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Posts Tagged ‘Les Sylphides’

This week we have double reason to party. While at Covent Garden the Royal Ballet returns home for the 2009/2010 season, over here at the Ballet Bag we  celebrate 6 months of online balletomania. To mark the occasion we have prepared a – non exhaustive – balletic timeline of sorts, to highlight some of our favorite posts over this period. We hope you enjoy!

Picture 18

Image Copyright belongs to respective owners. Source: various

1738 – Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurates the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training children of her staff at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1830 – August Bournonville returns to Denmark to join the Royal Danish Ballet as a soloist, having danced for the Paris Opera and studied with Auguste Vestris. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1886 – The refurbished Mariinsky opens its doors and becomes the permanent home for both the Imperial opera and ballet companies. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1889 – Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, forges a double suicide pact with his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1905 – Enrico Cecchetti returns from Poland to St. Petersburg to establish a ballet school and work as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach. The Scientist, July 2009 [link]

1909 – The Ballets Russes stage Les Sylphides in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina. Les Sylphides, May 2009 [link]

1910 – Premiere of the Ballets Russes’s Firebird with Tamara Karsavina & Mikhail Fokine. The Firebird, May 2009 [link]

1916 – Agrippina Vaganova begins teaching at the Imperial Ballet School, training ballet legends in the making such as Galina Ulanova, Natalia Dudinskaya and Maya Plisetskaya. Be True to Your School, May 2009 [link]

1934 – George Balanchine opens the School of American Ballet. Long Tall Sally, May 2009 [link]

1957 – Composer Hanz Werner Henze finishes work on the difficult score for Frederick Ashton’s water themed ballet Ondine. Ondine, May 2009 [link]

1976 – NYCB premieres Jewels at the New York State Theatre. Jewels, May 2009 [link]

1978 – Kenneth MacMillan choreographs Mayerling for the Royal Ballet. David Wall creates the character of Crown Prince Rudolph. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1979 – Bournonville’s sequence of enchaînements are published in printed format. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1980 – Kim Brandstrup moves to London to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance with Nina Fonaroff. Life in Technicolor, September 2009 [link]

1992 – The Kirov ballet regains its former Imperial name thus becoming The Mariinsky ballet. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1999 – Sergey Vikharev reconstructs the Mariinsky’s original 1890 Petipa version of The Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2006 – Royal Ballet also goes back to its original Sleeping Beauty, restaging the 1946 production by Ninette de Valois after Nicholas Sergeyev to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2008/2009 – Ballet companies boost investment in social media. The  Mariinsky launches an all English language multi platform initiative, NYCB joins Twitter, ABT has over 24,000 Facebook fans and the Royal Opera House produces the Twitter Opera. Virtually There, July 2009 [link]

2009 – Veronika Part, ABT’s newest Principal dancer appears in a US talk show and is interviewed by David Letterman, a rare occurrence in the ballet world. Beautiful Woman, July 2009 [link]

2009 – 23 year old Royal Ballet dancer Steven McRae is promoted to Principal. A Fiery Spirit, July 2009 [link]

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Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook or if you have been reading our posts here you will know that, balletwise, the past two weeks have been “all about the Mariinsky in London, their stylish dancing and the impressive array of performers they have fielded to wow us in the classics Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet and in sexy Balanchine.

We were particularly impressed with the very charismatic Igor Kolb, a 32 year old principal dancer, now in his 13th season with the Mariinsky. Igor’s artistry is remarkable, he’s blessed with an expressive handsome face, strong dramatic skills, effortless and fluid dancing and a beautiful line. His naturalistic Romeo left us at the edge of our seats and dying to know where all this dramatic juice comes from. We were delighted when he agreed to spare a few minutes between rehearsals to talk to us:

How do you cope with the mix of different roles on tour?

IK: It’s very interesting for me to dance a mix of roles on tour because they are all different roles from different eras. If I were to do Swan Lake every day it would be in some respects easier but psychologically, just impossible. Having said that, as a dancer you always want to make something more interesting out of the same role, even when you’ve danced it for a long time.

How long have you been with the Mariinsky and when did you become a principal dancer?

IK: This is my 13th season with the company. I started dancing principal roles very early, Prince Désiré from “The Sleeping Beauty”, the central adagio in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, and the poet in Chopiniana [Les Sylphides] so in a way the appointment to principal a few years later was a mere formality as I was already dancing all these big roles from the start.

