Tag Archives: tamara rojo

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

21 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in the Vision Scene:

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

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

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

‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer’—this one’s for the boys…

17 Jul

I have a problem. So there’s this Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of a documentary, ‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer’—fantastic, right?! So, fun fact, there are almost one hundred and eighty backers that have pledged well over two-thirds of the $30,000 needed for the project, which is great! And kind of odd…had thirty thousand people donated one dollar, this would be a done deal, and the same goes for six thousand donating five dollars, or three thousand having donated ten. So why is it that a mere one hundred and eighty comprise the backbone thus far? Is the reach of ballet really so small? Are balletomanes apathetic? Poor? Does my math suck? Of the millions of ballet lovers worldwide, is this the best we can do? My mind is racing with questions as to why something that should be relatively simple didn’t happen instantaneously—although, I suppose patience is a virtue (unfortunately, it has a tendency to not be one of mine).

Sociological inquiry into the ethos of crowd-funding aside (whew!), there’s something larger at hand here. Forget for a moment who the documentary is about and consider what the topic is—the male ballet dancer. It’s not that danseurs are elusive, but they are massively underrepresented in society’s understanding of ballet. It’s even written into the culture and choreography of ballet itself; when a man partners a woman, he is to “frame the picture” so to speak. However, something I find interesting is that while ideals for women have changed over time to see a proliferation of higher extensions, the danseur has almost quite literally, disappeared. Of course in partnering, he is going to be obstructed from view on occasion, either by the ballerina or a face full of tulle, but the rise of the six o’clock arabesque penchée (no pun intended) for example, means that we see less of him when the ballerina’s leg moves in front of his face, or even block much of his torso, reducing the effect of his épaulement. These days, perhaps the photo has been rendered inappropriate for the frame—after all, if the danseur isn’t a part of the picture, then the craft of partnering has moved into the realm of puppetry. While young girls are green with envy when they see a ballerina hit that line, plotting schemes to achieve that same look for themselves, and audiences delight in an iconic pose that is immediately impressive, the erosion of the image of the ballerina’s partner goes unnoticed. It’s also easy to forget that the modern penchée is a late twentieth century construct in an art form that dates back to hundreds of years before, and that in changing the aesthetic of the step, the ballet now has changed its meaning too. In other words, for the majority of ballet’s existence, such “unbalanced” pictures in a pas de deux would never have occurred. Whaaat?!

This…wouldn’t have happened in most of ballet’s lifetime! Photo ©Gene Schiavone

Perhaps in the U.S., the issue is encouraged—or exacerbated—by the prominence of Balanchine who so famously said: “ballet is woman.” As sexist as that sounds, I actually think we can’t have a problem with it because he choreographed his ballets on women that inspired him, and to demand that he create more roles for men would have been far worse a crime than a mere sexist opinion, because it would have forced a hand upon his identity as an artist. It was never Balanchine’s responsibility to eliminate sexism in society—it’s the audience’s responsibility to approach the ballet without it, and enjoy his glorification of women as simply that, sexist or not (let’s not forget that women dancers have their own host of challenges like nurturing individuality, competition amongst the ranks, etc.). Still, Balanchine’s views have obviously had a profound influence in ballet in the U.S. and far from combat it, there is just a need to put forth different ones, and in doing so, highlight the male dancer. Is it too much to ask of ballet to change the current aesthetic or perhaps Balanchinian approach? Yes. I’m of the opinion that you can’t change people’s minds about anything and that you can only educate them with the hope that information will inspire a new perspective. Is it too much to ask for a few dollars to support a paradigm of something that could inspire a new perspective? It better not be! This is why documentaries are often made, isn’t it? To illuminate upon things that often go unappreciated? Like plankton or photosynthesis…

Meanwhile, documentaries are also made to record something rare or a phenomenon, and that would be Marcelo Gomes. Virtuoso dancer, gracious partner, stage presence…the list of accolades go on and on. You don’t achieve the rank of principal of ABT without a remarkable amount of dedication and talent, and really, any one of the principal dancers could probably be the subject of a fascinating documentary. These are people who lead extraordinary lives, and to document them is also important so that audiences can see them as people. Again, with bodies and technique having changed so much over the past couple of centuries, not to mention training beginning earlier and earlier, dancers lead lives that are practically inconceivable to the general public. Just as ballet has changed so much, the needs of the audience have changed as well and while it may have been chic to be an enigmatic superstar in the past, it’s quite possible that—especially in this age of technology—humanization of our idols is more crucial than ever, and I can’t think of a finer dancer to idolize than Marcelo. At least for me, when I saw him dance in New York, I hadn’t been so inspired by a performance since I saw Tamara Rojo in Manon, back in 2009, which just so happens to be what I still consider to this day, my life changing event. We’re talking on an epic scale, like Sir Frederick Ashton and Anna Pavlova, which if you know me, is just about the highest praise I can give.

So, I don’t like to solicit my readers (thanks to traumatic experiences in high school of going door to door asking for donations for the marching band—one house even had a sign that said “solicitors will be eaten”), but I implore you to take action! Don’t let this film slip through the cracks when its contribution to ballet can do something for the greater good. Set a few dollars aside…skip a meal if you have to—wait, don’t do that—but avoid eating out a night or two and you’ll easily have five, ten bucks to spare in no time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little or a lot—it’s times like these when I like to remind myself that pyramids are built from the bottom up, one brick at a time. People, let’s be the foundation, shall we?

