Tag Archives: tchaikovsky

New York City Ballet: Bringing Splendor to Tchaikovsky

9 Jun

To see New York City Ballet with my own eyes this week has been immensely gratifying, but it hasn’t been without reminders of its apparent stagnancy. Last night the company presented four ballets, beginning with Barber Violin Concerto and The Infernal Machine by ballet master in chief Peter Martins, and ending with Allegro Brillante and Tschaikovsky Suite No.3 by George Balanchine. The dichotomy of choreographic talent couldn’t have been more obvious, and raises serious questions in regards to City Ballet’s future; which ballets warrant preservation? Which can be dropped from the repertory?

Even those of us who reside outside of New York have heard the rumblings over Martins’s work. Having never seen any of it, I couldn’t pass judgment until recently. At one time, for Martins to experiment with creating ballets and provide the company with a fair amount of new works was a wonderful thing, but the opportunities came with a responsibility to either fulfill a certain level of proficiency or step aside. Even from seeing only two ballets it’s evident that Martins never had the gift—Barber captures none of the finesse of Samuel Barber’s score and Infernal forces musicality uncomfortably to happen. Neither piece presents a coherent concept nor do they display any knowledge of the choreographic tools. There are of course, many paths towards aptitude; some are born with it, others pursue academic studies, or put themselves through a rigorous process of self-criticism. I’d be surprised if Martins has done any of the above due to his feeble use of space and motif in Barber, which juxtaposed two couples dressed in white, one in more classically styled ballet garb, the other plain, barefoot, and modern, with corresponding ideas in movement. Though principal Megan Fairchild provided some comic relief by harassing her partner like a pesky younger sibling, the humor contributed nothing to the piece as a whole.

Infernal, though completely different with its angsty, punctuated movements for two dancers dressed in black with odd, barely visible colored accents, is no better for its overwrought partnering and contrived modernity. Both are dated, forgettable, and vacate responsibility to the skill of the dancers themselves, who tried to make the work look decent, but it was in fact the work that is beneath them. In essence, Martins has written poor poetry with beautiful words and neither of these two needs to be kept in City Ballet’s permanent repertory. Given his inadequacies as a choreographer, it’s long past due that new choreographers—anyone—should be given the same opportunities to experiment as he did, for which there are surely many candidates who would die for the opportunity to work with such a world class company. Although it’s risky indeed, there’s no reason to deny the same chances for success and failure that Martins has been afforded. In the company’s illustrious past, Balanchine created hundreds of ballets and together with Jerome Robbins, made City Ballet the cutting edge, wellspring of new work—a far cry from what it is today. While the company now has a heritage to maintain, there is still plenty of room for growth, provided there is more shrewdness in selection. Certainly, more opportunities could be given to Justin Peck—earlier in the week I caught his In Creases, and very rarely have I seen a choreographer able to communicate something interesting so concisely. The hype about his work is absolute truth.

Meanwhile, if you’re a geek for Balanchine/Tchaikovsky like me, the latter half of the program was the main draw. First came Allegro Brillante, a short but bold ballet to the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No.3’. It was the composer’s last work, a redrafting of an abandoned symphony that was published posthumously. A dance for a principle couple and four additional couples costumed in icy pastels, the opening melodies are mysterious and even a bit perilous, as the curtain rises on a swirling cyclone of eight dancers in pinwheel formation. It’s not all maelstrom though, as shortly after the lead couple enters, they engage in a rhapsodic pas de deux—light, breezy, and with a delicate aroma of romance. Principals Sara Mearns and Andrew Veyette displayed a refreshing vigor throughout, with Mearns a charismatic spirit with an uncanny ability to work ever so slightly off balance, and throw in an extra pirouette here and there. She brought a glinting danger to the role that was both thrilling and audacious, highlighting the adventurous nature of Allegro. Veyette in contrast was steady and sharp, mindful of his partner and quietly valiant. Both were resplendent in this piece where Balanchine was at his most classical. Beautifully laced with his idioms, his eye for patterns, and exceptional musicality, Allegro Brillante is the shooting star of City Ballet’s repertory and masterfully leaves the audience wanting more.

