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ABT’s Mixed Bill (but really, we all know I was there for ‘A Month in the Country’)

22 May

It’s been nearly four years since I first saw the Royal Ballet, a life-altering experience that I cherish as my most precious treasure. Material possessions can’t compare to what I took away from that night because it was the catalyst that set into motion a chain of events that has brought me to where I am today. Thinking about everything that happened in between—the struggles, the good times, and the pursuit of an art that I love—overwhelms me with emotion. So on this mushy, sentimental occasion, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has been a part of my journey, whether you started reading eight seconds ago or you’ve been there since the beginning. It would’ve been infinitely worse to have done this alone.

Anyway, the reason why I thought about the Royal Ballet’s tour to the Kennedy Center in 2009 was because they actually brought Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a mixed repertory with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would’ve thought about McGregor had I seen Chroma then, with eyes so different to what they are now, but really it’s missing Month that for so long remained my biggest regret. I was still so new to ballet—I ‘d only been dancing for about two years and I’d never even seen a large company perform. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t know that people bought tickets to both a mixed repertory AND a full-length ballet, let alone for different casts (evidently I went from ignorant to downright crazy, as I now find myself with four tickets to see ABT’s mixed bill and I’m sure you can guess how many performances there are), so I thought I’d bought my one ticket to see Manon and that was it. Little did I know that I missed out and much has changed because yesterday I stood on the precipice of realizing yet another Ashtonian dream, and things came full circle by seeing with my own eyes “the ballet that got away.” However, the bread and butter of ABT’s mixed bill would have to wait, as it was bookended by a pair of musical studies in choreography.

Opening the program was Mark Morris’s verbosely titled Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a sort of modern “ballet blanc” if you will. It’s not that Drink necessarily paid homage to the Romantic era of ballet that saw to the popularity of a corps dressed entirely in white tutus, but with a lone piano on stage playing contemporary piano selections by Virgil Thomson and an ensemble of dancers dressed in billowing white clothing far more pedestrian than tutus, it’s relatively easy to make that connection to a quintessential theme in ballet history. Even audiences unfamiliar with dance would know that when dancers are dressed completely in white, the message is purity, and when it comes to Morris, it’s pure music. Morris’s choreography is known for its musicality, following the score and even the sequence of notes that make up the scale itself. Dancers often run across the stage as if one were reading a musical staff—nowhere else have I ever seen so many entrances and exits to represent each new phrase of music, which is appropriate for Morris. He has a gift for visualizing melodies and mobilizing groups of dancers in organized patterns but that’s sort of the extent of his work. In Drink he presented a lot of ballet steps in an academic manner and although he inserted the odd difference in wittier moments, the whole piece came across as if observing a quirky ballet class, aided by the live accompaniment. Drink never progressed past the blank canvas state because it said nothing of human relationships, the ballet idiom, current events, or really, anything besides the musical structure. I conjectured a theory that the more one knew about music and ballet steps, the less interesting Drink becomes. It’s by no means unpleasant—I found Isabella Boylston quite tenacious and amiable in it, and it’s always a treat to watch Marcelo Gomes in anything. He was one of the few who really committed to the movement and danced with his upper body—at one point the male dancers were lined up with Gomes in front, repeating a simple jump with torsos opened towards the audience and with each “plink” of a high piano note, he would toss his head back ever so slightly, which none of the other men did. These are the finishing touches we talk about in discussions of the use of épaulement—to really use the upper body and it’s gratifying to see some dancers who go above and beyond with it.

Knowing that Ashton and Balanchine were to come, I actually found it strange that the Morris even made it onto the program. Ashton and Balanchine were certainly no slouches in the department of musicality and Ashton colored his work with narrative and Balanchine pretty much wrote the book on visualizing musical structure in dance. I felt that because Symphony in C is something of a ballet blanc as well, it would bury Drink because of similarities in concept and its sheer size (twelve dancers in the Morris, fifty something in the Balanchine). The Morris work was obviously more contemporary so I could appreciate the efforts to create a program with variety, but I don’t think Drink is interesting enough on its own to warrant a place on this bill. I couldn’t help but feel that its inclusion was the wrong choice, and it’s hard to accept that ABT would forsake the likes of Antony Tudor for this. I’m sure there are logistical reasons and what have you for choosing the Morris over Tudor, but they should’ve done something like Pillar of Fire or Lilac Garden—I mean, raise your hand if you’ve even seen either of those in the past five years! A triple bill rounded out by Tudor would have said so much more, with musicality as the umbrella theme and then the individual flavors of psychology, narrative, and design each choreographer uniquely wove into his work. Talk about “supply and demand”—where is the response to Tudor lovers, or people like me who want to know more about him but can’t find opportunities to see his work?

I won’t complain too much though because A Month in the Country finally became accessible to me and I’m incredibly grateful for that much. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name, Ashton invoked every one of his narrative gifts to tell a captivating story of forbidden and unrequited love in uncanny relationships to music by Frederic Chopin. Though there’s a great deal of entanglement by many members of the household in this Russian estate during the Imperial era, the central relationship is that of Natalia Petrovna (Julie Kent) and Beliaev (Roberto Bolle), her son’s tutor. Kent especially was wonderful—I left with that feeling where I could someday say to someone that “I saw Julie Kent dance Natalia,” and it would mean something very special. I had no idea she could be so icy, visceral, flirtatious, melodramatic, and even humorous all in one ballet. However—and it’s Yoda time—troubled I was, by the lack of dramatic flair as a whole. Strangely enough, I found Daniil Simkin, who was clearly typecast as Natalia’s son Kolia because of his boyish looks, to be the weak link, and the poster child of the dearth of character study in ballet. Simkin could do all the tricks and turn like a tornado, but his appearances betrayed him because he didn’t have an air of youth. It was bizarre to arrive at that conclusion but it simply isn’t enough to look the part and take a role at its surface value. It’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a result of most ballet schools and companies not imposing a curriculum in theatre studies. In the program, a blurb had Kent mention she read the source material for Onegin, and under the assumption that the dancers did the same for Month, that’s a great start—but it’s still beneficial to learn the finer points of comedic timing (which didn’t register in last night’s performance), Stanislavski, and other such semiotics of acting. For all the outrage over actors who can’t really dance (I’m sure you all have a particular film in mind), there’s a parallel equivalent to be observed for dancers who aren’t training enough as actors, and it needs to be addressed in order to really bring the drama of something like A Month in the Country to life.

Last came the bedazzling Symphony in C, the ballet equivalent of a marching band, which unfolds in a grandiose tapestry of a myriad of simple ballet steps. Divided into four movements that highlight four ballerinas, Balanchine choreographed it to Georges Bizet’s music of the same name, which Bizet wrote when he was only seventeen. It’s marvelous in its simplistic way, gratuitous at times but still pretty, and a fine display of some of Balanchine’s most expert use of motifs. The men really rose to the occasion because they danced with impressive unity—in the first movement, James Whiteside showed that he could dance Balanchine with aplomb, but he toned down the charisma when it came to dance in trios with Blaine Hoven and Sean Stewart, and the three of them together were impeccable. Veronika Part delivered a dignified luxury in the second movement, where I enjoyed her mysterious demeanor which eluded overindulgence, but most delightful were Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in the third movement, whose long tenured and experienced partnership allowed for more freedom and a breath of fresh air, with Cornejo’s famous jump riding on top of that breeze. Reyes too was quite daring—there are several moments where she has to pirouette on pointe and dive forward into an arabesque penché, a maneuver I like to refer to as “the death drop” as you see your death while your face hurtles towards the floor, but she was steady and reliably partnered by Cornejo.

It’s in that pesky third movement though where timing always seems to break down, as it did when Boston Ballet performed Symphony in C not too long ago. The corps has a lot of jumping in it, from big jumps to smaller ones with batterie, and jumping is one of those things with a timing that everybody feels and learns differently so it’s incredibly difficult to synchronize, especially when the formation is a straight line, which exposes every minute difference that isn’t a carbon copy of the dancer in front. Still, even in the fourth movement, the men seemed to really have it together when they burst into one particular sissonne, the four leading men having the added challenge of having to do so immediately out of a pirouette while also matching the adjoining men just entering onto the stage. It’s hard for me to discern what I like to see in Symphony in C, because its strict and formulaic adherence to the music doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of individual interpretation, but it’s actually quite lovely when the steps are just there without too much flourish (even though it could be faster!).

One performance down, three to go and I’m still a kid in a candy store. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get sick of this feeling.

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Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

The Nacho Project: Diagnosis

24 May

One of my ducklings (number five in the row, if I recall correctly) is headed to New York this summer and is in need of your help!  “Nacho,” as I call her, has never been there before and will be doing some kind of an internship this summer but more importantly, will have access to the splendiferous wonder that is NYCB and ABT.  Not only will this be her first time in Manhattan, she has yet to see such prestigious ballet companies (she has seen smaller dance performances before though).  Needless to say this is a crucial moment in her development as a human being and as my ducklings tend to do, she sought advice from me but there are many ballets on the programs I haven’t a clue about.  So I thought I’d pose the question to more knowledgeable folk.  We’re always wanting ballet to reach new audiences and this is our chance to tinker a la Frankenstein with one young woman’s perception of it!  The challenge here is that funds are not entirely limitless (she’s not the type to see five Swan Lakes) and yet between NYCB and ABT there’s an abundance of things to see.  She’s going to be a kid in a candy store, but she has to make the Big Apple her pie.  Selectiveness is key, so here is what I feel you need to know about Nacho:

  • She may be short, but she has a lot of angst.  She likes pretty, romantic ballets but if not that then they have to be pretty…raging
  • She’s one of those “danced since I was three” jazz babies.  Showing off big flashy jumps and fouettés go in the plus column, as do Fred & Ginger
  • This is educated conjecture, but she probably has no appreciation for classical music.  This isn’t to say she hates it, only that she’ll like what sounds pleasing to her ear, without deeper understanding of the finer details.
  • She has questionable taste in men (mostly because she dates people I disapprove of)
  • She’s Italian and her mom makes good sauce
  • She likes the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Roddick and Sex and the City (she thinks she’s Carrie Bradshaw if that means anything to you)
  • Her phone number is…

So those are some things about Nacho and after looking at NYCB calendar (link) I’ve convinced her that attending NYCB’s program on June 25th with After the Rain, The Lady with the Little Dog and Who Cares? would be an ideal choice (she will be in New York June 18th to August 18th).  There’s a short preview of After the Rain on YouTube I sent her and she likes the tragicalyricalness and I also sent her a clip of Who Cares? which she loved.  I have no idea about Little Dog, but I figured two out of three is more than sufficient for a happy evening.  Glancing at the other programs, the chances of her liking Prodigal Son are slim to none but I do think she would enjoy Western Symphony.  June 26th has a program with La Source, a new Martins ballet and Western Symphony but I don’t know what Peter Martins choreography is like and I’ve only heard of La Source in passing…so what say you, fellow balletomanes?  Then there’s the added allure of farewell performances including that of Darci Kistler, the last ballerina to be selected by Balanchine himself…do you miss the opportunity to witness something so epically historical?  I’m almost completely unfamiliar with the Kistler farewell program (minus Swan Lake of course) so suggestions para Nacho por favor!

She could watch Kistler in an excerpt from Swan Lake, but it turns out ABT (calendar link) will be doing Swan Lake the previous week as well so I say go all out and see the whole shebang.  But the casting!  Decisions, decisions…I’m thinking she should cat fight with the rest of the audience in attendance for the June 21st show with Roberto Bolle so she can fall madly in love with him (she does like them tall…and he’s Italian too) in addition to seeing the beautiful Veronika Part, but there are so many great casting options like Julie Kent/Marcelo Gomes or Jose Carreño/Gillian Murphy.  Now I don’t know if she’ll make it in time for Sleeping Beauty, but good heavens!  It’s the battle of the guest stars…do you opt for the saccharine innocence of Alina Cojocaru or the flight of the Osipova?  Then ABT does a week of mixed bills and I’m more obsessive about watching ballet than Nacho is but even I’m finding the selection overwhelming.  If it were me, I’d go with the All Ashton program on June 30th to sort of round out the experience and diversify the choreographers, but it’s Nacho and not me, so I would only strongly suggest/force that idea upon her if I had a legion of people who agreed with me (also keeping in mind she’s never seen a MacMillan and the Manon pas de deux is just…to DIE for).  ABT then does a week of Romeo and Juliet in early July before heading off to Los Angeles, and you know I’m a grouch when it comes to Romeo and Juliet so I’m in no position to be suggesting which casting I think would be lovely to see.

So friends, I beseech thee to diagnose Nacho and help her get the most out of her summer in New York!  Here’s a short interview I did with her which might help figure out which ballets/casts she should see:

YDF:  Do you like Roberto Bolle?

Nacho:  Sure.

YDF:  Liar.  Do you wear clothes from the Gap?

Nacho:  Roberto Bolle is fine…don’t really have an opinion of him and no I do not.

YDF:  Not the answer I was looking for.

Nacho:  Sorry friend.

YDF:  Do you even know who he is?

Nacho:  Yes, I YouTube’d him.

YDF:  Just now?

Nacho:  Yes…I’m not a little ballet freak remember? (oh NO she didn’t!)

YDF:  Did you know he’s Italian?

Nacho:  I kinda got that

YDF:  You’re Italian.

Nacho:  Indeed I am.  What was the answer you were looking for?

YDF:  The answer should have been yes, so I could tell you that he was a model for a Gap ad, and then you’d have something in common…but you ruined it.

Nacho: Sorry Charlie 🙂

YDF:  How do you like your male dancers?

Nacho:  Good?

YDF:  Fascinating.  Now describe your ideal ballerina.

Nacho:  Traditional yet not stiff?  I don’t know.  These are hard!

YDF:  Okay so final question (and this SHOULD be easy) what do you love about dance?

Nacho:  The expression through movement…the story that can be told without any word use.  The different interpretations of pieces, the emotion, the passion…I don’t know.

YDF:  Okay I lied, the REAL final question is, what are some characteristics of dances you like or dislike?

Nacho:  You know I don’t like too modern/abstract pieces… but I do like originality… generic pieces make me wanna scream.

And there you have it.  I’ll be sure to update on her progress as the summer progresses!

Greek Geek it Out

4 Mar

It has to be said; I’ve yet to see a Frederick Ashton ballet I wasn’t completely in love with.  Hence, I am giddy with excitement for the DVD release of Ondine (scheduled for April 1st, the day before my birthday!) with Miyako Yoshida in the title role and Edward Watson as Palemon.  However, my latest Ashton adventure has been a viewing of Sylvia, with Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle.  While I’ve seen clips of both, this is the first full length work I’ve seen them perform in.  I like Bussell a lot; her dancing is so pure and regal.  An elegant ballerina is far from an original concept but Bussell pulls it off with a certain modesty that sets her apart.  And when it comes to Bolle <insert collective dreamy sigh> I get it.  Handsome face with a ridiculously favorable bone structure, tall, long limbed but not gangly and immense amounts of talent for dancing.  Ladies and gentlemen all over the world are utterly enchanted by him; one YouTube user claims that he’s the reincarnation of a Greek god, which is quite an artistic tribute (although Antinous was technically not a god and the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had a thing for Antinous deified him after his mysterious death.  Take from that what you will!).

Classical mythology is of course perfectly suited for a discussion on Sylvia, since that’s what the story is grounded in.  Unfortunately Sylvia, while loosely based on Torquato Tasso’s play Aminta, doesn’t have much of a plot or substantial character development (I intended to read the play for further insight—didn’t happen).  So the story is very simple and requires no in-depth analysis of the program notes.  Man loves warrior nymph, warrior nymph denounces love.  Warrior nymph kills man, and Eros god of love intervenes. Hunter man kidnaps warrior nymph who now loves man, Warrior nymph gets hunter man drunk, Eros intervenes again.  Lovers reunite, hunter man killed by Diana, Diana about to kill man but Eros intervenes (see a theme?).  The end.  Ashton did his best to flesh out the story a bit but it’s not a riveting plot.  I was interested though, in how at the very beginning when Aminta is in love with Sylvia but she refutes his advances, she shows her disdain in the lifts.  Even though Aminta is the one to lift her, it’s as though she commands him and yet the hunter Orion barely has to touch her and she wilts like a flower.  Aminta does have a transformation (being resurrected by a god will do that to you) and shows more vitality in the end, which was in my opinion, the only significant growth in any character (I wouldn’t count Sylvia because being shot by an arrow of love doesn’t really prove anything).  Weak plot and characters aside, the magic of the ballet is in the score and Ashton’s delightful choreography.  Léo Delibes’s score is effervescent and incredibly difficult as well.  The grand pas de deux between Aminta and Sylvia in Act III sounds like it’s from a violin concerto.

As for Ashton’s choreography…it is of course brilliant.  I’ve mentioned before that Ashton is a genius when it comes to staging dances with props, which aren’t added just for the sake of theatrics but are at times used in cleverly aesthetic ways.  Sylvia has a following of nymphs carrying large bows which are obviously cumbersome and not only do they have to dance with them in hand they have to pull on the strings at certain moments which creates more interesting shapes and lines, in addition to the curvature of the bow itself.  Sylvia is given a dinkier bow, since she has bigger movements to do but the nymphs have considerable dancing to do as well, including a brief moment of fouettés in unison.  Unison fouettés always strikes me as a little too “dance team,” but I love Ashton’s work so I’ll let him get away with it.  I do believe dance team is an American innovation anyway, so I can take comfort in knowing there’s virtually no connection there.  Choreographic intent makes the difference here.  Apologies for harping on dance team a bit…but if you know me you know I firmly believe you can mix business with pleasure but I prefer to keep my art and competition separate.

Another signature of Ashton is to personify animals through dance which he does during a bacchanal (a festival in honor of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) at the Temple of Diana, with two dancers as goats (if it’s a proper bacchanal, little do they know they’re going to be sacrificed at some point during the festivities).  Ashton of course had a wonderful sense of humor, especially to have Sylvia and Aminta perform their virtuosic variations, followed by this pair of dancing goats (you know that joke you do with fortune cookies where you add “in bed” to the end of every fortune?  Try adding “in bed with a goat.”  It makes everything so much funnier).  The goats have quirky, playful movements which are much less literal then the chickens in La Fille, but you can’t help but smile when watching the goat pas de deux.

As for the variations and pas de deux, Bussell showed crisp, clean lines and superb control.  One of the things I love about Ashton choreography is the way he uses smaller steps and movements which don’t always look like the most difficult, even though they often are.  In a lot of other classical variations you’ll typically see ballerinas indulging in huge extensions, big leg kicks, multiple pirouettes or impressive leaps, while in Ashton’s variation for Sylvia you don’t really see any of that.  There’s a lot of little steps and jumps that are perfectly suited to the pizzicato melody played by the strings, which really gives you a sense that Ashton had more concern for the choreography than he did a dancer’s ego.

I also found Aminta’s variation pleasing as well.  For one thing the music is nice and light, as I sometimes find music for male variations to be really heavy on the “oom-pa” (like DonQ, Corsaire, Flames of Paris, etc.).  However, Aminta’s variation has buoyancy without the heavy brassiness.  There’s a wonderful symmetry to the choreography for the variation, since most typically ask a dancer to “show their good side,” but Ashton repeats certain phrases giving it a nice balance and satisfying us neurotics.  He also uses some creative jumps, the way Bolle tucks his leg underneath in the opening diagonal is a nice touch but my favorite step comes after the sequence of cabrioles (which happen right after the first two diagonals of leaps) and he does a variation on the failli-assemblé, except the assemblé has a rond de jambe with the leading leg, opens to second midair and closes to fifth.  If you have no idea what that means, that’s okay…just watch for him to go to the corner, then travel in a diagonal doing a little hop into another jump where the front leg does a wiggly-do.

Obviously, I enjoyed Sylvia a lot.  It’s uncomplicated, light and sweet…like cotton candy.  In bed.  With a goat.

(Sylvia is available in full on YouTube, but the video size seems to be distorted and will drive you crazy.  Getting your hands on the DVD is highly recommended and now that I’ve returned my overdue copy to the Ohio State library, you can!  Or if you’re super lucky, you can see the Royal Ballet perform it this fall.  I will if I win the lottery.)

Cracking the Nut

8 Dec

Through the twittervine it came to my attention that there are plans to do an action-adventure film version of The Nutcracker.  My knee jerk reaction was “AAAAAAH!” but after thinking about it, I realized that it really hasn’t been done before, so why not?  As far as I know, The Nutcracker has been exclusive to ballets and cartoons so a re-imagination of it in an entirely different form could be, dare I say, interesting.  I put forth the suggestion that a scary or creepy Nutcracker, perhaps envisioned by the likes of Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro would be awesome.  I don’t know about you but I’m dying to see Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and salivate at the possibility of a bizarre and surrealist Nutcracker.  Del Toro is also a true visionary and I love his movies (even if they creep me out and I get insomnia for like a week), and I don’t just salivate but actually drool at the idea of a sinister Nutcracker he could come up with.  He could probably create a truly fiendish and terrifying Rat King, which would probably not be very kid-friendly, but that’s not my problem.  Nevertheless, I don’t think The Nutcracker is something Del Toro would take on.

However, the idea of reimagining ballets into movies got me thinking about…reimagining ballets into movies.  And the reverse (inverse?).  And the stories that inspire both art forms.  I came up with a mental Venn diagram, because it seemed obvious to me that certain ballets could never make sense in film, while some movies simply can’t be turned into ballets, with a select few in the intersecting portion where they could be or already are both.  This conclusion annoyed me.  It basically points out that we have cultural and societal biases that we can’t get away from.  Technically, any story should be capable of being told through dance and movement, but would you take an Indiana Jones ballet seriously?  More importantly, can Roberto Bolle pull off a fedora?  Likewise, this is why I don’t think Del Toro would ever do a Nutcracker because it’s a story that he’s probably not interested in…unless he were paid a significant amount of money.  Some things just aren’t meant to be, for legitimately logical reasons like animatronics (can you imagine a Godzilla ballet?) or perhaps dialogue is just too central to the story.  But this is also what helped me to rationalize why things are the way they are; of course any story can be told through dance or through film, but every story has an appropriate art form to be expressed in…one that makes the most sense.  And anyone who decides to experiment with the boundaries had better be damn sure that the story they’ve chosen is in that overlapping section, like in this case, The Nutcracker.

But there is something that still irks me, and will probably prevent me from sleeping tonight as I ponder it, and that is how liberal and versatile film is and how limited ballet currently is.  If you look at a list of the top one hundred movies of all time, you’ll get a wide variety of genres and while a list of the top one hundred ballets will most likely reveal ballets that are either plotless a la Balanchine, or an exploration of some kind of love story.  Ballets have expressed a full spectrum of love, like romantic, playful and even scandalous, but is it possible to tell a story through ballet without having a grand pas de deux that blatantly tells us who is in love with whom?  Surely it must be possible, and has been done already, with no ballet in particular having risen to prominence yet.  Perhaps there is potential for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, but we’ll have to wait for that one.  In addition to Alice, The Wizard of Oz seems to be a story that I think is often done by local companies.  So we’ve got romantic, plotless, and “young girl fantasy/escapist.”  I think ballet is still lagging behind and somebody should smash the status quo do something about that.  But not I…as an Aries, I have plenty of ideas but I don’t know what to do with them.

As it turns out, I think I like my ballets to be ballets and movies to be movies anyway, because none of my favorite movies would be good as ballets.  Perhaps this can be traced to my instincts, as I used to be one of those people who couldn’t have foods touching other food on the same plate.  I’ve matured and conditioned myself to the point where I can handle food-on-food contact now, but it was rough seas getting to that point.  But a Wayne’s World ballet?  I don’t think so.  Jurassic Park?  Definitely not.  A Billy Elliot ballet?  That would make no sense at all.  However, of all my favorite movies, I could almost see a Clue ballet…if it were farcical, but I think it would be quite chancy to do.  There is some definite potential though…tip-toeing on point to bludgeon someone with a candlestick, and perhaps improvisation every night as to who the murderer is to make things more interesting for the audience.  There are an even number of male and female characters, so partnering works well, the characters have specific colors, and no dialogue necessary (although the movie has some of the greatest lines of all time).  I guess there is the challenge of whether people would take it seriously or not, but I think it’s a fantastic idea.  I conjured it after all.

In the end, regardless of whether you enjoy watching a story unfold through movies, ballets, or both, I think we can all agree that a great story is universal.  So with that in mind, I’m going to do a youdancefunny first, by requesting that you stop dancing or cease to even think about dance (temporarily).  Why?  In order to sit on your ass and read a book.  If you feel particularly audacious, let me know if you find something good.  Perhaps thy discovery will be the next great libretto.

DANGER! DANGER! Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux!

30 Sep

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

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

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

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

fishdiveshort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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