Tag Archives: rudolf nureyev

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. My. Rojo.

24 Feb

And now, the long awaited highlight of the week (for me anyway), a review of the brand new DVD of La Bayadère, with Tamara Rojo as Nikiya, Carlos Acosta as Solor, Marianela Nuñez as Gamzatti and artists of the Royal Ballet.  I’m going to just get this out of the way and say that this performance is virtually flawless.  I would even go as far as saying that the love triangle of Rojo, Acosta and Nuñez is a pièce de résistance that may never be matched in chemistry and other qualities.  Rojo’s Nikiya approaches divinity as a human in Act I and exceeds it when she returns as a shade in Act II; Acosta’s Solor is the most sincere expression of valor and regret brought to life in bravura technique and nowhere else will you find a more sultry, seductive and positively forbidding Gamzatti in Nuñez.  The stars certainly aligned for this one and met all of my expectations…I still can’t get over how amazing the principal casting was for this.

Just look at the acting of Nuñez and Rojo!

 

The production itself is quite good, choreographed by Natalia Makarova to an orchestration by John Lanchberry, which is probably my only major complaint about it.  I don’t know the score well enough to point out specifics but I know that there are a number of truncated sections…including stuff I’ve listened to on a CD that is supposedly orchestrated by Lanchberry as well!  The only other Bayadère I’ve watched is the DVD of the Paris Opera Ballet, staged by Nureyev and while the memories of that are foggy the score seemed entirely different this time around.  At the very least, the score did seem appropriate to the scenes with the main variations and pas de deux being familiar enough but I definitely missed some melodies (which is saying a lot for a Minkus score, which have the tendency to be largely forgettable).  Makarova’s choreography is wonderful, and I love that she elaborated on the role of Gamzatti, having her reappear in Act III and attempt to wed Solor.  Many productions of Bayadère (including the one I just mentioned by Nureyev) stop after the Kingdom of the Shades, where Solor is mourning over a vision of Nikiya and it’s abrupt because we never see what becomes of the characters themselves.

Makarova wanted to restore elements of Petipa’s original, and have Solor and Gamzatti in a wedding scene at a temple, where Gamzatti sort of rushes the ceremony as she is consumed by guilt over Nikiya’s murder and Solor eventually refuses to marry Gamzatti out of remorse because he is haunted by the image of Nikiya.  This culminates in infuriating the gods, who destroy the temple (which is so fantastically over-the-top and Russian of Makarova to do) and we see Solor and Nikiya reunited in the afterlife.  The importance of this Act III is that it really fleshes out the characters and gives consequence to their actions, thus allowing the audience to see more clearly a reflection of human behavior they may be more familiar with, or rather, choose to believe in.  As Tamara will tell you in an interview in the special features, Classical era ballet is not about telling a story but is instead a commentary on human emotion and morals.  Makarova’s choreography in Act III is just sublime; there is a beautiful pas de trois where Solor has to dance with Gamzatti who is quite real and also the ghostly apparition of Nikiya and I’d imagine that this is exceptionally challenging for the male dancer because not only does he have to partner two different women, which is a physically and mentally exhausting merry-go-round.

Excerpt of Act III:

One after another the principal variations will stun you…Rojo is vulnerable and pure in the sacred flame solo, tragic and sorrowful in her solo at Solor’s betrothal where her arabesques just go into infinity and she has the most luxurious arches of her back paired with exotic port de bras.  Nuñez is equally brilliant with her betrothal variation, and sensuously hot in Act III, dressed in a slinky red number for her wedding solo (the contrast in her character in these two solos is amazing).  Acosta has one tiny hiccup in his betrothal variation (an iconic one in the male repertory) where he was off balance in a pirouette, but the funny thing is he still manages to get something like four around and if you’ve ever tried pirouetting when your alignment is completely off, you know that’s a superhuman save.  Furthermore, Acosta and Rojo deliver the consummate Act II that will have you wishing you had some of what he was smoking, with Rojo as a hallucination adding just the subtlest aura of distance between Nikiya and Solor.

