Tag Archives: petipa

ABT: ¿DonQué?

25 May

After listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet score, it’s hard to listen to Minkus. After watching a MacMillan story unfold, Petipa becomes unbearable. After delighting in the humor of Ashton, all other comedy pales in comparison…and there’s only one ballet that can assemble the worst of the above statements into one hideous beast—Don Quixote. On the one hand, it’s quite an entertaining ballet and has a tendency to appeal to the more casual ballet-goer, somebody who knows enough to see something that is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but on the other hand, it’s nonsensical and lacking in substance. I avoid DonQ like the plague because of my terribly short attention span and the fact that listening to the music is like being stuck on a carousel of nightmares for two-and-a-half hours, not to mention the story (like all Imperial ballets) is too far removed from a legitimate narrative to serve a meaningful purpose. The tie-in of Cervantes’s novel is the thinnest of threads with none of the philosophical outlook on romanticism, and the events from the novel depicted only occur in Act II—which also happens to be the one act I could do without. But then what would we call it?

Still, even I must concede that DonQ once held great appeal to me. I went as far as to buy the soundtrack—while some may be embarrassed (or not) to say they purchased CDs of bygone boy bands and defunct pop stars, I can credit DonQ to my former library of music. It was cute at first and the lightheartedness was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that befalls the protagonists of most story ballets. Here was a ballet where nobody died (permanently), and dancers had free license to be as charismatic as they wanted. Modern productions have become increasingly virtuosic, with more pirouettes and explosive jumps than ever before and American Ballet Theatre’s production, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones is…not too bad (that’s a compliment). To be honest, the inclusion of more bravura steps for the corps—particularly the men—was the only choice I questioned. It’s always an issue of contrast and shaping a narrative, to remember that there was once a time when not every male dancer could do the difficult steps, which is why there was such a thing as a principal role. I understand the desire and eagerness to highlight the talents of soloists and the corps, but not so far as to compromise the prestige of the leading man. It’s a fine line, but it was a bit much during scenes when the main couple of Kitri and Basilio encountered the toreadors and the gypsy camp. However, I was fascinated when as the toreadors performed a single move of their choosing, one by one reeling off countless pirouettes or another tour de force maneuver, while Joseph Gorak elected to a single turn in attitude. I applaud his decision to do something simple and elegant, and his attitude position is uncannily square (really, it’s almost alien).

It’s worth mentioning that this shift in technical feats is largely one sided though. The scenes for the corps de ballet of women and various solos are sometimes restored from notation fragments or simply the result of what’s been passed down (and often changed) from previous generations, such that the women of the corps de ballet have not enjoyed the same amount of liberation in terms of breaking free from the classical rules. They still have to perform the same choreography as it’s been done for decades now, and certainly don’t get to show off as much. To have other dancers do fouettés before Kitri’s coda would be a faux pas, but choreography for men is approached with more vanity and the stage becomes a competitive arena. That being said, it’s not much of a problem for Herman Cornejo when he dances Basilio because he’s one of the finest dancers in the world. The scary thing about his pirouettes for example, is that he has options—he can do five, six, seven pirouettes with incredible consistency and the best part is how he finishes them, always managing to freeze on demi-pointe before moving on. What’s also wonderful about it is that he never indulges an outstanding pirouette if it means finishing behind the music, even when he could easily keep going. Ironically, some audience members probably had no idea it was his choice to end some of those buttery turns, as the constant stream of whispered numbers indicated that they were counting—which makes me heave a sigh in exasperation, but even for those of us who champion subtlety, it’s as one of my teachers said: “You go to DonQ, and you have to hate yourself a little for being amazed at the ridiculous number of pirouettes that happen.” And she’s right—just because everybody knows it’s hard it doesn’t make it easy.

