Tag Archives: peter martins

New York City Ballet: Bringing Splendor to Tchaikovsky

9 Jun

To see New York City Ballet with my own eyes this week has been immensely gratifying, but it hasn’t been without reminders of its apparent stagnancy. Last night the company presented four ballets, beginning with Barber Violin Concerto and The Infernal Machine by ballet master in chief Peter Martins, and ending with Allegro Brillante and Tschaikovsky Suite No.3 by George Balanchine. The dichotomy of choreographic talent couldn’t have been more obvious, and raises serious questions in regards to City Ballet’s future; which ballets warrant preservation? Which can be dropped from the repertory?

Even those of us who reside outside of New York have heard the rumblings over Martins’s work. Having never seen any of it, I couldn’t pass judgment until recently. At one time, for Martins to experiment with creating ballets and provide the company with a fair amount of new works was a wonderful thing, but the opportunities came with a responsibility to either fulfill a certain level of proficiency or step aside. Even from seeing only two ballets it’s evident that Martins never had the gift—Barber captures none of the finesse of Samuel Barber’s score and Infernal forces musicality uncomfortably to happen. Neither piece presents a coherent concept nor do they display any knowledge of the choreographic tools. There are of course, many paths towards aptitude; some are born with it, others pursue academic studies, or put themselves through a rigorous process of self-criticism. I’d be surprised if Martins has done any of the above due to his feeble use of space and motif in Barber, which juxtaposed two couples dressed in white, one in more classically styled ballet garb, the other plain, barefoot, and modern, with corresponding ideas in movement. Though principal Megan Fairchild provided some comic relief by harassing her partner like a pesky younger sibling, the humor contributed nothing to the piece as a whole.

Infernal, though completely different with its angsty, punctuated movements for two dancers dressed in black with odd, barely visible colored accents, is no better for its overwrought partnering and contrived modernity. Both are dated, forgettable, and vacate responsibility to the skill of the dancers themselves, who tried to make the work look decent, but it was in fact the work that is beneath them. In essence, Martins has written poor poetry with beautiful words and neither of these two needs to be kept in City Ballet’s permanent repertory. Given his inadequacies as a choreographer, it’s long past due that new choreographers—anyone—should be given the same opportunities to experiment as he did, for which there are surely many candidates who would die for the opportunity to work with such a world class company. Although it’s risky indeed, there’s no reason to deny the same chances for success and failure that Martins has been afforded. In the company’s illustrious past, Balanchine created hundreds of ballets and together with Jerome Robbins, made City Ballet the cutting edge, wellspring of new work—a far cry from what it is today. While the company now has a heritage to maintain, there is still plenty of room for growth, provided there is more shrewdness in selection. Certainly, more opportunities could be given to Justin Peck—earlier in the week I caught his In Creases, and very rarely have I seen a choreographer able to communicate something interesting so concisely. The hype about his work is absolute truth.

Meanwhile, if you’re a geek for Balanchine/Tchaikovsky like me, the latter half of the program was the main draw. First came Allegro Brillante, a short but bold ballet to the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No.3’. It was the composer’s last work, a redrafting of an abandoned symphony that was published posthumously. A dance for a principle couple and four additional couples costumed in icy pastels, the opening melodies are mysterious and even a bit perilous, as the curtain rises on a swirling cyclone of eight dancers in pinwheel formation. It’s not all maelstrom though, as shortly after the lead couple enters, they engage in a rhapsodic pas de deux—light, breezy, and with a delicate aroma of romance. Principals Sara Mearns and Andrew Veyette displayed a refreshing vigor throughout, with Mearns a charismatic spirit with an uncanny ability to work ever so slightly off balance, and throw in an extra pirouette here and there. She brought a glinting danger to the role that was both thrilling and audacious, highlighting the adventurous nature of Allegro. Veyette in contrast was steady and sharp, mindful of his partner and quietly valiant. Both were resplendent in this piece where Balanchine was at his most classical. Beautifully laced with his idioms, his eye for patterns, and exceptional musicality, Allegro Brillante is the shooting star of City Ballet’s repertory and masterfully leaves the audience wanting more.

