Tag Archives: royal ballet

An Awakening to the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

21 Aug

The last ‘Ballet in Cinema’ presentation to be shown in Seattle was the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty, starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. Given my antsy attention span, Sleeping Beauty can be a difficult one for me to sit through, but having watched the DVD with Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli (the only other time I’ve watched any Sleeping Beauty) I knew what to do this time—abide by a mantra of “no plot, no character development.” Lo and behold, I found the experience to be quite enjoyable, and despite having seen the DVD, a different cast and a desire to do my part to support the ‘Ballet in Cinema’ series had me wanting to go. Unfortunately, attendance in Seattle gets a 1 out of 10—as in literally, I was one of ten people in the audience. I thought maybe Polunin’s abrupt resignation from the Royal Ballet would make this performance something of interest to more people, but that clearly wasn’t the case. The SIFF theatre is small so it was easy enough to eavesdrop (I swear I wasn’t trying!) and the couple behind me did in fact know about Cuthbertson’s bout with glandular fever and the subsequent, debilitating, post-viral fatigue syndrome, but not about Polunin’s departure, so it was interesting to see what news had made it across the pond.

Well, at least I had interest in seeing Polunin! There really isn’t much of him on YouTube, but I had heard the rave reviews through the grapevine and then the aforementioned abandonment heard ’round the world (or at least ’round Balletomanotopia). I have to admit that it was essentially impossible to separate that knowledge from my viewing of the performance, and I found myself wondering if he would look vacant or miserable, but he was far from it—in fact, he was brilliant. True, the “loss” of his talent on the stage at the Royal Opera House is unfortunate, but so too, would’ve have been the loss of his sanity. Tamara Rojo once said in an interview that oftentimes, extraordinary artists die tragic deaths (and that she enjoyed being sane too much to fully let herself go), and given that Polunin has candidly admitted to using some serious drugs, it’s scarily easy to picture him on that path.

A recent, must-read article, ‘A Dancer’s Demons’ by Julie Kavanagh illuminated some of Polunin’s past, and is probably the most honest portrayal of him, shedding light onto much of what happened, but without any scandal or sensationalism. From familial difficulties, to the fear he felt in the moments before he quit, I felt sorrow for him, and the simple fact remained that he admitted that he had no passion for ballet, and I know for me, living a life without passion is a fate worse than death. We so want to believe that every dancer is passionate about their job but it just isn’t true, and it’s not as black and white as dancers who are passionate and those who aren’t. Personally, I make a distinction between people who love ballet and those who are passionate about it, and then you also have dancers who are more in love with being good at something than they are ballet itself, and some like Polunin who only tolerate certain aspects of it, which for him is performing on stage. Regardless, even though it’s impossible to walk a mile in his shoes, at the very least, every human being knows what it’s like to be miserable so I’m glad he left the Royal Ballet, because he obviously needs to find inner peace more than anything else. I’m also glad he’s not giving up dancing entirely for the time being, now having joined the Stanislavsky Ballet and it’s also satisfying to know that he parted with the Royal Ballet amicably, since he’s agreed to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo again this coming season. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m an Ashtonian Rojonian, but it’d be foolish not to film one of those performances!

Coincidentally, Polunin being cast as Armand (a role made on Nureyev) as well as the lead in Rhapsody (made on Baryshnikov) not to mention the incessant hailing by the media of Polunin as the next Nureyev/Baryshnikov, I have to wonder if casting in those roles exacerbated his feeling of entrapment, on top of the rigid discipline often employed in classical ballet. It has to be difficult to feel like you can be yourself when the public is asking you to be a carbon copy of someone that has existed before. I never thought that Prince Florimund would be a particularly desirable role for a danseur—forget one dimensional, he’s almost no dimensional! However, it’s funny how the lack of depth for the Prince also made him a blank canvas for Polunin to color as he wished. I also never expected to feel anything significant for the Prince, but with Polunin you could really get a sense that he was a true daydreamer, longing for more than what his mundane life had to offer—which, given everything that’s happened since Sleeping Beauty was broadcast, is easy to say in retrospect! Still, in partial thanks to Cuthbertson too, their chemistry really worked because their free-spiritedness translated into their roles so well.

For example, when Cuthbertson danced the Rose Adagio, I could really see the young woman’s silent protest to her father’s hackneyed scheme to marry her off ASAP to some random suitor before she could prick her finger on a spindle. Her Aurora wasn’t just innocent, shy, or elegant as the character is often danced, but truly searching for a way to reject the suitors without creating a kerfuffle (<–awesome word). Though I don’t necessarily think it was Petipa’s intention, I think today, the Rose Adagio can be played up as quite an empowering moment for women. In fact, something that occurred to me while watching this Sleeping Beauty was that a complete overhaul of the ballet has the potential to do so much for women—give Carabosse way more, amp up the tension between her and the Lilac Fairy, tweak the context in which the Rose Adagio is presented (but not the choreography), and all of a sudden you have a story revolving around powerful women (hell, even Genesia Rosato’s Queen magnanimously persuaded Gary Avis’s King Florestan to show mercy to the three girls with knitting needles he wanted to behead!). It’s interesting that in interviews right before the film began, Dame Monica Mason and others discussed the historical significance of the current production of Sleeping Beauty, which is a reconstruction of the staging that re-opened the Royal Opera House right after World War II. After such a dreadful period, Sleeping Beauty gave the audience something beautiful, even encouraging them to attend in less formal dress than was expected at the time because resources had been depleted by the war. How incredibly astute of Dame Ninette de Valois, to respond so wisely to the needs of society at the time, giving something to the people to inspire hopes and dreams, and an escape from the horrors they had just overcome via the war. Wouldn’t it be grand if a modernized Sleeping Beauty could do that for feminism today?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that Cuthbertson will no longer be able to partner with Polunin, because they’re so achingly beautiful together. The vision scene was so exquisite I almost cried (again, just can’t seem to cry in public!), and both Cuthbertson and Polunin have such incredible acting skills that it was one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen (the music alone is enough to make you weep). It’s interesting because the Cuthbertson/Polunin partnership is something that must’ve added to the pressure cooker that Polunin was caught in—with Cuthbertson holding the mantle as the only English principal ballerina, there’s a lot of national pride being stirred into the mix, so partnering her comes with additional expectations and responsibilities…not good, for the already troubled Polunin. It’s funny—and a little upsetting—that in Kavanagh’s article, the Royal Ballet School director, Gailene Stock, said of his audition: “I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions—before he’d even done a plié I thought, ‘That’s it.’” Ballet has arrived at a point where teachers can identify physical attributes suited for ballet, and advancements in knowledge of kinesiology, anatomy, and medicine have made the care of dancers’ bodies take on a far greater role than in the past…but who’s nurturing the artists? A dancer like Polunin, who has trouble with finding passion and motivation needs a different kind of psychological encouragement to allow him to perform. If physical therapists can develop treatment specific to dancers, surely there can be a team of people catering to individual needs in terms of mental health too. I’m sure the practice exists to some extent, but at its current level, it may not be enough. Even Dame Monica admitted the longest she had spoken with Polunin was when he quit, and not even teachers in a ballet student’s formative and professional years are necessarily equipped to deal with psychological and emotional issues—though some are and they are truly amazing.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in the Vision Scene:

In the end, Cutherbertson/Polunin were both unrestrained and refined, and it made for a riveting Sleeping Beauty. I know I haven’t exactly sang the praises of Imperial Russian ballets…but as far as Sleeping Beauty is concerned, I find it growing on me like a briar rose—thorns remind me of things I detest *cough* Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood *cough*, but the moments of magnificence that blossom before your eyes are wondrous spectacles to behold.

