Tag Archives: seattle

‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review

20 Feb

It’s odd that Seattle has decided to invite the winter spirits, which was particularly cruel on a day like today, with cerulean skies and a radiant sun—accompanied with biting winds and sub-forty-five degree temperatures.  Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to the cold and anything below forty-five is all the same to me…I call it my “immobilization threshold.”  It’s possible that something like negative forty would have an even more profound effect such as cryogenic hibernation and in fact, I was recently told that if you step outside in those temperatures, your nose hairs will freeze (ask someone from Northern Canada…I’m sure they can confirm this).   The point is, all I wanted to do was wrap myself in blankets like a giant burrito and wait for spring to arrive.

I did manage to do the first part of that, but had to something productive, which I decided would be to attack my tower of library materials (some of which are probably overdue), including the documentary Dancing Across Borders.  The film was directed and produced by socialite Anne Bass, who saw Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced like “sea”) Sar as a young boy in Cambodia, performing in traditional Khmer dances.  He obviously had no knowledge of or exposure to ballet, but she could see quality in his movement, a knack for performance and the makings for a physique quite suitable for ballet.  She eventually brought him to New York and the School of American Ballet, where he received a great deal of private coaching from Olga Kostritzky and with one of the most freakish learning curves known to man, refined his raw talent into an accomplished ballet dancer.

Initially, I thought this would be a story similar to Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who grew up impoverished and learning the dances of his people (salsa and even break-dancing) before finding his way to ballet but there are significant differences.  Sy began his formal training at a much later age but what separates Sy from Acosta is that Cambodia has no tradition in ballet.  Acosta’s father, who was instrumental in ensuring his son’s pursuit of a ballet career held a great deal of admiration for the art, which had become a national treasure thanks to Alicia Alonso.  However, Sy’s parents understandably have a different perspective; they recognize their son’s talents and the opportunities it gives him but very little if anything beyond that.  His father even wishes Sy worked for the government, or became an engineer or doctor.  I don’t think he meant that in a “crush the artist’s dreams and get a ‘real’ job” sort of way, because I find it impossible to fault them for not understanding the impact and prestige of a ballet career.  This is perhaps the greatest difference of them all—as Acosta wraps up what has been one of the most prolific ballet careers of the past couple of decades as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet (donning the banana yellow tights in La Fille mal Gardée for what he must always hope is the last time), Sy still seems to be finding his identify as a dancer.

I say that because Bass herself even said that she wouldn’t want Sy to continue dancing if he didn’t want to, but after a few years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, he left to be a freelance artist.  It’s not a decision that surprises me because throughout the documentary he always struck me as someone who was a bit at odds with how much of his relationship with dance was talent and how much of it was passion.  After all, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not a huge fan of partnering so maybe his destiny isn’t really to be a classical ballet dancer.  Even though this is not my experience with dance, I felt like I could relate a bit because this was my approach to school.  I was a good (if anything, clever) student and when I was in control of my curriculum, I truly excelled.  I got better grades in college than I did in high school because I got so many opportunities to study things that interested me and yet I still managed good grades in subjects I hated, like math and chemistry so it baffled people (well, my parents really) when I refused to pursue a career in those fields.  It’s not enough to just be good at something because if the heart is unwilling, the result feels empty even if it looks brilliant.  Despite Sy’s unique qualities as a dancer, you can’t help but feel like dancing for a classical ballet company was like caging a magnificent, rare bird.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many like Peter Boal found Sy exciting—he has an effervescence that cannot be explained and can only be captured visually in photographs or film.  There’s a lot of great footage of him in class as well as performance selections and variations from competition footage with lots of favorites like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Sylphide, in addition to rehearsal footage with Benjamin Millepied and the actual performance of Millepied’s piece at the Vail International Dance Festival with live accompaniment from Philip Glass himself.  In Millepied’s contemporary work is where I thought Sy was most breathtaking.  There was a joy of movement in that work which is part of what leads me to believe Sy is suited more towards that style so I hope now as a freelance artist he is finding those opportunities because even if he’s pretty damn good at classical ballet, sometimes the things we’re born to do aren’t the things we look like we’re born to do.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dancing Across Borders because I think it tells the honest story of a dancer.  Oftentimes I think the problem with fictitious dance stories is the ridiculous, almost melodramatic, romanticized images you’ll often see when in fact many dancers lead extraordinary lives that don’t need to be enhanced, just told.  Seattleites will also get a kick out of seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, McCaw Hall and a few glimpses of familiar faces (I spotted Carla Körbes, and it’s interesting to note that both she and Sy were foreign dancers heavily recruited by Peter…very cool of him).  Actually, Varna had some fun cameos too, like an equally young Belarusian lynx Ivan Vasiliev (I was going to say panther, but there are no panthers in Belarus) doing some of his signature moon-jumping leaps.  At any rate, the only disappointment I had regarding the film was that it all went down just before I moved here…it would have been great to watch Sy dance live, though perhaps opportunities remain in the future to do so, and maybe for the better in a piece where he is truly in his element.  Check out the trailer for fun, or because I’m telling you to:

All Hallow’s Eve: How can Pacific Northwest Ballet treat you?