You began your career dancing in the classics but how have you matured into a more dramatic dancer – the critic Jeffery Taylor said last week your Romeo was “heart-piercing” – lately?

IK: I really like the theatre, I go when I can in St. Petersburg, old plays new productions, I go see them all. I also like cinema and literature too [Igor is currently reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov]. Maybe it’s because I am a bit older now but I refused to dance Romeo initially. I had Zeffirelli’s Romeo in my mind’s eye and in this film there is a pretty girl and a pretty boy [Leonard Whiting]. I used to look at myself in the mirror and did not feel I was like that at all, the movie is like a beautiful fairy tale and I was definitely not like the boy in that film!

But then there was the [Baz Luhrmann] more recent version with Leonardo DiCaprio and I did not like him in the role. I started to compare both versions and that’s when I began to think maybe I could tackle the role. I understood that I just had to be myself, that I should behave as if I would behave in that situation. I am not as naïve as the boy in the first film, naivety is such a difficult thing to show on stage. For me it’s the tragic side that comes more naturally and I want people to believe in me. If you go onstage and you are not convincing then people can feel it, and as a dancer you can feel when the audience does not believe you, it shows in their reaction, in the atmosphere. Here I felt people were looking forward to seeing me as Romeo, as the London audience knows me already.

What are your favorite roles & your dream roles?

IK: I like everything that I do in the Mariinsky repertoire, I am very lucky because I haven’t had to dance things I don’t enjoy! Of course there have been roles that I have tried and did not like as much but then the Company is ok if I don’t want to revisit those.

Outside the Mariinsky repertoire there are very many dream roles, of course. I would like very much to work with Mats Ek’s wife, Ana Laguna. She came to see me perform as Romeo and I was so glad as I greatly admire the Ek piece she has danced with Baryshnikov. Other than Ana and Mats Ek, I would love to work with Jiří Kylián.

How about MacMillan roles?

IK: Yes, very much. Manon for instance is one of two ballets I only danced once in my life  [the other being Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony which the Mariinsky is set to perform again next season]. I debuted as Des Grieux at the Bolshoi theatre just as the Mariinsky’s performance rights for this ballet were expiring so that was a double tragedy for me, onstage and backstage, as I knew I could not do it again!

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Do you think there is a right balance at the moment between old and modern repertoire at the Mariinsky?

IK: I think the old repertoire, ie. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, are like the calling cards of the Mariinsky theatre, they are the face of the theatre and that tradition should not change even though there might be other versions in other companies. It’s our tradition, like tea in London. When you look at Balanchine for instance, all companies around the world are expected to dance his works in exactly the same way as the NYCB. I think it’s fine if done in small chunks but if overly done it feels like everyone out there is eating the same dish over and over again.

How important is it to have new works created for the company?

IK: We’d like someone in demand like Christopher Wheeldon for example to come over to create new work for the company, original pieces of work tailor-made for us. I think that in England it’s very good that the Royal Ballet uses the smaller theatre, the Linbury studio to get new work tried and tested. There’s also a similar project at the Wiener-Staatsoper, you see lots of different choreographers, see what you want to do, try different things out. Over in St. Petersburg we don’t have anything like that or like choreographic workshops.

When Marc Haegeman interviewed you a few years ago you mentioned having auditioned for the Mariinsky 6 times within 6 months, what is about this particular company that made you perseve?

IK: I studied ballet in Minsk and was not planning to go anywhere then as I liked the city and because it’s my country [Belarus]. Then I was invited to take part in the Vaganova Prix in St. Petersburg [where Igor took third prize], after which I understood that if I wanted to do something serious in ballet I ought to leave Minsk. As a result of the competition I was also asked to consider joining the Royal Ballet so everything could have turned out very differently! But I wanted to be close to home and to me the Mariinsky seemed like the top.

Speaking of the Royal Ballet, you danced Swan Lake with Tamara Rojo last year, how did you find dancing with her?

IK: It wasn’t difficult for us to dance together. Right from the first rehearsal we understood each other immediately, so it was in a sense, very easy for us and we danced together again last April in Tokyo, we did Roland Petit’s Proust (“Proust ou Les Intermittences du Coeur”) as part of the “Roland Petit Gala”. There might also be future opportunities to dance with Tamara again.

Tell us about Tokyo!

IK: I adore Tokyo, it’s my favourite city, along with London and St. Petersburg. I had a gala there ealier this year, Igor Kolb & Friends, where I danced Christian Spuck’s spoof “Le Grand Pas de Deux”, [Ukranian choreographer] Radu Poklitaru’s “Two on a Swing” a one act ballet he created for me and longtime Mariinsky principal Yulia Makhalina, as well as some more Roland Petit.

And the Japanese fans?

IK: I am so grateful to them, they spoil me when I am in Japan, they keep sending huge boxes of food, coffee, tea, sugar, everything, to the hotel, but lovely messages too. I always make a point of writing back to thank them, it’s pleasant that people take the time and it’s nice to feel that people appreciate me as a dancer, that they appreciate what I am doing as an artist. In Japan and England fans are really polite, very gentle. There was this lady over here, a long time ballet regular from Oxford, who knitted two matching vests with the initials IK, one for me, and the other for [soloist] Ilya Kuznetsov.

It’s a sharp contrast to St. Petersburg, the most difficult place to dance, the coldest public. It’s not just my opinion but people who work in the theatre generally feel that the public has changed, become more jaded. The tickets are now very expensive and it does not seem to draw the real enthusiasts anymore, they have been driven away, the theatre may be full but it’s now a very different crowd.

What’s in your Ballet Bag?

IK: When I came into the Mariinsky 13 years ago I did not even have a bag, only a towel, I was so badly off! But now I do have one and I carry around some knee tape, towels, a stock of fresh t-shirts and some foot rollers, plus any goodies that people give me!

With a big Спасибо/Spasibo to Igor from two appreciative and admiring Bag Ladies & kudos to Alice Lagnado for her impressive simultaneous translation skills!

Igor Kolb in a Nutshell:

He was born in Pinsk, Belarus (then Belorussia) in 1977 and started dancing at age 13. He attended the Belorussia State Ballet School in Minsk where he trained with Alexander Kolidenko & Vera Shveisova, and graduated as part of the 1996 class. During his final years at school, he was already dancing for the company in Minsk and under the tutelage of Kolidenko, he participated in the 1995 Vaganova Prix, where he won the third prize.

The prize brought him some deserved attention and motivated him to audition for the Mariinsky. It took him several attempts to obtain a contract, which he finally did just as he was graduating.

Arriving in St. Peterburg, Igor worked with Yuri Fateyev (though his current coach is Gennadi Selyutski) who helped him adapt his skills to the company’s style. Soon he was seen in principal roles, making his debut as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty in June 1997, as Swan Lake’s Siegfried in 2000 and as Solor in Vikharev‘s reconstruction of Petipa’s La Bayadère in 2002. In 2003 he was promoted to Principal Dancer.

Igor is known for his impeccable classical style and admits feeling closer to the company’s classical repertory (Albrecht in Giselle, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried in Swan Lake, etc.). He was filmed in Fokine‘s Spectre de la Rose, which is available as part of the DVD The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (Arthaus-Musik 2004).

He does not have a regular partner at the Mariinsky, having danced throughout his career with Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Sofia Gumerova, Daria Pavlenko, Zhanna Ayupova. Some of his more recent partners include Alina Somova, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Irina Golub.

Videos

  • Igor dances Solor’s Variation in La Bayadère (Vikharev’s Reconstruction) [link]
  • As the “poet” in Chopiniana, partnering Svetlana Zakharova [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Diana Vishneva in the Paquita Grand Pas. Links to parts [1] and [2]
  • As Romeo in Lavrovsky’s version of Romeo & Juliet. With Yevgenia Obraztsova. Links to parts [1] and [2].
  • Igor Kolb and Ulyana Lopatkina, perform in Christian Spuck’s “Le Grand Pas de Deux” [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Zhanna Ayupova in Fokine‘s Le Spectre de la Rose [link]
  • As Siegfried in Swan Lake, partnering Royal Ballet Principal Tamara Rojo [link]
  • As Albrecht, in Giselle, partnering Alina Somova. Links to parts [1] and [2].

Extract of Reviews and Praise:

Of his Solor in Vikharev’s reconstructed La Bayadère (Covent Garden, 2003)

They were, however, having to follow the superb act of Kolb. His huge jump and flaring line are pure Kirov, but it’s his unusual modesty that clinches his power. Kolb’s technical feats look all the more amazing because he never tries to juice up the audience before he whirls into action or hog the applause when he has finished. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Kolb is an immensely appealing Solor, a honey of a warrior who declares his undying love for Nikiya yet falls under the spell of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s beautiful, scheming daughter. So appealing, in fact, that you almost forgive him. His dancing, meanwhile, is splendidly realised, strong and flexible. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella (Kennedy Center, 2005)

Kolb’s dancing is strong, clear, pure to the point where it might provide textbook illustration, and yet informed with grace.  He does a dutiful job of creating a character, but you can tell that his real raison d’être is to display the abstract beauty of classical dancing, step by step. Tobi Tobias at ArtsJournal [link]

Of his role in Ballet Imperial (Covent Garden 2005)

Ballet Imperial, which closed their Balanchine triple bill, looks back to Imperial Russia, its grand sweeping contours matching the massive chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It demands huge and virtuoso dancing, which of course the Kirov delivers, led by Igor Kolb, who has perfect lines, amplitude, power – perfect everything. Nadine Meisner at The Independent [link]

Of his role in Steptext (Forsythe Programme, Sadler’s Wells 2008)

Steptext, a quartet, sets out Forsythe’s stall. Here is the essence of his drastic style: the provocative blend of nonchalance and intense commitment in the moves; the impatience with the strict rules of classical technique; the annoying eccentricity in presentation (switching lights on and off, playing games with Bach). Igor Kolb brought muscular grace to his dancing, while Ekaterina Kondaurova brought assertive glamour to hers. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Romeo (Romeo & Juliet, Covent Garden, 2009)

…the evening’s saviour is Igor Kolb’s Romeo. His performance is passionate and breathlessly enthusiastic; Kolb just dances the steps as Prokofiev’s music tells him to and pierces all our hearts. Jeffery Taylor at The Daily Express [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Biography written by Marc Haegeman, Igor Kolb’s Official Website [link]
  2. An Interview with Igor Kolb, by Marc Haegeman. First published in Dance International, Fall 2003 and reproduced at For Ballet Lovers Only. December 2002 [link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Igor Kolb [link]
  4. Interview with Igor Kolb by Cassandra, at Critical Dance. August 2003 [link]
  5. Danila Korsuntsev and Igor Kolb. Kirov Stars. Interview by Kevin Ng. Ballet.co Magazine, December 2000. [link]

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Schéhérazade, feat. Ulyana Lopatkina and Farukh Ruzimatov. Source: The ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Last Sunday I attended the “Tribute to Diaghilev”, a gala in celebration of  100 years of Ballets Russes and of its visionary mastermind, Sergei Diaghilev. The event brought together many stars of the Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Ballet and Royal Ballet, dancing extracts of vintage pieces made or inspired by Ballet Russes choreographers such as Fokine, Nijinska, Massine and Balanchine along with Russian-bred ballets evoking those that Diaghilev would have disseminated to Western audiences at the time (abridged versions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, etc.). It is difficult to imagine how the ballet scene would be today without Diaghilev and his determination, through which a new breed of dancers and choreographers flourished  and established some of today’s best Companies, so it is fitting that dancers and audiences pay tribute to his work.

Before I go onto the programme, a brief comment on galas. Noticing the lack of scenery and props, I wonder how hard it is then for the dancers to get into character in such events, especially in more narrative pieces. Without the props the dancing really becomes the focus, which partly explains why Balanchine favoured bare settings in his works. The second thing is that galas are precisely the occasion for star dancers to “show off their chops”, with no fear of being branded too showy. One expects great performances and that’s why Grand Pas de Deux, especially those requiring a sequence of 32 fouettées for the ballerina are standard. Sometimes I think there must be a rule out there stating that no gala should be without one.

With Fokine’s pieces taking centre stage, the opening number was the Schéhérezade pas de deux with Mariinsky’s Ulyana Lopatkina and Igor Zelensky (replacing Farukh Ruzimatov). For those of you not familiar with this ballet, the  story involves Zobeide, her slave lover, her betrayal of jealous King Shahriar who plots to expose his favorite odalisque, leading to the tragic demise of her lover. Zobeide kills herself and the ballet ends with the King raising his arms in despair, realising he’d rather trade his pride for having Zobeide back. The pas de deux between the slave and Zobeide was marvelously danced by Ulyana, stretching her long limbs in ways that are almost impossible to believe, but always keeping classical alignment (attitudes and developpés galore). Igor Zelensky was a formidable partner, and the connection between both dancers was evident from the way their movements mirrored each other. The choreography, which is all about passion and sensuality, might in the wrong hands look as  pure contortionism, but here it was rendered to great effect no doubt due to such amazing (and experienced) dancers.  On a side note, the costumes were so detailed and rich that one can only imagine how the full production would look like.

The next piece was Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe (video link), included as a nod to Fokine’s older, discarded version using the same Ravel score, and danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Natasha Oughtred (in lieu of Alina Cojocaru, in a last minute cast change) and Federico Bonelli, back from injury and in good shape. Though Ashton’s very distinctive choreography shined, somehow it also clashed with the programme’s strong emphasis on Fokine. The dancing was solid with Natasha showing her mastery of Ashton’s fast paced footwork including some  impressive hops on pointe, but I didn’t get emotionally involved in the performance, which might indicate that either this piece is not adequate for a gala setting or that Alina’s withhdrawal at short notice left these dancers little time to work together.

Federico Bonelli and Jamie Tapper in Daphnis et Chloe. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: Danceviewtimes

Petrushka followed, with ENB’s Dmitri Gruzdyev playing the puppet with feelings who falls for a ballerina. But the fragment was so short and the setting so bare there was not enough time to register and those unfamiliar with the story might have been left scratching their heads. Thankfully this didn’t happen with Ashton’s La Chatte, which was fantastically danced by Alexandra Ansanelli (whom we miss already). The Diaghilev connection to this ballet, based on the Aesop fable of cat’s metamorphosis into woman & back into cat (upon encounter with mouse), comes from Balanchine’s own 1927 version for the Ballets Russes. Alexandra’s portrayal, both funny and impecable dancing-wise and the feeling that she seemed to be enjoying herself so much as to make most people in the audience wonder why she is retiring from dance, added to the fact that she actually meow-ed when the mechanical mouse made its climatic appearance at the very end made this piece one of the evening’s highlights.

The second act pas de deux from Giselle, conveniently marked as “arranged by Fokine” to secure its place in the gala, was danced by Paris Opera Ballet’s recently promoted wunderkind Mathias Heymann (a 21 year old principal!) and young soloist Mathilde Froustey. They looked the part as Albrecht and Giselle (she has a beautiful oval shaped face with dark tresses) with all the right lines and très français Romantic air. There were some technical glitches, her promenade in arabesque wobbly everywhere, his tours en l’air (granted those are hard!) sloppy. This disappointed me, for as hard as it is for dancers to pull off these moody pieces in a gala setting, given the crème de la crème of dancing present, one does expect to see something close to flawless. More so in a “bread and butter” piece such as Giselle. They had brilliant technical moments: Mathilde’s jumps (soubresauts & entrechats) reached great heights and soft landings, while Mathias’s diagonal of cabriolés was outstanding (such height!). But with all due allowances, including  an extra for nerves (young dancers having to share the spotlight with such established stars as Lopatkina, Zelensky, etc.), I could not find the emotion in the performance. It fell on me that Giselle is really a role for more experienced dancers, or at least they are the ones I tend to enjoy the most in this ballet.

The low point of the gala came with Tamar, a ballet about a cruel Queen “who lures passers by to her bed and their death”, danced by Mariinsky’s Irma Nioradze and Ilya Kuznetsov. I cannot list all the wrongs with this piece in one post, but for starters the music was recorded (no explanation given), the costumes were awful (hers a sparkly leopard print catsuit), and the choreography, which was presented as Julius Smoriginas version of the ballet, just looked like a mixture of half-steps and nothing else. To the offending list one must also add Irma’s distractingly noisy shoes.

The first act ended with Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, danced by the darling Yevgenia Obraztsova and Dmitri Gudanov. The story is very simple: a debutante who falls asleep after her first ball and dreams about dancing with the rose she has just received, until it escapes through the window. Here some soaring jetés and pirouettes en attitude thrown in by Gudanov, but Yevgenia not having much to do but waltz and smile prettily (it is not difficult to like her!). I am partial to other interpretations of this piece and dislike the male dancer’s pink wig, so I didn’t rate it as highly as other numbers in the gala. For those in the “pointe shoe watch”, here was the only time I thanked the ballet Gods for Gaynors as they were mute compared to Irma’s shoes, even if they didn’t look very nice in Yevgenia’s feet.

Igor Zelensky as Apollo. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

After the interval we got Balanchine’s Apollo (his oldest surviving ballet) with NYCB’s Maria Kowroski as Terpsichore and Igor Zelensky (formerly with NYCB) as Apollo. The performance was flawless with Maria commanding the stage and making use of her long lines (so distinctive to see a Balanchine trained dancer against the more conventionally classical crowd) and Zelensky looking very god-like. My favourite part was when Maria was stretched across Igor’s back, arms wide open, it could have happily lasted for a decade.

A replay of last week Les Sylphides sans corps de ballet, came via Tamara Rojo and David Makhateli. Those of us who attended the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill, had the opportunity to see the waltz played at a more appropriate tempo (Valeriy Ovsyanikov did the honours, with the Orchestra of the ENB). This piece suffers without the surrounding sylphs in perfect poses, but Tamara showed lightness, technical prowess (her balance as the music ends lasted forever) and a had a good rapport with Makhateli. Then Dmitri Gudanov re-appeared to dance an extract of Léonide Massine’s Le Tricorne (a good background article here) which captures its Spanish shades in the score and in colourful designs by that little known artist, Picasso. Gudanov managed to somehow deliver a bit of drama and stage presence against the odds of a very short extract and playback music.

Another (sort of) repeat came with The Firebird, with Mariinsky designs and dancers Irma Nioradze and Ilya Kuznetsov. Despite the solid dancing, I was  severely distracted by Irma’s acting. Geared up to compensate for the fact she wasn’t wearing the usual “Firebird” stage makeup, her facial expressions came across as weird or even worse, (gasp!) comedic. Next, Mara Galeazzi and Bennet Gartside from the Royal Ballet in Bronislava Nijinska’s (aka Nijinsky’s sister) Les Biches which does 1920’s chic with comedic flare in its depiction of rich people enjoying pool parties in the Mediterranean. Mara as the girl in blue, showed comfort in those bends and cooly flirted with Bennet’s character. It was quite enjoyable and a good appetizer for the next sizzler: Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in the mother of all classics, Swan Lake. How is it that the evening’s hottest number was not an original Ballets Russes piece, you ask? Well, Swan Lake is a proven commodity. Even Diaghilev knew it. It is a masterpiece and that is why it still sells tickets and attracts audiences (for the record I am not advocating ballet Companies should do runs of 20+ Swan Lakes with not enough dancers to give it justice every night) while some of tonight’s pieces have fallen out of favour since they just don’t measure up to “the classics” or don’t stand the test of time.  What makes a classic? Maybe one should have a good look at Swan Lake, its long enduring appeal and see what lessons future generations of choreographers can learn from it.

Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in The Royal Ballet's Swan Lake. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: BFI.

Back to Marianela, who was just incredible. She made Odille her own, poor Siegfried had no chance. It is amazing to witness how Marianela’s artistry has grown and how fresh she looked kicking those fouettées (singles interlaced with doubles and triples). Thiago’s Siegfried could only watch in awe and let himself loose into those treacherous arms. The house broke in thunderous applause and it was one of the loudest ovations I’ve heard recently (only Lopatkina’s below was equally loud) and Thiago graciously let Marianela take centre stage since she was the showstopper here.

Following this piece was going to be hard, but fortunately the gentle Le Carnaval brought some welcome contrast to calm our hearts and minds. Yevgenia Obraztsova returned from Spectre in a similar full-skirted costume portraying a well-matched Columbine to Andrei Batalov’s Harlequin. But the last real highlight and evening closer was the über famous Dying Swan. This quintessential gala piece can easily sway from over-the-top, unnecessary drama to plain corny and cliché. Not with Lopatkina. She was all fragility, beauty, sadness, elegance. The vision of what a melancholy swan should be. Her arms moved softly and her torso delicately bent over her waist really evoked the movements of a bird. The way in which the stage looked blue-ish and the spotlight barely fell over Ulyana, made the performance even more dreamlike. Judging from the crowd response she got, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the house not moved by her dancing.

Ulyana Lopatkina in the Dying Swan. Source: The Mariinsky Theatre via ExploreDance.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

To sum it all up, the evening was a pleasurable experience and we were treated to some great performances and exposed to rarer pieces. In any case, it was a good reminder of how much classical dance owes to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

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Since mixed reviews (including our previous opening night write up) have plagued the Royal Ballet’s celebratory “Ballets Russes Triple Bill”, I approached last Friday’s penultimate performance with a mixture of curiosity and excitement. By now, I thought, with most of the “nerves” gone and all the quirks fixed, it is not unreasonable to expect the dancers to be at their best.  I had also brought with me the ultimate tester for impact, a friend who had never been to a ballet performance. I was interested to see how she would gauge these ballets, given the stylistical differences between them.

The Royal Ballet in Les Sylphides. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: The Independent.

 

Les Sylphides started with Chopin’s Prelude in A (op 28) sounding wonderful, even if  a tad too slow in tempo. The curtains opened to show beautiful sylphs in pristine white Romantic tutus, standing in perfect poses. The cast was full of replacements: Johan Kobborg instead of Federico Bonelli as the Poet, Yuhui Choe instead of Alina Cojocaru and Helen Crawford replacing an indisposed Lauren Cuthbertson, as announced just before curtain up, so only one (Laura Morera) out of three sylphs had been originally cast. But all these cast changes did not detract and if Les Sylphides is supposed to evoke mood and display the beauty of dancing, I can happily report it did, thanks to Yuhui Choe and her sheer virtuosity: she was ethereal, vaporous and light. Her bourrées barely skimming the floor and her arms full of delicacy; her balances lasting for all eternity and her jumps with landings so soft that one could think she was floating. Yuhui’s artistry was so distinctive that when Laura Morera came in to dance the waltz, the jumps felt a bit heavy, the arms not delicate enough (although Laura’s innate musicality was evident in the phrasing of the steps. I still think of her as more of an allegro dancer). Helen Crawford was a slightly better fit for the Mazurka, but she still looked more like a maiden dressed as a fairy rather than a real spirit of the woods.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The corps de ballet were in great shape and although one would wish for a bigger display of ethereal qualities, which sometimes depend not that much on the dancing but on the dancer, every gesture and movement was precisely timed and positioned into the succession of dances. As the poet, Johan Kobborg gave a decent performance, his cabriolés a delight (pure Bournonville goodness), but I felt this was not a role he relishes and in all honesty it does not play to his strengths.

One thing that bothered me in Les Sylphides more than the slow tempo (for at times the music did speed up) was the strong lighting which prevented us from  experiencing the eeriness of Benois’ design of ruins in a dark forest. I longed for a darker stage with only the light on the white of the tutus (a suggestion of moonlight) allowing for a glimpse of the ruins and the surrounding trees.

Next in the programme was Alastair Marriott‘s Sensorium, a strikingly contrasting work, even though the inspiration behind it somehow resembles that of Les Sylphides. Marriott wanted to give a choreographic response to Debussy’s preludes in the same way that Les Sylphides is Fokine’s response to Chopin’s orchestral suite. As I wasn’t aware of which particular preludes were going to be used in performance, I decided to just try and make the “sensory associations” that Marriott wants from his audience.

Senso

From left to right. Thomas Whitehead, Leanne Benjamin, Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In a midst of extensions, contortions and twists against a backdrop of salmons, blues and nudes, there were moments in Sensorium in which the choreography suggested images of wind, sea and sand. In particular, there were two pas de deux, the first with Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli (who is retiring at the end of this season) and the second with Thomas Whitehead and Leanne Benjamin. Both were well matched pairs, with Rupert faring quite well in a non-danseur noble role supported by the gorgeousness of Alexandra’s extensions. Leanne and Thomas presented more of a passionate “twisting and turning” pas de deux that was very enjoyable and contained some classical steps amidst the unusual shapes. The last prelude incorporated all the dancers and had the main couples surrounded by blue bodies moving as if they were waves in the sea (in something that resembled yoga’s downward dogs!), the peach background evoking a windy sunset. This was probably my favourite “sensation” from Marriott’s choreography. The downside is that nothing in the ballet is particularly memorable (with the exception of Colin Matthews’ Debussy’s orchestrations) so I see this ballet being probably revived a couple of times before fading away.

The Royal Ballet in The Firebird. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: The Guardian

I did not have high expectations for the last piece with Roberta Marquez cast as “The Firebird” as she does not rate very high on my personal board of favourite dancers. However, not only did she prove worthy of her principal dancer status, she was literally on fire: her jumps were athletic (quite a big jumper she is!), her turns were flashing. Her hands expressive and her gestures spot on at all times. Trapped by Ivan Tsarevich, you could see the Firebird’s surprise and despair on her wings, how she tried to free herself. In fact, Marquez and the ever awesome Gary Avis as the Immortal Kostcheï were the highlights of the performance. First Soloist Valeri Hristov danced the part of Ivan, a bland role that doesn’t require much from the male dancer, so it is hard for me to evaluate him. The corps and members of the Royal Ballet School were good as the various creatures in the final scenes and the designs and costumes are something to be admired on their own. However, it occurred to me that this piece would be better placed with other narrative ballets rather than abstract pieces, given that it’s so rich in mime and huge dramatic ensemble scenes.