The appropriate closer was none other than Tschaikovsky Suite No.3, a four-movement ballet that incorporates the often independently performed Theme and Variations as the finale. Balanchine first choreographed Theme for American Ballet Theatre in 1947, making the revisions in 1970 with a change in title. The differences between Balanchine over the decades was night and day, made obvious in the first three movements through dreamy impressions, with women dressed in nightgowns, free flowing hair, and mostly barefoot. The movements are mellow and introspective, obscured by a misty screen and gossamer long skirts. While beautifully performed, the choreography is rather modest for Balanchine and grasps at a narrative that doesn’t exist, which renders the piece too long to maintain interest. Theme and Variations is better off on its own, because while the entire suite is of historical interest to balletomanes, thirty years since Balanchine’s death have made the complete suite largely irrelevant. The repetitious look of women in shimmery dresses and loose hair loses its novelty quickly, and the pink, purple, and white they wear are too saccharine. Ironically, the later additions look dated compared to the vibrancy of Theme and Variations (or rather, Tema con Variazioni in the suite), as the ballerinas donned traditional tutus with a rich color palette and detailed embellishments like Fabergé eggs, the men in complementary teal jackets originally designed by Nicolas Benois.

Principals Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz led the charge of radiance with charm and glittering precision, in a ballet that is as beautiful to watch as it is surely brutal to do. The lead woman must be self-assured and alluring, quick on her feet, and uphold a sense of decorum—all things Peck did with incredible ease and grandeur. As her partner, de Luz put on a dazzling display of technical perfection, where his refinement and immaculate technique said so much more than the difficulty of the steps themselves; rare is the danseur who can execute such tidy pirouettes and tours en l’air, in which he must jump into the air in a pencil straight position, turn twice, and land securely on both feet to continue a dizzying series of the aforementioned steps. They were adorable as individuals and together most affable, a remarkable performance of one of Balanchine’s most thunderous and astonishing ballets.

For more on the costumes of Tema con Variazioni, be sure to check out this video from New York City Ballet’s YouTube channel:

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson

18 May

My time in Boston actually poisoned me with some doubts, as the penultimate leg of this journey was in fact the only time when I questioned whether zigzagging nearly ten thousand miles across the country to see ballet was worth it. My arrival in New York was without fanfare (as if anybody gets that besides the Royal Family anyway) and bedraggled, I crawled into the city relieved to have all the traveling be over with. Regardless of what happens next—not to mention the insurmountable mountain of work left to be done—I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, privileged to call this place home even for a few weeks. Still, traveling comes with its baggage and mine came in the form of Onegin, as the production on loan from the National Ballet of Canada seems to have crossed the US with me. Nearly two months ago I saw Onegin on San Francisco Ballet, and now (probably en route back to Toronto) here it is in New York with American Ballet Theatre, the ballet that has come to define John Cranko’s choreographic legacy. Adapted from Aleksander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko masterfully distilled important plot devices from the novel, selected infinitely danceable music, and created a captivating ballet. The only real problem with it is that it rides quite heavily on the acting abilities of the lead dancers, a quality that has become regrettably rarefied in this age of extremely technical ballet. However, Onegin reminds us of the power of subtleties and the dramatic impact of theatre. Also crucial is chemistry, which Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes have in spades, a virtually legendary partnership that I had even heard about through the grapevine long before I ever set foot on New York soil/concrete/asphalt—whatever.

This was my first time to see the sensational Vishneva, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre. I had some reservations because I’ve experienced a disillusionment to the current Russian style of ballet, which in my opinion has become a grossly distorted version of what Vaganova training intended to be and raises several questions about what makes for good training and good teaching. However, artists do emerge, and Vishneva is like no other. She can jump and she can move fast, hurtling herself into Cranko’s menagerie of immaculate lifts without hesitation and for all her limberness, she doesn’t abuse it. She certainly gives the full range but uses that to her advantage to add depth to her performances and really flesh out the characters she portrays. As Tatiana, the gentle soul who goes from lovelorn to crown jewel, she maintains an engaging presence throughout, coloring it with all the hues of innocence, heartbreak, nobility, and inner turmoil. It’s a relatively simple story of a young woman falling in love with a man who rejects her, and a passage of time reveals her marriage to another, as the original object of her affection futilely attempts to win her back. Watching Vishneva has a sense of living through every moment with her and the final duet in which she rejects Onegin was a ping-pong match of “Do it! Wait—stop! Get him! Don’t do it! Eek! You go girl!” and the final image of her alone on stage, staring off into the distance is an arresting one, lips pursed with a grim solace. It’s appropriate for a ballet with no happy ending, no forgiveness or reconciliation, which is so satisfyingly discomforting.