Aaand because I couldn’t fit this anywhere else in the post, I have to briefly praise Yuhui Choe’s Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux—so delicate, so ADORABLE. Love. Her. So. Much.

Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the Bluebird Pas de Deux:

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part Two

1 Feb

Be sure to read “Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One” first!

For the past year or so I’ve been on a mission to hunt down some recording of Ashton’s Rhapsody, and sometimes being a locomotive pays off because I managed to find it! Only, I didn’t even know it was Rhapsody until close inspection of the choreography because the design of the production was completely different. In 1995 English artist Patrick Caulfield overhauled Rhapsody with new costumes and sets that were rather odd. In a way, I can see where he was coming from because Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini does have a certain quirk and mischief to it that wasn’t quite captured in Ashton’s pink and gold pastel-topia, but Caulfield seemed to have some kind of “art-deco-Alice-in-Wonderland” in mind, complete with playing card-like shapes on the costumes. I’m not fond of the designs or the color scheme (okay, I hate it), and the Paris Opera Ballet didn’t seem to be either. According to a review written by John Percival, POB wanted to commission a new design for Rhapsody when they staged it in 1996, but weren’t allowed to, and the Caulfield designs apparently lasted for one season (in which case, video of it is a treasure indeed!).

Successful or not, I like that The Royal Ballet has made a habit of injecting contemporary ideas into older works to see if it invokes new perspective on it. There are of course many instances of directors/choreographers staging their own versions of the warhorse classics, but they still revolve around a certain set of standards that make drastic changes rare, and significant makeovers for abstract ballets even more scarce. Many symphonic ballets don’t require highly specific costumes so colors, beadwork, ornamentation etc. will vary from company to company, but what Caulfield did to Rhapsody is pretty extreme. While alterations may be questionable, it’s still refreshing to see works being performed in new ways, and there’s bound to be audience members who may enjoy something more as a result. There are of course times when sets and costumes are far too crucial to a work to, but experimentation has to be just as important as authenticity. Oddly enough, Rhapsody has since gone under another transformation; in 2005 Jessica Curtis washed the work in a golden sunset, and her simpler vision remains the current production of The Royal Ballet. I can’t comment on it since I’ve only seen photos of Curtis’s designs, but I wonder if the Caulfield designs were perhaps so controversial there was a conscious effort to go with something rather neutral. Still, sometimes it’s a better decision to dress the dancers in something that doesn’t draw attention away from the choreography.

Steven McRae and artists of The Royal Ballet in their current production of Rhapsody, with costume and set designs by Jessica Curtis (photo ©Tristram Kenton)

Edited to Add (4/30/12) Miyako Yoshida and Yohei Sasaki perform the pas de deux, in the costumes by Jessica Curtis:

 

Ah, the choreography! It’s definitely some of Ashton’s most wicked work, and despite the plethora of bravura steps, it’s actually the quick changes of direction that are likely the trickiest aspect of Rhapsody. Though it’s hard to imagine anything being tricky for Baryshnikov (considering how easy he made everything look), it’s still quite a test for the primer danseur, almost as if to goad one into mastering it. I actually find Rhapsody rather funny and charming in a cheeky sort of way, as the choreography seems to play with the audience too. There’s a section where six male dancers line up in a row and one by one alternate between double tours and entrechat sixes, and when the last dancer finishes and the sequence starts over again, dancers who did double tours switch to entrechats and vice versa—it’s the kind of understated comedy that makes you smirk just a little bit. It’s so damn clever and I absolutely love it, and there are many such moments all throughout Rhapsody (especially just before the end, where all I can say is that fourth position has never made me laugh out loud before). I invite you to see for yourself:

Rhapsody (designs by Patrick Caulfield) Part 1 of 2:

 

Rhapsody Part 2 of 2:

 

According to the user who posted the videos above (and many thanks to you, friend!) Carole Arvo and José Martinez danced the principal roles. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet comprise the rest of the chamber ensemble, and while all performers have impeccable technique, Martinez is flawless—literally, perfect. I can imagine a performance from other dancers that are perhaps more sly and witty, but elegance tends to prevail in Paris and Martinez is a pleasure to watch in this one. Arvo is also a beautiful dancer with a cool demeanor, though having watched the central pas de deux with Lesley Collier/Baryshnikov, I missed many of the skyward glances Collier did, as Arvo’s upper body presentation was mostly focused forward towards the audience. Ultimately, it’s a fine and beautiful performance, hindered by the costumes and sets perhaps, with my only criticism being that when the ‘Virtuoso’ makes his second entrance (at about 5:30 in the first video), I think the tempo is too slow. Given, I was notorious for being a bit of a speed demon as a musician, but that’s a section of the music that needs to have a little fury, and not fall victim to the tendency in ballet to slow music down to allow for bigger jumps. Martinez was even ahead of the accent just a little bit on the sissonnes in the manège, so I think they could have pushed the tempo to something musically appropriate.

In the end, I’m just plain happy that I’ve finally gotten to watch Rhapsody! Even as a rather humorous ballet, there’s still an austerity to it that sates that speck of darkness on my soul. I think it’s safe to say that Ashton’s Rhapsody is probably the definitive Rachmaninoff ballet for the time being, having enjoyed its fair share of performances over the past three decades, though perhaps not enough outside of Covent Garden (I don’t know if Paris Opera has revived it in recent years, and the only other company I could find that has it in their repertory is K-Ballet of Tokyo). Besides selfishly wanting a more feasible opportunity to see Rhapsody live, on a serious note I do think it would do well in the repertory of ABT and/or Corella Ballet. Angel Corella has often been compared to Baryshnikov, and I can imagine him performing the role exceptionally well. We know he has the technical brilliance, and he really has the personality for it, and I don’t mean this to be presumptuous, what a treat it would be if Baryshnikov could coach him in the role!

While the future of Rhapsody appears steady, to bring this series of posts full circle back to the idea of ballet and Rachmaninoff in general, it’s worth noting that there are of course choreographers who are trying. It’s funny that Ashton’s first choreography to Rachmaninoff appeared in a film because it just so happens that another English choreographer has followed suit—surely, you can picture in your head Jonathan Reeves’s ballet to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor’ in everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure, Center Stage? Well, the real choreographer behind that was Christopher Wheeldon, who has also created a piece entitled Rhapsody Fantaisie, to selections by Rachmaninoff. However, the bread and butter may be revealed this spring when two hot ticket choreographers will debut world premiere works to Rachmaninoff, one being none other than Alexei Ratmansky, who is probably the most well known (and busiest!) ballet choreographer in the world right now, and the other is Liam Scarlett, who is regarded as the most promising up and coming talent. Ratmansky is setting his work on Miami City Ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece intended to be a ballet which initially never happened because Fokine died amidst collaborative efforts between the two to make it happen and although Ratmansky isn’t the first to do a Symphonic Dances (Peter Martins’s ballet to the music remains current in the New York City Ballet repertory), he is the man with the “golden touch” so this could be big. Scarlett’s untitled work will debut a month later on The Royal Ballet, and while information about it is currently being kept under wraps, considering the success of his Asphodel Meadows, this could be huge too. Let’s hope they join the ranks of Rhapsody and help to establish a more prominent place for Rachmaninoff in the world of ballet!

