Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2009

Go if: You like to mix & match different ballet styles or you want to take a crash course on Balanchine’s work: this particular piece covers all his styles and influences.

Skip if: You do not fancy abstract, plotless ballets. Though that would be your loss, between Emeralds, Rubies & Diamonds there might be at least one rock that is right for you!

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef and Arpels ©

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef & Arpels ©

Dream Casts:

Emeralds with the Royal Ballet (Tamara Rojo or Alina Cojocaru) or the Paris Opera Ballet

Rubies with NYCB (Ashley Bouder please!)

Diamonds with the Mariinsky (Uliana Lopatkina or Viktoria Tereshkina!)

Background:

Jewels is said to be the first full-length abstract ballet, although in reality its three acts, while sharing a common theme of gemstones (as represented in the costumes), are independent from each other, with music by different composers and choreographed in various styles. There are also several versions of the story as to how Balanchine came up with the inspiration for Jewels: according to one, jeweler Claude Arpels would have suggested it after inviting Balanchine to his showroom. In another, the idea came when Balanchine was trying to buy a ring for his muse & beloved Suzanne Farrell.

Despite having claimed that the ballet had nothing to do with actual jewels, Balanchine did evoke the colour and glitter of jewels in dancing – watch for the elaborate floor patterns and shaping of groups, reminiscent of necklaces and chains – and on the dancers themselves. For this, Barbara Karinska, his long time collaborator, created distinct, matching looks for each section of the ballet. The costumes were also designed so that the dancers could move freely, to meet the demands of Balanchine’s choreography.

Given that most of the glitter would come from the reproduction of the stone colours and their shine in the costuming and dancing, the settings were left bare with only minimal jewels reflecting the light. Perhaps for this reason, ballet companies around the world have certain artistic freedom when choosing stage settings for Jewels, whilst the costumes have to remain 100% true to Karinska’s original creations. The Royal Ballet’s staging for instance has set designs specifically created by London based Jean-Marc Puissant.

Emeralds

The opening piece, Emeralds, is set to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is Balanchine’s ode to Romantic ballets, which is hinted at not only in the long (aka Romantic) tutus but also in the choreography: fluid, wafting and delicate, full of floating bourrées, Giselle-like balances and sinuous steps. It evokes 19th century Paris and French ballerinas of that era. Composed of a small corps of ballet of ten women, three soloists and two leading couples, the piece starts with an opening Pas de Deux from the first couple, two solo variations for the ballerinas, a vivid Pas de Trois (one of the highlights of Emeralds), a Pas de Deux for the second leading couple and an ensemble finale.

Rubies

If Emeralds is about 19th century Romantic Paris, Rubies brings us nearer to 1930’s jazzy America, thanks to Igor Stravinsky‘s extremely energetic and syncopated “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra”. Here the girls’ costumes are short, “Ballet-on-Broadway” looking skirts. The choreography attempts to display all the different twists in the music, so one sees angular shapes, high extensions, jutting hips, flexed feet and more. Due to its “wow factor” Rubies has been the most successful of the three sections and can be seen staged on its own in certain occasions. Dancers usually compare performing in Rubies to running a marathon, given the stamina required. The ballet involves a leading couple, together with a female soloist and a corps of eight women and four men. After an opening  introducing the dancers, a solo role for a tall typical-Balanchine ballerina, we see a very sparkly Pas de Deux for the leading couple and a real marathon of a finale  where the dancers prance and chase each other, like “running horses”, full of fun, energy and intensity.

Balanchines Rubies. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

Balanchine's "Rubies". Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via ArtsJournal.

Diamonds

This final section is Balanchine’s homage to both his grand ballerina Suzanne Farrell and to Russian balletic tradition, in all its choreographic nods to the Imperial Russian Ballet schooling and to Petipa‘s classical masterpieces. Unsurprisingly, Balanchine chose a Russian score (Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3) and dressed his ballerinas in wonderful classical white tutus. The ballet opens with a waltz for a corps de ballet of twelve women and two soloists. The next movement is a remarkably regal Pas de Deux for the principal couple, structured in the classical way with an extended adagio and variations – think Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Swan Lake and La Bayadere all rolled into one – followed by an even more spectacular final polonaise (a crowd-pleasing, applause-generator essentially), in which all the dancers return to the stage forming intricate swirling patterns, as if replicating Diamond chains in their dancing.