Onegin is kind of a male dancer’s ballet though, and more importantly, a great actor’s ballet, o which Gomes gave the master class. You love to hate to see him as a reprehensible character, and even the way he first appears, stalking in the background like a panther was alluring yet eerie, with an air of mystery that makes you want to know more about this man. There’s a moment in the opening solo where he steps into an arabesque and reaches out with one arm and recoils it back in a seductively feline way and really makes it a predatory gesture. Even the beginning of the famous mirror pas de deux, when Tatiana dances with a specter of an imaginary Onegin, of course I knew he was going to appear but I nearly ducked underneath my chair to hide anyway when he did, because Gomes hovered behind her reflection with this spooky, really menacing posture. I do so love the mirror pas de deux—transformation is an iconic theme in ballet for women, but hardly ever for men. Giselle turns into a Wili, Nikiya a shade, and even Cinderella gets a fancy new dress, but the bread and butter role has to be Odette/Odile, and Onegin/Onegin’s visage can be seen as something of an inverse. Just like how Odile appears only briefly to dispatch her trickery, Onegin’s reflection is the ephemeral, deceptive one, but is instead the idealization. However, without a dramatic costume change and because of the realistic story, the differences have to be tempered with both showmanship and subtlety—he can’t just emerge a valiant gentleman because he still has to retain certain qualities and characterization of the real man.

I wasn’t nearly as engrossed by the acting of Isabella Boylston and Jared Matthews, both fine dancers but perhaps miscast with Vishneva/Gomes. The relationship between Olga (Boylston) and Lensky (Matthews) has to be believable because its perceived breakdown sets the events in motion for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. I find Boylston charming enough as Tatiana’s coquettish sister, but actually I think the relationship between her and Vishneva’s Tatiana is what I didn’t find plausible. They certainly don’t look alike and it’s not that siblings have to resemble each other, but each dancer’s unique physicality and portrayal of their respective characters made it apparent that they had nothing in common, and even the most divergent of siblings still have some thread of similarity indicative of kinship. Even Tatiana feels the need to protect Lensky, begging him not to duel with Onegin, but her relationship with Olga is what makes that powerful. Matthews’s Lensky is a stand-up guy, and I found his solo prior to the duel quite moving, smooth as satin and wrought with despondency, but I couldn’t help feel that the sorrow was more based in a resignation to die, rather than anguish at the horrifying idea of aiming a pistol at his friend. When it comes to theatrics you have to make the audience wait for it, and I prefer to see Lensky with both poignancy and valor. In San Francisco, when Joan Boada’s Lensky fell to the ground, it was like my world had shattered and I had to fight back the tears.

It’s really important for performers not to give too much away when they know what’s going to happen next. It’s an area where Gomes excels; that first release of his head and upper back right after he kills Lensky is the first, fleeting sign of remorse and vulnerability, but when he returns in the third act he still has remnants of that pompous cynicism which he brought to the previous acts. When Onegin sees a matured and married Tatiana (Vishneva is a stunner in red, by the way), Gomes allows for the decay of that exterior to happen, rather than making it obvious. This is another moment I find fascinating because of its likeness to Giselle’s mad scene—although we see the events he relives take place behind a scrim, the gestures of reaching out to the phantoms of his past and burying his face in his hands have to be done with the same amount of integrity. At long last, when he and Tatiana are finally alone, do we see him completely disintegrate into a pitiable wretch, and the differing perspectives on the source of his regrets make for a roller coaster as Tchaikovsky’s music runs away with histrionics. Is Onegin apologetic for hurting Tatiana? Rueful of killing Lensky? Or shamefully wanting what he now can’t have…it’s certainly a mixed bag and if you have the magnetism and emotional capacity of Vishneva/Gomes, you may as well go for broke and do it all.

As the super secret formula for superlative storytelling continues to elude modern day choreographers (to a certain extent), I love that Onegin can still be so enthralling and relevant—I’m now more excited than ever to see Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a matter of days, which is going to provide an interesting contrast on a similar time period of early 19th century Imperial Russia. The only problem with doing Onegin and Month so closely to one another though is that casting is too formulaic. Some of the same principal couples of Onegin are cast as the leads in Month, and unfortunately, Vishneva/Gomes not among them. It’s a shame for Vishneva in particular because I think Month is more centered on Natalya Petrovna’s quiescent distress and I would have loved to seen her portrayal. Count me a fan.

Boston Ballet’s ‘Chroma’

16 May

I’ve never missed an opening curtain—until I arrived in Boston. What was supposed to be a nice drive from Philadelphia to Beantown went from five hours to six, and six to more than nine. As I wasted away in the endless traffic, firing a colorful assortment of curses that singed my ears, increasing my white hairs twenty-fold, and resorting to smashing my forehead against the steering wheel aplenty, I lamented that I wouldn’t make it in time to see the curtain rise on Boston Ballet performing Serenade—which felt like a cardinal sin. To my chagrin I resigned to seeing only Chroma and Symphony in C of the triple bill, but considering all the rage I had going in, Wayne McGregor’s work was actually a blessing in disguise.

The controversial modernist McGregor, known for his back-breaking, hyper extended extremist alien choreography, is essentially the torchbearer of what I often despise most in a great deal of contemporary work. The physical aggression and severity of his ballets is such that it demands genetically acquired gifts—women must have a freakishly mobile spine and everyone has to have open hips to the nth degree. Now, this is of course true for ballet dancers in general (though it wasn’t always the case) but McGregor exploits it to a point where I’m not sure all accomplished dancers can even train to do his work. I don’t even find his style particularly innovative; it might be new to ballet, but it isn’t new to rhythmic gymnastics, twenty, thirty years ago (because rhythmic today is more circusy than ever) and without the noodly legs, the leftover substance isn’t new to things that have been done in postmodern dance. When I’m left with a feeling that gymnasts who train as athletes could probably learn to dance his work over trained ballet dancers, it begs the question: what are we really looking at?

Regardless, I have to admit that Chroma is a brilliant piece to behold, in large part due to the percussive score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of The White Stripes fame. With a set of ten dancers dressed in flesh toned undergarments unleashing a constant wave of undulating spines, rolling hips, and limbs extended to the sky, then punctuated by sharp, angular gestures that connected one moment to the next, one body to another, there’s always something of intrigue to look at. I mistakenly assumed that due to the assailing dynamic of the piece that Chroma didn’t allow for much individual expression, but I was wrong. Because of unfamiliarity with the dancers of Boston Ballet, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who in the Friday (5/10) cast, and to my surprise the dancers on Saturday (5/11) night revealed some wonderful idiosyncrasies, probably because I had something to compare them to. Corps member Seo Hye Han made a lasting impression by tempering softness into it, and I also found my eye drawn to Joseph Gatti, who brought a keen Michael Jackson sensibility (check out this video of him dancing like MJ—it’s incredible), complete with a signature glossy, endless spin. It’s clear the dancers loved performing Chroma—I’d imagine the experience was both indulgent and liberating, getting to do the things ballet training says “no” to and it was fun to watch them be ferociously offensive.

The Royal Ballet in Chroma:

I have tremendous respect for Dame Monica Mason for having hired McGregor into the Royal Ballet because even if I don’t like everything about the results I believe she made the right decision by taking a risk. However, I worry that if a line isn’t drawn somewhere, then the identity and essence of ballet could be further denigrated. I actually like that McGregor’s work is making its way into company repertories all around the US because American audiences in particular love the bombastic, but whether you like Bournonville or Balanchine or whomever, the master choreographers of this art form have always had a reverence for the steps themselves include ballet vocabulary. It’s true that McGregor is making work that resonates with audiences, but I wonder if his work is succeeding in making him relevant—rather than ballet. So yes, “back-breaking, hyper extended extremist aliens” have their place in dance because it’s still movement but I don’t know that it can go beyond novelty, in the sense that companies can regularly perform his work but not necessarily promote it as “the new ballet”. I’d feel differently if classical ballet was actually popular and subtlety still appreciated, but when the man behind me said: “that [Chroma] blew the first one [Serenade] out of the water”, my heart sank because it’s not that I think Serenade is imbibed with universal appeal (though it’s pretty damn close), just that the lack of understanding of ballet is such that this particular audience member’s immediate reaction was to draw a comparison to two vastly different pieces and that art appreciation in America is inevitably reduced to competition where the outrageous always wins.

Still, in terms of contemporary choreographers, what I do like about McGregor is that he has been able to separate himself from the pack because he’s found a way to fully realize his extraordinary visions with—wait for it—authenticity. If we now live in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to say anything new, McGregor’s voice is at least true to himself. He’s incredibly intelligent and I’m interested to see how he embraces the narrative format for his upcoming ballet Raven Girl—not that I can skip across the pond at leisure anytime soon but I’m curious to read the forthcoming reviews nonetheless (reading dance reviews—imagine that!), and I like that McGregor has me thinking a great deal, wanting to converse, and to see more, even if it’s not because I love to. Thankfully, Boston Ballet “Oreo-d” Chroma with Serenade and Symphony in C, and whether you enjoy the cookie parts, the cream filling, or the whole sandwich, you were made to experience something you normally wouldn’t, had the evening been “All Balanchine” or “All Contemporary”.

Now there’s nothing I can say about Serenade that hasn’t already been said in regards to its history or its stunning beauty, so I’m going to describe a mere sliver of it as a dance of angels to the most beautiful music by Tchaikovsky (first ballet Balanchine made in America, eschewed the ornate in favor of highlighting the dance, beloved by many, etc. etc). I never tire of seeing Serenade—watching the curtain rise on that famous diamond pattern of seventeen women in pale blue skirts on Saturday night lifted my spirits and eliminated in one breath all the angst I had accumulated in my travels towards Boston. A last minute cast change had Adiarys Almeida filling in for one of the featured roles and she was a delight. I found her dancing so tranquil and having extraordinary balance certainly worked in her favor. Even as a shorter dancer she filled empty spaces with long lines and fluidity. Equally enjoyable was Brittany Summer, who emanated a pleasant freshness in her expressions.

Over two performances of Symphony in C, possibly Balanchine’s most classical work and symbolized by pure white tutus, Almeida again stood out with a lovely charm that she subdued in Serenade. The second night had Misa Kuranaga in the same role as the lead ballerina of the first movement, a bright allegro to match her fabulous technique. Kuranaga is the kind of dancer you can watch and forget that you’re watching ballet because it looks completely natural on her and nothing is forced or has the appearance of something that requires any amount of concentration. She moved diligently and in the simplest manner possible, a resplendent queen in a garden of white roses. Paulo Arrais partnered with Kuranaga, and sailed cleanly through a series of pirouettes with an adorable smile, also presenting Kuranaga most nobly. Ashley Ellis and Nelson Madrigal performed the slow second movement both nights that I saw, Ellis with a glorious sense of luxuriousness without overindulging, and Madrigal a reliable partner in a role that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of recognition for the male dancer. However, the third movement is a scherzo/allegro vivace and seemed to lack some spark. If I had to address any cracks in the armor, this was the place where I noticed timing as an ensemble wavered and some of the dancers looked a little tentative. These issues lingered into the fourth movement and my favorite (because I love the way Balanchine reworked the choreography from each of the previous three movements to fit into a faster tempo when he reintroduces each grouping), but when you’re cramming fifty-two dancers on stage, it’s hard to synchronize them like clockwork. Still, the ifnal movement is fast, fun, and exciting—or so I thought because the ovation for Chroma in comparison to Symphony in C had me wondering if the latter wasn’t drastic enough to be a show closer anymore…the difference is however, a marker of how times have changed.

Strong programming and exceptional dancers—I couldn’t have asked for more in seeing Boston Ballet put together a couple of strong performances that also highlighted how big the company has become in recent years. Including Boston Ballet II they now have just over sixty-five dancers which puts them on par with San Francisco Ballet and given the strength of their school (the adult program alone is unbelievable—and a topic for another day!) they’re a fortress of ballet on the East coast, a remarkable feat considering the proximity to New York. Boston Ballet is very much its own entity though, one of the first to bring McGregor’s Chroma to the US (the second after San Francisco, I believe) and monstrously strong with great diversity amongst its ranks. I envy the city’s residents and the fine dancing they get to enjoy and egads they’ve already opened with Coppélia, not even one week removed from the last showing of ‘Chroma’! Perhaps I left too soon…or maybe not, because Coppélia really isn’t my—whatever, nevermind. That’s enough bias for one day!

Nut-cranky

25 Dec

On a rare day off, I treated myself to a performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This may come as a shock to some of you longtime readers as I, Ebe-Steve-r Scrooge, have often grumbled about how much I dislike it—or rather, what Nutcracker stands for but to make a semi-longer story shorter, I dislike that Nutcracker is such a necessity in American culture and that so much economic value is attached to it. I’m also not a huge fan of seeing children perform on stage because while there are roles that required a significant amount of technique, there were moments that had me wondering what was the artistic purpose of having mini-people dance with turned in arabesques. More than anything, they invoke thoughts of huge egos, parents flaunting the idea of their children becoming professional dancers, which all comes full circle to money because of course proud parents are going to spread the word to friends and relatives to buy tickets. I don’t blame them (entirely), but there are always people who go off the deep end and develop unrealistic expectations for their kids and take for granted how difficult a dance career is to earn. The bottom line is that getting cast in the Nutcracker guarantees nothing about a young dancer’s future and far too many people lose sight of that.

Okay, so the children thing is a little salty on my end because logically, I can see some value in giving kids the opportunity to be on stage and have a significant, inspirational experience. Dancers themselves are sentimental about it because new roles in the Nutcracker benchmark a step in one’s career and there really isn’t any other ballet that tracks progress from such an early age. Admittedly, I also kind of like that Nutcracker is indeed such a tradition, especially in the US which is a relatively young country compared to European countries with such vast histories that are rich in cultural traditions. However, a tradition is something to look forward to, and yet for many dancers the music can be like a trigger that sends them into Gollum-esque fits of rage or make them want to take up a hobby like aerial skiing where ACL injuries are like a rite of passage. Dancers (or artists, I should say because the musicians are pretty much in the same boat of monotony) shouldn’t be sacrificial lambs for the sake of money and tradition. Ideally, they would look forward to a Nutcracker run, which means performances could stand to be reduced, maybe even—wait for it—every other year! The Royal Ballet doesn’t have to do Nutcracker annually and doesn’t suffer for it, though I’d imagine the uproar in the States would make a biennial Nutcracker impossible. Well, that and limited funding…

