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The Morphoses London Season opens tonight at Sadler’s Wells with a programme dedicated to 100 years of Ballets Russes, an appropriate choice for a company structured in the same way and whose mission to “broaden the scope of classical ballet through the creation of innovative productions and collaboration with the seminal artists of its time” ties in with the feats of Diaghilev‘s own legendary troupe.

Three years and many accolades on, Christopher Wheeldon‘s company continues to match some of ballet’s brightest stars to new work by the best choreographers and designers around.  By nurturing these quasi pro bono collaborations, Morphoses projects the image of a fresh and accessible company whose main objectives are to target the 25-34  year old public not familiar with ballet and to challenge some of the preconceptions associated with the art form.

As part of Wheeldon’s target demographic, we think the existence of a company like Morphoses sends a very positive message, a promise for the future of ballet.  Its mission strongly resonates with us as we also believe ballet can and should be made accessible to younger generations while staying true to its traditions, with no dumbing down of the art form. We only wish their seasons were longer (only 4 days in London) and that we could see more of Wheeldon’s work this side of the Atlantic.

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Morphoses in a Nutshell

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company was founded in 2007 by Christopher Wheeldon, previously NYCB’s resident choreographer, together with Lourdes Lopez, ex-NYCB Principal and Former Executive Director of The George Balanchine Foundation. The troupe attracts dancers from major companies in the world who appear at reduced fees. The repertory is a mix of modern classics and new pieces created by Wheeldon or by guest choreographers, in collaboration with innovative designers and composers, very much in the spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Originally Morphoses would function as a pickup company, hiring dancers on a season basis until Wheeldon had secured enough financial backup (around US$5 million) to have dancers on a fixed payroll, but the credit crunch  has forced the company to carry on with a small administrative staff of three and to remain at its donated Manhattan base for the present. Dancers continue to be recruited on a season-by-season basis while Wheeldon has kept working as a choreographer outside Morphoses, which allows him not only to continue staging big budget works for the major ballet companies, but also to bring in extra funds for his own Morphoses projects. His long term plan is to  be able to support a permanent troupe of 12 dancers alongside the regular guests.

Morphoses’s inaugural performance took place at the 2007 Vail International Dance Festival. After a heavy media build-up, this first appearance received mixed reviews from the American press. Some critics thought the ballets in the programmes looked too similar, with too many abstract ballets (including pieces by Forsythe and Edwaard Liang) and prominently featuring too many pas de deux, but they generally praised Wheeldon for elevating the artistry in his dancers (NYCB‘s Wendy Whelan, often regarded as Wheeldon’s muse, was nominated for an Olivier Award) and for creating a rapport with the audience by coming onstage to introduce each piece with insightful commentary.

That same year Morphoses became a Guest Resident Company at New York City Center and at London’s Sadler’s Wells. Wheeldon was appointed as Associated Artist for Sadler’s Wells and the London season won a South Bank Show Award. Since then, Morphoses has also appeared at the Sydney Festival.

The Many Faces of Morphoses

Guest Dancers

Tyler Angle, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Hélène Bouchet, Ashley Bouder, Darcey Bussell, Batkhurel Bold, Thiago Bordin, Alina Cojocaru, Jonathan Cope, Ángel Corella, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Jason Fowler, Gonzalo García, Marcelo Gomes, Craig Hall, Drew Jacoby, Johan Kobborg, Nehemiah Kish, Carla Körbes, Maria Kowroski, Edwaard Liang, Tiler Peck, Rubinald Pronk, Teresa Reichlen, Danielle Rowe, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Edward Watson, Miranda Weese, Wendy Whelan

Collaborators

Composers James MacMillan, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich and Bright Sheng; Artists/Set Designers James Buckhouse and Jean-Marc Puissant, Adrianne Lobel; Designers Francisco Costa, Narciso RodriguezIsabel & Ruben Toledo; Director Nicholas Hytner

Repertory

The inaugural programme presented in 2007 featured two new Wheeldon pieces – “Fool’s Paradise” and “Prokofiev Pas de Deux” – alongside his exisiting works “Mesmerics”, “After the Rain” and “Morphoses”. It also included William Forsythe’s “Slingerland”, Michael Clark’s “Satie Stud”, Liv Lorent’s “Propeller”, and Edwaard Liang’s “Vicissitude”.