Rapture over ‘Rhapsody’ – Part One

28 Jan

I’m not happy with the way 2011 ended, and am determined to improve things for 2012, and what better way to kick off a reinvigorated stance than with a couple of posts dedicated to my beloved hero, Sir Frederick Ashton? For many a moon, a video of Sir Fred’s Rhapsody has been on my wish list, as it combines a choreographer I adore with a composer I equally admire, Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s something about Rachmaninoff’s melodies—which are some of the boldest and most romantic you’ll ever hear—that ignites within me what I believe to be something akin to a “dark side.” Those that have met me know I’m not exactly a menacing creature, but we all have different facets of ourselves and somehow Rachmaninoff’s music unleashes this ominous, rather austere presence in my soul that I can’t access on command. Before you get the wrong idea I don’t mean dark as in brooding and evil (or worse, emo)—what I’m talking about I suppose is best described as impassioned and just a little murky. Call me crazy (assuming you don’t already), but it’s emotionally quite satisfying to feel something like that, especially when it doesn’t come to me naturally.

Unsurprisingly, Rachmaninoff has inspired many choreographers, though curiously absent is a notable work from one Mr. Balanchine. You’d think of all people, Balanchine would love the whirling abyss of intensity that is a Rachmaninoff concerto, but there’s quite a story behind his refusal to choreograph to anything of his. Alexandra Danilova recounts a story of her and Balanchine seeing Rachmaninoff perform in Vienna (she never gives a specific date, though it was before Balanchine’s defection, so we’ll say pre-1924) and Balanchine was so inspired he and Danilova went to Rachmaninoff’s dressing room, where Balanchine asked to stage a ballet to his music. Rachmaninoff was so indignant over the idea he threw them out. Upon reading this, I like to recall one of my favorite quotes about Rachmaninoff, ironically, by a composer who collaborated with Balanchine on many occasions:

“Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and–a-half-foot-tall scowl.”

-Igor Stravinsky

Legend has it, from that moment on, an embittered Balanchine did his fair share of scowling, and any time Rachmaninoff’s name was mentioned, he would respond with “lousy music.” Regardless, Balanchine did in fact choreograph a handful of small works to Rachmaninoff, though some of them before he left the Soviet Union, one just after, and his last was actually a re-choreographed work by Léonide Massine. The proverbial ending to this story is that none of the works survived.

Still, what’s funny is that Rachmaninoff would eventually ask Michel Fokine in the late 1930’s to make a ballet to one of his compositions! The reason for Rachmaninoff’s change of heart is anyone’s guess, but the music Fokine used was in fact Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simply entitled Paganini, Fokine created the work for de Basil’s Ballet Russes and Rachmaninoff even had a hand in co-writing the libretto! (taken from australiadancing.org):

The libretto evoked the legend surrounding the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose playing was so extraordinary that he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for perfection in art.

The ballet is in three scenes. In the first the gaunt figure of Paganini performs on stage. As he plays, the allegorical figures of Guile, Scandal, Gossip and Envy weave through the audience and an evil spirit seems to guide his hand. Scene two is set in a Florentine landscape where a young girl is bewitched by Paganini’s playing and dances as though possessed. In scene three Paganini is tormented by enemies who appear in his likeness. At the conclusion a Divine Genius guides his spirit to heaven and his talent is vindicated at last. A significant component of the choreography is mime, particularly in the role of Paganini, while the roles of Guile, The Florentine Beauty and The Divine Genius execute highly technical episodes of pure dance.

Sounds pretty interesting and surely would have been lost had husband and wife dancer duo Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin not staged it for Tulsa Ballet in 1986. Though I suppose it remains in Tulsa Ballet’s repertory, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been performed since 1990, so one can only hope it will be revived again—who would’ve thought that such a gem of ballet history would be hidden in Oklahoma! It’s worth noting that a similar libretto would also be used by a production staged by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1960, which “stressed the diabolical aspects of Paganini’s art and the consolation he derived from a muse and a beloved.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond and unafraid of Rachmaninoff (though he probably never met him), Ashton took on the task of choreographing to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, although his first venture with that music was not Rhapsody, but a segment from the 1953 film The Story of Three Loves, in a scene featuring James Mason and Moira Shearer (this was of course, long after Rachmaninoff’s death so whether he had an opinion on it is a matter for the afterlife). Ashton’s choreography for the film is completely different from the ballet that would come to be almost thirty years later, though there are some things distinctly Ashtonian (I invite you to see for yourself, take a hop back in time and read my post on Moira Shearer, which has a video link). Now, at last, we fast forward to 1980 and Ashton choreographs Rhapsody, in honor of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. In addition to being a gift to the Queen, Rhapsody was also a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Apparently, Baryshnikov’s condition for guesting with the Royal Ballet was that Ashton create a ballet on him, as he intended for it to be an opportunity to learn the English style of dancing. However, the end product could go down in history as one of the few times Baryshnikov didn’t get exactly what he wanted, because Ashton wanted him to dance a la Russe—big, bold, and virtuosic.

Ashton paired Lesley Collier with Baryshnikov to originate the principal roles, and on August 4th, 1980, Rhapsody debuted at Covent Garden, with the Royal Family in attendance. Ashton designed the sets, William Chappell the costumes, and something that almost never happens did—part of the inaugural performance was captured on film!

Rhapsody pas de deux, with Lesley Collier and Mikhail Baryshnikov:

 

There’s no narrative to this ballet, though it’s suggested that the role created for Baryshnikov has some intention of playing the virtuoso like Paganini. Mostly the ballet has a sort of regal atmosphere and coincidentally, it’s in the same vein to what Balanchine often did, which was pure neoclassical ballet to a symphonic score (Tchaikovsky Suite no.3, Symphony in C, Ballet Imperial…you get the idea). I get chills watching this pas because it’s so dreamy, and Ashton certainly loved those lifts where the danseuse hovers just off the floor—and the part where she leaps into his arms in an arabesque and he spins around? Just makes the heart sing. Still, it’s hard to ascertain the dramatic impact of the pas de deux, without placing it in a larger context of the entire ballet. Phooey.

This post is way too long and has been broken into two parts. Read Part Two Here! 

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

Ahoy! I can’t believe I’ve neglected my blog for virtually all of September, and I’m not happy about it, but I shan’t dwell because I have a lot of words to cram into this one post on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of ‘All Wheeldon,’ a program that consisted solely of Christopher Wheeldon ballets. As those of you more obsessive readers know, I attended a preview with the man himself, where he discussed some of his works while the dancers rehearsed on stage, and wrote a synopsis for SeattleDances. There was much I couldn’t include, and luckily, I can be almost as loquacious as I want here, so here’s a little more to the story.