31 Oct

Happy Halloween!  The last Reader Appreciation post is a juicy one, and is dedicated to all of you but with a special “come hither” directed at Seattle area readers.  This can only mean one thing: the involvement of Pacific Northwest Ballet.  However, readers who do not reside here shouldn’t feel left out…that is the beauty of the internet is it not?  A ballet company can reach out to fans all over the world and hopefully inspire them to travel and make one of their shows part of a vacation.  Trust me, IT WORKS.  I can’t even begin to describe how desperate I am to go to London and see The Royal Ballet in their element, on the hallowed grounds of Covent Garden.  Yes, I have seen them live but it’s the way in which I’ve been able to stay connected via the Royal Opera House’s multimedia on iTunes and YouTube, as well as reviews/tweets by Royal Ballet goers that keeps my yearning burning (it’s kind of ridiculous how nuttercrackers I’m going over the fact that they’ll be doing Manon in the spring…aaaaah!).  It’s not just them though, as many ballet companies have awesome multimedia bits for us to chew on, and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel is a delicious one…be sure to check it out (if you haven’t already) before proceeding with this post:

Link to Pacific Northwest Ballet on YouTube

PNB’s channel features a vast variety of videos, including rehearsal footage, performance excerpts, show trailers, discussions with artistic director Peter Boal, dancer profiles and a multitude of interviews.  I’m not going to mention any names, but this is far beyond what some other ballet companies are doing and is a fantastic usage of new media to connect with fans and audiences, so kudos and kuditos to you PNB, for staying up to date.  The question then becomes, what more can they do?  Or perhaps the better question is what else can they do?  PNB’s video editor got in touch with me and I’m hoping to help open the lines of communication with this blog (like you do) and get your input.  What do you want to see?  More studio footage?  More interviews?  Dancers playing Twister?  A full-length recording of Dances at a Gathering? (okay, never going to happen, I’ll get over it…eventually)  This is your chance to speak and more importantly, be heard!  Without an audience there is no ballet, and as audience members we have a responsibility to develop our voices just as the performers and administration do theirs.

For example, one of my favorite things they did very recently actually, was to post rehearsal footage with running commentary by the dancers.  Normally, I like to wait and see a dance on stage (which is saying a lot because I have the patience of a squirrel) because I like the surprise and mystical atmosphere that comes with viewing a finished product.  Obviously, studio footage is much different from full costumes, lighting, etc. but what’s unique about listening to the dancers talk about their work is that it really gives us the opportunity to be clued into the process and gain a sense of what might go through a dancer’s mind while performing.  I think sometimes we want to believe dancers are so invested into their roles that they “become them” (and sometimes they do) but I like knowing dancers are human and that they occasionally talk to each other on stage when they’re not supposed to or think “oh crap” when something goes haywire.  I think humanizing dancers is a great way to bring in new audiences because even though dancers perform spectacular feats both physically and emotionally, I think audiences still want to find ways to relate to them.  I suppose many enjoy idolizing their favorite dancers as elusive, almost alien beings but for me that’s unrealistic because we’re all human.  Therefore, when it comes to listening to dancers speak in a casual voice, I am all for it…I’d rather know more about who they are than who they think we should think they are.

Accordingly, I’m all about the dancer profiles…but I’d love for them to be longer!  So far, they seem to be just enough time to cram in “this is how old when I started, this is how I got here, this is my favorite role, I love to dance, goodbye.”  Something I would really like to see would be along the same lines of what The Royal Opera house did, which was follow soloist Yuhui Choi around for an entire day (watch ‘A Day in the Life of a Ballerina’).  Obviously the finished mini-documentary wasn’t the whole day but selected bits and pieces which give a more complete picture of what it’s really like to be a professional dancer—from class, rehearsals, physiotherapy, make-up and finally show time.  However, I think a potentially fun idea might be to have dancers introduce Seattle as they see it, taking fans on a virtual tour of some of their favorite places because sometimes it’s more than just getting people to come see ballet but also a matter of promoting the culture of the city where the ballet lives.  Even people who live in Seattle might not know about some of its curious little treasures…like where’s the best place to get Thai food or saltwater taffy?  I need to know…and there’s a chance other people do too.  At any rate, I feel like PNB’s YouTube channel could use some more “face time” in general though, with highlight reels of specific dancers, which can help to make them more recognizable onstage (especially for those of us who sit in the balcony!) and even faculty bios or interviews with students of the school.  I know for me, different teaching philosophies (as well as the teachers’ backgrounds) can be just as fascinating as an interview with a working dancer.  When you find out that one teacher took class with this famous teacher or danced with that famous dancer, it creates a unique web that really does bring a community together.  I’ve even experienced it in my own little corner of the ballet world and enjoy the feeling of being a part of something larger than life itself.

