” first!

For the past year or so I’ve been on a mission to hunt down some recording of Ashton’s Rhapsody, and sometimes being a locomotive pays off because I managed to find it! Only, I didn’t even know it was Rhapsody until close inspection of the choreography because the design of the production was completely different. In 1995 English artist Patrick Caulfield overhauled Rhapsody with new costumes and sets that were rather odd. In a way, I can see where he was coming from because Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini does have a certain quirk and mischief to it that wasn’t quite captured in Ashton’s pink and gold pastel-topia, but Caulfield seemed to have some kind of “art-deco-Alice-in-Wonderland” in mind, complete with playing card-like shapes on the costumes. I’m not fond of the designs or the color scheme (okay, I hate it), and the Paris Opera Ballet didn’t seem to be either. According to a review written by John Percival, POB wanted to commission a new design for Rhapsody when they staged it in 1996, but weren’t allowed to, and the Caulfield designs apparently lasted for one season (in which case, video of it is a treasure indeed!).

Successful or not, I like that The Royal Ballet has made a habit of injecting contemporary ideas into older works to see if it invokes new perspective on it. There are of course many instances of directors/choreographers staging their own versions of the warhorse classics, but they still revolve around a certain set of standards that make drastic changes rare, and significant makeovers for abstract ballets even more scarce. Many symphonic ballets don’t require highly specific costumes so colors, beadwork, ornamentation etc. will vary from company to company, but what Caulfield did to Rhapsody is pretty extreme. While alterations may be questionable, it’s still refreshing to see works being performed in new ways, and there’s bound to be audience members who may enjoy something more as a result. There are of course times when sets and costumes are far too crucial to a work to, but experimentation has to be just as important as authenticity. Oddly enough, Rhapsody has since gone under another transformation; in 2005 Jessica Curtis washed the work in a golden sunset, and her simpler vision remains the current production of The Royal Ballet. I can’t comment on it since I’ve only seen photos of Curtis’s designs, but I wonder if the Caulfield designs were perhaps so controversial there was a conscious effort to go with something rather neutral. Still, sometimes it’s a better decision to dress the dancers in something that doesn’t draw attention away from the choreography.

Steven McRae and artists of The Royal Ballet in their current production of Rhapsody, with costume and set designs by Jessica Curtis (photo ©Tristram Kenton)

Edited to Add (4/30/12) Miyako Yoshida and Yohei Sasaki perform the pas de deux, in the costumes by Jessica Curtis:

 

Ah, the choreography! It’s definitely some of Ashton’s most wicked work, and despite the plethora of bravura steps, it’s actually the quick changes of direction that are likely the trickiest aspect of Rhapsody. Though it’s hard to imagine anything being tricky for Baryshnikov (considering how easy he made everything look), it’s still quite a test for the primer danseur, almost as if to goad one into mastering it. I actually find Rhapsody rather funny and charming in a cheeky sort of way, as the choreography seems to play with the audience too. There’s a section where six male dancers line up in a row and one by one alternate between double tours and entrechat sixes, and when the last dancer finishes and the sequence starts over again, dancers who did double tours switch to entrechats and vice versa—it’s the kind of understated comedy that makes you smirk just a little bit. It’s so damn clever and I absolutely love it, and there are many such moments all throughout Rhapsody (especially just before the end, where all I can say is that fourth position has never made me laugh out loud before). I invite you to see for yourself:

Rhapsody (designs by Patrick Caulfield) Part 1 of 2:

 

Rhapsody Part 2 of 2:

 

According to the user who posted the videos above (and many thanks to you, friend!) Carole Arvo and José Martinez danced the principal roles. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet comprise the rest of the chamber ensemble, and while all performers have impeccable technique, Martinez is flawless—literally, perfect. I can imagine a performance from other dancers that are perhaps more sly and witty, but elegance tends to prevail in Paris and Martinez is a pleasure to watch in this one. Arvo is also a beautiful dancer with a cool demeanor, though having watched the central pas de deux with Lesley Collier/Baryshnikov, I missed many of the skyward glances Collier did, as Arvo’s upper body presentation was mostly focused forward towards the audience. Ultimately, it’s a fine and beautiful performance, hindered by the costumes and sets perhaps, with my only criticism being that when the ‘Virtuoso’ makes his second entrance (at about 5:30 in the first video), I think the tempo is too slow. Given, I was notorious for being a bit of a speed demon as a musician, but that’s a section of the music that needs to have a little fury, and not fall victim to the tendency in ballet to slow music down to allow for bigger jumps. Martinez was even ahead of the accent just a little bit on the sissonnes in the manège, so I think they could have pushed the tempo to something musically appropriate.

In the end, I’m just plain happy that I’ve finally gotten to watch Rhapsody! Even as a rather humorous ballet, there’s still an austerity to it that sates that speck of darkness on my soul. I think it’s safe to say that Ashton’s Rhapsody is probably the definitive Rachmaninoff ballet for the time being, having enjoyed its fair share of performances over the past three decades, though perhaps not enough outside of Covent Garden (I don’t know if Paris Opera has revived it in recent years, and the only other company I could find that has it in their repertory is K-Ballet of Tokyo). Besides selfishly wanting a more feasible opportunity to see Rhapsody live, on a serious note I do think it would do well in the repertory of ABT and/or Corella Ballet. Angel Corella has often been compared to Baryshnikov, and I can imagine him performing the role exceptionally well. We know he has the technical brilliance, and he really has the personality for it, and I don’t mean this to be presumptuous, what a treat it would be if Baryshnikov could coach him in the role!

