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Archive for June, 2009

This post is devoted to big jumps, usually the territory of  male dancers, though some of them are also done by ballerinas. These tend to draw gasps and applause from audiences (after all, some of them are extremely hard!) and comments in dance reviews. Given there are plenty of jumps in the ballet syllabus, we will focus first on a small subset. As usual, our intention is not to teach but to pass on general knowledge and illustrate the movements with words, images and video links.

Grand Jeté

This is probably a jump that features on most ballet performances. Jeté means, literally, thrown. In this step the dancer throws each leg at 90 degrees (and opposite directions) while jumping. It is usually preceded by a step like a glissade to gain momentum, followed by an arabesque position or attitude.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg doing parallel grand jetés. Photo: Bill Cooper - The Royal Ballet ©. Source: Dansomanie

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg doing parallel grand jetés. Photo: Bill Cooper - The Royal Ballet ©. Source: Dansomanie

When grand jetés are done around the stage in a continuous sequence, as is typical in a classical male variation (note the princes’s variations in Swan Lake & The Sleeping Beauty), they are usually refered to as Jetés en manège.

Jeté Entrelacé (or Tour Jeté)

A grand jeté done in a circle. While the dancer throws the front leg, the body turns and the second leg is thrown to the back.

Here Dutch student Marijn executes a beautiful entrelacé.

Cabriolé

A step in which both legs are beaten in the air. The dancer starts with a grand battement and the leg that is underneath follows and beats the front leg, sending it higher. The dancer lands on the leg underneath. If there are two beats, it is usually referred as double.  This step can be done from any position of the body (devant, derriere or à la seconde).

The Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg executes a couple of cabriolés, in the Don Quixote variation.

Saut de Basque

This is a travelling jump. The dancer starts with a grand battement à la seconde, and the body turns, while the pushing foot folds into the other leg, positioning itself in a coupé position (that is, in front of the ankle) and landing in fondu.

Here Houston Ballet’s Randy Herrera does a saut de basque at the end of a sequence of turns.

Barrel Turns

This is a very flashy bravura step. The dancer turns in the air, throwing one leg to the back in attitude to lead the movement, while bringing the other leg along.

The Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta does a series of barrels (around the 1.53 mark), in this extract of Le Corsaire, with some saut de basques at the beginning.

The “540”

A variation of the barrel turn where the body turns 540 degrees. The throwing leg stays in the same position, while the other leg moves over it. This daredevil, not-your-everyday-jump is usually reserved for galas.

Here Mariinsky’s Denis Matvienko does a couple of 540’s in the coda of Le Corsaire.

Sources and Further Information:

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

Note: Whilst we have used widely known names for these jumps, note that terminology might vary slightly from school to school.

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Better late than never! The Royal Ballet troupe are now well into their summer tour while ballet orphans count the days until the Mariinsky set up camp in Covent Garden to alleviate those dance blues.

That’s over here in London, but if you are lucky enough to be out there (see schedules below) over the next months we suggest you bag some great ballet treats, including MacMillan’s Manon which kicked off in Washington last night and runs until Sunday afternoon. We note, en passant but with a mega pang of jealously, that Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobborg will be performing it tonight and also in Havana (18 July) while in the UK they have not danced together in a MacMillan ballet for quite some time (Mayerling in early 2007 if memory serves me right). So there you have it, a golden opportunity to watch a golden ballet couple in the great “modern classic” that is Manon.

Alina Cojocaru & Christopher Saunders (as Monsieur GM) in Manon. Photo by Johan Persson. Source via PlaybillArts (copyright belongs to its owners)

Alina Cojocaru & Christopher Saunders (as Monsieur GM) in Manon. Photo by Johan Persson. Source via PlaybillArts (copyright belongs to its owners)

Otherwise if you wish to take your ballet addiction much further (literally!) we also list below a selection of performances and galas that will be happening over the summer. Travel safely everyone!

The Royal Ballet Summer tour 2009 in a nutshell

Kennedy Center, Washington, USA

23 and 24 June
Mixed Programme: Wayne McGregor’s Chroma/Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country/Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV

25, 26, 27 (mat and eve) and 28 June (mat)
Manon

Alhambra Gardens, Granada, Spain

7 and 9 July
Swan Lake (see casting details below)

Gran Teatro de la Havana, Sala Garcia Lorca

14, 15 and 16 July
Mixed Programme: Wayne McGregor’s Chroma/Divertissements: Frederick Ashton’s Voices of Spring and Thaïs pas de deux/Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet pas de deux and Winter Dreams pas de deux/Le Corsaire pas de deux/Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country/Johan Kobborg’s Les Lutins

Teatro Karl Marx, Havana

17 and 18 July
Manon

Special Performances & Galas (based on information from the dancers’s official websites – listed on our right column – and/or theatre websites and subject to change)

Picture 13

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It is hard to believe that someone like Alexandra Ansanelli, one of the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal ballerinas, is retiring, given all her accomplishments and the fact that she has always been so vocal about her passion for dancing. At only 28, her impressive CV includes principal dancing jobs in two of the world’s foremost ballet companies and a list of personal achievements which range from overcoming major obstacles and injuries, to adapting to different styles and winning over demanding dance audiences with her particular gifts.

