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It Takes a Team to Raise a Dancer

23 Jul

Perhaps the greatest challenge artists face is how to shape their career, when there is never a clear-cut path. In the development of a professional ballet dancer, most of the time there is the added obstacle of having to figure it all out at an early age. It would be like trying to graduate with a master’s degree at the age of eighteen—that’s a lot of work (understatement of the century!) and it’s a decision that requires a sensibility and maturity not always found in teenagers (those of us who are older and wiser know this to be true). While I do find that there are many adolescent dancers who are mature beyond their years, they’re still kids and that means parents have to make some decisions and provide guidance along the way. Unfortunately, the “stage parent” (a term I hate because it implies that overbearing parents are a problem exclusive to performing arts) is a stereotype closely linked to ballet, and while there are some seeds of truth, stereotypes are useless when it comes to seeing reality. Thus, my feeling is that healthy relationships between parent and dancer need to be a part of the discussion.

I became interested in the topic of the dancer/parents relationship upon learning in the Twitterverse that two people I followed separately, are in fact related. Dylan Gutierrez, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet was trained by his mother Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, an accomplished ballet dancer in her own right (having danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet among many other professional endeavors) and is now President and Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Obviously, Andrea comes from a different perspective from other dancer parents, having been a dancer herself, but it could have easily been a double edged sword—maybe she knows too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time an impassioned stance led to irrational behavior. Having a parent who was also a dancer is like the set of ingredients needed for the perfect storm—though a storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just tumultuous. The end result for the Gutierrezes is a good one, with Dylan living the dream in Chicago, and judging by their interactions on Twitter, they’re close. Curious as to how they’ve gotten to where they are, I asked them if they would discuss their past and the nature of their relationship.

YDF: When did you both realize Dylan had what it takes to be a professional dancer? 

Andrea Paris Gutierrez (Photo ©Rose Eichenbaum)

Andrea: Well I knew he had a lot of passion, but because he was one of the first boys I trained I did not realize the things he could do were quite exceptional for his age. He really loved it [ballet] and after a trip away and an inspiring conversation with a certain prima ballerina, he began to talk about becoming a professional dancer. Being that I was also a professional dancer I did not find this unusual or daunting which I think some parents might. We got a lot of positive feedback whenever people saw him dance but I had no idea where it all was leading us. We took things slowly and methodically and did not rush into any offers or programs that many people wanted to scoop him up into. He rode his skateboard, played basketball and other sports like all of his friends. He didn’t leave home until he was sixteen years old and going into eleventh grade.

Dylan: When I was ten years old I decided I didn’t want to play basketball and that I wanted to pursue ballet; it interested me more as I had been inspired by Angel Corella, Patrick Bissell, my mother, and Susan Jaffe (who I heard speak at a summer program). I realized [Jaffe] felt the same way as I did when she was young; she said that she always knew she was going to make it but never said it out loud.

YDF: Andrea, how did being a dancer affect your approach in teaching him? Did you ever set boundaries for yourself and what would you say was your biggest concern during his formative years?

Andrea: Well I was very fortunate; I was trained in dance by my mother Bernice McGough at her school in New Zealand and we always had a great relationship. I modeled how I teach my children (I have a dancing daughter as well) on how she taught me. [Dylan and I] sort of compartmentalized our relationship. When we were at home I was mom, when we were at the studio I was the teacher. I can’t say there is no ballet talk at home—there is—however, I tried really hard not to play favorites at the studio or be overly hard on my own children. Ethics and impartiality are important for my children and for everyone else. Many people at the studio did not know that Dylan and Veronica are my children. I think that treating everyone fairly is important and then if my children did get a special role they knew they earned it like everyone else.

YDF: What was it like to transition from working together as a team for so long, to sending him off to The Royal Ballet School? Dylan, what was it like to train there under new teachers and different circumstances?

Andrea: I knew when Dylan was offered a scholarship to Royal Ballet School it was an amazing opportunity and a chance of a lifetime. I was confident that the training was the best in the world and when we visited the school in the summer I was given plenty of information on how the school ran and what was expected. Once he got there, it was hands off for me…I know that teachers and directors do their best work when they are given the freedom to do so. I never spoke to any teachers or the director until I came to visit at the end of the first year when I had a short conference. I did all the support from behind the scenes. I let them do their job and just supported and encouraged Dylan through the tough times and the good times. I did work with him when he came home on breaks but the school supported that. But I was happy to have them work with him their way, and I was thrilled with the training and support he received at the Royal Ballet School.

Dylan Gutierrez (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

Dylan: I had [already] learned how to work with other teachers and was comfortable with that, but The Royal Ballet School is a whole other beast. They have the luxury of expecting greatness, not good or okay, and I was no longer in the position of being one of two boys everyone thought was good.  I had to prove myself, and thanks to my mother and my father (who is also a huge support to me) I understood that. I didn’t expect anything, and I wasn’t given much at first. They were actually a little weary of me early in the school year; they thought I was a troublemaker, that I had to shape up, be willing to be tamed and pay attention. I started out a troublemaker and about six months into the year I was going on special trips with two of the best boys in the class. One of whom was Vadim Muntagirov, which I am sure if you know that name you know what kind of talent I was holding my own with. 

YDF: Obviously, Andrea, you’ve passed down a lot of your schooling to your son but do you see qualities you had as a dancer in him, or is he his own entity? Has he seen any of your performances and if so, what did he think?

Andrea: When I was dancing we did not tape everything like we do now. I have some pictures but not much tape of myself. Also professional productions are not taped although I have a few things. We are similar in many ways…both tall—but fast movers. I used to love fast allegro and quick footwork. I was a turner and jumper and he is too. I was also very competitive and still am—I love the struggle to be the best and I think he does too. I always used to watch and wonder at dancers who wished their careers away or worse yet complained their careers away. All of sudden its over and you did not enjoy the experience. I try to instill in him to appreciate the gift of dance and enjoy the experience. It goes by fast so make sure that you LOVE every experience you have. Dylan always compliments my demonstrations or my classes. We have mutual admiration of each other. It’s fun.

YDF: Are there ever any “I told you so” moments now between the two of you?

Andrea: Oh yes many, haha. When he was younger he would often “try” things for the first time on stage. I would beg him not to. If you were to tell him for example, that the director of the Nutcracker would be upset with him if he fell on his pirouette by trying to do too many, he would go for the extra one or two or three anyway—it would make me so nervous. He also did a double sissone for the first time on stage and as he ran by the wings he said “how did you like that mom!” as I almost collapsed! He was a daredevil.

Dylan: DEFINITELY! Example one: My mother always told me to think about quality not quantity and at the time I was so obsessed with pirouettes I didn’t care about much else. One day I was doing a Nutcracker where the guests were Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorevenko and I went up to Maxim and I asked “How many pirouettes can you do?” and he answered “It is not about the QUANTITY it is about QUALITY” and my mom looked at me [with that look of] “I told you so.”

Example two: I had auditioned for Houston Ballet, ABT,  Staatsballet , Dutch National, and I had NO OFFERS. I had one more audition to do and it was San Francisco Ballet…after company class Helgi Tomasson said “well I will contact you tomorrow and let you know if we have a spot.” When I came out my mom was really worried saying “You have to audition with smaller companies, you have too” and being young and stupid I said “NO—I want this.” She [kept] saying things like I don’t think he’s going to give you a contract and I just said “wait until tomorrow.” She had a lot of doubts and was really worried. The next day around noon the phone rand and it was Helgi offering me the job, and I thought: “Mom, told you so.”

