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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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It is interesting to discover how choreographers find inspiration for a new piece and how they bring their ideas alive through dance. When David Bintley first announced he would do a ballet inspired by a physics equation, E=mc2, many were puzzled. How could Bintley turn an abstract mathematical statement into a ballet?

Using David Bodanis‘s biographical account of the eponymous equation as source material, Bintley started from its components (or ancestors) energy E, mass m, speed of light c and squared 2, to create his ballet’s three main movements, plus an interlude, The Manhattan Project. He then added choreographic nods to the related discoveries of scientists such as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier, Émilie du Châtelet, among others and, most importantly, to Albert Einstein.

While there is no need to know about physics or Relativity to appreciate the piece, there is more to Bintley’s imaginative dancing than meets the eye and as I have the  advantage of a high energy physics background, all those scientific references certainly added to my enjoyment:

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 (Energy) Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

In Energy, for instance, Bintley plays with Faraday’s idea of curling lines generated from a magnet’s interaction with electric currents so dancers curl their arms and hands throughout. An almost bare stage, a central projected strip of clouds, the piece starts with a bang and the corps de ballet come in and out, filling all the space, making swirling patterns to the pitching music. His choreographic framework is clearly Faraday’s engine: using the current of a power source near a dangling wire to charge a magnet Faraday visualised circular lines coming from it, which could “sweep” the wire and induce it to rotate magnetically as does the screw in the video below:

The swirling corps de ballet is to Bintley’s choreography what the circular magnetic lines are to Faraday, the main couple – Joseph Caley and Elisha Willis – acting as the dangling wire as they rotate around the ensemble of dancers and around each other in beautiful turns and pirouettes, with their burst of energy also echoing the electric currents printed in the costumes designed by Kate Ford.

Strikingly different Mass, with its shades of brown and a moody, melancholic violin score, revolves around three groups, each with two men and a woman, plus a central pas de deux for Gaylene Cummerfield and Matthew Lawrence. The women are lifted and moved around slowly, indicating heaviness, the influence of gravity and mass over every physical object. The focus on bodies and the various ways in which they can be used to create geometry (for instance the iconic image of the three lifted dancers in a triangle) as well as the various balances taken by the dancers across the stage all point to Lavoisier’s studies on mass conservation and his conclusions on the weight of substances before and after a chemical reaction. Bintley also reminds us of the connection between mass and energy when later on these dancers enter forming a compact mass, moving as a whole with their hands curling in the same way as the previous group.

in Mass. Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

Celine Gittens and Tom Rogers in Mass and Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

The interlude brings a red square of light in the background, a dancing white geisha and thunderous sound which develops into an explosion. This may be a short section but references to the atomic bombs and the destruction of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be more direct. Though visually impacting I thought that Bintley could have done without this section, not least because it logically should have come after Celeritas2, although logic in this case would have made for a grim finale and I much prefer the dazzler we got.

A background wall of lights directed to the audience, with the dancers playfully running and doing grand jetés from the sides lead us to closing piece Celeritas2 (latin for swiftness) which uses notions of speed and wave-particle duality exhibited by light. Bintley reminds us that light waves are nothing but electricity and magnetism forever chasing each other in space, just like first soloist Alexander Campbell and principal Carol-Anne Millar when they “play catch” and switch between front and back, with oscillating movements.

Bintley reserves his most visually stunning trick for a climatic end which uses the ensemble of the corps. Looking at light in terms of particles he builds rows of dancers in non-stop soft soubresauts. The dancers propagate their light in waves from the front row all the way to the last, each individually a photon, a “light” particle and  collectively a “wave” of dance going all the way to the back of the stage. The ensemble suddenly stops and only then does the main couple break to the sides, in mind-blowing chaîné turns. He could not have devised a more crowd-pleasing, applause-generating number closer.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Celeritas². Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Celeritas²'. Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Overall E=mc2 does an excellent job of translating a deep and abstract mathematical concept, the result of the work of an outstanding group of thinkers, into dance. The meaning of each movement was made clear through the choreography, by Peter Mumford’s remarkable use of lighting and via the enjoyable score from Australian composer Matthew Hindson. While the piece looks modern and fresh the steps are pure classical ballet which will allow it to live in the repertoire for many years to come.

Bintley’s new piece was bookended by the work of two Australian choreographers, Stanton Welch and Garry Stewart. Welch’s Powder, set to Mozart’s luscious Clarinet Concerto in A minor, had cheeky muses playing around with mere mortals. Whilst Mozart is not the easiest composer to dance to there are many bright points,  such as the sequences for male dancers which evoked four greek marble statues coming to life through synchronised jumps and balances (special mentions to Yasuo Atsuji and Joseph Caley) – and in the elegant pas de deux between Robert Parker and Natasha Oughtred.

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji in BRB's Powder. Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

It is impossible to look at the shape (dancers extending through rows of linear lights) and sound (strong/electronic beat) of Stewart’s The Centre and its Opposite and not think of Forsythe‘s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. But while the choreography is not very original it is certainly diverse in the interchange between modern extreme extensions and standard classical ballet combinations: deep grand pliés with arms on fifth, adagio dancing  (developpés going into a attitude en promenade and balances on arabesque) and a sequence of petit allegro steps (jeté, jeté, glissade, changements). I find Stewart’s use of a large group of dancers well judged since it allows many younger artists to appear alongside more established principals, with some fantastic dancing from young promises Dusty Button (a crazy balance that went for ages), Aonghus Hoole and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, as well as the elegant Robert Parker, who made the most of his beautiful classical line in a different, surprising context.

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

This was a well-thought triple bill, which showed the diversity of the company and a new work which is sure to become a staple. It also served as a perfect showcase not only for the company’s stars but also for their corps members. With all the pieces making the most of BRB’s ensemble, we have proof that in ballet as in nature, one really needs to gather mass to generate huge amounts of energy!

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As the Mariinsky comes to the rescue of ballet-starved Londoners this week, we kick-off our series of features about ballet companies around the world, outlining their history, traditions and differences. Most readers will immediately associate the name Mariinsky to one of the premier ballet companies in the world but equally important are its links to the theatre, the city and the era where it originated, the regal and distinctive tsarist St. Petersburg.

The Theatre

Russia’s first theatrical events took place following a decree in 1742 by Tsarina Elizabeth, a patron of the arts who loved Italian opera and theatre. Initially, performances in St. Petersburg were given in the wooden stage of the Karl Knipper Theatre and in the Hermitage Theatre (for the aristocrats), but in 1783,  a bigger and better theatre, Antonio Rinaldi‘s Imperial Bolshoi (big) Kamenny (stone) Theatre, purpose built for the emerging ballet (see “The Ballet Company” below) and opera companies opened its doors with Il Mondo de la Luna, an opera by Paisiello.

The Bolshoi Kamenny theatre was renovated in 1836 by Alberto Cavos, who also conceived a neo-Byzantine building in Theatre Square (1849) first occupied by an Equestrian circus and later by Opera stagings. This other theatre burnt down in 1859 and re-opened one year later as the Mariinsky, a full-fledged opera house with more than 1500 seats and the biggest stage in the world, named after  its royal patroness Empress Maria Alexandrovna. Ballet productions alternated between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Kammeny (where La Bayadère and The Pharaoh’s Daughter premiered)  until 1886 when the Mariinsky underwent new works, finally acquiring its trademark blue façade and becoming the permanent home for both the opera and ballet companies.

The re-inauguration festivities were dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, and included the premiere of the first all-Mariinsky ballet, Marius Petipa‘s Les Pilules Magiques. In the years that followed, many other masterpieces would originate here: from the Petipa canon (The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker in 1892, Raymonda in 1898 and Swan Lake in 1895), to a number of classic works by Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

During the Soviet years, the Mariinsky Theatre changed its name to Kirov Theatre, to honor General Sergei Kirov, the well-known early communist leader and Lenningrad’s party chief, but the theatre went back to its former Imperial name in 1992.

You can take a virtual tour around the theatre here (Quicktime required).

The Ballet Company

The ballet company timeline goes back to 1738, before the Bolshoi Kammeny and the Mariinsky theatres existed. It was the year Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurated  the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training dancers at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. These dancers, initially children of the Palace’s servants, were the first generation of the Imperial Russian Ballet, the school which eventually became the Imperial Ballet School, and later the Vaganova Academy. The school and the company attracted some of the most influential teachers (Franz Hilverding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giovanni Canziani, Charles Didelot) and famous stars from abroad ( Pierina Legnani – whiz ballerina who first performed 32 fouettées, Carlotta Brianza – the original princess Aurora – and Enrico Cecchetti), performing between 1783-1885 in the Bolshoi Kammeny and from 1860 onwards in the Mariinsky Theatre.

During the 1830’s Maria Taglioni performed with the company and impressed audiences with her virtuosity and artistry, her presence having left a profound impact. Later in 1859, Arthur Saint-Leon was hired as the Imperial Ballet’s maître de ballet. Saint-Leon created various pieces, of which unfortunately only Coppélia and Pas de Six (reconstructed for the Paris Opera Ballet) remain more or less complete, and inscribed the first ballet notation method, documenting the movements of the upper body. He was succeeded by the legendary Marius Petipa who created more than 60 ballets and introduced novel academic views.

Corps de ballet in La Bayadère. Photo: The Mariinsky Theatre © Source: Exploredance.com

The Soviet Era

At the time of the Russian revolution, under the modernist/neoclassical influence of Fokine (resident choreographer since 1910), the Mariinsky repertoire had evolved beyond the 19th century Petipa classics. Many of its stars joined Sergei Diaghilev in his European tours, collaborating with new influential artists and musicians. The 1917 revolution not only stalled this burst of creativity (Fokine and Diaghilev having left for the West), it also brought difficult times for the company, perceived by the government as unwanted symbols of the tsarist regime and depleted of many dancers (who had emigrated).

Thanks to Anatoly Lunacharsky, then minister of culture, the 1920’s saw a gradual acceptance of ballet as an art for the people. Ballet school and company, now re-established as the Leningrad State Choreographic School and the Soviet Ballet respectively, were to observe the principle that dance was a collective expression of the spirit and new ballets based on Russian literature or the struggles of the working class were created. At that time, former dancer turned teacher Agrippina Vaganova “fought tooth and nail” to preserve Marius Petipa’s and the Imperial Ballet’s legacy. During her directorship Vaganova managed to preserve some of the traditions inherited from the former Imperial Ballet while also developing new ideas into a new form of training, the renamed “Vaganova method”, which now has become synonym with the style of the Company.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Soviet Ballet became the Kirov Ballet in 1934. During the Soviet years, many notable dancers emerged, including Lydia Lopokova, Galina Ulanova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Yuri Soloviev, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was also during this time that Petipa’s choreographic texts were replaced with Konstantin Sergeyev‘s new versions: classics such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire underwent cuts, such as those made to mime passages, and in the case of Swan Lake (1950), a happy ending was adopted.

During the 70’s, with defections aplenty (Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov) and the Company’s morale at a low, director Oleg Vinogradov (1977) sought to retain and appease his crop of dancers by expanding the repertoire. Bournonville‘s La Sylphide and Napoli were brought in and staged by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, founder of the Scandinavian Ballet. Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were invited to create new works. The Tudor Foundation allowed Lilac Garden and Leaves Are Fading to be performed, while Jerome Robbins staged In the Night. The current repertoire also includes ballets by George Balanchine (given his direct links to the Mariinsky), Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe and the debated yet acclaimed Sergei Vikharev reconstructions of Petipa’s original masterpieces which now coexist with Sergeyev’s Soviet versions.

The Style

The Mariinsky dancers have always distinguished themselves in their beautiful port de bras and upper body épaulement, both features of the Vaganova training method. The overall feel is of aristocratic elegance (think Petipa’s princesses), with fluid arms and expression (even if acting is not the main priority),  perfect coordination between head, shoulders, neck and torso. Attention to the smallest detail such as positions of the fingers in the hands – that meticulous – give us a sense of movement with musicality. The corps are always praised by their unity and purity of style. Their principal dancers prioritize lyricism and nobility over bravura, qualities that set the Mariinsky apart from its peers.

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Their work day

Under the supervision of newly appointed artistic director Yuri Fateyev, dancers are given three-day schedules listing their activities. They attend class first thing in the morning. There are four classes, two for men and two for women with teachers switching between both. Members of the corps de ballet attend a specific class whilst soloists can attend either and then it’s rehearsals for the rest of the day. The Mariinsky continuously rehearses all the ballets in their repertoire, since the company usually stages two performances of one production in a row and then switch onto another ballet. There may be five different ballets staged in a week, sometimes with half of the company at home and the other half performing on tour (thanks to their roster of over 200 dancers). Corps members often carry on rehearsing until the last minute and end their day around 10 pm (as they appear in all ballets),  while for the soloists it’s a mixture between rehearsal-only and performance-only days.

Videos

Legends

The current generation

* Indicates dancers who are due to perform in 2009 London tour

Sources and Further Information

  1. Mariinsky Theatre Main Webpage [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, September 2008 [link].
  3. Mariinsky Theatre Wikipedia Entry [link]
  4. Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet Wikipedia Entry [link]
  5. Superstars of Dance: The Mariinsky Ballet by Zoe Anderson. The Independent, August 2009 [link]
  6. The Mariinsky Theatre by Nick del Vecchio at Living at the Opera [link]
  7. Interview with Ekaterina Osmolkina by Margaret Willis. Dancing Times Magazine, August 2009.
  8. Kennedy Center information about the Mariinsky Ballet. [link]
  9. Light Steps from Leningrad by Martha Duffy. Time Magazine, May 1982. [link]

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