Balanchines Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

In short, even though Jewels has no underlying story and may look on paper like detached sections unified by the overall “gemstone” theme, on stage the mix of dancing styles and music honours ballet’s roots and wraps up mood, excitement and drama in one dazzling, vibrant package.

Playlist for your Ipods

Emeralds:
Gabriel Fauré. Pelléas et Mélisande (op. 80) and Shylock (op. 57).

Rubies:
Igor Stravinsky. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Diamonds:
Pieter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Symphony No. 3 in D major op. 29 (omit first movement).

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: George Balanchine
Premiere: NYCB at New York State Theatre, April 13 1976.
Original Cast:
Emeralds: Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, Mimi Paul and Francisco Moncion,
Sara Leland, Suki Schorer and John Prinz
Rubies: Patricia McBride and Edward Villela, Patricia Neary
Diamonds: Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D’Amboise
Original Designs: Peter Harvey with lighting by Ronald Bates and costumes by Barbara Karinska

Sources and Further information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Jewels
  2. Ballet Notes from BalletMet Colombus by Jeannine Potter [link]
  3. The Balanchine Trust
  4. The Balanchine Foundation
  5. Patricia Neary speaks for the ROH Podcast. Available to download free from iTunes.
  6. How brightly shining? Jewels review by John Percival at danceviewtimes [link]
Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Copyright: Bill Cooper, Source: Royal Opera House

Roberta Marquez as Giselle, Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Giselle belongs to the team of ballets we could watch over and over again: short & sweet (2 acts), few character dances  (as compared to Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), an engaging Romantic story blended with wonderful  vintage choreography.

And it’s a real treat to be able to cherry pick so many great pairings in this current run at The Royal Ballet. In fact it was so difficult to narrow down choices that we ended up seeing a whopping 6 out of 8 pairings. We don’t do that very often.

But which did we like best? As it turned out, each of these couples offered something interesting in terms of chemistry or interpretive choice, allowing us to see this classic again and again with fresh eyes.  So even though we cannot love all performances in equal measure (no prizes for singling out our favorites below!), we found lots to notice and to enjoy in each pair:

Happy and Bleeding*

Marianela Nuñez & Carlos Acosta

Marianela’s first ever Giselle was just the thing for those who need a multi-tasking ballerina: equally perfect turns, jumps and balances. Marianela’s supernatural technical abilities jump out from the first long held attitude, spanning from incredibly musical hops on pointe in Act 1 (during Giselle’s trademark variation) to perfectly still balances and monster jetés in Act 2. All this without a hint of strain, it was hard to believe she had not danced the role before. Carlos offers an assured yet subtle Albrecht, whilst we tend to prefer them more passionate. But the issue for us was Marianela’s portrayal of Giselle as a happy girl with a kilometric smile. We wondered: why would such a contented, sunny creature go mad or want to stab herself?

The Desperate Kingdom of Love*

Tamara Rojo & Rupert Pennefather

Tamara Rojo’s dramatic intelligence is evident from the way she frames her believable Giselle: a shy, frail girl discovering the lure and danger of love. It seems as if this Giselle suspects Albrecht might be “too good to be true” and when her instincts prove her right, her emotional fragility takes over. We thought Pennefather, debuting as Albrecht, was a very good match for Rojo, he belongs to the team of “dreamer Albrechts” who love Giselle and are torn between desire and the need to observe social boundaries. His solid technique  elegantly got him through act 2. Rojo’s own dancing was magical, particularly in Giselle’s variation where she substituted the usual piqué turns with a fiendish sequence of pirouettes en dedans & en dehors (watch Tamara do this at 2:02 in this amateur video). Oh and those lush balances were – literally – to die for.