Visit the Kickstarter page for ‘Marcelo Gomes: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer,’ a documentary film by David Barba and James Pellerito. Pass Go, collect $200 (or $2—whatever!) and donate!

A Call to Ashton

8 Jul

Not much could cure these post-New York blues, but luckily, I’ve been holding onto a secret weapon for some time now—the ‘Frederick Ashton’ DVD featuring Les Patineurs, several divertissements, and Scènes de Ballet. Notorious for saving something special for a rainy day (well, sunny lately in Seattle!), I can’t think of anything better to inspire me than a mélange of Ashton ballets. While the DVD is well worth the money, with it being relatively new it’s still on the expensive side. Luckily, there is a more affordable option for Ashton aficionados, over at OperaPassion, where they sell a recording of a broadcast of the Ashton Centenary in 2004, for a virtual steal $4.95! In fact, most of what’s released on the Opus Arte DVD is actually the same—Scènes de Ballet and the divertissements among them, with the only differences being that the Opus Arte DVD comes with Patineurs and the recorded DVD by OperaPassion comes with Daphnis and Chloë instead. Bonus features come with both, including interviews and rehearsal footage, but it’s here where the OperaPassion DVD actually takes the cake, offering many interviews throughout with some original cast members, while the Opus Arte DVD only has extras for Patineurs. So, really, the solution is to stop worrying about an inconsequential amount of money and buy them both—you know I did!

As much as I loved both DVDs, I can’t say that they’re right for everyone because I do think you have to have a minimal amount of admiration for Sir Fred to get the most out of viewing them. Most of the divertissements simply won’t stand alone, and are much more interesting as glimpses into different phases of Sir Fred’s illustrious career as a choreographer. While most of the works were new to me, I’d have to say that none of them really rank above my favorite Ashton ballets. Still, their inclusions are important for both historical and sentimental purposes, and Dame Monica Mason was right to include them for the Ashton Centenary. While it’s easy to lament a list of Ashton ballets that have yet to be released commercially, the variety is unparalleled (although, I secretly thought that a DVD containing Ashton’s most famous abstract ballets like Scènes de Ballet, Symphonic Variations, Rhapsody, and even Birthday Offering would have been ideal).

What I’ve come to realize is that one of the things I love most about Ashton is that his dances have a way of capturing the spirit of an idea. Scènes de Ballet pinpoints the intricacy and quirkiness of Stravinsky’s score; Five Brahms Waltzes couldn’t possibly be a complete reconstruction of Isadora Duncan’s choreography (Ashton having choreographed it over fifty years after having seen her), but summons the essence of her style and brings to life the very inspiration Ashton felt having seen her with his own eyes; Les Patineurs is not merely a direct translation of figure skating skills into ballet steps, but plays on the quality of movement that gliding over ice allows for. Somehow Ashton managed to communicate ideas so clearly that it took out the guesswork for the audience without inundating them with blatancies. It makes more and more sense why I would fall in love with Ashton ballets so much because I’m an escapist with a classicist aesthetic. I don’t always need “happy” ballets but I can always count on Ashton to transport me to another world or invoke such strong emotions that I forget about my real ones for a while. Speaking as someone who tends to be more in thought than not, watching an Ashton ballet is truly a gift every time.

Though Ashton is typically known for his cleverness and charm (especially in narrative ballets), I was quite surprised by how much I liked his Scènes de Ballet. I don’t always find it easy to listen to Stravinsky’s music, but the purity of line throughout is just too interesting to see! What’s also fascinating is to see an interpretation of Stravinsky by a ballet genius that is not Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky was famous for collaborating with. Rather than modernize as Balanchine often did with his interpretations of Stravinsky, Scènes still uses classical vocabulary and was heavily inspired by Euclidean geometry. It’s mentioned that Ashton set choreographic patterns in Scènes to be pleasing to look at from any angle. Stylistically, Scènes finds such simple pathways that there’s a lot of “point A to point B” with no excessive flourishes and the overall effect is so tastefully chic that I couldn’t help but appreciate the score way more than I would listening to it on its own. Yoshida Miyako (though my Japanese is dwindling in quality, it’s still too weird to me to refer to her as “Miyako Yoshida”) was perfect in Scènes, with a tempered charisma that is sweet and transparent like honey. With crisp arabesques and nimble arms, a photographer could’ve taken photos in rapid succession and each one of them would’ve been clear as crystal.

Yoshida performing a solo from Scènes de Ballet:

Another favorite was the Thaïs Pas de Deux, which was prefaced by an interview with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who told a funny (and somewhat horrifying) story of Sir Fred, while taking a curtain call, asking the audience if they wanted to see the pas de deux again. Sibley and Dowell were relieved just to get through it the first time with no mistakes because they had very few rehearsals, but obliged the audience anyway with an encore performance. The pas de deux is set to Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, and with my tastes being much more suited to Massenet, I find the music absolutely gorgeous. Unsurprisingly, I find the choreography very moving as well, with the male role searching, in a dreamlike state for a lost soul mate. It’s tragic because the female character is detached and aloof for the most part, as if her spectral form can’t recognize the man she once loved. It’s not until she bestows a kiss upon him, does she recall their affections for but a second before disappearing into the ether. On the DVD Thiago Soares danced the quixotic lead made on Dowell, a vision of strength and soulful dark eyes, while Mara Galeazzi performed Sibley’s role like an astral breeze. It’s one of those pas de deux that left me breathless without even realizing it, as if time hadn’t passed at all.

Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares in the Thaïs Pas de Deux:

While I’d like to give a quick shout out to Voices of Spring, one of my favorite pas de deux (danced with aplomb by Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta), I do have to dedicate this last paragraph to Tamara Rojo and her arresting performance in Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. To see her dance barefoot is jaw-dropping for one, but the conviction in which she performed this piece is unbelievable. There aren’t many dancers who have the pathos to dance Five Brahms Waltzes appropriately, which is probably why it doesn’t make it into even the Royal Ballet’s repertory very often, however, as is often the case, Tamara is the exception to the rule. Opposite to Scènes, I have no problem relating to Chopin and it’s modern choreography that I have to work to discern for myself, but Five Brahms Waltzes doesn’t ask for much else than to simply delight in the presence of this magnificent woman. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Rojo and Ashton couldn’t be a more heavenly combination to me. This, is truly happiness!

Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes:

PNB’s ‘Love Stories’…not feeling the love

29 Nov

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve blogged. It’s embarrassing but this is what working two minimum wage jobs gets you (stay in school, kids!). Still, at the beginning of November I got to review PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ and about once a year I get the royal treatment from them with press tickets, complementary truffles, and wine (or in my case, San Pellegrino Aranciata—the last thing I need to be doing is falling asleep mid-performance!). Chocolates aside, I love having the opportunity to do this because I rarely get to sit at orchestra level, and with having my season tickets up in the second balcony, I get to catch a second performance and see the same ballet from vastly differing locations. This was most apparent in Le Baiser de la Fée, but before I get into the details you’re pretty much going to have to read the aforementioned semi-legitimate review over at SeattleDances because I’m not one to rehash something I’ve already written and it’s my blatant way of directing some more traffic to that site.

Under the assumption that you have now read it (because, why wouldn’t you?), I shall elaborate on some of my thoughts. First and foremost, I hope I made it clear that the programming was unimaginative, even though the dancers were amazing. There were at least two embittered audience members who knew that ‘Love Stories’ replaced the ‘All Robbins’ program that was supposed to feature Dances at a Gathering. Sitting a few rows behind Peter Boal, there may have also been plans for one to trip him as he came down the aisle, and the accomplice to pin him to the floor until our their demands were met, but in the interest of avoiding assault charges, logic prevailed. Regardless, ‘Love Stories’ definitely rubbed some sea salt into the wounds because it simply lacked continuity. A mixed bill of shorter ballets is great because there’s always “something for everyone” and it’s exciting to decide what appeals to you or not, or performing works all by one choreographer is interesting too because it offers many facets of one artist’s perspective of the world. However, “love” is much too broad a topic and even a little misleading—Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is not about love, and neither is the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odile. Even Le Baiser de la Fée was pushing it, since it didn’t really have a narrative. Baiser could have easily been interpreted as affection between two youths, children almost, and at that age, is it really love? I mean, the title of the program isn’t ‘Narcissism, Deception, Love Stories, and One Potential.’

I hate to say this because I love and respect PNB so much but this is the first time after moving to Seattle that I’ve been really disappointed with a program. Besides the fact that the dancers were totally hosed by not getting to develop roles completely, eavesdropping on conversations during the matinee revealed my worst fears to be true. Many didn’t “get” Faun and while art is of course subjective, there are times when the artist’s intent is important and Faun isn’t entirely abstract. However, as a part of ‘Love Stories,’ semantics played a role in herding the audience into preconceived notions—there were those who did in fact find Faun beautiful (and it is), but called it “utterly romantic.” My stomach really turned though even before the show began when I overheard someone say that ‘Love Stories’ extracted “just the best parts” of each ballet. I could have screamed in horror—what, really is the best part of Swan Lake? It’s impossible to answer that and it’s the same for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. I don’t even like the story and even I know that there are several pivotal moments throughout and my friend and I were both left wanting to see more after opening night. As for Sleeping Beauty…well, I’m not sure there’s a best part of that ballet because it’s so heinously long and chock full of divertissements, but there are definitely parts that are significantly more pleasing to watch than the Puss in Boots variation that beats you over the head with pas de chat. Not to mention, I was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of PNB’s Sleeping Beauty and honestly, it does look like a beautiful production.

Perhaps worst of all is that inevitably, I bought into the idea of ‘Love Stories’ too because I was really excited to see Carrie Imler dance Odile. Of course, I would much rather seen her perform the whole ballet, but in a nutshell, Carrie Imler is a goddess who is ruminative, powerful, and has impeccable technique. She’s no banana-footed string bean and I like to think of her as a throwback to when ballet dancers were admired for a healthy balance of purity in technique and performance quality. Reading up on ballet history might surprise some by revealing how difficult some of the exercises were during certain eras, and even professional dancers today wouldn’t be able to do certain steps as they were described. If you recall PNB’s Works and Process presentation on Giselle, you may remember Peter Boal mentioning that Imler can do anything and a certain passage in the peasant pas de deux that was incredibly tricky and required superhuman fast feet, was one she made look completely natural. Her body awareness is extraordinary and she’s always on top of her leg and can literally stop on a dime, plus she has one hell of a lofty jump, and effortless bravura steps. When it came time for the ubiquitous fouettés, she wove doubles and triples tightly into the music and looked like she could have done even more had she chosen to. It saddens and upsets me that the inclusion of the Black Swan pas de deux cuts her off at the knees, never revealing to anyone the contrast between her Odette and Odile.

