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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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Daniil Simkin

Daniil Simkin. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / ABT ©

If you follow dance on the internet chances are you will have heard of Daniil Simkin.  He is the whiz kid (not just dance-wise but also tech-wise) who arrived last year from Vienna State Opera to stir some fresh buzz into American Ballet Theatre’s soloist ranks. His virtuoso dancing and various gala appearances, including the prestigious World Ballet Festival in Japan, have drawn a solid fanbase from every corner of the globe and Daniil draws on multi-platform social media and Web 2.0 to stay in touch and connect with all these fans.

We caught up with Daniil ahead of ABT’s trip to China later this week. He was kind enough to answer our questions about his ABT repertoire, his social media projects and to share his plans for the upcoming gala evening “INTENSIO” in Athens this December.

You are now in your second season with ABT. Can you tell us how it’s going? Any new roles/debuts on the horizon? Which roles do you expect to dance in the upcoming tour to China?

DS: So far my second season has been great. I will be touching a lot of new ground and will be expanding my horizons during the MET’s spring season, dancing in Twyla Tharp’s Brahms Hayden Variations, the great Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream (as Puck), probably in Paul Taylor’s Company B, in addition to dancing my current roles in our classical repertoire. I have also been understudying a few Principal roles in the classics since I have performed some of them with other companies, but I have no scheduled performances in those yet.

During ABT’s tour in China I will be performing ‘Everything doesn’t happen at Once‘ by Benjamin Millepied and ‘One in Three‘ by Aszure Barton, both created for ABT and premiered during its Avery Fisher Hall season this Fall. Both pieces are extremely different, but very enjoyable to perform. I am very much looking forward to the tour, especially because it will be my first visit to China.

Simkin Millepied

Daniil Simkin in Benjamin Millepied’s Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Speaking of the Far East, can you briefly share your experiences at the World Ballet Festival in Japan this past summer?

DS: The World Ballet Festival was an unbelievable experience. Just the fact that I was sharing the stage with people like Sylvie Guillem, Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg, Marianela Nuñez, Svetlana Zakharova, Leonid Sarafanov, Tamara Rojo… It gives me goosebumps. One of the most memorable moments was probably receiving corrections & pointers from Sylvie Guillem. Luckily my first show, a full-length Don Quixote, happened at the very beginning of the festival. Not everybody was there yet so I was able to concentrate on my show without thinking too much on who might be watching in the audience!

You are one of few classical dancers currently using social media to connect with your audience. How did you get into it and what are you trying to achieve in all these different platforms (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.)?

DS: I have always been interested in computers and any technology-related gadgets. Some boys are drawn towards cars and motorsports, whereas as a kid I was drawn to computers, science and gadgets. I spent more time on my father’s first computers than he ever did. Then came the Internet and its ever-increasing presence in our lives. Luckily I was born in an age when everything was just starting. I was designing personal websites by myself in my spare time and once codecs for videos became more efficient I put in there videos from my competitions as downloadable clips.

Then one day I saw one of my clips in somebody’s MySpace page and found out somebody else had uploaded two of my clips and was selling a DVD of it on YouTube without my permission. I was shocked. Because of that I decided to put my own videos onto YouTube, otherwise others would. I also started to use MySpace after my competition in Jackson (2006) since it was the perfect way to keep in touch with a lot of the US dancers I had met there.

From there it was not a long shot to Facebook and Twitter. I was the second professional dancer to use Twitter, after San Francisco Ballet Principal and good friend Maria Kochetkova. I had fun updating my status and therefore kept doing it, until twittering was the next popular thing for pretty much every and anyone. Nowadays all of my platforms are interconnected, which means that my profile and my work can be discovered through different channels. If somebody gets to know a little bit about what I do from watching my YouTube videos, this person can then have a full picture through my Facebook page, Twitter and my personal website, which is currently in the process of being upgraded to a new, fully integrated, Web 2.0 version.

Simkin Azure

Daniil Simkin in Aszure Barton’s One of Three. Photo: Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

With all of this, my aim is to demystify our work as ‘professional dancers’. Our profession is surrounded by clichés and prejudices from misinformed people. I am trying to show that we dancers may be a little different from everybody else, but in essence we are human beings with routines, likes and dislikes, social lives and passions like everyone else. In short, we are not so different or more special than the office worker sitting in a cubicle, we just have different workspaces.

People in dance talk about the need to promote ballet more widely and yet, few actually do it. Why do you think there are so few dancers/choreographers in social media channels and have you encouraged any of your colleagues to use them?

DS: To quote a twitterer “I must do something” always solves more problems than “Something must be done” (Author Unknown). In the end, we as the dance world ARE the ones who have to change, not our surroundings, the media, etc. In my opinion classical dance is not more popular because in the dance world we tend to be more conservative than innovative. We have to change our mentality and prejudices towards copyright, media, replace them with openness and transparence. Only when the majority understands that this is the key to the future, will we succeed. In my opinion protectionism in these days of Internet/Web 2.0 can be destructive. That’s my two cents.

I have been encouraging some of my colleagues to participate in the Web 2.0 movement, but unlike most of the other professional fields, ballet is very physical and is very little connected to technology in its everyday routine. Therefore dancers are not as open to embracing the possibilities of technology as they could be.

What do you think major ballet companies should be doing to draw new audiences and to keep engaging them?

DS: The same things I mentioned before. Project more openness and a certain fearlessness in their PR. Fear is the biggest enemy of innovation and it prevents them from progressing, from opening the art form towards new audiences.

It is clear to me that the artistic mission of ballet companies should be to maintain a healthy balance between proven classics and innovative work with new ballet choreographers. Basically it is guarding a basis while nurturing experimental directions, but in reality, only big scale companies have the luxury to do both these things. The smaller the company, the harder it will be – budget and quality wise – to maintain a high level of both. Which doesn’t mean it is not a goal to strive for or one that’s unreachable.

Can you tell us more about the gala you are organizing in Athens this December? Why this particular location and who will be guesting?

DS: After performing in the ‘Svetlana Zakharova & Friends’ gala in Athens last year I was approached and asked to organize a similar event. The Gala evening is called ‘INTENSIO – An International Ballet Gala Presented by Daniil Simkin’. ‘INTENSIO’ is a play with the words ‘intense’ and ‘intention’. It describes the evening quite well in that it is not going to be just a clean dance evening, we are trying to merge different media into a ‘mashup’ for an entertaining evening. My father is in charge of the stage design and video projections specifically designed to support the dance on stage, as some pieces will be integrated with video. It is an exciting project for me and a new approach towards the usual ‘gala’ evening you see so often.

So far the following dancers will be performing (+ another couple to be announced)

Daniil Simkin Peasant Pdd

Daniil Simkin in ABT's Giselle. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor / ABT ©

How do you see your career evolving 5 years from now, what would you like to have achieved & which roles do you aspire to dance?

DS: I tend not to look too much into the future. Life experience showed me that it is healthier and better for me to enjoy the things I have now and share the beauty of life right here, right now. Having said that, dancing the Principal classical repertoire is one of my priorities in the near future and I would also love to go back to school, at least part-time or to learn remotely. Right now I am too busy and I don’t have enough time, but hopefully in the future I will be able to do that.

What’s in your ballet bag?

DS: Different things for different occasions… If I am running from studio to studio rehearsing, then it would be:

  • Water with added Magnesium
  • Different kinds of warm ups to keep as flexible and as warm as possible (normally consist of 4 or more items+ warm up boots or warm up socks)
  • Headband to keep my hair in place (which tends to be long enough to bug me)
  • Sansha Pro 1C skin colored ballet slippers
  • Toe spacers for my big toes + medical tape to stick them
  • iPhone + a2dp Bluetooth Nokia wireless headphones
  • 2 different stretching bands: One from Chacott to stretch my split and extensions and one Thera-Band to warm up my feet

Last but not least, COOKIES to keep my bloodsugar and mood up and to give me an always needed sugar-fix!

More about Daniil:

  1. The New York Times on Daniil in ABT’s Le Corsaire [link]
  2. W Magazine on Daniil’s relationship with the Internet [link]
  3. Daniil’s Official Website [link]
  4. Daniil on Twitter [link]
  5. His Facebook page [link]
  6. His YouTube channel [link]
  7. Intensio Gala Information from Elliniki Theamaton (venue) [link]

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