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19th century ballet had no qualms about favoring the ballerina over the danseur. The bulk of the classical repertoire seemed intent on relegating male dancers into partnering or brief virtuoso solos tailor-made for a particular dancer (think Cecchetti‘s Bluebird). But the 20th century saw balance  restablished with a generation of danseurs like Nureyev and Baryshnikov following in Nijinsky’s example and reclaiming back the spotlight. Royal Ballet Guest Principal Carlos Acosta, one of the most popular classical dancers around today, has carried the male dancer manifesto into the next century. His blend of jaw-dropping technique, sparkling bravura, with added Latin charm seems to captivate audiences beyond the ballet regulars, drawing crowds into sold out performances.

Carlos Acosta and Begoña Cao. Photo: Johan Persson / Sadler's Wells ©

In his latest show Acosta sets to explore the role of the male muse in ballet, focusing on such strong danseur roles as evening opener Afternoon of a Faun. Clear of nods to Nijinsky’s original scandalous, sexually powered version, choreographer Jerome Robbins’s version uses Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to frame an encounter between two dancers in a ballet studio. They observe themselves and each other in the mirror as they go about their daily exercises. Although this mirror effect will be lost to anyone not sitting at stage level, this is a great opportunity to see a subtler side to Acosta, without the outrageous leaps and turns that so define him. Instead we get charm, exhuberance, a true sense of intimacy (which is sometimes lost in larger stages) and chemistry with his partner Begoña Cao (ENB).

Young Apollo, created by Adam Hougland for the Manchester International Festival precedes and opposes Balanchine‘s Apollo. It showcases young, up-and-coming Junor de Oliveira Souza (ENB), a talented Brazilian with legs that stretch on forever. Junor alternates bursts of solo dancing to match Britten‘s soaring music with an athletic pas de deux with Erina Takahashi. Their ever changing bodies and the piece’s contemporary vocabulary at points reminded me of McGregor sans tech paraphernalia.

A Suite of Dances, originally created by Jerome Robbins for male superstar Baryshnikov, sets itself the almost impossible task of matching ballet to music by Bach. In one corner renowned cellist Natalie Clein plays selected movements from Bach’s cello suites. In another, a blasé Acosta, dressed in a strange combo of red tee and bright orange trousers, responds to the music, feigning improvisation. As he tries, in vain, to impress the cellist with his moves he dishes out dazzling grand pirouettes and tricky beaten steps (let us not forget who this piece was originally created for). In a final desperate attempt he cartwheels towards Natalie who remains resolutely indifferent, unlike the audience who reacts with thunderous applause.

Carlos Acosta. Photo: Johan Persson / Sadler's Wells ©

Evening closer Apollo sees Acosta alongside the similarly proportioned ENB trio of Daria Klimentová, Begoña Cao and Erina Takahashi, respectively, muses Terpsichore, Polyhymnia and Calliope. Acosta might look more Herculian than Apollonian but his moves are godlike and virile, with elegant lines that stretch and linger on Stravinsky‘s score. If the purpose of the evening was to explore the male muse, no other work would have been more fitting. Acosta owns it, he knows it and so does his adoring audience.


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Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Diaghilev was a man ahead of his time, a visionary capable of bringing together the most talented artists of his generation and nurturing them into creating new collaborative works of art. Had it not been for his vision, the West might never have known of Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Balanchine. The face of dance would have been very different today without his Ballets Russes.

As ballet companies and theatres around the world pay well deserved homage, in various different shapes and forms, to one hundred years of Ballet Russes, Sadler’s Wells decided to focus theirs on Diaghilev’s spirit of collaborative work. Thus, Artistic Director Alistair Spalding commissioned four brand new pieces inspired by or connected in some way to the Ballets Russes at their most influential. Spalding chose four associated artists of Sadler’s Wells – Wayne McGregor (who is also the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer) Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier De Frutos – to respond in a variety of ways, collaborating with various designers, dancers and musicians while staying true to their own dance language.

The evening’s opener was McGregor’s Dyad 1909, a ballet for seven dancers to an original score by Ólafur Arnalds. Inspired by the scientific, social and technological developments of Diaghilev’s time, most notably Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole, McGregor developed his choreography with the aid of multi-screen video installations depicting machines (by Jane & Louise Wilson), brilliant lighting which suggested the Antartic (by Lucy Carter) and an almost-classical score which fused strings and piano with industrial and electronic sounds, all of these elements nodding to his  backstory.

Dance-wise this was standard McGregor fare. Hyperextended bodies, mobile arms (which at times seemed to mime the operation of machines) and supple contorting backs. More than once I was reminded of last year’s Infra, particularly as the dancers entered and exited to similar stage cues, wearing similar costumes. There were some beautiful, memorable sequences including a pas de deux to the sound of Arnalds’ gorgeous string quartet where McGregor applied classical lines (a cabriolé here, a pirouette there and some rounded soft arms among the lifts) and an ensemble of five dancers moving in unison through a diagonal in a faster-than-light pace. It is not his best piece but it is still one that reminds us how McGregor is a master of controlling the visual impressions he leaves on the audience. His talent is evident but one wishes he would drop his signature off-centered hip and brought in new elements into the mix more often.