The Darker Days of Me and Him*

Leanne Benjamin & Edward Watson

Leanne and Ed’s Giselle was always going to be the most markedly different. Both draw on their strong dramatic skills rather than technical feats to portray an almost Victorian-Gothic tale, think meek Jane Eyre spellbound by domineering Mr. Rochester. Watson is a seductive Albrecht, very aware of the powerful grasp he has on Giselle, who on the other hand knows her place and is self-conscious of her humble background (especially in the scenes with Bathilde, watch how Benjamin argues the case  for dancing over a taste for fine clothes). Giselle’s mad scene is anger with hints of hurt pride.

Sharp contrasts between the two acts are used to bring their characterizations full circle – if in the first an imperious, proud Albrecht is calling the shots, in the second he learns a lesson in humility, with no choice but submit to Myrtha’s command and to the redeeming powers of ghost-like Giselle. Personal imprints are also woven into the drama – Albrecht, arriving at Giselle’s grave, is instantly aware of the “supernatural”. Watson lowers his working leg to the ground, shaping a long yearning line (his forte) which he slowly draws up, as if willing Giselle to rise out of her grave – There is a continuous flow of dancing from Benjamin in Act 2, she hovers musically throughout and seems to dissolve to Albrecht’s touch like the dried ice onstage. Like Cojocaru & Kobborg’s, here’s another Giselle crafted with alchemy. Fascinating.

We Float*

Lauren Cuthbertson & Rupert Pennefather

Our last Giselle was the lovely Lauren Cuthbertson, another debutante. She created a Romantic, innocent Giselle, showing the full dimension of her heartbreak in the mad scene. Rupert seemed on even better physical form in this fourth performance (2 with Rojo & 2 with Cuthbertson), with more elevation, adding more entrechats and extra finishing touches to his solos. Albrecht is a role which seems to showcase his full potential as an elegant danseur. Lauren’s best dancing, after a more technically restrained Act 1, came when she is initiated as a Wili: spinning beautiful attitude turns on Myrtha’s (Laura McCulloch, our favourite Queen Wili of the run) command to “fly” and floating on a cloud of dance with her light jetés, just like she does when she dances in Balanchine’s Serenade. Albrecht was swooning, love was in the air.

See also our 2 previous reviews:

Leanne Benjamin & Johan Kobborg reviewed here

Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobborg reviewed here

*One singer fits all: In keeping with our editorial choice of using rock songs to illustrate ballet and its many moods, indie music lovers will note we have assigned to each of these Giselle pairings a different song by Brooding-queen PJ Harvey.

Share

Read Full Post »

Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is a modern classic, loved by the audience and regularly performed by every major ballet company in the world. The success of this piece is a testament to full-length narrative ballet’s capacity to survive in a prominently abstract dance age and to attract new audiences, because let’s face it, love stories are always appealing.

As in every MacMillan ballet, acting is a key element in Manon and it is not only through the choreographic phrases  (ie. the blend of steps) that the audience is drawn into the story but also via the dramatic input of its interpreters, the gestures, the costumes and the interactions with the members of the corps.

Despite availability on DVD of an older version (with Jennifer Penney and Anthony Dowell as Manon and Des Grieux) The Royal Ballet chose to record and broadcast a couple of weeks ago a more recent performance of Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta in the main roles. It’s been quite a good run for both of them, since they have featured on almost every publicity spread this season. Furthermore, thanks in part to his own contract with Decca, Carlos has been captured on various DVD’s and TV broadcasts since last year. With both dancers at the pinnacle of their careers, one can expect great performances.

I’ve seen Manon played in different ways. Manon as a naive girl, easily manipulated by her brother Lescaut and lured by the promise of a better life, so that when she falls in love, she is in constant struggle with her feelings. Or Manon completely assured and conscious of her power, which she uses to its full extent in order to survive, teasing Des Grieux and playing with him as if he were an object, only later realising she has fallen in love with him. Tamara Rojo’s Manon seems to blend parts of both archetypes in her interpretation but the whole is, in my opinion, slightly confusing.