I suppose I could learn to accept Nutcracker’s stranglehold on the holiday season, if I could get just ONE consolation prize—you see, Nutcracker is lauded for boosting ticket sales and introducing people to ballet, but by the time the next repertory program rolls around, a lot of people will have lost interest and I would like to see companies make an effort to “strike while the iron is hot,” perhaps in the form of a New Year’s Gala. If Nutcracker gets the pointe shoe in the door, than use a Ratmansky-fied cannon to blast it open! There is a real opportunity to take the audience a step further and introduce them to a style of ballet that will help them learn more about it, instead of meekly saying “thanks for coming to Nutcracker, see you next year!” In my mind, something like a New Year’s Gala would call for bold, symphonic works where virtuosity can be taken advantage of to adhere to a theme of “unleashing the fireworks” so to speak. There would be a great fervor over a one-night-only performance that included a lineup of something like Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and then closing the night out with Symphony in C, which has the added bonus of giving the dancers something to look forward to, instead of a couple of deflated, post-Christmas performances of Nutcracker. So the timing is perfect, audiences go from a classical story ballet to symphonic, neoclassical works, the dancers get to end on a lively note, a savvy marketing department would advertise the limited seating of the gala during Nutcracker to create a buzz, tickets sell out (at least, I’m convinced they would) and everybody wins! It’s genius, right?

Anyway, enough nonsense and on to PNB’s Nutcracker—quite frankly, it’s awesome! PNB’s production is famous for using set and costume designs by world-renowned children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, and I was wildly impressed. It’s hard to describe, but the way the set pieces move and transition from one scene to another is absolutely riveting and gives such a neat glimpse at Sendak’s imaginative vision. The collaboration between Sendak and choreographer Kent Stowell was also a brilliant move as well, reminiscent of something Diaghilev would do, which was to really seek out the great artists of the time to design productions. Act I of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker has its unique moments but is fairly standard in terms of setting up the story, though there is an interesting psychological element to Herr Drosselmeier’s relationship with Clara, as he orchestrates her nightmare first in the prologue with three dolls of the Nutcracker, Mouse King, and Princess Pirlipat, once more in the party scene in an elegant masque variation, and then of course there’s Act II—which in this version is a theatrical treasure. Usually Act II will take place in a generic, saccharine fantasy world but Sendak’s design has elements from the Ottoman Empire and while typical productions of Nutcracker have a hodge-podge assortment of ethnic dances that are sugary themed (e.g. Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Russian Candy Cane), Sendak/Stowell so cleverly re-imagine them into the Moors (North Africa), Peacock (India), Chinese Tiger, and Dervishes (Persia). As I watched the divertissements unfold, it dawned on me that they intended this not only to be an adventure into Clara’s dreams but with an overlying journey on the ancient Silk Road. I was blown away by the ingenuity of Sendak/Stowell’s REAL concept here and it’s hard to imagine another Nutcracker with so creative an idea for Act II that unifies the ethnic dances so seamlessly.

There is a motion picture version of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker, though before I post some clips, from what I’ve seen there are some differences between the current live production and the one filmed in 1983. I don’t know if the production has evolved over time or if the changes made were specific for the film, but overall I do think the live version is better. The camera editing in the filmed version is kind of a pain and cuts away from the dancing a lot to zoom in on faces, and other things are diminished too like “the tree,” which is this miraculous feat of stagecraft where a small tree unfolds and burgeons like a lava flow into a monstrous version of itself. The timing is slightly different in the live version because the tree definitely gets featured alone, now has blinking lights, and yes, everyone claps for it (as they should—who knows how many stagehands it requires to pull that off!)

The Masque:

Transformation (the Mouse King is completely different in the live version as well, though you can get some idea of what the sets are like):

“Silk Road” Dances:

I was really surprised by the choreography throughout, as there were a lot of interesting transitions and use of little steps. The Masque for example has nothing particularly difficult, but it’s very tasteful and has a lovely baroque quality to it—especially the presentation of the feet. I actually think it’s the type of divertissement that really allows the dancers to accentuate their lines not by physical length but by the imaginary kind, which is far more difficult to get the audience to invest in. The “Silk Road” dances were also right on the money, with the Peacock being the clearly coveted favorite. With Nutcracker being so thematic in terms of freedom and escaping reality, Peacock is actually a crucial role—her solo is this pivotal moment in the ballet because amidst Clara’s fantasy, you have this mysterious, exotic bird being held captive, and it’s a little tragic. Peacock really gives the story some depth that other Nutcrackers fail to achieve which is probably why the audience is so fascinated with her. However, I’d like to take a moment to point out that for birds (and definitely peacocks) it’s generally the male of the species that has the more ornate plumage…which begs the question: how would a male dancer fare in this role? Nobody knows, but here’s a neat video of corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis talking about the role a bit, with some rehearsal/performance footage (the cast I saw had Laura Gilbreath dance it, and I held my breath the entire time! And this is no exaggeration—Gilbreath has to be close to six feet tall.):

Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths danced Clara and the Nutcracker Prince respectively, and I had seen them last year dance the principal roles in Coppélia and if I recall correctly they performed well though I wasn’t necessarily blown away (then again, maybe Coppélia is just a really underwhelming ballet in general) but they were amazing in Nutcracker! That first pas de deux when they woke up in their adult bodies and dance together in this pure, winter wonderland with Tchaikovsky’s score swelling with romanticism? Not gonna lie, I teared up a little. There, I said it. I got all schmaltzy and “emotional”—it truly was a divine experience and they had a perfect balance of youth, freedom, maturity, and regality in their movements. Who knew even I could be de-Grinched?

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed myself, and really the only things that ended up bothering me were the “Toy Theatre” dancers (an octet of very small children) dancing to the first half of the coda music of the grand pas de deux, namely because the tiny bodies with their tiny, not-so-nimble legs failed to capture the grandeur and buoyancy of the famous melody, causing the coda to just completely deflate instead of create excitement. Also, the writhing toddler (and negligent parents) next to me didn’t exactly enhance the experience, and if you were at a certain Tuesday matinee and heard a child literally shriek from the first tier during “Sugar Plum Fairy” (the solo is actually danced by Clara in this production)…well, one guess as to who was sitting right next to her. Let’s take a moment to remember that going to the ballet is in fact a privilege, not just for you, but for many, so be ready to get something out of it—I know I certainly did. For next year, can I put a “25-and-older” Nutcracker performance on my Christmas list? Another opportunity to sell out tickets I think—pretty sure I’m not the only Scrooge in Seattle!

PS. I legitimately knew a dancer in the cast this year, as my friend’s daughter Madison Abeo was cast in the Chinese Dance, one of the coveted pointe roles for PNB School Students, so a little shout out to her—proud of ya’ girl! I even waited by the stage door with a gift to congratulate her on a good show. Meanwhile, when one of my favorite dancers walked by as I waited, I was so dumbstruck all I could do was manage an awkward smile instead of saying something nice. After my ‘Open Letter to Famous Dancers’ you’d think I would’ve learned something, but the more things change—the more I’m going to avoid my issues apparently.

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My First Swan Lake

12 Nov

And so it begins…welcome, to Swan Lake Month!  In case you weren’t aware of the historical background, until today, I had never watched a full production of Swan Lake (long story).  Of course I’ve seen many a Black Swan pas de deux but like my lack of understanding of the context in which it is set went from gust of wind to hurricane.  It seemed like everywhere I turned (well, on Twitter anyway) people would talk Swan Lake and it became increasingly evident that I wouldn’t be a fully fledged balletomane until I earned my Swan Lake badge.  However (and foolishly I might add), rather than try to pick one of the many productions and pluck away one by one at the others some day in the future, the impulsive Aries in me wanted to go all in and watch quite a few of them in a short period of time.  I’m only one DVD in and already I’m feeling like I should have given this more thought before embarking on this endeavor…but alas, it is much to late and I am a creature of my word.

The first DVD I decided to go with was the Bolshoi, starring Natalia Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile, Alexander Bogatyrev as Prince Siegfried and Boris Akimov as Von Rothbart.  Why Bolshoi?  Despite the fact that the Bolshoi version is actually a relatively new staging with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, culturally speaking, Swan Lake is kind of the Russian “thing.”  It debuted in Russia, had a Russian composter in Tchaikovsky and depending on whom you talk to, is based on Russian folklore.  I associate a certain sense of tradition with a Russian Swan Lake,  and it’s by virtue of that pride I think the Russians set the standard.

Since I obviously don’t know that much about Swan Lakes, I couldn’t tell you what makes Grigorovich’s staging unique…for that I shall turn to Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke (how many times do I have to sing the praises of their The Ballet Goer’s Guide?).  In it, they point out that Grigorovich chose to tell the story from Siegfried’s point of view, a post-war trend also exercised in Swan Lake choreography by Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.  Grigorovich’s Swan Lake is a venture of sorts into Siegfried’s psychology, made more apparent by some of the more abstract set designs (something I noticed on my own I might add…anytime you can arrive at the same conclusion as Mr. Crisp, consider yourself brushed by genius!) as well as his relationship to Von Rothbart.  Rather than an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart is this sinister eidolon, often shadowing Siegfried’s movements and skirting the lines between reality and a figment of his imagination…it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where a man on an airplane is driven nuttercrackers by a gremlin the plane that apparently, only he can see.

