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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You can’t resist a tragic love story. New Moon is your favorite book of the entire Twilight Saga and you can quote a certain passage from Act II, Scene VI of Shakespeare’s play by heart (don’t worry we won’t tell anyone). You’ve never been to the ballet and want to start with a tale that’s easy to follow in dance form.

Avoid If: Get thee gone, thou artless idle-headed pignut! (Ok, so you’re not a fan of The Bard)

Dream Casts

We asked our twitter followers and they said:

Juliet – Gelsey Kirkland, Yevgenia Obraztsova, Maria Kochetkova, Miriam Ould-Braham, Silvia Azzoni, Julie Kent, Alessandra Ferri, Alina Cojocaru

Romeo – Anthony Dowell, Vladimir Shklyarov, Igor Kolb, Jason Reilly, Friedemann Vogel, Angel Corella, Robert Fairchild, Steven McRae

Background

The Leonid Lavrovsky version

The idea for Romeo and Juliet as ballet came originally from Sergei Radlov, the Artistic Director of the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) around 1934. He developed the scenario together with theatre critic Adrian Piotrovsky and commissioned the music from one of his favorite Chess partners: Sergei Prokofiev who had never before composed for a full-length ballet.

Prokofiev finished the score on September, 1935 but the production was stalled when the communist regime demanded it be given a happy ending. Having shaped his score to match Radlov’s interpretation of the Shakespearean play Prokofiev was unhappy with this imposition.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Further political problems saw the project shelved and transferred to the Bolshoi where it was deemed unsuitable. The ballet was eventually salvaged by the Kirov and on January 11, 1940 Romeo and Juliet finally received its premiere, with choreography by Artistic Director Leonid Lavrovsky. Legendary Galina Ulanova was the original Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev her Romeo. The ballet was hailed a success but it only became a phenomenon six years later when it was staged in The Bolshoi Theatre (December 28, 1946), resulting in Lavrovsky’s appointment as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi toured London for the first time and staged Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the Covent Garden Stage (October 3, 1956) to great acclaim. Margot Fonteyn expressed she had “never seen anything like it” and budding choreographer John Cranko was so inspired by the ballet that he soon started to plan his own version.

Mariinsky's Viktoria Tereshkina and Yevgeny Ivanchenko in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

The John Cranko version

Cranko’s first staging of Romeo & Juliet was for the ballet company of La Scala in Milan in July 26, 1958. It was danced in an open amphiteatre in Venice. Designs were by Nicola Benois and the role of Juliet was danced by then 21 year-old Carla Fracci. Further revising the ballet Cranko staged it  in 1962 for his own company, The Stuttgart Ballet. Jürgen Rose was in charge of the designs and young Brazilian ballerina Marcia Haydée, soon to become Cranko’s muse, was cast in the role of Juliet, with Richard Cragun as Romeo.

Cranko’s staging is renowned for its strong corps de ballet dances, which set the atmosphere. The first scene takes place in the cramped streets of Verona, so both Montagues and Capulets are incapable of avoiding each other. In Act II the fight erupts amongst peasants on a harvest festival, with everyone involved and fruits being spilled around. At that time Cranko’s company were still developing their technique and identity so the choreography is relatively simple. When it comes to the various pas de deux one can see Lavrovsky’s influence in the very Soviet style of partnering with lifts and tosses.

Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet remains very popular and besides being a regular staple at the Stuttgart Ballet, it is also in repertory at The National Ballet of Canada, The Australian Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, The Joffrey, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Pensylvannia Ballet, among others.

The Kenneth MacMillan version

Kenneth MacMillan, a close friend of Cranko’s from their dancing days in the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, was inspired to create his own version for The Royal Ballet after seeing it staged by The Stuttgart Ballet. An opportunity came when The Royal Opera House failed to secure a deal with the Bolshoi to exchange performance rights for Ashton‘s La Fille Mal Gardée against Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Ninette de Valois had also asked Sir Frederick Ashton to stage the version originally choreographed for The Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 but he feared that something created for a smaller theatre would look modest compared to the scale of the Russian production. Ashton, then Artistic Director, suggested to the Board of Directors that MacMillan should undertake the task of creating a new version.

Steven McRae and Alina Cojocaru in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

MacMillan had devised a balcony scene pas de deux for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable for a feature on Canadian television and once he received the go-ahead he started working on his first full-length ballet, nowadays one of Romeo and Juliet’s most definitive versions.

Designer Nicholas Georgiadis was inspired by Franco Zeffirelli‘s production of the Shakespearean tragedy for the Old Vic, in which the Capulets lived in a big fortress-like mansion. MacMillan wanted his ballet to be more realistic than romantic, with added contemporary touches. He wanted the young lovers to die painfully and to drop the reconciliation between Capulets and Montagues at the end of the play providing a different angle from the Lavrovsky & Cranko versions.

The ballet was choreographed on Seymour and Gable as Juliet and Romeo. As usual, MacMillan explored the role of the outsider in his portrayal of Juliet, a headstrong and opinionated girl who breaks away from her family. He started with the pas de deux (the highlights of this staging) and drew on the full company plus extras to set the town scenes.

While work was in progress Covent Garden management delivered the blow that Fonteyn and Nureyev would be first cast Juliet and Romeo, a shock to MacMillan, to Ashton (who had expected them as a first cast for the US tour  only) and to dancers Seymour and Gable who had to teach their roles and resign themselves to a lower spot on the bill.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

MacMillan’s pleas to Covent Garden management to keep Seymour and Gable in the premiere were in vain. His Romeo and Juliet premiered on February 9, 1965, with Fonteyn and Nureyev taking 43 curtain calls over a 40 minute applause. In the US it quickly became the best known version of the Prokofiev ballet. Besides the Royal Ballet, the ballet is also part of the regular repertory of American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Swedish Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet (with designs by Paul Andrews).

Story

You probably don’t need our help with this one. Regardless of version the storyline remains more or less the same:

Act I

Scene 1. The Market Place in Verona

It’s early hours in Verona. Romeo unsucessfully tries to woo Rosaline and is consoled by his friends Mercutio and Benvolio. As the market awakens and street trading starts a quarrel breaks out between the Montagues and the Capulets. Tybalt, Lord Capulet’s nephew, provokes Romeo’s group and the sword fighting begins with both Lord Montague and Lord Capulet joining in. Escalus, the Prince (or Duke) of Verona, enters and commands the families to cease fighting and issues a death penalty for any further bloodshed.

Scene 2. Juliet and her Nurse at the Capulet House

Lord Capulet’s only daughter Juliet is playing with her nurse. Her parents enter her chambers and inform Juliet of her impending engagement to the wealthy noblement Paris to whom she is to be formally introduced at the evening’s ball. In MacMillan’s version Juliet’s introduction to Paris happens at this point.

Scene 3. Outside the Capulet House

Guests are seen arriving at the Capulets’. Romeo,  still in pursuit of Rosaline, makes his way into the ball in disguise accompanied by Mercutio and Benvolio.