The Ballet Bag is sad that Alexandra is leaving. Over the last two seasons she had become a staple at Covent Garden, someone clearly distinctive, elegant and with particular subtleties in her dance. We also admired her courage of facing up to skepticism and how she adapted her training and brought her unique gifts to the Royal Ballet. We pay homage to her with a brief account of her career and a collection of some of Alexandra’s interesting quotes over the years.

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra’s Story:

Alexandra was born in 1980 to parents of Italian and English descent. She is the youngest of three sisters and surprisingly, she arrived to ballet quite late in her life, having devoted her athletic body and energies to football at first. Her life changed when she attended an arts summer camp is Massachusetts and got told she should audition for the School of American Ballet (SAB).

Aged 11, with no previous ballet background, Alexandra impressed the jury and was admitted at SAB. Commuting three days a week to New York from Long Island to attend class with older girls proved testing for Alexandra and she felt she was lagging behind. The following year, her parents had her move Secondary schools and rented an apartment in New York. During this time, Alexandra was already performing children’s roles with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and winning scholarships for very distinguished summer programmes.

Even though she had never performed at annual performances, Peter Martins saw Alexandra in the studio and hired her as a NYCB apprentice. She then appeared in The Nutcracker and got rewarded with a contract and and a principal role (Dewdrop fairy) on her 16th birthday. She bolted across the ranks, soloist at 17 and principal at just 23, but this quick progression was not without its share of obstacles: she was off for almost two years with a misdiagnosed foot injury which left her unable to walk and close to the point of giving up dance. Her resilience and passion kept her looking for the right answer and finally after receiving the correct assistance she was given the all clear to return.

Alexandra’s NYCB tenure gave her a huge fanbase and the opportunity to work closely with important choreographers, from the legendary Jerome Robbins to the young  & budding Christopher Wheeldon, but she wanted to explore the big world of classics outside the local repertoire, so she decided to leave City ballet in 2005  to look for something else. This strategy paid off and in less than a month she was receiving offers from major companies with classical repertoire, amongst which an audition with Monica Mason followed by an invitation to join the Royal Ballet as a First Soloist, in other words, just the ticket for Alexandra to slowly break into those great classical and narrative roles she was aiming for.

Even though she started as a First Soloist, Alexandra quickly saw principal roles coming her way. She danced The Lilac Fairy and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux and Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of the Faun. Some critics loved her  (and we are forever indebted to FT’s Clement Crisp for first drawing our attention to her) but Covent Garden audiences were divided, given the stylistical differences the SAB training imprinted on her dancing. All this she took as a challenge, with a clear determination to conquer the dramatic undertones in the Royal Ballet’s own style.

In March 2009, after a great season which began with plum debuts in Ashton’s Ondine and as Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile (“a performance of beautiful line, emotional finesse and of fascinating promise for the future” as Mr. Crisp  then noted), Alexandra claimed ballet  no longer completed her and announced her retirement. She had just wrapped up performances as Gamzatti in La Bayadere and the Sugar Plum Fairy in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker, and had been lined up for Mayerling and Sleeping Beauty (amongst others) in the 2009/2010 season.

The Goodbye

Her last performance in London on June 16 as the lead female role in Balanchine’s Rubies opposite Carlos Acosta felt quite fitting, given her NYCB roots. Whilst she had throughout her Royal Ballet years expanded her range enormously, having drawn praise and a whole new fan base with her soft, rippling Ondine of just a few weeks before, Rubies never stopped fitting her like a glove: she dazzled and enchanted us, showing her fiery character and throwing herself into the choreography (It was quite a contrast to Yuhui Choe‘s more restrained, more studied performance in the same role). Alexandra’s last night at Covent Garden was a success, not only due to its aura of adieu, but because it was incredible to see someone clearly enjoying herself on stage and yet about to stop for good. She went out and gave it her all, with Carlos, who enjoys “upping his ante” when the occasion befalls, outstanding but giving Alexandra the opportunity to shine, since it was her night.