In terms of technique, Tamara brings her A-game into the role. Her dancing is lush and her musicality is overpowering. There are very few dancers who possess the ability of doting with intention every single note in the music. The position of her body, hands and head ever changing with the music, the steps linking in the choreography. Tamara also knows when to place extra physical stretches to end a choreographic phrase and her use of extensions is well judged, which is a real gift in these days of extreme extension abuse. However, the only part where I find fault (even when if small) is on the acting.

Somehow I don’t fully understand this Manon’s character. It seems that she enjoys the luxury and the life Monsieur GM can provide. So it is not only due to Lescaut’s will that she decides to trade Des Grieux for the wealthy Monsieur (I really don’t sense any manipulation from Lescaut here and there is no hesitation on her part either). Which means she can’t possibly love Des Grieux at this point, whilst the various pas de deux with him, mainly the first one, suggest otherwise: we see Manon completely besotted.

Is it really that Manon enjoys the attention she gets from these men thus everything becomes complicated by the fact that she develops feelings for Des Grieux? Are we looking at a girl who is trying to survive, completely dependent on her own charms or are we looking at a girl who is just passed around without any will of her own, whose only truth is her love for Des Grieux? I don’t think Tamara is playing the naive girl card, but in her portrayal, Manon’s intentions are only clear to me in the last act where she is the impotent woman trying to cling to the only thing left (Des Grieux), having lost everything else. It is here where Tamara is at her best. The interpretation and execution are flawless and one can really connect to the pain, sadness and regret that Manon is feeling.

Carlos Acosta gives us a fine Des Grieux, even if there are plenty other roles that suit him better. There are some flashes of super-Acosta, particularly in those pirouettes and he is definitely a good partner for Tamara. While I was convinced by his straightforward Des Grieux – very much a man in love – let’s just say drama is not Acosta’s forte. I’ve seen and enjoyed more complex portrayals and here I particularly recall the Kobborg/Benjamin Manon from the same run last autumn. Not only did Kobborg give a flawless execution, he also showed why he is currently the best dancer/actor in the company.

This production also features a strong supporting cast: Laura Morera is fantastic as Lescaut’s mistress, in a role that suits her perfectly and Jose Martín an efficient Lescaut, both showing good comic timing in the “drunken pas de deux”. Paul Kay brings his showmanship skills as the beggar chief.

This review is based on the BBC4 broadcast of The Royal Ballet’s Manon, recorded during its 2008-2009 season.

Share

Read Full Post »

In ballet there are eight positions of the body from which all the various steps are executed. All the different schools of ballet use them, with slight variations from one to another (and some methods incorporate more positions or variations, but we are not going to be picky, since our aim is just to get familiar with the terminology). In fact, we mentioned one of the positions (effacé devant) when we discussed Balloté, so we thought it was a good idea to present them here, since they are used all over the place. These are:

  1. Croisé Devant
  2. Quatrième Devant
  3. Effacé Devant
  4. à la Seconde
  5. Croisé Derriere
  6. Ecarté
  7. Epaulé
  8. Quatrième Derrière

Let us start with some French vocabulary 

Devant: To the front
Derrière: To the back (close to the rear)
Croisé: Crossed alignment
Seconde: To the second position (lateral)
Ècarté: Separated or thrown wide apart
Effacé: Shaded
Epaulé: Shouldered (so when people talk about épaulement, they really are referring to the position of the upper body starting from the shoulders and the upper back)

Now one creates positions mixing the different components. Let us explain them carefully

1. Croisé Devant

Standing at an oblique angle to the audience (facing a corner), the leg nearer to the audience is the working leg and is extended in fourth position, pointing on tendú (=stretched) to the front. The arms are placed in (open) fourth position, such that the lower arm is on the same side as the extended leg.

2. Quatrième Devant

Facing the audience, the working leg is extended to fourth position, pointing on tendú to the front, with the arms in second position (open) and the head facing the audience.

3. Effacé Devant

Standing at an oblique angle to the audience (facing a corner), such as that part of the body is hidden. The leg further from the audience becomes the working leg and is extended in fourth position, pointing on tendú to the front. The arms are placed in (open) fourth position such that the lower arm is on the same side as the extended leg.

4. à la Seconde

Facing the audience, the working leg is extended to second position, pointing on tendú to the side, with the arms in second position (open) and the head facing the audience. It is also referred as à la seconde en face.

5. Croisé Derriere

Standing at an oblique angle to the audience (facing a corner). The leg further from the audience becomes the working leg and is extended in fourth position, pointing on tendú to the back. The arms are placed in (open) fourth position such that the lower arm is on the same side as the extended leg.

6. Ecarté

Facing any corner, the leg nearer to the audience becomes the working leg and is extended in second position, pointing on tendú to the side. The arms are in (open) fourth position so the highest arm is on the same side as the extended leg. The head is raised slighlty and turned toward the raised arm, so the eyes look into the hand.

7. Epaulé

Standing at an oblique angle to the audience, the dancer stands in arabesque facing one of the corners (the working leg is the one closest to the audience and is extended to the back in fourth position). The arm closest to the audience is extended forward, and the head is inclined and turned towards the audience.

8. Quatrième Derrière

Facing the audience, the working leg is extended to fourth position, pointing on tendú to the back, with the arms in second position (open) and the head facing the audience.

All these positions can also be done with the working leg en l’air (extended without touching the floor). And since these explanations might seem a bit confusing for the inexperienced, here are some drawings exemplifying the above descriptions:

The Eight Positions

The Eight Positions of the Body

Further Information: Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant. BN Publishing. ISBN 1607960311.

Share

Read Full Post »

Now that we know what both the Royal Ballet’s and the Sadler’s Wells’ 2009/2010 dance seasons look like, it’s time to start penciling in dates, drawing cast plans, organizing bookings and, most importantly, cancelling any previous engagements. Because the autumn/winter dance season, after the starvation of summer months, supersedes anything else we may have had in the pipeline (weddings, birthdays, christenings…). Seriously.

Here are some of the treats we will be bagging:

October

Mayerling (Royal Ballet)

MacMillan’s gritty and sleazy classic will be back with solid casts – Ed Watson & Mara Galeazzi, Johan Kobborg & ? (since Alina’s online diary indicates she might not be dancing this, we’d love to see Leanne Benjamin) as well as some interesting debuts for Rupert Pennefather & Melissa Hamilton, Thiago Soares & Lauren Cuthbertson.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev (Sadler’s Wells)

Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Javier De Frutos / Russell Maliphant & Wayne McGregor set about breaking new choreographic ground whilst paying homage to 100 year old Ballets Russes.

Morphoses (Sadler’s Wells)

Christopher Wheeldon joins in the Diaghilev fun with a special Ballets Russes selection of his own. We are thrilled to see Ed Watson (officially the busiest Royal Ballet dancer in the 2008/2009 season and going for another record, lucky we!), Wendy Whelan and young Beatriz Stix-Brunell still with Morphoses for this new season.

November

Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor (Royal Ballet)

The first – and very edgy looking – triple bill of the season provides the opportunity to see the dream team of Cojocaru, McRae and Polunin again in a new production of Glen Tetley‘s Sphinx. Along with a new McGregor. We can’t wait.

December

Carlos Acosta (Sadler’s Wells)

The bravura boss will be back at the Wells to perform Balanchine’s Apollo plus Jerome Robbins’ A Suite of Dances and Afternoon of a Faun. We think Sadler’s has gone a little “Ballets Russes PR happy” in comparing the man (albeit indirectly) to Nijinsky, but we forgive them: seeing Apollo in the programme is more than enough to lure us in.

The Nutcracker (Royal Ballet)

These days The Nutcracker is the most regular staple in the RB’s repertoire (I guess it’s trying to play catch with those 940+ Swan Lakes) but who can resist when high flyer Sergei Polunin is one of the princes? Plus, given that I can’t be bothered with yuletide decorations this is my only chance of seeing a proper Christmas tree.