Scenes 4 & 5. The Ballroom & Outside the Capulet House

At the ball all eyes are on Juliet as she dances with her friends. Romeo becomes so entranced by her that he completely ignores Mercutio’s attempts to distract him. As Juliet starts to notice Romeo his mask falls. Juliet is immediately bewitched but Tybalt recognises Romeo and orders him to leave. Lord Capulet intervenes and welcomes Romeo and his friends as guests. At this point in MacMillan’s staging we see inebriated guests leaving and Lord Capulet stopping Tybalt from pursuing Romeo.

Scene 6. Juliet’s Balcony

Later that night Juliet is unable to sleep and stands on her balcony thinking about Romeo. Just then he appears on the garden below and they both dance a passionate pas de deux where they express their mutual feelings.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shlyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Act II

Scenes 1 & 2. The Market Place & Friar Laurence’s Chapel

As festivities are being held at the marketplace Romeo daydreams about getting married to Juliet. His reverie is broken when Juliet’s nurse makes her way through the crowds bringing him Juliet’s letter with the acceptance to his proposal. The young couple is secretly married by Friar Laurence, who hopes the union will end the conflict between their respective families.

Scene 3. The Market Place

Tybalt enters interruping the festivities. He provokes Romeo, who now avoids the duel, realising he is now part of Juliet’s family. Mercutio is willing to engage with Tybalt and, in vain, Romeo attempts to stop them. Mercutio is fatally wounded by Tybalt. Romeo seeking to avenge his friend’s death finally yields to Tybalt’s provocations and kills him. Romeo must now flee before being discovered by Prince of Verona. Curtains close as Lady Capulet grieves over Tybalt’s dead body and her breakdown is particularly emphasised in Cranko’s staging.

José Martín as Mercutio and Thiago Soares as Tybalt in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act III

Scene 1. Juliet’s Bedroom

Romeo has spent his last night in Verona with Juliet but as dawn arrives he must flee for Mantua despite her pleas. To Juliet’s dismay Lord and Lady Capulet appear together with Paris to start preparations for the wedding. Juliet refuses to marry Paris and Lord Capulet threatens to disown her. In despair, Juliet seeks Friar Laurence’s counsel.

Scenes 2 & 3. Friar Laurence’s Chapel & Juliet’s Bedroom

Juliet begs Friar Laurence for help. He gives Juliet a sleeping potion that will make her fall into a deathlike sleep. This will make everyone believe Juliet is dead while the Friar will send for Romeo to rescue her. Juliet returns home and agrees to marry Paris. She drinks the potion and falls unconscious. Her friends and parents arrive the next morning and discover her lifeless.

Scene 4. The Capulet Family Crypt

Romeo has heard of Juliet’s death (in the Lavrovsky version we see Romeo break down in grief as the news are delivered to him) and has returned to Verona without having received Friar Laurence’s message. He enters the crypt disguised as a monk where he finds Paris by Juliet’s body. Stunned by grief, Romeo kills Paris (this is absent from Lavrovsky’s staging). Still believing Juliet to be dead Romeo drinks a vial of poison and collapses. Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead beside her. She stabs herself to join Romeo in death.

Epilogue (Lavrovsky version)

Both Montagues and Capulets gather together and reconcile before their children’s bodies.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Videos:

Other versions

Prokofiev’s masterful composition for Romeo and Juliet is now better known than any other but a number of earlier and later productions of the ballet have been set to different scores and choreography:

  • Antony Tudor‘s Romeo and Juliet for Ballet Theatre, now ABT (1943), set to various pieces of music by Frederick Delius.

  • Sir Frederick Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet for The Royal Danish Ballet (1955). This is a signature Ashton piece with none of Lavrovsky’s influence (as Ashton had not yet seen that staging). Clips of the revival by London Festival Ballet with Katherine Healy as Juliet can be found here [link]

  • Maurice Béjart‘s  Romeo and Juliet (1966). Set to the music of Berlioz this version was presented at the Cirque Royal, Brussels. A video featuring Suzanne Farrell as Juliet and Jorge Donn as Romeo can be found here [link]

  • Rudolf Nureyev’s version for the London Festival Ballet (1977). Nureyev later reworked this same version for the Paris Opera Ballet (1984). The ballet is available on DVD with Monique Loudieres as Juliet and Manuel Legris as Romeo. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • John Neumeier‘s for the Frankfurt Ballet (1971). This version was restaged for his own Hamburg Ballet in 1974. It has also been further revised and staged by The Royal Danish Ballet. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • Yuri Grigorovich‘s version for the Bolshoi (1982) set to Prokofiev’s score. This version is still danced by the company.

  • Jean Christophe Maillot‘s Rómeo et Juliette for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo (1996). This version has been staged by other companies, most recently by Pacific Northwest Ballet. A trailer can be found in PNBallet’s YT channel [link]

  • Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet for NYCB (2007). A series of videos following the ballet’s creative process can be found on NYCB‘s channel [link]

Music

Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the four greatest orchestral compositions for ballet (together with Tchaikovsky’s scores for Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker). He originally conceived the score as 53 sections linked by the dramatic elements of the story, each section named after the characters and/or situations in the ballet.

Like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev developed leitmotifs for the characters. There are 7 themes for Juliet varying from her playful/girlish side in Act I to romantic and dramatic themes which follow her development into a woman in love and foreshadow the impending tragedy in Act III.

A quintessential Spotify / iPod playlist should include the three orchestra suites (Opus 64bis, Opus 64ter and Opus 101)

  1. Suite No 1. Folk Dance, The Street Awakens, Madrigal, The Arrival of Guests, Masks, Romeo and Juliet, Death of Tybalt.
  2. Suite No 2. Montagues and Capulets, Juliet the Young Girl, Dance, Romeo and Juliet before parting, Dance of the Girls with Lilies, Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.
  3. Suite No 3. Romeo at the Fountain, Morning Dance, Juliet, The Nurse, Morning Serenade, The Death of Juliet.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Leonid Lavrovsky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Pyotr Williams
Original Cast: Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev as Romeo
Premiere: January 11, 1940, Kirov Theatre, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Choregraphy: John Cranko
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Jürgen Rose
Original Cast: Marcia Haydée as Juliet and Richard Crangun as Romeo
Premiere:December 2, 1962, Stuttgart.