I should also note that Mr. Crisp and I agree on another thing…we despise jesters in ballet.  In this Swan Lake it was a pretty meaty, acrobatic dancing role, but they bother me and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one.  You may recall my aversion to jesters in my post about Romeo and Juliet; let’s just say nothing has changed since.  It’s incredibly worthwhile to post Mr. Crisp and Ms. Clarke’s comments on the matter:

In passing we must note the Jester—a detestable figure in all ballets—was first introduced into Swan Lake as a positive character by Alexander Gorsky, thus initiating the distracting capers of a completely unnecessary intruder into the ballet’s action.

I actually laughed out loud when I read that, because it’s so perfect I couldn’t imagine it worded any other way.

Anyway, overall I was into it…I had my concerns about divertissements going in, but I think the story moves along fairly well.  In Act I there’s a long procession of the court with lots of dancing (I think I even spotted Nina Ananiashvili in the pas de quatre), and while it was longer than I would prefer, it wasn’t as contrived as some classical ballets are.  I think this is where Swan Lake succeeds and other Petipa (or after Petipa) classical works don’t—the flow and movement of the story aren’t inhibited by extraneous choreography.  Also, (and this is going to sound really stupid) it helped that the longest assortment of divertissements were at the beginning, when as an audience member I still have that excitement to get me through it…having them at the end is a major dead weight.  Even in Act III (according to Crisp/Clarke, Act II remains largely the same as Ivanov-Gorsky), the set of national dances make sense as Siegfried is to choose one of those maidens to be his bride, although at that point he had just come back from his date with Odette and had fallen in love with her.  My only gripe with the logicality of the story was that I wasn’t clear as to why Von Rothbart wanted to trick Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile…from what I’ve read about other versions, they make sense because Von Rothbart is the key to breaking the spell on Odette that turns her into a swan and through this, Von Rothbart can torture Siegfried, while in the Grigorovich version Von Rothbart’s life or death is largely inconsequential…it makes his taunting of Siegfried almost trivial instead of malicious.  This is definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind as I watch other versions.

This version also lacked the iconic scene where Siegfried aims a crossbow at Odette…largely due to the fact that this is an exploit of Siegfried’s mind but I found it a little ironic that in a Swan Lake that seeks to glorify the male dancer, that such an image which would develop his character would be omitted.  When Siegfried almost kills Odette with an arrow but then doesn’t, he has to change from a brute to a remorseful, lovesick young man.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to display a range of his character, but now that I think about it, I can see why Grigorovich forsook it—it’s perhaps too romantic for his interpretation of Siegfried.  Other Siegfrieds must seek Odette’s forgiveness and the audience begins to see him as a hero as he transforms from hunter to pursuer, but perhaps Grigorovich wanted his Siegfried to be less heroic and more human.

I have to say that Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile turned in a particularly exceptional performance.  Nothing was overcooked and she tempered it with just the right amount of subtleties.  One thing I found fascinating was the way in which she first appeared as Odile, she almost seemed skeptical, as if her and Von Rothbart’s fraudulent ploy wouldn’t work, but clearly she overestimated the dopey Siegfried and when it came time for her moment, the famous Black Swan grand pas de deux, her confidence in herself as an imposter had fully fleshed out.  The performance was perhaps a bit dated (from 1989), but it was interesting to see how things have changed with the Bolshoi—the bodies, the technique—Bessmertnova didn’t have a six o’clock penchée but the very fact that she didn’t revealed something more interesting…Siegfried’s FACE.  There’s a whole new dimension added when we can actually see the male partner’s face as he’s supporting his danseuse and this art of shading is becoming a rarity in ballet as a whole.

As for the whole “feminine mystique” business, I want to draw my conclusions after I’ve watched them all, but my initial thoughts are that Swan Lake is about the pursuit…there’s something about the way in which women want to be approached (not chased, mind you) and probably something in there about being loved and adored but not merely because of sex appeal (the lustful side being Odile).  Overall, I think this has been a good first viewing of Swan Lake and the film is grainy, spotted but I love older films and think those things give it character.  Besides a few grumbles here and there, the only major downside of the DVD is that there’s no audience track, so you don’t hear applause or even the wonderful muted thuds of pointe shoes hitting the floor.  So, I give the Bolshoi Swan Lake four stars out of three squares, because I have nothing else to compare it to.  Anyway, it’s pretty.

And because you know it was going to be on YouTube, the Black Swan Pas de Deux (check out how Bogatyrev lands his double tours in the male variation…in perfect, upright arabesques! Crazy!)

(Random, but why does Von Rothbart take a seat next to the Queen?)