Betrothal Pas de Deux:

Ah, Act II…the Kingdom of the Shades and one of the most important scenes in all of classical ballet, like a marching band coming out for the halftime show.  I was a bit surprised because while the corps de ballet did an acceptable job, it made me realize how much the Paris Opera Ballet has this scene down, and they have the added challenge of thirty-two shades compared to the Royal Ballet’s twenty-four!  I do have to point out though that POB has more uniformity in body types while the Royal employs a more diverse selection of dancers so automatically it’s going to have more variance, but POB just seemed to have better timing.  It’s possible that a slight difference in choreography may have something to do with it as well because the standard choreography alternates a regular arabesque with a little port de bras and the POB has the dancers doing much more voluminous arm movements by releasing the head and upper back forward in the port de bras, whereas the Royal does not.  So in effect, the Royal corps has less movement in the same amount of music, which means they have to sustain things longer and that inevitably leads to more individualized interpretations.  The bigger movement also helps the corps with receiving visual cues from each other, thus making synchronization a little easier.

Entrance of the Shades:

Overall, the dancing is fantastic and the soloists were on fire for the betrothal, and Yuhui Choe in particular really stood out to me in her shade variation in Act II…she seemed to have just a little more spark and her variation in particular is a wicked one.  After seeing clips of her in Swan Lake from a fairly recent guest performance in Korea, I hope she is made a principal sooner than later!  Although speaking of the Shade variations, I noticed something a little strange in that the three soloists who did them were different from some of the trio work elsewhere in the same scene, though both included Choe.  Odd.  At any rate, the DVD also has amazing features including an audio clip of Makarova discussing her staging, a chat with Leanne Cope and Francesca Filipi about the iconic corps scene, the interview with Tamara Rojo I mentioned earlier (one of my favorite parts of course!) and really cool studio rehearsal footage of Rojo and Acosta receiving coaching from Alexander Agadzhanov (Acosta does some huge barrel turns in this footage but changes the jumps for the performance itself…a pity because I love barrel turns.  Well, not doing them).  There are so many overwhelmingly good things to say that the only flaw for sure is that in the program notes that appear during the overtures, the snake that kills Nikiya (which by the way, Tamara said sometimes she has a hard time doing that scene without laughing at the rubber snake) is described as “poisonous” when in fact an animal that injects a toxin is “venomous.”  An animal is poisonous if a toxin is absorbed.  Fun fact!

Now that you know, here’s Choe’s Shade Variation, to leave a lovely aftertaste:

Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

The third installment of Swan Lake Month spotlights a supposedly special one, the performance of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with the Vienna State Opera.  Theirs is a legendary partnership and from what I can find, this Swan Lake, along with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet are the only commercially available full length recordings starring them.  There are a few more videos of various pas de deux that offer glimpses into the depth of their partnership, but the emotional involvement of a grand pas de deux just isn’t the same if you don’t get to see the context from which it was born.

Now I’m no Swan Lake connoisseur, but I really don’t think I liked this one.  I wanted to, because after all it is Fonteyn/Nureyev but there was a lot going on that didn’t sit well with my personal preferences.  This staging had choreography by Nureyev himself, and it should come as no surprise that this too would be the story of Prince Siegfried.  However, I think Nureyev took it just a wee little bit too far.  First of all, this was quite the hack job of Tchaikovsky’s score, which is fairly common for Swan Lake but there were some things that were just bizarre choices.  For example (and the easiest for me to pick out) is the use of the supplementary Pas de Deux music.  The pas de deux itself is used in Act III as intended, for Siegfried and Odile, however both variations and the coda are used in Act I, with the female variation being performed by an unnamed character at Siegfried’s party, the male variation being performed by Siegfried and the coda as a pas de cinq with Siegfried.  If it feels like I’m writing Siegfried as every other word, it’s because I pretty much am…Nureyev may as well have called his staging: SIEGFRIED! (and a swan). The juggling around of music is forgivable because like I said, it’s common in Swan Lake to sort of pick and choose…but while not a glaring flaw it wasn’t exactly favorable (I did however appreciate some of Nureyev’s choreography here, like in the female variation he has the dancer do some work in épaulée).