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn as Juliet and Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo
Premiere:February 9, 1965 at Covent Garden, London.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth MacMillan) Programme Notes, 2007/2008 Season.
  2. Romeo & Juliet entry at www.KennethMacmillan.com [link]
  3. Wikipedia entry for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score [link]
  4. Romeo and Juliet Notes (John Cranko) from National Ballet of Canada [link]
  5. Notes from Tbsili Opera and Ballet Theatre [link]
  6. Ballet Met Notes [link]
  7. Stuttgart Ballet Performance Notes at Cal Performances [link]
  8. Dedicated Romeo and Juliet. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, July 1998 [link]
  9. From London, a Poetic Romeo that makes others seem prosy. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, 1989 [link]
  10. Romeo and Juliet, Theatricality and Other Techniques of Expression by Katherine S. Healy. Following Sir Fred’s Steps, Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau. Conference Proceedings, 1994 [link]
  11. Opposing Houses: Judith Mackrell on visions of Romeo and Juliet from Ashton and MacMillan. Dance review, The Independent. August, 1994 [link]

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Dear Santa,

We know we had a lucky year with many wonderful ballet tickets filling our bags. We had a great time writing over here and making plenty of new friends on Twitter and Facebook some of whom we had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Having managed to strike a good balance between work & play we feel we now deserve some ballet candy for the new year. We’d happily trade that wonderful Rodarte dress or that anything Chanel we have coveted over the years for a few of these treats so, here’s what the Bag Ladies would really really like. Please and thank you.

  • More NYCB, ABT and Mariinsky stars guesting with the Royal Ballet. If Evgenia Obraztsova, Ekaterina Osmolkina and Yvonne Borree did so well over here in The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Dances at a Gathering why can’t we have them more often and while you’re at it, can you please bring Ashley Bouder and Marcelo Gomes too?

  • Royal Ballet revivals of Onegin, Song of the Earth and La Sylphide with plenty of new casting delights… and preferably with Steven McRae as James.

  • Much smaller doses of such stalwarts as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake or at least new designs for the latter. Yolanda Sonnabend’s are appreciated but they are starting to betray their age. If we are going to visit the lake once more let us see some different settings and costumes.

  • A new narrative ballet that is not based on a children’s tale. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not that we are not looking forward to Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, but a while back we had this interesting discussion on Twitter and concluded there are so many books which would lend themselves wonderfully into ballet scripts. We’re thinking the whole Jane Austen canon, the Russian classics, plus some Edith Wharton & Henry James.

  • Sneak previews. If ballet seasons are planned so long in advance, we’d like to see the major ballet companies slipping some bits of information/trivia/teasers on what’s coming next or fueling discussion in their Facebook/Twitter pages like ABT did recently. Call us greedy but it’s more hype for them, less suspense for us. Everyone wins.

  • More visits from foreign companies. It’s time the Mariinsky  treated us to a full-length Ratmansky ballet (yes we do mean The Little Humpbacked Horse). ABT could follow suit and show us On the Dnieper instead of Le Corsaire and Don Q. (yawn, yawn). And let us not forget that Ms. Diana Vishneva still owes us a visit since pulling out of the Mariinsky season at Sadler’s Wells (2008) at short notice. Can you pls. give her the nudge?
  • Can we have more ballet companies embracing social media? We have great fun browsing SFB’s blog, ABT’s pictures and looking at NYCB, Mariinsky and Royal Ballet videos, but perhaps the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi can also follow suit?
  • Less injuries. This we wish for every dancer in every company out there.

Many thanks again. Don’t forget to grab your box of cupcakes from underneath the Christmas tree. We know how you like the Christmas pudding special from The Primrose Bakery.

    xoxo,

    Emilia & Linda

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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: you want to treat your kids, godchildren, nieces and nephews or even perhaps the kid in you.

Skip if: Bah humbug!

Dream Cast

Sugar Plum Fairy: any ballerina who can do proper gargouillades

Alina Cojocaru as The Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Background

The Nutcracker is a major example of a balletic twist of fate. The very thing critics and audiences objected to at the time of its premiere 117 years ago – its appeal to children – is what turned it into such a bankable classic. From your local end of the year ballet school presentation to the most lavish productions for the big companies and every kind of thing in-between (even Nutcracker on Ice), Christmas season has now become saturated with Nutcrackers everywhere.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the same Imperial Theatre Director who had brought together Tchaikovsky and Petipa for his ambitious project The Sleeping Beauty had imagined a new ballet to be based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette by Alexandre Dumas père. This was a story he knew from his time in Paris as a diplomat and which Dumas himself had adapted from Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) from 1816.

Vsevolozhsky managed to secure Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s collaboration again but Tchaikovsky only agreed to write for The Nutcracker on the basis that he would also be able to work on his opera Iolanta. Because Petipa had fallen ill he ended up working mostly with the choreographer’s assistant Lev Ivanov. Although Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated (but again thought too symphonic for a ballet) the production was criticized, mainly for the lack of logic relationship between its two acts. The Nutcracker received only 14 performances initially. Some critics thought there was not enough complexity in the story and “no subject whatever”. To critics and audiences alike, the Nutcracker was a luxurious piece but one that was “made for children”.

The Nutcracker in the West

Although it was not considered much of a hit in Russia The Nutcracker kept being performed throughout the theatre year (at that time it was not yet heavily associated with the Christmas season). In the West, however, it boomed. First seen in scattered pieces, with the Arabian dance transplanted into the Ballets Russes’s Sleeping Princess and with Anna Pavlova‘s take on The Waltz of the Snowflakes, London audiences soon got the first full version.

Most versions have some links back to the original but by the time they were staged much of the choreography had been lost and/or changed. This meant that Ivanov’s original Waltz of the Snowflakes had to be reconstructed from notations (presumably incomplete) made in St. Petersburg before WWI.  Likewise, Ivanov’s Grand Pas De Deux in which Prince Coqueluche (Koklush) spread out a veil gently gliding the Sugar Plum Fairy as if she were on ice (or icing sugar) has been revised or scrapped in most versions although Balanchine’s Nutcracker still pays homage to it.

Elizabeth Harrod as Clara and Alastair Marriott as Drosselmeyer, in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson/ ROH ©

Perhaps the biggest downside to so many different Nutcracker versions over the years has been the progressive watering down of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original story and its aura of mystery, rooted in the German Romantic movement. Hoffmann’s tales often include fantastic elements coexisting with folklore (another example being Coppélia) which are sometimes ignored in favour of the ballet’s child friendly aspects. However, some versions of the ballet seek to preserve the Romantic layers and its mystery, notably Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) as well as Sir Peter Wright‘s for The Royal Ballet and for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Versions

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright’s versions

Sir Peter’s 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The  Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Jamie Bond as The Prince in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Odd Ones

Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

More recently the ballet has seen a flurry of ironic takes. In Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (1991) the Stahlbaums are a suburban family with a fake Christmas tree, bad hairdos and too much to drink, the second act Arabian divertissement being a trio for oil sheiks. In Matthew Bourne‘s Nutcracker! (1992) Clara lives in an orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Dross and tries to win the heart of the hunky Nutcracker prince.