At the end of Rubies, with a continuous flow of applause and some ruby red flowers thrown in from the amphitheatre, Carlos chivalrously led an emotional and teary eyed Alexandra to take centre stage, taking a back seat and directing the applause her way, letting Alexandra enjoy her moment all the way through the red run curtain calls. As the applause went on we felt as if some of the audience was trying to convey to Alexandra that she was loved and appreciated and that she certainly was going to be missed.

See also: Emilia’s take on Alexandra’s farewell performance

Some Quotes:

On Why she left City Ballet:

It’s the music in the story ballets, the music, and then the story, that touches a part of my soul that is indescribable.

On the classical repertoire:

I’ve always been passionate about the classical works, and it was important to me as a ballerina to get that education.

On Balanchine’s take on épaulement:

I think he wanted his own style, different from the classical world that he had left behind in Europe.

On what she finds fascinating about ballet:

One of the things that fascinates me about ballet is to see how very different it ” looks ” from one country to the next.

What she would like to see happen in ballet over the next 20 years:

I would like the ballet to have a much broader audience, to reach far more people, and to have them understand more, and to be more involved, with our art form.

On her decision of leaving ballet:

I feel one must be completely devoted if you are a dancer, it’s like a marriage. I have had to face the realization that this is not completing me as a person.

Alexandra’s last performances with the Royal Ballet are in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center (June 24) and in Cuba, at the Gran Teatro de la Habana (July 14-16). She will be performing the lead role in Ashton’s A Month in the Country as part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Interview with Alexandra Ansanelli (circa 2005) via In the Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
  2. Alexandra Ansanelli interviewed by David Bain. Report from The Ballet Association (circa 2006) via Ballet.co [link]
  3. Alexandra Ansanelli’s Artist Detail at www.roh.org.uk [link]
  4. The Classical Test for a City Ballet Star who Flew by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  5. A Young Ballet’s Star Surprising Choice by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  6. An Early Swan Song by Sarah Kaufman, via the Washington Post [link]
  7. Behind the Scenes with Alexandra Ansanelli. From Pointe Magazine’s 10th Anniversary Photo Shoot, via Dancemedia [link]
  8. Statement by Alexandra, issued by Pointe Magazine via BalletTalk [link]

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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are tired of white ballets and of seeing male dancers perennially overshadowed by the ballerina. Mayerling, a tale of a crown prince’s descent into madness and murder, definitely puts the man on the spot. Think Hamlet with guns in lieu of swords & added drugs and you get a ballet that is as hard rocking as they get.

Skip if: You are not fond of Kenneth MacMillan’s dirty & grim ballets or very complex plots – there are so many characters involved that we strongly advise you do your homework before attending a performance (see our character diagram below). It also goes without saying that Mayerling is not a ballet for the kids. Nor for the chaste.

Dream Casts: Edward Watson/Johan Kobborg

We like Ed Watson for his marvellous innovative lines in MacMillan ballets and Johan for his technical feats and unrivalled acting skills. Mind you, Ed’s acting is quite something too.

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Mayerling. Source: via the Guardian

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Mayerling. Source: The Guardian.

Background:

Mayerling is a ballet in three acts bookended by a prologue and epilogue, choreographed in 1978 for the Royal Ballet by Kenneth MacMillan and based on the true story of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf who forged a double suicide pact with his mistress at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling in 1889. Known as the “Mayerling Incident” this chapter of history is forever shrouded in mystery and intrigue, having spawned various dramatizations to the stage and on-screen (the most recent being “The Illusionist”, a Hollywood movie with loose connections to the episode).

Crown Prince Rudolph. Source: Wikipedia.

Crown Prince Rudolf. Source: Wikipedia

Rudolf, and his young mistress Vetsera seemed ideal study subjects for Kenneth MacMillan: two flawed, immoral and uncompromising soulmates. But before working on the choreography, he asked writer Gillian Freeman to provide him with a script (a rare practice in Western ballet) and conductor John Lanchbery to arrange a score for a list of dances which were then matched to 40 compositions by Franz Liszt. For this reason, the ballet may, on first view, seem like a string of episodes rather than a seamless whole, although it is undeniably a lavish and detailed costume drama.

The story is told through a series of physically grueling pas de deux between Rudolf and the many women in his life, with many moods ranging from desire to rage, from obsession to full madness. It is one of the most demanding roles created in British ballet for a male dancer requiring a high level of technique and stamina coupled with superb acting skills. Mayerling’s main selling point lies in its challenge to the idea that ballet is stuck in a world of tiaras and tutus and of fairytale princes, as Prince Rudolf is ground-breakingly portrayed by MacMillan as a depraved drug addict, sick with venereal disease, and his mistress Mary Vetsera, as a reckless and socially ambitious groupie. The court around them is rife with corruption, immorality and hypocrisy, the Emperor and Empress leading by their bad example (both having open affairs) but somehow imposing morality on their son.