However, watching this Swan Lake has reinforced what I’ve long known to be true about Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; it is by far the most harmonious and precise interpretation of the music.  In fact, other than a few moments I wasn’t terribly impressed by Nureyev’s choreography.  While staying true to classical structure, I felt a certain lack of phrasing and smooth transitions between the phrases.  There were a lot of pauses in certain poses and not always musically accented…it felt like the choreography just wasn’t finding the right space in the score.  Speaking of space, there wasn’t much of the physical variety either; the Vienna State Opera corps de ballet was incredibly cramped and could barely keep from bumping into each other.

However, Nureyev is a compelling dancer.  I found his makeup garish (heavy on the blue eye shadow!) and while I understand the need for some exaggeration in stage makeup, it appeared that this was a version made for film, thus offering closer views.  As a “made for film” version, there was no audience and possibly no live audio track (though the faint scuffing of shoes could be heard if there was no music playing).  Still, there was an odd, slightly boyish charm about Nureyev paired with an interesting technique; I didn’t feel Nureyev’s technique was the purest and most refined—in fact, maybe even a little stiff—but there was a rawness to it that drew me in.  Similarly, it was Fonteyn’s emotional rawness that I enjoyed in her performance as Odette/Odile.  There was something genuinely magical about the way she would even tilt her head to rest on Siegfried’s shoulder, or when in the fourth act, Siegfried rushes in and ruffles the feathers of every swan until he finally finds his Odette, a heavy-hearted mix of grief and joy.  I also loved when she entered as Odile in Act III, she gave this perfectly timed shifty glance to Von Rothbart, a fleeting cue to let us know she’s an imposter before she begins acting like Odette.

As far as some differences are concerned, there is a pretty substantial truncation of soloist roles, like Von Rothbart, who essentially doesn’t dance at all.  Also, there is no Benno and even the maidens from which Siegfried is initially to choose his bride are lumped into one dance with no distinctions between them.  Act III becomes a traffic jam of divertissements, with the maidens, a few of the national dances (which now serve absolutely no purpose) and then the Black Swan pas de deux.  An interesting choice in Act III though was the omission of Odette—it’s Siegfried who gradually comes to the realization that Odile and Von Rothbart have duped him, again highlighting Siegfried’s internal dialogue.  Act II was mostly untouched (I think Nureyev added…surprise, a solo for Siegfried), and it seems most productions tend to leave the Ivanov-Gorsky choreography alone…I suppose it has the auspicious “no touchie” aura.  Nureyev’s Act IV, however, contains a strange ending in which Siegfried dies in a flood, unleashed by Von Rothbart by the lake.  It’s awfully melodramatic, and Nureyev was quite indulgent in his death, dark fabric billowing around him as the deadly water.  Each time I thought he was submerged and drowning, he came up again, still fighting and he even manages to cling on to a tree to see Odette flying away as a swan, before finally drowning.  It wasn’t an ending I found particularly satisfying or even all that tragic…but I also had the issue of trying to rationalize in geological terms how a lake could violently flood like that (conclusions included the breaking of a natural dam in what would have had to have been a fairly mountainous region, the breaching of a crater wall at a lake that formed in an extinct volcano, or a jökulhlaup…had Nureyev thought to set his Swan Lake near a glacier).

All in all, probably my least favorite of the three so far.  Perhaps my expectations were too high given the circumstances of a Fonteyn/Nureyev recording but while there were some wonderful moments but for various reasons I felt disengaged with the ballet as a whole.  I know looking for logic is somewhat futile in a classical ballet, but this was just too indulgent in Nureyev’s fancies…I’m all for expanding certain roles if necessary but not without purpose.  I have a feeling this probably isn’t on the top of the list when it comes to a woman’s favorite Swan Lake.  I suppose it’s a good one for the die-hard Fonteyn/Nureyev fan, and they have a truly genuine chemistry that shines in their pas de deux, but I suspect they’ve been better in other filmed performances.