Cornejo’s solo work was obviously impeccable—thrilling without any sign of exertion, and magnificently volitant. His partnering of Xiomara Reyes was also perfect, and Reyes brought an infectious charm on top of technically brilliant dancing. As a Cuban, Reyes was practically born dancing DonQ—it’s a huge goal in their training to be able to dance this ballet. Reyes had outstanding balances in arabesque, speediness in jumps and footwork, and of course dazzling turns during the coda, somehow managing to manipulate a fan as she turned her fouettés, a popular showboating move amongst today’s leading ballerinas and absolutely as hard—or harder—than it looks. Saucy and flirtatious, Reyes just has the “it” factor as Kitri, and with Cornejo, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to watch. They brought merriment and theatricality, with a surplus of aplomb. The occasion was made all the more special in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their tenure as principal dancers with ABT, complete with a standing ovation and confetti cannons. I’d say one would be hard pressed to go any bigger than that for a DonQ, but I fear the results if I were to be wrong…

Though I prefer subtler humor than slapstick, as a whole, ABT dances DonQ incredibly well. As Gamache, Craig Salstein was hysterical, gifted with the best comedic timing of any dancer I’ve ever seen. He really gets it, and it’s a gift as rarefied and maybe more than a freakish center for turns, a huge jump, beautiful feet, or what have you. When I espied him off to the side during one of the wedding divertissements, tapping his foot and imitating the steps in character (or perhaps, for his own entertainment), and I wished a genuine comedic intelligence could be celebrated in a way that was less farcical on the surface, and more respectable in terms of dancing a principal role (e.g., Colas in La fille mal gardée). The whole cast was wonderful though—Hee Seo continued to impress me with her radiance in the roles of Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads, and Alexandre Hammoudi presented himself as a dashing Espada, the matador. Contrary to popular belief, I’m fully willing to admit that I even had like, eighty-five percent fun seeing ABT in DonQ, and only yawned once during the vision scene. I’m not pining away to see another DonQ anytime soon, but at the very least, the energy from the dancers and the audience’s appreciation thereof was certainly contagious. Still, I think it’s fair to say that after torturing myself with watching DonQ a grand total of two times, I’ve feel like I’ve filled my “DonQuota” for life—right?

Oh Raymonda…

24 Jun

For some reason it completely escaped me that the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Raymonda streamed live today and luckily, I was able to attend with fellow balletomanes Catherine and Ryan. Though I’ve seen some ballet in cinema it was never live so this was something of a new experience for me. To be honest I’ve become somewhat disillusioned to Russian ballet over the past couple of years as my preference for the English style has grown, but deep down I knew I had to give it another chance. After falling in love with true story ballets my problem with the imperial Russian full-lengths was that the narratives were simply too weak to hold my attention—which hasn’t changed. However, even I must admit that I haven’t always been open minded in my assessments and resigned myself to at least enjoying the beauty and sheer opulence of a Bolshoi production. Dancing in the Bolshoi theatre has got to make a dancer feel like a million bucks! Such confidence may even inspire one to don a Pikachu costume backstage…

Now having seen it, I can’t say Raymonda is a masterpiece, and being his last ballet it almost felt like a formulaic retrospective of some of his successes rather than a ballet that stands on its own. With a wedding like Sleeping Beauty, national dances like Swan Lake, exoticism like La Bayadère, and possibly more that I’m obviously not aware of, Raymonda is a Petipa pot pie, with a filling derivative of his own work. This current Bolshoi production has choreography that follows a lineage from Petipa through Alexander Gorsky, and now Yuri Grigorovich who staged this production in 2003. Alexander Glazunov composed the score with specifications from Petipa himself, and the result is everything you can expect from classical Russian ballet—ceremonious and LONG. There is a great deal of beautiful dancing, and if there’s one thing I definitely give the Russians credit for is how they can mechanize a flawlessly synchronized corps de ballet. However, conventional issues with classical ballet aside, I cannot in good conscience, overlook the excessive racism in this production of Raymonda.