Fire

From left to right, Valeri Hristov, Roberta Marquez and Gary Avis. Photo: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

All in all, in this Triple Bill the Royal Ballet came up with a good display of dancing which more than honours the memory of Diaghilev: variety of styles, great dancers and music, which makes it great for newcomers: my friend loved Les Sylphides and was mesmerized by the images it created. She also found Sensorium to be interesting and contrasting. However, she felt let down by the Firebird, in the sense that she was not expecting so much theatricality to be served up last, after the abstractions of the previous pieces. For me, that summed up what a good triple bill should be about, a treat for everyone. For me? This triple bill was certainly not perfect, but it had its moments.

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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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Many ballet goers like to do their research before purchasing a ticket or attending a performance. Of course there are those who will jump into anything that is called ballet and then sit bemused through the first act before finally deciding to study the programme in the first interval. But ideally you would do some preparatory reading of what you are about to see (and hear) at home to better understand and enjoy it.

The beauty of internet is that nowadays one can find essentially everything  about a particular ballet (notes on choreography, music, history, performers, etc) and even bits of video, all just by searching on Google. We would like to build our own set of fact cards on this site and make life easier for people who are just approaching ballet, so taking a cue from the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill commemorating Diaghilev and the 100th anniversary of Ballets Russes‘s first Parisian season, we will start with an abstract ballet by Mikhail Fokine:

Les Sylphides

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are fond of white romantic vaporous tutus waltzing on the stage. Adagio (ie. slow) dancing makes you happy.

Skip if: You prefer your ballets full-length and plot driven, with loads of pyrotechnics on the side.

 

ABT in Les Sylphides. Photo Rosalie O'Connor ©. Picture Source: [Artsjournal.com]

ABT in Les Sylphides by Rosalie O'Connor ©. Picture Source: Artsjournal.com

Themes:

Les Sylphides is a short (one act) plotless Romantic ballet, or as some would describe it, a ballet of mood, originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to music by Chopin. Although it is framed rather like the “divertissements in the forest” that take place in Act 2 of the full length Romantic ballet “La Sylphide”, Les Sylphides has nothing to do with and should not be confused with  the former (different music, choreographer, motifs and themes).

Perhaps because of the potential for confusion with La Sylphide some ballet companies still refer to Fokine’s work by its original title: Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin, as performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1908. However named, the version danced nowadays is the one staged for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, the 2nd of June of 1909, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina.

The ballet’s theme is that of a young man walking at night and encountering a group of white sylphs (slender young women that are spirits of the air. The name Sylph is combined from the latin sylvestris=of the woods and nympha=nymph) dancing in the moonlight. The man joins in and dances with the sylphs. Some productions characterized this man as “a poet dreaming about his inspirations” (in many programmes the male role would be called poet) but this is really a ballet about the music rather than its characters and as the Royal Ballet ‘s programme notes, each of the female dancers is named after their own movements (Valse, Mazurka, Prelude). Given the romantic atmosphere of this piece, the ballet is very approachable and a staple in the repertory of nearly every major company in the world. Women in white romantic tutus (ie. the long ones) are always evocative and who doesn’t like to spend half an hour looking at dreamy apparitions on stage?

Music:

To make an Ipod or Spotify playlist for Les Sylphides (always a good idea to try the music on before you go!) you should look for the following Chopin tracks – but note that in live performance they will have been orchestrated (see mini biography below):

1. Prelude in A (Op. 28, no 7),
2. Nocturne in A flat major (Op. 32, no. 2),
3. Valse in G Flat major (Op. 70, no. 1),
4. Mazurka in D major (Op. 33, no. 2),
5. Mazurka in C major (Op. 67, no. 3),
6. Valse in C sharp minor (Op. 64, no. 2),
7. Valse in E flat major (Op. 18, no. 1)

Les Sylphides is part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill dedicated to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which runs from 4 May – 30 May. With Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthberson, Laura Morera, Tamara Rojo, Johan Kobborg and David Makhateli.

Mini Biography:

Choreography: Mikhail Fokine
Music: Frederic Chopin
Original Orchestration: Alexander Glazunov (Roy Douglas in the current Royal Ballet production)
Original Design: Alexandre Benois 
Original Cast: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina
Premiere: 2 June 1909

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Les Sylphides. 
  2. ABT’s notes on Les Sylphides.
  3. Australia Dancing’s entry and research materials.
  4. Monica Mason and artists of the Royal Ballet talking about the triple bill dedicated to the Ballets Russes, including Les Sylphides [Link]

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