Life began for Christopher Wheeldon in England, where he described himself as very much a “Billy Elliot.” Stop. Okay, so I have to disagree with Mr. Wheeldon a little bit (Chris, if you’re on a first name basis), because I adore Billy Elliot and there’s more to Billy than simply being a male dancer in the UK; Billy faced a great deal of adversity in not having family who understood his curiosity in ballet. Wheeldon’s mother trained in dance (though she was forbidden to have a career in it because her father thought it inappropriate) and his father comes from a background in theatre (which is actually how his parents met), so a passion for the performing arts is not a foreign idea for his parents. Becoming a professional dancer is a major accomplishment, but it’s how Billy makes his father and brother understand him that is the triumph of the film…but I digress. The point is, Wheeldon’s formative and professional years were perhaps more sanctified. He recalled watching Sir Frederick Ashton as a student, working with two girls on a ballet in honor of the Queen’s birthday, a long, ashy cigarette in hand and after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon would also come face to face with Sir Kenneth MacMillan (I believe he mentioned that he was in the corps when MacMillan choreographed The Prince of the Pagodas). Incidentally, it was Peter who even brought up Ashton and MacMillan; let’s just say it required every ounce of discipline I had to NOT leap out of my chair and praise in jubilation, though the sad fact is the majority of the audience probably didn’t know much (if anything) about them. I get that some of the Ashton or MacMillan repertory is too much to ask for right now, but bits and pieces would be nice!

At any rate, Wheeldon has told the story of the Hoover vacuum countless times, and how he always has to retell it which is why I’m going to skip it; all you really need to know is that a vacuum cleaner got him to New York. Still recovering from an injury that kept him from competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize (where he was slated to perform the pas de deux from…The Dream! When he said it was his favorite and I just about died…can you imagine him as Oberon?), he merely sought to take class at NYCB. Somehow he was confused with some dancers auditioning for the company, and miraculously, Peter Martins offered him a contract. It worked out well for the lucky teenager, as he was quick to credit Balanchine as his greatest source of inspiration (beginning with a graduation performance of Valse Fantaisie) because his ballets taught him was a sense of structure and shape, because they would “never pull your eye the wrong way.” When Wheeldon joined NYCB, however, Jerome Robbins was still working with NYCB, and Wheeldon has some interesting comments regarding him and how he and Peter Boal were perhaps the last generation to put up with the idea of “success through intimidation and fear.” However, Robbins did impart emphasis on understanding who you are in a ballet, and encouraged dancers to be human.

The introduction ended with a sort of hodgepodge of information, like some general information about his production of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, how it’s his largest production to date, with a new score, etc. and also some of his future plans, like NYCB performing DGV, which will be a first because NYCB has never imported a ballet made on another company before. Wheeldon will also expand his artistic pursuits a bit with a first time outing as a choreographer for a Broadway production. He’s busy, he’s sensational, and he had fascinating things to say about the ballets PNB performed.

First came the lovely Carousel, which is a romantic, light-hearted fantasy celebrating music by Richard Rogers, and originally intended for a gala program. In this piece, Wheeldon sought to use pure movement to create an atmosphere (with no budget!) so the costumes are simple, minimal set design, and just enough lighting to enhance the mood. The work definitely has that “carnival” feel, and a central pas de deux that plays out like an awkward first date. The pas de deux to me definitely had a little MacMillan in it (I definitely saw steps from Manon), and struck me as a game of cat and mouse between two people who had a romanticized idea of what love is, as if they’ve seen the movies and have preconceived notions but the truth is turning out to be not as interesting as the myth. It definitely has a dark cloud hanging over it, though still playful and lush as it is, and Wheeldon had high praise for the original cast of Damian Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli, complementing the bravura of the former and the great imagination of the latter. I saw Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in both rehearsal and performance, and I absolutely adored them in it—flawless casting! High praise too for Margaret Mullin, who I got to see up close during the lecture demonstration (my subscriber tickets are up in the balcony, so for general seating I beeline for the third row), really taking notice of her lovely épaulement and beautiful hands…she has a wonderful refinement that really stood out to me. Carousel was easily my favorite Wheeldon ballet because I’m a sappy romantic and it’s one of those pieces that you just have to smile at while watching, while getting just a dash of Busby Berkely-ish, oh-so-satisfying cinematic geometry.

Meanwhile, Polyphonia was the complete opposite. I found it funny that Wheeldon picked the music—a scattering of piano notes somehow composed into song by György Ligeti—while browsing at Tower Records. I don’t know why the image of Christopher Wheeldon at a retail music store, listening to samples of tracks on headphones is so endearing, but it is. With the score being so difficult to almost listen to (apparently when he played it for his dad, he almost drove off the road), I had a sinking feeling Polyphonia was going to disagree with me and while it wasn’t my favorite, I was surprised that I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s what Wheeldon called “a sketchbook,” the title meaning “multiple voices” and it depicts…not people, but beings? For me it was like staring through a microscope into a Petri dish, and seeing these curious creatures that were both alien and terrestrial…like deep-sea plankton. It’s rather bizarre but then you get these interesting pictures like the duet between two men that was a sort of “question and response,” with one dancer shadowing the other, it’s becomes something recognizable like a younger brother imitating his elder sibling and Polyphonia made many such shifts between the foreign and familiar that I found fascinating. Wheeldon himself said it took choreographing (and finishing!) the work to unlock the score’s mysteries, to find order in disorder, and create something not chaotic but mathematical (help us Dave Wilson!).

The last previewed work was After the Rain, or as I like to call it, “the Yoga Pas de Deux.” This piece was made for Jock Soto’s final season, an odyssey of partnering that often created the illusion of independent movement. There were times when the couple would reach for each other without making eye contact, and the danseuse just had to trust that her partner would lift her into the next step. For fans of Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon mentioned that she was visibly upset when told she would be dancing barefoot (he said “there may have been a tear”) but that After the Rain was a fascinating insight into her gentler side, beyond her fabulous technique. Meditative, tranquil, and often inviting a sense of loss, After the Rain achieved its purpose so perfectly the Seattle audience (who definitely loves their yoga!) responded to it very enthusiastically…even if I didn’t. I did yoga for a couple of years and I didn’t have the attention span for it then and certainly don’t now, so I didn’t find myself really interested. It’s not what I would call a “let down,” but when the theoretically strongest work is your least favorite, you’re sent on a different emotional roller coaster than the rest of the audience and that can be tricky to figure out.

Closing out the actual performance evening was Variations Sériuses, a comedic story ballet about a ballerina with a diva attitude who essentially gets in her own way and ends up being replaced by a younger dancer (et tu…Lily?). The neat thing about this piece is that the set is built to show a view from the wings as this fictitious ballet company rehearses and puts on a production of an unnamed ballet, which clues the audience into what it’s like backstage and of course, hamming it up a little. It has just enough melodrama to appeal to the general audience, though professional dancers and those familiar with the stage life will certainly derive a little extra here and there. The ballet within the ballet is a generic sort, with Romantic tutus and floral headwear, and the most heinously neon pink costumes you might ever see. American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg once referred to their production of Theme and Variations as the “pink monster,” but this ballet-within-a-ballet should then be called the “pink behemoth.” We are talking about the most offensive to the eyes, highlighter pink imaginable, obviously intentional because we’d be fools if we believed dancers enjoyed every costume they have to wear (and just in case you were wondering…they don’t). Laced with hilarity, I quite enjoyed Variations Sériuses, and really enjoyed Carrie Imler as the Ballerina. It’s a role in which a dancer could easily flail around and indulge in too much melodrama, but she always gives intelligent performances and trust me when I say she has some mean (literally) echappés!