The story goes (and this won’t make any sense) is that Raymonda is betrothed to the knight Jean de Brienne, who sets off on a quest. In his absence, Raymonda has a dream about him, but also a mysterious figure that later appears at her birthday party. That would be Abherakhman, a Saracen knight (Saracen being another term for Arab), who oddly enough was invited by the Countess Sybil de Daurice who is throwing the party for her niece, Raymonda. Abherakhman falls in love with Raymonda upon first sight, tries to win her over, she rejects him, and he tries to abduct her. At that precise moment, Jean de Brienne returns, duels with Abherakhman and kills him, thus saving her. Then there’s a wedding, the end. As if that wasn’t bad enough Abherakhman has the most horrendous makeup, painted with exaggerated features and ghoulishly ashen skin that make him look certifiably insane. He also has an entourage with him, all dressed in fairly stereotypical Middle Eastern garb, including a pair in…purpleface? The other dancers were clearly bronzed beyond recognition as well, but there was in fact a couple painted in purple. The “lively character dances” they did were just as superficial and the overall effect is as horrifying as it sounds. Yes, we are far more politically correct now than when Raymonda debuted in 1898, which is precisely why care should be taken to revise a ballet to fit a more appropriate cultural context. Perhaps certain liberties would be too drastic a deviation from the libretto, but “purpleface”?! Really?! And why must Abherakhman be portrayed like he’s maniacal? The character dances are horrendous, and make no attempt to hide the contrast between that and the classical steps as performed by the French royalty (and the fact that during that scene both Jean de Brienne and Raymonda are dressed in pure white doesn’t exactly help the cause). Though plot is already irrelevant anyway, the idea that as soon as Jean de Brienne arrives, the first thing he and his unit of knights do is attack Abherakhman and his people also disturbed me. It’s difficult to imagine that even almost ten years ago, anyone thought this was a good idea, and that nobody has had the good sense to suggest some editing!

However, it’s not just the blatant racism that incites the “facepalm”—many of the costumes are quite awful throughout, with some lowlights being the helmets of the French knights (oddly reminiscent of the tinfoil variety donned by characters from M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’), the shattered glass patterns on the costumes of the Hungarian dancers, and the decrepit blue tutu Raymonda wears to her own wedding (yes, a blue tutu). Now we’ve moved from “facepalm” to “facepalmheaddesk” territory. Could it get worse? A bit. Though most of the choreography is stock, Abherakhman does a number of aerial somersaults during many of his dances in Act II. The complaints that ballet has become too acrobatic and gymnastic are obviously valid!

Though there was much to my dismay, I did in fact enjoy a few things. Number one: Maria Alexandrova is marvelous. I love her strength and energy, which give her a certain vitality you don’t always see in Russian dancers who are often so lyrical. Her regality radiates throughout, and I enjoyed her well-rounded performance. Ruslan Skvortsov was alright as Jean de Brienne I suppose, though I fear the knight is a character that just won’t resonate with me. Pavel Dmitrichenko danced Abderakhman and…did what he was supposed to do? Then there’s the rest of the huge cast, which has a number of variations that highlight the depth of the Bolshoi, though it was difficult to keep up with the names of who’s who unless you already had some familiarity with the company. It almost doesn’t matter a great deal anyway because there’s no character that you can relate to or empathize with—not even Raymonda, who in many ways doesn’t seem to realize that she’s a woman who can do more than…well, absolutely nothing, except for run in front of Jean de Brienne and Abderakhman as they swordfight, which distracts the latter.

While Raymonda wasn’t my favorite use of three hours, I’m glad I went and I think simply accepting that the Russian tradition is what it is will help me enjoy future performances. However, something I did realize is that if the Bolshoi, for example, were to tour to a city near enough to me, I’d make the effort to see them for sure—but not multiple casts. After chatting about the issue for a bit with Catherine, I postulate that the diversity in companies such as ABT or the Royal Ballet is what makes seeing multiple casts so exciting, while some of the Russian companies and even the Paris Opera are less so, because physical standards are so much stricter for young dancers who enter their schools. Of course people still do it, and principals and soloists will always offer their own interpretations of featured roles, but perhaps the price of that clockwork corps de ballet is room for greater individuality. I shall think about that and report back, but for now, you can enjoy the entire broadcast of Raymonda here:

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:

‘Tis the season

25 Dec

Wonderful news leaping ladies and merry gentlemen, by virtue of your most gracious support I’ve made it to the final voting round of the Dance Advantage Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest, in both my category and in the running for overall top blog!  There is no better gift to me this Christmas than the blessings I have received from you the readers, and hope that the love continues in your reading of this blog and perhaps a vote or two in a couple of days…but before that, what is the meaning of Christmas?  Gifts.  I have no religious affiliations therefore the holiday means spending time with loved ones and exchanging gifts for me, and I feel no shame in that.  Believe me when I say I don’t buy into commercialism, but I enjoy bestowing tokens of gratitude on those I care about and letting them know how valuable they are to me.  The phrase “it’s the thought that counts” is no joke.  Meanwhile, thinking funny thoughts, here’s my gift to you, brought to you by my odd, but distinct brand of humor:

Merry Marcelo Christmas! -Steve

With “gifts” in mind, I decided to treat myself to a gift I had bought for myself a few weeks ago, which is the Royal Ballet production of Giselle, starring Alina Cojocaru in the title role and Johan Kobborg as Albrecht.  Having expanded my ballet DVD collection to a substantial three, Giselle was put in queue because of Swan Lake month and I felt today would be a good day for the initial viewing because I feel “the gift” is sort of a theme in the ballet.  The only other Giselle I’ve seen is the American Ballet Theater made-for-film version with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn (read my review), much of which I’ve forgotten because I have the memory of a platypus but having never seen a version on stage, in front of an audience, I was excited to watch this new one as if seeing the ballet for the first time.  It’s a good time to re-familiarize myself with Giselle because Pacific Northwest Ballet will be doing a studio presentation on their production in the first week of January, discussing the Stepanov notation score they used to construct their staging.  I’m not going to lie…I’m worried for PNB because historically, they have not had Romantic era ballets in their repertory and its style is so specific (and anti-Balanchine—let us not forget who coined the term “Gisellitis!”), but they seem to be taking a thoughtful, academic approach.  They have their notation guy, a coach and it’s also nice to see that the company is willing to take a huge risk with Seattle audiences by doing something different.  Besides, Carla Körbes (who I predicted early on would be a Giselle to watch) and the fabulous Carrie Imler will be dancing in the studio preview, which I should also note for the New Yorkers, will be presented at the Guggenheim on January 10th, so mark your calendars!

Anyway, back to the Royal Ballet, their production is staged by Sir Peter Wright, with additional choreography by him, supplementing the typical “Petipa after Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot” meat and potatoes.  After enjoying Wright’s production of Swan Lake, I unsurprisingly enjoyed his Giselle too, in which he seemed to make it relatable to a modern audience.  For example, rather than have Giselle die of a broken heart, she actually stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword.  With society being less imaginative than that of two hundred years ago, it’s a decision that makes sense because the last thing a choreographer wants is for some little anachronism to be that one thing the audience refuses to accept, thus putting a damper on the whole experience.  I found the sets delightfully realistic, albeit rather dark…I know it’s supposed to have a luminous, “enchanted forest” feel, but it could have done with just a little more lighting.   However, I loved that the Myrtha and Wilis entered with chiffon veils to simple bourée steps…the effect is mesmerizingly ghostly.

The reason why I feel this ballet is about gifts should be fairly obvious; in Act I Giselle gives the gift of her heart to Albrecht and in Act II her gift is forgiveness by saving his life.  What is less apparent is the gift of remorse—come again?  In this sense, it is perhaps relevant to bring up that in German, “gift” means poison and Giselle arguably poisons Albrecht with remorse, thus destroying him as we see him throughout the ballet (a rather sleazy, borderline salacious cad) and thus liberating him of his insincerity.  Whether Albrecht lives the rest of his days a wiser man is unknown to us, but I can see Wright’s Giselle as sort of empowering for women—while the suicide is unfortunately melodramatic, it’s a step above death by a broken heart because it puts Giselle in control of her own fate, and then it’s Albrecht’s fate in Act II that she calls the shots on.  Also, we see a formidable villain in Myrtha, though in a way, I actually came to understand her more through Marianela Nuñez’s interpretation of the character.  Throughout her opening solo, I couldn’t help but feel that Nuñez’s Myrtha wasn’t merely a man-hater, but also a woman scorned welcoming Giselle to her sisterhood of Wilis and as a result, not entirely evil.  Nuñez brought a wonderful depth to the character, beyond the icy carapace most dancers of the role will opt for.

Alina Cojocaru’s dancing of Giselle is a gift in itself, and what I love about both her and Johan Kobborg is that neither is perhaps the typical (or expected) ballet body.  Coco is quite tiny, far from the amazons seen in the Russian ranks or Balanchine America and Koko doesn’t have the long limbs seen in the male counterparts (and particularly the French—I swear the dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet must be giants).  However, both Coco and Koko have beautifully trained physiques, wonderful proportions and superior technique, conducive to what is exactly needed for Romantic ballet; she with the lithe torso and he with the barrage of batterie, thanks to his training with the Royal Danish Ballet, which can be considered the last bastion of true Romantic ballet, given their Bournonville tradition.  Don’t get me wrong, many companies can dance Bournonville and Giselle in stunning fashion; when it comes to the Danish, it’s ingrained into their method while other dancers must learn or be coached in the style later in their careers.  At any rate, I even think Alina’s face makes for the perfect Giselle because her facial features seem to lend themselves to a near permanent look of timid worry…

Alina is 3rd from the right...smile, girlfriend! (and yes, Johan is giving Marcelo bunny ears) Photo ©Ilya Kuznetsov

That face, combined with her infinite lightness made for a wonderful partnership, which highlighted Koko’s jumps and acting ability in waves of pure chemistry.  When Myrtha beckons Albrecht to do a series of entrechat six, I literally gasped at Koko’s ballon (translation: height) and superb technique.  Spectacular beats of the legs require more than just fluttering feet, but a rebound—meaning, once the legs beat, the more they can separate in the air before beating again, the loftier the effect.  I felt the whole production was spot on, with the only exception being Martin Harvey’s Hilarion, who was a little over the top for my tastes.  At moments he had some bug-eyed looks (and I’ve had this problem before in watching Ethan Stiefel) which might be less distracting in a live performance, but for me, is a one-way ticket to looking like a lunatic.  I guess it’s my pet peeve in watching ballet, but the crazy eyes never work for me and really just make dancers look insane.  Hilarion is temperamental and maybe even a little chivalrous, but not demented.

Overall, this is a fantastic Giselle, a must for the ballet library and in case you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas, you won’t regret buying this DVD for yourself.  In the meantime, I leave you with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the iconic Act II pas de deux, to entertain your thoughts until your purchase arrives:

Inner Petipa…are you sleeping?

15 Sep

In an attempt to get in touch with my inner Petipa, I sat my seat down and watched the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli in the lead roles.  Truth be told, it really seemed more like “the story of the omnipotent Lilac Fairy,” a role in which Marianela Núñez shined…but more on that later (and props to Laura Morera as the…”spicy fairy.” I forget what the official name was).

As I said, the whole purpose of this exercise was to get in touch with my inner Petipa.  I’ve definitely been going through a “Peti-blah” funk towards the great classics because quite frankly, once you go MacMillan/Ashton you can never go back.  Well, I shouldn’t say “never,” but the more I come to appreciate that dynamic duo of British choreographers, the harder it becomes to enjoy the Petipa classics that are plagued with divertissements (translation, a dance for people on stage that probably have nothing to do with the story), leading to a tendency to stretch out stories that don’t have that much substance in the first place.  Sleeping Beauty was LONG.  I was genuinely shocked to discover that it’s only a mere eighteen minutes longer than my beloved Manon, because it does drag a bit and coming out of something feeling like you spent ten hours of your life in a mere two is generally not a good sign.

The problem is, Petipa is to be respected—NOT optional.  His great classics have been a driving force in securing ballet’s continual success and its place in history.  At first I thought maybe I was watching the wrong ballets.  The only one I’ve seen live is Le Corsaire, which I used to like a lot more than I do now and then there’s Don Quixote (meh) and La Bayadère that I’ve seen on film (the latter being one I still appreciate quite a bit actually).  I still have yet to watch a Swan Lake, which generally seems to be the most popular one, especially amongst women.  Why women anyway?  Rarely have I heard men say it’s their favorite or for male dancers, that it’s their favorite to perform but women are crazy about it!  However, this is a topic of research for another day so back to regularly scheduled programming…I had some hopes for Sleeping Beauty because I do adore the Disney movie oh so very much.  A hackneyed reference, I know…but the force is strong with my inner child.

I had trouble with the plot of Sleeping Beauty…I know it’s a fairy tale but there were a number of things that either didn’t make sense or were just disappointing—the biggest of these disappointments being the demise of the villainess, Carabosse.  She is a fantastic character but her demise is weak and is mostly at the hands of the Lilac Fairy, whose spell, once actualized in the awakening of Aurora by virtue of Florimund’s kiss is what destroys Carabosse.  I mean really, if the Lilac Fairy’s magic had this potential all along, why the wild goose chase and the one hundred year delay?  I had the same problem with Disney too…Maleficent is one of the most badass villains of all time and the movie went from the legendary line of: “now shall you deal with me, oh prince…and all the powers of Hell!” to having the fairies enchant the sword with a convenient “accuracy spell” so that when Prince Phillip threw it, it was guaranteed to hit its target.  It’s a disservice to these amazing villains to have them perish so easily, especially when it’s not even the main characters who overcome them…there was no sense of triumph for me.