The appropriate closer was none other than Tschaikovsky Suite No.3, a four-movement ballet that incorporates the often independently performed Theme and Variations as the finale. Balanchine first choreographed Theme for American Ballet Theatre in 1947, making the revisions in 1970 with a change in title. The differences between Balanchine over the decades was night and day, made obvious in the first three movements through dreamy impressions, with women dressed in nightgowns, free flowing hair, and mostly barefoot. The movements are mellow and introspective, obscured by a misty screen and gossamer long skirts. While beautifully performed, the choreography is rather modest for Balanchine and grasps at a narrative that doesn’t exist, which renders the piece too long to maintain interest. Theme and Variations is better off on its own, because while the entire suite is of historical interest to balletomanes, thirty years since Balanchine’s death have made the complete suite largely irrelevant. The repetitious look of women in shimmery dresses and loose hair loses its novelty quickly, and the pink, purple, and white they wear are too saccharine. Ironically, the later additions look dated compared to the vibrancy of Theme and Variations (or rather, Tema con Variazioni in the suite), as the ballerinas donned traditional tutus with a rich color palette and detailed embellishments like Fabergé eggs, the men in complementary teal jackets originally designed by Nicolas Benois.

Principals Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz led the charge of radiance with charm and glittering precision, in a ballet that is as beautiful to watch as it is surely brutal to do. The lead woman must be self-assured and alluring, quick on her feet, and uphold a sense of decorum—all things Peck did with incredible ease and grandeur. As her partner, de Luz put on a dazzling display of technical perfection, where his refinement and immaculate technique said so much more than the difficulty of the steps themselves; rare is the danseur who can execute such tidy pirouettes and tours en l’air, in which he must jump into the air in a pencil straight position, turn twice, and land securely on both feet to continue a dizzying series of the aforementioned steps. They were adorable as individuals and together most affable, a remarkable performance of one of Balanchine’s most thunderous and astonishing ballets.

For more on the costumes of Tema con Variazioni, be sure to check out this video from New York City Ballet’s YouTube channel:

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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!

Challenging Changes and Audacious Authenticity

23 Jul

I’ve been reading up on reviews and such for the Bolshoi’s production of Coppélia that is currently showing at the Royal Opera House, which is a new reconstruction from a Stepanov notation score of Petipa’s original.  The Bag Ladies wrote a post that included a link to a fascinating article from The Arts Desk, featuring the man “restoring” Petipa ballets, Sergei Vikharev.  It’s all supremely interesting, but unfortunately wasted on me because most of the Petipa ballets I’ve only seen one or no production of (I can hardly believe this debauchery), let alone be familiar with the details and choreography to know the differences in “after Petipa” versions and any reconstruction (none of which are on film yet anyway).  I hope in depth discussions about Coppélias are taking place in London as we speak, meanwhile I’m going to keep splashing about in the kiddie pool.

What I do take away from the article though is a question of what exactly does authenticity mean to the world of ballet?  Rather than lead you to believe I have some coherent answer stewing in me brains, I’m just going to say up front there really doesn’t seem to be one.  Some ballets do well with change while others simply can’t be touched.  There’s no clear formula to decide what’s allowed and what isn’t and it seems no great choreographer’s work, whether classical or contemporary is completely invulnerable to change.  There’s no gauge to say whether any of the changes are good or bad, but we discuss these changes anyway and that friends, is what makes art history so special in comparison to plain history.  Regular historians have to argue with each other over the truth while art historians can just argue for fun…or really, to present a certain interpretation of an idea.  It’s all quite intangible and makes for better conversation because we have the luxury of learning to accept differing ideas on the same topic.  Meanwhile, history seeks to uncover one, unbiased truth and I find that incredibly boring (needless to say, history was never my best subject).

I was surprised to read in the article that there was a lack of support for Vikharev’s work (and even more so that money was part of the reasoning behind it) because I don’t think Vikahrev is trying to monopolize Petipa ballets; to me it seems to be more of a responsibility to expand ballet’s history.  I think part of the problem is the word authenticity itself—to claim one version as “original” or “authentic” is to imply that anything else is not and while everything else is indeed “after Petipa,” many new stagings of these ballets have built their own, admirably strong traditions (like Balanchine did with his after Petipa choreography).  As cliché as it sounds, we really do have to look at the past to be able to see the future.  These new reconstructions can help us see how ballet has changed and thus give us that ballet can indeed continue to evolve as a classical art form.  The only way to know where you can go is to know where the heck you came from.