Unlike Manon and Romeo and Juliet, which have become two of the most successful MacMillan export products and part of the ever more globalized repertoire of various ballet companies around the world, Mayerling is a work which is kept generally within the confines of the Royal Ballet, not only because of the controversial nature of the piece, but also due to the fact it requires a company with very strong theatrical roots (such as the Royal Ballet’s) to make the essentially mime-less storytelling clear and compelling to the audience.

The Story:

Mayerling Flow[2]

You'd better memorize all the main characters before heading out to see Mayerling! (Image Copyright by The Ballet Bag©)

Prologue: the curtains open to reveal the low key burial of Mary Vetsera at Heiligenkreuz in the dead of the night.

Act I

A flashback takes us to the ballroom at the Hofburg Palace where the wedding of Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie is being celebrated. To the court’s dismay Rudolf flirts openly with his sister-in-law, Princess Louise and later with Mary Vetsera to whom he is introduced by her mother and by Countess Larisch. Their mutual attraction is evident but this brief encounter is interrupted by four Hungarian officers who want to enlist Rudolf’s help in their political/separatist cause. Countess Larisch returns and attempts to rekindle the old flame of the past relationship with Rudolf, but the Emperor discovers them and orders an unapologetic Rudolf to return to his wife, whom he terrifies with rapist antics and a loaded revolver in their marital bed.

Act II

Rudolf has forced his wife to accompany him in an evening of debauchery. In disguise Bratfisch, Rudolf and Stephanie arrive at a seedy tavern. As Stephanie leaves in disgust, Rudolf turns his attention to Mitzi Caspar and to his new friends the Hungarian separatists. A police raid sends people fleeing while an increasingly mentally unstable Rudolf suggests to Mitzi that they should commit suicide together. Prime Minister Taafe enters and Rudolf hides. Mitzi, relieved to escape Rudolf’s madness leaves with Taafe, letting him know that Rudolf is hiding as they exit.

Countess Larisch finds Mary Vetsera at home contemplating a portrait of Rudolf and takes a pack of cards telling Mary’s fortune, assuring her that her romantic dreams will come true. Mary gives her a letter to pass on to Rudolf.

During Franz Josef’s birthday celebration Count Taafe confronts Rudolf with a political pamphlet.  Rudolf watches with bitterness and anger as his mother openly offers a portrait of the mistress Katerina Schratt to his father and then as the Empress seeks the attentions of her own lover. Countess Larisch uses the opportunity to tease Rudolf with Mary’s letter.

Act III

The Empress discovers Countess Larisch with Rudolf in his apartment and dismisses her; unaware that Mary is waiting outside. Mary joins Rudolf, who sees in her a potential recruit for his double suicide campaign. In the hunting lodge at Mayerling Rudolf makes passionate love to Mary, clearly unstable he attempts to calm himself with an injection of morphine – he embraces Mary then shoots her. His friends come running as they hear the shot – he reassures them and as soon as he is alone shoots himself.

Epilogue: as the ballet closes, the same opening scene is repeated and expanded, we now see Mary’s body dragged into the coffin, her burial taking place in the early hours to cover up a potential royal scandal.

The Music:

Some of the Liszt pieces featured in Lanchbery’s arrangements for Mayerling:

Faust Symphony
Mephisto Waltz
Twelve Transcendental Studies
Soirée de Vienne

But if you really must prepare an Ipod or Spotify playlist, see detailed track listings from ballet.co.uk

Mayerling opens the Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 season this autumn. For more details visit the ROH site

Mini-Biography:

Original Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Libretto: Gillian Freeman
Music: Franz Liszt (arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery)
Premiere: 14 Feb. 1978 the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden
Original Cast: David Wall (Rudolf), Lynn Seymour (Mary Vetsera)
Original Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Mayerling is an Unexpected Sucess (NY Times article, 1983)
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Mayerling
  3. Answers Entry for Mayerling
  4. Terrifyingly Truthful (Telegraph Review, 2004)
  5. The Royal Opera House Mayerling page

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Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Last week saw Balanchine’s Jewels return to the Royal Opera House to send off the 2008/2009 ballet season in glittering style. A few things have changed since its premiere in 2007: gone the lavish frocks and sizeable jewels to match those onstage, as worn by first night audiences the other side of the credit crunch; present lots of cast changes and regrettable absences due to injury, most notably leading ladies Zenaida Yanowsky and Sarah Lamb who could not reprise their roles in Rubies and Edward Watson  who, sadly, did not partner Tamara Rojo in Emeralds this time.

