Tag Archives: stepanov notation

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis the season

25 Dec

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

Merry Marcelo Christmas! -Steve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging Changes and Audacious Authenticity

23 Jul

I’ve been reading up on reviews and such for the Bolshoi’s production of Coppélia that is currently showing at the Royal Opera House, which is a new reconstruction from a Stepanov notation score of Petipa’s original.  The Bag Ladies wrote a post that included a link to a fascinating article from The Arts Desk, featuring the man “restoring” Petipa ballets, Sergei Vikharev.  It’s all supremely interesting, but unfortunately wasted on me because most of the Petipa ballets I’ve only seen one or no production of (I can hardly believe this debauchery), let alone be familiar with the details and choreography to know the differences in “after Petipa” versions and any reconstruction (none of which are on film yet anyway).  I hope in depth discussions about Coppélias are taking place in London as we speak, meanwhile I’m going to keep splashing about in the kiddie pool.

What I do take away from the article though is a question of what exactly does authenticity mean to the world of ballet?  Rather than lead you to believe I have some coherent answer stewing in me brains, I’m just going to say up front there really doesn’t seem to be one.  Some ballets do well with change while others simply can’t be touched.  There’s no clear formula to decide what’s allowed and what isn’t and it seems no great choreographer’s work, whether classical or contemporary is completely invulnerable to change.  There’s no gauge to say whether any of the changes are good or bad, but we discuss these changes anyway and that friends, is what makes art history so special in comparison to plain history.  Regular historians have to argue with each other over the truth while art historians can just argue for fun…or really, to present a certain interpretation of an idea.  It’s all quite intangible and makes for better conversation because we have the luxury of learning to accept differing ideas on the same topic.  Meanwhile, history seeks to uncover one, unbiased truth and I find that incredibly boring (needless to say, history was never my best subject).

I was surprised to read in the article that there was a lack of support for Vikharev’s work (and even more so that money was part of the reasoning behind it) because I don’t think Vikahrev is trying to monopolize Petipa ballets; to me it seems to be more of a responsibility to expand ballet’s history.  I think part of the problem is the word authenticity itself—to claim one version as “original” or “authentic” is to imply that anything else is not and while everything else is indeed “after Petipa,” many new stagings of these ballets have built their own, admirably strong traditions (like Balanchine did with his after Petipa choreography).  As cliché as it sounds, we really do have to look at the past to be able to see the future.  These new reconstructions can help us see how ballet has changed and thus give us that ballet can indeed continue to evolve as a classical art form.  The only way to know where you can go is to know where the heck you came from.

Nobody knew the importance of change better than Balanchine.  In my own obsession with (or as I like to call it, “amateur studies”) of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, I’ve seen many of these changes and not just in historic versus contemporary performances, but within older performances that included changes made by Balanchine himself.  He created the pas de deux on Violette Verdy and she herself had this to say in a documentary:

If he didn’t like what you did with it right away, and he’d say ‘I think I need to change it’ [And you say] Oh Mr. B. I love this, I’ll make it look good, I promise, I’m going to work. [Balanchine would say] ‘No dear, I have another one [step]’ because he knew, maybe there was something better there to be done.

I’ve seen footage of Verdy, the originator of the piece which debuted in 1960 as well as the television debut with Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise in 1962 and already there were changes in the choreography.  DISCLAIMER: Okay so if you’re a casual reader who may not be too familiar with ballet terminology, you may want to choose your own adventure and skip right to the animations because it’s about to get really confusing or if you know the terms and want to skip the details anyway (a valid lifestyle choice) please feel free to do so.  For example, in the coda fouettés were never in the original choreography.  Verdy would perform a series of consecutive attitude turns (en dehors) followed by a quick series of tour sautés en arabesque.  When Hayden performed, Balanchine had her do fouettés but start out with slower ones and gain speed.  Fast forward a bit and Patricia McBride performed what has become sort of the standard and what I used to call the “fouetté steppy-step.”  I looked this up in the dictionary and it’s a mouthful—“fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes.”  I have a little side complaint with this because nobody does this with the speed and accuracy of Suzanne Farrell (understandably so) but what many ballerinas end up doing is cheating the second half of the emboîté en tournant.  They do the fouetté, step onto the right foot en pointe but they cheat with the left leg and plop straight into plié to do the next fouetté.  It’s kind of sloppy to me…but anyway here’s a couple of animations for the visual people:

violette suzanne

Observe: Violette Verdy on top, performing attitude turns en dehors followed by tour sautés en arabesque and Suzanne Farrell on the bottom, performing fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes, both at the same moment in the music.

It is somewhat normal to change bravura steps in a grand pas de deux but there are also many stylistic changes throughout that Tchai Pas has gone through over time.  Hayden didn’t do the partnered penchée in the pas de deux and d’Amboise’s variation actually had an extra forty-eight counts!  Arms differ on the fish dive, whereas Farrell would dive face first, many ballerinas extend their arms forward.  The final exit offstage includes an overhead lift where the man lifts the woman underneath her back and she extends one leg forward and one leg behind her in attitude but it is often changed now so that she tips completely backwards and extends her front leg to the ceiling.  Personally, I like the forward version because it gives the effect of this huge, flying leap and the tipped back version tends to look a little awkward to me, like a caveman hoisting his latest kill but like I said, no right answers when it comes to these changes.  I’m just scratching the surface here, but you get the idea.  What I’d like to know is why hasn’t Verdy’s original interpretation been revived?  Yeah, I went there.

Three different fish dives: Hayden & d'Amboise left, McBride & Baryshnikov center, and Farrell & Martins on the right. Note the differences in arm and leg positions as well as the positions of the men. d'Amboise is lunging forward with his weight on his front leg, Baryshnikov on his back leg while presenting his front foot in tendu and Martins in an upright pseudo-first position. Each couple presents a completely different line and aesthetic, and all of these dancers worked directly with Balanchine.

Anywhodle, there are more controversial, substantial changes like the whole Bournonville versus Lacotte La Sylphide.  The Bournonville is the real deal, “authentic” if you must, while the Lacotte is what it is and seemingly less liked.  In the case of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, I think the choreography was so stylized it’s hard to imagine the same story being told a different way.  However, old or new even masterpieces can see a little change, as Lady Deborah MacMillan mentioned in an interview that when the English National Ballet (I think) did Manon, there was new choreography she had never seen before and she was in full support of it.  So it seems we’re forever blessed and cursed with conflicts between originals and obscurities, authentic versus standard but in the end it’s always giving us something to talk about and that’s the most miraculous thing about the classical arts.  I think it impossible to find something that is so rewarding, the more you invest into studying it…because maybe every Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux being performed today is a LIE.

Balanchine’s Petipa

13 May

Last night I attended Balanchine’s Petipa, a lecture presented by Doug Fullington (Education Programs Manager) with demonstrations by principals and soloists with the company.  Tuesday’s performance served as the dress rehearsal, as the lecture will actually be a part of Works & Process at the Guggenheim, 7:30 on May 14th and 15th (for ticket information, check out the Guggenheim’s website).  The presentation takes a look at characteristics in Balanchine’s choreography and influences from Petipa, noting similar structures and vocabulary between classical and neoclassical choreography.  Most of the information was familiar to me, but it was an excellent crash course in ballet evolution for Guggenheim visitors who have not studied ballet academically.  In fact, my academic study of ballet was probably somewhat of a hindrance because I have an awful tendency to check out if the information isn’t new, which is exacerbated by the fact that I’ve always been feeble when it comes to lecture-based learning.  Thank Billy Elliot for the visuals!

First, I have to say that the studio was approximately eighty-five million degrees so I was sweating like crazy, but I’m glad to know PNB likes to crank up the heat…I’m pretty sure purgatory is a cold studio.  The allure of PNB’s toasty warmth was one of a few reasons that’s really making me want to get my dilapidated behind back to the barre—the sooner the better.  At any rate, the evening began with a galop from Petipa’s The Awakening of Flora, paired with a variation from Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.  That was the format of the evening; one classical, one Balanchine, with the classical variations having been reconstructed from Stepanov notation.  What I noticed immediately from the first set of variations was how well the dancers were able to switch between the classical and neoclassical aesthetic; there was a marked difference in the way they used their arms, with the overextended wrists Balanchine so famously favored in his style (or technique…I know this is a touchy subject for a lot of people).  While I knew about the difference in arms, what was impressive about it was their ability to switch so quickly between the two, suggesting a heightened awareness and control of line.

While a diverse set of excerpts were presented, the highlight for me was the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Apollo, danced by Carla Körbes as Terpsichore and Seth Orza in the title role.  Körbes is a vision; she has this wonderful sweetness, like a honey-colored aura to her dancing.  She hails from Porto Alegre, Brazil, which apparently means “Joyous Harbour” so with that as your hometown and a childhood spent in Brazilian sunshine, how could one not have a sunny disposition?  Anywho, I really enjoyed the softness with which she moved, which can be a difficult quality to bring to Balanchine choreography that sometimes asks for athletic maneuvers; not just anyone can kick back into an enormous, full split penchée and make it look like slicing butter, quickly pulling the leg back to casually step into the next move.

Orza was wonderful as Apollo as well, but shined later in the evening, receiving the biggest applause for his Raymonda variation, with Balanchine choreography (as opposed to Petipa, who also choreographed a Raymonda).  The variation features an arsenal of jumps in succession for a good minute or more, ending with a line of brisé volé travelling in a diagonal (you can see what brisé volé looks like here, at the very beginning).  In the words of a teacher I once had, brisé volé “is a beast.”  It takes an incredible amount of energy to bound from foot to foot, beating the legs in the air and pushing the legs forward (or backward).  I think in my prime I could have done like two…now, surely more like half of one and then wheezing for air.  That being said, it’s one of my favorite steps and there’s something about it that makes me itch to don the shoes and go to class.  Orza’s brisé volé were positively electrifying; the trick is to maintain control of the upper body as if the flurry of feet isn’t happening underneath.  He also had really interesting movement of the arms as he did them, almost presenting his hand with a circular flourish rather than the up-down motion other schools of ballet will teach.  I liked the added dimension though; it gives the step an eye-catching shape.

It’s a fantastic night of dancing for balletomanes who want to get about as close and personal as one could get—you can even hear the heavy breathing of the dancers (which reminded me I need to breathe more when I dance.  It may sound silly, but I often forget to).  Highly recommended, even if you already know the differences between Balanchine and Petipa.  If that’s the case, then the solution is to bring an entourage of friends who may not know the different nuances in style.