Imler in Peasant Pas de Deux (4:57, note how the original choreography in the first phrase emphasizes the crossing of the foot on the downbeat—I love that!)

Some footage of Imler in rehearsal for ‘Love Stories’ at 0:14 and 1:00 (take special note of how she finishes that manège, pirouetting on one leg and casually changing to the other on pointe like it’s nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s freakishly harder than it looks).

One of my other favorite dancers in the company, Jerome Tisserand shined in the Bluebird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty, which he did for both performances I attended, as well as Faun. Since ‘Love Stories,’ Tisserand has been promoted to soloist, which I’ve been telling people since last year and it’s funny to me that audience members were talking about him as if he were up and coming when he’s really been that good all along. For me, the buzz was something of a bittersweet reminder that the audience was eating up exactly what they were being fed, that casting Tisserand in principal roles meant he was worthy of the promotion when he’s been long overdue based on his talent alone. Of course there are others in the audience who have noticed him as I have (and probably since he first arrived!) but it remains disheartening how passive some of the audience was in accepting what was given, never thinking to question any of it. In this instance, the programming didn’t take any risks, and a great deal of the audience chose not to think for themselves.

A snippet of Tisserand in Bluebird (begins at 1:25, note the ease and airiness of his arms at 1:57 for the brisé volé! In the video he partners Margaret Mullin, who I didn’t get to see in this, though I like her a lot)

Dark times I suppose and it’s something that weighs heavily on a lot of arts organizations in the current economic climate especially. Tamara Rojo was recently a part of a panel discussing the future of dance in the UK, though she spoke of ballet in America briefly and so accurately describes what the probable situation is and I feel it’s relevant to share her wisdom here:

Corporations and private funders don’t want to take risks. They want to take their friends to a very safe show that ends well, is not going to offend anybody, and is a great celebration of their economic success…in America, it has translated, in my opinion to the death of any artistic vision. There is no risk taking in the great ballet companies, there’s nothing new being created, it’s constantly Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet—and I love those ballets—I do them all the time myself, but unless we invest in new unknowns, there will be no future Romeo and Juliets, there will be no future Swan Lakes, there will be no future for the arts.

Those pieces of work survive for good reason and the audience goes to see them for very good reasons. However, it is my personal opinion that in an organization that has that [funding] cushion, you ought to take risks but the responsibility lies entirely on the artistic directors. It is not in the funding bodies, it is not for them to tell us how to spend that money and it’s very good that there’s an ‘arm’s length’ policy [for the Royal Ballet] where they don’t tell us how to spend that money so if we want to look at why these companies are not putting on more creative programs, it is actually a personal decision by an artistic director and that is the person that has to answer for the programming being seen.

Meanwhile, can I just point out that when Tamara said that there would be no future great classics, Sleeping Beauty was not mentioned again? Intentional—I’m sure of it!

Oh. My. Rojo.

24 Feb

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

Just look at the acting of Nuñez and Rojo!

 

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

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

Excerpt of Act III:

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

Betrothal Pas de Deux:

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

Entrance of the Shades:

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

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

Top Dance Blogs Of 2010 Contest – Voting time!

27 Dec

Dear friends,

The time has come to cast your vote in the Dance Advantage Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest!  It’s all thanks to you that I’ve made it this far and I couldn’t be happier, though the nitty-gritty is yet to be done.  Consider this your friendly reminder to head on over to the polls and cast your vote (the polls close at 10:00am EST on December 30th).  While I appreciate (and prefer) votes for me, the most important thing for you as a voter is to express your opinion, whatever it may be, so vote as you will.  I won’t be offended by votes for others because it’s a great community of dance writers and I consider myself lucky to be in such fine company…I myself stressed out a bit while voting today.  While it is a contest, I’m not about to don the pink boxing gloves and tie them to my wrists with satin ribbons (though the idea has merit).

To enter your votes, you can click the image in the sidebar to the right, or click on the image below:

Remember, regardless of the results, your participation is what matters most!  Though I can’t speak for Tamara…

Vote for Steve...OR ELSE... (Photo ©Bennet Gartside)

Many thanks and much love,

-Steve

P.S. Remember to tell your friend on twitter/facebook, etc. Here’s a shortlink for twitter users: http://wp.me/pxnJK-f0

The Last Unicorn…a ballet?

7 Oct

In continuance with Reader Appreciation Month, I present to you an entry on the topic of turning Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn into a ballet.  This idea was put forth in the Twitter-verse by user Fleegull, who I’m not saying was the first to think such a thing, but is the first to share it with these ears of mine…and I couldn’t agree more!  The Last Unicorn would make an extraordinary ballet, and due to recent radical ideas of becoming a professional impresario (which wouldn’t be so radical if I could just inherit a billionaire’s estate), I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to imagine what I would do if I actually had the resources to make this happen.