While the future of Rhapsody appears steady, to bring this series of posts full circle back to the idea of ballet and Rachmaninoff in general, it’s worth noting that there are of course choreographers who are trying. It’s funny that Ashton’s first choreography to Rachmaninoff appeared in a film because it just so happens that another English choreographer has followed suit—surely, you can picture in your head Jonathan Reeves’s ballet to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor’ in everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, Center Stage? Well, the real choreographer behind that was Christopher Wheeldon, who has also created a piece entitled Rhapsody Fantaisie, to selections by Rachmaninoff. However, the bread and butter may be revealed this spring when two hot ticket choreographers will debut world premiere works to Rachmaninoff, one being none other than Alexei Ratmansky, who is probably the most well known (and busiest!) ballet choreographer in the world right now, and the other is Liam Scarlett, who is regarded as the most promising up and coming talent. Ratmansky is setting his work on Miami City Ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece intended to be a ballet which initially never happened because Fokine died amidst collaborative efforts between the two to make it happen and although Ratmansky isn’t the first to do a Symphonic Dances (Peter Martins’s ballet to the music remains current in the New York City Ballet repertory), he is the man with the “golden touch” so this could be big. Scarlett’s untitled work will debut a month later on The Royal Ballet, and while information about it is currently being kept under wraps, considering the success of his Asphodel Meadows, this could be huge too. Let’s hope they join the ranks of Rhapsody and help to establish a more prominent place for Rachmaninoff in the world of ballet!

Oh. My. Rojo.

24 Feb

And now, the long awaited highlight of the week (for me anyway), a review of the brand new DVD of La Bayadère, with Tamara Rojo as Nikiya, Carlos Acosta as Solor, Marianela Nuñez as Gamzatti and artists of the Royal Ballet.  I’m going to just get this out of the way and say that this performance is virtually flawless.  I would even go as far as saying that the love triangle of Rojo, Acosta and Nuñez is a pièce de résistance that may never be matched in chemistry and other qualities.  Rojo’s Nikiya approaches divinity as a human in Act I and exceeds it when she returns as a shade in Act II; Acosta’s Solor is the most sincere expression of valor and regret brought to life in bravura technique and nowhere else will you find a more sultry, seductive and positively forbidding Gamzatti in Nuñez.  The stars certainly aligned for this one and met all of my expectations…I still can’t get over how amazing the principal casting was for this.

Just look at the acting of Nuñez and Rojo!

 

The production itself is quite good, choreographed by Natalia Makarova to an orchestration by John Lanchberry, which is probably my only major complaint about it.  I don’t know the score well enough to point out specifics but I know that there are a number of truncated sections…including stuff I’ve listened to on a CD that is supposedly orchestrated by Lanchberry as well!  The only other Bayadère I’ve watched is the DVD of the Paris Opera Ballet, staged by Nureyev and while the memories of that are foggy the score seemed entirely different this time around.  At the very least, the score did seem appropriate to the scenes with the main variations and pas de deux being familiar enough but I definitely missed some melodies (which is saying a lot for a Minkus score, which have the tendency to be largely forgettable).  Makarova’s choreography is wonderful, and I love that she elaborated on the role of Gamzatti, having her reappear in Act III and attempt to wed Solor.  Many productions of Bayadère (including the one I just mentioned by Nureyev) stop after the Kingdom of the Shades, where Solor is mourning over a vision of Nikiya and it’s abrupt because we never see what becomes of the characters themselves.

Makarova wanted to restore elements of Petipa’s original, and have Solor and Gamzatti in a wedding scene at a temple, where Gamzatti sort of rushes the ceremony as she is consumed by guilt over Nikiya’s murder and Solor eventually refuses to marry Gamzatti out of remorse because he is haunted by the image of Nikiya.  This culminates in infuriating the gods, who destroy the temple (which is so fantastically over-the-top and Russian of Makarova to do) and we see Solor and Nikiya reunited in the afterlife.  The importance of this Act III is that it really fleshes out the characters and gives consequence to their actions, thus allowing the audience to see more clearly a reflection of human behavior they may be more familiar with, or rather, choose to believe in.  As Tamara will tell you in an interview in the special features, Classical era ballet is not about telling a story but is instead a commentary on human emotion and morals.  Makarova’s choreography in Act III is just sublime; there is a beautiful pas de trois where Solor has to dance with Gamzatti who is quite real and also the ghostly apparition of Nikiya and I’d imagine that this is exceptionally challenging for the male dancer because not only does he have to partner two different women, which is a physically and mentally exhausting merry-go-round.

Excerpt of Act III:

One after another the principal variations will stun you…Rojo is vulnerable and pure in the sacred flame solo, tragic and sorrowful in her solo at Solor’s betrothal where her arabesques just go into infinity and she has the most luxurious arches of her back paired with exotic port de bras.  Nuñez is equally brilliant with her betrothal variation, and sensuously hot in Act III, dressed in a slinky red number for her wedding solo (the contrast in her character in these two solos is amazing).  Acosta has one tiny hiccup in his betrothal variation (an iconic one in the male repertory) where he was off balance in a pirouette, but the funny thing is he still manages to get something like four around and if you’ve ever tried pirouetting when your alignment is completely off, you know that’s a superhuman save.  Furthermore, Acosta and Rojo deliver the consummate Act II that will have you wishing you had some of what he was smoking, with Rojo as a hallucination adding just the subtlest aura of distance between Nikiya and Solor.

Betrothal Pas de Deux:

Ah, Act II…the Kingdom of the Shades and one of the most important scenes in all of classical ballet, like a marching band coming out for the halftime show.  I was a bit surprised because while the corps de ballet did an acceptable job, it made me realize how much the Paris Opera Ballet has this scene down, and they have the added challenge of thirty-two shades compared to the Royal Ballet’s twenty-four!  I do have to point out though that POB has more uniformity in body types while the Royal employs a more diverse selection of dancers so automatically it’s going to have more variance, but POB just seemed to have better timing.  It’s possible that a slight difference in choreography may have something to do with it as well because the standard choreography alternates a regular arabesque with a little port de bras and the POB has the dancers doing much more voluminous arm movements by releasing the head and upper back forward in the port de bras, whereas the Royal does not.  So in effect, the Royal corps has less movement in the same amount of music, which means they have to sustain things longer and that inevitably leads to more individualized interpretations.  The bigger movement also helps the corps with receiving visual cues from each other, thus making synchronization a little easier.

