Tag Archives: tim gunn

Cast thy vote for MARCELO!

29 Aug

All right kitties, it’s crunch time because we have a Herculean task in front of us—‘MARCELO GOMES: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer,’ is up for “Project of the Month” at IndieWire and is in need of our help. Yes, OUR help. Through online voting, ‘MARCELO’ is one of four documentaries competing for a consultation with the Tribeca Film Institute—an invaluable opportunity to maximize the efficacy and quality of the documentary. No matter the depth of the material or the talent of everyone involved in the project, it’s never a bad idea to have an editing eye take a look—I mean, how ferociously would you compete if you were selected to be on an online ballot to have Tim Gunn assess and overhaul your wardrobe? Even if you considered yourself to be trendy and fashionable, we all know you’d be clawing tooth and nail for bits of wisdom from Tim Gunn. It’s now up to us balletomanes to roll up our tights and do everything we can to ensure ‘MARCELO’ stands a chance to win a “guide to style.”

Due to my reverence of free will, I don’t like to invoke my powers of persuasion (a black magic I inherited from my mother), but I would like to point out that helping this documentary isn’t just for Marcelo, or even ballet—it’s also for you! It’s safe to say that we all have people in our lives who don’t “get” ballet and thus render themselves incapable of understanding a passion for it. When I first requested/demanded/begged for pledges to assist in funding ‘MARCELO’ I had written that documentaries often highlight things that go unseen or are underappreciated, and in the grand scheme of things, ballet has had an incredibly difficult time in entering every day discussion. Especially in the U.S. where the arts are treated as hobbies and are thus seen as unprofitable, they’re undermined by a cycle that systematically oppresses the cultivation thereof. In this country, it’s the complete opposite for sports, where athletes are easily the most venerated figures. It’s reflected in the current standings of the poll, where the documentary about Greg Louganis has a sizable lead. Now, diving is far from being regarded as a lucrative sport, but it does enjoy extensive coverage every Olympics, and medal winning athletes win the hearts of millions. As a multiple gold medalist, Louganis’s success is easily conveyed to the public because of its measurability—the average person can’t tell you exactly what dives he performed, but they can tell you he has gold medals.

Now, this isn’t about comparing the two films or discerning whether diving or ballet is better because that comparison is silly (also, I love to watch diving. Not nearly as much as ballet, but it’s one of my favorite Olympic sports to watch. And indoor volleyball—talk about anxiety!). I just want to point out that measurable success doesn’t really apply to the arts, and there are no gold mementos to immortalize defining moments. In the arts, those moments live and die in the hearts and memories of people, sometimes being passed on in stories like an oral tradition. Not surprisingly, a healthy addiction to those memories, paired with a desire to create new ones is what keeps us coming back for more. It’s funny when people say they don’t “get” ballet because it’s hard for me to conceptualize how someone could have an aversion to an experience that can be so meaningful. This is why exposure is critical—though “diving-omanes” (not a word) surely lament at the lack of coverage of diving in the off-Olympic years, ballet gets a grand total of…nothing.

Yes, there has been a certain proliferation of ballet in popular culture lately, with films like Black Swan and Mao’s Last Dancer, as well as television shows like Breaking Pointe, Chance to Dance, and Bunheads, but I theorize that the aforementioned attempt to fit into molds that coincide with trends that the target audiences relate to, rather than find a way to connect what ballet IS to the audience—without manipulating its image (where are the films of performances, or the Vail International Dance Festival, or Jacob’s Pillow?). However, I have to admit that this is an uninformed assessment because I live in the Dark Ages and don’t even have a television, and am just basing my opinion on what I’ve heard from peers. Still, what we can crudely deem as “healthy exposure” of ballet is lacking, and an honest-to-goodness documentary like ‘MARCELO’ is just what we need. To see the man himself? Of course. But also, the success of that documentary can help inform people around us as a beacon of “healthy exposure,” and the more those people understand about ballet, the MORE THEY UNDERSTAND ABOUT YOU. YES, YOU. And don’t you want that image to be truthful?

So—the success of ‘MARCELO’ obviously contributes to ballet’s presence in current events, thus giving us an opportunity for validation because the more audiences it reaches as a documentary of interest, the more chances there are for the people around us to see it, to learn something, and to go from telling us “you’re crazy” to “you’re a balletomane—cool!” (okay, they probably won’t use the word “balletomane” because it’s archaic, but you get the idea). Quoth the Wicked Witch of the West: “fly my pretties, fly!” and take to your social media outlets and get the votes going! Go as far as telling your non-ballet friends to vote, just as a favor because you want them to understand something important to you! And don’t assume that posting a link on your Facebook profile or on your Twitter isn’t going to do much anyway—this blog’s readership is proof of the exact opposite. Were it not for a handful of tweets and Facebook posts that got me started, I’d be sitting in a dark corner writing about ballet with nobody to read or care about my musings…so for better or worse, I like being in the business of miracles.

We have until Friday (8/31–only two days!)—so remember, a vote for ‘MARCELO’ is a vote for you! Follow the link, vote (duh!), and share, share, SHARE!

Vote for ‘Project of the Month’ at IndieWire!

P.S. Are you sharing yet? You better be.

Divertigo: acute confusional state caused by random dances

18 Sep

Well I’m baffled.  I just finished watching Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an endeavor I assumed would not end well.  I can’t say that it didn’t but I can say it did.  Not.  I am so confused right now I can barely process my thoughts on this particular ballet.  I shall call this phenomenon of befuddlement divertigo, short for “divertissement vertigo.”

The production I chose to view (and by chose what I really mean is the only one I could find online) is the La Scala production starring Italian superstars Alessandra Ferri as Titania and Roberto Bolle as Oberon.  Hark, see a Balanchine ballet on the internet did I?  Absolutely…for you see, as nutty as China can be (trust me, I’ve been there) they have this wonderful ignorance towards American copyright laws, thus rendering the “you know who” powerless.  I really shouldn’t delight in fueling the flames, but I’m in an odd, semi-impetuous mood—let’s blame the divertigo.  Here are the links (in six parts) for the entire ballet (and let’s hope the links last)…however, just because I’m sharing the links at this point, that doesn’t mean you can stop reading this entry.  Doing so will incur my wrath and I shall become as ornery as Oberon.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Now I have a special affection for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and obviously I expected numerous differences with Balanchine’s version of Shakespeare’s tale.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the few story ballets there are by Balanchine and honestly, I had my doubts because the pieces I like most by him are pure dance, with no story attached.  Not to mention it’s quite difficult to go up against Ashton in my mind…his works are generally the trump card as far as I’m concerned but I have to at least attempt to be open-minded.  Attempted I did; changed my mind I did not and The Dream still holds it’s special place on the mantelpiece of my heart.  However, I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that when patrons of the arts feel something is “better” or the “best interpretation thereof,” we say so as a matter of opinion while always knowing there’s no such thing as “winners” when it comes to the arts.  My judgment of these ballets isn’t in terms of number one and number two, but rather strawberry and blueberry.

There were moments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely adored.  In a rare moment of sappiness, I actually found the children in the production not so…irritating.  Normally, because I’m crotchety and old at heart, I have an aversion for whippersnappers in ballets.  However, Balanchine actually gave them substantial choreography that truly makes sense, as opposed to having them on stage just for the sake of having a horde of tiny little bodies to garner the “aw, how cute!” reaction from the audience.  Newsflash: it’s not cute and I paid to see professional dancers, which is generally what I want to see…but even my cold dead heart warmed to them a little and didn’t mind them so much.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued by some of the choices Balanchine made, such as the inclusion of additional characters like Hippolyta and Theseus.  I am all for fleshing out the story, however I didn’t feel Hippolyta and Theseus added any dimension to the story and it made me understand why Sir Fred edited them out—in the end their presence contributed nothing compelling.  Balanchine took a number of liberties though because he added a few more significant roles like Titania’s cavalier and a random couple who dances in the massive wedding celebration that is the second act.  Unfortunately, the more I watched of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the more poorly…“edited” I felt it was.  I was definitely making that pensive Tim Gunn face, you know, with his hand on his chin at several points during the ballet.  The first act is BRILLIANT.  I absolutely loved it, and wasn’t bothered by the transparency of the aforementioned additional roles.  I was enjoying the more dramatic approach (as opposed to a more comical by Ashton), as Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena had much more forceful, almost violent choreography.  At one point during their confused tryst, Helena is thrown into these huge penchées and it’s one of those moments where instead of thinking “wow” I was only thinking “ow.”  Regardless, I liked the more mature tension between those characters.

Unfortunately, the whole second act killed the mood.  I don’t know if this is always done, but La Scala did a curtain call after Act I, which I found odd and somewhat interruptive, which kind of exacerbated the discontinuity of the second act.  Act II is a divertissement wedding celebration and nothing else, with a meaty pas de deux being performed by two dancers you basically see nowhere else in the ballet.  I couldn’t wrap my head around this and in fact the whole ending is so signature Balanchine…and actually, too much.  Balanchine is known for these flashy endings like in Theme and Variations or Symphony in C, where there are a ton of dancers on stage doing big movements in unison and that’s what I kept seeing the whole time; it literally felt like the first act was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second half was a completely different ballet in a mixed bill.  Hippolyta/Theseus, Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius change into tutus and more classical attire and are almost unrecognizable.  I suppose it’s their big hoopla wedding and all but as if divertissements didn’t make me grouchy enough this one had to come along and sever the continuity of the story (especially when the random couple does the most important pas de deux.  What?!).  Then randomly, Titania and Oberon with their swarms of insects come back for like the last ten minutes for who knows what reason, and Puck steals the show when he’s air lifted by pretty vines, fireflies hovering in the background.

So I definitely have mixed feelings…it IS a lovely ballet and in some ways exceeded my expectations but then crashed and burned in the second act.  It would have been much nicer (in my humble opinion) if like Ashton, Balanchine went with just one act and omitted the wedding altogether.  Like there was a moment in the first act, where the butterflies are just bourée-ing, gently waving their arms up and down, which actually made their wings quiver a little and I thought it was stunning—so simple and so perfect…but I’m left with the bad aftertaste of a “Symphony in C but NOT” ending that I wasn’t all that enthralled by.

I did however enjoy Roberto Bolle in this role quite a bit.  I felt Ashton’s Oberon is a bit more mischievous, but I felt Balanchine choreographed Oberon to be less bratty and more menacing.  It’s funny because one of the comments on the video is “我也不喜欢Bolle非常木” and dusting off my Chinese I read this as “I don’t like Bolle, he’s very tree” which is a literal translation, but after more intelligent consideration I realized it probably means something like he’s “wooden” or “stiff.”  I didn’t agree with this at all though because I loved him in this role.  A few videos I’ve seen of Bolle had me questioning a few things…perhaps attentiveness in partnering (I remember a couple of videos where he nearly drops his partner) but he was wonderful to Ferri.  She of course is stunning and it drives me batty that she can fall asleep as Titania with her feet so perfectly crossed without even trying…but she is a master at being expressive with those heinously amazing feet and deserves all the praise she gets.

I don’t know…I may have more thoughts on this ballet for another day (like Puck’s choreography…lots of running, lots of cardio) but alas, the divertigo is getting worse.  My world is spinning!

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):