Tag Archives: philip glass

‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review

20 Feb

It’s odd that Seattle has decided to invite the winter spirits, which was particularly cruel on a day like today, with cerulean skies and a radiant sun—accompanied with biting winds and sub-forty-five degree temperatures.  Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to the cold and anything below forty-five is all the same to me…I call it my “immobilization threshold.”  It’s possible that something like negative forty would have an even more profound effect such as cryogenic hibernation and in fact, I was recently told that if you step outside in those temperatures, your nose hairs will freeze (ask someone from Northern Canada…I’m sure they can confirm this).   The point is, all I wanted to do was wrap myself in blankets like a giant burrito and wait for spring to arrive.

I did manage to do the first part of that, but had to something productive, which I decided would be to attack my tower of library materials (some of which are probably overdue), including the documentary Dancing Across Borders.  The film was directed and produced by socialite Anne Bass, who saw Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced like “sea”) Sar as a young boy in Cambodia, performing in traditional Khmer dances.  He obviously had no knowledge of or exposure to ballet, but she could see quality in his movement, a knack for performance and the makings for a physique quite suitable for ballet.  She eventually brought him to New York and the School of American Ballet, where he received a great deal of private coaching from Olga Kostritzky and with one of the most freakish learning curves known to man, refined his raw talent into an accomplished ballet dancer.

Initially, I thought this would be a story similar to Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who grew up impoverished and learning the dances of his people (salsa and even break-dancing) before finding his way to ballet but there are significant differences.  Sy began his formal training at a much later age but what separates Sy from Acosta is that Cambodia has no tradition in ballet.  Acosta’s father, who was instrumental in ensuring his son’s pursuit of a ballet career held a great deal of admiration for the art, which had become a national treasure thanks to Alicia Alonso.  However, Sy’s parents understandably have a different perspective; they recognize their son’s talents and the opportunities it gives him but very little if anything beyond that.  His father even wishes Sy worked for the government, or became an engineer or doctor.  I don’t think he meant that in a “crush the artist’s dreams and get a ‘real’ job” sort of way, because I find it impossible to fault them for not understanding the impact and prestige of a ballet career.  This is perhaps the greatest difference of them all—as Acosta wraps up what has been one of the most prolific ballet careers of the past couple of decades as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet (donning the banana yellow tights in La Fille mal Gardée for what he must always hope is the last time), Sy still seems to be finding his identify as a dancer.

I say that because Bass herself even said that she wouldn’t want Sy to continue dancing if he didn’t want to, but after a few years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, he left to be a freelance artist.  It’s not a decision that surprises me because throughout the documentary he always struck me as someone who was a bit at odds with how much of his relationship with dance was talent and how much of it was passion.  After all, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not a huge fan of partnering so maybe his destiny isn’t really to be a classical ballet dancer.  Even though this is not my experience with dance, I felt like I could relate a bit because this was my approach to school.  I was a good (if anything, clever) student and when I was in control of my curriculum, I truly excelled.  I got better grades in college than I did in high school because I got so many opportunities to study things that interested me and yet I still managed good grades in subjects I hated, like math and chemistry so it baffled people (well, my parents really) when I refused to pursue a career in those fields.  It’s not enough to just be good at something because if the heart is unwilling, the result feels empty even if it looks brilliant.  Despite Sy’s unique qualities as a dancer, you can’t help but feel like dancing for a classical ballet company was like caging a magnificent, rare bird.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many like Peter Boal found Sy exciting—he has an effervescence that cannot be explained and can only be captured visually in photographs or film.  There’s a lot of great footage of him in class as well as performance selections and variations from competition footage with lots of favorites like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Sylphide, in addition to rehearsal footage with Benjamin Millepied and the actual performance of Millepied’s piece at the Vail International Dance Festival with live accompaniment from Philip Glass himself.  In Millepied’s contemporary work is where I thought Sy was most breathtaking.  There was a joy of movement in that work which is part of what leads me to believe Sy is suited more towards that style so I hope now as a freelance artist he is finding those opportunities because even if he’s pretty damn good at classical ballet, sometimes the things we’re born to do aren’t the things we look like we’re born to do.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dancing Across Borders because I think it tells the honest story of a dancer.  Oftentimes I think the problem with fictitious dance stories is the ridiculous, almost melodramatic, romanticized images you’ll often see when in fact many dancers lead extraordinary lives that don’t need to be enhanced, just told.  Seattleites will also get a kick out of seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, McCaw Hall and a few glimpses of familiar faces (I spotted Carla Körbes, and it’s interesting to note that both she and Sy were foreign dancers heavily recruited by Peter…very cool of him).  Actually, Varna had some fun cameos too, like an equally young Belarusian lynx Ivan Vasiliev (I was going to say panther, but there are no panthers in Belarus) doing some of his signature moon-jumping leaps.  At any rate, the only disappointment I had regarding the film was that it all went down just before I moved here…it would have been great to watch Sy dance live, though perhaps opportunities remain in the future to do so, and maybe for the better in a piece where he is truly in his element.  Check out the trailer for fun, or because I’m telling you to:

Pacific Northwest Ballet: ‘Director’s Choice’ Review

3 Oct

Welcome to October, and the beginning of what I shall deem “Reader Appreciation Month.”  As far as I’ve planned (which truthfully isn’t that far in advance) I’m dedicating every entry I write this month to faithful and friendly readers.  I’ve been inspired by a few suggestions of what readers have said they would like to see and have actually begun the process of doing the necessary thinking and research—it’s pretty exciting for me.  However, to kick off the festivities I shall be doing a review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s October 2nd performance of their season opener, “Director’s Choice,” which includes works by Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Jerome Robbins.  I dedicate this entry to Karena, who tolerated me in class, taught me things I needed to know, continues to encourage my potentially unhealthy obsession with ballet and simply told me that she wanted to hear my thoughts on the show.

First of all, I have to say it’s been months since Coppélia and I’ve been dying without live performances.  Dying.  So I was really looking forward to this.  It was also a night of firsts for me, as I’ve never seen Kylián, Duato or Robbins ballets live before.  I have seen the film version of Petite Mort (performed by the Nederlands Dance Theatre), and actually this is one of the first dances I ever saw, way back in the heyday of my introductory ballet classes, so I have a particular affection for it.  While I wasn’t as familiar with dance vocabulary at the time (as in, I knew virtually nothing) I remember falling in love with the piece and more specifically the mood of it.  The whole dance is washed in beautiful golden tones and has the most cleverly devised choreography.  Now having seen it live, I see with a new perspective how Kylián can take movements that should look (and feel) awkward like bent elbows, turned in legs, flexed feet etc. but give them a musical place and flow that makes them just as graceful as any romantic ballet step.  What’s more, it’s the way in which he manipulates those movements with classical lines that creates a visual feast for the eyes.  What I found most fascinating was his use of symmetry—symmetry down the middle of a single body or mirrored lines that were formed between two dancers.  The symmetry was not just vertical either, but horizontal, on varying angles and crisscrossing that created a kaleidoscopic effect—even if you turned your head just a little bit the shapes would take on a new life.

I was a little nervous for PNB because they started the dance a little jittery tonight.  Towards the beginning of the dance the male dancers pull a gigantic piece of billowing fabric from the back of the stage to the front and when they run to the back of the stage again, it’s as if the smoke clears to reveal a group of female dancers lying on the floor.  Unfortunately, a couple of the dancers were a little late and I could see them hurriedly laying down which may seem like I’m nitpicking a detail, but you have to understand that Petite Mort is Kylián’s spell—which can easily be broken.  In that sense, his choreography is so fragile because timing is paramount.  However, such is the nature of live performance and the whole fabric thing is repeated a second time in the dance and they pulled it off flawlessly.  I enjoyed the rest of the piece immensely and it is so gratifying to have seen it on living, breathing people.  That being said, I think the film version is still excellent, and can’t stress how much you should watch it, like right now:

After Petite Mort came Kylián’s Sechs Tänzes, which is speaking my language…a ballet comedy if you will, and I have to say that I was impressed.  Dancing a lot of Balanchine can make one…I hate to say wooden, but perhaps a little frigid just because of the nature of the Balanchine repertory.  However, PNB assembled a great lineup of comical dancers that delivered a wonderfully lighthearted performance, matching note for note with Mozart’s Six German Dances.  The piece is absolutely ridiculous—in the good way.  From the powdered wigs to the bubbles at the end, the audience was clearly into the humor and of course you know I was.  In many ways I identified with this piece quite a bit on a personal level and feel that it somehow legitimizes my whimsical nature and the way in which I live my life.  So many thanks PNB for your performance of Sechs Tänzes on this fine evening was a real treat.

Now I was on a high after that and Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat was a real buzz kill.  I have to be honest in that I didn’t feel that the piece really matched the occasion, if that makes sense.  It’s something I could see being much more interesting to me in a small studio theater, up close in a performance where I expect modern dance but it really sticks out in a ballet company’s repertory.  Apparently it’s a “fan favorite” amongst PNB patrons, which I have a hard time believing…although tonight’s cast was stacked with principals so maybe I’m missing something after all.  As earthy as the residents of this city are though, I’m unable to convince that Jardí Tancat is something people would want to see over and over again. Don’t get me wrong…it was really well danced and the movement quality was there but problems for me ranged from limited use of the stage and just bland choreography.  I don’t know what the logic is behind it, but what I do know is that this proves Seattle is in desperate, and I mean DESPERATE need of Tudor and MacMillan ballets.  It’s not that Tudor or MacMillan ever choreographed anything of the same nature, but I think the level of sophistication they achieved in their works is what Jardí Tancat seeks and for me, fails to achieve.  Duato does have works that I absolutely adore, and he can waltz into the Mikhailovsky and be all “none of you have ever danced” but quite frankly, all I can say is when I win the lottery, I’m donating a huge chunk to PNB’s “Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”  Actually, make that “ATM” for “Ashton/Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”

Meanwhile, the night closed with Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, which thankfully proved to be the highlight of the evening.  It’s a piece that sort of describes an urban hustle to minimalist music by Philip Glass, with dancers dressed in color against a stark, white graph paper backdrop.  It’s divided into three sections, each of which focused on a particular grouping, though there were many bodies on stage.  For example the first, Rubric, points out three different couples who I wish I could name but because I sit far up in the balcony I can’t see too much in terms of facial characteristics so I’ll by the colored unitards they were wearing, which I shall describe as Gold, Sunburn and Spring.  Springman had the biggest jumps but it was Sunburnman who I thought displayed this effortless, effortless, positively effortless technique.  The way he did his grand battements was too easy—it’s like when my friend Magelachachka (and yes, I do call her that to her face) would say at barre: “lifting your leg up takes…so much work.”  I know it’s cliché, but Sunburnman was born to dance because work doesn’t describe him at all.  As three couples they had wonderful interactions aided by Robbins’s extraordinary choreography.  What I love about Robbins’s ballets is that he selects the most appropriate movements and is very reserved when it comes to the big, flashy, bravura steps.  There’s a real sense of contrast and a love for transitional steps that you don’t always see (though this is more apparent in the last section).

The second section focused on a single couple, dressed in scarlet and gray (Go Bucks!), featuring the divine Miss Carla Körbes, who I could recognize.  I’m telling you, this woman moves like a goddess of the clouds.  I lost count of how many times I got chills during her pas de deux with fellow principal Batkhurel Bold, because she has a lyricism that can’t be taught.  Credit must also be given to Bold as well because despite one’s own talents, beautiful dancing in a lift can’t be achieved if you can’t trust the one holding you up.  It’s interesting because the pas de deux is not romantic at all, but they still have chemistry in their partnership.  What’s also interesting is that because it’s not romantic, there has to be a certain intangibility to it while maintaining a lyrical quality.  I think it’s actually quite a complex “role” in that it’s not a role at all but requires a similar sensitivity in the technique.  Miss Körbes is a revelation and as PNB looks to really expand their repertory this season by doing a shockingly small amount of Balanchine and doing a romantic ballet with Giselle, I’m predicting that she will be the superstar Giselle come June 2011.  Although to be fair, I’m pretty sure a lot of people are thinking the same thing…

At any rate, the third section featured the corps de ballet, in a truly kaleidoscopic interpretation of the organized chaos that is a developed infrastructure.  While not explicitly dancing as vehicles or machines, I think systematized, linear movements that gave the feel of advanced technology and economic prosperity achieved the effect.  The end had the dancers turning in all kinds of directions, weaving in and out of each other like clockwork and despite its frenetic appearance it was never haphazard…always meticulously placed to contribute to the bigger picture like the pieces in a mosaic.  I thought it was flawless (minus a mini-spill a dancer in orange tights took…which I only noticed because I have freakish hawk eye vision for uncharacteristic movement.  He actually recovered remarkably well) and despite never being a Philip Glass fan (not a hater, but not a fan) I really came to appreciate his score.  Normally I like a melody, with a beginning, middle and end but his music was symbiotic with the dancing…they were meant for each other.

I had a great time…and did I mention how awesome it is to be seeing live dance again?  I would recommend that you go, but chances are if you’re in Seattle and you read this blog, you go to all of PNB’s shows anyway and if you wait for my reviews you’re giving me more credit than one should give.  There is but one more show in like…eleven hours.  Have fun with that.