Mundane as it may sound, a monumental task requires a checklist.  I’ll need a libretto, a choreographer, designers of many ilks (sets/costumes/lighting, etc.), and of course dancers.  The libretto is more or less set and I actually think such an endeavor would be a momentous chance to create a full length, narrative ballet in the classical tradition that is in a way, distinctly American.  There really aren’t many American story ballets, with the most prominent being of the Western genre, with works like Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and Fall River Legend, neither of which are full length.  Unfortunately the Western genre may indeed be too American because I don’t think de Mille’s ballets are performed regularly abroad and I’m willing to bet there’s little interest by European companies to do so.  When it comes to story ballets, America does seem to be stuck on a one-way street where it’s okay to perform ballets with Eurocentric librettos and folklore, but exporting an American ballet just isn’t happening.  This is not to say Europe is evil, or life is unfair, etc. only that historically, that’s been the norm.

I should note that The Last Unicorn has made a transition to the theatre in a couple of productions, including one that Beagle himself wrote the script for in 1988, for Intiman Playhouse of…Seattle!  I didn’t research this thoroughly, but apparently Pacific Northwest Ballet was involved in the musical production, and there was choreography by Kent Stowell.  However, I’ve heard some critical views on Stowell’s choreography, including a stranger at a bus stop who started a conversation with me because of my New York City Ballet tote bag; she flat out said that she didn’t like Stowell’s choreography (she did however love Balanchine, and actually used to live in New York during the glory years, regularly watching the likes of Suzanne Farrell).  Finding a video of Intiman’s production is not a priority for me since it’s not technically a ballet, but credit is due for what must be the first attempt at expressing Beagle’s writing in movement.

In terms of a choreographer, what The Last Unicorn needs is a Frederick Ashton and actually, despite the novelty of having an “American ballet,” the truth is that it’s more suited for a British choreographer and audience.  Balanchine’s influence on modern ballet here is perhaps too great; the aesthetic tends to be sleek, streamlined and “new.”  The chances of finding a better suited choreographer in the UK is much higher thanks to the influence of Ashton, because this kind of mystical, charming story is exactly the kind of thing he was known for and only he took choreographing animals seriously.  One might think that sticking a horn on a ballerina’s head and making her walk on all fours would be a ridiculous sight indeed, but that’s taking it too literally.  When Ashton choreographed dancers as animals, there was always a special attention paid to capturing the essence of an animal’s movement and not simply reproducing an animal with a human body.  Dances like the chickens in La fille mal Gardée, Bottom in The Dream, and of course the ultimate, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and it’s vast array of woodland creatures showcase his ability to create ingenious and technically brilliant choreography for “animals.”  To anyone who may still find the idea of animal choreography silly, I have two words for him (because it’s most likely a man who would think such a thing)…Swan. Lake.  Women certainly don’t have wings or the proportions of a swan but it’s all about the interpretation and the quality of movement that makes them believable as swans and cygnets (come to think of it, there are actually a number of parallels between Swan Lake and The Last Unicorn).

Well, fingers crossed that a choreographer can be found…but perhaps more challenging would be finding a composer.  The state of classical music composition is even direr than ballet I think, let alone classical ballet scores.  Still, someone out there must be capable and need only the chance.  Although I haven’t seen Blancanieves (Spanish for ‘Snow White’) in its entirety, it’s an example of a newer ballet (premiered in 2005) that did have a new score, written by Emilio Aragón.  I’ve watched extracts from the ballet because it was choreographed on Tamara Rojo and it does have some wonderful musical moments and while it may not achieve the legendary status of a Tchaikovsky score, it’s a relief to know that the genesis of a ballet score can still be done in this modern age of…how do you say, neglecting classical talents?  I was horrified though that Aragón included enough music for Tamara to do forty-eight fouettes…but this may have been a request by the choreographer as opposed to a musical choice because I find it impossible that so many counts could be considered musical.  At any rate, a score for The Last Unicorn would have to be mysterious, yet elegant, capricious at times and stylistically…how do you say, French?  Le sigh…this whole ‘American’ thing isn’t working out, is it?  I hear in my mind something very Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now assuming I was this billionaire impresario that could lure artists (particularly of the Royal Ballet) with million dollar contracts, I would cast the principle roles as follows (in order of appearance):

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea……….Sarah Lamb

Schmendrick……….Bennet Gartside

Molly Grue……….TBA

Prince Lír……….Steven McRae

The Red Bull……….Thiago Soares

King Haggard……….Edward Watson

*All images are ©ITC Entertainment

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea

Sarah Lamb is the perfect Lady Amalthea…she has a wonderful, elfin look with beautiful, big eyes and an ethereal touch to her dancing.  When I watched her in The Sleeping Beauty DVD as the Bluebird, I couldn’t believe how delicate she was.  While I can’t comment on her abilities in grittier roles, I do think the Lady Amalthea is one that offers great acting opportunities.  She is not simply a unicorn that is turned into a human and falls in love with a man—she must deal with additional adversity as she searches for the other unicorns and the realization of loneliness.  It’s a loneliness that begins as solitude from being the last unicorn, and takes on new meaning when she is forced to relinquish her love for Prince Lír.  She begins as a rather cold and indifferent creature, and when she is turned into a human while she eventually learns to love she is at first horrified as she comes to grips with her mortality.  I think there is more acting potential here than Odette/Odile.