Story

These myriad versions make it impossible for us to list all the differences and twists in the various Nutcrackers around the world but the storyline is more or less always the same:

Characters

  • Herr Drosselmeyer
  • Clara (or Marie, or Masha)
  • Nutcracker Prince (or Hans Peter)
  • Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Her Prince Cavalier (Prince Koklush)

Act 1

A Christmas party is taking place at the Stahlbaums’, parents to Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer brings his goddaughter Clara a gift of a nutcracker doll.  Children being children, Fritz eventually grabs and breaks the Nutcracker doll much to Clara’s dismay. Drosselmeyer fixes it restoring peace amongst the youngsters. Guests depart and Clara suddently sees herself surrounded by a fantasy world, where the Christmas tree grows giant and dolls and soldiers come to life to battle with the mice who have also grown to Clara’s own size. She sees her Nutcracker doll leading the battle and being attacked by the Mouse King. She throws her slipper at the Mouse, liberating the Nutcracker who turns into a Prince. They embark on a magical journey, their first stop being the Land of Snow where snow flakes waltz around them in patterns, as if blown by the wind.

Act 2

Clara and her Nutcraker Prince arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier. They are invited to watch a series of divertissements representing exotic travels and various different sweets: Chocolate (Spanish dance) Coffee (Arabian dance) Tea (Chinese dance), the Russian Trépak (Cossacks), Mother Ginger & the polichinelles (in certain versions), along with the dance of the little pipes/Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The celebrations close with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dancing a grand pas de deux. The curtain usually falls on Clara waking up back at home wondering whether it was all just a dream.

Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Music

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 not knowing what a big success his work would achieve. He had been burned twice before writing for ballet (with Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty) so he was less than enthusiastic to do so again but Vsevolozhsky convinced him on the basis that he would also be able to write the opera Iolanta which interested him more and which premiered on the same day as the ballet. Paradoxically, his Nutcracker score became, over the years, the more celebrated of the two works.

Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker writing to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that “the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule”. As he embarked on a trip to Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour that same year he heard of the death of his sister Sasha.  Perhaps for this reason a hint of sadness  and nostalgia permeates The Nutcracker‘s haunting score.

He finished composing the ballet on 6 July 1891 having added to it a novelty instrument which he had bought during his tour in Paris, the celesta, which he used to give The Sugar Plum Fairy her characteristic sound of heavenly bells.

An essential Nutcracker Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:

Op.71 – Overture
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 1 The Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 2 March
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 7 The Nutcracker Battles the Army of the Mouse King
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 8 In the Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 9 Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 10 The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12a Character Dances: Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12b Character Dances: Coffee (Arabian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12c Character Dances: Tea (Chinese Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12d Character Dances: Trépak (Russian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12e Character Dances: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12f Character Dances: Polchinelle
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 13 Waltz of the Flowers
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14a Pas de deux: Intrada
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14b Pas de deux: Variation I (Tarantella)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14c Pas de deux: Variation II (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14d Pas de deux: Coda
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Designs: M.I. Botcharov with K. Ivanov wit costumes by I.A. Vsevolozhsky
Original Cast: Antoinetta dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerd as Prince “Koklush” (also known as Prince Coqueluche or Orgeat), Nikolay Legat as The Nutcraker Prince and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
Premiere: 6 December 1892 Mariinsky (also credited as 17 December 1892)

Where to see it in the UK

The Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House from November 26 to January 1st. For booking details visit the ROH website.

Birmingham Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 27 to December 13. For booking details visit The Birmingham Hippodrome’s website.

English National BalletThe Nutcracker, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, is in repertoire at the London Coliseum from December 16 to January 3. For booking details visit the ENO website.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Royal Opera House Nutcracker podcast
  2. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker Programme Notes.
  3. The Nutcracker History by Gerald Charles. Ballet Met Notes for The Nutcracker, November 1998 [link]
  4. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker/Swan Lake/The Sleeping Beauty Highlights. Naxos Recording with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. [link]
  5. The Refined Product of a Great Artist: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by Hugo Shirley. Opera Holland Park. [link]
  6. Nuts, Sluts, Rats and Bats by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, December 2001. [link]
  7. How to Design the Nutcracker by Ismene Brown. The Arts Desk [link]
  8. Breaking Pointe: The Nutcracker is a Gift that Takes More than it Gives by Sarah Kaufman. The Washington Post [link]
  9. Wikipedia entry on The Nutcracker [link]

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Ratmansky Head Shot

Alexei Ratmansky. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

As long as there are choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky around our hopes for the future of classical ballet as an art form are renewed. Now one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, Ratmansky started his career as a ballet dancer with the Kiev Ballet in the Ukraine. Dancing soon took him out of Eastern Europe to various companies in the West where he was exposed to different choreographers and styles. Absorbing all these influences he started developing his own choreographic language, a personal mix of influences by Petipa, Bournonville, Ashton, Balanchine and Tudor woven into narrative or abstract choreography.

His achievements as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director and a winning streak of new works, including those for New York City Ballet (NYCB), put him center stage. This led to his recent appointment with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as Artist in Residence, a role tailored so that Ratmansky can create new work for ABT whilst continuing to choreograph worldwide.

While we follow his ABT career with interest and keep crossing our fingers for more of Ratmansky’s work in London, we leave you with some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Alexei Ratmansky in a Nutshell

Alexei Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg in 1968. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine where his father – a former gymnast – worked as an aeronautics engineer and his mother as a psychiatrist.  At the age of 10 he was accepted into the Bolshoi Academy (Moscow Choreographic Institute) to train under the guidance of Pyotr Pestov and Anna Markeyeva. His classmates included former ABT star and current Berlin Staatsballett Artistic Director Vladimir Malakhov, current Bolshoi director Yuri Burlaka and Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

From early on Ratmansky showed an interest in experimenting with choreography but despite his talents in performing and in creating dances he was not accepted into the Bolshoi. Instead, he joined the Kiev Ballet as a soloist, dancing leading roles in the classics. During this period he met his soon to be wife, fellow dancer Tatiana Kilivniuk and juggled his dancing career with studying at the Choreographers’ Faculty of GITIS (today, The Russian Academy of Theatre Art – RATI). There he had the opportunity to stage his first ballet, La Sylphide-88. Set to Shostakovich‘s music this was a short work given in one single performance.

In 1992 while on tour in Canada, Ratmansky and his wife were invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He continued creating small pieces, mainly for Tatiana, and became familiar with the works of Tudor, van Dantzig, Neumeier and Balanchine.

He quit The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and returned to Kiev in 1995 as a freelance dancer but left again to join The Royal Danish Ballet in 1997. During his seven years in Denmark, Ratmansky immersed himself in August Bournonville’s works. There he continued to create choreography whilst also becoming a principal dancer (2000).

Nina Ananiashvili soon spotted his talent and asked him to create short works for her international tours (the Golden Mask Winner Dreams of Japan, set to taiko drumming and flutes). The touring of these works boosted Ratmansky’s profile and led to his first commissions by the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi.

