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In the August edition of Dancing Times Magazine there is an interesting article which looks back on the history of the “Soviet Sleeping Beauty”, the version the Mariinsky have brought to this tour in London (they also have a Vikharev reconstruction of Petipa’s older version which is currently shelved though perhaps not permanently). According to Nadine Meisner, author of the article,  the version we now see is a collage of the 1952 Konstantin Sergeyev work which replaced Petipa’s original to better appeal to the demands of that era. Thus, large chunks of ballet mime have been cut, the fairies given new steps to dance and the Panorama/Aurora Vision scene recreated entirely.

Olesya Novikova as Aurora, in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Cal Performances © Source: Voice of Dance.

Ekaterina Osmolkina as Aurora, in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Cal Performances © Source: Voice of Dance.

The Sleeping Beauty is a ballet that can easily fall into overly sweet & cute territory and Sergeyev’s version seems not ashamed of going into full twee mode, with the garland waltz a parade of cherub-like children, too many fairy tale characters (most of them do not get a solo) crowding the festivities in the final act and with less layers of symbolism to compensate. The lack of sensitive handling of the tale is for me its biggest letdown. Take for instance the fairies in the prologue. What I adore about the Royal Ballet’s version is that choreographic allusions from each of these fairy variations are discreetly built into 16 year old Aurora’s solos showing us that she is the sum of all gifts bestowed on her: purity, grace, generosity, musicality, etc. Here Aurora’s bond with the fairies goes unnoticed.

The critic Clive Barnes had noted after seeing it in 1961 that “the Kirov take a less dramatic view of the ballet than we in England”. There is less delicacy, no doubt due to the historical context in which it was conceived, and this shows in the toned down mime which omits the Lilac Fairy’s reassurances that should Aurora prick her finger she will merely fall asleep, not die. Or in the beginning of the vision scene where the Lilac Fairy does not have to convince Prince Desiré that she has a cure for his blues, it’s almost as if he knows she is a woman on a mission and he’s onboard immediately. Aurora’s development from playful adolescence to mature woman at her wedding is never fully revealed to the audience either.

The spindle – or the lack thereof – is another issue I take with the Konstantin Sergeyev text. It is the object of Carabosse’s curse to Aurora: she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. To avoid this, the King banishes all prickly objects from his kingdom. Fast forward 16 years and we see Aurora triumphing as the center of all attentions in her birthday party until she sees this shiny, pointy object that she has never seen before; think of all psychological connotations that are fitting here, the allure of danger, teenage rebellion. She has got to have that spindle, grabs it enthusiastically to the dismay of her parents, pricks self, brings about the curse. In Sergeyev’s version all this wonderful symbology is lost to us because Carabosse hides the spindle in a flower bouquet which she offers to the princess, just like Gamzatti does to Nikiya in La Bayadère. Aurora never even registers the presence of a spindle. And how insensitive this is.

Lilac Fairy in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky Theatre

Lilac Fairy in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky Theatre.

But I don’t wish to imply that the production is entirely devoid of virtues. Ekaterina Kondaurova is a warm Lilac fairy and her dancing is magic in itself, so secure and at the same time so fluid, the choreography giving her more to do than elsewhere. I find the Panorama scene  ideal (despite its early conclusion due to the Lilac Fairy’s boat malfunctioning!). It’s here that we can marvel at the Mariinsky’s solid corps and where Evgenia Obraztsova looks like a true vision which Igor Kolb’s prince Désiré treats as the most precious thing he has ever laid eyes on. There are a lot more opportunities for Prince Désiré to display his bravura and drive, as he vividly responds to the vision of Aurora and battles with Carabosse (superbly played by Islom Baimuradov) and minions. This prince will do whatever it takes to find the princess of his dreams, Kolb’s every step and gesture indicating this urge.

Sergeyev also treats us to a wonderful version of the wedding pas de deux:  this particular choreography of Aurora’s variation, beginning with the hops on pointe and arms that sing, is the moment I long for the most all evening and here, thanks to Obraztsova, it is full of musicality and grace. Obraztsova & Kolb are elegant, noble and entirely convincing. If there’s little symbolism at least there’s plenty of classicism for us to take home.

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

The Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ballet Company

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

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

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

The Soviet Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Style

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

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

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

Their work day

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

Videos

Legends

The current generation

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

Sources and Further Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Royal Ballet run of Giselles is almost over (only 4 performances left) and as the last Spring/Period 3 production opens this week we now move onto Summer/Period 4 which closes the 2008 – 2009 season.

In other words, you must hurry if you still want to catch the Royal Ballet in action before they leave to tour the USA and Cuba. And here are some of the productions we are counting down to:

New Work in the Linbury

An opportunity to catch the Royal Ballet dancers performing new choreography in the Linbury Studio’s intimate stage. Johan Kobborg is making a piece for Alina Cojocaru, Steven McRae and Sergei Polunin – need we say more? Hurry while stocks last!

Jewels

Balanchine & Bling!! We LOVE the star-studded first cast with Edward Watson & Tamara Rojo in Emeralds, Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli & Zenaida Yanowsky in Rubies, Alina Cojocaru & Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds, but the prospect of seeing Yuhui Choe & Ricardo Cervera (Rubies) as well as Marianela Nunez & Thiago Soares (Diamonds) in the second cast is tempting. We say, book for both!

Carlos Acosta & Guest Artists

We found the programme details thanks to Elise on The Royal Ballet and guess what? Steven McRae (with Roberta Marquez) will be  tackling a role originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in Ashton’s fiendish Rhapsody, wow! Acosta will be reprising the Spartacus pas de deux with Bolshoi’s Nina Kaptsova, so expect loads of bravura dancing.

Mariinsky

Our favorite troupe may be away during August/September but we will stay put at Covent Garden: the Mariinsky/Kirov are coming to town and we love them, even though they are bringing a “credit crunch safe” repertoire with Swan Lake, The  Sleeping Beauty, etc. at crazy prices (£30 for restricted view amphiteatre, ouch!). We shall be picking our casts carefully: we like Evgenia Obraztsova and Vladimir Shklyarov and dancers who display beautiful classical line in general. We don’t like extreme extensions being flashed at us every five seconds, which means we will probably skip Alina Somova.

 

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Most professional dancers start their careers rather young and, depending on where they study, the programme/syllabus they follow varies substantively. Here in England, they will probably be following RAD (Royal Academy of Dance). However there are other different methods/schools, each placing emphasis on different aspects of dance. This might result in a dancer having certain abilities and qualities that are more striking and “pop up” when performing certain roles/choreographies. For instance, lookout for extreme bending of the torso “Ashton style” in those dancers trained at the Royal Ballet School.

Given that we are all for knowing more about our favourite hobby, we will  be posting a series of entries on the different schools/methods of ballet. Of course we are not planning to be exhaustive and we should mention that there is more information available from the internet or in educational books.

Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda (1910). Copyright by its respective owner (Source: http://www.ballerinagallery.com).

In this post we will focus on the famous Vaganova method, which serves as the main system of instruction in Russia and is widely used in much of Europe and America. It has generated some of the best dancers in the world, admired for their clean lines and the softness of their movements.

Vaganova (pronounced va-GA-nova) training was originally developed by Agrippina Vaganova through her period of teaching in the 1920’s and 30’s in the Leningrad Choreographic School (which is now the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg).

This method originated from Vaganova’s knowledge of the basic curriculum used by the Imperial Ballet School where she trained, fused with the athleticism characteristic of the Italian school and a dash of romanticism borrowed from French ballet.

The training focuses on the upper body and starts from the basic assumption that movement comes from the core. This emphasis on core stability and strength in the back and arm plasticity enables perfect coordination with fluid arms and precision in allegro work.

Vaganova also focuses on the placement of arms (port-de-bras) whilst in motion, as they can assist the dancer while jumping and turning and enhance the beauty of the movement overall. This is why ballerinas from the big Russian companies like the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, will generally have beautiful lines and port-de-bras, while also displaying tremendous ability for bravura dancing (ie. multiple sky high jumps and dizzying spins).

Vaganova’s teaching method can be found in her book “Basic Principles of Classical Ballet”. Its application depends entirely on individual schools/teachers, as there is no parent organisation in charge to regulate the system. It should be mentioned, however, that the method assumes pupils “tick all the boxes” in terms of physical attributes for a career in ballet (given that in St. Petersburg, students were hand-picked for success, with perfect limbs and turnout). In other words, it might not be the most forgiving method for the non-professional aspirant student.

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