Schmendrick

The unicorn is the opposite of Schmendrick, who in becoming a fully-fledged wizard actually becomes mortal—a fact that is only known to readers of the novel.  As well as the movie does adapt from the book (about 92% I’d say) this was one detail that was left out.  It actually gives Schmendrick another dimension and makes him less of a buffoon (although a lovable buffoon).  It’s an interesting juxtaposition against the Unicorn’s revulsion of mortality, in that Schmendrick would rather live a mortal life as that which he wishes to be rather than immortal with sporadic magical powers.  I would cast self-proclaimed funnyman Bennet Gartside as the magician, as I know him to have a healthy sense of humor, which is essential for a good Schmendrick.

 

 

Molly Grue

Now Molly Grue is a fascinating character, perhaps my favorite (hence my difficulties in casting her).  For a ragamuffin she is incredibly intuitive, bold and passionate.  She is unafraid of sassing people and being straightforward with the truth.  She scolds other characters regardless of their status, including the unicorn herself, who she held in such high regard.  This was one of my favorite scenes of the film (which by the way, later DVD versions edited because of her swearing…but to edit “damn” is awfully prude. Damn damn, damn damn damn damn. Damn…damn.)  As I said, I wouldn’t know whom to cast because Molly needs to have an earthy, intelligent, rough around the edges portrayal…in fact, I think she should be barefoot just like she is in the movie (only the unicorns should be on pointe).  Ideas, anyone?

Aforementioned scene with Molly:

Prince Lír

As mentioned before, the movie is incredibly close to the novel.  The only character that is cheated is Prince Lír, as the town of Hagsgate (part of King Haggard’s domain) is Lír’s birthplace, and there was a prophecy that foretold King Haggard’s fall would come at the hands of one born in Hagsgate.  At the end of the novel, we see more about Prince Lír’s character as he bitterly pines for Lady Amalthea, as well as an interesting scene when Lír (now king) meets his birth father.  Unfortunately, a ballet may have to be edited similarly to the film because the third act necessitates a dramatic finish.  Still, Prince Lír is naïve but chivalrous and would be wonderfully portrayed by Steven McRae, whose vibrancy would give great energy to the dashing prince.

 

King Haggard

I struggled with whether King Haggard should be a character role or danced role because he is so…haggard and decrepit, but I realized that King Haggard must absolutely be danced because of his interactions with the unicorn (which would make for a very haunting pas de deux).  Furthermore, he is very much in the same vein as Von Rothbart, in that he wants to own the unicorns.  I don’t think it’s ever made known why Von Rothbart has trapped Odette though, while it is revealed that a chance sighting of two unicorns, one resting its head on the back of another was the only thing that ever made King Haggard happy.  Although he is the selfish, frightful antagonist of the story, he’s not entirely sinister—he technically never harms anyone, which makes him a fascinating villain to me.  Such emotional depth and regality requires the talents of Edward Watson, who with the right make-up would look positively ghastly…in the good way, of course.

The Red Bull

Not much for words, the Red Bull is the prison guard of the unicorns, the manifestation of their worst fears and the creature that keeps them at bay, cowering in the sea.  When I was younger I didn’t think much of him…he was simply King Haggard’s monstrous beast.  However, the novel has given me further insight that makes him a far more interesting character.  For one thing, the movie never mentions the fact that he’s blind but the most fascinating line about the Red Bull is omitted from the film.  Towards the end when the Red Bull enters the sea and the unicorns escape, the Red Bull seems to give up, something I didn’t notice before and it’s Schmendrick who explains this in the book: “The Red Bull never fights…he conquers, but he never fights.”  The Red Bull actually has a sense of pride and honor that isn’t so obvious in the movie.  Thiago Soares is my pick for this role, because of his smoldering performance as the hunter Orion in The Royal Ballet’s DVD of Sylvia.

There are also many potential solo roles, like Butterfly (who is indeed male!), Captain Cully, Autumn Cat, Skull and character roles like Mommy Fortuna and Mabruk.  Hell, if you go by the novel there’s even a Bluebird pas de deux!  Lots of great options here, but the most spine tingling scene is perhaps reserved for the corps de ballet, when the herd of unicorns come rushing out of the sea.  I think it could go down as one of the most iconic corps de ballet moments:

They'd have to wait until Act III juuuuuuust for this...

I think the only major challenge in terms of production values for The Last Unicorn would be the scene of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival.  There are animals that have illusions cast on them to appear as things they are not (a lion as a manticore, an ape as a satyr, etc. and actually much more in the book than is shown in the novel as Mommy Fortuna puts herself in an exhibit as well) so the challenge would be whether to show the animals as they are, or as their illusory counterparts, or to edit them out somehow (the Unicorn must still be captured by Mommy Fortuna though, because that’s how she meets Schmendrick).  Speaking of spells there is also the matter of transforming the Unicorn into Lady Amalthea on stage…a horn is easily removed but there’s the decision of whether she should appear nude when she is transformed into a human leave her in her white Unicorn costume (which I imagine to be a pretty simple white leotard/short skirt combo…her beauty needs to be told in her steps and gestures) and leave the rest to poetic imagination.  There’s going to have to be some smoke and mirrors, but this is far from the most difficult illusion ever attempted on stage.

Conclusion?  The Last Unicorn ballet needs to happen.  As soon as this impresario gig works out for me, I’ll get on it if someone hasn’t beaten me to it.

