Tag Archives: the hope diamond

Ashton’s Month in Ashton Month

22 Jul

Continuing with the celebration of my unofficial Ashton month, what could be more appropriate than viewing A Month in the Country?  You may recall that this was the ballet that got away from me…when I visited Washington D.C. to see Manon, the Royal Ballet also brought a mixed bill which included this Ashton work.  Obviously I knew about it, but just like it never occurred to me to see multiple casts of Manon, it also never occurred to me to see both shows, because for whatever reason I thought you just buy your one ticket and then that’s it.  Or perhaps my wallet knew better and was communicating with me telepathically or I was too preoccupied with plotting to steal the Hope Diamond.  Regardless, I missed out and feel rather ashamed that I’ve still yet to see an Ashton ballet live.  The fact that I got to see a MacMillan was serendipitous; the fact that I completely failed to cash in on an Ashton opportunity is just stupid.  Balanchine’s stranglehold on the repertories of most American companies is just salt in the wound—neoclassical British choreography is much too scant here.

No commercial recording of the complete A Month in the Country is available for sale, but somehow it is on YouTube (perhaps a videotape of a broadcast performance).  It’s a unique opportunity in that the principal roles of Natalia Petrovna and Beliaev were originated by Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell respectively who also dance them in the taped performance.  I read in the Façade mini book too that Ashton was a stickler for first casts and the only time he ever got into an argument with Dame Ninette de Valois was over casting.  I forget exactly how it was cited in the book, but it was just a tidbit about Ashton being unhappy with the idea of a second cast because creating a ballet with certain dancers in mind is like a masterpiece painting—that’s how the choreographer originally sees his work.  However, as artistic director, de Valois also had concerns about money and I’m guessing the dancers’ health as well.  Guessing, or hoping.

A Month in the Country is based on novelist/playwright Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name.  Interestingly enough, like Ashton did with The Dream and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his Month is an extraction from the play.  I’m curious to know what prompted Ashton to trim the content of his ballets from the plays since obviously, he has done amazing full length works but on the other hand how many times has Tim Gunn spoken of the importance of editing?  Many a time, friends…many a time.

Month is accompanied by a John Lanchberry orchestration of Chopin works, which is so perfectly matched with the mid-nineteenth century setting in an aristocratic Russian home (Turgenev himself grew up in a wealthy family).  It’s fascinating how theatrical the ballet is, with attention to authenticity; the set is realistic rather than “tricking the eye” (i.e. painting something two dimensional to look three dimensional) and the costuming is closer to actual clothing.  For example, the men aren’t wearing tights and ballet slippers but trousers and character shoes.  Were it not for the shortened dresses on the women and the pointe shoes, much of the set and costumes could really be used for a production of the actual play.  What I find most extraordinary about these production values is how it alters the way the dancing tells the story.  When I think of one of MacMillan’s story ballets, the choreography tells the story which is very much “danced,” but in Ashton’s Month it’s almost as if the choreography and music replace the dialogue.  I don’t know that this is all that significant of a distinction (either that or I’m not making the distinction very clear) but you (well, I) could actually hear Chopin’s notes and see the movements as words that proceeded to divulge the story as opposed to watching movements to music that might express an idea or show a relationship between two characters.

Of the Ashton works that I’ve seen, the choreography for Month struck me as Ashton’s most innovative use of port de bras.  I tend to think that choreographing arms is the hardest thing to do without making it look like a bunch of flailing.  Right away, in the opening solo for Natalia there’s all this amazing arm movement with a myriad of different positions of the head, just icing on the cupcake.  It’s unusual in that it was one of the few times I was completely drawn away from what the legs and feet were doing and watching (mouth agape and utterly enamoured mind you!) at what was going on from the waist up.  Other characters follow suit with their introductory solos except for Natalia’s son Kolia, who does this INSANE solo, dancing while manipulating a ball.  I find the idea absolutely terrifying because anything that is designed to roll is unpredictable and personally I don’t do so well with large round objects that hurtle through space (needless to say, I’m not good at sports or catching things) and here’s Kolia leaping and pirouetting with a fleet-footed ease.  Ashton’s choreography is brilliant here, not only in styling Kolia to be a boyish youth, but also in how the prop is danced with, one of Ashton’s signature choreographic devices.

However, this is the story of Natalia and Baliaev, and in this case, Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell.  Natalia is…essentially, a bored housewife.  Though she is married to a wealthy man, has a son and also has the attention of a doting admirer named Rakitin,  there’s still something missing.  Enter Baliaev, who is supposed to be Kolia’s tutor, but seems to catch the eye of all the women in the household including Natalia’s adopted daughter Vera and one of their maids.  It all gets just a little too soap opera crazy and thankfully the original play is indeed a comedy so it’s not meant to be taken too seriously.  Natalia is perhaps embittered by a life of empty decadence and is the original queen cougar as she is in love with the young Baliaev.  They share a loving pas de deux, but things get crazy when Vera discovers them and it’s Rakitin who convinces Beliaev that the two of them must leave.  I’m sure this is all explained in the play in better detail, but the minor tragical point is, Beliaev is forced to leave, thus forcing Natalia back into her life of boredom.

Seymour is superb in this role (duh) and gives a commanding performance as the two faced Natalia, who hides her love for Baliaev from her husband.  It’s an interesting role that requires quite a mature ballerina and technique is almost useless because it’s the range of emotions including boredom, love, anger and devastation in such a short period of time that make the role so demanding.  Dowell’s acting skills are no less inferior (he even looks like a different person in every video I’ve ever seen of him.  Were it not for those gorgeous giraffe legs I’m not sure I’d recognize him every time) and even though Baliaev is kind of a hound dog, the dancing is sublime.  There were moments where you really get to see the stretch of Dowell’s plié (one of the most underestimated moves in all of ballet).

Can’t say enough about how wonderful the ballet is and what a blessing it is that it’s on YouTube (the user quillerpen has one of the best YouTube channels…subscribe or die).  Without further ado, here’s Ashton’s A Month in the Country (in five parts):

Learning to be expensive with Katherine Healy

14 Sep

It’s no secret that I have a penchant for gems and precious stones.  Oddly enough I don’t care much for jewelry, but I do have an endless fascination for the gems themselves.  I think it has something to do with the idea of taking something that occurs naturally on Earth, and refining it with manmade techniques to show off an inner brilliance.  It’s a lot like ballet actually…taking a raw talent and refining that person into a finished dancer.  And like dancers with the most pirouettes or biggest jumps, it’s not necessarily the size and cut of a gem that draws me in, but color, history and other qualities that give the gem character.  For me, the ultimate shiny is the Hope Diamond.  I’ve mentioned getting to see it at the Smithsonian earlier this summer and I’ll admit, as a nerd I found it really inspiring, and have been doing some reading on its history.  And to reaffirm my nerdiness, I also found out that the Hope Diamond will be getting a new setting (voting for the new Harry Winston design just recently finished, although the winner has not been announced and yes, I voted.) slated to go on display in May 2010, and beginning this fall and until that debut, the diamond will be on display as a stand alone gem for the first time ever.  It’s exciting for fellow gem-geeks so be sure to check out it out this year.

The Hope Diamond...the holy grail for magpies

The Hope Diamond...the holy grail for magpies

WHAT in Billy Elliot’s name does this have to do with ballet?  Let. Me. Tell. You.  The diamond was donated to the museum by heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, who purchased it from the Cartier brothers.  Cartier should be a familiar name to people with money, and Louis Cartier was the smart cookie of the three and was very influenced by Diaghilev’s Orientalist designs for the Ballet Russes.  The author of the book I read proposes that the designer the Cartier brothers hired to fabricate the Hope’s current setting was a famous jeweler named Charles Jacqueau who also conceived many of the Cartiers’ Orientalist jewelry settings.  Jacqueau drew inspiration from the Ballet Russes’ previous season and designed the Hope’s setting to be worn as a head ornament in a European Orientalist version of an Indian sarpanch.  The Hope will eventually return to its original Cartier setting next year, and isn’t knowing that Les Ballet Russes played a part in its immortalized design nifty?

Doesn’t it seem like the influence of the Ballet Russes extends to just about everywhere?  A dancer I admire in particular is Katherine Healy (now Katherine Healy Burrows), and people would think she had quite a charmed life.  Born to a wealthy family, her early training came in the form of coaching by Vera Nemtchinova of the original Ballet Russes, and also trained at SAB.  She was the subject of a book A Very Young Skater and starred in a movie Six Weeks, with Mary Tyler Moore and Dudley Moore as a young dancer dying of leukemia.  She made her rounds through competitions, winning the silver medal at the 1982 USA International Ballet Competition, which was actually televised due to her popularity (took a spill during the Don Q pas de deux…oops!) and in 1984 became the youngest winner at Varna.  The accolades don’t stop there…she got a senior principal contract at the age of fifteen with the then London Festival Ballet, even being selected at age sixteen by Sir Frederick Ashton himself to do the title role in his production of Romeo & Juliet.  She returned a couple of years later (apparently there was a lot of resentment from other dancers with the company…eek!) and enrolled at Princeton University, graduated and went back to dancing, as a principal for Les Ballet de Monte Carlo and the Vienna State Opera Ballet.  After seven years, she retired from dancing and went back to figure skating in professional shows (she had given up figure skating much earlier to focus on becoming a ballerina).  Ayayay…that’s a lot, and still a disservice to everything she has accomplished.

Unfortunately, things weren’t always so rosy.  For everything ballet gave her, it seemed to take as well, and at one time she even referred to ballet as a gift…as in, the German word for poison.  But I found her a joy to watch, especially when she was younger and unfettered by the hardships she had been through later in her career.  The talent was always obvious, and she was a naturally gifted turner (and a lefty like me!), often throwing five/six/seven pirouettes in a series of fouettés.  Sometimes she would do pirouettes a la seconde in attitude as Medora or Diana, and she also did the beast fouetté for Don Q in Varna.  There’s a video of her doing the Corsaire coda, where she completely smoked her partner who only managed triples, while she did a couple of sevens.  Her codas are fun to watch because you never know how many pirouettes she’ll throw.  She had some huge jumps too, like approaching the Osipovasphere in a series saut de chats in the Diana and Acteon coda or double saut de basque en manege for Corsaire.  There’s a ton of footage on YouTube, most of which has embedding disabled (here), but a simple search for Katherine Healy will turn up a wealth of amateur videos of her doing classical repertoire, Ashton’s Romes & Jules (with a video of the curtain call with Sir Ashton himself!), videos of her private lessons with Vera Nemtchinova, and footage of her just practicing by herself, doing all kinds of jumps and pirouettes (doubles a la seconde on pointe, four or five attitude turns en dehors, which I think is one of the witchiest pirouettes out there).

Here she is at the 1982 competition, where she fell and cheerily laughed it off:

And the aforementioned Corsaire coda where she shows the man who’s boss:

However, I have to say what I find most interesting and recommend as a must view for all is a lengthy interview about her extensive training.  She also gives some really interesting advice on pirouettes and fouettés, elaborating on specifics of Balanchine technique, like the preparation, and drawing the arms in close instead of leaving them in first.  I find her insight in thinking about doing a fondu instead of a plié particularly enlightening, as well as having the working leg developpé-enveloppé instead of rond de jambe.  So make sure to check this channel out if you’re having trouble with those movements!

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

24 Aug

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

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

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

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Peking duck is the bomb.

Now, for shopping.  Here are some recommended souvenirs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality shoes.

Quality shoes.

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