YDF: Andrea, Dylan spent a year with San Francisco Ballet and now he’s been with the Joffrey since 2009, both two of the top companies in the U.S. Have you been able to attend most of his performances? What’s it like to be a teacher/mother/audience member? It’s still early in his professional career, but is there a performance that stands out to you?

Andrea: That’s a loaded question! In the first performance he danced with SF Ballet, he danced the first Temperament in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I had an ominous feeling. I worried that it was too much responsibility for an eighteen-year-old apprentice and that he would look too young next to the very experienced SFB soloists and principals. It was a good performance but I felt that he needed to be developed more slowly and methodically. I feel that [this] has happened for him at Joffrey Ballet. Ashley Wheater seems to know what to put him in and when is the right time. The Joffrey also seems to prepare him very thoroughly. I was so thrilled to see him dance with Jaime Hickey in Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the pas de deux chosen for them suited them and they handled the material very well, but honestly the moment I saw him step out on stage in Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker as the Snow King I was [even more] thrilled. He looked so mature and confident and matched with Christine Rocas so magically that I honestly could not believe it was him. I don’t get nervous anymore because it is out of my hands now and I know he is prepared. I sit back, enjoy it and think how fantastic he is. It’s really such a pleasure to see my students and my own son in the professional environment. I absolutely love it.

YDF: Dylan, does having your mom in the audience add additional pressure, nerves, or excitement for you?

Dylan: It used to make me really nervous when I was still a student; my mother seriously knows a lot and she is not afraid to tell me when I look bad—professional, Royal Ballet School student—she doesn’t care. It’s her job to let me know and she does, but once I went pro I [began] working properly and she seems to be ecstatic every time she sees me dance now. I do always get a little nervous because she is my teacher and mother and I want her to be proud—she’s my teammate.

Dylan the "Daredevil" (Photo ©Sami Drasin Photography)

YDF: Okay, so…because I’m an Ashton junkie, I have to ask—how was it to dance in his Cinderella? Besides that, what have been your favorite roles/performances so far?

Dylan: Oh I love his version—it’s so classy and glamorous and tells the story extremely well. This is also special for me—it was like my first soloist, first cast role. I was one of the prince’s friends the “Summer Cavalier” and it was so challenging. It takes so much technique to execute that men’s dance and it’s really exciting. Also, my little sister Veronica was an extra in the ballet when we did it in LA so that was fun because we get along so well and she got to meet the company. Other then that I have two favorite performances and one is when I danced the Aria II pas de deux in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Jaime Hickey. This was my first principal role that I had ever danced professionally and it was so liberating and freeing to be onstage by myself and just go at it with that intricate choreography. I used all the space I could, I focused and my mind was right. Our pas de deux went well for both shows and I feel like we really understood it. My MOST favorite performance to date was when I danced the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux at The Joffrey Ballet’s Spring Gala. The man who was supposed to do it (who is also my friend) hurt himself unfortunately and that was not fun to hear about but getting to step up was a great challenge and triumph. I had about four hours of rehearsal total and I had no choice but to go out, relax and just dance it. After the pas de deux, doing my solo [alone on stage] was incredible—it was some of the most fun I have ever had dancing and those two roles will always have a special place in my heart. 

Andrea: May I mention Steve, that as student at the New Zealand School of Dance we did Cinderella for our end of the year performance and I danced the role of the Fairy Godmother so seeing the Joffrey dance this version of the ballet bought a lot of memories for me too. 

YDF: Finally Andrea, what did you take away from the experience of simultaneously raising and training Dylan, and are those experiences helping in teaching your other children now?

Andrea: Well the road to becoming a professional dancer is long, tedious, complicated, and thrilling and traveling that road as a dancer myself and then with Dylan as his teacher and mother, I feel that I am able to see and understand many facets of the process. I think that helps me to guide and mentor my students and to be able to see what their parents are dealing with as well as the dancers. I feel I have a unique and special view of the process and am in the fortunate position to help young dancers and their parents navigate their way through. All situations are different though and as a teacher you learn something new with every dancer. My daughter has aspirations of being on Broadway so now I am learning all about that process and path. It’s quite different and equally as interesting. I’m glad I get to go on this journey with my son. He always asks for my perspective, he always shares things with me, and I’m always so happy when he arranges for me to watch a class or rehearsal. I love to have a special peek at the process and the Joffrey Ballet is always so warm and welcoming when I go to Chicago to visit. I’m already planning my trip(s) for this season. I cannot wait. 

Ballet parents need to remember that the motivation needs to come from the dancer. The parents’ job is to facilitate and support the dancer and the teacher. It’s very hard for a young dancer to travel this road alone—they need a back up who can remain calm in the difficult times. However, my advice is to make sure you take the time to sit back and appreciate the privilege of being in the profession and enjoy the process as much as the product.

* * * * *
Well friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed interview as much as I have and if you ever hear anyone making some wisecrack about stage parents in ballet, I encourage you to kindly point them to this article! Even if it’s common sense to us, the world needs to know that stereotypes represent certain extremes (as they always do) and that the healthy, happy people are never discussed as much in comparison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andrea and Dylan Gutierrez or have any questions you’d like to ask them, follow them on Twitter! Dylan says a lot of things like “swaggin” and “balcony life,” the meaning of which elude me (best explained by a generational or coolness gap I suppose), but he’s a good kid. Also be sure to check out Dylan’s Facebook page, for a bunch of awesome photos and his YouTube channel for videos of him dancing. For more information about Andrea’s work as a teacher and artistic director of LA Ballet, please visit their website at www.laballet.com

Follow Dylan Gutierrez on Twitter @DylanthaVillain
Follow Andrea Gutierrez on Twitter @drummamamma

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 1

13 Feb

Billy Elliot, did I have a busy week! Most of it was just in the last couple of days during a whirlwind trip to San Francisco to see San Francisco Ballet, but before I get to that, a little housekeeping…Nichelle over at DanceAdvantage has started a group called Terpsichorus, which will do book club-style open discussions for anyone who wants to participate.  Terpsichorus will pick various dance media, from books to the latest in dance films, like those made available for rent by TenduTV.  In fact, the first discussion will be focused on Wayne McGregor’s Entity, already available for rent (just $3.99) or permanent download on iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand (UK participants can purchase a DVD from SadlersWells.com).  The discussion on Entity will open on February 24th, 2011 and all you have to do is watch it beforehand and collect some thoughts you’d like to share.  It is also most desirable that you encourage your friends to participate as well, no matter their dance background!  Terpsichorus is a great opportunity for people who may not know much about dance to ask questions and share their thoughts without fear of being shot down…you have my guarantee, which is important because I am on the moderating team!  Surprise!  Nichelle, friend Robin and myself comprise team Terpsichorus and trust me when I say we value all opinions equally.  So please head over to DanceAdvantage for more details, and I hope to see you on the 24th!