Moira Shearer

21 Sep

It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance.  Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones.  There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known.  I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.

The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives.  It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr.  I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked.  Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni?  Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.

I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.”  It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!).  At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding.  Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer.  I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days.  I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.

Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored.  It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence.  De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room.  This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen.  Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine.  Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately).  De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly.  It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?).  Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet.  It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…

It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances.  The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard.  Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no?  At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer.  Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well.  I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody.  The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them.  In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton!  I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.

(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)

What goes around comes around

27 Aug

So I’ve been in a bit of a shlump and was having an uninspired couple of weeks.  The best remedy for this is really to go back to the basics and go with what you know.  What do I know?  Manon.  I mean, I don’t know EVERYTHING about the ballet, but I know that it is by far my favorite full length ballet (keep that in mind kitties, there will be a pop quiz someday…) and I’m familiar with it to a point where I don’t need program notes or anything of the sort.  Instead of the usual goddess Rojo however, this time I got the chance to watch the Royal Ballet production with Jennifer Penney and Sir Anthony Dowell, the latter of which originated the role of Des Grieux.  I’ve actually had this on loan for a while but was saving it for a rainy day (in Seattle?  The very idea…although it did actually rain today and it has been a fairly sunny summer).  In fact, most of the cast in this production (filmed in 1982) were the dancers who originated their respective roles…hot!

I have to say one of the most fascinating things about this recording is that even though it was filmed a good twenty-five years before the Rojo/Acosta version, the performance isn’t dated at all.  Despite changes in approaches to technique and desired body types in ballet, imagining both productions as different casts two nights in a row is completely realistic.  I felt differences in technique and physiques were evident in between the 1984 and 2008 La fille mal gardée recordings, but not so for the Manon performances.  This speaks volumes about Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography—it’s timeless, it’s most definitely a classic and it defies technique.  Obviously it takes a great deal of technique to be able to perform it but when all is said and done the physical act of having bodies dance the choreography reveals so much about characters and story that there’s this rich depth that I’m not sure any other choreographer has ever achieved in story ballets.

Accordingly, the Penney/Dowell interpretation of Manon was vastly different from Rojo/Acosta.  I felt that Penney portrayed a Manon who was very much aware of her ability to manipulate men, as opposed to Rojo who grew to be aware of it but concerned herself more with the internal struggle of wealth versus love.  I never felt that Penney’s Manon was in love with Des Grieux…I found their relationship to be very hunter and prey, like a cat and bird (to see an actualization of this eternal conflict, see Simon’s Cat: Snow Business).  Dowell’s Des Grieux is catlike in so many ways—for his use of plié and he has this charm about him that completely belies his predatory nature.  Acosta’s Des Grieux, like Rojo’s Manon is more about an internal struggle, with his being between the path of virtue and temptation.  This is where things get really nifty, because conflict in the Penney/Dowell performance manifested in their actual relationship as a power struggle between the two characters and not as internal turmoil.  What? I suggest watching these first:

Notice how it’s almost violent in the way Dowell pulled Penney toward him, ten seconds into the first pas de deux, like a cat clawing at a bird?  And how in his luxurious solo he’s like a predator—mesmerizing his prey by trying to lure her and toy with her.  To continue with the house cat metaphor, you see Dowell’s coy, innocent face, his beautifully soft movements and you know his character wants to be a righteous man but without hesitating he gives in to his desire for Manon which is exactly like how the cat that rubs up against your legs and purrs with affection is the same cat that will shred your couch even if s/he knows it’s wrong.  Manon is obviously the bird…a free spirit that is captured (but not loved) by Des Grieux.  However, in the second act there is a shift of momentum and it’s Manon who takes on the role of the hunter and becomes the cat.  It’s in the second act where we see her seductive solo that mirrors the purpose of Des Grieux’s solo in Act I.  She’s bewitching her prey, whether it’s the various men at Madame’s party or Monsieur G.M.  The reason why I felt Penney’s Manon never truly loved Des Grieux is because in her performance of that solo, she blatantly ignores him, symbolizing her ability to captivate whoever she wants.  The jewelry she receives from Monsieur G.M. then become not a symbol of wealth but of her powers of ensnarement.

In Act III, Des Grieux reassumes the role of the hunter, but this time manipulates his prey as if willing it to live again so he can hunt it anew.  By this time, Manon is disgusted by jewelry, as it recalls memories of when she was the hunter and how she suffered from the consequences of those times.  I know I’ve been saying that I never believed Penney/Dowell’s portrayals of the characters to be that of two people in love but that’s the heart-rending aspect of the performance—you want to believe it’s this romantic tryst but you know better and you can see how their relationship is quite dysfunctional.  However, when they get to the concluding swamp pas de deux…it’s like taking an anvil to the soul.  Manon realizes that her only salvation in breaking the cycle of manipulation and lust that she’s trapped in is the very hunter that destroys her while Des Grieux no longer wants to be predator or prey and wants to try to love this girl.  It occurred to me that there are some similarities with La Sylphide here; trying to own a fairy is what will inevitably kill her and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon is almost exactly the same, just told in a more corporeal, sans-supernatural-bells-and-whistles (aka, enchanted forests) story.  As we all know, she dies and let me tell you I have never cried for a ballet before and I was in tears this time around.  It’s such an emotional roller coaster to watch Manon and Des Grieux go through the motions of loving each other only to realize they truly do when it’s too late.