The following year brought a mix of premieres led by Wheeldon’s “Commedia” (to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite), Lightfoot León’s “Shutters Shut” (at City Center) and Emily Molnar’s “Six Fold Illuminate” presented together with classic works by Sir Frederick Ashton – The Dream Pas de Deux (in Vail) and Monotones II – Robbins’s “Other Dances” and Wheeldon pieces “Polyphonia” and Fool’s Paradise”.

This year Morphoses brings a host of new works to both its transatlantic headquarters. It also continues to collaborate with influential fashion designers Francisco Costa (Creative Director of Calvin Klein), Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Commemorating the Ballets Russes’ centenary, the first programme will  include Wheeldon’s “Commedia”, Ratmansky’s “Boléro” (to the eponymous Ravel piece) and a new work by Tim Harbour.  Two days later, a second programme brings “Softly as I Leave You”, originally choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (resident choreographers of Nederlands Dans Theatre) for dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk, in addition to old and new Wheeldon: “Continuum” and  “Rhapsody Fantaisie”  (a world premiere set to Rachmaninoff’s suites for two pianos).

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise:

One of the wonderful things about Mr. Wheeldon’s work is that there are new discoveries to be made each time you watch it. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Morphoses does have a provisional air. For the moment it remains an assembly of dancers, albeit extraordinary ones, from other troupes, and Mr. Wheeldon hasn’t yet had the opportunity to develop a group of performers to his own ends. But he is a choreographer with an instinctive grasp of dancers and their abilities…To see major ballerinas like Ms. Benjamin and Wendy Whelan on the same program is reason enough to watch Morphoses. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Trained on Balanchine, most New York ballet critics absorb meaning and sense syntactically, because with Balanchine it’s the action between the notes–the syncopated rhythms–that shape the steps and their portent. With Wheeldon, the ballet’s color and emotion may be rooted in the score, but the organizing principle is visual. Apollinaire Scherr at Foot in Mouth / ArtsJournal [link]

Wheeldon has set his standards about as high as a new company could aim for. We can really look forward to what follows. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

It is an absolute pleasure to watch this group of top-rate dancers running through their paces in this way. With ages from the teens to the over-forties, in all shapes and heights, they are so full of personality and presence that they make this a most uplifting evening. Sarah Crompton at The Telegraph [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company Website [link]
  2. The Newcomer by Joan Acocella. The New Yorker [link]
  3. Metamorphoses by Astrida Woods. Dance Magazine, October 2008.
  4. Ballet without Borders by Peter Aspden. Financial Times, September 2008. [link]
  5. The dancers are Young, Beautiful, Sexy and Smart by Valerie Lawson. The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2008. [link]
  6. How to watch a Wheeldon ballet by Apollinaire Scherr. Foot in Mouth at ArtsJournal, October 2008. [link]
  7. Risky Business by Gia Kourlas. Time Out New York, October 2007 [link]
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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

As we stare at the Royal Ballet’s new season, what better way to start than with the company’s veteran, Leanne Benjamin, who has danced for 17 years now and is still going strong. One of their most accomplished Principals, Leanne is ready to impress the crowds with her portrayal of the minxy Mary Vetsera in the opening night of Mayerling.

With all the physical wear of tear caused by the profession, few ballerinas can be on the rise well into their forties, but this is exactly the case with Leanne Benjamin. Her technique is still solid and having been blessed with a cooperative physique, she has managed to keep growing thanks to old-fashioned hard work and discipline (she is known for rarely having missed class) and to a well-thought out choice of repertoire.

These attributes and the fact she carries on excelling at full-length roles such as Juliet, Manon and Giselle have won her the admiration, not only of younger colleagues but also of bright modern choreographers such as Kim Brandstrup, Alastair Marriott, Wayne McGregor and last but not least Christopher Wheeldon (Leanne guests in his company Morphoses) for whom she is always on demand.