Okay, so back to my trip, I took a brief vacation (if you can call it that, considering how tired I am now) to San Francisco mainly to see Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.  It is applicable to say that my obsession with the piece is well documented, and with San Francisco Ballet being one of the few companies outside of the Royal Ballet to perform it (and quite possibly the only American company to have done it for a good decade), I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.  Symphonic Variations was part of a mixed bill that the company performed on the 11th, and the mixed bill was staggered with performances of Giselle, which I saw on the 10th.  San Francisco Ballet is one of the few companies in the US that overlaps their programs, which is great for out-of-towners because we can catch multiple, different performances in just a couple of days.  Smaller ballet companies will do two week runs of just the same show and it seems the bigger (and richer) the companies are, the more overlapping you will see.

The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Photo ©Steve (you can tell because it's blurry!)

Before seeing Giselle on Thursday, I did of course, do some sight seeing which I must preface with saying that I despise super-touristy activities.  I like to do things on my own, with plenty of time to wander and muck about.  I also hate touristy souvenir shops and I probably hate tourists too (even though I was one…it’s completely irrational, so don’t expect me to explain it).  Outside of the ballet, the highlight for me was going to the California Academy of the Sciences, where I got my geek on.  I adore geeky science stuff, and the Academy of the Sciences has an indoor rainforest biodome, a planetarium, an extensive aquarium (my second priority in life after ballet…I could spend, okay I did spend hours in the aquarium alone. Three words…’leafy sea dragons’), and many other exhibits (including an albino alligator).  Admission was a whopping $30, but I recommend a visit!  Although, while inside the rainforest biome, I urge you to exercise caution and know that there are poison dart frogs roaming freely in the habitat…which I did not know until after I got close to a couple in order to snap some photos.  Not the best idea I’ve had, but I also have a history of unwittingly getting close to wild animals when I should not (like the prairie dogs in the Badlands, or the hawks at the beach in Yokohama, one of which snatched a sandwich right out of my hand).

Outside the planetarium. You can see part of the mangrove shallow water exhibit on the lower left and the bluer water on the right is one of the coral reefs. Photo ©Steve

Meanwhile, the worst part of the day award goes to Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist attraction to the extreme, with heinous shops that had more shotglasses, keychains, magnets and t-shirts than I ever want to see in my entire life.  Interestingly enough, Fisherman’s Wharf is something of an equivalent to Seattle’s own Pike Place Market (the latter of which is much more focused on local artists, farmers, etc., and thus, in my humble opinion much more charming, as I actually enjoy Pike Place), but here’s something very telling—San Francisco residential areas are PACKED…all the buildings are connected together and walking the streets makes you feel like you’re in a giant labyrinth, while the shops at Fisherman’s Wharf are fairly spaced out.  Meanwhile, in Seattle, residential areas are the ones with breathing room and Pike Place is crammed into a very small section of the city, which says it all about Seattle’s perhaps “thorny” attitude towards visitors (which is further emphasized by the fact that San Francisco actually has bus maps at all the bus stops, while Seattle has no bus maps available, except for the brochures you can pick up AFTER boarding the bus).  Let’s just say tourism is a much bigger industry in San Francisco and leave it at that (and I’m okay with it!).

Anywho, San Francisco is fun and games for sure, but I was on a mission to see ballet, and I had the pleasure of seeing Giselle with Maria Kochetkova in the title role and Gennadi Nedvigin as Albrecht.  My first time seeing Giselle live as well as my first time to see San Francisco Ballet would be an all-Russian affair as far as the principal roles were concerned, and they certainly have a wonderful chemistry.  The petite Kochetkova is as refined as a porcelain doll and I mean this in the best way possible, is unlike any Russian trained dancer I’ve ever seen.  Sometimes I have some issues with Russian training, like too much legato, forced turnout, or hyperextension on these string bean, Amazonian frames but Maria’s technique is far more prudent.  For example, in her Act I variation, she kept many of her extensions lower, drawing attention to the shaping of her feet and presentation of her arms and upper body.  It was night and day (well, literally) in Act II, where she proved she has the litheness to promote ethereal wonder.  Maria’s Act II is simply sensational—it highlights the softness of her arms and innocence in her demeanor.  I was a big fan of the squareness in her arabesque, the use of her flexible torso and the sincerity with which she approached the role.  I’m so thrilled to have had her be the first Giselle I ever saw live, and will never forget it.

Gennadi Nedvigin (apparently returning from injury) was a boyish but crooked Albrecht, with an elastic plié that allowed for smooth jumps.  His partnering was wonderfully attentive, his solos brilliant, and his Act II variations near death experiences (in a good way of course).  Many seasoned Giselle fans will be happy to know that in the second act, he did the twenty-something entrechats, and they were HUGE.  An entrechat six is a beast by itself, the twenty-something in succession a Herculean task, but to do them with the buoyancy with which he did (to an achingly slow tempo) makes your calves burn just watching.  I also thought he was very playful with the miming sections throughout, drawing audible chuckles in the unabashed way he plucked the petal from Giselle’s fortune-telling flower and I know I sighed a little bit when he collapsed on Giselle’s grave and mourned her.

Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle is quite playful throughout, like Hilarion (danced by Pascal Morat) showing such a sardonic disgust when he was mocking Albrecht was a definite highlight.  In fact, the whole production had a lighthearted feel, and it seemed by embracing some of the more absurd elements in ballet, the production succeeded in really captivating the audience.  For instance, in the opening of Act II, when Hilarion is loping through the forest, some of his companions flee when they get creeped out by the Wilis.  This can be done a number of ways, and Tomasson chose to actually have one of the Wilis fly overhead, suspended by wires or what have you.  It’s not something that is intended to be funny, and yet its inclusion is funny indeed and even though the second act is supposed to be more tragic, it somehow makes the audience laugh while not damaging the integrity of the ballet as a whole.  I’m sure there are some that may feel a flying Wili is just too ridiculous, but I didn’t think it detracted from the performance at all (I’ll admit it—part of me wanted to be that flying Wili of doom).

San Francisco’s corps de ballet also deserves a LOT of credit—they were exceptional.  Frances Chung cast a spell in her dynamic solo as Myrtha, and the corps ran with it.  They had precision in their timing and wonderful detail in their lines and their interweaving arabesque pattern received well-deserved applause.  San Francisco is a lucky company to have such a fine corps, especially because they have the added challenge of trying to unify dancers with so many different backgrounds and training methods, which tends to be the case for many American companies.

However, everything about their production of Giselle was tastefully done, and I could find no faults worth mentioning.  It was well worth the trip!

…or was it?  To be continued!

P.S. To see clips of Maria dancing Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle, visit San Francisco Ballet’s website! Their interactive media gallery as a whole is amazing.

Staging a Comeback, Part II

10 Jul

My attempt to revitalize my limited ability to dance continued with a class with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet master, Paul Gibson.  I suppose it should be mentioned that a friend and I also went to a hip hop class today at Velocity Dance Center in Capitol Hill, but my hip hop ventures should never be discussed publicly.  I do pride myself on being someone who will try anything once, or even try something, fail and repeatedly try again.  The idea that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has merit for me…but I’m pretty sure this is last call for that genre.  It hurts in ways I don’t enjoy.  However, I may return to Velocity for a modern class someday.  They have ballet too, but I didn’t see any barres which disturbed me.