Nobody knew the importance of change better than Balanchine.  In my own obsession with (or as I like to call it, “amateur studies”) of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, I’ve seen many of these changes and not just in historic versus contemporary performances, but within older performances that included changes made by Balanchine himself.  He created the pas de deux on Violette Verdy and she herself had this to say in a documentary:

If he didn’t like what you did with it right away, and he’d say ‘I think I need to change it’ [And you say] Oh Mr. B. I love this, I’ll make it look good, I promise, I’m going to work. [Balanchine would say] ‘No dear, I have another one [step]’ because he knew, maybe there was something better there to be done.

I’ve seen footage of Verdy, the originator of the piece which debuted in 1960 as well as the television debut with Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise in 1962 and already there were changes in the choreography.  DISCLAIMER: Okay so if you’re a casual reader who may not be too familiar with ballet terminology, you may want to choose your own adventure and skip right to the animations because it’s about to get really confusing or if you know the terms and want to skip the details anyway (a valid lifestyle choice) please feel free to do so.  For example, in the coda fouettés were never in the original choreography.  Verdy would perform a series of consecutive attitude turns (en dehors) followed by a quick series of tour sautés en arabesque.  When Hayden performed, Balanchine had her do fouettés but start out with slower ones and gain speed.  Fast forward a bit and Patricia McBride performed what has become sort of the standard and what I used to call the “fouetté steppy-step.”  I looked this up in the dictionary and it’s a mouthful—“fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes.”  I have a little side complaint with this because nobody does this with the speed and accuracy of Suzanne Farrell (understandably so) but what many ballerinas end up doing is cheating the second half of the emboîté en tournant.  They do the fouetté, step onto the right foot en pointe but they cheat with the left leg and plop straight into plié to do the next fouetté.  It’s kind of sloppy to me…but anyway here’s a couple of animations for the visual people:

violette suzanne

Observe: Violette Verdy on top, performing attitude turns en dehors followed by tour sautés en arabesque and Suzanne Farrell on the bottom, performing fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes, both at the same moment in the music.

It is somewhat normal to change bravura steps in a grand pas de deux but there are also many stylistic changes throughout that Tchai Pas has gone through over time.  Hayden didn’t do the partnered penchée in the pas de deux and d’Amboise’s variation actually had an extra forty-eight counts!  Arms differ on the fish dive, whereas Farrell would dive face first, many ballerinas extend their arms forward.  The final exit offstage includes an overhead lift where the man lifts the woman underneath her back and she extends one leg forward and one leg behind her in attitude but it is often changed now so that she tips completely backwards and extends her front leg to the ceiling.  Personally, I like the forward version because it gives the effect of this huge, flying leap and the tipped back version tends to look a little awkward to me, like a caveman hoisting his latest kill but like I said, no right answers when it comes to these changes.  I’m just scratching the surface here, but you get the idea.  What I’d like to know is why hasn’t Verdy’s original interpretation been revived?  Yeah, I went there.

Three different fish dives: Hayden & d'Amboise left, McBride & Baryshnikov center, and Farrell & Martins on the right. Note the differences in arm and leg positions as well as the positions of the men. d'Amboise is lunging forward with his weight on his front leg, Baryshnikov on his back leg while presenting his front foot in tendu and Martins in an upright pseudo-first position. Each couple presents a completely different line and aesthetic, and all of these dancers worked directly with Balanchine.

Anywhodle, there are more controversial, substantial changes like the whole Bournonville versus Lacotte La Sylphide.  The Bournonville is the real deal, “authentic” if you must, while the Lacotte is what it is and seemingly less liked.  In the case of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, I think the choreography was so stylized it’s hard to imagine the same story being told a different way.  However, old or new even masterpieces can see a little change, as Lady Deborah MacMillan mentioned in an interview that when the English National Ballet (I think) did Manon, there was new choreography she had never seen before and she was in full support of it.  So it seems we’re forever blessed and cursed with conflicts between originals and obscurities, authentic versus standard but in the end it’s always giving us something to talk about and that’s the most miraculous thing about the classical arts.  I think it impossible to find something that is so rewarding, the more you invest into studying it…because maybe every Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux being performed today is a LIE.