In 2002, he staged Cinderella for the Mariinsky and, in 2003, The Bright Stream, for the Bolshoi, as part of their Shostakovich celebrations. The Bright Stream had been originally created in 1935 by Fyodor Lopukhov to Shostakovich’s music but immediately discarded given Stalin‘s disapproval of “peasants on pointe”. Because of this Lopukhov was fired and Shostakovich never wrote a ballet score again. Reinventing the choreography on top of the original libretto, Ratmansky turned this “rejected ballet” into a great success.

Ratmansky full

Alexei Ratmansky Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

The Bolshoi Years

Golden Mask Prize winner The Bright Stream led to Ratmansky’s appointment as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director in 2004. His mandate was to focus on modernising the company and reconciling the new repertoire with the classics.

The Bolshoi’s five years under Ratmansky have been celebrated as a golden age. The company rejuvenated and regained artistic credibility with new works. For Ratmansky it must have been a draining period with a lot of compromising and pacifying different personalities and artistic egos,  leaving him with little time and energy to choreograph. He has said in the past that Russia is not very friendly to choreographers given its emphasis on the classics and inherited traditions, with certains dancers limiting themselves to new opportunities and holding on to the belief that they can only be creative within the boundaries of the old repertoire.

During Ratmansky’s tenure 25 new ballets were acquired for the company including works by Balanchine, Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp and Léonide Massine. In addition to The Bright Stream he also successfully restaged lost ballets such as Class Concert, The Flames of Paris and a lavish and critically acclaimed reconstruction of Le Corsaire.

In addition to developing dances Ratmansky is also credited with nurturing and creating opportunitities for such new talents as Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Ekaterina Krysanova, Nelli Kobakhidze and Denis Savin, while also showcasing the artistry of dancers Maria Alexandrova, Ekaterina Shipulina and Svetlana Lunkina, by casting them in new roles.

On the Dnieper 2

Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in Ratmansky's On the Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

From Bolshoi to ABT

Early in 2008, rumours started circulating of Ratmansky departing to NYCB as resident choreographer, to follow in the steps of Christopher Wheeldon. But the terms of NYCB’s offer would have restricted his ability to create work outside the company so, instead, he decided to join ABT as an Artist in Residence, a role that gives him enough freedom to pursue other collaborations.

Ratmansky’s Ballets

For Ratmansky, classical ballet can be kept alive as long as its human content is relevant, narrative being a particular trait in his works. Ratmansky often mentions that while for George Balanchine, one of his influences, it was all about the steps and abstraction, for him the steps are part of a conversation that blends craft and passion.

His works are considered musical and fluid, probably a direct influence from his experience with Bournonville. He considers his choreography to be instinctive, the product of an analytical reaction to the score and physical response to the music (he used to put on music and film himself to observe how his body reacted naturally). That explains his preference for a more naturalistic port de bras, open chested stands, patterns that are circling, dynamic and constantly shifting, with suggestions of folk dance, as is the case with his Russian Seasons.

Some of Ratmansky’s works

  • A Fairy’s Kiss (Tchaikovsky, 1994) – Kiev Ballet
  • Capriccio (Stravinsky, 1997) – Bolshoi
  • The Charms of Mannerism (Strauss, 1997) – Postmodern-Theatre
  • Poem of Ecstasy (Scriabin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Middle Duet (Hanin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Turandot’s Dream (Hindemith, 2000) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolero (Ravel, 2001) –  International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Flight to Budapest (Brahms, 2001) – International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Nutcracker – Re-staging after Petipa (Tchaikovsky, 2001) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • The Firebird (Stravinsky, 2002) – The Royal Swedish Ballet
  • Cinderella (Prokofiev, 2002) – Mariinsky
  • Le Carnaval des Animaux (Saint-Saens, 2003) – San Francisco Ballet
  • The Bright Stream (Shostakovich, 2003) – Bolshoi
  • Leah (Bernstein, 2004) – Bolshoi
  • Anna Karenina (Schedrin, 2005) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolt (Shostakovich, 2005) – Bolshoi
  • Russian Seasons (Desyatnikov, 2006) – NYCB
  • Middle Duet (Hanon, 2006) – NYCB
  • Le Corsaire – Restaging after Petipa, with Yuri Burlaka (Adam, 2007) – Bolshoi
  • Jeu de Cartes (Stravinsky, 2007 ) – Bolshoi
  • The Flames of Paris – New staging with use of original choreography by Vasily Vainonen, based on original libretto by Nikolai Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev (Asafiev, 2008. )
  • Pierrot Lunaire  (Schoenberg, 2009) – For Diana Vishneva as part of her show Beauty in Motion
  • Concerto DSCH (Shostakovich, 2008) – NYCB
  • The Little Humpbacked Horse (Schedrin, 2009) – Mariinsky
  • On the Dnieper (Prokofiev, 2009) – ABT
  • Scuola di Ballo – Restaging after Massine (Bocherini, 2009) – The Australian Ballet
  • Seven Sonatas (Scarlatti, 2009) – ABT
  • Don Quixote – Restaging after Petipa (Minkus, 2010) – Dutch National Ballet

Awards and Honours:

  • Golden Mask  for Dreams of Japan (1999)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, The Bright Stream (2004)
  • Knighted in Denmark (order of the Danish Flag) for his contribution to the arts (2002)
  • Benois de la Danse for Anna Karenina production for the Royal Danish Ballet (2005)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, Jeu de Cartes (2006)
  • Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for The Bright Stream after the Bolshoi’s London tour (2006)
On the Dnieper

Paloma Herrera as Olga and Marcelo Gomes as Sergei in Ratmansky's On The Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Videos

The following short extracts should give you an idea of how rich and varied Ratmansky’s choreography is and how widespread it has become.

  • Extract of Russian Seasons as danced by Dutch National Ballet [link]
  • Pas de deux from Anna Karenina, danced by Gitte Lindstrøm and Mads Blangstrup from The Royal Danish Ballet [link]
  • Nina Ananiashvili in Leah, from Ratmansky Gala at the Bolshoi [link]
  • Le Jardin Anime scene from Ratmansky’s Le Corsaire, with Svetlana Zakharova as Medora and Ekaterina Krysanova as Gulnare [link]
  • Extract of Bolt, featuring Denis Savin, Anastasia Yatsenko and Andrei Merkuriev [link]
  • Diana Vishneva and Andrei Merkuriev in Cinderella [link]
  • A short feature on Scuola di Ballo for The Australian Ballet [link]
  • Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov in an extract of The Little Humpbacked Horse [link]

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of The Bright Stream:

The final offering of the season was The Bright Stream. In 1935, when Shostakovich’s sunny score was staged in Moscow with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov (and initially much liked), it drew down Stalinist wrath as “balletic fraud”, wholly irresponsible in portraying the nature of collective farming. It has been Alexey Ratmansky’s achievement to rehabilitate the piece, by rescuing the score and taking an amused look at its narrative and, most significantly, at the aesthetic and political conventions of ballet in the 1930s. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times (2007) [link]