Diamonds

Thankfully at least one thing has remained the same: Alina Cojocaru’s radiance in Diamonds. If anything, Cojocaru’s reading of this grand ballerina role has become even better second time around. She is more shrouded in mystery, less the fairy tale princess, more the multifaceted precious stone. Alongside her noble partner Rupert Pennefather she puts on a dazzling display of delicacy in her dance, she is a vision that Rupert pursues and tries to enfold and lock in his arms as if worried she could vanish at any moment. If her first performance last week – more careful – made me admire the beauty of her regal line, her musical phrasing and her lush backbends, the second made my heart skip quite a few beats in its technical precision:  back after one year were Alina’s sharp turns, her lightning speed chaînés combined with that delicate, heart melting quality which makes Cojocaru’s dancing seem as rare as a precious stone and so uniquely endearing. Rupert Pennefather was more than an able partner, generating some unforgettable moments from his own solo work. As he turns in his grande pirouette during the Scherzo (the 3rd movement in this arrangement of the symphony) he advocates to us what Balanchine aimed for, he makes us see clearly all the respective turns in Tchaikovsky’s music. This physical translation of the music is evident in both dancers and in this respect I find them here – as I did in 2007 – very well matched.

So eloquent is the choreography in Diamonds you could think Tchaikovsky’s music would have been especially commissioned for the ballet and not the other way round, revealing to us just how far the genius of Balanchine went. Beginning with patterns formed by the corps, with two soloists later cutting through the lines with delicate pas de chats as they were diamond dust, or even snowflakes on loan from The Nutcraker, these soloists are joined by two further women who seem to trace the choreographic motifs and music box paths for the lead couple to dance on. Their own cavaliers join in later and the whole ensemble present a truly majestic finale, gloved women et al., in a grand ballroom. Composed of the final four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, Diamonds is in itself, the third and final movement within the symphony of dance formed by Balanchine’s Jewels, where Emeralds is the adagio and Rubies the allegro.

Emeralds

While I am, as you would have guessed, very much a “Diamonds girl” I also take delight in the dreamy and elegiac qualities of Emeralds, particularly as executed by Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Roberta Marquez, Valeri Hristov, Bennet Gartside and Steven McRae (in the pas de trois) who seem lost in their own reveries or playing an eternal game of “Romantic tag”, which is suggested by the way the first male (Hristov, befuddled but elegant) touches his ballerina, like winding her with a magic wand – a leitmotif which is also seen in the other sections of Jewels. And as four ballerinas, interlinked with their partners, plunge into simultaneous arabesques penchés we see multiple visions of Giselle captured in a delicate bracelet. A real luxury.

Rubies

The most successful of the three Jewels is, conversely, the one that appeals the least to my personal taste. But that’s not to say I do not enjoy a modern cut Ruby sandwiched between an Emerald and a Diamond. Rubies is supposed to showcase three technically brilliant dancers (2 women and 1 man) but now with Laura McCulloch not particularly tall and not particularly dominating (though much more secure in later performances), I feel as if all the action is left in the hands of Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta. But at least those are competent hands. Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” seems to musically suggest a capricious woman and her rakish man and the way this central couple communicate is almost the antithesis of the regal couple in Diamonds: playful, flirty, naughty, temperamental.  At one point Carlos keeps Alexandra waiting as he goes on a dance tangent. Her exasperated looks seem to say “Oh, enough with the waiting already!”. The piano throws a fit while Alexandra fittingly (and carelessly) throws her leg and her whole body in all compass directions. At times she feigns collapsing in Acosta’s arms as a rebellious child lost in a tantrum, whilst in the audience we rebel against her decision to retire from ballet so early (she is only 28 years old). Throughout their duet, Acosta plays with Alexandra’s body as if it were a musical instrument, while her solo dancing speed dazzles us. I may be team Diamonds all the way but this Ruby I shall dearly miss.

See also: Linda’s review of first & second nights of Jewels

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Balanchine‘s first full-length abstract ballet is a celebration of styles and his tribute to the tradition that had shaped ballet during the 19th and 20th centuries. One can only marvel at his achievement while admiring the complexity of the choreography, the richness of the steps and the inclusion of novelty movement and geometry between the dancers. Jewels is a crowd pleasing ballet that will always touch us in a particular way, even more if it is danced with complete command of both technique and artistry.

The programme notes alert us to the natural associations one may draw between the ballet’s name and “a formal kaleidoscope”. When first approaching Jewels, it might seem that this is the case: the designs, costumes and music are all beautiful in every sense of the word, one can only stare in disbelief when the curtain opens to reveal the dancers in Emeralds. Never having seen it live before, I came to the opening performance with two missions: first to see how would I react to  each different ballet and second to try to understand how Rubies became more popular  on its own than Diamonds or Emeralds.

