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Edward Watson & Miyako Yoshida in Ondine. Source: ROH, Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Edward Watson & Miyako Yoshida in Ondine. Source: ROH, Copyright belongs to its respective owners

In this compelling article dance critic Alastair Macaulay examines what drives the archetypal “heroine of the water”, her allure, her psychological connotations. I recommend it as essential reading not only to those thinking about catching the last few performances of Ondine this week but also to any Swan Lake devotees.

In La Motte Fouqué’s Undine, the short novella from which Ashton’s ballet Ondine derives, we have, as Macaulay puts it, “a Romantic hero (originally named Huldebrand) for whom this world is not enough: he has a human fiancée but he finds what he craves in the affections of Undine, a water nymph “who lacks a soul”. In a nutshell, it’s our human condition: we want to escape from a dreary, routine existence but at the same time do we know what we are getting ourselves into, why and how do we dare pursue the unattainable? And if we get what we want, how do we deal with it?

Plot-wise, Ondine is not unlike another Romantic ballet gem, La Sylphide, where we also have a tragic male hero (James) forever divided between desire (the Sylph) and reason (Effie). But I feel Ondine needs a bigger degree of engagement and scratching beneath its surface so that we can better understand who Ondine and Palemon are, what they seek and what the choreography and the constant stream of music say of these and other characters. In short, Ondine is not as easy on the eye (or the ears, I overheard a ballet goer comment yesterday “well, it’s not music you can lose yourself in, is it?”) as La Sylphide or Giselle and I don’t think I would have liked it a couple of years ago so well as I do now, three performances and a considerable amount of background reading later.

On two previous sittings last winter I saw Edward Watson’s quintessential Palemon matched with the sublime Tamara Rojo, a very dense waterfall of an Ondine. This luxury cast, I fear, raised the bar so impossibly high that I now find Miyako Yoshida’s reading to be a little too basic, lacking in drama. She speaks more through her dancing – moving fast and mischievously with dainty steps, quick jumps, lush backbends, forever trying to slip away – than through facial expressions. However, her choice of a more polite interpretation also works alongside Edward Watson’s very intense Palemon – in a reading that is almost MacMillanesque, well suited to choreography which would perhaps have influenced MacMillan’s own creations later – because it fully emphasizes the contrast between their two worlds: one pure as water, where Ondine will surely not toy with Palemon’s feelings as Berta does, but one which is also devoid of soul and personality (with the exception of the domineering and revengeful Lord of the Sea, Tirrenio, danced with outrageous precision by Ricardo Cervera), the other world, where Palemon would naturally belong, is for him even more mysterious, full of emotion and heart, as hot blooded as the red scarf with which Berta wraps herself when she sees Ondine lost to the sea and thinks Palemon will be fully hers again.

From left to right: Miyako Yoshida and Edward Watson. Source: The ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Miyako Yoshida and Edward Watson. Source: The ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

But will he? In the final act of the ballet we see him married to mortal Berta but pining over his lost Ondine. How I wish Ashton had given Palemon a few extra minutes of solo dancing, for throughout the ballet but especially here Watson’s steps express his frustration with settling into a normal life, while haunted by hallucinations of Ondine: he whips up furious turns evoking the trauma of the seastorm caused by Tirrenio, he beats and shimmers his legs. Ashton’s choreography & Watson’s execution are impassioned, no wonder it’s this heart that Ondine covets.

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Go if: You like to mix & match different ballet styles or you want to take a crash course on Balanchine’s work: this particular piece covers all his styles and influences.

Skip if: You do not fancy abstract, plotless ballets. Though that would be your loss, between Emeralds, Rubies & Diamonds there might be at least one rock that is right for you!

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef and Arpels ©

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef & Arpels ©

Dream Casts:

Emeralds with the Royal Ballet (Tamara Rojo or Alina Cojocaru) or the Paris Opera Ballet

Rubies with NYCB (Ashley Bouder please!)

Diamonds with the Mariinsky (Uliana Lopatkina or Viktoria Tereshkina!)

Background:

Jewels is said to be the first full-length abstract ballet, although in reality its three acts, while sharing a common theme of gemstones (as represented in the costumes), are independent from each other, with music by different composers and choreographed in various styles. There are also several versions of the story as to how Balanchine came up with the inspiration for Jewels: according to one, jeweler Claude Arpels would have suggested it after inviting Balanchine to his showroom. In another, the idea came when Balanchine was trying to buy a ring for his muse & beloved Suzanne Farrell.

Despite having claimed that the ballet had nothing to do with actual jewels, Balanchine did evoke the colour and glitter of jewels in dancing – watch for the elaborate floor patterns and shaping of groups, reminiscent of necklaces and chains – and on the dancers themselves. For this, Barbara Karinska, his long time collaborator, created distinct, matching looks for each section of the ballet. The costumes were also designed so that the dancers could move freely, to meet the demands of Balanchine’s choreography.

