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Audience at "Kenneth MacMillan's Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight" Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Earlier this month we attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium at Imperial College London. Celebrating the choreographer who would have been 80 this year, this full day event was held in association with The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Institute of Psychoanalysis and drew on psychoanalysts, scholars and dancers sharing insights into MacMillan’s ballets, along with rare archival footage and live masterclasses. A full register will soon be available through the new Kenneth MacMillan official website (which goes live December 11) but here are some of our own notes and thoughts.

To backtrack a little, my first exposure to MacMillan was a televised performance of his Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie. I remember being quite taken with the lifts where Juliet expresses her delight as Romeo tries to take her to the stars. So much could be said about young love and the feeling of one’s heart brimming with happiness with such economy of movement and no mime. I didn’t know much about MacMillan then but his work struck a chord with me. Later I had the opportunity to move to London and discover, via The Royal Ballet, the extent of his choreographic vocabulary, from full-length to short works, realising that MacMillan’s ballets were all about human emotions conveyed via eloquent steps.

At the time when MacMillan quit dancing and ventured into choreography, ballet was a decorative art form which provided an escape from reality. He set out to do exactly the opposite, turning reality and human suffering into compelling dance works. Putting this into context MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry introduced the session speaking of how he eventually became the “outsider”,  the most common leitmotif found in his works, first seen in female characters (Laiderette, Anastasia) but later appearing as males (Mayerling, Different Drummer). Kenneth had not been bullied or lonely as a child, but the death of his mother when he was 12 and the difficult relationship with his father and brother set him on a constant search for a surrogate family and for his own identity. Parry also remarked that these events led MacMillan to search for psychoanalysts to help him understand his fears and anxieties and to deal with depression. Whilst he was fascinated with Freud, MacMillan also worried about what would happen to his creative spirit if he dug too deep into his sources.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

We saw the practical extent to which MacMillan’s work and his creative sources provide rich psychoanalytical material. A panel headed by Dr. Luis Rodriguez de la Sierra (known to us from the “Connecting Conversations” series) offered links between MacMillan’s life experiences and his creative output. This panel juxtaposed the troubled relationship between brothers with the sibling relationship in Manon, where the older brother Lescaut “corrupts” and breaks her innocence by throwing her in Monsieur G.M.’s way; the fact that MacMillan’s father had been gassed in WWI (during the Battle of Somme) with the war aftermath from Gloria and his mother’s recurrent debilitating fits with Mayerling and Empress Elizabeth’s rejection of her attention-seeking son Crown Prince Rudolf. Another interesting discussion centered around  the fantasy of “dying together as an act of love”, an allegory present in Romeo and Juliet and in Mayerling and which the panel connected to Ernest Jones’s theory of a subconscious wish to return to the mother’s womb.

National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the last person to work with MacMillan (in Carousel), demonstrated via video that MacMillan could convey in 5 minutes of dance “what would take a playwright 3 hours with words”. In a short pas de deux from Carousel we saw  how movement marks the evolution of the main female character, from tomboy to woman in love. Actress Nichola McAuliffe also talked about her experience with MacMillan as a stage director. She explained that British Theatre traditionally had actors “dead” from the neck below and that working with MacMillan made her think about the physicality of her characters.

Former Stuttgart Ballet dancers Vladimir Klos and Birgit Keil at the Kenneth MacMillan Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

To illustrate MacMillan’s creative methods Birgit Keil and Vladimir Klos, former Stuttgart Ballet dancers who created roles in MacMillan ballets, described how he nurtured his dancers and sought a collaborative process. A fragment of the documentary A Lot of Happiness showed the choreographer rehearsing both dancers for a Pas de Deux based on Orpheus and Eurydice, giving them pointers of the type of movement he wanted and encouraging them to try different things. Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Dame Monica Mason also spoke of her experience. Tracing a parallel between Ashton and MacMillan, she said that the first one always expressed a preference for beauty and the second for reality, no matter how ugly that could be.

Speaking about “MacMillan’s subject matter” the eminent Financial Times critic Clement Crisp recalled audience reactions to the choreographer’s work, their discomfort with seeing “appaling grief represented by agonizing, ugly shapes”. A keen supporter who has seen every single MacMillan work (but for two short pieces made for ABT), Mr. Crisp eloquently spoke of the choreographer as a man of the theatre who knew about human suffering and found a way to show those terrible moments of life via fascinating and true choreography “which is ultimately what ballet is all about”, as well as in characters which “kept living after the curtain fell”.

Begoña Cao as Manon, Fabian Reimair as Lescaut and Antony Dowson as Monsieur G.M. in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

The final section focused on MacMillan’s “Creativity In Spite of Adversity”, his courage to stand firm and travel to where he could realise his vision. Mr. Crisp recalled masterpieces Song of the Earth and Requiem which were created for Stuttgart Ballet after Covent Garden’s administration worried about the use of Gustav Mahler’s music for choreography and, in Requiem’s case, that sacred music could offend religious sensibilities. These points were illustrated with excerpts from the documentary “Out of Line” where Sir Peter Wright, Clement Crisp and Deborah MacMillan shared their personal views on the challenges faced by MacMillan at home and abroad and his special link with Stuttgart Ballet.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

In addition to the masterclasses featuring two Mayerling pas de deux (Rudolf/Empress Elisabeth and Rudolf/Princess Stephanie) with Edward Watson, Cindy Jourdain and Iohna Loots from The Royal Ballet, and the Manon pas de trois (Manon/Lescaut/Monsieur GM) with Begoña Cao, Fabian Reimair and Antony Dowson from English National Ballet, the audience also had the opportunity to watch a full screening of MacMillan’s last work for The Royal Ballet, The Judas Tree*, with Irek Mukhamedov, Michael Nunn and Leanne Benjamin. This gruesome ballet (featuring a gang rape) touches upon the theme of betrayal in various ways. Original cast members Michael Nunn and Viviana Durante emphasised to the audience how MacMillan would let dancers discover the character during the creative process which, as Nunn said, “kept you on your toes”.

With so much background and valuable insights into Kenneth MacMillan’s universe, this was an event that will certainly enrich our experience and understanding of his compelling works. We now look forward to what the new official website may bring.


*The Judas Tree will be revived by The Royal Ballet in a Triple bill dedicated to MacMillan’s 80th birthday, together with Concerto and Elite Syncopations. These three pieces represent milestones in the choreographer’s career and different sides to his work. Concerto was the first piece he created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet as Artistic Director. Elite Syncopations, his ragtime jazz ballet, was made during his tenure as The Royal Ballet’s Director while The Judas Tree, his last work for the Royal Ballet, remains one of his most challenging pieces.

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

The Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ballet Company

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

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

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

The Soviet Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Style

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

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

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

Their work day

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

Videos

Legends

The current generation

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

Sources and Further Information

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

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