Entrance of the Shades:

Overall, the dancing is fantastic and the soloists were on fire for the betrothal, and Yuhui Choe in particular really stood out to me in her shade variation in Act II…she seemed to have just a little more spark and her variation in particular is a wicked one.  After seeing clips of her in Swan Lake from a fairly recent guest performance in Korea, I hope she is made a principal sooner than later!  Although speaking of the Shade variations, I noticed something a little strange in that the three soloists who did them were different from some of the trio work elsewhere in the same scene, though both included Choe.  Odd.  At any rate, the DVD also has amazing features including an audio clip of Makarova discussing her staging, a chat with Leanne Cope and Francesca Filipi about the iconic corps scene, the interview with Tamara Rojo I mentioned earlier (one of my favorite parts of course!) and really cool studio rehearsal footage of Rojo and Acosta receiving coaching from Alexander Agadzhanov (Acosta does some huge barrel turns in this footage but changes the jumps for the performance itself…a pity because I love barrel turns.  Well, not doing them).  There are so many overwhelmingly good things to say that the only flaw for sure is that in the program notes that appear during the overtures, the snake that kills Nikiya (which by the way, Tamara said sometimes she has a hard time doing that scene without laughing at the rubber snake) is described as “poisonous” when in fact an animal that injects a toxin is “venomous.”  An animal is poisonous if a toxin is absorbed.  Fun fact!

Now that you know, here’s Choe’s Shade Variation, to leave a lovely aftertaste:

Illusions of Grandeur

19 Jun

Whether it’s PNB or the Fremont Arts Council putting on a parade of naked, body-painted cyclists in celebration of the summer solstice, Seattleites inject a healthy dose of the arts into their livelihood…but in some cases, not enough.  Thus, the responsibility falls upon me to culture the quasi-wife from a misshapen pearl to a rounder one, since PNB doesn’t really do Petipa as far as I know (unless it’s Balanchine after Petipa).  Don’t get me wrong…she has an undeniable love for classical music for she is no mere flute player; she is a razor-fanged, competitive, ambitious, power hungry flautist.  I mean, who else would borrow music to practice in their spare time for fun?  I did lend the music to her, but is it not she who borrowed it?  In addition to classical music, she dabbles in opera and ballet as well—she too went to see PNB’s Coppélia (a different cast than I saw though, and she criticized the third act for being superfluous) and was supposed to see the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of La Bayadère while she was working in France, but her mother is now undergoing treatment for breast cancer so instead of travelling around after her contract ended, she came home to the Emerald City to be with family and understandably so.

The Palais Garnier opera house, from when quasi-wife visited Paris.

Although a filmed performance is never the same as live, I thought I’d try to recreate the experience for her and borrowed the DVD of POB’s La Bayadère, with Isabelle Guérin as Nikiya, Laurent Hilaire as Solor and Elisabeth Platel as Gamzatti.  It was a play date of pretend as we had a fanciful Italian dinner (spaghetti and meatballs) and sat in the prime seats (she sat in a recliner…you won’t find one of those in any opera house box!).  Despite my role as impresario educatorio extraordinario, I actually hadn’t seen a full production of  La Bayadère myself, although I knew the basic plot and have of course seen my fair share of variations on le YouTube and I figured that would be enough to get us through without program notes.  I was kind of wrong because we both found ourselves a little confused, but a quick online search clarified what we needed to know (I am without a copy of Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke’s The Ballet Goer’s Guide because I practically had the copy from the Columbus Public Library on permanent loan, such that it never occurred to me that I don’t actually own the book).  I find that a number of ballet DVD’s will often scroll program notes for the viewers during the overtures played after intermission, and I was surprised to find that POB’s La Bayadère did not (and possibly edited out overtures altogether).  I was excited to emphasize the Frenchness of the experience by putting the DVD in French, assuming it would be those program notes that would appear in French, but really the language settings only change the DVD menus.  Lame.

At any rate, the production overall was really quite beautiful and although we decided some elements were kind of racist, we took it at face value—it’s not like La Bayadère was written yesterday with today’s knowledge of what’s politically correct and such.  I don’t think any audience member really expects a ballet to be perfectly cast ethnically so I don’t know that painting dancer’s skin (with the exception of the Gold Idol of course) is really necessary, but I think understanding of the intent eliminates the possibility of fostering racism.  Ballet audiences are smarty-pants…we know.  We know.  Regardless, the costumes were stunning and the dancing sublime.  POB is ridiculously clean and their dancers so well rounded, which of course is best shown in the famous corps de ballet scene in Act III, The Kingdom of the Shades, when the ghosties enter in linear fashion, where replication of near-identical arabesques between each dancer is key.  I figured she would like this scene for its symmetry and orderliness, after all, we’re talking about a girl who calls Storables (a store that sells containers and storage items for the home) a “store after her own heart.”  I told her that the Kingdom of the Shades is probably the most famous corps de ballet choreography, such that scholarly ballet people write papers and whatnot about just that scene.  If someone would like to confirm this for me, do let me know…I prefer to tell truths.  Speaking of smart audiences though, she even got the whole “shades-as-the-puffs-of-smoke-from-Solor’s-opium-hookah” symbolism all on her own!  I tell you, I’m training these little ducklings so well…although she did ask me if this was the only ballet where someone is on some serious drugs and my question to you is who asks that kind of question?!?

Quasi-wife appreciated the drama and beauty of Guérin as Nikiya and the height of Hilaire’s jumps (though she did not care for the character of Solor himself…I believe there were words exchanged pertaining to his passive-aggressive and sometimes negligence).  She also said that Hilaire looked very French (whatever that means) and I too enjoyed the performances of the lead dancers and Platel’s Gamzatti (quasi-wife didn’t like Platel’s bow though).  Platel is exceptional in the grand pas de deux…lithe, cunning and yet sickeningly elated that she has claimed Solor through dastardly means.  She does a unique fouetté en dedans during the coda, whipping into attitude instead of passé which I thought was an interesting touch instead of the usual Italian fouettés.  Hilaire was floatacious in his variation as mentioned earlier.  I found it interesting that he opted for cleanliness and style as opposed to big bravura steps, such as a single cabriole instead of a double, but he finds fifth in the air like no other (it’s unfair really).  However, I find this to be proof that cleanliness and taste always supercedes sloppy fireworks.

Solor and Nikiya variations and coda:

In the end, quasi-wife enjoyed La Bayadère even though I basically insisted the entire time that she would like Manon better.  ‘Twas enough culture for one eve though and Manon can wait since I own it, while the library beckons for it’s hookah ghosties.  If your library does not provide, you can always sate the beast with le YouTube.  If you have just over two hours to kill, follow this link to watch POB’s Bayadère in its entirety.

Meanwhile, you have now participated in our little pretend game as well.  The picture of Palais Garnier from above is actually a photo of the post card quasi-wife sent me from Paris.  Behold!  The power of imagination!

It trickses preciousss!!!

PS. I love to collect post cards people send me…wink wink!

Jerome Robbins’s In the Night

10 May

As I familiarize myself with new surroundings I find myself overwhelmed with frustration in the unfamiliar and desperately seeking comfort in the uncomplicated.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Seattle…life on the West Coast suits me well and I’m enjoying public transportation, interesting shops and even bewildering the residents of Queen Anne with my élan for grocery shopping.  However, I’m reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to a new environment, like when I first arrived and forgot that I live on a hill now.  It was only after I had purchased a bag of potatoes and a bag of clementines (both of which were buy one get one free, making that four bags total plus the flour and sugar I had purchased as well) that I remembered such an influential detail.  Or how about on Tchaikovsky’s birthday when I drove around blasting the music from the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux about eighty-five million times in a row to celebrate my favorite musical score of his.  I started the day out as a badass thinking “Tchaik it out, bitches!” but the day progressed into agitation when on my way to IKEA, I somehow rendered myself incapable of finding the exit from the highway and ended up circling the shopping center like a vulture keen on carrion.  Except in my case, there is an element of frenzy that is better described as a hummingbird trying to sip from a flower in a hurricane.  Easy, boy.

The point is (or was, at some point in time) that regardless of how much I love Seattle, I’m still lacking in the familiarity and comfort that only comes with time…like chocolate milk and knowing-how-to-get-to-stores comfort.  It just so happened that a few days prior, I had borrowed some items from the glorious (and gnome obsessed) Seattle Public Library and among the borrowed media was the A-MAZING documentary Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About.  Of course I had seen it when it aired on PBS, but when I found it in the library catalog, like any normal person I thought “absolutely!”  My favorite part of the documentary is of course the bits on Dances at a Gathering (that and the quote “There were only two things Lenny Bernstein feared—God and Jerome Robbins” which I misquoted in a blog entry long ago as Stephen Sondheim when it was in fact Arthur Laurent.  My apologies!).  Robbins had a deep love for Chopin’s music and that love was so pure that the choreography would of course match the integrity of the melodies.  So when Chopin waltzes and etudes induce a sense of comfort to the soul, so too will Robbins’s vision for them (and he was quite the tortured soul, so you know this Chopin stuff works).  Personally, I like to see choreographers have an enduring relationship with one composer’s music…like Balanchine/Stravinsky (or Tchaikovsky even) or Robbins/Chopin.

Rekindling my interest in Dances at a Gathering (I’m ready when you are, PNB), I wondered if my favorite Chopin Nocturne (Op.9, No.2 in E-flat major) was included in the selections for the score.  It isn’t.  However, it is included in another and perhaps slightly lesser known Robbins ballet to Chopin, In The Night.  I’m kind of ashamed to not have known of the existence of this ballet beforehand…but maybe someone else out there won’t know either and if by chance they have the tendency to know more ballets than I do, we can all mock them together.  Like Dances at a Gathering, In the Night has no narrative, but the latter is laden with a more defined theme beyond human emotions and relationships, narrowing the scope to look at the female psyche and relationships with men.  It’s much shorter than Dances at a Gathering, featuring four nocturnes, ending with the loveliest of them all, Op.9, No.2 in E-flat major.

There’s not much I can say about In the Night, because I think it’s relatively self-explanatory.  The cast features three couples with their own pas de deux to a nocturne, highlighting the women (as pas de deux most often do).  The video clips I’m going to post features dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet, with Clairemarie Osta/Benjamin Pech, Agnès Letestu/Stéphane Bullion, and Delphine Moussin/Nicolas le Riche.

The first pas de deux has dancers in dreamy periwinkle costumes, featuring movement that almost looks like it’s flowing in slow motion—it’s snail paced, even for an adagio.  It’s romantic without being overly intimate (they don’t even fully embrace until well into two-thirds of the dance) but it has its moments of tenderness, moments apart and even a moment of “fiery passion.”  It’s this subtle roller coaster ride that makes the pas de deux so real, even to someone who may have never seen a Jerome Robbins ballet or even any ballet for that matter.  It’s no stretch of the imagination to see it as an actual relationship because it comes as naturally as breathing does.  In fact the very end of this first pas de deux features a lift where the male dancer takes a little spin while the woman pulls in and then extends her leg and the effect is literally like inhaling and exhaling.  This is easily my favorite pas de deux of the three for its sheer reflexive nature.  Not to mention there’s this wonderful segment towards the end where both the man and woman bourée backwards (for the term unsavvy, that’s when a dancer rises onto relevé or pointe, taking microscopic steps and in this case, scuttle backwards.  The effect is…floatacious).  Not only is it captivating as they shrink away, but because this is a step men generally don’t do, this serves as proof that men should still learn and practice it.  Your calves will thank you later!

I.  Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, Op.27, No.1 (Osta/Pech)

In contrast to the freedom and romanticism of the first pas de deux, the second is stoic, calculated and in my opinion a little abrasive (relationships like that always make me uncomfortable).  It’s so stark that I can’t imagine how people can be happy like that and juxtaposed against the free-spiritedness of the first pas de deux it seems downright cruel…but it’s a relationship nonetheless and one that seems to endure.  I suppose some people want what they would consider regality and class but the restrictiveness makes me die a little on the inside.  There is one moment, where coming down from a lift you see the woman’s foot quiver in anticipation and THAT friends, is the extent of any emotional outburst, subdued as it is.  She is very much in love, but she is a woman that has to hide her desire in this rather cold courtship.

II. Nocturne in F-Minor, Op.55, No.1 (Letestu/Bullion)

The third pas de deux is the epitome of the “love-hate” relationship.  It’s argumentative, volatile and certifiably nuts.  She’s mad at him, she loves him, she leaves him, she takes him back…it’s a hot mess (an elegantly choreographed hot mess) and I constantly wanted to yank her bodice up.  You can see in the way he pulls her around on the stage that this is far from a healthy relationship and yet I think we can all say we know a girl like this.  Or you’ve seen enough episodes of Sex and the City to equate her to Carrie Bradshaw (you remember the obviously Sylphide inspired dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the 2004 Tonys…that bodice needed to be yanked up too).  At any rate I have to say that I was very drawn to Delphine Moussin in this performance, because of the way she used her hands.  Ballet teachers are always saying “energy through the fingertips” and with precision, Moussin shows us why.

III. Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.55, No.2 (Moussin/le Riche)

The finale has all three couples and emphasizes that while women have individual wants and needs in their relationships, these emotions all come from the same place.  There is a moment when the three couples gather in the center of the stage, breaking off into new pairs as if in a social setting but interestingly enough the only male/female pair is periwinkle woman with angry man from movement III, and their inability to connect prompts a quick return to their original loves.  The style of the choreography seemed to coincide with that of the first pas de deux, which leads me to believe Robbins saw that relationship as the one with the most potential for longevity, which is further supported by the fact that as they exit the stage, periwinkle couple exit stage right while the other two stage left, which sets them apart.  This may be excessive postulating on my part, but if we weren’t allowed to derive meaning from it, it wouldn’t be dance.

IV. Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 (entire cast)

So enjoy this beautiful, nerve calming dance and more importantly, enjoy that feeling of unbridled introspection…not every dance offers that luxury.

La Danse? La Revue

7 Feb

So I finally got to watch the highly anticipated documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse, directed by Frederick Wisemen.  I have to say it wasn’t quite what I expected (for one thing, it is LONG…I knew going in how many minutes it was, but it felt twice as long) and there were some things I found disappointing.  That’s not to say it didn’t have its share of charming moments too and inevitably any accurate portrayal of life is going to have both “cookies and celery” as I like to say…things you like and things you don’t (I challenge you to find me someone who loves raw celery…no dip, no peanut butter or what have you…just plain celery with nothing added.  Such a quest is fated to failure in my opinion.).

One of the issues I had with the documentary was the target audience.  To me, a typical documentary audience has an interest in the topic but a successful filmmaker will take care to render that topic into something both the knowledgeable and the casually interested can understand.  Easier said than done…but I have a hard time believing someone completely new to ballet would be able to follow the film easily.  Names were never given unless someone in the film called someone by name and so unless you’re already familiar with the faces of the Paris Opera Ballet you’re going to get lost.  Furthermore, names of the dances they showed were also not given, so you don’t know who choreographed what or even which piece was what.  I recognized Wayne McGregor, I deduced one piece was Mats Ek’s because there was screaming in it and I was fairly familiar with Paquita.  Meanwhile, I totally didn’t know that Casse-Noisette is French for Nutcracker so I was totally confused because the music was sounding familiar but the costumes were different, and it was further exacerbated by the fact that during rehearsals for the Prince’s variation in The Nutcracker, for some odd reason I kept hearing Prince Florimund’s variation from Sleeping Beauty.  Until someone told me afterward what Casse-Noisette meant, it really was a hot mess in my head.  Damn you Tchaikovsky!

I was not perturbed at all by the lack of commentary or narrative, because it seemed that the goal of the documentary was to film and let be.  There were some questionable additions, like filming workers vacuuming the theater or spackling a hole in the ceiling, but while unimportant to the ballet itself I felt those moments gave a sense of reality to the film; as if you were touring the STUNNING Palais Garnier (of which has a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall that was mentioned in several reviews of La Danse, and I wanted to see it because I saw a Chagall exhibit once in Korea, and of course they showed the ceiling once, for about half a second) and happened to pass such workers along the way.  There were all kinds of interesting shots, like the subterranean labyrinth underneath the building (which had a…pond?  Seriously, it looked like a sewer but there were plants and fish swimming in it.) and apparently someone has a hobby of keeping bees and harvesting honey on top of the building as well.  The documentary as a whole sort of followed a formula where it was mostly rehearsal footage, then some performance footage and each clip of performance footage was followed by a shot of Paris.  Actually I’m pretty sure several people in the audience fell asleep during the first segment of the piece of Médée, and it was a bright shot of outdoor Paris that woke them up.  Somehow I felt that this formula was a little detrimental to the film though, because rather than emphasize the sense of renewal that follows a performance, it made it seem more mundane.  I felt the goal was to clue the audience into the process, but unfortunately the film made the process itself seem less interesting.

What I did love was some of the footage they captured in the costumes shop.  Even though I worked on costumes crews in theatre (high school, nothing professional) to actually see them hand bead tutus and glue individual rhinestones with the same attention to detail and diligence that dancers use in their approach to their technique was really something.  It was somewhat brief, but enough to give you some (but totally inadequate) appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes in to costuming.  I’m surprised they didn’t shoot the fittings, but they did shoot hair and makeup and one of the hairdressers had a WILD set of rainbow dreadlocks.  THAT…was amazing.

As for the dancing itself, there is more than enough raw, peanut butter and dipless rehearsal footage to satisfy the eyes (although I would have liked to have seen more of company classes) and some of the little things that happen in rehearsals were the best parts.  Hilarious exchanged between Pierre Lacotte (choreographer) and Ghislaine Thesmar (who I believe teaches at the Paris Opera Ballet) and the dancers themselves inserted a witty comment or two.  Or a gesture like during the coda for Paquita, as the principal dancer was doing her fouettes, she started travelling forward and one of the members of the corps de ballet stuck out a flat palm as if to push her back.  Plenty of performance footage as well and I thought Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu looked amazing in McGregor’s Genus, looking mechanically alien.  The second segment of Médée was visceral and pretty disturbing with onstage blood as Medea (of Greek myth) murders her children to get revenge on Jason (of Argonaut fame).  It was pretty clear they wanted to show a great contrast in Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, with several modern works and a couple of classics as well, which emphasizes the company’s identity as one of the most innovative and experimental companies in the world.  Although I am left wondering if they are perhaps pushing the envelope a little too far and not doing enough of the classics…if they’re constantly experimenting, they will inevitably alienate people by not providing enough familiarity.  In fact, that was one of the weaknesses of the film because of the classics they showed, The Nutcracker was very different and Paquita had all kinds of revisions by Lacotte.

Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu in Wayne McGregor's "Genus." Image courtesy of Zipporah Films. This took me like eight tries to upload properly.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the dances they showed (I even find myself less interested in McGregor ballets) but it’s worth the watch just to see the process unfold.  Unless you can wander around Palais Garnier, there’s no other way you can get this kind of access to inner workings of Paris Opera Ballet.

I suppose you could join them.  Good luck with that!

Story of my life…

27 Jan

I recently had a viewing of the new Manon DVD with Karena.  No worries, this post will not be a review as I’ve already reviewed a live performance with the same cast…as much as I’d love to rave about Tamara Rojo again and again, I think to do so would be approaching…overkill.  I will say though that she gives incredibly insightful remarks in a pretty in depth interview, which is totally worth it.  Anyway, aside from the fact that the costume budget is approximately eighty-five million dollars, I mentioned to Karena that MacMillan gave the corps some really great choreography, but then of course there’s the party scene at the inn and during Manon’s variation the corps has to freeze.  For whatever reason I noticed one corps member with her arm up, holding a goblet and it occurred to me it would really suck to be her and have your arm go numb.  That’s when Karena told me about Jerome Bel’s piece, Veronique Doisneau.

I’m sure many are familiar with it and I’m just behind the times, but in brief, he basically plucked one of the members of the corps de ballet in the twilight of her career (obviously, Veronique Doisneau) and created a piece, a sort of theatrical monologue with dance interspersed throughout.  The piece describes her life in many facets, including the good, the bad and the ugly.  She describes a highlight being dancing the second shade variation from La Bayadère, which coincidentally I stumbled upon the sheet music for flute one day (flautists only!) and musically I enjoy it probably the most of the three variations, but in terms of choreography the diagonal at the end of the relevé elancé in first arabesque seems like cruel and unusual punishment.  However, she speaks of it lovingly, as if it were a dear friend and the whole monologue was sort of painted with melancholy.  When it was filmed, she was a mere eight days away from retirement so the melancholy is to be expected, but I also got a sense of relief from the way she spoke, a sort of calm that said she had made peace with her decision to retire (although whether she wanted to retire or was told to is anyone’s guess).

On the opposite end of the spectrum she shows us a low moment, which happens to be one of the most iconic scenes in classical ballet, the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odette from Swan Lake.  The corps has some…well, unfortunate choreography with a lot of standing around and while we appreciate the spectacle, it’s rough to see an individual corps member perform her piece of the puzzle.  Doisneau said it made her want to scream and you can see why…it was painful to watch.  Even when she finished and the audience applauds, she maintains her pose to remind us that if it were the actual ballet, we would be applauding the principals in their roles and rarely with an afterthought for the corps.  I don’t think she was bitter about her role in the ballet and didn’t seem to be asking for sympathy…she was merely telling and showing her side of the story, asking us to listen.

The whole piece is incredibly intimate and colored with more difficult moments than happy ones, like when she had surgery to remove a vertebrae from her back (which I didn’t even know was possible so the fact that she ever danced again is like ‘holy smokes!’) and never fulfilling her dream of dancing the title role in Giselle.  But like I said before, it never seemed like she was asking for sympathy…merely putting on display her personal challenges with the understanding that everyone has crap that they go through.  Of course I was a little saddened, but I couldn’t help but feel thankful that she was willing to perform the story of her life so beautifully and courageously…it felt (and was) real.  No gimmicks, no angles, just her life.

It makes one (well, me) wonder what goes into telling the story of your life through spoken word and dance…after all, Doisneau said that Nureyev taught her “it is through the mastery of the language of dance that emotion is created.” (which I whole heartedly agree with…I honestly don’t know how I lived before dancing myself…I’m not even sure I was alive.)  A couple of years ago, the dance critic, author and choreographer Deborah Jowitt gave a speech at OSU that I was fortunate enough to attend and she did a similar piece where she kind of told some of her history through word and movement.  I don’t remember details of the piece (although I do believe she wore jazz sneakers) but I do remember it had a much different tone to it…a bit cheerier, but she is of course a different person at a different point in her life so obviously her piece was its own unique entity.  It does make one (well, me again) wonder though, how would I go about creating a piece like that or what if like Douisneau, someone wanted to create such a piece on me?  Well, terror would probably describe my initial reaction because I could never imagine myself performing such a deeply personal work as a solo in front of an audience but when I do try to picture it in my head it ends up looking more like a stand up routine by a comedien.  C’est la vie?

I think that’s why I admire Douisneau’s courage so much but I think there are so many ways to relate to her I can’t imagine someone not being able to.  Although I can’t quite articulate it, there’s something to be said for learning to care about someone who is not in the upper echelon of whatever it is they do (although corps member of Paris Opera Ballet is pretty fantastic!).  It’s odd that in our society we look for ways to “humanize” the stars by pointing out the “average” things they do and yet we forget to humanize all different kinds of people as well.  I don’t know if I’m making sense and as I reread these last few sentences I don’t think I did…but what I do know is that the filling makes the pie…not the crust.

It is in your best interest to watch this piece (in four parts), I assure you:

Off topic, but kind of on the topic of Paris Opera Ballet…I have to jump a little in excitement (but not too much because I’m nursing an injured hip) because I have a number of things to look forward to in the beginning of February.  La Danse airs at the Wexner Center on February 6th, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (which I forgot to buy a ticket for…eek!) is on the 12th and the performances of Karena’s MFA project runs that same weekend, which includes romantic ballet works like a Fanny Elssler solo (La…Chupacabra?) and an Antony Tudor piece (Dark Elegies).  So…looking forward and not backward on this miserable month of January.  Now…to find a way to get rid of the snow…

Time for 2010

31 Dec

Seeing as how it’s time to ring in the New Year, it’s time for some kind of reflection.  Which, for perhaps the first time in my life is going to be relatively easy, because I’ve documented a great deal of the dance related significant events in this blog.  Normally, I can never remember anything, which is part of the reason why I wanted to start a blog in the first place.  It’s part of the double-edged sword when you’re the kind of person who has a lot of thoughts about a particular subject…you tend to forget a great deal of those ideas.  But no longer shall I cast them into the abyss!  So here are my thoughts on a few of things that made 2009 special for me.

1. Blogging

This was the year I started blogging.  It all began when at the beginning of the summer, I went to see the Bolshoi perform Le Corsaire and The Royal Ballet perform Manon in Washington DC.  Two major ballet companies within one week…it was a sweet deal.  Personally, although DC doesn’t have as frequent of performances as New York City, I think DC gets the better end of the arabesque because they get a much more interesting variety of companies.  Since NYC is almost monopolized by American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, they don’t always get a lot of touring companies.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that…since between the two companies there’s a solid coverage of classics, contemporary works and of course nowhere else can you sate your hunger for the Balanchine repertoire to your heart’s content.  However, both ABT and NYCB make a pilgrimage to DC (I’m pretty sure they go at least once every year), and DC is virtually the only city that ever gets the Mariinsky, Bolshoi and Royal Ballet.  So while shows aren’t as frequent, I think the quality and variety say it all…blasphemous, perhaps, but I would pick DC as the best place for ballet in the US (thankfully, from DC, New York is just a hop skip and a step away anyway).

So much rambling and nothing to do with blogging…anyway, so I wanted to document the whole experience and did so.  I also joined twitter, even though at the time I really didn’t “get it,” and I figured a couple of my friends would read the blog and that would be that.  Little did I know, that would lead to the catalyst that changed everything.  Somehow, the Bag Ladies over at TheBalletBag found my post on Manon, twittered it and before I knew it, people were actually visiting, reading and more importantly enjoying the things I wrote.  I don’t know how they found my blog, although I really shouldn’t have been surprised considering they’re the oracles of the ballet world…know all, see all (and that’s not an exaggeration).  Regardless, I got a lot of fulfillment from the idea that people enjoyed my writing.  Back in high school, several teachers told me I wasn’t a very good writer and so I kind of assumed they were right.  Fast forward to college and I had professors tell me I had a gift to write.  At first I didn’t believe them, but slowly I got used to the idea and that was the moment it dawned on me why so many people say high school sucks…the majority of the things people tell you there is a load of crap.  So many thanks to the Bag Ladies for helping get my blog out there and to all my friends and readers…you have been a significant highlight for 2009!

2. Sir Frederick Ashton

This was the year I discovered Sir Frederick Ashton (for myself obviously…one doesn’t “discover” a deceased man who is already famous).   I used to think Balanchine was probably my favorite choreographer, but there’s a number of his works that I don’t dislike but don’t appeal to my nature.  Meanwhile, I have yet to meet an Ashton work I didn’t find equally (if not more) musical than Balanchine and Ashton had an amazing ability to incorporate comedy into his ballets.  I have liked all of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets thus far, with the exception of Romeo and Juliet (and I realize Ashton has done one as well) but I think MacMillan’s ballets have a certain sophistication that…eludes me?  But this doesn’t prevent me (nor should it prevent anyone else) from enjoying his work.  At any rate, I think Ashton was incredibly versatile, and what I love about some of his ballets is that they are very child friendly and yet they can also appeal to the inner child in every adult.  I love his simplicity, clever use of props…just everything about his vision of ballet.  Of course, Symphonic Variations has ascended into the upper echelon of my favorite ballets because it embodies everything I love to see in a dance (my post on Symphonic Variations was definitely one of my favorites of the year).  Heck, 2009 was worth it just for Symphonic Variations alone!  Steven McRae of the Royal Ballet said that dancing it was like a “religious experience”…well Mr. McRae, I can tell you that viewing it was just as spiritual for me (and I didn’t even see it live!).  Man I love Australians.

3. Quadruple pirouette

Hell, that speaks for itself.  Even if it ends up being a once in a lifetime experience, it was worth it.

4. Tamara Rojo

I love you.  That is all.

So what does 2010 hold in store?  Nobody knows for sure…I’m never good with long term planning and I try to allow for spontaneity as much as possible because the older I get the more I feel like planning turns people into these zombie denizens (aka “adults”) that have no sense of adventure in life.  Total buzz kill

However, I do have some exciting (well I think they’re exciting) plans for my blog next year.  I am thinking of doing interviews with dancers…professionals?  Probably not.  But I know a lot of people who dance or are involved with dance in some way and I truly believe everyone has an interesting story to tell even if they aren’t in the upper echelon of whatever it is they do.  I’d like to think that I’m just the right person for eliciting those stories and polishing it for other people to read (and if I can spin it into something funny, then everybody wins).  If I’m not that person…well, I may as well practice so that I can be.

I also will also be begging people for more guest posts.  My quasi-wife Erina, who is currently teaching in some city in France, wants to vacation in Paris when her contract is up at the end of the spring before coming home to the US (and possibly going back under a new contract…but that’s another story.  I wish I knew details, but apparently it’s difficult to get the internet in France).  It just so happens that her end date coincides perfectly with Paris Opera Ballet’s La Bayadere.  I’ve demanded that she go, that it’s an “almost once in a lifetime experience” and to write a review or response of some kind.  I’m really excited for her because she’s seen Pacific Northwest Ballet growing up, but POB is a different beast.  It should be interesting because she’s not really a dancer, or the balletomane who knows the technical jargon.  She has the opportunity to see the production through virtually unjaded eyes, which I find a fascinating prospect.  So hopefully we’ll have that to look forward to…I keep badgering her every chance I get.  I’m *this* close to buying a ticket for her to make sure she goes.

Of course I promise posts a plenty from meself and beyond that I feel so encouraged by the response to this blog, I decided to really pursue a long (but ideally short) term goal, which is to write and publish a novel.  Since I was little, I’ve always known that I wanted to write a book, got discouraged in high school but now I feel that I’m at a point in my life when I can really achieve this.  Personally I don’t think there’s enough dance related fiction out there and the novels that are out there are kind of…melodramatic or dull.  As with this blog I endeavor to write lighthearted entertainment.  Humor is the name of the game and if I can contribute to the dispelling of the image of snobbery in ballet and make it more approachable to the average person, I’d be thrilled.  So 2010…let’s make it happen.  I’m ready for you.  Almost (still lots of research to do!).