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this crash course in Christopher Wheeldon’s work, having only seen a couple of pieces by Corella Ballet prior to PNB’s program. I did kind of yearn for something bigger, as there is something pleasing about having that big, symphonic ending (as ubiquitous as it may be), but you don’t curate a Chagall exhibit and spray the paintings with glitter because there isn’t enough “razzle-dazzle.” In these instances one must respect the creator’s perspective and when it comes to Wheeldon, I found every piece to be tasteful, coherent, and wonderfully made—a marvelous start to the performance season!

Here are some excerpts of the lecture/demonstration with Wheeldon, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel:

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:

 

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

Wow—a busy week! Ever since the Dance Critics Association conference, it feels like it’s been full steam ahead. Prior to last weekend, I was going to blog something about Deborah Jowitt leaving the Village Voice, but seeing as how she was at the conference, I’m just going to tie in a few thoughts I had into one big entry, rather than bore you with a thousand words of inane rambling on the subject (and believe me, I could go on and on!). I have also been working quite a bit at my new job at a bagel deli, where I sell carbs and people eat them, and though it’s not mentally exhausting it is somewhat physically so, and you know you’ve had a long day on your feet when standing on relevé feels good because it relieves pressure on your heels! I’ve been rummaging through a few backburner topics in my head, but every time I sat down to write, I would end up asleep at the computer. So I’m still getting used to the new schedule (which sometimes includes the horror of getting up early) but today my friends, is a day off!

The topic of this year’s DCA conference was reconstruction, in conjunction with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle (but more on that later). I didn’t get to attend the whole conference, and was just a last minute volunteer but I was present on Saturday, for much of the discussion on reconstruction itself. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest, notation guru who knows more about the subject of reconstructing dances than the average mind can handle. It’s funny how a lot of what she talked about seemed relevant to things I learned at Ohio State (coincidentally, one of the examples she used to discuss differences in steps according to notation was indeed La Cachucha, a piece I saw at an MFA concert) and I chuckled to myself when she discussed how ballet training today is about superficial pictures, but the motivation for a movement is never a problem for a modern dancer. I actually had the opportunity to learn a ballet from notation at OSU (which was actually for six female dancers on pointe, but that’s a long story), and the thing she said that struck me the most was how reconstruction from notation is more important than video because the latter makes it so that you have to understand the movement. I always knew the importance of notation but couldn’t express why until she so artfully put it into words—the process of learning notation is an investigation of movement, and my own interpretation is that dancing from notation requires that creative process we like to call “imagination.”

The first panel discussion of the day was with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, and Marian Smith, the trio behind PNB’s staging of Giselle. Peter opened with a general spiel, about how he wanted a unique production for the company, how Doug told him of Marian’s proximity, that it was something of a last minute decision (I seem to recall a mixed bill that it replaced), and that people are calling it the “new/old Giselle.” Now that sounds familiar…oh wait, I was one of those people! Hey…look at that legitimate writer…that’s me too! Gloating aside, there was a lot of interesting discussion on not only negotiating three minds at work, but also three documents to work with, and what the ideal creation would be. Most of the choreography came from the Stepanov, and the French scores provided the pantomime, with the usual interpolations of “artistic liberties” (at times, none of the scores provided anything of use). Much of the more difficult choreography was tested on Carrie Imler, allegro extraordinaire, who could basically do all of it though the rest of the company had some trouble, hence the adjustments. Though many fascinating questions were asked, I’m glad someone mentioned the use of humor, in the lost scenes and Smith said that the originator of the role of the old man was a world-renowned comic mime, so it is fully intended to be a moment of comic relief. She feels lightening of the mood gives the story gravity, though I still disagree here—people were surprised by humor in Giselle, though I think Act I has always had traces of it, and it’s the contrast between the two acts that gives it gravity, not an unnecessary augmentation of the storyline…but, this is strictly a matter of opinion.

There was a writing workshop during lunch that I only observed because I hadn’t been a part of the conference the previous day, and that was followed by another panel on reconstruction means, which unfortunately, by that time I was mentally checking out. Sitting through panels is a lot like lecture-based learning, and the whole experience reminded me of being in school again, something I’m not really looking to return to. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept, or what I’ve done for the day, I am always sleepy around two o’clock, so my notes for this panel are woefully barren. Just remember…preservation makes us human and every dancer inherits an embodied legacy.

Finding my second wind for the last panel of the day, several ballet repetiteurs shared their thoughts on reconstruction for living or deceased choreographers. Though several ballet choreographers—from lesser known to titans like Tudor and Balanchine—were discussed, I’m just going to summarize some of the Balanchine tidbits, mostly coming from Francia Russell (one of the founding co-directors of PNB). Russell indeed danced for NYCB years ago, and I suppose a lot like Carrie Imler, Balanchine tested a lot of movement on Russell, even if the performances themselves went to other dancers. Russell actually retired pretty early, but stayed with NYCB as ballet mistress, and in fact only stages ballets that she watched Balanchine produce during her tenure, as well as ballets she herself has danced. Though she doesn’t claim to have the definitive version of anything, she does say she stages things very closely to the way he wanted them (in that sense, her work is kind of like the Australia of ballet—broke away from the mother continent and remained unchanged while Balanchine’s choreography in New York evolved under different circumstances). Though she tries not to impose her personal tastes, there have been occasions where she’ll make executive decisions like when she stages Ballet Imperial, it’s mostly NYCB material but there is also choreography that is seen with the Royal Ballet (Balanchine went overseas to stage it, working closely with Moira Shearer). Also, I believe it was in regards to the finale of Divertimento No.15, she said Balanchine changed the ending for PBS’s Dance in America to accommodate the set, but she loves the original finale. Apparently, NYCB’s Divertimento is starting to look a lot like Who Cares?, and never having seen the former I don’t know what that means but it was fun to hear her opinions on several matters, like which companies were great to work with and which weren’t *coughLa Scalacough*.

The second topic of this panel posed the question of how critics should approach reconstructive work, and while this wasn’t really discussed in detail, Russell voiced some frustrations in wondering why critics feel the need to personally attack dancers, when they are so willingly giving their all. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Deborah Jowitt nodded her head in agreement, as her refusal to write negative reviews led to her leaving the Village Voice. I found it funny that in a room full of critics, who so willingly put forth their ideas during other panels to the point where questions weren’t really asked during the Q&A sessions and it was more like a debate with statements of opinion, nobody really had much to say on the matter. Well, I am of the mind of Jowitt, who I saw speak and perform a sort of dance-theatre solo at OSU, and I believe that dance truly fascinates her, which is why she is able to write about it in the way she does. She genuinely finds the art of movement captivating at all levels, which is why she doesn’t have anything negative to say about the effort put forth by performers. I admire her so much for it, and aspire to be like her, though for me it requires some effort. We all know I can go on and on about Ashton (and in an upcoming entry, I will), but when ballet moves away from the styles I favor the most, I have a harder time discussing it. However, I think when a passion is authentic, you find a way, which leads me to believe that some critics may be more in love with the search for perfection than they are ballet itself…and for some reason society seems to think if you can nitpick flaws in a performance, you must know what you’re talking about. Rest assured, I don’t think that way.

