Tag Archives: prokofiev

“Carlarella”

30 Sep

Today I attended the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Kent Stowell’s Cinderella. Yes, I know what you’re thinking—“Steve! You avoid Prokofiev like the plague!” and that I typically do, but times are a-changing and there are things about Sergei Prokofiev that are beginning to win me over (more on this latest development for another day!). Also, if Carla Körbes is the star of the show, then it’s impossible to be disappointed. However, the unfortunate truth is that I think Stowell’s choreography and staging are quite problematic—and not just because of the Ashton trump card up my sleeve. The program notes made mention of how Stowell wanted to make a departure from the comic tragedy, opting for a more romantic interpretation, because the former and its derivatives “boast more theatrical variety than narrative or emotional cohesiveness.” Okay, so I’m a little irked by the ding at Ashton, but I’m on board for a different perspective, and I was intrigued by this production’s intention to highlight the contrast between Cinderella’s experiences in reality and her dream world. In fact, from the outset, it sounded like the kind of psychoanalysis that would blend really well with the peculiarity of Prokofiev’s melodies.

That’s not what I got. There were a lot of discrepancies between what the program notes said, and how I felt about what was presented. First of all, Stowell opted to do some compositional surgery and added other selections by Prokofiev into the score, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I don’t even listen to Prokofiev on a regular basis and wasn’t familiar with the added music at all, and the discontinuity was still pretty obvious, which never bodes well for the narrative. The main problem though, was that the choreography didn’t really match with the music or say anything about the characters. Prokofiev’s score is rich like dark chocolate, and ever so slightly bittersweet, but the choreography didn’t highlight the subtleties and was quite often “louder” than the music, either in the step itself, or as a matter of being overdone, with too many steps. This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to choreography, especially in narrative ballets—it’s not just a matter of sequencing steps together on the downbeat of the music. A ginglyform mytacism sabrages a knismesis of jentacular witzelsucht if a dompteuse estrapades its callipygian cagamosis. You can’t just string words together and assume you’re communicating a message just because a sentence is grammatically correct; likewise, the art of narrative choreography must have some kind of method beyond counting steps to the time signature of the music in order to progress the story. It’s hard because there are more literary devices to make a story interesting than there are choreographic ones, but there has to be some minimum amount of attention paid in order to avoid a haphazard-looking result. Although one of the motifs Stowell does give was too blatant—a dozen kids in pumpkin costumes encircling Cinderella, jumping on each beat to represent her midnight curfew, which is later repeated at the ball when twelve couples do the same, albeit in a prettier lift. Rather than being a novel idea, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the obvious, which happens to be my other pet peeve.

[The final pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. Some pretty moments and danced with a lot of heart, but I can’t help but feel that it’s…overcooked. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the pas they’re showered with glitter! (dancers are principal Rachel Foster, and former principal Lucien Postlewaite)]

 

Misuse of the score aside, rather than do something different, I found Stowell’s Cinderella to be somewhat derivative of Ashton’s after all (and just made me miss Ashton more!). The structure was relatively the same, with two comic stepsisters, fairy godmother, four seasons soloists, jester, one-dimensional prince…you know, the standard assortment. Some of the insertions into the plot include triple casting the role of the fairy godmother, as Cinderella’s mother in flashback sequences, as well as a masked fairy at the ball, performing a divertissement. The idea was to emphasize Cinderella reminiscing about her past and the likeness between her mother and the fairy (though they are not one and the same), but what does this really contribute to the story? It would be one thing if the fairy godmother WAS in fact her deceased mother, but as a godmother that looks like her? It doesn’t make sense! Cinderella’s father also plays a bigger role, showering Cinderella with affection, but then not really acting on her behalf until the final act, when he actually espies Cinderella dancing with the glass slipper, stands up to the stepmother and stepsisters, and later on presents the slipper to the prince. This, for me, was an egregious error—we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for her father, because when he is truly preoccupied with the dastardly dames, Cinderella’s isolation is highlighted, thus giving significance to her dream of falling in love with the handsome prince. Trust me, I’m an escapist (aka, professional daydreamer) and I dig the libretto for Cinderella, but that’s why her desolation is so crucial; the emotional impact of living her fantasies becomes much more effective.

I was hoping for something darker and moodier, and was practically blinded by the second act when the entire corps de ballet came out in BRIGHT red costumes. Even from my nosebleed seat in the second tier, this was hard to look at. Not to mention the fact that the stepmother was dressed in maroon, and the stepsisters in orange and coral, there was a lot of clashing in the overall color scheme. The costuming was otherwise gorgeous, although some of the theatrical changes lacked drama. Using Ashton as a reference point, he handled Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches by actually having her change offstage during a divertissement and then reappearing fully dressed in her coach, but Stowell has the fairies simply put a cloak over her shmata-dress and send her off, appearing in her ball gown at the beginning of the next act. In Ashton, when the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella runs offstage and a double in her ragged frock runs through the scene (facing away from the audience), while Stowell has her run into the coach, which then rolls away. From a theatre perspective (and speaking as someone who had to stand backstage for high school plays like a human coat rack, with unzipped costumes draped over my limbs and safety pins in my mouth for emergencies), the effect was lackluster.

Still, I did think the entire cast was wonderful, and Carla is truly in a league of her own. I could go on and on about everything I love about her, but she has such a gift to make her performance look natural. Her character is believable because it seems so real, and the fact that she has flawless technique helps to make her the superstar she is. I’d imagine she’d be a choreographer’s dream to work with because they may ask her to do certain things, but she surely isn’t the type of dancer you’d have to wrestle it out of—one need simply ask, and she’ll just do it, and make it her own. Her Cinderella had generosity and warmth, and the way she floated through her pirouettes was absolutely heavenly. Karel Cruz, as her prince, was a quiet nobleman but no less chivalrous, and really, bravo to the entire cast for a marvelous performance. I have to say that one of my favorites, Margaret Mullin, was exceptional as Autumn—what makes her so special is the way she uses her upper body and head, which was on full display in a commanding variation where she just ate up the stage with her presence. Even when dancing in unison with the full corps you see that detailing when she does simple waltz steps and it really is a treat, so watch that space (and face).

Suffice to say, I enjoyed standout performances by PNB dancers and really the whole cast lived up to their reputation as a world-class company. A full length story ballet is a behemoth, and the amount of work, rehearsal, and effort that goes into putting on the show was all there—I just wish Cinderella could have suited them better and really showed off their finest qualities, rather than a pastiche of clichés.

A Simply Sibley Cinderella

11 Jul

I love libraries, and I hope you do too. My latest string of acquisitions includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. This pair of Royal Ballet dancers achieved such legendary status that books are written about them, like the coffee table tome also on loan from the library entitled Sibley and Dowell, which features photography by Leslie Spatt and text by Nicholas Dromgoole (which totally sounds like a Harry Potter name). With pages of gorgeous black and white photos, a few words from Dromgoole (hehe), and a great deal of transcriptions of interviews with Sibley and Dowell, the book offers great insight into the history and careers of these two dancers. Incidentally, in discussing differences between dancing wit the Royal Ballet and other companies, Dowell mentioned that in working with American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, ideas were shared but not a sense of humor. It then occurred to me to consider the prevalence of UK readership in regards to this blog—there may be some truth to those jokes I make about having a European sense of humor!

Anyway, Ashton’s Cinderella is widely regarded as the most prominent version today, and it is in fact the first full-length English ballet. There are two recordings of Ashton’s Cinderella available on film, both noteworthy for different reasons. The older one (filmed in 1957) is a made for television version featuring the illustrious Dame Margot Fonteyn (for whom the role was made, but due to illness, Moira Shearer debuted it instead). The film also has original cast member Michael Somes as the prince (Fonteyn/Somes being another legendary pairing in their own right) and the unique occasion of having Sir Fred himself and Sir Kenneth MacMillan as the Ugly Stepsisters. The very thought of Ashton and MacMillan (two gods of ballet choreography!) as the Ugly Stepsisters has me losing my mind, and although clips of this performance reveals a grainy, black and white film, that doesn’t detract from its historical significance. I’m not sure I understand complaints about the film quality anyway, as if people cared that the recently found footage of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes isn’t HD!

However, the original Ugly Stepsisters were actually Sir Fred and Sir Robert Helpmann, appearing in the debut on December 23rd, 1948. Twenty-one years later, Sibley and Dowell’s performance is filmed, and includes both Ashton and Helpmann in their signature character roles (also, Alexander Grant, the original Jester, appears in both films, which is quite the span since the 1948 debut!). The Ugly Stepsisters are characters often met with some controversy, because they’re these over-the-top, squabbling, vulture-like caricatures whose antics a lot of people find annoying. While I can agree with some of those complaints, I still think they’re necessary—without the Stepsisters, there isn’t much of a story! Ashton also paid tribute to the tradition of British pantomime (or “panto” as they apparently like to say), which dates back to the Middle Ages and almost always has campy characters played by men in drag. For me, the humor of Cinderella would just be incomplete, and there are such delicious moments when Sir Fred is in the role because he’s so willing to mock his own art. Nowhere else will you see Sir Fred, performing “the Fred step” with a complete disregard for aesthetics. Although, I suppose it’s possible part of what made the Ugly Stepsisters special may have died with the originators, something Sibley and Dowell might agree with, having said that getting to dance on the same stage with Ashton and Helpmann had a special sense of occasion.