Nijinskys Dancer circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Nijinsky's 'Dancer' circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Next was Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight, as inspired by a Nijinsky drawing of a dancer (see left). Set to Erik Satie‘s Gnossiennes, the choreography builds  on the interplay between light and dancer Daniel Proietto. He moves in circles creating  forms that fuse with the patterns of light and shadow reflected on the floor. Lighting designer Michael Hull’s  brilliant work emphasizes the flowing movement which starts from the dancers’ extremities and propagates to swirls of light surrounding him, in a sea of clouds. This visually stunning live realisation of Nijinsky’s sketch was the most applauded and (at least in my opinion) the most memorable choreography of the evening.

Cherkaoui’s Faun was probably the piece most directly connected to the Ballets Russes and to Nijinsky’s own scandalous version. James O’Hara’s Faun  looked  as if he had been teleported from an Animal Planet documentary: platinum blonde hair, thin limbs, an almost animal quality to his persona. The faun emerges from the shadows morphing from shape to shape, at times lingering in yoga-like poses, at times swiftly moving from one into the next. The stage finally illuminates to reveal the Nymph (Daisy Phillips) in an ethereal forest, the two beings meet and through Cherkaoui’s choreography we see them evolve from two separate bodies into a single one. For all its sensuality and exuberance, there were also moments of sheer athleticism (no doubt inspired by Nijinsky’s legendary skills) and with Nitin Sawhney’s additional music complementing Debussy‘s original score, we see beautiful intimate scenes between those two mythical creatures.

The evening closer  – Javier De Frutos’ Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez – was described in the programme as a “satirical ballet inspired by scenarios of Jean Cocteau“. It involved a deformed Pope, three pregnant muses, an Apollo/priest figure and plenty of explicit sexual images to a litany of the Holy Mary’s last verse (in Spanish). Provocation and controversy were no doubt De Frutos’ biggest drivers (read Ismene Brown’s recent interview with him), but to me his choice of topic seemed too obvious, too easy. No prizes for guessing that graphic images of a Pope having sexual relations with at least three characters under a neon caption which reads “Amuse me!” will provoke the audience. It was a dumbed down way to create an anticlimactic finale and I left wishing that De Frutos would have really amused me instead. Even though Diaghilev had a thing for “le succès de scandale”, he always knew the value of a good ending, and as de Frutos recently noted to Ismene Brown (see above link), one would have the “scandalous” Rite of Spring but this was followed by Balanchine’s beautiful Apollo and the evening would end on a high. Perhaps this piece of Diaghilev wisdom should have been taken into account when planning the order of the programme.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev runs at Sadler’s Wells until the 17th of October. For information and bookings, visit Sadler’s Wells website.

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Agon is probably one of the quintessential Balanchine pieces in every balletomane’s punch card. You should go if you love Balanchine, abstract, short and/or neo-classical ballets. Or try it for the landmark score: this is where Stravinsky began exploring his twelve-tone technique (more on this below).

Skip If

You are a strictly 19th century classical ballet fan and all of the above makes you cringe, especially the thought of music without an overall melodic theme (as you often exit the theatre whistling to Swan Lake!).

Dream Cast

NYCB (particularly if Wendy Whelan dances the pas de deux), after all, they are the Balanchine company per excellence.

Background and Structure

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Around 1948 Balanchine‘s benefactor Lincoln Kirstein had an idea for a ballet which would form a “greek trilogy” together with that choreographer’s earlier collaborations with Stravinsky: Apollo and Orpheus. The concept was discussed at the time but a couple of years would pass before concrete plans were drawn and a structure agreed. Stravinsky started composing for the new ballet in 1953. He came up with the title Agon, the greek word for contest but also a  reference to the various 17th century French court dances he had studied from Lauze’s Apologie de la Danse (1623) and this set the frame for Balanchine’s choreography.

Agon marked the third and last time Stravinsky would specifically compose music for a Balanchine ballet (though the choreographer continued to use other Stravinsky music in  later works). On the other hand it was the first time where Stravinsky applied to his work 12-tone serialism techniques, which he had just started experimenting with.

Stravinsky’s previous compositions had been structured in diatonic scale, in other words, they had been based on major and minor scales (click links for audio examples), which give a strong feeling of a tonal center, the major keys a bright sound and the minor keys a moodier sound. One can build a diatonic scale by playing the white keys on a piano keyboard within an octave, in the sequence -Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do – (see figure) 

Octave on a Piano

Octave on a Piano. Image: Guido Tattoni © Source: Smack my pitch up

Between two half steps or semitones (Mi-Fa and Ti-Do – or in the picture Si-Do) there are either two whole steps or tones (Do-Re-Mi) or three whole steps (Fa-Sol-La-Ti), giving the diatonic scale its rich tonality and clear sounds.