So here’s the deal my little chickpeas, I’ve created a little poll and am asking for some mass voting!  However, the poll only reflects some basic ideas about videos and such, so it is of the utmost importance that you consider leaving a comment too with additional feedback!  Like what are your thoughts on more formal interviews from dancers versus a casual voice?  The more detailed you can be, the better!  Oh and nothing mundane like “how tall is such and such dancer” because even though we all want to know that stuff anyway, there are much better things to be learned.  Priorities, people, priorities!

Men + Dance = Men in Dance

11 Oct

I’m pretty sure (as in I know) I write for a predominantly female audience…historically, women have found me more entertaining than men have.  However, I would like to dedicate this post to my male audience…all three and a half of you, and in particular the homosexual readers in honor of National Coming Out Day.  As far as I know, I shall attempt to tie this in with a review of a festival showing I went to yesterday, Men in Dance, featuring all male dancers in works by various choreographers.

First, a little anecdote.  I was in a bit of a foul mood yesterday…but lock yourself out of your apartment, lose your key and not so happy you will be!  Normally I’m a very careful person and I don’t make mistakes but when I do they tend to be of the catastrophic variety.  You know the saying: “go big or go home” and that’s what I manage to do…except I couldn’t go home because I lost my key in the taxi, which of course dropped me off within feet of my doorstep.  Irony tastes like crap, and I’ve been mentally vomiting on myself since (which will probably continue until I fix this mess).  So of course because I’m one of those people that has to beat myself up I didn’t sleep well and was quite tired after a restless night at a friend’s house.  Not to mention I had to do the whole “walk of shame” wearing the same clothes from the day before as my landlord let my roommate and I in with the spare key.  The whole condition was exacerbated by the fact that I had to leave my contacts in overnight thus irritating my eyes, and also because I didn’t have time for a shower before heading to Capitol Hill for Men in Dance.  I don’t even remember how I got there—all I remember is zombie-walking to the bus stop messy-haired and red demon eyed, then somehow managing to appear in front of the Broadway Performance hall.

The show featured a great variety of dance styles, beginning with a preshow where a group of men danced outside, in the lobby, on the stairs leading to the theatre and eventually on one corner of the stage.  As they explored these spaces, sometimes they danced at you…not for you, at you (I almost tripped over one going up the stairs).  The preshow also included a small tap ensemble, clad in black, white and shades of grey pedestrian clothing, executing complicated footwork with such ease I wanted to believe that I too, could do such a thing…but that’s the mark of great hoofers; they make it look insanely easy.  In this sense, I often feel tap is the most deceiving dance form.

Following the preshow came Cypher, a male pas de trois that consisted of a number of dizzying turns and leaps…perhaps, too many.  Here’s the thing about bravura steps…when you have a lot of pirouettes and leaps it’s one of two things; it’s a variation/coda or the piece is being overpowered by an excess of such movements.  When it comes to a modern ballet, I don’t look for specific turns or jumps but what is the effect of a turn or jump?  Does it emphasize a musical phrase or show visual contrast in levels?  I wasn’t feeling much of a sense of purpose, other than to show off…which is an entirely legitimate choice but I felt that the pirouettes and leaps actually detracted from some of the more interesting choreography.  There were wonderful moments of texture—smooth classical lines as well as smaller staccato movements, set to a compelling score entitled Trilobita, which I assume translates into trilobite (and you know I’m a huge fossil geek).  It’s a fine line any time you put in a coupe jeté followed my multiple pirouettes because it can get competition dance-y very quickly.

Following that was an interesting piece with a group of young men performing a…running(?) dance, with a lot of acrobatic maneuvers and tiny jogging shorts.  It was one of those pieces with no music, which tends to freak me out but what’s interesting is that without music, dancers have to tap into a sort of mass, innate, biological rhythm that we often lose touch with.  I imagine it’s the same “force” that informs a school of fish to change directions at the exact same time or a flock of geese to fly in a V.   Speaking of mysterious forces, then came Wade Madsen’s pas de deux, Breath of Light.  This piece was stunning—an intimate duet for two men that really investigated the connection between two people.  There was of course close contact in the partnering but there were also moments where one dancer would run his hand along the contours of his partner’s body without touching him, making tangible the energy that can be felt radiating from another person.