While I’m notorious for an aversion to Prokofiev, I didn’t entirely mind the score. It helps that Ashton appears to have been heavily inspired by the music because it is some of the most unique choreography I’ve seen of his, and by unique I also mean wicked—especially the corps work. Much of the choreography for the corps de ballet is quite zippy and moves in unusual patterns, which fits Prokofiev’s music so well, and it’s hard to keep those lines clean when things are faster. Cinderella also has a difficult variation, where she has to do a series of flickering turns in a circle, not just once but twice, and just watching is dizzying enough. The ball pas de deux with her Prince is an interesting one, containing references to clock hands and the countdown to her midnight curfew. The way she beats her legs together midair mimics the seconds ticking away, and all kinds of straight limbs in arabesque and penchée indicate time’s influence on her allotment with the Prince. It’s not as though the shapes tell you exactly what time it is, but the way they’re jumbled together is an obvious statement as to how she loses herself in time as she is falling in love.

Cinderella’s Variation:

 

Cinderella Pas de Deux, with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg:

 

Speaking of the ball, however, it’s Cinderella’s entrance that is perhaps one of the finest moments, as she descends a staircase and simply bourées forward. The bourée being one of the most elementary of movements on pointe, it is often relegated as a way to get from A to B when a sort of shimmering, or floating effect is desired. Rarely does the bourée by itself get respect as a choreographed step, and this particular usage has to be up there with the most poetic instances of it (the other one I think of being Myrtha’s entrance in Giselle. Fokine’s The Dying Swan is of course all bourées, but is a piece that is really told through the arms rather than the feet)

Cinderella’s Entrance, with Margot Fonteyn:

 

As for Sibley and Dowell, they are of course the image of perfection in DVD. Dowell has been filmed numerous times but there is an unfortunate shortage of Sibley, so it’s a treat to even have just this one with her in a principal role. An elfin blonde, Sibley makes the role of Cinderella look completely natural, with gracious acting and strong balances (she had many an arabesque on pointe that were just brilliant, the trademark of classical lines and correct placement). It’s impossible to not love Dowell as well, even if the role of the Prince is not a particularly deep one. He is genuine, reserved, and elegant and quite young here. It wasn’t his first appearance on film (he danced Benvolio in the Fonteyn/Nureyev Romeo and Juliet), but his second and he even looked just a little shy. What’s also interesting is that the Prince’s solo has a lot of jumps in it, something that Dowell mentions not being his strength (and is completely evident when he spins a quadruple pirouette into a perfect extension of his leg to the side, maintaining a flawless center), and that he was happier with it after changes were made to it during a tour to Australia. It was also during that tour Sibley and Dowell had a humorous incident during a performance in which her costume got caught on his in a lift:

Dowell: I was trying to bring you down from a shoulder lift and your tutu caught on the hooks of my coat, and you were quite immovable, pinned to me like a brooch.

Sibley: You kept saying ‘Get down, get down!’ and I could only say ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

Dowell: Eventually we had to run off, or rather, I mean I had to run off, with you just dangling.

(Bonus pointes if you read the above with an accent! Unless you speak British-English, in which case I guess you were just reading it)

While we are without a more current production of Ashton’s Cinderella on film (though there has been outcry to have the BBC broadcast of the Cojocaru/Kobborg performance released on DVD), the Sibley/Dowell is more than sufficient—it’s stunning. The only thing missing (literally) is an entr’acte where the Prince searches the world for Cinderella and some critics lament that the omission of that scene eliminates character dances, although character dances, like Ugly Stepsisters can be controversial too; maybe you’re one of those people that finds them vile, time consuming, and a little racist…maybe not (boy, that’s a blog topic for another day—are character dances racist?). Regardless, despite pockets of Ashton all over the United States, for audiences in America our only chance to see it is to commence an odyssey to Chicago, and see the Joffrey Ballet, who added it fairly recently to their repertory in 2006. The rest of us can (and should) enjoy the Sibley/Dowell, and believe me when I say there are few things as sacrosanct as Georgina Parkinson’s Fairy Godmother!

Behind the scenes look at the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Cinderella:

 

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.