 

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:

In a word…Giselle

29 Jan

I finally watched (a) Giselle in its entirety, with my maiden viewing going to the made for film production with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn by ABT.  I honestly didn’t think I would like Giselle all that much…I was sure it would be quaint, lovely, but more than likely a little too sappy for my tastes.  You know, the kind of mooniness that provoked Balanchine to coin the term “Gisellitis,” and probably want to shake her and say “get a grip, girl!”  I didn’t “get” Giselle, but I also knew that having only seen the pas de deux performed once as well as a few video clips really wasn’t enough to make a good judgment on the ballet (but judge did I want to!).  Turns out I kind of like it…maybe even really like it and despite the ever dreaded enchanted forest scene, I actually added a Giselle to my Amazon wish list (that one being the Royal Ballet of course, with Alina and Johan.  So magnanimous is that pairing one need not even refer to their surnames).

The film version has some great things going for it…among them, Erik Bruhn as Count Albrecht, who has the most beautiful pair of legs I’ve ever seen (man or woman).  It’s one of those moments where you hesitate to use the word perfect because you try to convince yourself that everyone is flawed, but really his legs are perfect…pencil straight in arabesque and always landing in impeccable fifths in his jumps.  He’s the kind of dancer you watch, then think about your own legs, give yourself a moment to sulk while a trombone goes “wah-waaaaaah” and then remind yourself that dance is not about comparing yourself to others and their genetic gifts, but being the dancer you are with the body you have.  Public service announcement aside, it’s worth the watch for him alone and I believe it’s the only full length performance of his ever recorded so it’s a wonderful piece of history.

He partnered Carla Fracci in the title role, who showed a wonderful range of doe-eyed innocence as a young girl in Act I to a forlorn yet forgiving ghostly apparition in Act II.  I always figured it was the dramatic range (along with technical skill and grace) that drew women to want to perform Giselle so much (here’s looking at you Veronique Doisneau) but I wonder if there’s more to it.  Especially considering the fact that on the surface, Giselle would seem to be a…clingy, antifeminist character.  This day in age, if a man pulls a stunt like Count Albrecht and cheats on his fiancée (Berthilde, with Giselle as the “mistress”), both women are expected to dump him because a cheater is still a cheater and is inevitably bad news to the both of them.  However, my interpretation of Giselle was not antifeminist at all.  The fact that she forgives him strikes me as more empowered, with her death only being symbolic.  We can’t look at a romantic era ballet and realistically compare it to a relationship between actual people and yet I see more truth in Giselle than I do in say, the countless pop songs about breakups you hear on the radio.  Maybe this is hopelessly romantic (or sappy) of me, but I think if you really love someone, a part of you always does and that’s why it’s hard to let go of relationships even when people you trust get in your face and tell you to dump his/her ass.  Giselle is the representation of love itself…she doesn’t technically love Albrecht (she didn’t even know who the hell he was!) but she was in love with the idea of being in love and I think her purity is the language of the heart.  She is the “butterflies in your stomach” feeling and because she is love personified, she is the most powerful character in the story…able to stand up to Myrtha, queen of the Wilis and ensure that Albrecht survives Myrtha’s forcing him to dance to death.  She is the heroine even if she dies…but as I said, her death and transformation into a Wili is symbolic.  Love changes when somebody hurts you and you may be able to forget about it someday but it probably never goes away for good.  Which Bruhn probably understood better than anyone, given his relationship with Nureyev…which by the way, HELLO.  I had no idea that ever happened…how behind the times am I?  Bruhn & Nureyev is huge…like bigger than Alina & Johan huge…hell, bigger than Brad & Angelina huge.  This is galactic huge.

At any rate, I didn’t really feel sorry for Bruhn’s Albrecht…not enough Jewish guilt for me to sympathize.  Naturally, I would feel more for a character like James in La Sylphide because he forsakes a relationship he doesn’t want to be in only to accidentally kill the Sylph he pursues…Albrecht knows full well what he’s doing all along, that he’s fooling Giselle into thinking he’s just a villager named Loys and not Count Albrecht, fiancée of Berthilde.  Rather than finding him passionate or romantic I kind of wanted to whack him on the schnoz with a rolled up newspaper (which by the way, I don’t think is very effective for training dogs.  Humans on the other hand…they can be taught).  But I do understand him…if Giselle is the personification of love, we have to remember that love makes us do stupid things.  More than understand, I can forgive him too.

