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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You like intensely physical dancing molded from contemporary choreography. Tetley’s work is as a balanced mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. You like greek mythology and/or ballets drawn from literary sources, in this case, a Jean Cocteau play.

Skip If: You are allergic to colourful 70’s style bodysuits or you are a Petipa purist who doesn’t fancy ballet crossed over with Martha Graham.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Dream Cast

Sphinx: Gillian Murphy (ABT), Marianela Nuñez (RB) or any strong-but-alluring technician (NYCB’s Ashley Bouder would be great in this role)

Oedipus: Ethan Stiefel (ABT), Rupert Pennefather (RB) or any Greek hero-looking dancer

Anubis: Edward Watson (RB) or any edgy/virtuoso dancer (NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht would be a perfect complement for a Bouder Sphinx)

Background

TETLEY_Glen

Glen Tetley. Photo: ROH © Martha Swope

To understand Glen Tetley‘s unique style, one needs to go back to his roots. Few choreographers have been able to so harmoniously mix influences from so many different schools of dance. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tetley started training as a dancer at the late age of 16 after seeing Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing in American Ballet Theatre‘s production of Romeo & Juliet. A move to New York and a random visit to a friend lead him to become the understudy in a Broadway production ran by none other than Jerome Robbins, who immediately recognised Glen’s talent and potential.

While performing on Broadway, Tetley continued to train intensively in dance. He studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, classical ballet at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and with Anthony Tudor. He became very interested in the stylistical impact Asian movement could make on modern dance. Given the frictions between modern and classical dance at the time, he shut himself in his studies and carried on with a paralell degree in Chemistry (NYU), which allowed him to explore opportunities in theatre and literature at the University. With this foundation he built not only his own dance vocabulary, but enough ideas to develop as a choreographer.

Tetley’s style is a blend of notions from all these various dance schools. His choreography has the fluidity and lyricism of classical ballet but also the impact, athleticism and breadth of movement that comes from modern dance, which is very open and fills the stage. Classical dancers often say that dancing Tetley’s works have helped them become better dancers.

Context & Storyline

Tetley’s inspiration for Sphinx came from his passion for literature. The ballet is his personal take on Act II of The Infernal Machine, a play by Jean Cocteau. It was originally created for ABT on ballerina Martine van Hamel to the music of Martinů‘s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras.

The Myth of Oedipus:

In Ancient Greece the myth of Oedipus was passed down from one generation to the next. First references to it date back to 7th century BC with Homer and Hesiod and, a few centuries later, via Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote their own accounts of Oedipus’s tragedy from a combination of several different sources.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. He was abandoned at birth owing to a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi who foretold Laius and Jocasta that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, his father binds his ankles together with a pin and instructs a shepherd to take the boy away and kill him. The shepherd, full of pity, leaves the baby in the hands of another shepherd from Corinth who takes him to king Polybus and queen Merope. They  adopt him and name him Oedipus (swollen feet).

One of the key incidents in the story is Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. The adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. Suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. Instead of answering this question the Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his own father and wed his mother. Desperate to avoid this fate and still believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus sets on a journey to faraway Thebes. On his way he encounters a Sphinx which serves as a gatekeeper. In order to pass and to avoid being eaten by the creature all travelers must correctly answer a riddle. The sphinx serves Oedipus the following riddle:

What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus is the first traveler to answer correctly. He responds:

Man: as infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age he relies on a walking stick.

The Sphinx, defeated, throws herself from a cliff onto her death.

Cocteau’s play:

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864. Source: Wikipedia

Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine is a rework of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) where the Sphinx is not a beast but an immortal woman who has grown weary and longs to fall in love with a human, in this case Oedipus. Cocteau kept its ancient setting but gave the dialogue a modern treatment and added a third character, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, who is allied with the Sphinx to kill those who don’t answer the riddle. Given the play’s focus on fate vs. free will and other contemporary themes, Cocteau’s Oedipus could be any young man searching for his own identity, while Thebes could be any major city, with its problems and vices.

The Ballet:

Tetley’s ballet recreates The Meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (from Act II of the play). For the Sphinx he introduced elegant angular arms and dynamic footwork given that the mythological creature is originally a winged lion with a human head.  To represent the ominous Anubis and his warnings to the Sphinx he choreographed vigourous solos with fast turns and jumps, while Oedipus dances adagio sections and a very demanding pas de deux with the Sphinx, full of complex lifts.  The immortal woman-Sphinx falls in love and yields to Oedipus, revealing to him the answer to the riddle. Confronted by Anubis, Oedipus raises several fingers and waves his hands in “reply” to the riddle. The Sphinx loses her power and Oedipus leaves unharmed without so much as a thank you for the answer. The ballet ends with the Sphinx  returning to her winged platform to die under the ever watchful eyes of Anubis.

Music

Initially Tetley had commissioned an original score from Paul Chihara with whom he had discussed the story, but he ultimately disliked the material proposed. Turning to his music collection, he uncovered Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani and decided to use it in his ballet. Czech composer Martinů (1890-1959) was a big exponent of Neoclassicism His compositions often reference Czech folk music but with a prominent role for the piano, which point to his admiration for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sphinx is part of the Royal Ballet’s Autumn triple bill, which runs from 4 Nov – 18 Nov. For booking and further details, visit The Royal Opera House Website.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Glen Tetley. Libretto based on Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (La Machine Infernale)
Music: Bohuslav Martinů
Designs: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Costumes: Willa Kim
Original Cast: Martine van Hamel, Clark Tippet, Kirk Peterson
Premiere: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 9 December 1977

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entries for Glen Tetley [link] and Bohuslav Martinů [link]
  2. Glen Tetley: Obituary by Jann Parry. The Guardian, January 2007.[link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Jean Cocteau [link]
  4. Bohuzlav Martinů Institute Website [link]
  5. Jean Cocteau (Critical Lives Series) by James S. Williams. Reaktion Books, January 2008. ISBN-10: 186189354X [link]
  6. The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 Season Preview, Press Release [link]
  7. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Dover Publications Inc.; Unabridged edition, October 1991. ISBN-10: 0486268772[link]
  8. Renaissance Man: Glen Tetley at 78. Interview by Karen Webb. Dance West Magazine, June 2004. Via Critical Dance [link]
  9. Review: Now That’s a Riddle: A Dancing Sphinx by Anna Kisselgoff. The New York Times, October 2001 [link]
  10. Discover Sphinx. ROH Discover Ballet Webpage [link]
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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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