Given that most of the glitter would come from the reproduction of the stone colours and their shine in the costuming and dancing, the settings were left bare with only minimal jewels reflecting the light. Perhaps for this reason, ballet companies around the world have certain artistic freedom when choosing stage settings for Jewels, whilst the costumes have to remain 100% true to Karinska’s original creations. The Royal Ballet’s staging for instance has set designs specifically created by London based Jean-Marc Puissant.

Emeralds

The opening piece, Emeralds, is set to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is Balanchine’s ode to Romantic ballets, which is hinted at not only in the long (aka Romantic) tutus but also in the choreography: fluid, wafting and delicate, full of floating bourrées, Giselle-like balances and sinuous steps. It evokes 19th century Paris and French ballerinas of that era. Composed of a small corps of ballet of ten women, three soloists and two leading couples, the piece starts with an opening Pas de Deux from the first couple, two solo variations for the ballerinas, a vivid Pas de Trois (one of the highlights of Emeralds), a Pas de Deux for the second leading couple and an ensemble finale.

Rubies

If Emeralds is about 19th century Romantic Paris, Rubies brings us nearer to 1930’s jazzy America, thanks to Igor Stravinsky‘s extremely energetic and syncopated “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra”. Here the girls’ costumes are short, “Ballet-on-Broadway” looking skirts. The choreography attempts to display all the different twists in the music, so one sees angular shapes, high extensions, jutting hips, flexed feet and more. Due to its “wow factor” Rubies has been the most successful of the three sections and can be seen staged on its own in certain occasions. Dancers usually compare performing in Rubies to running a marathon, given the stamina required. The ballet involves a leading couple, together with a female soloist and a corps of eight women and four men. After an opening  introducing the dancers, a solo role for a tall typical-Balanchine ballerina, we see a very sparkly Pas de Deux for the leading couple and a real marathon of a finale  where the dancers prance and chase each other, like “running horses”, full of fun, energy and intensity.

Balanchines Rubies. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

Balanchine's "Rubies". Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via ArtsJournal.

Diamonds

This final section is Balanchine’s homage to both his grand ballerina Suzanne Farrell and to Russian balletic tradition, in all its choreographic nods to the Imperial Russian Ballet schooling and to Petipa‘s classical masterpieces. Unsurprisingly, Balanchine chose a Russian score (Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3) and dressed his ballerinas in wonderful classical white tutus. The ballet opens with a waltz for a corps de ballet of twelve women and two soloists. The next movement is a remarkably regal Pas de Deux for the principal couple, structured in the classical way with an extended adagio and variations – think Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Swan Lake and La Bayadere all rolled into one – followed by an even more spectacular final polonaise (a crowd-pleasing, applause-generator essentially), in which all the dancers return to the stage forming intricate swirling patterns, as if replicating Diamond chains in their dancing.

Balanchines Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

In short, even though Jewels has no underlying story and may look on paper like detached sections unified by the overall “gemstone” theme, on stage the mix of dancing styles and music honours ballet’s roots and wraps up mood, excitement and drama in one dazzling, vibrant package.

Playlist for your Ipods

Emeralds:
Gabriel Fauré. Pelléas et Mélisande (op. 80) and Shylock (op. 57).

Rubies:
Igor Stravinsky. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Diamonds:
Pieter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Symphony No. 3 in D major op. 29 (omit first movement).

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: George Balanchine
Premiere: NYCB at New York State Theatre, April 13 1976.
Original Cast:
Emeralds: Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, Mimi Paul and Francisco Moncion,
Sara Leland, Suki Schorer and John Prinz
Rubies: Patricia McBride and Edward Villela, Patricia Neary
Diamonds: Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D’Amboise
Original Designs: Peter Harvey with lighting by Ronald Bates and costumes by Barbara Karinska

Sources and Further information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Jewels
  2. Ballet Notes from BalletMet Colombus by Jeannine Potter [link]
  3. The Balanchine Trust
  4. The Balanchine Foundation
  5. Patricia Neary speaks for the ROH Podcast. Available to download free from iTunes.
  6. How brightly shining? Jewels review by John Percival at danceviewtimes [link]

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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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Given the full run of Giselles, it is always very enlightening and enjoyable to experience different casts and portrayals. This is not only a challenge for the dancers, as they could be prone to imitate “famous” versions, but is an opportunity to experiment and dare to find subtle ways of connecting with the audience and communicating the story.

Giselle is the ultimate romantic ballet and a classic. The first act is full of pretty colours and sunny characters (almost Disney-like); plenty of mime and charming details. However, there is the dramatic twist at the end which leads to the famous “mad scene” which serves as catalyst for the forthcoming events. Gloom and darkness are the ingredients on the second act, in which a completely different world materialises. All the colour is gone, replaced by a ghostly white sheen. Human emotions are set against a supernatural background: Giselle’s love and Albrecht’s repentance against the terrible but beautiful Wilis gliding on unison.