At least in the Disney movie Phillip and Aurora meet before the whole sleep spell so their coupling at the end seems more serendipitous but in the ballet, Florimund kisses Aurora and they meet for the first time (after of course, the Lilac Fairy has him dance with her…ghost?  Where?  In an enchanted forest.).  First of all, shouldn’t Aurora be disturbed that she and her kingdom basically “Brigadooned” it and appeared as anachronisms in a completely new world?  And second, waking up to a stranger kissing you should be kind of creepy…like, “where’s your pepper spray” creepy.  Call it romantic if you must, but the nonsensical aspects of this ballet have me thinking Romeo and Juliet actually makes sense.

Regardless, the ballet IS pretty and Tchaikovsky’s score for it is one of the finest ever.  I think how I’ve come to differentiate the purely classical choreography by Petipa and the sort of neoclassical work of Ashton or MacMillan is that Petipa would be like what I would call “a great writer” while I would categorize Ashton/MacMillan as “great storytellers” (in addition to being great “writers” as well!).  To me, writing and storytelling have always been different arts, sometimes overlapping but still distinct.  I don’t even consider my own writing to necessarily be “good writing” but more often “good storytelling.”  When I came to this epiphany in regards to ballet, all of a sudden Sleeping Beauty became much more digestible.

The whole ballet is rather…“sugar and rainbows” so to speak and speaking of rainbows, I was oddly fascinated by the procession of fairies and their cavaliers in Act I.  I was somehow reminded of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering which has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty; it was just funny to me how the pastel color palettes were almost the same, the number of dancers was almost the same (twelve for Beauty, ten for Gathering), but obviously featured classical choreography with heavily embroidered and ornate tutus for one while the other has contemporary choreography with unadorned chiffon dresses.  The similarity in colors created in my mind a relationship between the two pieces that transcended time.  With both being so exemplary of their respective periods, I couldn’t help but feel the expansiveness of ballet’s timeline and be amazed at how much it has evolved.

In addition to the glitter and sparkle, it has to be said that Alina Cojocaru is in a category of her own.  Her impeccable balances and youthful nature make for a sweetheart Aurora that is sure to make your teeth hurt.  Federico Bonelli (or as I like to refer to him, BoBo…which I guess makes Alina: CoCo) is equally youthful and has a wonderfully boyish look that screams innocence.  What I love so much about his dancing is that he has such beautiful placement and dances very “squarely”—nothing is contorted to get a higher leg or turn out that is forced to unhealthy degrees.  It makes his dancing efficient and clean and it is in fact when dancers are struggling to get their legs higher or forcing their turnout that ballet actually looks hard.  BoBo also has a superb lightness; you would never be able to hear him land a jump and he rolls through his feet and uses his plié so well his steps seamlessly transition from one to another.  He is a perfect partner for CoCo, who is equally light and technically strong.  She has an ability to indulge her lines when she wants to, like in some of the attitude positions she’ll open her hip a bit but when it comes to those tough balances in attitude, she knows how to square her hips off as well.  (This is actually something I sort of learned for myself recently…given, I never dance on pointe but I’ve found a sense of balance that I never had before and now when I microwave leftovers for thirty seconds, I use that time to see if I can hold an attitude on relevé.   And yes, I can!  Even longer some days…I figure if the average human being can’t do that, it warrants a pat on the back)

Observe CoCo and BoBo in their “Happy Ending Pas de Deux”

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sleeping Beauty, and certainly CoCo and BoBo’s dancing of it.  Regardless of some plot issues I think I can enjoy Petipa after all…although considering the Royal Ballet’s production has revisions and choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon, it’s kind of a hot mess of different choreographers.  Then again, every Petipa ballet today is.

Meanwhile, this might be the most fantastic Rose Adagio ever (at the 3:19 mark):

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.

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!