For all of Leanne’s consistency and longevity as a performer it is surprising that her name is not as recognizable for the occasional ballet goer as that of some younger Principals. Her recent Giselle was full of depth and the MacMillan heroines suit her immensely: few can match the intensity of her Mary Vetsera (Mayerling), the complexity of her Manon, her metamorphosing Juliet. Leanne can leap from mighty Firebird to more contemporary works, where she displays luscious extensions and a pliant body, and yet she remains very much a connoisseur’s ballerina.

leanne

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. Photo: ROH © Source: Danser-en-france

Leanne Benjamin in a Nutshell

Leanne was born in 1964 in Rockhampton, a small city in Queensland, Australia. To keep her busy, her parents signed her up for ballet at age 3, where she trained under the guidance of Valerie Hansen. During her childhood years she never put too much work into becoming a ballerina and it wasn’t until her sister Madonna entered the Royal Ballet School (RBS) that she felt she was up for the challenge. Two years later, aged 16, she followed her sister’s path and joined the class of 1980, at the same time as Royal Ballet’s Répétiteur (and former Principal dancer) Jonathan Cope.

Training with Nancy Kilgore and Julia Farron, Leanne won the Adeline Genée Gold Medal in the same year she joined and the Prix de Lausanne one year later (1981). She caused such an impression dancing Giselle in her graduation workshop that both Ninette de Valois and Peter Wright offered her a contract to join their companies (respectively, The Royal Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – nowadays the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Thinking she would have more opportunity to dance soloist roles at the SWRB, Leanne accepted Peter Wright’s offer. She joined them in 1983 and bolted through the ranks to become a Principal in 1987. A  hard worker who admits she needs the right conditions to perform at her best, Leanne thought at that point she needed a change, with more time to focus on individual performances and  decided to go work for Peter Schaufuss who at the time directed the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).

The Festival Ballet’s focus on high technique was the perfect environment for Leanne to flourish and take on new roles such as Juliet in Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet and in Tetley‘s Sphinx. In 1988 Schaufuss left LFB for Deustche Oper Berlin, taking Leanne with him. But she would not linger in Berlin for too long, accepting in 1992 an invitation from Kenneth MacMillan to join the Royal Ballet as a first soloist.

Leanne’s light jumps and long extensions (even though she is 1.57 m = 5 ft 2), along with solid interpretations of MacMillan’s female leads and other complex roles in general were a perfect match for the Royal Ballet’s theatrical style. She says she is a perfectionist and that she creates these roles by letting herself go with the music and reading the other dancers’s reactions to her own interpretation.

As she matures she has become more motivated by one-act ballets and new roles created on her by some of today’s most renowned choreographers. She  singles out her role in The Firebird as one of her greatest physical challenges but motherhood, she says, has been the biggest challenge of all and she considers herself very lucky to have been able to go back to her career and continue to bloom.

Leanne has been partnered by many great dancers, but her more recent partnership with Edward Watson holds a special place in her heart. Watson has acknowledged Leanne is helping him become a better partner and it is clear they have a great deal of admiration and respect for one another. Their chemistry is evident, especially when they are dancing in MacMillan or modern pieces.

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne has said in various occasions that she would have loved to dance Tatiana in Cranko‘s Onegin and perform more of the Neumeier repertoire or, like many dancers, Mats Ek pieces were it not for the fact that a toe joint problem prevents her from dancing off-pointe (and soft shoes are a given in Mats Ek’s choreography).

As for the future, she has mentioned that she is not interested in choreographing and is more likely to pursue various interests outside dance.

Videos

Browsing through the YouTube maze, we found a number of videos which display Leanne’s wonderful musicality and versatility

Extract of Reviews and Praise

Of her role as the second soloist in Balanchine’s Emeralds

Leanne Benjamin found her own poetry in the dreamy cross-currents of Balanchine’s choreography; the slight hesitancy that dragged at her quick, bright jumps, the way her body yielded to gravity against the vertical lift of her leg both creating a paradoxical illusion of light and float. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link].

Of her Giselle

Benjamin, that gently brilliant dancer, that true mistress of her art, offers us a Giselle of illuminating physical and emotional grace. We see a delightful peasant girl whose madness is delineated with rare sympathy: deliciously clear dancing, an anguished pose, a heart-tearing moment with Albrecht’s sword, tell all about her. An exquisite pas de bourrée and the gentlest shaping of her torso, summon up the wili. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

She has been dancing the role for years but I can’t imagine she’s danced it better. Her peasant girl is bashful but eager, her dancing warm and graceful, impulsive too. The shock of her lover’s betrayal sparks a mad scene that’s effectively theatrical without being overwrought…A dreamy Benjamin, with the quietest pointe shoes and the slowest adage I’ve seen in Giselle, captures the “here-not here” allure that so confounds Watson’s passionately grieving Albrecht. Most important, there’s a real dramatic connection between the two of them that makes their story come alive so vividly, and there’s never a moment when their emotional intentions aren’t absolutely clear. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of her Firebird

Leanne Benjamin was superlative, never allowing the drama of the long, exhausting opening pas de deux to relax for an instant. Now in her mid-40s, Ms. Benjamin is a completely compelling artist dancing with the technique to be expected of someone half her age. Alastair Macaulay at the NYTimes [link]

Of her role in Alastair Marriott‘s recent Sensorium (read our review here)

The pas de deux are more inventive — Leanne Benjamin, such a compelling artist, can make any material she tackles look significant, even when it isn’t very. David Dougill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Manon

Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg are among the finest in these parts: technically in complete command, so that every nuance, peak and twist of emotion is clear and eloquent, without impediment. Together, they take one’s breath away. David Dungill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling

Benjamin is sensational, metamorphosing from innocent child into reckless lover. With her astonishing physical spirit and wild, unfettered emotions, she embodies everything MacMillan’s choreography stands for, a Mary so dangerous that no reason can contain her. It’s all there in Benjamin’s gorgeously fraught dancing. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of Ashton’s Rhapsody

On Monday, Rhapsody was gloriously danced by Leanne Benjamin (unfailing musicality, brilliancy of step, a cascading pas de bourrée like beautifully matched pearls). Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Leanne Benjamin’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • Mayerling (Mary Vetsera) 8/14 Oct 2009
  • Romeo and Juliet (Juliet) 15 Jan/6 Feb 2010
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010

Booking for Mayerling, part of the ROH Autumn Season, already open. Winter Season public booking opens 20 October (Friends of Covent Garden priority booking opens 22 September).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Leanne Benjamin interviewed at the Ballet Association. By David Bain with report written by Graham Watts. Ballet.co magazine, December 2007. [link]
  2. Late Bloom is Simply Child’s Play. Leanne Benjamin feature by Peter Wilson for The Australian, November 2008. [link]
  3. Leanne Benjamin Feature in Dance Europe July 2009.
  4. Leanne Benjamin: Royal Ballet’s fearless young ballerina by Marilyn Hunt. Dance Magazine, April 1995. [link]
  5. Wikipedia Entry for Leanne Benjamin [link]
  6. Leanne Benjamin at the ROH website [link]
  7. Pas de Deux: Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin on The Firebird. By Chris Wiegand. The Guardian, May 2009 [link]

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Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

From the moment Marie Taglioni put on her ballet shoes and stood on pointe the cult of the ballerina took flight. The ballerina, the female expert in the art of ballet who lives and suffers for her art, is forever associated with intrinsic qualities of lightness and grace. But just like Mr. Darcy’s remarks on truly accomplished women (“no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with… she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved”), should we not also comprehend a great deal in our idea of a graceful dancer?

A while ago we were asked by one of our Facebook group members to write a comment on what makes a dancer graceful. This post attempts to approach this delicate topic (since not every ballerina is a synonym for gracefulness) from an audience perspective. Technique, which forms the basis, the backbone of a dancer’s art, is an objective measure. But grace, like artistry, is subjective and largely depends on the eye of the beholder. For evidence of that one only needs to take a tour of ballet on YouTube.

Pick a male or female dancer you like, watch a selection of videos featuring that dancer and try to form your own views. Then read the various comments in reaction to his or her performance: for every person who finds your chosen dancer graceful there will always be a dissenting voice. The FT critic Peter Aspden made interesting remarks on this when he wrote a very interesting article about the Mariinsky’s Alina Somova, a controversial dancer who continues to spark inflamed debate on YouTube and on ballet related web boards because of her use of extreme extensions in classical ballet. Some, like Aspden, perceive her as extremely graceful, while others see exactly the opposite.

Ballet is a contemplative art and to use another visual art parallel, there is no way to convince someone who prefers Impressionism to Cubism that Picasso is artistically superior to Monet. There are ways, however, to draw an observer’s attention to details they might have previously overlooked in a painting, to steer his or her eyes towards features which might lead to a reassessment of that work of art. So whilst we cannot define grace, here are some elements which we think would naturally emanate from a graceful dancer:

  • Good Line – as Robert Greskovic notes: “true ballet line has little to do with the dancer’s limbs and everything to do with the harmonious coordination of each part seen as a totality.” A good line emanates from the dancer’s centre to reach out to all compass points of his or her body, think a beacon irradiating from the lighthouse. For an example of a good line see Anthony Dowell executing Des Grieux‘s first act solo [link]

  • Port de Bras (carriage of the arms) – of course a good dancer must display perfect coordination between legs, feet, torso, arms, hands, neck and head, but soft, pliant arms help accentuate the gracefulness of the whole movement, to emphasize its poetry. Here one can draw an interesting comparison between male and female dancers: male port de bras is simpler and sharper to make them look more virile, stronger, their line more visible, while the female arms are more laboured, making them look more delicate (see this post for more Port de Bras comparisons). For an example of graceful arms, see Ulyana Lopatkina in Swan Lake [link]

  • Musicality – the most obvious way to define a musical dancer is to think of the music box ballerina cliché. A highly musical dancer will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music, so well they are matched. It goes beyond being technically precise. Of course, it should be noted that choreographers will treat music differently and the dance can either be on top of the melody or purposefully dissociated from the music, as is the case in certain modern choreography (ie. Merce Cunningham). A dancer that is often acknowledged as having been extremely musical was Balanchine‘s muse, Suzanne Farrell.

  • Physical qualities – one cannot underestimate the importance of well proportioned limbs and a beautiful face in ballet. On the other hand there are dancers who have broken the mold, redefining the concept of perfect proportions. These can be some of the most exciting dancers to watch because they transform what might have been perceived as a drawback into strength and create a form of unconventional grace. For examples of dancers who break the mold, see Alina Somova and Edward Watson making the most of their elastic and slender physiques in, respectively, Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse [link] and Wayne McGregor’s production of Händel’s Acis & Galatea [link].

And here we feature some of our favorite graceful dancers who combine all the elements above. Feel free to post yours if you have one!

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

Sarah seems to be floating on a cloud of dance, her movements so light and fluid, every step a music note.

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

This is probably one of the most enchanting ballet videos on YouTube, Alina is simply radiant, never exposing to the audience the pitfalls of Ashton’s choreograpy (which demands from the dancer coordination between a soft upper body and fast feet)

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

This is a beautiful rendition of the famous Spessivtseva solo (Giselle’s first act variation) in which every single movement is linked into a whole. Notice how softly she gets down from arabesque into penché, her arms lingering with the music.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

While the dancers above represent the “ethereal and petite ballerina” we have a contrasting example in Tereshkina, a tall dancer who looks poised, elegant yet delicate in one of the most graceful choreographies in classical ballet.

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

Around 3:39 you can see Odette’s variation. Makarova was the quintessential ballerina, a perfect match between technique and artistry: every step is used as a means for conveying emotion. A really graceful and touching performance.

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We are lucky to be part of a group of people who can regularly attend ballet performances and who are exposed to a wide repertoire and various choreographers, but a huge percentage of dance fans around the globe are unable to do so, either because their location limits access to local or visiting ballet companies and/or because of cost. Add to that the fact that ballet on television is a rare event (for evidence one only needs to check the BBC4 programming for this autumn) and that DVDs are expensive and sometimes difficult to obtain outside North America and Europe. So how do these fans get their ballet fix?  In the past they would subscribe to magazines, buy illustrated books and hope to catch a live performance once in a while. Nowadays the web is their one stop shop.

Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. Photo: Anthony Crickmay / V&A Museum © Source: Vandaprints

Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. Photo: Anthony Crickmay / V&A Museum © Source: Vandaprints

Thanks to the web and its wealth of materials about companies, choreographers, evolution of technique, and legendary dancers from the past (footage of their performances are a constant source of learning and inspiration for today’s dancers)  breaking down geographical barriers and educating not only future dancers but also global dance audiences is becoming more practical and viable. In this context, tools like YouTube and other streaming video sharing websites are helping make ballet more democratic and accessible, despite their imperfections and drawbacks (for instance the delicate issue of copyright regulations).

In an ideal world, streaming video content would be broadcast directly from or with the blessing of the copyright owner but in reality the bulk of ballet videos on the internet has been uploaded by private collectors. Although there are several companies with a strong YouTube presence – see our Virtually There post –  if you are searching for ballet videos you will most likely fall upon filmed performances or broadcasts that might not even be part of official company archives (as is probably the case with rare footage of virtuoso dancers from the Soviet era) shared by individuals who in one way or another have obtained them.

Leaving aside the questions of intellectual property and copyright law for a moment, as well as the definition of “fair use”  – although we agree that  posting an entire ballet performance can hardly be categorised in such a way – it seems that commercial gain is not the driver for most of these YouTube users who share their content freely. Profit or not,  some will liken these actions to “stealing” since these  accounts are effectively broadcasting someone else’s work without permission or payment of royalties, both of which are impracticable for a private user. So in most cases the YouTube user will upload content anyway until the copyright owner, wishing to prevent its ballets to be copied (and staged by non authorized companies) or otherwise, objects and submits a claim to YouTube.

youtubeBut is it all bad news for the  copyright owner? On the flip side, YouTube provides an opportunity for free promotion of the arts. The BBC tolerates private users uploading their copyrighted material onto YouTube simply because they consider this generates more publicity and free marketing for them. The same logic could be applied to ballet and ballet companies. For instance, those who live far from the Royal Ballet or from any other major ballet company might be more likely to purchase a DVD or travel to see signature ballets such as MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet or Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee if they can sample one or more extracts on YouTube first.

What could be done to conciliate both interests? Perhaps sharing video could in the future work like curatorships? As in the case of a private collector who will lend its Monet to be displayed by a museum where the public will have access to a rarely seen work, if one tweaked this concept (as here the “video owner” is not really the true owner and low quality image does not substitute real performance) and applied it to YouTube one could argue that the greater good is allowing art to be admired by everyone. Again, not everyone can afford a Monet or maybe have the opportunity of admiring it in person. But since it is an acknowledged masterpiece, shouldn’t it be fair for everyone to see it or on the least, have a taster/teaser?

Let us focus on a recent example. The YouTube Ketinoa channel contained over 1300 videos of Mariinsky & Bolshoi ballets, including extracts of rehearsals, Vaganova Academy examinations, class syllabus, new and vintage performances. Steering clear from the issue of who owns the copyright, this channel served as a film archive accessible to anyone wishing to further educate themselves or simply to enjoy great ballet extracts, with user comments largely praising its content. Last month this channel was suspended because it was found to contain a small subset of copyright protected videos featuring ballets by Balanchine. The claim was submitted on behalf of the Balanchine Trust, the body in charge of protecting the legacy of that choreographer. Assuming the channel owner received a notification asking for immediate removal of the offending videos, if he/she complied then the account could be re-activated, provided offending videos were not re-uploaded. But YouTube could also have pre-emptively suspended the account without notice to protect itself from any potential lawsuit, in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (US), which seems to have been the case with the Ketinoa channel, based on claims by ongoing campaigns to save it (see first link in this paragraph).

We think it is a shame that because of a small subset of videos a whole archive of Mariinsky/Bolshoi rare videos should vanish for good and it seems that petitioning is the only way for YouTube to re-establish the channel (minus offending videos of course). If you were a subscriber or a user of the Ketinoa channel and would like to see it restored you can write to copyright@youtube.com.

We acknowledge that ballet in YouTube is a delicate topic but we would like to invite discussion from all sides of the debate, so feel free to leave a comment here or weigh in via our Facebook & Twitter.

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Going for thirty six days without any ballet is quite a challenge for a balletomane, therefore I could not pass up the opportunity of seeing Carlos Acosta & Guests Artists, a mixed ballet bag of short pieces featuring from modern Brandstrup to chic & classical Ashton’s Rhapsody, and ranging from the overdone (a “male” Dying Swan) to the rarely seen (Azary Plisetsky’s Canto Vital & John Neumeier’s Othello).

Carlos Acosta as Spartacus. Source: Comono. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Carlos Acosta as Spartacus. Source: Comono. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Given the variety of flavors, it’s a good show for those wishing to sample ballet before committing to full length traditional or modern works. I took my visiting 11 year old niece who had not seen much dance before, she left impressed and willing to return. Acosta makes the right call as he opts for an informal atmosphere. The show opens with the dancers arriving in their leg warmers and changing into performance gear at the deep end of the stage revealing to us what goes on behind the scenes. While “The Ballet Boyz” did the same thing more effectively by streaming a live video from the dressing rooms in their gala a few years ago, this is a budget friendly way to strike the same chord. The evening kicks off just as informally with a barre at centre stage and Stevenson’s Three Preludes segueing into Cuban choreographer Ivan Tenorio’s Ritmicas, a great way to show the contrast in dance classwork, one with soft adagio moves (danced by English National Ballet‘s Principals Begoña Cao and Arionel Vargas) and the other much  jazzier, with plenty of speedy turns and modern extensions.

Acosta steps in to show off his Spartacus best in two solos, replacing the well known pas de deux, given Bolshoi’s Nina Kaptsova‘s withdrawal a few weeks ago. The crowd roars but blink and you will miss those jetés and tours à la seconde, which are gone in 60 seconds. Although I understand Acosta’s motives for including a hint of Spartacus in the programme (a crowd-pleaser & also his favorite role) I doubt those in the audience not familiar with this ballet will care to find out more just from seeing a short extract in a vacuum, but in addition to its “wow factor”, Spartacus is certainly an effective gauge to the evening’s high testosterone levels: after Ashton’s lovely Rhapsody Pas de Deux (sadly minus the variations!) we had an Othello (Hamburg Ballet’s Amilcar Moret) wearing nothing but well defined muscles and a scarf, soon unravelled by his Desdemona so that we catch a glimpse of a dance belt (instructive for those who wonder what male dancers wear underneath tights!), followed by “Canto Vital” which I nicknamed “Spartacus x 4“. This particular piece, choreographed to show off Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s best virtuoso dancers, pretends to be about three forces of nature – beast, fish and bird – struggling to survive but in reality it’s like the Neolithic version of Les Lutins without the comedy & the clothes, with plenty of opportunity for the men (Acosta plus Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae, Amilcar Moret and Arionel Vargas) to wear very little and impress us while trying to outdo each other, McRae in particular showing off some seriously juicy double “rondes de jambe en l’air” and leaping 2 storys higher than all the other men combined (Canto Vital can be found on YouTube: here are parts 1 and 2).

The Dying Swan is never going to feature in my personal ballet gala wishlist, it is a piece I dislike in any shape or form (with possibly one exception: this version danced by Igor Kolb) and I was not converted by this particular Michel Descombey version picked by Acosta, to me it seemed more like yoga’s Swan dive than ballet’s Swan death. “Over There” choreographed by Ramon Gomes Reis over Dido’s lament (taped music) reminded me that we had recently seen it better sung and more originally choreographed a few blocks down the road. A few other breezy and fun pieces such as Derek Deane’s Summertime were served until the grand finale (and Cuba’s answer to Don Quixote) with Georges Garcia’s “Majisimo”, which I presumed from the programme note to be a staple at every Acosta & Guests. Majisimo gives the ensemble an opportunity to shine and to end on a high, especially Acosta and his leading lady for the occasion Royal Ballet principal Roberta Marquez. My niece was very impressed by Roberta’s speedy turns (lovely Italian fouettées followed by piqué turns) and I liked how she added flirty Brazilian spice to Acosta’s Cuban charm, a good match. I left the theatre wishing I could see Roberta and Acosta dancing together more often. And even if not every item on the bill was my cup of tea, seeing Acosta & Marquez & McRae in great shape definitely cured my ballet blues!

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The Royal Ballet’s newest Principal dancer, aussie Steven McRae, charmed the hearts of these Bag Ladies since his first appearances in Covent Garden. At just 23, he has climbed through the ranks and made an impact on every single role he has been cast on. From his debut as one of the side soloists in Ashton’s demanding Symphonic Variations, his first big role and his outstanding Spirit of Fire, in Christopher Wheeldon’s re-reading of Homage to the Queen (Fire) to his unforgettably boyish Romeo opposite Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet, this strawberry blonde dancer has more than justified his fast rise.

His undeniable technical abilities to spin multiple, fast and very centered turns, soar high and “freeze frame” in the air, as well as his inherent musicality and charm are guaranteed to dazzle audiences and it seemed clear from the candid (some would say downright bold, see first video link below) way he spoke about his ambitions that he was never going to be a happy camper in the corps de ballet where he first started. As we look forward to Steven’s first season as a Principal dancer, here are some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Steven McRae in a Nutshell

Born in Sydney (Plumpton, in the Western Suburbs). Like many men in the dance world, he started ballet at 7 years old because of his sister. He also did gymnastics, jazz and tap dancing.

He won the gold medal of the Genée Competition in Sydney (performing Danses Concertantes) and scooped the first prize in 2003’s Prix de Lausanne, despite not having started full time ballet much long before the competition.

He joined the Royal Ballet School, where he studied for three years, before finally being offered a contract with the company. His first role was in the triple bill “The Wedding Bouquet/Requiem/Les Noces”.

His first big break was in Symphonic Variations, sharing the stage with Johan Kobborg and Federico Bonelli.

He has had work created on him by Wheeldon, McGregor and Marriott, among others.

Steven works closely with long time principals Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru, having danced important roles in Johan’s productions of La Sylphide (as Gurn) and in Napoli Divertissements and more recently creating a role alongside Sergei Polunin and Cojocaru in Kobborg’s short virtuoso piece Les Lutins. At the time of his debut in Romeo & Juliet the press reported that it was Alina who had asked for him to partner her when Kobborg became injured.

Steven partnered Alina in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes at the ROH’s World Stage gala in Nov 2007, having also travelled to Tokyo with her that autumn to stand in for Kobborg in Ashton‘s The Dream (debuting as Oberon). They are due to reprise their partnership in Japan later this year dancing in The Nutcracker.

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper © Source: Dansomanie

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper - Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Steven is ambitious, competitive and a perfectionist, placing major importance on developing his roles. His most embarrassing moment occurred when his trousers split open during his first Fille Mal Gardée. He is also a grateful student, taking  time to visit his old ballet school whenever he visits Australia (usually once a year) where he teaches and mentors new generations of dancers.

His dream role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon.

Videos

A quick spin through YouTube & a glimpse at McRae’s superb technique and musicality:

  • In the Swan Lake pas de trois, together with Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe [link].
  • Squirrel Nutkin from The Tales of Beatrix Potter [link]
  • A Tap performance for The Prix de Lausanne 2003 [link]

Extracts of Reviews & Praise

Of his debut in Symphonic Variations

What the future holds for Steven McRae I dare not guess, but if he is not spoiled by too much – or too little – attention, he must surely have a splendid career. His dancing was exceptional in grace and security. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Of his debut as Romeo (where he proved he was more than a technical whiz-kid)

Instead, and how sensitive this proved, his Romeo is younger, quieter than most in the early scenes, and then, when the fuse of his passion for Juliet is lit, burning with an inner fire that lights every step. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

McRae’s dancing is already polished by enthusiasm and an impressive classical technique and it holds nothing back. Debra Craine at The Times

Although only 21, McRae is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in the Royal Ballet and he brought an elegance and lightness of touch to sequences that have undone much more experienced performers. Luke Jennings at The Observer [link].

From his first minute on stage, you know his is going to hit the spot…his fizzing solo work cut the fastest, most deliriously buoyant turns I’ve seen in 15 years of balcony scenes. He also offered some uniquely nuanced character observation. Jenny Gilbert at The Independent [link]

If Covent Garden abided by entrenched Russian typecasting rules McRae would never have got beyond jester roles, which is essentially what happened when he played the Spirit of Fire (…). He’s fleet, slight, taut, acrobatically agile, extrovert, red haired and Australian. But McRae had already stretched beyond stereotype via Symphonic Variations and then partnering Tamara Rojo in Wayne McGregor’s monumentally successful Chroma. Yet none of these performances had really prepared audiences for his powerfully assured debut as Romeo. Allen Robertson for Dance Now (vol 16, n.4 Winter 07)

Of his role as the Spirit of Fire, in Wheeldon‘s Homage to the Queen (Fire)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire is filled with furious allegro and nervy shifts of emphasis, driven by Steven McRae’s bursting performance as the Spirit of Fire. Debra Craine at the Times [link]

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire has a demonic flavour, with a superbly athletic, explosive role as the spirit of Fire for the young and hugely talented Steven McRae. David Dougill at the Times [link]

and of his Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy Prince Cavalier

McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Steven McRae’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • New work by Kim Brandstrup 21-26 Sep 2009
  • Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor 5/13/17 Nov 2009
  • Nutcracker (The Prince) 30 Nov/12 Dec

Public Booking opens July 14th. Friends of Covent Garden priority booking period currently open.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Steven McRae interviewed by David Bain. The Ballet Association. From the 2007 reports.  [link]
  2. The 7:30 Report. Ballet’s Star Spectacular Rise by Rebecca Baillie. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. January 2009. [link]
  3. Dance: Steven McRae. An editorial by Clement Crisp. The Financial Times, January 2007. [link]
  4. Rising Star by Emma Love. The Observer, January 2007 [link]

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