As far as the film itself, there were some interesting moments of cinematography that added another dimension to the ballet, particularly in the second act with having Albrecht dance in the middle of the Wilis in the round (which I think makes them more menacing and enhances the sense that Albrecht is really trapped), with some beautiful aerial shots that would make Busby Berkeley proud.  Also the way the camera focus was blurred for when the Wilis would materialize from in and out of the trees added to the etherealness.  However, I think the editing needed to be edited…as in, there was too much different camera angles and unimportant shots of random animals in the first act or rippling reflections in the second act (like, yeah I got it the first time…but it was quite unnecessary).  There’s even a scene with a hunting part on horseback and they shot it from the horse’s perspective, so the camera is tossed around while the horse gallops and you get lovely images of another horse’s ass getting all jiggy with it in front of you.  I really could have done without that.  But all in all, a good first Giselle experience and I enjoyed Fracci and Bruhn very much.  If you’re impervious to motion sickness and frenetic editing, you may want to give this one a watch.  Whole thing on YouTube, in nine parts:

What are YOU doing here?

29 Dec

Well I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays!  Still got New Years coming up (one of my personal favorites) but now we’ve entered that lull of wondering what we should do with ourselves until then.  Me, I didn’t really get anything on my wishlist although there’s still hope for the tote bag…assuming I actually buy it for myself.  Which, I may very well end up doing because I’m making a lot of trips to the library these days and need something to carry books and such in.  They have some plastic bags, but I try not to use them in order to be eco-friendly (you bet I watched Captain Planet when I was a kid), and I’m always afraid I’m going to drop something in the parking lot.  Now that it’s actually starting to snow a bit, the likelihood of such an event increases in probability by much more than I would care to share.  For whatever reason, my ability to dance in the studio does not translate to the mundane movements of life.

‘Tis the season though, for going into bakeries and eating little yum-yums and not give a damn about whether they’re good for you or not and burrowing into blankets to read a good book.  I like wedding cake (the cookies, not actual wedding cake…and I still don’t understand why/how they are called both Italian wedding cookies and Mexican wedding cookies.  That has to be the coincidence of the eon for them to emerge simultaneously in vastly different parts of the world.), gingerbread men and white-fudge dipped Oreos.  Pattycake Bakery, a Vegan bakery here in Columbus (and for the record I am not vegan, but I like to try new things) also makes good sugar cookies, which I bought a few dreidel shaped ones for friends.  I’m pretty sure that during the month of December, these items have zero calories.  However, snacking often goes hand in hand with reading for me (it seems like the most opportune time), hence my trips to the library as well as Half Price Books, a somewhat national chain that sells cheap books.  Some say it’s a pain that they have no computer inventory, but I love wandering through the store looking for some old but not ancient book, with dated photos and even the favored fonts of the time.  Naturally, I gravitate towards the dance/performing arts section and unsurprisingly my latest purchase includes Joan Lawson’s A Ballet-Maker’s Handbook (published in 1991.  Old, but not ancient).  While I normally try to avoid the “How to…” type of book, I was wildly entertained by this find…here’s to hoping it turns out to be a gem.

But it’s funny how dance permeates other spheres in life and this happened when I made my way over to the ancient history/mythology section like you do.  I was browsing the books on mythology which ranged from textbooks students had dumped for cash (not that I blame them) as well as one book that included a personal message from a “Jenefyr” telling a boy whose name I’ve forgotten, that she wanted him to have this special book forever.  During my perusing rituals, I can immediately identify two things…can it be?  Why yes, the female variation from Walpurgisnacht, followed by Mozart’s aria from The Magic Flute, Der Hölle Rache.  Both little diddies are easily recognizable to a certain populace (we know who we are) and I have to say that I took a brazen moment to bask in my geekiness, a new level that can only be achieved when reading up on Greek mythology in an discount book store with no computerized inventory system, while ballet and opera music you can name plays in the background.  If this is a typical day for you, then you are far geekier than I.  Hats off to you…I can only attempt to approach such nobility.