On that note, I encourage you to read my latest and first post-DCA review on SeattleDances, in which I reviewed PNB’s Season Encore performance. I am interested to hear if you think my voice has changed, or is still the same old me, and ideally, WILDLY and authentically in love with ballet!

For Shoeman Peaces

31 Jan

As in any creative endeavor, the artist is bound to encounter obstacles and for the past two weeks I’ve had a monkey-sized writer’s block on my back.  For various reasons, I couldn’t seem to pull ideas together…I had plenty, but when I started to develop those thoughts they just faded away.  It’s frustrating, depressing, disheartening and requires the time old medicine of confections—my current delight being the new Andes Crème de Menthe cookies, which are even better than their after dinner mints…you know, those little rectangular chocolates with a layer of mint, wrapped in the signature green foil that is often distributed as little tokens of gratitude for having dinner at the Olive Garden (though the Olive Garden is very stingy, and will never give you more than one per person…I’ve asked.  On several occasions).  Thanks to these refreshing treats, the restoration process has begun.

I operate under the assumption that eating the whole box in a couple of days means fewer calories...but I was never good at math.

So!  In the spirit of renewal, I wanted to write about a dance completely new to me, and inspired by the anniversary of its debut, thirty-six years ago today at Covent Garden, I’ve selected Four Schumann Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen to music by Robert Schumann (Quartet in A major, Op.41, No.3).  I’ve never seen Van Manen’s work before, nor have I seen a ballet to Schumann, whose music I’ve always felt has a distinct refinement and intimacy.  Four Schumann Pieces seems to follow suit with this assessment and so it was impossible to be disappointed.  Overall, I found Van Manen’s style to be quite classical and at times academic, with the occasional dash of modern choreography.  It is however, the kind of piece that requires very disciplined training because placement is key and not having a certain squareness in the hips would result in a faceplant for sure.  It’s deceiving because it’s not a ballet that would strike you immediately as being particularly virtuosic, but it has exceptionally wicked choreography, especially for the lead male dancer.

In the performance I’m including in this post (filmed around 1980), this guy named Anthony Dowell danced the male lead, with Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling and Julian Hosking in featured roles.  The ballet has no plot, though the backdrop has horizontal lines could suggest a music staff and with Dowell beginning alone on stage I imagined him as a composer or maestro.  The other dancers I saw as representations of the notes themselves and Van Manen has all of the dancers doing these airy phrases that repeat in canon and truly embody this idea of music coming to life.  I don’t know if this would be a pertinent distinction (well, I guess it has to be if I’m writing it down!) but the difference I saw in this ballet was that it was very conscientious of not just dancing to the music but becoming it and letting the music speak for itself.  The result is quite reserved in terms of choreography as there’s nothing too flashy but when you watch the first male solo, you realize what makes this ballet so insanely difficult.  For example in this first part, at about 2:40 Dowell does the most beautiful, gooiest grand plié in fifth, springs up to passé, stays up on relevé and ever so gently place his foot down into fourth position before going into a pirouette.  So yeah, academic but also ridiculously hard and in order to make it look easy, placement is everything.  I actually laughed out loud when he did it a second time and sprung up to an arabesque on relevé.  I know nothing about ballet is normal, but that is incredibly not normal.

Van Manen gave Dowell a lot of work on relevé, which isn’t unusual for a ballet dancer but sustained movements on relevé are generally reserved for women (as is sliding into the splits and a penchée, both of which Dowell did above, and I though were absolutely fantastic).  There is more of that later on in the piece but the next segment elaborates on Van Manen’s style, which maintains simple lines and minimal port de bras.  While Dowell takes a nap on stage, Penney, Collier, Eagling and Hosking perform a quartet as a pair of duos, which was one of my favorite moments because Van Manen chose beautiful shapes to frame the women with, and I found it sensual without being romantic.  That’s followed by dancers executing simple steps with pseudo-V is for victory arms, which might seem stiff or awkward but it draws attention to the pulse of the music. I have to say there’s something really pleasing about a tempo in a three, especially a waltz.

Following are some different pas de deux, with Dowell partnering both Penney and Collier in beautiful fashion but the most intriguing is perhaps the duet between Dowell and another male dancer (sorry, I can’t tell who it is)…a little male-on-male action, but like I said before this is a ballet not about romance but intimacy which doesn’t have to be sexual, and such choreography is a rarity in neoclassical ballet (and practically nonexistent in anything earlier).  A friend once asked me if I’ve ever had to do a promenade a la seconde and I’m pretty sure I haven’t, though there are plenty in this little duet.  By this point Dowell is understandably sweating like a beast, having been on stage and dancing for a good twenty minutes, there’s an ease and softness to the brief partnership that makes me wish we could see more of such things in new works.  Although talk about unusual partnering, what could be a more fitting end to this section than Jennifer Penney supporting Dowell’s hand as he balances in an arabesque?  It’s no Rose Adagio, but I love the role reversal.

In the last section Van Manen gives snippets of bravura technique, with Dowell having to perform a series of piqué and tombé piqué turns (or piqué tour en dehors, but most certainly NOT “lame duck”…it has a name, people), which I would actually consider to be more along the lines of “women’s work” as well, as this is a very common series to see in pointe work (like in the female variation of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, or something a ballerina would often do in a coda en manège).  I think Van Manen is on to something here because I feel like his choreography has very few gender biases…and I like it!  The choreography isn’t what I would call innovative, but there are subtle hints of imagination that I find scrumptious…it’s like finding some wild berries on a forest path (yes, when I was little I used to eat such things without knowing or caring that it could potentially be poisonous.  I sort of know better now).

I suppose that’s all for Four Schumann Pieces, which I thought had a familiar charm along the lines of Les Sylphides, with the role of the poet and such.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say; I’m back boys and girls!  May February be a fruitful month for blogging!

‘Tis the season

25 Dec

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

Merry Marcelo Christmas! -Steve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance is futile

28 Nov

You know I love the Royal Ballet, so of course I have to include at least one of their productions for Swan Lake Month, in this case the one featuring Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried.  Right off the top I think it’s important to note that a Makarova performance as Odette is quintessential; it’s her thing and she does not disappoint in this DVD.  It’s one of those performances where you don’t know why or how, but you can feel how much she loves that role.  Of course, Anthony Dowell is no slouch and they had a wonderful, memorable partnership—I would even go as far to say that this was the most memorable Odette/Siegfried I’ve seen thus far.  I would also say that this production is probably my favorite of the classically oriented versions of Swan Lake I’ve seen as well.