Mr. Gibson’s (I feel like it’s weird to write “Mr.” but we’re not on a first name basis…Master Gibson is too Jedi reminiscent…Sir? Duke? Lord?) class yesterday was absolutely wonderful though, and much closer if not exactly what I’m used to.  His bio at PNB’s website says he did do summers at School of American Ballet and danced with San Francisco Ballet before joining PNB.  I’m guessing his training is perhaps more well rounded, as San Francisco Ballet is more comprehensive in terms of the styles/techniques they perform, e.g. they are one of the few American companies to include Ashton and MacMillan works in their repertory (begin countdown to San Francisco Ballet’s revival of Symphonic Variations…207 days to go!).  Oddly enough, Lord Gibson also omitted pas de cheval and grand rond de jambe en l’air, which I didn’t think were necessarily too advanced (I take my grand rond de jambes at 45 degrees to work on placement anyway) but perhaps it’s all just coincidence.  Although on second thought, perhaps men, who tend to have less range of motion compared to women find grand rond de jambe en l’air less fun to do.

What I did find interesting is that despite Sir Gibson’s history with SAB and PNB, one of the corrections he gave was to really lengthen through the wrist in a straight line, which I always thought was more of an English thing.  Especially at SAB where they do the hyper extended fingers and such it surprised me that his aesthetic aimed for a purer line.  I’m okay with it though because it’s my preference too but there were some obviously PNB trained dancers in the class who did what they were used to.  If the wrists and hands weren’t a dead giveaway the arabesques certainly were.  Those dancers had really open hips in their arabesque which Balanchine’s ladies are notorious for and while I understand the appeal of a higher arabesque, I still like one that is as square as possible.  The open hip tends to splay out the torso as well and I think it kind of flattens the arabesque thus making it two dimensional.  When the pelvis is more square, then the arabesque has a three dimensional depth to it.  Neither is wrong, just different, but I will say that I still think a square arabesque is better for a promenade or a pirouette.  I’m also convinced that that open of a hip in arabesque makes it impossible to maintain turn out on the standing leg and at best, step onto a parallel leg in a pique arabesque.

I was really pleased that Baron Gibson gave a lot of little jumps, with a warm up of little jumps and two additional petite allegro combinations after that.  By that point in class I was kinda sorta feeling really good and was all “I got this!” and decided to try a little batterie in the assemblés and jetés.  It’s funny because this used to be my least favorite part of class, then one day I decided not to hate them and they became infinitely better for me (power of positive thinking!).  I’m not an adagio dancer nor am I a formidable grand allegro jumper but sometimes I feel like I’ve found a home in petite allegro.  One of my former teachers would have us repeat an allegro and then an optional third time with a faster tempo, which wasn’t always successful for me but I always wanted to try.  Of course yesterday I was practically wheezing after the second run through so I was in no shape to do such a thing but it brought back fond memories.  I think I see petite allegro now like puzzles and it’s fun for me to put the pieces together (I was one of those kids whose parents never bought actual toys, just brainteasers or books so such things still delight me).

Probably the oddest moment of the day was when Earl Gibson had us do a series of battement fondu (basically, leg kicks for those of you unfamiliar with ballet terminology) across the floor.  This wouldn’t strike you as something strange but then the pianist started playing One from A Chorus Line and all of a sudden it was this ritzy, jazz baby moment.  If that doesn’t make you want to break into song I don’t know will (and some people didn’t refrain from a little singing.  Although nobody sang when the pianist was playing Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music, but I would be thoroughly impressed by anyone who could manage to sing during a  frappé combination).  I love to have fun in class as much as the next whacko but this time had me actually trying to stifle a huge Broadway grin in addition to the urge to find a gold sequined top hat to complete the look.  It was unfair.

Class ended with a fun grand allegro (although I thought attempting cabrioles might’ve been pushing it for the day) and the combination ended with a saut de chat, for which Count Gibson didn’t specify arms and you know me, when it comes to this age old question I always have to ask.  The gentlemen had to have their arms in écarté or effacé but the ladies also had the option of going to third.  He said he would never have the men leap with their arms in third so indeed he doesn’t have a wild side like Karen Eliot.  And they say chivalry is dead…

All in all, I had a most wonderful, eye opening time taking class from PNB’s elite instructors and hope they do something like this again.  Maybe next time I’ll make the subtle suggestion of bringing back Dances at a Gathering ASAP.  I really considered writing it on a t-shirt, but I don’t know what kind of sense of humor these people have.

Spring is here! New life, new rules.

20 Mar

How better to celebrate my 100th post than on the vernal equinox?  I didn’t plan it this way, and although I don’t have any specific vernal equinox traditions it is a most meaningful day to me.  I love the spring…it’s my favorite season and it’s a time where there we’re surrounded by reminders of renewal, youth, greenery and freshness.  Although we cannot reverse the aging process, spring does inspire opportunities to reinvent thyself.  Perhaps, even more so than New Year’s, when it’s still dreary and cold and really the only thing that tells us it is indeed a new year is just a bunch of numbers.  I prefer the visual and other sensory stimuli spring provides.  Plus, the vernal equinox means my birthday approaches over yonder horizon!

I think in a previous post I alluded to my posts being sparse this month and although I forget what I said and where I said it, I do know why and in this time of renewal I think it’s a good time to reveal that reason.  I’m packing my life up and leaving Columbus, Ohio and headed westward for the Emerald City…aka, Seattle.  Last weekend I was there looking at apartments and details are all coming together.  I feel really good about this move for many reasons and I feel that Seattle will give me that much needed shot in the arm to renew the search for life, love and happiness.  I don’t hate Columbus…it’s my hometown and I’ve learned to accept and cherish the good, the bad and the ugly.  However, it’s been over twenty years of living here and oddly enough when I realized I was completely fine with spending the rest of my life here, my heart went berserk and told me it can’t do it anymore.  I’ve tried to make things work in Columbus, but have essentially failed (not that that’s a bad thing).  It’s time to do things differently and renew the job search in a new city…job hunting in Columbus only resulted in consistent rejections, and some say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  By the way, tendu anyone?

I have no illusions that Seattle will be perfect, which is the healthiest way to approach anything but there is one thing I am really looking forward to, and that is Pacific Northwest Ballet.  If things go according to plan, I may end up living within walking distance to their studios and performance venue.  PRAISE BILLY ELLIOT!  But why Pacific Northwest you ask?  Well, they are a company that has a strong tradition in Balanchine/Robbins works which brings me one step closer to two things: my beloved Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Dances at a Gathering, choreographed by Balanchine and Robbins, respectively.  Believe it or not, I have not seen works by either choreographer live, and while I’ve seen videos of Tchaik and excerpts of Dances from the Jerome Robbins documentary on PBS, nothing compares to live performances.  Much to my chagrin, PNB just did Dances last season…but at least I know it’s in the repertory.  Regrettably, a move to the West Coast takes me geographically further away from potential Ashton works, since ABT is one of the few companies to do them regularly, but one of my best friends has moved to DC and I can crash at her place if ABT or the Royal Ballet tours something I really want to see (although in defense of the West Coast, San Francisco Ballet actually did Symphonic Variations many years ago.  I would love for PNB to learn it though, and have a triple bill of Dances at a Gathering, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Symphonic Variations.  Heaven…on Earth.)

Dreams are dreams though, and I have to face reality.  Reality isn’t all that bad though, because I move just in time to catch the All Balanchine bill with Serenade, Square Dance and The Four Temperaments (Hindemith!  SQUEE!).  I’m beyond stoked for Serenade and The Four Temperaments, and Square Dance I’ve read a little bit about from the book In the Wings, by NYCB dancer Kyle Froman.  It’s mostly eye-catching photography from studios, rehearsals, backstage and such, with anecdotes from Froman about life as a dancer.  He discusses performing Square Dance in the book, and supposedly it’s quite wild.  It’s a really neat book and I like his perspective as a corps dancer.