Alexei Ratmansky, who completely rechoreographed it for the Bolshoi in 2003, didn’t have to worry about toeing the party line and was free to do whatever he wanted with Shostakovich’s jolly music and Piotrovsky and Lopukhov’s lighthearted libretto. His new production honours them both with wit and compassion, and a stream of wonderful — and very funny — choreography…All in all, the best new ballet to come out of Russia in years. Debra Craine at the Times (2006) [link]

Of Bolt:

Though I hope other choreographers will give sharper visual style to this unusual and instantly appealing music, I feel that Ratmansky deserves the highest credit here. He may not have produced a definitive new Bolt, but he has given the full ballet score to the world to play with, a marvellous gift. Ismene Brown at The Telegraph (2005) [link]

Of The Little Humpbacked Horse

This ballet is life-affirming and rich in humanity. Ratmansky’s choreography is masterly, and has a clear form and shape. His narrative is clear, and each scene is of the right length. The final transformation scene of Ivan into a young tsar is effective and witty. The two classical duets are full of heart-warming tenderness. The duets for Ivan and the Humpbacked Horse in Act I are spirited and lively. Kevin NG at The Saint Petersburg Times (2009) [link]

Of On the Dnieper:

Ratmansky, as always, produces lovely movement—the solos for both men are particularly telling. And he never loses his touch with groups of dancers, their extended passages both coherent and effective in themselves and reflecting the emotional trajectory of the story. Robert Gottlieb at The New York Observer (2009) [link]

Mr. Ratmansky gleans every bit of story possible from the Lifar-Prokofiev original and makes the most of it. (…) What Mr. Ratmansky captures beautifully with these characters (and less eloquently with Natalia, described in the program as “grief-stricken yet noble”) is what it is like to be torn by opposite emotional impulses. The choreography’s other felicities include some lovely subtleties of ensemble and striking instances of dancers standing or moving with their backs to us. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2009) [link]

Of Russian Seasons

His “Russian Seasons” finally received its world premiere on Thursday evening at the New York State Theater, and it was worth the wait (…) It would be too easy to say that the choreography owes its originality to its inspirations from folk dance, though it does make happy use of such dancing. Mr. Ratmansky is a fountain of movement ideas, with sweeping stiff arms and vigorous floor-stamping and clapping and every sort of catlike pose, from freshly funny to deeply tragic. Intimations of character and personality never get in the way of pure dance. John Rockwell at The New York Times (2006) [link]

Leaving the theater, I could have danced for joy, especially if I had been choreographed by Ratmansky. A new choreographer has come to light – and the dance world is a better place. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2006).

Of Concerto DSCH

Concerto DSCH is an endlessly suspenseful choreographic construction, with passages of breathtaking dance brilliance. Again and again, you find yourself thinking, “I didn’t realize this was going to happen after that,” and “What exactly were those steps that flashed by just now?” Better yet, it’s marked by tender pure-dance poetry. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2008) [link]

Certainly “Concerto DSCH” seems at first glance – even second glance – a weird name for a ballet, but Alexei Ratmansky’s new work created for New York City Ballet on Thursday night is a gold-plated, copper-bottomed hit. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2008) [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Bolshoi’s Website [link]
  2. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Benois de la Danse Website [link]
  3. ABT’s Alexei the Mild? by Robert Greskovic. The Wall Street Journal. June 2009 [link]
  4. Interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Natasha Dissanayake. Ballet.co Magazine. July-August 2004. [link]
  5. Freelance Freedoms. Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Marc Haegeman. Dance Now Magazine. Vol. 17, No. 4. Winter 2008/09.
  6. Ballet’s future Russian Ahead by Leigh Witchel. New York Post. October 2009. [link]
  7. Ratmansky Takes Manhattan by Marina Harss. The Nation. September, 2009. [link]
  8. Bolshoi Director May Take Job at City Ballet by Gia Kourlas. The New York Times. February 2008 [link]
  9. For Bolshoi Ballet, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back by Nora Fitzgerald. The Washington Post. February, 2007 [link]
  10. Alexei Ratmansky and the new Bolshoi by Margaret Willis. Dance Magazine, November 2004. [link]
  11. New Home, New Job and New Moves for Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times, May 2009. [link]
  12. The Bolshoi in Paris: An interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, February 2004. [link]
  13. Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times. November, 2009 [link]

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Morphoses dancers performing Commedia (via Sadler’s Wells YouTube channel)

Morphoses’ third London season has just come to a close. This year they came almost entirely depleted of their NYCB roster, something we lament since we cannot easily cross over the Atlantic to see that fabulous team at home. Nevertheless Morphoses remains a vibrant company providing the opportunity for an eclectic public to discover a mix of interesting dancers matched to new choreography.

The programme I saw, a tribute to the Ballets Russes and their collaborative spirit, opened and closed with captivating works. Wheeldon’s Commedia is a charming take on the carefree and playful world of the Commedia dell’arte to match Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite, a spoof on early eighteenth-century music. The simplicity of the set and costumes, the absence of a corps de ballet reminds us that Morphoses works on a tight budget,  but Wheeldon compensates by displaying his gift for fluid choreography added to what is essentially classical dance vocabulary. Although one wishes certain sections of the ballet were expanded on, particularly the solo sections for razor sharp Rory Hohenstein and sparkly Leanne Benjamin, on the whole this is a piece that makes a long trip to Sadler’s Wells on a wintry evening well worth it.

So does Ratmansky’s Bolero, a fine translation into steps of Ravel’s music, also originally composed for The Ballets Russes. Three men (Juan Pablo Ledo, Edwaard Liang and Lucas Segovia) and three women (the always amazing Wendy Whelan, Melissa Barak and Danielle Rowe) dressed as athletes, gradually move from individuality to unison in response to the rising demands of the score. There are no set designs and, unlike the evening’s less strong middle section works, “Leaving Songs” and “Softly as I leave you”, no use of props to maximize dramatic impact. All the better to let the choreography speak.

Tim Harbour’s Leaving Songs was supposed to be about endings and beginnings but stayed in the middle, mixing classical phrases with usual modern moves. It did have one good thing going for it, in the shape and extensions of Rubinald Pronk. Pronk’s chemistry with his regular dance partner Drew Jacoby could also be seen in the next piece “Softly as I Leave You” (by husband and wife team Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon). Despite the recorded music and the overreliance on a wooden box for drama, there were luscious extensions and lifts as well as a sense of true intimacy between these amazing dancers.

At the start of the performance Wheeldon greeted us with his trademark introduction to the evening’s pieces. But before each section there were also short video extracts on the dancers and/or choreographers. Those videos are a great idea but would perhaps grab us more if screened at the start of the performance or as part of DVD extras. With their third season done and dusted, what is next for Wheeldon’s company? It seems that Wheeldon’s initial plans for a permanent company of 20 dancers are still faraway and the fact that the second circle had plenty of empty seats is worrisome. Is Morphoses going to continue focusing on abstract pieces à la Balanchine because of lack of funding? That would be a shame given Wheeldon’s strength in narrative pieces. I left the theatre thinking that Commedia would also have worked as a narrative one-act ballet and hoping that seasons to come will be able to deliver that sort of thing.