The structure is pretty standard fare for a Swan Lake, beginning with Siegfried’s birthday (though this one is outdoors…an unusual, but refreshing choice) with plenty of hearty, festive dancing.  When Anthony Dowell enters, he flashes a devilish grin to his subjects and it’s one of those utterly charming, handsome heartbreaker smiles and all you can think is “oh, Anthony…” and heave a heavy sigh.  We all know Siegfried screws up, but as soon as Dowell smiled the way he did, I just knew this going to be a Soviet-era happy ending.  Sometimes I worry I think I see that smile in real life and think I might be going insane, but that’s another story…anyway, the choreography is nice (definitely some Ashton in there) and I’d like to point out that in the coda for the pas de trois, one of the women ends a diagonal series of jumps with FOUR, yes FOUR entrechat six in a row, which is something quite common in choreography for men, so not only does that deserve a high-five but it also means the ladies out there can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to those nasty little entrechat six!  Meanwhile, that wasn’t the only challenging of the status quo in male/female specific choreography as later on in Act III, in a male pas de deux one of the men does a saut de chat with his arms in third, which in some schools of thought could be considered a vile emasculation of the male danseur.  Well, maybe vile emasculation is exaggerating a bit, but it sounds funny…anyway, Act I ends with Siegfried’s solo, and I kid you not when I say Dowell’s performance in it was quite possibly the most perfect bit of dancing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Act II is again a “no touchie” zone, with the only major difference I could see being a moment where Siegfried’s hunting party actually appears on stage and they’re about to shoot at the flock of swans and Siegfried comes in to stop them.  This of course comes after Siegfried and Odette’s flawless, first pas de deux.  When Makarova enters, she does the most beautiful arm movements, the most luxurious backwards arches of her back and she even makes a simple lunge sing.  Together, I love the way Makarova and Dowell shade the characters because it isn’t entirely love at first sight; Dowell’s Siegfried is bewildered for most of the pas de deux, recognizing the fact that oh, he just saw a swan turn into a woman and doesn’t really give into love until later.  Similarly, Makarova holds back a little as a frightened and timid Odette, running from Siegfried until the end of the first pas de deux where she lets her curiosity take over.  This is of course, when Von Rothbart enters in his strigine glory…well, at least it should have gone something like that but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Von Rothbart owl costume.  In fact, it’s probably my only major criticism because I felt the design made him look more like a pterodactylic peacock (for the record, the word used to describe a peacock-like animal is “pavonine”).  It’s also unfortunate that Von Rothbart isn’t much of a dancing role (his massive wings being so unwieldy and all) but the focus of Act II, Odette and Siegfried’s romantic first meeting is tender, which is aided by the fact that Makarova works to a snail pace tempo.  I actually think rubato is often abused today, with many dancers using slower tempos but without purpose.  I’m not a fan of slowing the tempo just for the sake of slowing the tempo—it has to be done if the dancer feels it will allow them to add something to the character, and not just be seen as additional time to show off an extension.  I had no problems with Makarova’s tempo, because she works it brilliantly.

What also makes Makarova’s slower adagio more successful is the contrast it provides when she appears as Odile in Act III.  She actually uses faster tempi like in the Black Swan variation, which makes quite a difference.  Makarova’s Odile is very business-like; she enters, she seduces, she laughs maniacally when Siegfried realizes what’s going on and she leaves.  It’s the complete opposite of say, Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake, where Odile is able to seduce Siegfried in a much different manner.  I forgot to write this in my review, but in that staging Odile lures Siegfried by coming close enough for him to get a glance, but then one of Von Rotbart’s other maidens will get in his way.  This happens I think four times and by the fourth time Siegfried is blinded with frustration and the thought that Odile could be an imposter doesn’t even cross his mind.  The Royal Ballet, on the other hand takes the direct approach and no qualms are made as to Odile’s true identity.  Makarova is marvelous as Odile, spicing things up a little bit with a little more élan and a little determination to get through those fouettés.  Every Odile I’ve seen thus far has done thirty-two single fouettés, which doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, thirty-two singles may very well be harder than throwing in some doubles because if you do a double pirouette you get to pull in and just worry about holding yourself up, but doing two singles in the same span of time means having to work through the foot, plié, rond de jambe and spring back up to relevé again.  That’s a lot of work. (Side note: the national dances are pretty typical but the Italian dance is awesome and gets tremendous, well deserved applause)

Finally, it’s time for Act IV; reconciliation, suicide pact, and happily ever after (life).  What I loved about this act was that again, we’re made to wait for it.  Odette doesn’t forgive Siegfried immediately and the act of forgiveness and the apology, are danced out.  Sometimes these redemptive moments in ballet can be reduced to a hurried set of mimed gestures immediately followed by the pretty pas de deux, rather than sustaining the emotions throughout.  With Makarova/Dowell, you get to see the whole process unfold.  Well, I suppose you would REALLY see it if I posted the clip:

All in all, I’m sold on this Swan Lake.  Makarova is the epitome of the cygnine (I’m totally about these animal adjectives today!) and if anybody asks why I would add this to my collection I’d say “Anthony Dowell made me do it.”  Nobody could resist that Act I smile.

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

This entry’s dedicatees are the wonderful Bag Ladies of The Ballet Bag, who have truly helped make my blog the…whatever it is today.  It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to increase readership and reach new audiences, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing…and look at me now!  Five readers!  Just kidding…I know there are more of you and I appreciate each and every click of a link that brings you here, but to the Bag Ladies go the heartiest thanks.  They were among the first to believe that something worthwhile is written here, and this is but a small token of appreciation.  Much obliged, Ladies…much obliged.

The Bag Ladies requested I do some more “detective work” like I did for the Black Swan grand pas de deux.  If you recall, it was a mess of information on the different variations, where they came from and a ‘where are they now?’ sort of deal.  At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another ballet mystery I would be able to research, but lo and behold one day it revealed itself to me—Les Sylphides.  In short, Les Sylphides is also a catastrophe.  At least for the Black Swan pas de deux, there was some logic behind substitutions that were made but there’s a lot to the history of Les Sylphides that doesn’t really make sense…like why is it sometimes called Chopiniana?  Tracing the lineage of this ballet is literally like collecting butterflies…we have to gather samples of the same species, note minute differences and determine whether any of it is significant or not.  So join me as I make a fool’s attempt at the Darwinian task of pinning sylphs and mounting them for display (a disturbing image, is it not?).

Library books in tow, my first order of business was analyzing the title.  The story  goes that when Michel Fokine originally choreographed the ballet for a charity performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, the title was indeed Chopiniana.  However, this ballet was set to a completely different selection of Chopin orchestrations by Alexander Glazunov, with the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 (trust me, you’re going to want to know the numbers) being a later addition, and pretty much the only piece from Chopiniana that survives in modern productions of Les Sylphides today.  Wait for it…Chopiniana had an entirely different theme!  Different theme, different music, different title…I’m pretty sure this constitutes a different ballet.  For this reason I would argue that Chopiniana refers to Fokine’s original character ballet, which is most assuredly lost (it is ballet history after all).  However, in his memoirs Fokine does provide some details about Chopiniana, which I shall quote below:

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 -In gorgeous costumes, a large ensemble performed Polish ballroom dances

Nocturne in F Major, Op.15 No.1 –The curtain opens disclosing Chopin sitting at the piano in a monastery on the island of Majorca, where during the night, the ill composer suffers nightmarish hallucinations.  He sees dead monks rising from their graves and slowly approaching him to the accompaniment of a monotonously beaten rain.  Frightened, he rushes away from the piano, trying to seek safety from the horrible visions.  He finds salvation in his Muse.  Again he sits at the piano and finds calm in the sounds of the Nocturne.

Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3 –(A wedding in a Polish village)  An unfortunate girl is being married to an elderly man whom she does not love.  In the course of the general dancing, her beloved finds his way to her.  As a result of his passionate pleas, she throws the wedding ring at the unwanted suitor and flees with her beloved.

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Hi, it’s me, Steve here and Fokine doesn’t describe the waltz in the manner that he did the other dances, only that it had Anna Pavlova (in a Taglioni costume, a la La Sylphide) and Michael Oboukhov (in a “very romantic black velvet costume” from the ballet Fairy Doll) dancing a pas de deux with “choreography [that] differed from all other pas de deux in its total absence of spectacular feats.”  Fokine goes on to describe the choreography that had “not a single entrechat, turn in the air or pirouette.  There was a slow turn of the ballerina, holding her partner’s hand, but this could not be classified as a pirouette because the movement was not confined to the turn but was used for a change of position and grouping.”  This sounds about in line with the Waltz we see in Les Sylphides today, but I can’t say for sure if it’s actually the same.

Tarantelle Op.43 –This was performed by Vera Fokina assisted by a large ensemble.  I tried to project the authentic character of the national dances which Vera and I had observed on our trip to Italy, when we studied them in detail on the island of Capri.

As you can see, Chopiniana was a plotless ballet in five tableaux, most of them depicting character dances, except for the Waltz.  So what does this mean?  For now, just remember three things: character dances, Alexander Glazunov orchestration, and it was performed by students at the Maryinsky.

Following is a video recording of the Russian National Orchestra performing Chopiniana, however this footage doesn’t contain the Polonaise and actually the order appears to be messed up (as if this wasn’t all confusing enough already) but for the record, the orchestra is playing Mazurka-Waltz-Tarantelle-Nocturne.  The order I have listed above is the official order of Chopiniana.

Things get messy the following year…in 1908, according to one text I have, Chopiniana was danced again at a Maryinsky benefit, under the title of Dances to Music by Chopin.  In 1909, a new version was performed, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin.  I’m not entirely sure, but by conglomerating information from several books, I believe this would be the same ballet Fokine refers to as Second Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique in his memoirs, and thus the prototype of Les Sylphides. Second Chopiniana had a new set of Chopin pieces for the score, orchestrated by Maurice Keller, while also retaining Glazunov’s orchestrated Waltz.  Fokine mentions a pretty funny story regarding the Waltz, which actually has an Etude in C Sharp Minor as the introduction.  This didn’t go well with one of the Maryinsky singers, Ivan Ershov (also a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music), who overheard it while walking by and threw a hissy fit in the middle of one of Fokine’s rehearsals.

“What are they doing?  What are they doing, these ballet people?” he began to yell in colorful tenor.  “They are combining an Etude with a Waltz!”

I always find it funny when musicians are so disagreeable when it comes to ballet…but even funnier was Fokine’s response:

“Ivan Vasilievich, this was not done by the ballet people.  Your director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazounov, has combined the Etude and the Waltz.  Go across the street”—the Conservatory of Music was located just across the street from the Maryinsky Theater—“and yell there.  And we will resume our rehearsal as soon as you leave.”

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

Anyway, from what I’m reading, this version actually had Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 too, but as an overture.  Here is the full listing of Chopin pieces used, and if I’m reading his memoirs correctly, the “glorious” cast who performed in the 1908 premiere at the Maryinsky (though don’t quote me on this):

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 (overture)

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

*Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 –Vaslav Nijinsky

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7 –Olga Preobajenska

*Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2 –Anna Pavlova

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Tamara Karsavina

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Now there’s a reason why the Mazurkas are starred.  For the woman’s Mazurka (danced by Pavlova), some productions today use the order goes as it is above, but in others the Mazurka comes after the first Waltz.  I couldn’t find any information as to why this is, and I’ll get to the man’s Mazurka later but I list the order above because the one film I could find of Les Sylphides that actually uses the Polonaise overture is a 1958 film of the Maryinsky.  So I’m assuming, without concrete evidence that the Maryinsky version is closest to what debuted in 1908.

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

So you would think, Les Sylphides pretty much has it together, right?  Silly mortal…you’d be very wrong.  Les Sylphides officially earned its title from Diaghilev, when it premiered in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (much of the cast from above was the same, except with Alexandra Baldina instead of Preobajenska).  Diaghilev purposely named it Les Sylphides to recall Marie Taglioni and La Sylphide, and there were even more changes to the orchestrations.  The newly orchestrated score is credited to Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Taneyev, Anatole Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnine and Nicolas Sokolov.  At this point, I have such a headache trying to sort this out I don’t WANT to know what’s different.  I could spend hours listening to actual scores and seeing if I can decipher any differences in the counter melodies, but I already drove myself to the brink of insanity trying to work on the man’s Mazurka, for you see, some productions use Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 and others use Mazurka in C, Op.67 No.3 and I was trying to find video of it and had a surprisingly difficult time of separating them.  The major companies I could find (Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, ABT) all used Op.33 No.3.  The only example I could find of Op.67 No.3 was this excerpt of the poet’s solo:

You could compare them for yourself, but it’s maddening.

Now as for that heinous mess of a score, according to a copy I borrowed of the piano music, this was the order as presented by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House:

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Notice the Polonaise is gone and that the placement of the Mazurka in D (the woman’s Mazurka) is also different.  The Prelude serves as a new overture, and the above arrangement can be heard in this performance by The Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in three parts:

*A Roy Douglas is credited with the arrangement…I’m going to bury my head in the sand for that one.

Well, this isn’t an exhaustive history, but I’m certainly exhausted by thinking about it.  Regardless of the finer details, after watching many (too many) videos of Les Sylphides, what I love about this signature Fokine ballet is how unpretentious it is…it requires the art of subtlety because there are so few virtuosic movements to inspire the typical audience response.  Fokine discusses this in his memoirs, in that he wasn’t looking to please the audience at all, in fact one of his goals with the piece was to prove he understood and could indeed choreograph classical dancing on pointe!  Fokine had some interesting thoughts on Nijinsky dancing the role of the poet, telling him not to admire himself and to simply admire the beauty of the Sylphs around him…but for more on that you’d have to read his memoirs, and speaking of the books that may or may not have been used in research for this post (I honestly can’t remember what bits of information came from what) here’s a list:

The Art of Enchantment, by Nancy Van Norman Baer & others

Birth of Ballets-Russes, by Prince Peter Lieven and translated by L. Zarine

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

Memoirs of a Ballet Master, written by Michel Fokine and translated by Vera Fokina

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

And just for giggles, here are other productions of Les Sylphides by the Bolshoi and Kirov that I watched in researching for this entry.  They didn’t really contribute much…but it was either that or hit the books again!

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Bolshoi in three parts:

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Kirov in four parts: