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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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Ondine

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are an Ashton fan. You have a keen eye for demanding technique, quick steps and plenty of characterisation in dance. You like stories involving fantasy femmes fatales, mermaids and ill-fated romances, especially those with a Victorian edge.

Skip if: You can’t put up with a difficult non-melodic score. Hans Werner Henze’s modernist music, tailor made to resemble a continuous flow of water & spray of the sea throughout the ballet has been a hard sell with many, including Ashton himself.

Dream Cast: Tamara Rojo.

Tamara Rojo and Edward Watson in Ondine. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: The Observer.

Ondine is a 3 act ballet originally created by Sir Frederick Ashton as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. The ballet, like the Opera “Rusalka”, is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué‘s novella “Undine”. Ondine is the only Ashton ballet choreographed to specially commissioned music and where Ashton worked in close proximity to the composer, Hans Werner Henze, providing him with plenty of notes and details on precise timings for steps. The costumes and designs by Lila de Nobili evoke the 19th century romantic classics such as Giselle against a maritime backdrop, think “La Sylphide under the sea”.

When it premiered, the critics hailed Fonteyn but expressed reservations against the music. The audience’s difficulty in connecting with the work also had to do with the fact that Ondine is more concerned with generating a mood and trying to replicate the feeling of water in dance, than with telling a straightforward story (although there is plenty of symbolism for the smart ballet goer to reflect on). It has little pyrotechnics to generate thunderous applause and plays to the lyrical strengths of the main ballerina in its fluid choreography and aqueous motifs. Ondine is a substance vs. form ballet, its subtlety might not appeal to everyone’s tastes but it’s a work which shows Ashton at his most avant-garde: its continuous undertow of dance was probably a major influence for Kenneth MacMillan‘s own seamless (& mime-less) choreography later on.

See below a short video where ballerina Tamara Rojo and veteran ballet critic Mr. Clement Crisp talk about the story, the music and motifs in Ondine:


The Story:

Ondine is a water sprite (or nymph) who emerges out of a waterfall onto land fascinated with her own shadow, something she had never seen before. She is observed by Palemon, a mortal man, who is completely entranced by her innocence and gentle manner of playing and marvelling at the sight of this shadow. Realising she is being observed, Ondine is at the same time drawn to and repelled by the human figure of Palemon, especially when she feels his heart beat (as water sprites have no hearts or souls). Dancing a beautiful “watery” pas de deux where Palemon tries to grab and hold slippery Ondine, they fall in love and decide to marry.

Before her marriage Ondine is warned by her uncle Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean sea, that marrying a mortal and thus acquiring a human soul is against a water nymph’s nature and potentially fatal, should Palemon ever betray her. Ondine decides to ignore Tirrenio’s warning as she loves and trusts Palemon to be faithful. Little does she know that Palemon has broken a previous engagement to mortal Berta in deciding to marry her.

Palemon and Ondine get married and set out on a boat trip. A terrible storm unfolds caused by Tirrenio to force Ondine to return to the sea. She is lost overboard and Palemon, having survived the shipwreck and believing Ondine to be forever lost to him, ends up marrying Berta.

On the day of their wedding heartbroken Ondine reappears before a perplexed Palemon. Meanwhile, Tirrenio exerts revenge against the new couple by bringing destruction to the palace and to all of Palemon and Berta’s guests. It is then that Palemon realises his betrayal and the price he has to pay: he longs to be reunited with Ondine and tries to kiss her but when their lips finally meet, he dies. The ballet’s final Victorian looking tableau shows a grief stricken Ondine watching over Palemon’s lifeless body which she has dragged under the sea as an eternal keepsake.

Ondine is part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Season from the 27 of May – 6 of June, with Alexandra Ansanelli, Miyako Yoshida and Roberta Marquez in the principal role.

Mini Biography:

Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Hans Werner Henze
Original Design: Lila de Nobili
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Alexander Grant.
Premiere: 27 October 1958, Covent Garden, London.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Dance Review by Roslyn Sulcas at the New York Times. Dec. 5 2008 [link]
  2. Wikipedia entry for Ondine (Ashton).
  3. Water Magic by John Percival. Danceviewtimes, 2005.
  4. Ballet.contexts. Facts about Ondine at ballet.co. Written by Jane Simpson, 2005.
  5. An excellent article by Alastair Macaulay about the symbolism of water creatures in ballet and opera.

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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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The Firebird

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are fond of stories featuring princes, enchanted creatures and magical lands, all wrapped in folkish colours. You love allegro (ie. fast) dancing and you’re happy with the prospect of seeing a different ballerina-bird, at least it’s a change from the usual swans.

Skip if: You’re afraid of the Bogeyman and other nightmare creatures (the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains are awash with them).

Dream Cast: Mara Galeazzi / Leanne Benjamin.

 

NYCBs Ashley Bouder as the Firebird. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©

NYCB's Ashley Bouder as the Firebird by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via Oberon's Grove at http://oberon481.typepad.com

 

The Firebird is a one act  Neoclassical ballet created by Mikhail Fokine for Ballets Russes, to music specially commissioned from Stravinsky (who at the time, was just a twenty-eight year old unknown composer). This ballet is based on the lovely Russian folk tale of The Firebird, known to be a magical creature capable of bringing both fortune and misfortune to its captor.

The Story:

Prince Ivan Tsarevich gets lost at nightfall while hunting and stumbles upon a magic garden filled with golden apples, part of the realm of an evil magician, the Immortal Kostcheï. Ivan encounters a Firebird whom he tries (and eventually manages) to capture. Annoyed and desperate to fly off,  the Firebird pleads and barters with Ivan: in exchange for her freedom she will give him a feather which Ivan can summon her with, should he ever need “urgent magical assistance”. Ivan agrees and lets her go. NB: If you are used to Odette’s  how-I-was-turned-into-a-swan mime in Lev Ivanov’s Swan Lake, watch here how the Firebird’s own pleading mime blends in with the dance and the music, making the  Swan Queen’s miming sequence appear more incidental and detached from the dancing by comparison.

Ivan now finds himself at the gates of a castle where he sees 13 beautiful princesses emerge to play with golden apples. They tell him that the castle and its surroundings form part of the enchanted domains of the Kostcheï. Ivan falls for the most beautiful of the princesses, the Tsarevna, who warns him that every knight who has attempted to rescue them from the Kostcheï’s domain has been turned into stone. She also shares with Ivan the secret to Kostcheï immortality: he has locked his soul in a secret place and so long as it remains there, so will his evil powers.

Ivan resolves to challenge the Kostcheï, but runs into a parade of exotic creatures and enchanted folk who surround him until the Kostcheï himself materializes. Sensing danger, Ivan waves the feather and summons the Firebird. She forces all those creatures to dance frantically (in what is called the “infernal dance”), until they eventually tire themselves into sleep.

The Firebird leads Ivan to the hiding spot for Kostcheï’s immortality: a magic box containing an egg. The Kostcheï awakes just in time but cannot stop Ivan  who now drops the egg to the ground, forever destroying the Kostcheï. The captives are restored to human form and Ivan and the Tsarevna are married. Everyone joins in the celebrations.

Versions:

The Firebird has been staged by various ballet companies around the world  in all kinds of forms and shapes, the most recent being Graeme Murphy‘s version for the Australian Ballet with designs by Leon Krasenstein. Other renowned productions include:

George Balanchine’s for NYCB (1949) with designs by Chagall;

John Cranko’s for the Stuttgart Ballet (1964 );

John Neumeier’s for the Frankfurt Ballet (1970);

Glen Tetley’s for the Royal Danish Ballet (1981);

Christopher Wheeldon’s for the Boston Ballet (1999)

The Royal Ballet’s version has direct, unbroken links back to the Ballets Russes’ original production both in Natalia Gontcharova, who staged the Ballet Russes 1926 Firebird and whose designs are used in the RB’s production, and in Tamara Karsavina, the legendary ballerina who created the Firebird role and taught it to Margot Fonteyn.

Music:

The original score that Stravinsky composed for the ballet is one of his most popular works. There are further suites arranged to be played in an orchestral setting along with the original 50 minute score (the complete set is referred as the Symphonic Suite). For your Ipod/Spotify playlist we suggest the recording conducted by Stravinsky himself (with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra).

The Firebird is part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill dedicated to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which runs from 4 May – 30 May. With Roberta Marquez, Mara Galeazzi and Leanne Benjamin in the main role. 


Mini Biography:

Choreography: Mikhail (Michel) Fokine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Design: Alexandre Golovine, Léon Bakst
Original Orchestration: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokine
Premiere: 25 June 1910
 

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Wikipedia entry for The Firebird.
  2. Belarus Bolshoi Theatre’s notes for The Firebird.
  3. Kennedy Center’s notes for The Firebird.
  4. Australia Dancing’s entry for The Firebird and Research Materials.
  5. The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky. Dover, 2000. ISBN 0486414035, 9780486414034.

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