On the first account, it surprised me to discover that although Balanchine is a master of the abstract, with a firm purpose to make us “see the music”, the possibilities of adding personal layers of interpretation to this ballet are endless. I found myself building a story for every single piece, creating characters out of the dancers’ portrayals (I wished I could query the dancers as to their particular ideas and stories when learning the choreography). I also realised, after a second view, that these “stories” changed with every cast, and depended on how they personally approached their roles, who they were partnering, the chemistry, how they presented themselves, physical proportions, etc. In some ways, an abstract ballet gives more interpretive freedom to the dancers while the audience has an  opportunity to draw their own impressions from the proverbial “put a man and a woman together and you get a story”.

Emeralds

The first night Emeralds brought us Tamara Rojo in the role that Violette Verdy made famous. She was partnered by Valeri Hristov replacing the “irreplaceable” (and sadly injured) Edward Watson, whom we missed deeply, since Tamara did not seem to have the same level of complicity with Valeri as she has with Edward. Tamara made use of her expressive arms and amazing acting ability to show us a young girl in love: smiley, flirty and sometimes shy, evading the looks of her suitor, running between the other Emerald ladies. Valeri was the man in love trying to conquer the object of his affection while Tamara tip-toed and twirled through her variation like a maiden who daydreams of her knight in a meadow full of flowers with a stream nearby, with added touches of butterflies and songbirds for good measure. All innocence and young love. Pure joy. Hristov’s variation was ably performed, though less eloquent in Romantic imagery: up to that point, it was all about Tamara.

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

That is, until Leanne Benjamin appeared on stage. It is quite hard for anyone to steal Tamara’s thunder, but we feel that Leanne achieved this in the way she wove so much drama into the Emeralds “Walking pas de deux“. Here was a mature dancer on top of her game, giving us darkness after the sun, like an older woman saying to the world – here I am, I am still beautiful, still full of things to give, just look at me! – Piqué turns and grand battements made her vaporous tutu ethereal, and even though the movements were strong there was a sense of underlying sadness. This interpretation came full circle when a moody looking Bennet Gartside (replacing an injured Ivan Putrov) brought into the same pas de deux the feel of a mature married couple, struggling with the realisation that time is passing them by, that they are not what they used to be (suggested by the emphasis on arms and legs as clock hands). Registering every nuance of her interpretation I couldn’t stop wondering why Leanne is not as popular as some of the other Royal Ballet younger ballerinas.

The Emeralds pas de trois was danced by the fantastic trio of Steven McRae, Deirdre Chapman (back from maternity leave) and Laura Morera, in what it looked to me like the “hot young guy” surrounded by two enamoured girls. Their execution was flawless and of course, Steven made ample use of this opportunity to show off his fantastic split jetés and perfect tours en l’air.

The second cast of Emeralds had Roberta Marquez and Mara Galeazzi partnered by each of Valeri Hristov (in the same role as opening night) and David Makhateli. These interpretations were a complete constrast to Tamara and Leanne’s rich narratives, with Roberta a more straightforward Emerald who was just enjoying her dancing (and indeed, her smile was infectious). Personally I did not feel Emeralds was a good fit for Mara, since she didn’t convey the innate romanticism in the music and air. As the two leading men were not outstanding, I took the opportunity to observe here some of the girls who are starting to stand-out from the corps (and I wished the ROH included portraits of the artists and first artists in their programmes). The highlight of this performance was the pas de Trois, in which Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine shone, accompanied by an efficient José Martín.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In both performances, the finale was well executed and the members of the corps looked sharp and well-rehearsed, all the way to the final pose where the three men, in grand reverence, stare at the horizon.

Rubies

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

Next stop was sizzling, fun and jazzy Rubies, or should I rename it the A&A Show after the main duo of “Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta“. For Alexandra owned the role. I wondered whether this was due to her long history with NYCB and Balanchine choreography, combined with the fact that she has been outstanding this season or  simply that she is enjoying her very last performances before retirement from dance. She played and flirted with Carlos, swaying effortlessly, charmingly and elegantly through her steps. Carlos kept up the dialogue onstage and answered every single stroke, lest he be outshined by this leading lady. They were like the couple everyone stares at on the dance floor, nothing else seemed to matter for them. Here was an amazing newly discovered chemistry between them, which felt fresher than his  own longstanding (and famous) partnership with Tamara. If only Alexandra and Carlos could have been paired up more often, they might have really complemented each other in various ways.