Eureka! Jinx…

21 May

Thanks to the Seattle Public Library, I’ve been watching Choreography by Balanchine (vol.1), which features full recordings of several Balanchine ballets.  Of course I was more interested in the “leaning-towards-classical-neoclassical” dances on the DVD, including Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (pas de DUH—it’s my favorite!), Chaconne and Ballo della Regina. I was thinking about writing a comparison/contrast(ison) between Chaconne and Ballo della Regina, because they have a lot in common.  They both use opera music, premiered around the same time and I think the style is pretty consistent between the two, BUT I didn’t really enjoy Ballo as much as I thought I would.  It’s crazy fast with ridiculously…no, HEINOUSLY hard footwork but there was something missing.  The dynamics of the piece didn’t sit well with me for some reason and I was stuck feeling like the ballet was going nowhere.  Maybe I need more time to absorb it…or maybe, it’s just not that good.  Besides, Chaconne is more relevant right now anyway since NYCB will perform it over the next few weeks and not a Ballo in sight.

At any rate, I adore Chaconne.  First of all, it’s set to music from Cristoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the popular Greek myth of Orpheus, who went into the Underworld to retrieve his wife (Euridice) and the deal was that she would follow him but he was forbidden to turn around to see her.  When he did (because heterosexual men often have questionable judgment) he lost her forever.  I’m going to geek out for just a moment here and inform you that the ubiquitous “Can-Can” music I’m sure you’ve heard in movies or cartoons is from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, Orpheus in the Underworld, which is actually a comedy that takes some jabs at Gluck’s version.  I often find that the concept of “six degrees of separation” is often halved when it comes to the arts…so even if you knew nothing of either opera, Orpheus or Chaconne, you’re still connected to the piece in some way, which is by far much more fascinating than discerning how close you are to Kevin Bacon.

As a flute player, I know Orfeo ed Euridice extremely well. Trust me when I say ALL flute players know it because we’re synonymous with a section of it better known as Dance of the Blessed Spirits (which is specifically what Balanchine uses in the ballet).  We’ve all played the solo at one point or another and it’s the type of piece that for lack of a better phrase, “makes you feel pretty” and I assume similar emotions are invoked choreographers and dancers alike.  When Pina Bausch staged her own Orfeo ed Euridice, even she created this ghostly, romantic ballet to the music which is far from what she’s known for and I find it interesting that her danced opera debuted in 1975 while Chaconne debuted in 1976.  Bausch and Balanchine employed vastly differing interpretations of the ethereal, with Bausch’s using more gestures and organic movement while Balanchine opted for subtlety, having the dancers drifting in and out of each other, creating an effect like clouds rolling in the sky.  The costumes are somewhat similar in style and color which I find fascinating because it’s improbable that the choreographers/costume designers were aware of the other’s work, especially when the dances premiered within a year of each other.  I have to say though, that I found Bausch’s choreography to be much more embracing, as if the dance was loving me and not the other way around.  See for yourself:

Balanchine’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Bausch’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Chaconne begins with a pas de deux followed by the ensemble dance from above, which I found unusual because the women have their hair down, wear plain costumes and the style of the dance is soft and lyrical.  When the dancers reenter the stage, they all have their hair tied up in typical buns and have quick-changed into costumes that have a hint of opulence.  I find it odd that Balanchine would go from casual intimacy to a regal, courtly dance but the contrast certainly provides space for the dance to explore the in betweens (perhaps what I felt was lacking in Ballo della Regina).  However, one thing that stood out to me in the pas de deux was a move, a partnered move where the man and woman link arms and the woman has one foot on point, leaning away from it in a sort of faux-arabesque.  The reason why it stood out was because I had seen it before—it’s one of the iconic moves in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, from the bedroom pas de deux.  Now Manon premiered in 1974 (two years before Chaconne) and while Balanchine and MacMillan couldn’t be any more different on the ballet spectrum, they arrived at creating the same movement, at almost the same time.  It gives new meaning to the words “great minds think alike,” although there’s a chance that any pair of five-year-olds on a playground could “invent” this movement as well.  It does bring into question though, if there is ever a limit to choreography; at some point dance will (if it hasn’t already) plateau in terms of movement vocabulary and while new dances can always be created the search for new steps becomes futile.  I think that’s what sometimes bothers me about newer dances; it seems like everyone is pushing for new and innovative, but there’s not as much effort to incorporate historic styles.  That’s a topic for another decade though…

Note: The more freakish your feet are, the easier this move is. Carlos Acosta/Tamara Rojo on the left, Peter Martins/Suzanne Farrell on the right.