In addition to PNB though, I really want to get into the Seattle dance scene, because I’d go nuts without some variety and because PNB only does six or seven performances a season.  So I have a request for my readers; if you have any information about other dance companies in the Seattle area and/or upcoming shows I should check out, please tell me!  Also, recommendations for places to take class would be nice too.  Living close to PNB would have its perks but if that doesn’t work out a backup plan for ballet classes would be nice.  And like a check-up with the doctor, I do like to drop in on the occasional modern class to challenge myself in new ways and experience something new.  Oh, and jazz classes!  I did some searching online but couldn’t really find any jazz classes (for adults anyway).  Enlighten me, Seattleites!  I am in dire need of your help!

Anyway, at present I’m a bit busy with moving logistics but there are a lot of exciting things coming up that I will post more about and everyone should save the following dates (I mostly needed to write these down for myself too!).  Next week is a busy one for dance!

March 22ndABT’s Culinary Pas de Deux, hosted by principal dancer Marcelo Gomes and soloist Craig Salstein.  It’s an evening of fine dining and dance and although a $350 ticket is probably not in the cards for many of us, the event will feature a live Twitter feed to dish the dish. 7:00pm EST.   Meanwhile, Marcelo Gomes follows me on Twitter, and that makes me smile. (^-^)

March 24thJerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz, the Film airs on PBS.  Check local listings for times.

March 26thDance Anywhere, an event where everyone, whether in private or public stops whatever they’re doing and dances at 3:00pm EST.  More on this in my next post, methinks!

An on the topic of dancing in public and being in Seattle, this is what happened last time I visited the city:

*note that none of those people except me have taken dance classes.  Well, quasi-wife dabbled a little.  Inspirations for the above performance include Donkey Kong for Nintendo and chase scenes from Scooby-Doo.

I’ll go with…Ominously Sumptuous

21 Jan

It’s a slow January.  I don’t know what the deal is but my brain has gone all Eeyore (cue the trombone…wah-waaaaah).  Apologies if this ends up being a little lackluster.  I hate January.

Anyway, I had a chance to watch the DVD of the San Francisco’s production of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello the other day.  Apparently it’s a heavily requested item from the library because it took quite a bit of time to get it.  After a fantashtick review by Hilary with one L of the Joffrey’s production (that lucky ducky got to see it live), I’ve been excited to see it, albeit apprehensive because Shakespeare is not really my cup of tea.  I mean I get that his writing is genius and all, but consider what you’re reading here…I’m obviously no Shakespeare so to read his works is like reading a foreign language.  It’s difficult for me to understand and relate to.  Count me in as one of the (apparently?) few people who fail to see the romance in Romeo and Juliet.

Meanwhile, I have to say I really enjoyed Othello and didn’t find it difficult to follow at all.  As Hilary with one L mentioned, the ballet trims the story down to mostly the essentials (although I found the Act II tarantella to be quite long) and it goes down smoothly like a chocolate shake.  And like she also said, the modern aspects of the choreography really sold it…for me, the partnering was incredible.  Unusual partnering is probably what I love to see the most in modern dances as a whole and allowing for that in ballet just brings a whole new dimension to it.  It wasn’t just the partnering between Othello and Desdemona or Iago either, but there was intricate choreography amongst the corps dancers as well.  But as far as pas de deux are concerned, I absolutely loved Othello and Dedemona’s first pas de deux.  It’s pure poetry…after I finished watching the whole thing I had to watch just that pas de deux a good eight or ten more times.  In the DVD, the title character is danced by Desmond Richardson, with his Desdemona being the willowy and lithe Tan Yuan Yuan.  I believe it was during her variation where Othello gives her the handkerchief that she steps backwards into an arabesque and you can hear the angels singing “Hallelujah!”

I don’t know if it’s because I’m obsessed with variety or if it’s merely an open mind that seeks to find something interesting in all dance, but for whatever reason the juxtaposition of classical and modern in several different aspects of the ballet really maintained my interest throughout.  The set itself incorporated some period style backdrops, but then actual set elements like Othello’s throne or Desdemona’s bed are these stark, crystalline structures which part of me was trying to figure out while the other part thought “weird, but cool!”  The transparency effect gave it a sort of took away my sense of time and space.  I likened the sensation to something one might see in a dream or some kind of crazy vision you might see if you were time travelling through a wormhole.  Or something like in that one scene of the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where they take that boat into that psychedelic tunnel (a scene that still freaks the crap out of me).  Fortunately, Othello doesn’t have Gene Wilder singing some creepy song or epileptic strobe lights.

There is Iago though and he’s a serious creep.  I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of a dancer before, but Parrish Maynard’s performance as Iago was so sinister and insane that I didn’t really get a good night’s sleep.  Given the jarring score and ominous melodies, I almost felt like the ballet was grounded more in Iago’s perspective.  Rather than telling Othello’s story, the music seemed to favor Iago’s madness, jealousy, manipulation and eventual betrayal.  It seems like Iago is always lurking on stage and it’s almost as if the music accordingly never lets the audience really settle their nerves.  He’s a fascinating and intense character and I can only imagine that it would take some serious acting chops to pull that psycho-stalker vibe off.  Scarred for life, yes, but I was quite impressed with Maynard’s acting.

Desmond Richardson was also amazing, especially when Iago’s influence on him really starts to poison his mind and he succumbs to believing that Desdemona betrayed him.  Lubovitch gives you that gorgeous pas de deux in the first act but when Othello gets mad the choreography gets really volatile and it’s both unsettling and breathtaking.  Richardson displays great modern and ballet technique, which makes sense because I think I read that he was a graduate of the Ailey school (and Ailey men can dance…amplitudinous jumps and Ailey boys are famous for their “tilts.”  In fact, in order to audition for Ailey, the men have to submit a photo of themselves performing a tilt!).  He was greatly helped though, by the fact that Tan Yuan Yuan displayed an amazing range of emotion from her desperate pleadings of innocence to Othello to her resoluteness in the end when she has resigned herself to death.  They were stunning together and I’m feeling on the verge of desperate to see either of them live someday.

At any rate, great DVD…highly recommended and definitely gritty.  Apparently it aired on PBS many years ago and was even nominated for an Emmy.  This is the kind of exposure American ballet companies (and dance in general) could really use more of today.  Anyway, I almost hate to post this clip because this is the penultimate scene and kind of spoils it in a way…but assuming you’re slightly more well read than I am (which is highly likely) you probably already knew that Desdemona dies at Othello’s hands.

You really should buy or rent the DVD for that first pas de deux though…I would.

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

30 Oct

Dear readers, today I have a special treat for you, a review of Othello, as performed by the Joffrey Ballet and written by my friend Hilary with one L (who you may remember hates enchanted forests and she’s the one I went to see Le Corsaire with).  She is also the author of her own blog, The Cupcake Avenger, which includes a great assortment of recipes and reviews of various gourmet bakeries.  So if you ever get the opportunity to see the Joffrey in Chicago, be sure to check out her blog for advice on where to get sumptuous cupcakes.  We all know ballet fans have refined tastes, so accordingly, your run of the mill grocery store cupcake or even the slightly higher end Starbucks variety simply won’t do.  We have more eclectic and often seasonal tastes, like pumpkin or apple spice in the fall.  So be sure to check out her blog for the benefit of your taste buds.  Seriously, she’s doing the work to find these hole-in-the-wall bakeries so take advantage of it.

So onto her review!  (with a few comments here and there from yours truly) *Also, all pictures are copyright of whomever took them.  This is totally educational.

Sumptuously Ominous…or Ominously Sumptuous?

The playbill for the Joffrey Ballet tells us that they are “America’s Company of Firsts.”  The first dance company to perform at the White House, the first to appear on television, the first to visit Russia, you get the idea.  However, I would also add that they may be the first to field an Othello with a six-pack. I mean, look at him. Seriously, just look. *drool*

Picture1

Steve says: Approved!

Ok. On to matters of substance.

On my trip to Chicago last weekend I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Joffrey’s presentation of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, which ran through October 25th at the gorgeous Auditorium Theatre.  In another first for the Joffrey, this presentation was the Midwest premiere for Lubovich’s 1997 work. Having already shown on both coasts in New York and San Francisco, it seems appropriate that this incredible piece finally makes its heartland debut in Chicago, Lubovitch’s hometown.  Another first you might notice is that this is a full-length American ballet (possibly the only American commissioned full-length work?  I’ll leave that research to Steve) [I looked into it and couldn’t find any info.  Most American ballets are one act, with the only full-length ones I can think of being A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jewels and I don’t believe either was commissioned.  So I’ll go with “yes” and recklessly deny whatever the truth is]  Anyways, though the piece was a full evening with three acts, it did not feel lengthy in any way and, in fact, I could have watched all night.

What I loved about this work was that, though it re-enacts Shakespeare’s tale of love, lies, jealousy, revenge and murder, it does so not by painstakingly acting out each scene from the play, but rather by creating moving portraits that evoke the raw emotions of the characters.  By leaving much of the backstory relegated to the program notes, it was possible to portray just as much plot as was necessary to frame the beautiful range of emotion.  I also loved the seamless blending of classical and modern; the ornate costuming and regal poses that belie Shakespeare, but also the modern rolled shoulders and flexed ankles that allow us to experience the true depth of the characters’ anger and anguish.  From the very opening scene this juxtaposition of the sumptuous life of warlord Othello and the ominous fog of ever-present foreshadowing snake through every movement. [Tingles!]

I also have to give a shout out to the amazing score by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal [Totally a Jew] and its equally amazing performance by the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Add to this that the Auditorium Theatre was designed by famous Chicago architects Adler & Sullivan in 1889 with an aim to produce the best acoustics in the world. Not too shabby.  Sometimes I take for granted that ballets will be accompanied by a live orchestra (here’s looking at you, Don Quixote at the Kennedy Center…), but until you’ve seen a full-length ballet performed to canned music you may not appreciate how much live music contributes to the atmosphere of the production [TOTES truesies]. For example, in the opening act, although Othello, Desdemona and the townsfolk all seem to be happily enjoying wedding festivities, the ominous tone prevails with Goldenthal’s shrieking oboes and flaring horns telling us that something is amiss with Othello’s right hand man, Iago (no, not a parrot perched on the shoulder of an evil emir named Jafaar [RAAAAWK! Cave of Wonders!]).  And again in act two, while we’re promised a sunny tarantella, Goldenthal keeps with the ominous minor keys and gives us more of a Danse Macabre to guide the company, dancing Thriller-like with arms outstretched and wrists limp. [You know I love a good macabre danse.  Dance.  Whatever]

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Steve says: Tis the season! Speaking of which, I have like four leftover bags of Kit-Kat bars because like ten trick-or-treaters came to my door (my favorites being a pair of boys, one dressed as a hot dog and the other as a banana). What to do with so much chocolate...

As for the actual movement, the more modern aspects definitely prevailed.  While there was the typical partnering, company and pas de deux work that you would typically expect with a full-length work (but no ghosts or enchanted forests!!) [Huzzah!  Clear skies prevail!] , there were very few of the flashy steps usually associated with classical counterparts, for example only a handful of grand jetés, and no stunning series of 16/32/138 fouettés rond de jambe en tournant.  [Although I’m sure the record is probably around 138, I believe the longest choreographed set of fouettes that I can think of is 96 counts, as opposed to 64 (which equates to 32 fouettes).  The 96/48 fouettes is done in Ricardo Cué’s Snow White that was choreographed on Tamara Rojo.  And because she’s a goddess, she tosses in triples and doubles like it’s no big deal]  There were, however, an inordinate number of fish dives…[It’s still one of my lifelong goals to find someone who can throw me into a fish dive]

Anyways, I have no doubt that the success of this piece was in no small part a result of the amazingly trained company.  Down to every last person on stage it was clear that only impeccable training could result in a performance that conveyed the modern aspects of powerful love, hatred, fear, betrayal and anger while still portraying the restrained, classical atmosphere we would expect from a Renaissance court.  If this production ever tours to your area, don’t think twice.  You can bet that any ballet graphically depicting execution and strangulation must be unique and I cannot recommend this powerful piece highly enough. 

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Steve says: Okay, so I haven't actually read Othello, and I don't know what's going on here.

 Thank you Hilary with one L for such an awesome review!  You’ve got me interested, and I’ve added the San Francisco ballet DVD featuring Desmond Richardson and Tan Yuan Yuan to my wishlist.  I also checked out some clips on youtube of the main pas de deux, and there’s one of Alessandra Ferri and Marcelo Gomes that is STUNNING.  No words…just goose bumps!

Rattle me bones

4 Oct

First post of October, one of my favorite months of the year!  I’m also writing this on about two hours of fragmented sleep, which is probably not a good idea and guarantees zero well thought out…content…but you only live once.  I love October because it puts me in the mood for many things…the changing leaves (I’ve always loved the smell of dead, wet leaves), anything involving pumpkins, and All Hallow’s Eve.  It doesn’t really make sense that Halloween would be one of my favorite holidays, considering I don’t go trick-or-treating, attend costume parties, or go to haunted houses, but there’s something about the cheery atmosphere, the symbolic characters, the massive amounts of discounted chocolate (the solution to all problems), and yes, pumpkins.  I do think some aspects of Halloween are pretty lame, and the lengths to which some people will go for costumes is wasteful, but I can’t help but admire the festive spirit.  Plus, one of my favorite memories of one of my best friends occurred on a beggar’s night, when a little child jumped out of a bush and startled her, and without thinking she said “God damn you!”  Good.  Times.

In terms of music, Halloween is ALL about Camille Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre for me, one of my absolute favorite pieces of all time.  Although in a past life I was definitely an orchestra patron who walked out of a Stravinsky concert outraged, I was most defos fascinated by Saint-Saëns.  Most balletomanes would know his name from The Dying Swan set to Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des Animaux.  Although, let it be known that Le Cygne is not my favorite movement, but rather Aquarium and Fossiles are instead.  It’s all a part of my geeky nature…just as I had aspirations to see Carlos Acosta, the Bolshoi Ballet, etc. so do I have aspirations to see certain sea creatures, with whale sharks being the current flavor (it was sea otters before, which was accomplished at the Seattle Aquarium where I bought a magnet).  Whale sharks are going to be tricky though because they’re raised in captivity in far fewer places, most of them in Asia, and I’m banking on my best bet being the Georgia Aquarium, which is also one of the few aquariums to house a manta ray.  Ideally, I would love to dive with whale sharks off the coast of Thailand or Australia, but that’s a much more complicated matter.  Anyway, Saint-Saëns, Aquariums, awesome, Fossiles, wonderful, and the latter quotes Danse Macabre in a major key, bringing us back to the original topic.

People who hang with me are forced to pose with dinosaur bones.  And yes, I've made her do this on more than one occasion.

People who hang with me are forced to pose with dinosaur bones. And yes, I've made her do this on more than one occasion.

I was fortunate to play Danse Macabre as a part of an orchestra, although my favorite arrangement is a chamber version for violin and piano, from the album Devil’s Dance, by Gil Shaham and Jonathon Feldman.  Another great track on there is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Caprice Fantastique, but the whole album is really good and highly recommended, with endless potential for great dances.  As far as Danse Macabre is concerned, I love the time signature (it’s a waltzy three), and the texture is a bizarre juxtaposition of lyrical and bony…a lot like me, which I guess makes it easy to feel at home with it.  It has an element of playfulness to it that you wouldn’t expect from a dance involving death, and interested in seeing how people would interpret this, I of course carried out my usual excavations through YouTube, this time coming up with three unique interpretations.  The first is a fairly run of the mill “the Wilis have come out to play” group dance called La Melodie, and I have to say that I wasn’t particularly moved.  It was a little too technical and got “stuck” in several places, and although not every dance needs a story, I do think that it should evoke some kind of feeling and it was rather flat.  Are the Wilis happy to be playing?  Or are they somber as they journey into the underworld?  In all fairness, the choreographer mentions that it was their first classical work, but I do wish there was some more risk taking.

Next we have a solo from now San Francisco Ballet principal Tan Yuan Yuan, performing a modern solo entitled “Startling Dream,” and accordingly stiffness in her port de bras and the pencil straight lines of her legs were used as a way to convey the awkwardness of the music itself.  It’s an interesting solo, marred by a heinous competition number fluttering from her leotard.  It doesn’t say who conceived the choreography, but I like the real sense of desperation and terror that we often feel in nightmares.  Interestingly enough, I’m not bothered by the lack of a setting, and I think the all black stage enhances the piece, kind of like a body floating in nothingness, which my nightmares sometimes look like.  And sometimes in those nightmares I’m wearing a high cut leotard too.

Last, is a brilliantly disturbing interpretation by a famous Norwegian choreographer, Kjersti Alveberg.  I looked for a website on her, and her bio alone screams “creative mind” (something about her being a gypsy living in the universe of her unconscious where it matters more “who we are than who we want to be.”  She’s deep…and this coming from someone who takes fortune cookies seriously).  Her Danse Macabre is by far the most imaginative and the most grotesque (maybe even too much…I mean speaking of nightmares, her dance might give me them for a week), and her imagery is so creative…reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil but without the concern for acrobatics and impressing audiences, just pure art.  I think it really touches on an innate morbid curiosity humans have, where you can’t look away no matter how unsettling it can be.  It’s an utterly fascinating video dance, although I was a little disappointed with the very end, because the end of Danse Macabre is a cheeky plucking of two notes, which is one of the moments in the music that I find just a little saucy, and pardon the imagery but it’s like a “giving of the finger” if you know what I mean.  It’s a great moment that was purposely edited out, but I have to question that decision.  Tan Yuan Yuan’s solo only used an excerpt and didn’t have this, and La Melodie had it, but didn’t give it enough pizzazz.

So, I’m exhausted, and I’m sorry this entry isn’t particularly funny…when I’m tired most of my humor manifests in slapstick, and I’m glad none of you saw how I tripped coming up the stairs or shampooed my hair twice because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing.  And WOW I had a lot of typos…

Thinking about following ABT and San Francisco Ballet to China? Some almost helpful travelling tips

24 Aug

This fall, all the ballet companies are headed for China, and by all the ballet companies what I really mean is San Francisco Ballet and ABT.  Even though Americans could easily see them here stateside, I figured there might be some people in addition to dancers and crew members who are considering travelling abroad and combining a vacation with an opportunity to see them (People do that right?  People with money?).  As a Chinese major who studied in China for a summer, I thought I might offer some travel tipsy dos and don’ts for spare time whims (by the way, all pictures in this entry are either mine or were taken by my fellow students).  Although, keep in mind, my experience in China was pre-Olympics, so I’d imagine things would be different these days.

I found China to be rather overwhelming.  It always seems like people are in a rush and in my opinion, they have a very hurried lifestyle.  Things always feel like hustle and bustle madness.  As a fairly laid back person, I found it all to be a little scary…don’t get me wrong, I never felt like I was in danger, but at the same time always frantic.  Even the language itself sounds frenetic, but assuming you are not a speaker of Chinese, that’s not really going to matter (actually, I studied Chinese for two years and it never stopped sounding frenzied and are you impressed with my use of three adjectives that all mean something similar but start with “F?”  Three cheers for me.).  But don’t let this deter you…China has a lot to offer, and certainly people who are used to big cities probably wouldn’t be surprised (even if I think Beijing is the craziest city I’ve ever been to.  SFBallet is also going to Shanghai and Suzhou, and though I only went to Shanghai for just a weekend, it seemed neat.).

Chances are, you’ll be staying at a very nice hotel with English speaking tour guides to help you get around, so seeing the sights should be easy-peasy, especially in Beijing (where both ABT and SFBallet are going).  Tiananmen Square is a must, but there isn’t actually a lot to do there, people often fly kites but it’s kind of like a desert without the joy of sand between your toes.  However, the Forbidden Palace is right across the street and has a lot of nooks, crannies, and a Starbucks to see.  The Royal Garden in the palace was probably my favorite part, since there are some really old trees, and I like that kind of geeky nature stuff.  One thing you might notice while traversing the grounds is that oftentimes, little kids will have a split in their pants where their bums are.  This is in fact, intentional by many Chinese people.  It’s so the kids can poo without having to bother with taking their pants off, and probably save money by not having to buy diapers.  My friend Mama J-bear actually had an obsession with taking pictures of kids with those pants:

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

It’s not like they just poo in public mind you, but on the topic of bathrooms, I would highly recommend carrying a little packet of toilet paper (they sell them in convenience stores) and a little bottle of hand sanitizer because public bathrooms won’t have toilet paper or soap.  I was one of the most popular kids in our group because I actually thought to bring some hand sanitizer (Bath and Body Works Cucumber Melon, if you must know).

Definitely hit up the Great Wall, which was one of my favorite things.  I mean everyone knows about it, you see it in photos all the time, but really you do have to see it in person.  But don’t get cute and think you’re going to climb to the highest watchtower…like our side view mirrors tell us, “Objects may be larger than they appear” and certainly the Great Wall is one of them.  We kept hiking with a certain watchtower in mind and eventually abandoned our quest because we were dying halfway through, also conveniently remembering that we had to walk the same distance back to the starting point.  Although, we were there in June when it was hot, and obviously it’ll be cooler in the autumn when SFBallet and ABT are there.  We were lucky enough to have really nice weather though…it’s true, air quality isn’t great in a lot of areas of China, and even mountainous areas can be hazy and foggy.  We had a gorgeous blue sky, and our tour guide even said that that was the first time she had ever seen the sky so blue.  Make what you will of that.

From atop the Great Wall.  It was then they realized they had a long way to go...

From atop the Great Wall. It was then they realized they had a long way to go...

Now I debated whether I should actually post this next picture of me doing a leap on the Great Wall, as it’s one of the few pieces of pictorial evidence that I ever learned to dance and it’s absolutely hideous.  But, self-deprecating or no, my humiliation is your entertainment.  Just keep in mind, this was after about two months of ballet classes, we were just fooling around, and I was also trying not to fall off the bricks and die.

Don't laugh...EVERYONE's grand jeté looked like this at SOME point.

Don't laugh...EVERYONE's grand jeté looked like this at SOME point.

Now be sure to be adventurous and try all kinds of different foods!  Isn’t this the true joy of travelling?  And don’t worry that you might get sick in China, because everyone does.  Seriously…in our pre-departure packet they recommended we bring Pepto-Bismol or something else for an upset stomach, but I was fine for like six weeks and only got sick once.  Not a big deal.  You don’t have to go all “Man vs. Food,” but limitations are for the lame.  So here’s a miscellaneous assortment of photos and thoughts:

A lot of meals at fancy restaurants will be served on a lazy susan, not unlike what you might find at Chinese restaurants around the world.  The dishes themselves are somewhat similar, but some foods are strictly Western, like sesame chicken or General Tso’s, so don’t expect those.  (ignore the french fries)

A lot of meals at fancy restaurants will be served on a lazy susan, not unlike what you might find at Chinese restaurants around the world. The dishes themselves are somewhat similar, but some foods are strictly Western, like sesame chicken or General Tso’s, so don’t expect those. (ignore the french fries)

Seafood is served fresh.  Sometimes it tries to run away.  Don’t be shocked if a whole fish, including head and tail shows up at your table.  They don’t do breaded, fried fillets.

Seafood is served fresh. Sometimes it tries to run away. Don’t be shocked if a whole fish, including head and tail shows up at your table. They don’t do breaded, fried fillets.

Yes, sometimes there are…unusual items, like the fried cicadas and grubs here.  They're perfectly safe.

Yes, sometimes there are…unusual items, like the fried cicadas and grubs here. They're perfectly safe.

Don’t try durian.  It’s not worth it.  It smells like a rotting corpse and has the texture of a preserved kidney.

Don’t try durian. It’s not worth it. It smells like a rotting corpse and has the texture of a preserved kidney.

McDonalds is a big deal.  Some parents/grandparents will take kids there as a reward, and can only afford to buy food for their kids, and won’t eat anything themselves.  Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is a fancy, sit down restaurant and Häagen-Dazs ice cream is like an arm and a leg for just one scoop.  I had to go to McD’s because I was massively craving a cheeseburger, but stick with enjoying local foods if you can, because imported things are much more expensive.

McDonalds is a big deal. Some parents/grandparents will take kids there as a reward, and can only afford to buy food for their kids, and won’t eat anything themselves. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is a fancy, sit down restaurant and Häagen-Dazs ice cream is like an arm and a leg for just one scoop. I had to go to McD’s because I was massively craving a cheeseburger, but stick with enjoying local foods if you can, because imported things are much more expensive.

I don’t have a picture, but hot-pot is very popular, where you cook meat on skewers in a broth at your table.  Although this was the dish that I got sick after eating (first and probably only time I’ll ever eat intestines) so unfortunately I’ve got that “traumatized once so I’ll never do it again” thing going on, but it is good.  Other people who I ate with didn’t get sick, so really it was just my body that wasn’t happy with it.

Also, know that “not spicy” to a Chinese person, especially one that hails from Szechuan, Guizhou or even Yunnan province has a different meaning to the rest of us.  I visited Guiyang, capitol of Guizhou province and my friend and I ordered a dish we were told was “not spicy…for sure!” and when it came to us it was molten lava red, scorched our tongues and melted our faces off.  We couldn’t eat it at all, and after digging through it a bit also found the head and feet of the chicken.  Don’t be alarmed, this probably wouldn’t happen at a fancy restaurant…but I’ll never forget that spicy chicken head.

P.S. Peking duck is the bomb.

Now, for shopping.  Here are some recommended souvenirs:

Cloisonné.  Mama J-Bear asked the workers if they liked their jobs, and they said no.

Cloisonné. Mama J-Bear asked the workers if they liked their jobs, and they said no.

Chairman Mao hat.  Get one and wear it to the premiere of Mao's Last Dancer!

Chairman Mao hat. Get one and wear it to the premiere of Mao's Last Dancer!

Jade sculptures.  I’m not sure how you’d get one of these larger pieces onto the plane though.

Jade sculptures. I’m not sure how you’d get one of these larger pieces onto the plane though.

Now there’s a few different ways to shop in China.  You can go to places like the Beijing Longdi Superior Jade Gallery (which is where I took the picture above), which I would actually recommend because you get to see the jade making process and you have the opportunity to purchase the finest jade pieces China has to offer.  However, this is where it will also be the most expensive.  They also have malls and retail stores where pieces will also be expensive, indoor markets (which have the best deals), and outdoor markets which will have a lot of the fake stuff.  You can definitely do no wrong by purchasing somewhere like Longdi, where you’ll actually get a numbered certificate that describes the piece in detail and guarantees its quality, but if you’re on a budget, the indoor markets are the place to go.

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

For one thing, you can barter there (but not at fancy retail stores).  In fact, this is where I purchased probably the most popular souvenir from China, jade bangles.  I kind of became obsessed with jade bangles, as I’ve always had this inexplicable penchant for precious stones.  I don’t own any jewelry, but gems and stones really fascinate me (I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and stalked the Hope Diamond for an hour, and took countless photos in the Hall of Gems and Minerals). 

A brief trip to the Smithsonian: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds.  Boy that sounds familiar...

A brief trip to the Smithsonian: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Boy that sounds familiar...

Braving the markets can yield high quality purchases and the best deals, as long as you know what you’re doing.  So here’s a short guide to purchasing jade.

  1. If it seems shady, it probably is.  Don’t buy a bangle from just anyone.  Go to a shop that specializes in jade.
  2. Authentic jade resonates with a beautiful “ting” type of noise when struck with a hard object.  Glass thuds with a “tock.”  Don’t buy glass.
  3. Always hold up a bangle to the light, and look for cracks and repairs.  Note that cracks are different from natural sort of fractures in the stone, but repairs are obvious because they inject a translucent polymer to fill broken areas in.
  4. Translucency = good.  Translucency = higher price.
  5. Uniformity (less impurities and specks) = good.  Also = higher price
  6. Unusual coloring = can be good.  Can mean higher prices, depending on how favorable the coloring is.  Bands of lavender, white and also very dark green can yield attractive results which are prized higher than solid colored bangles even.
  7. Barter.  If you thought you got a deal, you probably didn’t…but at least you tried.

Here you can see the two I purchased for FAR below retail.

Note the one on the left is a medium green, with a band of lavender, while the one on the right is a more uniform milky, mint green, with some flecks of a spring green here and there.

Note the one on the left is a medium green, with a band of lavender, while the one on the right is a more uniform milky, mint green, with some flecks of a spring green here and there.

So venture forth into the street markets…you never know what treasures it will yield!

Quality shoes.

Quality shoes.

At the very least, be sure to refer to SFBallet principal as Tan Yuan Yuan (not Yuan Yuan Tan).  That’ll make you seem like you’re in the know!