Anyway, I was flipping through Mark P.O. Morford/Robert J. Lenardon’s eighth edition of Classical Mythology, looking through the indices (I’m currently reading up on the myth of Niobe…note to self: don’t trash talk Leto) and what do I see…Fokine, Michel.  Of course I jumped the gun and thought “what the hell is Fokine doing in a Greek mythology book?” but of course he had his reasons (as thin as the mention itself was), as Morford/Lenardon devote the final chapter to the survival of mythology through music, dance and film.  It’s a very brief survey of different works that is much too brief and yet still pretty substantial.  Most of the thorough examples are in American dance and unfortunately they glaze over classics-inspired dances overseas, with the glaring omission being Ashton’s Sylvia.  I guess one could put in an argument Symphonic Variations as well, although I can forgive that because how could anyone possibly expect them to have even SEEN it and it’s also possible to argue that some of the imagery in Symphonic Variations is inspired moreso by Greek art as opposed to the mythology itself.  I guess we’ll never know…BUT, it turns out Lenardon is actually professor emeritus of classics at Ohio State!  Small world!  I’ve found his OSU e-mail and I’m quite tempted to write him a letter telling him about Sylvia (OSU’s library has copies of the DVD as well…score!), as his short bio states that “the afterlife of classical subjects and themes in literature, music, film, and dance have also become favorite areas of teaching and research.”  Chances are he may have even written the majority of the final chapters if that’s the case.  I only hesitate because I haven’t watched Sylvia myself, read Aminta the play by Torquato Tasso and I’d feel like stupid if someone has already informed him about the ballet (or if the omission was intentional!).  Not to mention the fact as an amateur enthusiast for the classics, he would probably start saying a lot of things I wouldn’t understand.  The DVD and play I can take care of this week…but whether I should write to him or not?  Undecided.

At any rate, while not specifically a dance related book, I’m always amused how dance osmoses into other things in life…well, the important things anyway.  Sadly, osmosifies is not a word, but Classical Mythology is a thorough reference source and of course I’d recommend it just for the dance portion alone, but I find it interesting nonetheless.  As far as the section on dance is concerned, the authors focus mostly on Greek classical themes in American modern dance, speaking very favorably of Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham.  Graham’s Night Journey (which I have seen thanks to Dance 161) gets its own special page and everything.  Of course he includes Balanchine’s Apollo, Orpheus and Agon (which I never knew was intended to be a triad of Greek works for NYCB) as well as Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Vaganova’s Diana and Acteon.  Of the other works listed the one I want to see the most is Graeme Murphy’s Daphnis and Chloe, based on the novel by Longus and choreographed for the Sydney Dance Company.  Maurice Ravel’s score of the same name is stunning, gorgeous, immensely pleasing to the ear and calls for alto flute!  Hardly anything has a part for alto flute!

At any rate, it is a textbook though, so not really something you take with you to read on a beach, but it always seems like a good idea to have a comprehensive and concise source on Greek myths.  I’m just now realizing the scope of what it means to be reading a textbook for entertainment…but whatever.  Here are excerpts from specific performances that the book takes great care to mention, which are Martha Graham and Bertram Ross in Night Journey and Rudolf Nureyev and Svetlana Berisova in his revival of Diana and Acteon.

May I take your order?

15 Dec

In honor of MusicMonday (which is technically when I started this entry), I thought I’d do a little detective work with the infamous Black Swan coda.  It has a really messy history, with three different versions at your disposal.  First, you’ve got the original coda from 1877 which was the finale to the Pas de Six.  The original coda is the one Anna Sobeshchanskaya didn’t like and had Léon Minkus write her one, which irked Tchaikovsky, who then wrote one for her, which has now become the coda in the Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  Tchaikovsky’s second coda may or may not have been influenced/adapted from that of Minkus, and as far as I know, this coda is actually never used for Swan Lake anymore.  To make matters more fun, the coda that is most used today is from Swan Lake, but was originally from Act I, intended as a Pas de Deux for Two Merry Makers, and then adapted/re-worked/(butchered?) by Ricardo Drigo into the Grand Pas de Deux familiar to most.  It’s a hot mess, and if I ever meet Tchaikovsky in the after life a question relating to the Black Swan pas de deux madness would probably be the first thing I asked him.  Which do you like, Pete?

A lot of ballet companies will mix and match as well, which can probably confuse a lot of people.  A Grand Pas de Deux is generally comprised of four parts, the grand adage, the male variation, the female variation and the coda.  Or if you prefer, the entrée, soup, salad, and dessert.  So I’ve devised a Swan Lake menu for your perusal:

This took way too long to make.

The Pas de Six – Andante con moto, Pas de Six – Moderato are never used (although Kenneth MacMillan reworked the Pas de Six music into a production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet, but probably not as a pas de deux ETA: This info came from Wikipedia…credibility?  Mmm…could be questionable.), while the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Allegro and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Coda are never used for Black Swan (to the best of my knowledge), despite being highly recommended by the chef.  Most choreographers go with the starred, “most popular dishes” as used originally by Petipa/Ivanov, while others have been a little more adventurous:

Bourmeister (La Scala)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

Grigorovich (Bolshoi)

  1. Tempo di Valse and Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Coda: Molto Allegro Vivace

Nureyev (Vienna State Opera)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

As you can see, anyone who doesn’t go with the standard picks whatever the heck they want apparently.  I’m sure they all had their legitimate reasons for their selections (and I don’t question them, mostly because I don’t really care), but unless you know ahead of time, it can be a kind of confusing to go see Swan Lake and expect one thing but then scratch your head when you realize the music is unfamiliar.

I only got interested in this whole mess because I myself got confused when I realized that there were two different codas that are commonly used, neither of them being the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda, and was thinking which coda appealed to me the most.  Predictably, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is still my favorite of the three, even if I ignore Balanchine’s choreography.  Musically, I think it’s the most exciting, although I was curious as to what a Swan Lake Pas de Deux would look like to it.  As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it has ever been used in a Black Swan pas de deux, and it made me wonder if the 32 fouettés was a part of the choreography as well.  It’s possible that the same place Balanchine put the fouettés in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (although he didn’t choreograph 32) is the same place where 32 fouettés could have gone because it’s long enough, but what makes that seem unlikely to me is the fact that in the other codas, the fouettés come pretty early on, while the possible break in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux which is thirty seconds longer than the other two, is towards the end.  Regardless, my questions ended up being irrelevant because 32 fouettés didn’t enter Swan Lake until the 1895 revival by Petipa/Ivanov, which is post-Sobeshchanskaya, who used the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux version in 1877 (the original Swan Lake, by Julius Reisinger was not a success).  Well, at least I learned something.

Turns out the most popularly known Black Swan coda is my least favorite, as I like the Pas de Six coda much better.  But, to each his/her own, so here are the three codas, so you can decide for yourself.  Although I did say the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux Coda was never used as a Black Swan coda, Nureyev did use it in Act I of his production of Swan Lake, so it has found a way back in (even though the Royal Ballet doesn’t perform this staging anymore.  I believe they’ve since gone to the Petipa/Ivanov).

Marianea Nuñez/Thiago Soares, standard Black Swan coda (beginning at 2:35)

Fonteyn/Nureyev, Pas de Six coda

Nureyev (Act I), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda

To make matters better, I’ve also uploaded all three codas onto SendSpace, in mp3 format for your listening pleasure.

Standard Black Swan Coda

Pas de Six Coda

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux  Coda

And because good things always come in threes, there is also free sheet music in PDF format available in a solo piano arrangement (full score is available as well, but that helps very few in the population) so now you can make a request to your accompanist to play your favorite coda for class.  The “popular” coda is on pp.61-64, Pas de Six coda on pp.178-180, and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda on pp.248-252.

Swan Lake for Solo Piano (PDF file)

Bon appétit!

PS.  This entry was a pain in the ass to write.