When Chaconne transitions into its more formal setting, the choreography immediately becomes quicker and crisper.  In the film version, the principal roles are danced by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, both of whom deserve more exposure than YouTube allows.  What I love about Farrell’s dancing, whether it’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux or Chaconne is the way she uses her feet—she’s like a sewing machine, pinpointing her placement on the floor in dainty little stitches.  Martins on the other hand, with his Bournonville training from the Royal Danish Ballet, has exceptional beats in a myriad of little jumps (and you know Balanchine liked to put in some brisé volé!).  They are of course quintessential Balanchine and it’s difficult to imagine say, Russian ballerinas being able to keep up with the pace since their training encourages lingering to indulge movements.  The wonderful thing about Farrell and Martins is that they were trained to “go up” and “come down,” so they can come down from relevé or find fifth efficiently and without making the subsequent movement look forced.

So here’s an excerpt from the faster section of Chaconne…unfortunately I can’t post the whole thing because I’ll get in trouble, but hopefully these excerpts will give a decent idea of what the ballet is like.  I wish I was in New York to see it…but I have to say writing about it has been rather therapeutic.  I almost feel like a part of the action and I can pretend like that’s enough for a little while.

The Balanchine Appetizer

28 Oct

Does anyone else hate sudoku?  Well I do.  I solved my first 9×9 sudoku puzzle in the newspaper the other day, after many tries and thus thought about having a change of heart.  There I was, thinking I was on a roll and whilst attempting today’s puzzle I kept making mistakes and had to erase numbers so many times I basically wore through the paper.  I never solved it, and it got me thinking…what is it about sudoku that I hate so much?  I do enjoy puzzlish things and problem solving…but I prefer those with color or a three-dimensionality to it because I am visual/spatial in my way of looking at the world.  However, I’ve decided that when it comes to sudoku, the REAL thorn in my paw is the idea that there’s only one solution, only one way to do it and only one correct answer.  That, friends, is a philosophy that goes completely against the modus to all of the arts, and consequently it makes sense that it would irk me so.  It would be like saying “there is only one way to do an arabesque” when dancers know that’s so far from the truth the “not-a-planet” Pluto would seem like a next door neighbor in comparison.  An RAD arabesque is not the same as a Balanchine arabesque.  They are all different ways of arriving at a singular idea.

So on that note, my topic for today is Balanchine, albeit not necessarily differences between Balanchine technique (or style, depending on who you’re arguing with), which is discussed a little bit in the documentary Bringing Balanchine Back, which I watched today.  A couple of Vaganova dancers noted the quickness of NYCB dancer’s feet, which interestingly enough was something I had once observed.  Many moons ago, Jessica showed us one of the Balanchine Celebration videos (the one with Theme and Variations) and asked us if we saw any differences between the corps and the lead danseur who was Russian.  Immediately, I thought to myself that he was too slow and behind the music, but at the time I was not very knowledgeable and considering the fact that there were other better trained dancers in the class, naturally I thought my answer was stupid and I didn’t raise my hand because surely one of them would have something more insightful to say.  Well, nobody said anything, and she told us that he was indeed a hair behind.  So let that be a lesson to anyone new to dance or even experienced in dance and afraid to speak their mind…we ALL have a valid voice in critiquing dance.  Sure, some opinions are more informed than others, but you might just hit the nail on the head.  I forget who it was that said it, but someone said something about how sometimes it takes a completely uninformed person to see the language of dance and see the story being told, because they won’t know a thing about technique.  Not that you would know…but if anyone can remember where I read/heard that, please tell me!

Anyway, I have some mixed feelings about the documentary though…I think they tried to take a compelling angle with the return of Balanchine ballets to Russia, but there wasn’t much done with it.  For the dancers that were interviewed it was a moving experience and they felt pressure, but I didn’t get any feel for the significance of the event itself.  Russian audience members were casually interviewed and had nice things to say, although there either wasn’t any criticism or it was edited out, which kind of sapped any sense of realism and made the documentary a little fluffy.  Plus, there weren’t any full dance sequences, just excerpts, which could be expected of a documentary, but it’s extra salt in that ever festering Balanchine Trust wound.  I also have an oddly irrational…how to say…not dislike, but a lack of fondness for Peter Martins as a person.  It might be because of that article earlier this year about the layoff of a bunch of NYCB dancers and his humongous salary, which, you know, he’s artistic director so he should get paid a healthy sum, but at the same time it seems so un-Balanchine like to put one’s own interests ahead of members of the company.  I speak with minimal knowledge of Balanchine’s character, but from what I gather he wasn’t the type to live luxuriously at the expense of his dancers.  There’s just something (else) kind of off putting about him though.  But that aside, it also seemed unclear who the audience for this documentary should be.  I think the success of a documentary is contingent on how it connects with its target audience, and this really isn’t for a balletomane because I don’t think it was gritty enough and yet a person completely new to ballet isn’t going to have enough knowledge to understand what’s going on.  If it were a class, it wouldn’t be Balanchine 101…it would be more like Balanchine 103, which is an odd place to be.

Okay, so rather than mixed feelings I suppose I had an unfortunately negative reaction to the DVD, stained with disappointment.  It’s not one I’m adding to the amazon.com wish list.  But there was a silver lining, which is one of the wonderful things about ballet is the constant interconnectivity and how doors can open in the most unlikely of places.  First, the assortment of excerpts was at least a decent introduction to a number of Balanchine works, and I feel more prepared to watch Serenade and Symphony in C (I adored what I saw of the latter).  I’ve seen Western Symphony before, which oddly enough, I find cheeky and delightful even if I have never in my life liked western themed anything.  I guess I like the idea that a classical-ish ballet can be centered on a theme that isn’t necessarily some romantic fairy tale.  I also feel more connected to Balanchine ballets in the sense that he based his ballets on the strength of the score, which is the category I tend to identify with.  (Actually, he died just a few months before I was conceived…I’d like to think that the soul I got had a brush with his in the afterlife before being reincarnated into me.  Wishful thinking?  Maybe.)  There was also a work by Jerome Robbins, of who I haven’t gotten to see much of.  Obviously, I’ve seen his choreography in West Side Story, and there’s also a website with some significant excerpts of a film version of Opus Jazz (link here) that I watched.  I also saw last year the PBS documentary on him, which also contained excerpts from his dances (blasted excerpts!) and one of my favorite quotes ever from Steven Sondheim:

The only things Leonard Bernstein feared were God and Jerome Robbins.

So it was nice to see more portions of a Robbins work.

But what I was really captivated by was the dancing by Jock Soto, who I had never seen before.  His body type was so distinctly different, stocky and short-limbed compared to his willowy peers (and I’m not just talking about the women, all the other men were lengthy and leggy too) and yet he was an exceptional dancer with apparently legendary partnering skills.  Although I’m always fascinated to see dance on a body that people wouldn’t necessarily expect, there’s also something different about the way he dances that intrigues me.  Since the DVD was filmed towards the end of his career, one has to wonder if such an aesthetic could ever find its way into ballet again, if Martins would ever be so bold to pick a dancer like him again and if teachers around the world are capable of nurturing someone without the genetic gifts to stardom.  All interesting questions, and not to be answered by me (at least for now), but upon further research it seems there was a PBS documentary made about Soto, which I’m going to try and get a hold of.  It seems I can buy a copy of the film by contacting the filmmakers directly, but I’m scared it’s going to come with a hefty price tag so I don’t know if I’m brave enough to ask yet.  But he seems to have had (and continues to have) an interesting life so the desire to watch this film is nagging like my daily cravings for a Kit-Kat bar.  Here’s a trailer:

In the meantime, I’ll probably buy his cook book at least.

9781573220705

Is there a recipe for better turn-out? Har har...just keeeedding.

DANGER! DANGER! Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux!

30 Sep

Initially, when I watched The Turning Point, Lucette Aldous’ cameo as the Black Swan  was my favorite little performance snippet, but I’ve since had a change of heart, to Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  I think I didn’t know enough about the Tchaik to really appreciate it, but in the past I have really liked Balanchine’s more classically styled works, like Theme and Variations (still trying to find a way to see this on video again…harrumph!) and Diamonds being my favorite of the Jewels (coincidentally, also me birthstone).  The weird Stravinsky stuff is ok…just not my favorite, because I prefer the classical vocabulary.  I do like Apollo, and Balanchine’s ability to create different styles in his Stravinskian ballets compared to the vastly different Tchaikovskian ones speaks greatly of his much heralded musicality.  However, I still find a lot of Stravinsky music to be too atonal and downright creepy.  Like horror movie soundtrack, and as much as I used to enjoy horror movies, or rather, taking my friends to horror movies so I could laugh at them being scared, it turns out I’m a scaredy cat too.

Anyway, I was really fascinated by the story of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, as the mysteriously lost music from Act III of Swan Lake, and written for Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who didn’t like the original music (apparently because someone else used it…Billy forbid!).  She had Petipa choreograph a new pas de deux to music by Minkus, but Tchaikovsky himself was all “oh no he didn’t!” and refused to let someone else’s music tarnish his masterpiece score.  So he wrote new music to correspond with the choreography Petipa had already done for Sobeshchanskaya, and everyone was muy happy.  It was later dropped and because ballet is ballet the score was “lost.”  Thirty years later it’s found in the Bolshoi Theatre’s music library, and Vladimir Bourmeister used it in his staging of Swan Lake for the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre Ballet in 1953.  It was then brought to the attention of Balanchine, made its debut in 1960 and has since taken on its own identity as a Balanchine ballet.  Balanchine redid or did his own version of a lot of classical ballets, but I think the ones before him still stand as the dominantly known versions, while the Tchaik is rarely associated with Swan Lake now and it’s Balanchine’s choreography that takes the cake.  Although Bourmiester’s production is still done, like La Scala here with Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle here:

Although I’m a little confused here because the music for the pas de deux and male variation are the same between Swan Lake and Tchaik, but the female variation and coda are different. AwKWaRd!  It’s a nice pas de deux for Swan Lake though, but there are a few reasons why I prefer Balanchine’s plotless Tchaik.  One being how the codas aren’t so formulaic.  You can’t go wrong with “man jump jump pose, bravura step, a manège of some kind, enter woman 32-fouettes, man turns a la seconde, woman manège, end with finger turn/grandiose lift.”  It’s a proven formula that has worked time and time again, but there are always other ways to express movement and musicality, and Balanchine doesn’t stick to a particular structure…the woman might run in and do a little something, then the man, maybe a partner assisted something, maybe a something else in a “your turn, my turn” kind of deal, so it allows for more variety and to some people, it adheres better to musical phrases rather than chopping things up into chunks.  He also throws in some spice by taking things and doing them in new ways like fouettes which are in Tchaik, but instead of 32 straight there’s a series of a fouette into two little piques with a half turn (or as I like to call them, “fouette steppy-steps”), and then ending with a few regular fouettes.  What I like about it is how the fouette steppy-steps are peanut butter and jelly with the pizzicato of the violins.  It just makes more sense.

However, the BEST part of the choreography is the “death drop fish dive of doom.”  Instead of the run-of-the-mill fish dive where the ballerina is dropped from a lift and the man bends forward with her, sinking on the back leg into a plié, the Tchaik version has the woman leap into the air where the man catches her at the apex of the jump, and then drops her forward while mostly staying upright, and she ends with her face just inches from the floor.  So the action in a regular fish dive is more of a “drop and then lower,” while the fish dive of doom is a “launch and then swing,” kind of like those swinging pirate ship rides at amusement parks.  Pas de deux can be generally categorized into three types:  an expression of love, someone is either dying or already dead, or a celebration.  Tchaik would be a celebration, and I love how the fish dive of doom adds an element of danger.  If I ever meet a six and a half foot sasquatch, I’m definitely going to ask if we can try this out, because it looks like fun so it must be a good idea.  I can’t post a video, because of legal reasons having to do with the movie, but here is an animation.

fishdiveshort

Anyway, because it is Balanchine, of course videos are almost impossible to come by thanks to the Balanchine Trust.  I know, I complain about them all the time, but I do get what they’re trying to do.  They want to make sure Balanchine ballets are reproduced with authenticity, and I don’t dispute that.  But honestly, who in the world is going to try and stage a Balanchine ballet from a YouTube video?  I don’t think any artistic director would really stage a ballet that they couldn’t coach, so of course they’d bring someone in, and it’s kind of a slap in the face to them to make it seem like they wouldn’t have the wits to do just that.  Not to mention anyone could rent a Balanchine Nutcracker, copy choreography out of it and there’s no way the Trust has spies that attend every Nutcracker in the world during Christmas (or do they?).  Plus the advertising…if you think about it, I never would have even known about Tchaik had I not taken the time to go to the library, rent a movie that was made before I was born, with no prior knowledge of the fact that it even contained Tchaik.  That’s a considerable amount of effort just to see a MINUTE of ONE ballet.  If I want to see the entire thing, these are the opportunities available to me:

  1. Fly somewhere to see it live.
  2. Fly to New York and go the Library of the Performing Arts
  3. Purchase a DVD of Pas de Deux or Dancing for Mr. B for $26.99
  4. Track down an out of print VHS of Peter Martins: A Dancer

I would really love to see Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins dance the whole thing since The Turning Point only shows a minute of the coda, but it’s only availabe in Peter Martins: A Dancer and nothing spells accessibility like “out of print VHS.”  Were it not for The Turning Point, chances are I’d never do any of the above, unless I happened to be in town when a company was performing Tchaik, and only the alignment of the stars can tell us when that would happen!

The key word though, is “almost” because I scoured YouTube and succeeded!  I won’t post links because I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, but I was able to download a clip and edit it so that only an excerpt of the ballet is shown, and the Trust seems to be okay with small excerpts.  I saw mostly variations and the coda from a few different performances, and it’s interesting that the Trust is so concerned with authenticity when each interpretation was vastly different.  For example, Darcey Bussell is immaculate, typical clean lines and articulate feet that you can expect of a dancer of Royal Ballet caliber, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.  The tempo was rather slow, and although the clarity in her fouette steppy-steps was amazing, it was just too dreamy for my tastes.  And the fish dive of doom was much different, with Zoltan Solymosi catching her like a feather, without much of a swing to it.  So there just wasn’t enough speed and danger.  Also, they chose to do the more common position with one leg in retiré, and the man in a wide plié while Farrell/Martins were in a straight position, with legs together as you saw above.  Ballet is meant to evolve from performer to performer, and with such changes I’m left a little confused as to why the Trust would claim ensuring authenticity as a defense for having videos removed.  I mean, if you want to get really picky, contemporary performances of Tchaik have some notable differences, like the woman’s entrance before the fouette steppy-steps, where women now do an Italian pas de chat, with an added tour jeté before bourée into the prep, while Farrell did a regular pas de chat, degagé into sous-sus fifth, bourée into prep, no tour jeté.  There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s pretty clear nobody’s trying to do it like one of Balanchine’s muses!

Anyway, the clip I selected isn’t the best quality (and I’m hoping it doesn’t get my YouTube account suspended…eek!), but the dancing is wonderful with Xiomara Reyes and Angel Corella.  The Cubans are always so jubilant and effervescent which makes Reyes a great pick for this (although even she lags behind just a hair on the steppy-steps!  Farrell does it best from what I’ve seen), and I thought this was a perfect role for Corella.  I’ve seen clips and he was “wow” in Corsaire, “HOLY SMOKES!” in Don Q, but I loved him in this the most.  He has a really infectious smile, and is just really buoyant and plain old happy throughout (and I like his little hoppy tours…whatever they’re called).  The reason why I selected this is because their fish dive of doom is by far the most exciting one out there.  I like the purity of line with Farrell/Martins straight body positions, but Reyes has some MAJOR air time and Corella dips her so close to the floor it’s cramazing.  Enjoy!

By the way, last night when I was downloading this video and editing it, it disappeared and was “unavailable” for a few minutes and I was totally creeped out and was almost convinced that the Balanchine Trust was after me.  It was totally Jennifer Garner in Alias.

Also, I should mention that it seems Miami City Ballet is doing it this season, so here’s an excerpt from them, and the Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse has some more substantial excerpts from the pas deux and variations for a better picture of what the entire pas de deux looks like.  It’ll have to do!