For more information, refer to the official press releases by The Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells:

The Royal Ballet 2009/2010 Season

Sadler’s Wells Autumn 2009 Season

Share

Read Full Post »

Johan Kobborg. Source: The Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Just over a year ago I was sitting at the Alina Cojocaru gala at the QEH with my jaw wide open: there were four Basilios (Johan Kobborg, Marian Walter, Daniel Ulbricht and Sergei Polunin) plus 2 Kitris (Alina Cojocaru and Roberta Marquez) taking turns in the Don Quixote variations. Whilst the four men spun simultaneous tours a la seconde (turns with one of the legs open and stretched on the side) I thought: how could this ever be topped as a gala party piece?

Cue “Les Lutins”, a new choreography by Johan Kobborg for the “Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio” series. it matches virtuoso dancers to virtuosic violin pieces (including “La Ronde des Lutins”) and the result is a burst of dance that I haven’t seen since Ethan Stiefel danced off Sascha Radetsky in Center Stage. It starts with Steven McRae putting his tap dancing skills to good use and as the violin plays faster his Vaudevillian dance turns into a crescendo of dizzying pirouettes, leaps, grand battements, think every bravura step and then some. Brief pause. Now Polunin arrives also dressed in Vaudeville style suspenders and tie (minus cane) to raise the stakes, he shows Steven some of his own tricks, double tours en l’air (or were those triples?) but he is matched and more is thrown into the mix, both trying to impress cute girl Cojocaru who obviously chooses… the violinist! Delicious!

This piece is reason enough to book a ticket for the Linbury (you should hurry, there are only 2 more performances) but the whole evening is great fun. There are quirky pieces such as the one created by Kristen McNally (“Yes we did…”) about Obama fever pitch where the dancers move firmly and anxiously, as if fueled by coffee, “trying to change the course of history”. I loved Thomas Whitehead’s techie geek, typing away at an invisible computer (I can’t recall ever having seen “computer mime” in ballet before) and I think I might even have preferred this piece to brand new “Sensorium” over the main stage. It was daringly different, it was fun and as the programme notes “If you don’t try you’ll never know”.

Many of the other works seem influenced by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor and all the better for it because this hints at a validation of his own style within the company (I can’t be neutral on this topic, I love McGregor’s work). The evening closes with the most eloquent choreography, “Consolations and Liebestraum” by Liam Scarlett, set to Franz Liszt’s namesake piano pieces it shows strained relationships between men and women, some of which are fixable and some of which are doomed. The work is very stylish, the cast is fabulous (Laura Morera, Ricardo Cervera…), especially Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside who dance a passionate and moving Pas de Deux. We can’t wait to see Liam Scarlett’s piece for the main stage next season. Ah, and “Les Lutins” at the next Alina/Johan gala of course!

Share

Read Full Post »

The Balanchine method is not a syllabus for training per se, but the term is generally applied to describe the method of teaching dancers at the School of American Ballet (the school associated to New York City Ballet), preparing them  for the specific requirements of the Balanchine repertoire with its focus on very quick movements coupled with a more open and freer use of the upper body.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

In order to describe this training method, we need to talk about the man behind it, George Balanchine, Russian dancer and choreographer who settled in New York in the 1930’s to establish and pioneer ballet in North America, and mastermind of a new stylistic movement within classical dance. Balanchine trained at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg and started his career as a choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where he created  successes such as   Apollo and The Prodigal Son.

During his term at Ballets Russes he started to develop his own neoclassical ideas in dance. Unlike many of the other dance movements in vogue at the time which sought a  breakup from classical ballet structures, Balanchine borrowed from advanced classical ballet technique and heavy pointe work. In fact, Balanchine often cited pointe work as one of his main career motivations. He also believed that dancers should be able to be communicate without the need of mime or any other narrative aids, so he set about creating abstract, or rather, plotless pieces in which dancing was the focus. In other words, his ballets are not usually based on a narrative (a characteristic of the 19th century ballets, think Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), although he was still concerned with the integration of dance and music.

