Tag Archives: pierre lacotte

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Danse? La Revue

7 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops.

12 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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