After that sensual pas de deux, came the most amazing pas de quatre…linked to Jules Perrot’s famous divertissement for the four legendary ballerinas, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.  Using Cesare Pugni’s same score, choreographer Eva Stone made the piece in the image of four modern women with contemporary choreography and set to out to do the same for four men, but decided to keep the women’s choreography and simply had men perform it.  Under the title Me Over You, the new pas de quatre had four men with diva attitudes trying to outshine one another on stage in a myriad of movement styles, from balletic to modern and even gestures of vulgarity (“the finger” if you must know).  The result was a comedic dance that drew raucous laughter from the audience and squees of glee from those who could tell that Stone even quoted a bit of Perrot’s Pas de Quatre.

The first piece after intermission was a nice solo…modern, lyrical, with interesting points of origin and alighting.  The standout of the afternoon however, was an excerpt from artistic director of Whim W’Him, Olivier Wevers’s new work Monster, which debuted at the festival (Whim W’him will perform the full version of Monster in January).  Monster embodied the anguish felt by homosexuals over the disenfranchisement that comes from being a part of a marginalized population.  The performance was dedicated to the teens that committed suicide because of bullying based on their sexual orientation (although the piece was obviously created and rehearsed before—that kind of dance doesn’t happen overnight…usually).  I’m so pleased to see that such a topic is so forthrightly observed in Seattle’s dance community.  I think this subject matter is often avoided because some people in the dance community feel that evasion of it is the best way to combat so called “negative” stereotypes about male dancers while others are so beyond acceptance that it’s completely a non-issue.  There’s not as much open dialogue about the “middle” and I think that’s whom this dance is for.  Not everyone can grow up in a liberal city like Seattle or New York and those who don’t tend to suffer the most.  I certainly had my share (if not the brunt) of it growing up so I could relate to the piece a lot.  For example, normally in a promenade in ballet, the danseuse is in a position like an attitude or arabesque—something expansive that really fills a space but Monster had these low promenades in a tucked, almost fetal position, trying to make the body look as small as possible as if shrinking away from society.  The truth is, sometimes diminishing (and inadvertently belittling) oneself was the only way to avoid being hurt by others.  At other times there were these huge, sprawled out extensions that expressed the impossibility of trying to contain one’s own spirit.  Both dancers (PNB company members) were sublime, and I really enjoyed watching Lucien Postlewaite in this performance.  I remember seeing him in Balanchine’s Square Dance earlier this year and Monster is such a departure from that it’s great to see such versatility in a performer.  Random note, I’d like to ask him what it feels like to have super strong, obedient legs…does it feel as awesome as it looks?

At any rate, I think it’s noteworthy that Wevers and Postlewaite are actually married, and because this is Seattle it’s not gossip but casual information.  It’s interesting because the sexuality of dancers is as I said, often not discussed because most people in the dance community don’t care one way or another.  Unfortunately it’s jerks outside of the dance community that exploit stereotypes and make fun of dancers, both professional and aspiring.  For that reason, I think some dancers also avoid discussing it for fear that public interest in their personal lives will supersede their professional ones…it’s all very “Anderson Cooper” if you will, who is believed/known to be gay and is sometimes harshly viewed by the gay community for not publically discussing his personal life.  The resentment is perhaps understandable—people want role models but at the same time nobody should be required to discuss something so personal and in that sense I think people who take that route represent an ideal, of the way society should be.  On the other hand, society isn’t there yet and we do need role models and for that we can look to Marcelo Gomes who did publically “come out” and it hasn’t affected his career at all—in fact, he’s often crowned “the most in demand partner in the world.”  So young friends who are gay and struggling with confidence, look to the likes of these gentlemen and know that your success is possible, regardless of stupid people around you.

The penultimate piece was a solo by former New York City Ballet principal, who apparently came out of retirement (though the end of the piece seemed like a farewell to the stage) to dance an Agon-esque solo choreographed by Donald Byrd.  There was something oddly Agon-y about the solo, and perhaps because Boal has danced Agon what, eighty-five million times?  I likened it to a “West Coast Agon” though, Seattle-fied with jeans and a t-shirt (a comment from the peanut gallery noted that the only thing missing was the Birkenstocks).  Then came the final dance of the evening; sharp, modern, percussive and with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Lots of changes of direction, reversals and athletic lifts that made for a high-energy conclusion of the afternoon.

So what started out as a crappy day (for me) improved vastly by concert’s end.  The festival goes for two weeks and will showcase a different set of works for this upcoming weekend and if this past weekend was any indication, attendance is highly recommended.  Let me just say the audience simply enjoyed watching men dance…because men don’t dance enough (obviously the world would be a better place if they did).  If you are a man (or boy!) in dance and people give you a hard time for it, know that you are or will be loved, so hang in there.  If ignoramuses give you a really hard time…well that calls for a swift kick to the shins.  What do you think the REAL purpose of frappes at barre is?