When invited by impresario Lincoln Kirstein to settle in America, Balanchine was given full creative freedom for his balletic enterprise, so he was able to create and train a company of dancers “purpose built” to meet the demands of his unique style. In 1934 he founded the School of American Ballet and in 1948 he established (together with Kirstein) New York City Ballet. He was also involved in the design of NYCB’s headquarters – the  Lincoln’s Center New York State Theatre – designed by Phillip Johnson.

Balanchine was a classicist at heart and his fondness for clarity of movement and physical stature goes back to his roots in the Russian Imperial ballet schooling. He looked at ballet as an art for elegant, tall and articulate individuals. Therefore, his concept of an ideal stage was bringing the dancer to the forefront, like a “2D” canvas in which his ballerinas could move, rather than the standard deep opera house stages in which the dancers became miniaturised.

For Balanchine, movement had to be open (arms wider, everything stretching) as to maximise the space and he was fond of deep lines, sharp positions and strong technique in the petit allegro (combinations of small jumps and quick steps). This is why he favoured dancers with long limbs, slim bodies, great flexibility, turnout and (hyper)-extended legs, all this at a time when these aesthetical/physical values had not yet reached the mainstream in classical dance.

At the level of basic technique, the arm positions tend to be more open, less curved and dramatic, often “broken” at the wrist (e.g.”Balanchine arms”), there are deep pliés to accentuate the jumps and preparation and arabesque positions tend to be uneven. For example in other systems, pirouettes are done starting from a fourth position in a deep plié, with weight distributed in both legs. Here, all the weight goes into the supporting leg, with the working leg stretched out as in a lunge. In the arabesque, an open hip towards the audience is preferred, with very dramatic arms:

Pacific Northwest Ballets Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

The position of the body and arms is then used to give the illusion of having a longer arabesque line. It is said that Balanchine took all this ideas from Jazz and that this kind of movements naturally suited those with long limbs. He also had specific ideas as to partnering, favouring a more dynamical role to the male dancer in pas de deux.

In short, Balanchine taught his dancers to make use of more space on stage through length and speed, and this tradition has continued not only in NYCB but in other companies with direct links to Balanchine such as Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

To better understand his stylistic approach, let’s compare the following photographs of NYCB and the Royal Ballet in Jerome RobbinsDances at a Gathering.

First we have NYCB (from left, Yvonne Borree, Rachel Rutherford, and Abi Stafford). Notice how the arms and the torsos are held.

NYCB in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Paul Kolnik/NYCB ©. Source: ArtsJournal via Bloomberg News.

And a photo of three Royal Ballet principals in the same pose (from left, Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb). See how Tamara’s and Sarah’s torsos are inclined to soften the position, and of course, the arms.

The Royal Ballet in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Bill Cooper ©. Source: Danceviewtimes.

There is clear difference in how the dancers hold their arms and their upper bodies. The look feels more contemporary in the first picture, while it is much softer in the second. The overall effect can be better understood when looking at live performances, but we think these examples give the general idea.

Inversely, there is an ongoing debate amongst critics as to how Balanchine dancers fare when performing the classical repertoire given that the natural lines of their bodies are dramatically different as demonstrated in the above pictures. What is undeniable is that Balanchine was a dance revolutionary and innovator, with a heightened sense of aesthetics and that he brought a bag of new ideas into ballet.

Famous Balanchine Ballets we Love:

Serenade, Symphony in C, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, The Four Temperaments, Apollo, The Prodigal Son, Theme and Variations.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. International Dictionary of Ballet. St. James Press, 1993.
  2. Wikipedia entry on Balanchine Method.
  3. The George Balanchine Foundation [link]
  4. George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb (2004). Harper Collins. ISBN 0060750707.
  5. Keeping the Balanchine Legacy. Interview with Edward Villella by Elinor Rogosin for Dance Universe. [link]
  6. On Balanchine Technique by Suki Schorer (1999). Knop. ISBN 0679450602.

Share

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »