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The Mariinsky visit to London a few weeks ago and in particular the fact that they brought mime-less Soviet adaptations of ballet classics with them, generated much discussion among Covent Garden audiences about the importance of mime in ballet. When Konstantin Sergeyev revisited works such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire in the 50’s, balletic mime was largely scrapped in Russia as it was considered that new audiences did not need to be exposed to something as old fashioned and reminiscent from Tsarist times. The West would follow suit later on when it considered that dancing should be a complete means of storytelling with no additional form of narration.  Mime became moot.

But well performed balletic mime can be as artistic and as beautiful to watch as the dance itself. It carries forth the story, putting it into context. For instance audiences watching the Mariinsky’s Sleeping Beauty will be given no clues that the Lilac Fairy reverts Carabosse’s curse to princess Aurora by reassuring the whole court that if she pricks her finger she will fall into deep sleep but not die. Of course there is an argument that many of us will be  familiar with this fairy tale and that we do not need such level of detail in performance. On the other hand, omitting the Lilac Fairy mime means depriving audiences of one of ballet’s most moving sequences as this passage assists in developing her character, conveying a full sense of the Lilac Fairys warmth, kindness and wisdom as well as the contrast between good and evil, her calming gestures opposing Carabosse’s jerky, angry movements. All this is achieved by working the upper body, with face, arms and hand gestures that are completely integrated to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. Balletic mime is a stylish work of art.

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Although we hardly ever see mime in modern pieces, classic works that have been preserved or reconstructed by ballet companies such as ABT, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet (the latter boasting a pure mime tradition that goes back to the Bournonville schooling) tend to contain substantial mime sequences. As we just wrote a post on going to the ballet for the first time we thought the mime basics would also help prepare you for the performance ahead. Chances are you will come across lengthy declamatory, narrative or conversational mime passages if you are going to see a 19th century ballet classic and if you know the basics you won’t be left scratching your head:

Most commonly seen mime gestures:

  • Dance

Hands circle one another above the head, the arms moving from first to third position.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, just before Aurora’s solo, when King Florestan asks his daughter “will you dance for us?”

  • Forget/Think

Character touches the forehead with the index finger.

Ex1: in The Sleeping Beauty, when the evil fairy Carabosse asks the King and the Queen “did you forget to invite me?”

Ex2: in Giselle, before Hilarion calls Albrechts bluff he asks a bewildered Giselledo you really think he loves you?”

  • Die

Crosses arms in front of body in a low position.

Ex: when Giselle‘s mom (Berthe) says to the villagers “the Wilis will make wandering men dance till they die.”

  • Beautiful

Character makes a circle around the face with the palm of the hand.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, before showing Prince Florimund (or Desiré) a vision of Aurora, the Lilac Fairy asks him “do you want to see something beautiful?”

  • Promise

Point two fingers, held together (like a peace sign) upwards in the audience’s direction.

Ex: in Swan Lake, when Prince Siegfried promises to Odette that he will marry her and thus break the swan curse.

And also:

  • Why – both arms open outwards towards the other character
  • King/Queen – taps forehead with hand three times
  • Princess – taps forehead with hand two times
  • I/Me – point to own chest
  • You – point to the other person
  • Love – crosses hands over heart
  • Listen/Listening – cups hand over ear leaning towards the sound or taps the face close to the ears
  • Anger/Angry – bend elbows with fists pointed towards the sky, shaking them
  • Stop – Palm out
  • Engaged or Married – Point to the ring finger

A brief mime dictionary can be downloaded from the Pennsylvania Ballet website from this link

See balletic mime in action:

  • Giselle: Berthe narrates the legend of the Wilis

Move forward to 2:30 to see the full mime sequence where Berthe (Genesia Rosato) tries to warn Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) about the dangers of  too much dancing. She will tell all villagers of the presence of Wilis in the forest who come out late at night to prey on wandering men. Note the miming of: cemetery/burial grounds (the crosses), wilis (the wings, the hand on her chin) dance and die.

  • The Sleeping Beauty: Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy

In the prologue of the Royal Ballet’s current production of  The Sleeping Beauty you can see the complete sequence where Carabosse crashes Aurora’s christening and curses her, miming the gestures: forgot, listen, say, grow up, beautiful, die. The Lilac Fairy interrupts (“now you listen to what I have to say“) miming that if Aurora pricks her finger she will sleep until awakened by a kiss from a faraway land Prince.

  • Swan Lake: Odette and Siegfried
  • Move to 1:40 to see the full mime sequence in this video of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake production for ABT. The promise sign is mimed twice, first by Odette (Gillian Murphy) when she is telling her story to Prince Siegfried (Ángel Corella) and then by the Prince. Odette also uses mime to explain she is the Queen of the swans.

    • La Sylphide: Madge, Effie & her friends

    Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg characterised as Madge tells James’s fiance Effie and her friends their fortunes in this Bolshoi staging of La Sylphide (Move forward to 0:35). Notice how Madge predicts that Effie shall marry Gurn instead of James.

    See Mime Rehearsals:

    Sources and Further information:

    1. The NYCB website contains useful learning materials for the same Nutcracker mime sequence shown above [link]
    2. Pennsylvania Ballet [link]
    3. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic. [link]
    4. Ballet Mime for Little Ones via Neo Blog [link]
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    This is the first post devoted to small jumps, the main components of what is known as petit allégro. Used in training they assist in the development of musicality, coordination, and quick footwork (stressing the use of the lower leg) while onstage, they are widely used in variations and/or character dances in full-length ballets, most prominently in Bournonville.

    Soubresaut

    A straight up jump from fifth, with both legs and arches extended. Starting from a demi-plié to gain impulse, the dancer springs into the air, being careful not to brush one calf against the other. In some schools, this may also be a travelling jump, ie. the dancer moves from its original departure point.

    Temps de Poisson (or Sissone Soubresaut)

    Means “fish movement”. This is a particular form of soubresaut in which the dancer bends its back at the height of the jump, feet placed together and pointes crossing to form a fishtail. The dancer lands in one leg in demi-plié (fondu) with the opposite leg stretched back in the air. This step, also referred to as sissonne soubresaut, are the distinctive soubresauts in act 2 of Giselle:

    Bolshoi’s Nelli Kobakhidze performs a series of sissonne soubresauts in act 2 of Giselle. Move forward to 6:27.

    Temps de L’Ange

    If while performing a sissone soubresaut the dancer’s legs are bent in attitude, the jump becomes known as temps de l’ange.

    Échappé sauté

    It literally means a “jumping, escaping movement”. The dancer starts in fifth position and jumps to finish in a demi-plié in second position or fourth position, with both feet traveling in equal distance from the original centre.

    Changement

    A jump where the feet change positions. The dancer starts in fifth position and jumps straight up and down, getting impulse from a plié and changing feet in the air to land back in fifth, opposite foot in front.

    Royale

    It is a type of changement where one calf beats against the other before the feet change position to land in fifth. Because of this it can also be referred to as changement battú (ie. battú=beaten).

    Here is a masterclass in allegro, featuring all the steps above described, although all of them – not just the Royales – are beaten, meaning that the calves touch before landing.

    Johan Kobborg as James in Bournonville‘s La Sylphide. Notice the échappés around 1.20 (with a beat) and royales everywhere.

    Entrechat

    Stands for braiding (or interlacing). It is a straight up jump from fifth, in which the dancer crosses its legs rapidly while in the air by switching opposite fifth positions.

    Each crossing counts as two movements and depending on the landing, one can have even-numbered entrechats (landing with both feet in fifth) or odd-numbered entrechats (landing on one foot), thus:

    • Landing on both feet: entrechats deux, quatre, six, huit, dix.
    • Landing on one foot: entrechats trois, cinq, sept, neuf.

    Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg does the famous series of entrechats-six in the coda of Giselle Act II. Move forward to the 5:07 mark.

    Pas de Chat

    Means “Step of the cat”. The dancer starts in fifth position and the front leg is lifted through retiré as the other leg pushes off the floor and is also raised into a retiré. The first leg lands first, with the second leg following to close in fifth.

    The Cygnets (small swans) in Mariinsky’s production of Swan Lake doing a series of pas de chats in a diagonal around the 1.36 mark. There’s also a series of entrechats-quatre before.

    The Russian Pas de Chat is a variant of this step in which both legs are positioned in attitude derrière rather than retiré

    Mariinsky’s Maya Dumchenko does some Russian Pas de Chats at 0:17, while dancing the Paquita 4th Variation.

    Glissade

    A small jump which is mainly used to power a big one, or to connect another step. Starting from fifth position, the dancer does a demi-plié and springs slightly upwards. Front leg glides along the floor towards second position, the whole body traveling towards this extended leg, while the back leg glides onto fifth position, so the dancer is again in demi-plié, ready for the subsequent step.

    Glissades can be done in all directions (en avant = forward, en arrière = backwards, à la seconde, etc.), with the feet changing accordingly when closing into the final plié.

    Assemblé

    Assembler means “to put together” or “to assemble”. One starts from fifth position and plié. The back leg slides off to a 45 degree angle battement (beating) on the side, while the front leg (now turned supporting leg) pushes and extends off the floor. The working leg closes in front fifth position, with both legs coming to the ground at the same time. Done in this way, the assemblé is said to have been executed dessus (from the back to the front) but can also be done dessous (from the front to the back).

    This step does not travel, ie. the dancer remains in its original position.

    Paris Opera Ballet dancers Emmanuel Thibault, Nolwenn Daniel and Mélanie Hurel do assemblés around the 0:33 & 0:40 mark in this beautiful pas de trois from Paquita. Look out for glissades at 1.29 & 1:35, changements at 2:53 & 2:57, entrechats at 4:30 & pas de chats at 4:38 & 4.40.

    Brisé

    Brisé stands for “broken”. This step is like a “beaten and travelled” version of the assemblé. It can be done en avant and en arrière: en avant, the dancer starts from fifth, back leg brushing in effacé devant and supporting leg pushing from the floor to beat the other leg from behind and front, finishing in fifth position (demi-plié), body arched towards the front throughout. En arriére, all positions are reversed (now the working leg is thrown to effacé derriere), body arched towards the back throughout.

    Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru (with Johan Kobborg) in a series of brisés in a diagonal, at around 4:52 in this Flower Festival in Genzano Pas de Deux.

    Sources and Further Information:

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

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

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    August Bournonville around 1830. Source: NYTimes. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    August Bournonville around 1830. Source: NYTimes. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    Few ballet companies boast as pure a lineage as the Royal Danish Ballet. The company can trace their heritage, their look and unique style back to the teachings and choreographies of one single person: August Bournonville, the Danish ballet master who brought into the country the best of the 19th century French school technique and used it as a basis to develop his own teaching method.

    Bournonville was born in Copenhagen in 1805. He started to take dance lessons  influenced by his father, dancer Antoine Bournonville. August first entered Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in 1811 where he was taught by Vincenzo Galeotti, an Italian choreographer. Following Galeotti’s death and the appointment of Antoine as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, August was sent to Paris, the ballet mecca in those days, to study with Auguste Vestris. There he remained, dancing for the Paris Opera until 1830, when he returned to Denmark as a Royal Danish Ballet soloist, eventually suceeding his father as Artistic Director. Bournonville had already started choreographing the year before his return and continued working for over 40 years. He created more than 50 ballets for the company,  all under the guiding principles of beauty, effortlessness, footwork that is active and joyous, and at a time when it was all about “the cult of the ballerina”, he made sure to position the male dancer on equal terms with the female.

    During his Royal Danish Ballet tenure Bournonville taught company class every day and developed a series of classroom combinations (enchaînements) which were arranged into a weekly sequence, and later registered by his successor Hans Beck. The exercises were taught by assimilation: new students would learn by observing their seniors. In 1979, under the directorship of Kirsten Ralov, these enchaînements were officialy published along with their matching music  (composed by L.T. Schmidt).

    A number of key features are associated with the Bournonville training. There is an emphasis on épaulement, despite arms being normally passive, round and often carried close to the body, so that when they move, they follow the rest of the body. The Bournonville trained dancer bends the upper body towards the working left to punctuate the movement, hence the low  placement of the head, with eyes following the moving leg as inviting the viewer to follow it too. Some of these characteristics can be observed in the below picture. Notice the rounded arms and the inclination of the back towards the supporting leg.

    Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, and Gudrun Bojesen in Bournonvilles Konservatoriet Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

    Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, and Gudrun Bojesen in Bournonville's Konservatoriet Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

    Many steps in the Bournonville choreography involve low positions of the foot, or sur le cou de pied. Pirouettes are usually done in this position, and arabesques are also low, since Romantic tutus were all the rage at the time.

    However, the real trademark of the Bournonville style is perhaps the enthusiastic quick footwork, beaten jumps and batterie. It is thought that because of the diminutive stage in which Bournonville worked, “diagonals” were never used in his choreography, with dancers moving forwards and backwards instead, repeating the same variation. Overall, the dancing style should look effortless and full of grace, which is why for instance the plié before and after a jump is deeper than in other schools, giving the dancer enough momentum to use it as a connecting step and to keep the dancing flowing. Choreographic phrases composed of large jumps intertwined with smaller steps are also part of his style.

    Bournonville’s aesthetic ideal of movement was harmony above all. He wanted his dancers to be graceful, not allowing the choreography’s complexities to get in the way. He believed dance should be an expression of joy. For that reason he reserved the music’s allegro movements for dancing and the other parts of the score for mime, a key differential of his school, since he expected his dancers to express their innermost feelings in an almost natural, simple gesture. In this respect he was inspired by the ideas of the French Ballet Master Jean-Georges Noverre, who claimed that a ballet should be framed from a series of pictures connected by actions. Bournonville represented gestures as a series of pictorial positions taken from nature and classical figures but imbued them with clear intention, which the audience could see from body posture, facial expression and pauses in the movement.

    You can observe Bournonville’s style of mime in the opening sequence of La Sylphide as the Sylph draws closer and closer to James asleep in his chair. Notice how she pauses and advances, with soft gestures to indicate hesitation & calm just before falling into a frenzied urge to approach and kiss him.

    Tina Højlund and Thomas Lund in Napoli. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

    Tina Højlund and Thomas Lund in Napoli. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

    Even though the basis of the Bournonville style remains, it was slightly modified by ideas from abroad. The arrival of Vera Volkova at the Royal Danish Ballet School, introduced many ideas from the Vaganova school of training, doing away with the set of Bournonville classes, which then disappeared from the school curriculum. These were later reinstated as it was clear that the Bournonville repertoire was harder to approach without its specific method of training.

    Here Johan Kobborg, Royal Ballet Principal, former Principal of the Royal Danish Ballet, talks about his Bournonville training:

    You get very strong, especially from the preparations for jumps…Out of nowhere you have to do a double turn. With Russian technique, you do a step, then you walk up to a corner and do another step. But with Bournonville, you do a step, then dance up to a corner.

    With some ballets, you can show it’s hard, but with Bournonville, it’s joy. You shouldn’t see any strain. It’s kind of hard, but that’s what’s fun about it.

    Famous Bournonville Ballets we Love

    La Sylphide, Napoli, Flower Festival in Genzano

    Bournonville Ballets on YouTube:

    Sources and Further Information

    1. Bournonville Website [link] – An amazing source of information on Bournonville’s life and work.
    2. Wikipedia Entry for August Bournonville [link]
    3. Wikipedia Entry for the Bournonville School [link]
    4. Johan Kobborg: Vibrant Virtuoso. Dance Magazine, 1995. Via the Free Library [link]
    5. Thomas Lund interviewed by Katharine Kanter for Ibykus Magazin, via In the Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
    6. The Bournonville School. Dance Magazine, 1996. Via the Free Library [link]
    7. A step in time: Bournonvile class at the school of the Royal Danish Ballet by Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine 1997 [link]
    8. Bournonville Ballet Technique: Fifty Enchainements by Vivi Flindt and Knud Arne Jurgensen. Dance Books LTD. ISBN-10 1852730358. [link]
    9. Bournonville Ballet Technique: Fifty Enchainements with Rose Gad & Johan Kobborg. DVD. [link]
    10. Bournonville’s Rebirth and What It Reveals by John Rockwell. NYTimes, 2005.
    11. Total Immersion Index on the performances at the Bournonville Festival by Tobi Tobias [link]

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    bb_awards_09

    The 2008/2009 Royal Ballet season was filled with golden tickets, but which acts made the Bag Ladies tick the most? As we gear up to restock for the new season (tickets go on public sale in 2 weeks), see our top dancers & top dances below and feel free to use the comment form to opine on who was just the ticket for you!

    Melissa Hamilton in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

    Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

    Best “New Kid On The Block”: Melissa Hamilton

    She was a golden vision in her first big role, stepping in for (and looking remarkably like) Sarah Lamb on L’Invitation au Voyage, but Melissa soon made a mark of her own in a selection of modern pieces like McGregor’s Infra, Acis & Galatea, Wheeldon’s DGV and Marriott’s Sensorium, making the most of her edgy line and incredible extensions.

    Comeback Guy: Steven McRae

    Injury may have robbed him of touring last summer & of some chunky debuts (including Lescaut in Manon) but McRae returned to the stage just in time to sparkle in The Nutcracker, shine as the Golden Idol, create principal roles in McGregor’s sleek productions of Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea and bag a promotion to Principal, no mean feat! (For a full feature on Steven, see our previous post).

    Comeback Girl: Alina Cojocaru

    Alina was sorely missed at Covent Garden for over a year, which was more or less the time it took her to undergo & recover from neck surgery. But in April she returned triumphantly in one of her signature roles, Giselle, amongst a shower of daffodils for the ages. She also managed to play her quirky side in the sweet & short Les Lutins, glow like the most brilliant jewel in Diamonds and join the RB summer tour for the first time since 2006.

    Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian

    Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

    Drama Guy: Johan Kobborg

    From his intense and deep reading of Des Grieux and the teacher in The Lesson to his display of virtuosity in classical roles such as Solor, Siegfried and Albrecht, Johan keeps showing us he still has it at 37. We may have missed his partnership with Alina, but at least there was that one Giselle. His future as a choreographer looks promising, given that he got stellar reviews on his short work for the Linbury, Les Lutins.

    Drama Girl: Tamara Rojo

    Intensely beautiful in Ondine, beautifully intense in Isadora, lush in Manon, luxe in Emeralds, Tamara squeezed dramatic juice in every role she was cast and brought home two DVDs (soon to be released “La Bayadère” and “Manon”, both with Carlos Acosta) to add to her Romeo and Juliet which is rumoured to be “on its way”.

    Whiz Guy: Sergei Polunin

    We knew we could expect great things from Polunin, after that taste of his Golden Idol last season. With outstanding debuts in Tetley’s Voluntaries, as Solor and in the Nutcracker, he spent all season stealing the thunder from more established colleagues. The reward was a deserved promotion to First Soloist, and a main feature in the ROH media campaign for the upcoming season. All of this at 19!

    Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

    Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its owners

    Whiz Girl: Marianela Nuñez

    A great season for Marianela, with lots of opportunitities to display her pristine technique and to bag big roles such as Giselle. Her “4 great Swan Lakes in 7 days” deserves a wizardry award of  its own, but on top of that, she gave stellar performances in abstract pieces, from which we definitely remember Voluntaries, Serenade and that Pas de Deux in Infra.

    All-rounder Guy: Ed Watson

    Yes, we know that this category seems lifted from the 2008 Dancing Times Award where both Ed and Yuhui (see below) won accolades but Watson was truly a “man for all seasons”, dancing in 13 out of 24 ballets (the busiest principal of all) and leaving a mark of diversity both in the quality of his dancing & repertoire, which spanned from old classics (Giselle, Firebird, Ondine) to the 20th century classics (Manon, Dances at a Gathering) and the contemporary (Infra, Acis & Galatea, DGV).

    All-rounder Girl: Yuhui Choe

    Injuries for some, opportunities for others. Added to scheduled debuts as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikiya, Yuhui also made the most of whatever chances she got to cover for her seniors, displaying her ethereal dancing, strong musicality, those trademark soft arms (Dances At a Gathering, Les Sylphides), coupled with energy & attack (The Lesson, Rubies).

    Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    Best Partnership: Alexandra Ansanelli & Carlos Acosta

    Fair enough, Alexandra and Carlos were never really a partnership (they had a brief stint in La Bayadère, back in January) but the sizzling chemistry they displayed in Rubies, in roles which were  so in tune with their own abilities, made us wish, first that Alexandra would have been cast to dance with Carlos in Dances at a Gathering back in March and second, for a world in which Alexandra was not retiring, so we could see them paired again. Easily the best couple in Jewels, it  was clear that Carlos found his match in Alexandra’s flirty and bendy ruby.

    Best Narrative Production: Giselle

    The Royal Ballet has productions of the classics that either go over the top of glittery & sweet or fall short when compared to its counterparts in other big companies, but Giselle truly deserves being nicknamed as “The Jewel in the RB’s Crown”. Sir Peter Wright‘s production brings the story to life with beautiful designs, costumes and most importantly, coherent storytelling through both the mime and choreographic sequences.

    Best Abstract Production: Dances at a Gathering

    DAAG really is like Mr. B said to Mr. Robbins: like popping peanuts in one’s mouth. The combination of the Chopin piano pieces, the delightful choreography and the RB’s unique imprint is so addictive we could watch it over and over again.

    Best International Acts:

    It’s not all about the RB all the time! While the dancers below have individually left their marks on us while visiting London throughout 2008/2009, hearsay is that even greater things happen when you pair them with their fellow company members. Mariinsky recent cast changes frustrated our plans to see team Obr/Shk, but we have not yet lost hope. So, which couples would you recommend we travel far to catch? Here is a shortlist that we assembled based on our exchanges with fellow Twitterers:

    Tiler Peck & Daniel Ulbricht, NYCB

    Yevgenia Obraztsova & Vladimir Shklyarov, Mariinsky

    Veronika Part & Marcelo Gomes, ABT

    Please cast your vote on our Facebook page (link to the poll), or let us know who you think deserves the accolade. 

    And last but not least,

    Dancers who will be missed:

    RB’s Alexandra Ansanelli , RB’s Isabel McMeekan, PNB’s Louise Nadeau, SFB’s Tina LeBlanc.

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

    Grand Jeté

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

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

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

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

    Jeté Entrelacé (or Tour Jeté)

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

    Here Dutch student Marijn executes a beautiful entrelacé.

    Cabriolé

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

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

    Saut de Basque

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

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

    Barrel Turns

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

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

    The “540”

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

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

    Sources and Further Information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Royal Ballet Summer tour 2009 in a nutshell

    Kennedy Center, Washington, USA

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

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

    Alhambra Gardens, Granada, Spain

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

    Gran Teatro de la Havana, Sala Garcia Lorca

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

    Teatro Karl Marx, Havana

    17 and 18 July
    Manon

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

    Picture 13

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