This DVD is a MUST buy.  It is such a treat it was to see Dame Monica Mason dance as Lescaut’s mistress.  She was rather brassy and I loved her bewilderment during the drunken pas de deux with Lescaut.  Just amazing work…and what can you say about Anthony Dowell?  When I watched his performance as Oberon in The Dream, I thought to myself “if I could be reborn as a professional dancer, that’s the role I’d want to do” but having watched him in Manon makes me want to BE reborn as Anthony Dowell.  Better start stocking up on good karma.

The Doctor is In

18 Jul

At long last, the quasi-wife has watched Manon!  After insisting for so long that she would like the ballet, she has seen it and the conclusion is matrimonial.  I should be like a ballet doctor or something…study as many ballets as I can and diagnose people who haven’t seen much with the proper remedy.  Enjoy a good story, period pieces, expensive things and consider yourself to be an indecent Francophile?  Take a Manon and call me in the morning.  It’s all a part of a much larger and grander scheme to MacMillanify the residents of Seattle, one at a time (although I’m sure there are many Seattleites who have long enjoyed MacMillan ballets of their own accord).  It’s unfortunate that Seattle doesn’t get exposed to the British choreographers via live performance and I don’t know that Pacific Northwest Ballet would (or should for that matter) change its philosophy on modeling itself after New York City Ballet (although they’ve announced that they will perform Giselle in the upcoming season.  Very out of character but also incredibly exciting).  I’m not even sure PNB even has the resources to pull off a MacMillan full length (damn you privatized funding for the arts!) but regardless of PNB’s artistic direction I will assist in being a catalyst anyway; the demand must be created and like a pyramid, it has to start from the bottom up.  Now that my track record includes an earth-shattering two people, construction of MacMillan monument has begun.

Speaking of catalysts let it be known (or reiterated, depending on what you know) that Manon was the ballet that changed my life.  You know how everyone has that one performer/performance that inspired them and for me it was Tamara Rojo in this role, just over a year ago.  Rojo herself said it in the special features of the DVD that she was similarly inspired, that she had no idea that a story could be told through ballet like it is in Manon and that it was one of the main reasons why she wanted to join the Royal Ballet.  I felt exactly the same way (not the joining the Royal Ballet part, the storytelling thing) and as a result became disillusioned with Russian dancing.  Don’t get me wrong…they have their greats, their moments and some of the most expensive productions in the world but Manon helped me to affirm aspects in ballet that I have come to love.  As I see it in the arts, it’s not a matter of love or hate (although we inevitably have these reactions) but a conscious decision to prefer something over something else.  It’s the kind of preference that has me longing for London, as the Royal Ballet announced they will perform Manon in the spring.  There is little chance for me to go because I’m not a jet-setter who can zip off to London on a whim but OY do I hunger!

At any rate, quasi-wife took to Manon like a bee to honey, appreciative of the ballet as a whole and a fan of the chemistry between Rojo and Carlos Acosta.  It’s something she tends to look for in a ballet (noting earlier this year that the performance of PNB’s Coppelia she saw was lacking in chemistry between the principals) and I’m guessing it’s probably because she has issues with men or whatever.  The point is, while she was skeptical about the romance between Manon and Des Grieux, she found the connection between them genuine.  I had to retrain her way of thinking and forced her to watch the DVD extras which includes a bit where Dame Monica Mason explains that while love doesn’t blossom as quickly as it does in a five minute pas de deux, from a theatrical standpoint the audience accepts it.  It was odd that quasi-wife didn’t quite buy into that, nor did she really buy into the fact that Manon would allow herself to be manipulated by Lescaut for jewels and lavish clothes…but we went shopping earlier that day and between the two of us, one of us bought a one hundred dollar, Donna Karan New York olive green trench coat and one of us did not.  I’ll let you take a wild guess as to who did what now.

Meanwhile, remember in my Chaconne post that partnered pivot I discussed?  Let us revisit the bedroom pas de deux for just a moment…

Wheee!

Like many, quasi-wife found it rather disturbing.  It’s funny to me that Tamara’s feet are so visible throughout the ballet but they don’t come across as freakish until that particular move.  It’s all “she’s so gorgeous!” and then “HELLO.”  She also thought that the rolling movement Manon does in the pas de trois with Lescaut and Monsieur G.M. where she leans forward in an arabesque but then her other foot snakes forward to lead her over Monsieur G.M.’s back disturbing too…I said we could find a third person and try it but she didn’t seem to keen on the idea.  I guess quasi-wife still needs to be seasoned a little to get past odd, perhaps inhuman looking movements to see the beauty and genius of MacMillan’s choreography, but all in due time.  I know for me, the more I watch Manon (and I never tire of it) the more I fall in love with it and understand it on a deeper level.  I was stumped though when she asked me what type of ballet Manon would be and I settled on answering with neoclassical, even though I kept picturing Balanchine’s abstract works.

Despite my obsession with Manon (it is by far my favorite full length ballet), I don’t know that I’ll ever consider myself a true balletomane until I see another run of it and do that balletomane thing where you see multiple casts.  I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t do it when I had the chance…so little did I know at the time.  If I could go back in time, I would have been all over the opportunity to see Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dance it together.  This will have to do for now: