Tag Archives: thiago soares

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:

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë

23 Jun

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).

At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.

The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.

Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.

Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:

Photo of original cast members Michael Somes (Daphnis) and Violetta Elvin (Lykanion) Photo ©Royal Opera House/Hulton Deutsch

The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:

The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.

Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.

The Royal Ballet in 1994; Vaughan also said that the costumes “look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy.” What do you think? Photo ©Robbie Jack/CORBIS

There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).

Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.

As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.

So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!

Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)

 

Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.

You Dance Funny’s 2010 Year in Review Contest!

29 Dec

Well folks as we head towards the end of the year, I’d like to announce my Year-in-Review Contest!  Excitement!  I thought of writing my own year in review entry, but it seemed like a lot of work to go back through all of my entries so rather than do that, I thought I’d enslave my readers to do it for me!  Yay!  Oh…

Your motivation?  The fabulous prize of dance photography by London based photographer, John Ross!  I myself purchased a couple of prints from him (you can read about it here) and they are stunning.  In addition to having some fun with this blog and rewarding my faithful readers, I thought this would also be a great way to get people interested in his work.  Three lucky winners will receive one 8 x 10 of their choice, meaning winners will get to browse his extensive galleries at Ballet.co and request whichever photo they want!  It’s like being a kid in a candy store because the selection is virtually limitless.  Just as a teaser, here are a few photos I’m fancying at the moment, which is just a sampling from the many you can choose from:

Angelic Marianela Nuñez and Bobo in George Balanchine's 'Serenade' (photo ©John Ross)

Johan Kobborg and Coco in Sir Frederick Ashton's 'La Fille mal Gardée' (photo ©John Ross)

Roberta Marquez and Thiago Soares in John Cranko's dark and moody 'Onegin' (photo ©John Ross)

How to enter:

Find your favorite You Dance Funny post from 2010 (pick ONLY one…yes, I know many are fabulously entertaining but you can only pick one this time), and write in 500 words or less why it’s your favorite (don’t stress over the number of words…I’m not THAT picky).  Obviously, this contest is my blatant attempt to lure in depth feedback out of you, by giving you a material reason to speak up, so be descriptive and tell me more than “this is my favorite post because it’s funny and Sleeping Beauty is my favorite ballet.”  International applicants are of course welcome and encouraged to enter!  While the short essay must be written in English, don’t worry about grammar and such if English is not your native language…your ideas are much more important to me.

Submit your entry by e-mail (e-mail Steve) by January 9th (now 14th!) 2011.  I will be judging this contest myself, and will select the winning entries based on various criteria like creativity and how helpful the feedback is for me (basically, the ones I like the most…but don’t worry, I pledge to judge objectively and fairly…attempts at using trump cards like an Ashton ballet, or following me on Twitter will get you no special treatment).  I will announce and post the winners in my blog on January 12th (now 15th!) and once selected, winners will receive further instructions by e-mail on how to collect their prize (please note that winners will need to submit a valid postal address in order to receive their photos…common sense, I know, but it has to be said).

Please also note that the photographs are for your personal use and are not be used or distributed for commercial purposes.  Doing so can get you into a heap of legal trouble and the last thing you’ll want is to be slapped with a lawsuit!

Also, here are a few basic rules for the contest:

  1. One entry per person
  2. No cheating, no plagiarism.
  3. Be mindful of the fact that winning entries will be posted here, so don’t say anything too racy…chances are if you do, you probably won’t win anyway, because I’ll be filtering the entries as I read them.

Other than, get cracking and have fun with it!  I look forward to reading your thoughts in the New Year, as you have mine.

Many thanks and much love,

Steve

(Hey look, this entry is around 500 words!  Okay, 600)

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.

Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur

25 Sep

You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teachers at Pacific Northwest mentioned how Maria Tallchief, who doesn’t have the best feet, would go crazy when dancers with great feet didn’t use them.  This entry shall be an amalgamation of various things the teachers I respect the most have told me and is perhaps geared towards the late starter or beginning/intermediate dance student.  For the accomplished dancer or teacher, there’s a good chance you have something better to do!

If you’re a late starter, fret not.  A late starter is someone who may start at the age of fifteen or sixteen and the good news is you’re NOT a late starter at all.  Many a fine dancer began their training at this age (particularly guys) and went on to professional careers.  One of the best examples I can think of is Melissa Hayden, a celebrated Balanchine muse, who started at fifteen…and you didn’t get to be a Balanchine muse if you didn’t have special qualities!  Hayden was every bit the technical virtuoso on pointe that other dancers who trained from an early age were and she had incredible passion—her true tour de force.  Another great dancer who started at fifteen is Thiago Soares, a current principal with The Royal Ballet, so even in this modern era can one start in their teenage years and achieve the highest ranks possible in dance.  So really, if you’re around this age, don’t call yourself a “late starter,” and think of it as a “delayed start” instead.

If you began past the age of twenty like I did, NOW you’re a true late starter (in my case, 23, so ANCIENT starter).  Professional aspirations are probably unrealistic, but that’s okay because if you’re anything like me, you just love to take class and dance.   Sometimes we’re not taken seriously because we don’t have those possibilities but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to achieve certain things like a double pirouette or a higher leg extension.  However, the approach is perhaps a little different with adult ballet and I will share what I’ve learned, in terms of the four goals that seem to be common:

I want MASSIVE amounts of turnout!

Your knees and hips are screaming—STOP.  Your turnout will improve with continued barre practice.  What people don’t realize though is that it isn’t necessarily how much turnout you have, but how you use it.  I always cite the example of one of the differences I noticed between the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi and The Royal Ballet.  The Bolshoi corps would all line up in perfectly turned out fourth positions but when they went up on pointe, wa-waaaah their legs actually turned in!  This inward rotation was actually very distraction because then they force their turnout on the way down, creating even more extraneous movement.  The Royal Ballet corps, on the other hand, had dancers who were not 180°, but moved in and out of a fourth or fifth position they could use, without extra rotation of the legs.  The cleanliness and efficiency supersedes less-than-180° turnout.

I want to développé SUPER high!

Ah yes…the ever-coveted high leg extension.  This is something like many that I have yet to achieve myself but I will tell you something a teacher told me that BLEW. MY. MIND.  There’s this idea that we need to develop the flexibility and strength to hold the leg up high to the front or to the side, which is true—the problem is once the flexibility is there, we think “strength, strength, strength!”  This actually promotes gripping in the quads and picking up the hip (which you don’t want to do) because you’re thinking about “lifting” the leg…but ballet is SO mental and this is the big dirty secret that I’ll never forget her telling us: The degree of extension that requires the MOST strength is…NINETY DEGREES!  Why?  Because that is when your leg is furthest away from you, and thus the weight is furthest away from you!  Behold, the power of common sense!  So then, how to get the leg above 90°?  She told us about her training and how she spent many months working below 90° at 45°, working only on placement, using the barre more and shifting her weight as little as possible.  That allowed her to train her muscles to extend properly and after the experiment was over she could développé to 120°.  Conclusion?  Getting above 90° is MENTAL.  Think about it (seriously).

I want a HUGE penchée arabesque!

One of the biggest myths in ballet is that every penchée needs to be ginormous and approach a full split.  Wrong!  The most important thing to keep in mind is the connection between the back and the leg, and the line it creates through the hips.  Lots of beginning students try to hike the leg up but then drop the torso, which is not pretty and doesn’t develop the strength in your back you actually need.  If penchées are new to you, start out with little tiny ones and think of the foot taking you up while the torso stays as upright as possible.  Here’s one of the big dirty secrets about penchées too…most of the time, I find getting into it to be the easiest part—it’s getting out of it that’s much more challenging.  A good penchée goes down and comes back up without shifting the foot and rolling around on it.  I used to try to penchée and my leg would literally go nowhere and what worked for me was actually learning to place myself in as square an arabesque as possible.  The Balanchine arabesque, which in my opinion flattens out the three dimensional quality of an arabesque by opening the hip didn’t improve my line at all because I don’t have the turnout.  When I stopped trying to do that and focused on squaring up my hips and rotating from the socket of my standing leg, slowly but surely I greatly improved my penchée…on one side.  My right side hasn’t figured it out yet, but there is a world of difference on my left!

I want to do 2983573982421903821 pirouettes!

Yeah, me too.  Here’s the deal with pirouettes…different things will work for different people, and chances are you will get an onslaught of various corrections.  My advice here is to remember as many as possible because even if you can’t get your body to physically achieve every correction every time, it’s very much a “checklist” sort of thing, and you’ll often find that different corrections will work for you on different days.  A lot of corrections teachers gave me of course made sense and I would try to do what they were asking but didn’t quite “feel it.”  You’d be surprised at how some corrections may make much more sense weeks, months or even years later.  A long time ago one of my teachers was always telling me to “feel wide in your back,” but only now, just the other day I actually FELT it and BAM! Triple pirouette (I’ve been chicken and sticking with doubles lately).

Hope this helps, from a fellow ballet class addict!  Let me know how this all goes…unless it makes stuff worse, then don’t sue me.  I can only hope to pretend to SOUND like a real expert.

May I take your order?

15 Dec

In honor of MusicMonday (which is technically when I started this entry), I thought I’d do a little detective work with the infamous Black Swan coda.  It has a really messy history, with three different versions at your disposal.  First, you’ve got the original coda from 1877 which was the finale to the Pas de Six.  The original coda is the one Anna Sobeshchanskaya didn’t like and had Léon Minkus write her one, which irked Tchaikovsky, who then wrote one for her, which has now become the coda in the Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  Tchaikovsky’s second coda may or may not have been influenced/adapted from that of Minkus, and as far as I know, this coda is actually never used for Swan Lake anymore.  To make matters more fun, the coda that is most used today is from Swan Lake, but was originally from Act I, intended as a Pas de Deux for Two Merry Makers, and then adapted/re-worked/(butchered?) by Ricardo Drigo into the Grand Pas de Deux familiar to most.  It’s a hot mess, and if I ever meet Tchaikovsky in the after life a question relating to the Black Swan pas de deux madness would probably be the first thing I asked him.  Which do you like, Pete?

A lot of ballet companies will mix and match as well, which can probably confuse a lot of people.  A Grand Pas de Deux is generally comprised of four parts, the grand adage, the male variation, the female variation and the coda.  Or if you prefer, the entrée, soup, salad, and dessert.  So I’ve devised a Swan Lake menu for your perusal:

This took way too long to make.

The Pas de Six – Andante con moto, Pas de Six – Moderato are never used (although Kenneth MacMillan reworked the Pas de Six music into a production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet, but probably not as a pas de deux ETA: This info came from Wikipedia…credibility?  Mmm…could be questionable.), while the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Allegro and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Coda are never used for Black Swan (to the best of my knowledge), despite being highly recommended by the chef.  Most choreographers go with the starred, “most popular dishes” as used originally by Petipa/Ivanov, while others have been a little more adventurous:

Bourmeister (La Scala)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

Grigorovich (Bolshoi)

  1. Tempo di Valse and Andante
  2. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – Allegro moderato
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Coda: Molto Allegro Vivace

Nureyev (Vienna State Opera)

  1. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux: Moderato – Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Pas de Six – Variation: Moderato
  4. Pas de Six: Coda

As you can see, anyone who doesn’t go with the standard picks whatever the heck they want apparently.  I’m sure they all had their legitimate reasons for their selections (and I don’t question them, mostly because I don’t really care), but unless you know ahead of time, it can be a kind of confusing to go see Swan Lake and expect one thing but then scratch your head when you realize the music is unfamiliar.

I only got interested in this whole mess because I myself got confused when I realized that there were two different codas that are commonly used, neither of them being the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda, and was thinking which coda appealed to me the most.  Predictably, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is still my favorite of the three, even if I ignore Balanchine’s choreography.  Musically, I think it’s the most exciting, although I was curious as to what a Swan Lake Pas de Deux would look like to it.  As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it has ever been used in a Black Swan pas de deux, and it made me wonder if the 32 fouettés was a part of the choreography as well.  It’s possible that the same place Balanchine put the fouettés in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (although he didn’t choreograph 32) is the same place where 32 fouettés could have gone because it’s long enough, but what makes that seem unlikely to me is the fact that in the other codas, the fouettés come pretty early on, while the possible break in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux which is thirty seconds longer than the other two, is towards the end.  Regardless, my questions ended up being irrelevant because 32 fouettés didn’t enter Swan Lake until the 1895 revival by Petipa/Ivanov, which is post-Sobeshchanskaya, who used the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux version in 1877 (the original Swan Lake, by Julius Reisinger was not a success).  Well, at least I learned something.

Turns out the most popularly known Black Swan coda is my least favorite, as I like the Pas de Six coda much better.  But, to each his/her own, so here are the three codas, so you can decide for yourself.  Although I did say the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux Coda was never used as a Black Swan coda, Nureyev did use it in Act I of his production of Swan Lake, so it has found a way back in (even though the Royal Ballet doesn’t perform this staging anymore.  I believe they’ve since gone to the Petipa/Ivanov).

Marianea Nuñez/Thiago Soares, standard Black Swan coda (beginning at 2:35)

Fonteyn/Nureyev, Pas de Six coda

Nureyev (Act I), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda

To make matters better, I’ve also uploaded all three codas onto SendSpace, in mp3 format for your listening pleasure.

Standard Black Swan Coda

Pas de Six Coda

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux  Coda

And because good things always come in threes, there is also free sheet music in PDF format available in a solo piano arrangement (full score is available as well, but that helps very few in the population) so now you can make a request to your accompanist to play your favorite coda for class.  The “popular” coda is on pp.61-64, Pas de Six coda on pp.178-180, and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux coda on pp.248-252.

Swan Lake for Solo Piano (PDF file)

Bon appétit!

PS.  This entry was a pain in the ass to write.