Moving from pas de deux to solo, Carlos and Alexandra showcased their technical abilities while keeping up with the demanding pace, Carlos in particular relishing the opportunity to prove to the audience that he could soar through the stage at least as dazzlingly as Steven McRae from the previous section (plenty of grand jetés and ballon – daring to pause in the air -). Alexandra kept pushing the limits of the choreography, to the point of being in danger of falling. When a missing step called her bluff she just squealed and shrugged it off, which made the performance even more real and endearing.

Less secure was Laura McCulloch in both Rubies casts, covering both Zenaida Yanowsky and Lauren Cuthbertson as the “Tall Girl”.  She seemed eager to eat the stage but wobbled through a few of her arabesques and although much calmer (yet equally enthusiastic) on second performance, I ended up with the impression that she lacks some of the agility and speed to launch her ruby off the ground (though her extensions were amazing, particularly on the second night) and to keep up with the frantic pace of the corps. While I give Laura full marks for being able to pull a two-nighter on a main role at short notice & to stand her ground in a starry cast, I suspect her inner jewel is not really a ruby.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The second cast of Rubies was led by Yuhui Choe (debuting) and Ricardo Cervera. They brought something different than the previous pair, acing the technical demands whilst looking like teenagers fooling around. The casting of Yuhui  – a dancer with the softest arms, who looks in my opinion more Emeralds or Diamonds than Broadway – exemplifies the importance  of giving dancers the opportunity to explore roles not immediately associated with them, to avoid “typecasting”. Important yes, but not necessarily always a good fit. Ricardo didn’t match Acosta’s performance but showed us again that he can jump like the best of them, and he definitely “popped out” when surrounded by the corps in the finale.

With Rubies over, I finally understood its appeal and own success story. It is such an infectious audience-pleaser, filled with continuous surprises, twists and turns. The choreography is so strikingly different. While Emeralds is a thing of pure beauty, Rubies is the one people cheer for & laugh at. It is box office friendly,  and its upbeat, full of spark atmosphere immediately grabs the occasional ballet goers’ attention and takes them along for a wild ride.

Diamonds

The regal Diamonds, the last ballet of the evening, is full of Imperial Russian grandeur and nods to the classics (the hand in the hair from Raymonda, the balances on attitude from Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio, the arched back on retiré position from Act III Swan Lake, etc). The opening waltz for the corps de ballet immediately reminded me of Sleeping Beauty and Petipa in the beautiful classical lines displayed everywhere and its almost overwhelming grandeur. Still, this serves just as an aperitif to what follows next, the “grand pas de deux.” Opening night saw the beautiful Alina Cojocaru, continuing her comeback from injury, and Rupert Pennefather (who despite being quite tall has been dancing the lead role with tiny Alina since 2007, when he stood in at the premiere for an injured Federico Bonelli) looking picture perfect as prince and princess (again, think Aurora). This opening performance had quite a special “aura” that could be felt in the auditorium, as if we were all collectively gauging how Alina might have changed post her prolonged absence from the stage. She performed carefully and given the difference in height there were also slight complications and miniminal issues in Rupert’s partnering (as on the aided pirouettes). All this didn’t matter since it was more her artistry that shone through her dancing, her arms expressing every single note of the music, her face full of emotion, but with an underlying melodramatic tone that permeated the pas de deux. In some wonderful balances on attitude you could feel her full commitment to the steps, as if there was no tomorrow and this was the last time she could do this. It was not Aurora on stage, or any other of the Petipa heroines, but a more womanly princess, completely aware of her emotions and transparent to everyone to see. Suffice to say that her performance affected me in such a way that I still need some time to think about it.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Rupert was a handsome prince and his dancing was sharp and precise, showing all the dividends he has accumulated this season as a dancer. His variation was elegant and noble. I thought he complimented Alina’s performance in a subdued way, and it was very sweet of him to thank her at the end, as if it had been his privilege to dance with her. He might not be my favourite partner for Alina, but he is definitely a dancer who is getting better and better.

The second cast was led by sunny Marianela Nuñez and her real life prince Thiago Soares. Given the season Marianela has had, it would be difficult to think she wouldn’t ace this role, and indeed she did. As usual, her technique came across strongly and Thiago was more than an accommodating partner (his variation featured slightly different jumps than Rupert’s, but all cleanly executed). However, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was watching a reprisal of the Wedding festivities of Sleeping Beauty. There was not as much depth as in Alina’s and Rupert’s performance, but this might be just my personal take on it, as underneath it all, this is an abstract ballet.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

I should also add honorary mentions to the corps in the polonaise (although they offered a much better and coordinated performance on second night) and to Thomas Whitehead, Yohei Sasaki and Yuhui Choe on the first night, and Brian Maloney, Sergei Polunin, Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine (on double duty together with Emeralds), all of whom noticeably good in their soloist roles.

In short, Diamonds stands as a great closing piece, one that evokes and pays tribute to the classics, while also serving as a rich frame to the central couple and in particular the main ballerina. It is the dance equivalent of a decadent dessert, a celebration of dance which is best enjoyed and appreciated alongside first courses of Emeralds and Rubies. In any case, the Royal Ballet did well to acquire the three ballets for its repertoire. It is the ideal vehicle for showcasing the jewel-like ballerinas in its ranks. I am quite sure I will be going back to Covent Garden anytime it is revived.

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Want to learn more about how dancers rehearse their ballets? Then you should try to attend a Royal Ballet Masterclass (where rehearsal is the focus) or an Insight Evening (with focus on production background). If your thing is to assimilate ballet steps, you can also try to see the dancers in their daily class (via the ROH Backstage tour or by invitation). All these events are an excellent opportunity for members of the audience to get up close and personal with what goes on behind Covent Garden’s curtains.

Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley rehearse Rupert Pennefather and Lauren Cuthbertson. Royal Ballet © 2006

Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley rehearse Rupert Pennefather and Lauren Cuthbertson. Royal Ballet © 2006. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Take for instance last Monday’s masterclass, the last of the 2008/2009 season as the Company will shortly embark on its summer tour. In a small dance studio we followed ballet coach Jonathan Cope rehearsing principal dancer Mara Galeazzi and soloist (& whiz kid) Sergei Polunin in the main pas de deux of Ashton’s one act classic “A Month in the Country”. Mara and Sergei will be covering the roles of Natalia Petrovna and Beliaev during the tour, having never danced them before, so the audience was given a rare chance to observe what happens when two dancers step into the studio to work on a duet for the very first time. We were told that both dancers had the choreography fresh in their minds but had not yet put what they knew into practice. The process was not unlike baking a particular cake for the very first time, having read and memorized the recipe ahead of the task. We saw a rough sketch of the duet developing before our eyes, what details of the dancing needed to be worked on, thought about, sometimes seemingly minor points of correction would help a dancer shape her/his character or improve on partnering. While Jonathan corrected the dancers he asked them to perform specific steps: a soutenu here, a promenade there, a glissade and jeté, etc., etc. Indeed, after attending a few of these events the terminology may become more and more familiar to those who haven’t come from a dance background and yet would like to know the difference between a ballotté and a ballonné.

Not all these masterclasses are routinely available for booking, in fact recent changes to procedures mean that from the next season onwards the smaller “Clore studio” masterclasses will be distributed on a rotation basis to the Friends of Covent Garden (as already is the case with the above mentioned “ballet classes”), but it’s worth keeping in mind that any masterclasses to be held at the bigger Linbury studio will still be available for public booking, so we recommend you keep an eye out for these.

The other exciting thing about masterclasses is that they are like a box of surprises. You never know exactly what you are going to see or which dancers will be rehearsing, as no specific details are provided beforehand. They do tend to follow the ballet pipeline, so if the ballet of the month is, say, Sleeping Beauty chances are that there will be a respective masterclass. But then again it might be something completely different. And even if Sleeping Beauty is on the menu, don’t expect the event will be centered on Princess Aurora or the Lilac Fairy. It could be for example, a Carabosse masterclass (see links below). But whatever or whoever the subject, it will still be great fun and you will learn loads.

Some masterclass extracts available on You Tube

Swan Lake:

Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley rehearse Lauren Cuthbertson and Rupert Pennefather in the White Swan pas de deux (Act II).

The same dancers practice the Ivanov original mime sequence from Swan Lake Act II where Odette relates her swan curse to Siegfried.

The Nutcraker:

Sir Peter Wright rehearses Ludovic Ondiviela (Hans Peter) and Caroline Duprot (Clara). Spot the difference between a jeté and a coupé jeté!

Ludovic learns the mime sequence from Nutcraker, Act II.

The Sleeping Beauty:

Alina Cojocaru rehearses and discusses the challenges of the famous Rose Adagio. Johnny Cope opines, with Gary Avis and Edward Watson providing insights on partnering.

Monica Mason teaches the role of Carabosse to Gillian Revie. Great insights into ballet mime and character parts.

Anthony Dowell rehearses Carlos Acosta in Prince Florimund’s adagio (Act II)

Giselle:

A vintage masterclass from the days of “Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet” (later renamed Birmingham Royal Ballet). Sir Peter Wright rehearses a very young Leanne Benjamin (Giselle) and Chenca Williams (Myrtha). Part 1 of 5.

And also:

A link to the complete masterclasses (except Giselle) available from BBC (streaming video).

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