Leanne Benjamin, made use of her experience to show us a mature Giselle, which has overgrown any naiveté, so that when Albrecht’s deceit is revealed, Giselle develops madness fuelled by rage, rather than pure heartbreak. Johan Kobborg’s Albrecht is clearly charmed by Giselle and is, without knowing, falling for her. This is more evident when Giselle dies, as he realises what he has lost.

In the second act, Leanne brings us a Giselle which is a shadow of her former self, very dark and eery. This was the first time I’ve seen such a portrayal, as it is clearly different to the sad and forgiving Giselle one expects. I found her acting to be without fault, but some of the balances were not held long enough (in particular, the famous penché) and her phrasing with the music was a bit off. However, her bourées were lovely and the overall feeling of weightlessness was definitely there.

Johan’s dancing on the second act was spot on (some lovely cabriolés and amazing footwork). The chemistry with Leanne is something of an on/off thing, as their complicity varies depending on the piece (their Manon, earlier this season was amazing). Giselle is certainly not one for them, and somehow the portrayals of their characters do not add up (somehow I can see Leanne doing Giselle with Ed Watson).

The pas-de-six had standout performances from Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae (they should be paired every time!). Another highlight for me was Samantha Raine as one of Myrtha’s attendants and Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion. I find her dancing to be quite ethereal, with beautiful arms, while Whitehead commands the stage as soon as he steps into the spotlight. Myrtha was danced by Laura Morera, in a role that does not play to her strengths (I prefer her allegro work).

All in all, Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet is as beautiful as ever. Definitely worth a trip to Covent Garden.

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As we begin our regular musings on “everything ballet” what more fitting than to start with our darlingest of all Covent Garden darlings, Alina Cojocaru, and her return to the stage after a one year long absence earlier this week. We knew it was going to be a special evening, after all, Alina wisely chose to return in the classic that she is most often associated with, Giselle, the ballet that is also a perfect match to her 19th century lithograph physique. And perhaps most importantly, one that is not too taxing as we also expected she would be careful not to over exert herself in tackling the steps.

 

Emilia says:

While, for the above reasons, there were slight changes & toning down to the choreography, Alina portrayed through her pure dancing the most unfussy-but-eloquent of Giselles. Free from any artifice or pyrotechnics, her actions and expressive dancing spoke volumes and touched the heart. All innocence in Act 1, all purity and spirituality in Act 2. And with the very best of Albrechts to match in Johan Kobborg. He showed us, earlier than usual for this ballet, a sincere regret, a realisation of his wrongdoing to Giselle coupled with a sense that the deceitful Albrecht was really falling for this girl, that to see her go mad and suicidal (a heart wrenching mad scene it was!) is deeply distressing to him. Johan’s Albrecht clutches the lifeless Giselle in his arms for much longer than any other Albrechts I have seen in this Royal Ballet run (more on them and their respective Giselles later), he is clearly desperate. Because he understands that letting go is losing all that is goodness and innocence, thankfully for him then (and for us the audience) that he has a chance of redemption in Act 2.

One very minor quibble of mine is that Laura Morera’s Myrtha, the revengeful Queen of the Wilis, was somewhat lacking in “revengefullness”. Laura did not seem as comfortable here as she did playing the Bayadere’s rival Gamzatti a few months ago, and I thought the earlier Myrthas in the production danced with more authority. But overall the performance as a whole and, in particular, Alina and Johan’s partnership felt like a journey back to a different time line in ballet history, one that simply honored romanticism and substance vs. form. A vintage Giselle.

 

Linda says:

It is something rare to find a ballerina that can actually perform and realise Giselle in both acts. The first act presents a sunny Giselle, a naive girl that dreams of love, while the second act brings us an ethereal creature that becomes broken and is not whole, but whose love manages to redeem Albrecht. Many dancers today usually excel in any of both acts and bring a variety of interpretations through the phrasing and musicality, but Alina Cojocaru truly becomes Giselle.

When she is betrayed by Albrecht, not only does she lose herself and all she holds dearly to her heart, but the audience gasps and stops breathing while the atmosphere becomes filled with her sadness and despair. Her second act is just a thing of wonder: every step, flick of her arms and expression on her face are used to bring the audience into this supernatural world.

We, as Albrecht, are almost in denial of what is happening, entranced by the spell of the Wilis. The only opportunities for us to regain our senses were on Albrecht’s variations. Johan Kobborg was on fire and his jumps and lines were clean, sharp and reaching wonderful heights, but what really struck a chord was that never did he leave Albrecht behind to become Johan, he was always in character, showing pain and accepting his penance after he realised that he became a victim of his own game: he fell for Giselle and now she was lost to him forever.

In this way, when dawn approaches and reality befalls, Albrecht’s pain becomes our pain, since Giselle is gone and at least in this performance, it was clear something magical had happened, something for the ages. A shower of flowers during the curtain calls, and stomping and cheering that celebrated not only the return of Covent Garden’s favourite ballerina, but the appreciation and gratefulness towards Alina and Johan for their dancing and the miracle they had just materialised.

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