Oops.

12 Oct

So I’m working my way through the stack of library DVD’s, ready to come back to the world of the living after a Romeo and Juliet overload.  Next in queue was La Sylphide, and I was really excited to see the Bournonville ballet especially because of its unique, completely authentic preservation.  Whereas most ballets are fossils that are spotty at best and can only give glimpses to their true histories, Bournonville’s Sylphide is like an insect preserved in a shiny piece of honey colored Baltic amber, leaving us with no questions as to what it looked like.  And yes, I have a thing for amber fossils…they fascinate me, and I totally ogled this piece of Dominican amber that had an extremely rare, fully preserved hymenaea blossom, which is a remarkable inclusion.  Insects are more commonly found because they were attracted to the tree sap and also because of their hard exoskeletons which didn’t degrade quickly, while soft organic materials like leaves and flowers are less common because they would rot quickly and needed to be covered faster, which would actually sometimes damage leaves and flower petals by rolling them.  So the circumstances for a blossom to be fully preserved with petals intact meant that a flower had to fall onto some tree sap, be covered quickly but carefully so that it remained open.  It’s an extraordinary occurrence, and the $2000 price tag certainly reflects that!

Anyway, I thought I was all clever because I had learned of the difference between La Sylphide and Les Sylphides beforehand, because when you’re knew to ballet it’s an easy mistake to make.  However, like the flower fossilized in amber, Bournonville’s ballet eludes me still, as it turned out I borrowed Pierre Lacotte’s staging with the Paris Opera Ballet.  Oops.  Serves me right for assuming I knew what I was getting myself into.  However, the Paris Opera DVD features the wonderful Aurélie Dupont, who I adore, partnered by the magnificent Mathieu Ganio, who I had never seen before.  The plot was the same, so the bits that I read about it still matched.  The staging was different in that Lacotte drew upon sparse notes and drawings of the original La Sylphide for Marie Taglioni who danced it with the Paris Opera Ballet.  Wait…what?  Ok, so it goes that the original La Sylphide was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie, who danced it in Paris in 1834, where August Bournonville saw it and wanted to do his own version so he staged his two years after seeing the original for a favorite pupil of his, Lucile Grahn, with the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836.  Long story short, the Taglioni was lost, the Bournonville preserved.  Lacotte draws upon sketches and notes to try and recreate what he thought the Taglioni would have looked like.

It’s always a shame (and kind of annoying) when ballet history is so fuzzy, but perhaps the ambiguity and mystery are what draws me to it (and fossils) and the opposite is what makes recorded history such a snooze.  I’m fascinated by Marie Taglioni, mostly because Pierre Lacotte said in the extras that the crossed position of the arms developed as a way to mask the uber-lengthiness of her arms and I was all “I have long arms!” and now the crossed arms is very much a part of the Romantic style.  Dupont also talked about having to wear a corset in rehearsals, which other cast members and various people were riled by as misogynist and whatnot, but Lacotte’s intention was to see how having to wear corsets (which the women did) affected the look and technique of the dancing.  Dupont said the corset sort of forces a forward posture of the torso, which changed the line of the arabesque leg, and sleeves changed how the port de bras moved (port de bras being something Taglioni was complimented on as well).  Kind of sucks for the dancers that had to wear the corsets for rehearsals, and Dupont said it took a while to get used to, but it’s an interesting detail nonetheless.

I actually loved Lacotte’s choreography, because it was so technically demanding with itsy-bitsy beats and such but I’m finding it hard to believe this is how they danced early/mid-19th century because quite frankly, it was very difficult.  Inspiration from Taglioni with a hefty dose of artistic liberties I’d say, but it’s still a wonderful Sylphide.  Ganio is so young in the video as well, a mere twenty years old, but he had these buoyant jumps, and incredibly clean beats.  I was very impressed by his dancing, and he did one of my favorite steps, the brisé volé,  So I had my “olé!” moment as well.  He was a truly naïve James, captivated by the Sylph and so sad when she died.  Watching Ganio dance the role made me feel as though he didn’t intend to hurt Effie, he was simply mesmerized by the unattainable, and it wasn’t until the penultimate moment did he realize what he had done.  Dupont was gorgeous in every way imaginable, and subtle in her teasing of James.  She was ethereal, curious, and yet so tragic at the end.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, this was a ballet that made me sad when everyone died.  Although I’m still not fully on board with the “go insane and die” in the way that James does and a la Giselle too…but I guess people at the time found that seriously romantic.

Some might argue that the Sylph was a figment of James’ imagination and never existed in the first place (the pas de trois between him, Effie and the Sylph could indicate that as a possibility), and so this ballet is a lesson about infidelity and chasing pipe dreams and myths, but those people need to get out of the 21st century and stop being so pragmatic.  HELLO!  Romantic ballet, key word, starts with an “R” and ends with an “omantic.”  Clearly, the character Madge (who I think I want to be one day) exists, and I see this story being more about man’s love for nature, and the destructive power of that love when he tries to possess it.  Like enjoying a bouquet of flowers inside of our home, as a belonging to us, inevitably kills them.  It’s similar to what Tamara Rojo had to say about Ondine, in that a fairy cannot be owned.  So I really enjoyed it, especially the score which I read that is different from Bournonville’s, because he was a cheapskate and couldn’t afford the original, so he bought a different one.  Lacotte’s Sylphide uses the original score Taglioni used, by Jean Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer (lord Billy that’s a mouthful!), which felt…I hesitate to say this, but Mozart-ish, and very classic-classical if you know what I’m saying (some crotchety music historian would probably slap me for this comparison, but there isn’t much information on Schneitzhoeffer.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made this kind of mistake either, so I’m okay with it.)

An excerpt featuring exceptional jumps by Mathieu Ganio (So many little beats!  Looks like men have to work on petite allegro after all!)

And the whole thing is also available on youtube in fourteen parts, this being the first.  The DVD is wonderful quality though, so I’d defos recommend it!