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The Morphoses London Season opens tonight at Sadler’s Wells with a programme dedicated to 100 years of Ballets Russes, an appropriate choice for a company structured in the same way and whose mission to “broaden the scope of classical ballet through the creation of innovative productions and collaboration with the seminal artists of its time” ties in with the feats of Diaghilev‘s own legendary troupe.

Three years and many accolades on, Christopher Wheeldon‘s company continues to match some of ballet’s brightest stars to new work by the best choreographers and designers around.  By nurturing these quasi pro bono collaborations, Morphoses projects the image of a fresh and accessible company whose main objectives are to target the 25-34  year old public not familiar with ballet and to challenge some of the preconceptions associated with the art form.

As part of Wheeldon’s target demographic, we think the existence of a company like Morphoses sends a very positive message, a promise for the future of ballet.  Its mission strongly resonates with us as we also believe ballet can and should be made accessible to younger generations while staying true to its traditions, with no dumbing down of the art form. We only wish their seasons were longer (only 4 days in London) and that we could see more of Wheeldon’s work this side of the Atlantic.

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Morphoses in a Nutshell

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company was founded in 2007 by Christopher Wheeldon, previously NYCB’s resident choreographer, together with Lourdes Lopez, ex-NYCB Principal and Former Executive Director of The George Balanchine Foundation. The troupe attracts dancers from major companies in the world who appear at reduced fees. The repertory is a mix of modern classics and new pieces created by Wheeldon or by guest choreographers, in collaboration with innovative designers and composers, very much in the spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Originally Morphoses would function as a pickup company, hiring dancers on a season basis until Wheeldon had secured enough financial backup (around US$5 million) to have dancers on a fixed payroll, but the credit crunch  has forced the company to carry on with a small administrative staff of three and to remain at its donated Manhattan base for the present. Dancers continue to be recruited on a season-by-season basis while Wheeldon has kept working as a choreographer outside Morphoses, which allows him not only to continue staging big budget works for the major ballet companies, but also to bring in extra funds for his own Morphoses projects. His long term plan is to  be able to support a permanent troupe of 12 dancers alongside the regular guests.

Morphoses’s inaugural performance took place at the 2007 Vail International Dance Festival. After a heavy media build-up, this first appearance received mixed reviews from the American press. Some critics thought the ballets in the programmes looked too similar, with too many abstract ballets (including pieces by Forsythe and Edwaard Liang) and prominently featuring too many pas de deux, but they generally praised Wheeldon for elevating the artistry in his dancers (NYCB‘s Wendy Whelan, often regarded as Wheeldon’s muse, was nominated for an Olivier Award) and for creating a rapport with the audience by coming onstage to introduce each piece with insightful commentary.

That same year Morphoses became a Guest Resident Company at New York City Center and at London’s Sadler’s Wells. Wheeldon was appointed as Associated Artist for Sadler’s Wells and the London season won a South Bank Show Award. Since then, Morphoses has also appeared at the Sydney Festival.

The Many Faces of Morphoses

Guest Dancers

Tyler Angle, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Hélène Bouchet, Ashley Bouder, Darcey Bussell, Batkhurel Bold, Thiago Bordin, Alina Cojocaru, Jonathan Cope, Ángel Corella, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Jason Fowler, Gonzalo García, Marcelo Gomes, Craig Hall, Drew Jacoby, Johan Kobborg, Nehemiah Kish, Carla Körbes, Maria Kowroski, Edwaard Liang, Tiler Peck, Rubinald Pronk, Teresa Reichlen, Danielle Rowe, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Edward Watson, Miranda Weese, Wendy Whelan

Collaborators

Composers James MacMillan, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich and Bright Sheng; Artists/Set Designers James Buckhouse and Jean-Marc Puissant, Adrianne Lobel; Designers Francisco Costa, Narciso RodriguezIsabel & Ruben Toledo; Director Nicholas Hytner

Repertory

The inaugural programme presented in 2007 featured two new Wheeldon pieces – “Fool’s Paradise” and “Prokofiev Pas de Deux” – alongside his exisiting works “Mesmerics”, “After the Rain” and “Morphoses”. It also included William Forsythe’s “Slingerland”, Michael Clark’s “Satie Stud”, Liv Lorent’s “Propeller”, and Edwaard Liang’s “Vicissitude”.

The following year brought a mix of premieres led by Wheeldon’s “Commedia” (to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite), Lightfoot León’s “Shutters Shut” (at City Center) and Emily Molnar’s “Six Fold Illuminate” presented together with classic works by Sir Frederick Ashton – The Dream Pas de Deux (in Vail) and Monotones II – Robbins’s “Other Dances” and Wheeldon pieces “Polyphonia” and Fool’s Paradise”.

This year Morphoses brings a host of new works to both its transatlantic headquarters. It also continues to collaborate with influential fashion designers Francisco Costa (Creative Director of Calvin Klein), Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Commemorating the Ballets Russes’ centenary, the first programme will  include Wheeldon’s “Commedia”, Ratmansky’s “Boléro” (to the eponymous Ravel piece) and a new work by Tim Harbour.  Two days later, a second programme brings “Softly as I Leave You”, originally choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (resident choreographers of Nederlands Dans Theatre) for dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk, in addition to old and new Wheeldon: “Continuum” and  “Rhapsody Fantaisie”  (a world premiere set to Rachmaninoff’s suites for two pianos).

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise:

One of the wonderful things about Mr. Wheeldon’s work is that there are new discoveries to be made each time you watch it. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Morphoses does have a provisional air. For the moment it remains an assembly of dancers, albeit extraordinary ones, from other troupes, and Mr. Wheeldon hasn’t yet had the opportunity to develop a group of performers to his own ends. But he is a choreographer with an instinctive grasp of dancers and their abilities…To see major ballerinas like Ms. Benjamin and Wendy Whelan on the same program is reason enough to watch Morphoses. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Trained on Balanchine, most New York ballet critics absorb meaning and sense syntactically, because with Balanchine it’s the action between the notes–the syncopated rhythms–that shape the steps and their portent. With Wheeldon, the ballet’s color and emotion may be rooted in the score, but the organizing principle is visual. Apollinaire Scherr at Foot in Mouth / ArtsJournal [link]

Wheeldon has set his standards about as high as a new company could aim for. We can really look forward to what follows. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

It is an absolute pleasure to watch this group of top-rate dancers running through their paces in this way. With ages from the teens to the over-forties, in all shapes and heights, they are so full of personality and presence that they make this a most uplifting evening. Sarah Crompton at The Telegraph [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company Website [link]
  2. The Newcomer by Joan Acocella. The New Yorker [link]
  3. Metamorphoses by Astrida Woods. Dance Magazine, October 2008.
  4. Ballet without Borders by Peter Aspden. Financial Times, September 2008. [link]
  5. The dancers are Young, Beautiful, Sexy and Smart by Valerie Lawson. The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2008. [link]
  6. How to watch a Wheeldon ballet by Apollinaire Scherr. Foot in Mouth at ArtsJournal, October 2008. [link]
  7. Risky Business by Gia Kourlas. Time Out New York, October 2007 [link]

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Go If

Agon is probably one of the quintessential Balanchine pieces in every balletomane’s punch card. You should go if you love Balanchine, abstract, short and/or neo-classical ballets. Or try it for the landmark score: this is where Stravinsky began exploring his twelve-tone technique (more on this below).

Skip If

You are a strictly 19th century classical ballet fan and all of the above makes you cringe, especially the thought of music without an overall melodic theme (as you often exit the theatre whistling to Swan Lake!).

Dream Cast

NYCB (particularly if Wendy Whelan dances the pas de deux), after all, they are the Balanchine company per excellence.

Background and Structure

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Around 1948 Balanchine‘s benefactor Lincoln Kirstein had an idea for a ballet which would form a “greek trilogy” together with that choreographer’s earlier collaborations with Stravinsky: Apollo and Orpheus. The concept was discussed at the time but a couple of years would pass before concrete plans were drawn and a structure agreed. Stravinsky started composing for the new ballet in 1953. He came up with the title Agon, the greek word for contest but also a  reference to the various 17th century French court dances he had studied from Lauze’s Apologie de la Danse (1623) and this set the frame for Balanchine’s choreography.

Agon marked the third and last time Stravinsky would specifically compose music for a Balanchine ballet (though the choreographer continued to use other Stravinsky music in  later works). On the other hand it was the first time where Stravinsky applied to his work 12-tone serialism techniques, which he had just started experimenting with.

Stravinsky’s previous compositions had been structured in diatonic scale, in other words, they had been based on major and minor scales (click links for audio examples), which give a strong feeling of a tonal center, the major keys a bright sound and the minor keys a moodier sound. One can build a diatonic scale by playing the white keys on a piano keyboard within an octave, in the sequence -Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do – (see figure) 

Octave on a Piano

Octave on a Piano. Image: Guido Tattoni © Source: Smack my pitch up

Between two half steps or semitones (Mi-Fa and Ti-Do – or in the picture Si-Do) there are either two whole steps or tones (Do-Re-Mi) or three whole steps (Fa-Sol-La-Ti), giving the diatonic scale its rich tonality and clear sounds.

There are however, other types of scales. Chromatic scales for instance are sequences of tones (whole steps) preceeded by semitones (half steps). One can build a chromatic scale by playing a sequence of black and white keys in order, without leaving any out. The result is uniform and different to the major scale above where tones and semitones are arranged in a particular way. A chromatic scale has 12 tones (NB: there are 12 tones or notes in an octave. Just count the number of keys in the figure above: Do, Do Sharp, Re, Re Sharp, Mi, Fa, Fa sharp, Sol, Sol sharp, La, La sharp, Ti).

The twelve-tone technique of serialism arranges notes from a chromatic scale so that in an octave none of its 12 notes prevail over another, each note appearing just once before a new series begins. This method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties and later developed by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The resulting music is often referred to as atonal and cerebral.

Even though Agon starts with a diatonic, non-serial structure, Stravinsky combined parts that had a tonal centre (think of the violin solo in the coda of the first pas de trois) with serialist parts (the flute, mandolins & harps in the Galliard). In order to concentrate on other works and further his experience with serialism Stravinsky shelved Agon for a couple of years and then returned to create the central – very serialist – part of the work (the first coda and the bransles, ie. the moves from side to side), following Schoenberg and Webern’s ideas. 

Besides the new composition techniques, Stravinsky also used specific instruments to identify the dancers in the ballet – brass for men and woodwind for women – as well as traditional French court dance references: the bransles (couples dancing in circle, side to side), galliards (an athletic dance with plenty of jumps),  sarabande and pas de deux/quatre.

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Taking into account the serial 12-note concept he  conceived a ballet with 12 dancers (4 men and 8 women) and 12 movements (4 sections of 3 dances each). The ballet starts with the four male dancers facing the back of the stage and the dances develop as follows:

Pas de Quatre – the men
Double Pas de Quatre – the women
Triple Pas de Quatre – the ensemble

Prelude – 1 man, 2 women
Saraband-step – 1 man
Galliard – 2 women
Coda – 1 man, 2 women

Interlude – 2 men, 1 woman
Bransles:
Simple – 2 men
Gay 1 woman
Double – 2 men, 1 woman

Interlude – 1 man, 1 woman
Pas de Deux – 1 man, 1 woman*
Four Pas de Deux – the men and 4 women
Four Pas de Trois – the ensemble
Coda – the ensemble

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

The *pas de deux is one of Agon’s most unique features. The music sounds disjointed, with few instruments being used at a time, but it is still possible to identify the basic components: an adagio, two variations and a coda with the key difference of a role reversal for the dancers, the woman seeming to lead the male into assorted extreme poses rather than the opposite. There are several famous images such as the one where the ballerina wraps around her partner with her leg in attitude, or her 180º arabesque whilst the male dancer is lying on the floor.

PNBs Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

PNB's Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

When the score calls for serial 12-note themes, dancers respond with isolated movements and hints of the courtly dances on which they are based (the men bowing to the women). If the music presents a canon of two trumpets, the dancers perform in canon (ie. successively) to match the trumpets in the music. In the final section, as the score goes back to opening motifs, the dancers resume the same opening image of four male dancers facing the back of the stage.

Stravinsky finished the score in the spring of 1957 and Agon premiered on December 1, 1957, as part of a triple bill featuring Apollo and Orpheus. It was an easy winner with the audience, since it depicted classical ballet in a different and novel way, showing conflict and resolution between various forms of dance, movement and shape.

Videos

Sorry no YouTube videos! But there are certain DVDs and VHS* tapes (if you are able to view these) featuring glimpses of Agon.

  • Balanchine (1984) [link]
  • The Balanchine Celebration, Part Two* [link]
  • Bringing Balanchine Back [link]
  • Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas [link]
  • Peter Martins: Dancer* [link]

Music

Agon had its first concert performance in June 1957 in Los Angeles. It is still often performed on its own and much valued as a piece which combines both serial and non-serial elements. At an average length of 25 min, it can be easily uploaded to your favourite mp3 player. It can be downloaded from iTunes [link] or streamed via Spotify [link].

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell.
Premiere: December 1, 1957, NYCB. City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Agon in Context by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, April 2004. [link]
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Agon (ballet) [link]
  3. NYCB Agon Repertory Notes [link]
  4. 50 Years Ago, Modernism Was Given a Name: Agon by Alastair Macaulay. November 2007, NY Times [link]
  5. The Bransles of Stravinsky’s Agon: A Transition to Serial Composition by Bonnie S. Jacobi. [link]

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