There are however, other types of scales. Chromatic scales for instance are sequences of tones (whole steps) preceeded by semitones (half steps). One can build a chromatic scale by playing a sequence of black and white keys in order, without leaving any out. The result is uniform and different to the major scale above where tones and semitones are arranged in a particular way. A chromatic scale has 12 tones (NB: there are 12 tones or notes in an octave. Just count the number of keys in the figure above: Do, Do Sharp, Re, Re Sharp, Mi, Fa, Fa sharp, Sol, Sol sharp, La, La sharp, Ti).

The twelve-tone technique of serialism arranges notes from a chromatic scale so that in an octave none of its 12 notes prevail over another, each note appearing just once before a new series begins. This method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties and later developed by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The resulting music is often referred to as atonal and cerebral.

Even though Agon starts with a diatonic, non-serial structure, Stravinsky combined parts that had a tonal centre (think of the violin solo in the coda of the first pas de trois) with serialist parts (the flute, mandolins & harps in the Galliard). In order to concentrate on other works and further his experience with serialism Stravinsky shelved Agon for a couple of years and then returned to create the central – very serialist – part of the work (the first coda and the bransles, ie. the moves from side to side), following Schoenberg and Webern’s ideas. 

Besides the new composition techniques, Stravinsky also used specific instruments to identify the dancers in the ballet – brass for men and woodwind for women – as well as traditional French court dance references: the bransles (couples dancing in circle, side to side), galliards (an athletic dance with plenty of jumps),  sarabande and pas de deux/quatre.

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Taking into account the serial 12-note concept he  conceived a ballet with 12 dancers (4 men and 8 women) and 12 movements (4 sections of 3 dances each). The ballet starts with the four male dancers facing the back of the stage and the dances develop as follows:

Pas de Quatre – the men
Double Pas de Quatre – the women
Triple Pas de Quatre – the ensemble

Prelude – 1 man, 2 women
Saraband-step – 1 man
Galliard – 2 women
Coda – 1 man, 2 women

Interlude – 2 men, 1 woman
Bransles:
Simple – 2 men
Gay 1 woman
Double – 2 men, 1 woman

Interlude – 1 man, 1 woman
Pas de Deux – 1 man, 1 woman*
Four Pas de Deux – the men and 4 women
Four Pas de Trois – the ensemble
Coda – the ensemble

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

The *pas de deux is one of Agon’s most unique features. The music sounds disjointed, with few instruments being used at a time, but it is still possible to identify the basic components: an adagio, two variations and a coda with the key difference of a role reversal for the dancers, the woman seeming to lead the male into assorted extreme poses rather than the opposite. There are several famous images such as the one where the ballerina wraps around her partner with her leg in attitude, or her 180º arabesque whilst the male dancer is lying on the floor.

PNBs Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

PNB's Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

When the score calls for serial 12-note themes, dancers respond with isolated movements and hints of the courtly dances on which they are based (the men bowing to the women). If the music presents a canon of two trumpets, the dancers perform in canon (ie. successively) to match the trumpets in the music. In the final section, as the score goes back to opening motifs, the dancers resume the same opening image of four male dancers facing the back of the stage.

Stravinsky finished the score in the spring of 1957 and Agon premiered on December 1, 1957, as part of a triple bill featuring Apollo and Orpheus. It was an easy winner with the audience, since it depicted classical ballet in a different and novel way, showing conflict and resolution between various forms of dance, movement and shape.

Videos

Sorry no YouTube videos! But there are certain DVDs and VHS* tapes (if you are able to view these) featuring glimpses of Agon.

  • Balanchine (1984) [link]
  • The Balanchine Celebration, Part Two* [link]
  • Bringing Balanchine Back [link]
  • Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas [link]
  • Peter Martins: Dancer* [link]

Music

Agon had its first concert performance in June 1957 in Los Angeles. It is still often performed on its own and much valued as a piece which combines both serial and non-serial elements. At an average length of 25 min, it can be easily uploaded to your favourite mp3 player. It can be downloaded from iTunes [link] or streamed via Spotify [link].

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell.
Premiere: December 1, 1957, NYCB. City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Agon in Context by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, April 2004. [link]
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Agon (ballet) [link]
  3. NYCB Agon Repertory Notes [link]
  4. 50 Years Ago, Modernism Was Given a Name: Agon by Alastair Macaulay. November 2007, NY Times [link]
  5. The Bransles of Stravinsky’s Agon: A Transition to Serial Composition by Bonnie S. Jacobi. [link]

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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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