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Posts Tagged ‘Wendy Whelan’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morphoses in a Nutshell

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

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

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

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

The Many Faces of Morphoses

Guest Dancers

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

Collaborators

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

Repertory

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

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

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

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise:

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Information

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

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Go If

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

Skip If

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

Dream Cast

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

Background and Structure

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

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

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

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

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

Octave on a Piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Videos

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

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

Music

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

Mini-Biography

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

Sources and Further Information

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

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Now that we know what both the Royal Ballet’s and the Sadler’s Wells’ 2009/2010 dance seasons look like, it’s time to start penciling in dates, drawing cast plans, organizing bookings and, most importantly, cancelling any previous engagements. Because the autumn/winter dance season, after the starvation of summer months, supersedes anything else we may have had in the pipeline (weddings, birthdays, christenings…). Seriously.

Here are some of the treats we will be bagging:

October

Mayerling (Royal Ballet)

MacMillan’s gritty and sleazy classic will be back with solid casts – Ed Watson & Mara Galeazzi, Johan Kobborg & ? (since Alina’s online diary indicates she might not be dancing this, we’d love to see Leanne Benjamin) as well as some interesting debuts for Rupert Pennefather & Melissa Hamilton, Thiago Soares & Lauren Cuthbertson.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev (Sadler’s Wells)

Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Javier De Frutos / Russell Maliphant & Wayne McGregor set about breaking new choreographic ground whilst paying homage to 100 year old Ballets Russes.

Morphoses (Sadler’s Wells)

Christopher Wheeldon joins in the Diaghilev fun with a special Ballets Russes selection of his own. We are thrilled to see Ed Watson (officially the busiest Royal Ballet dancer in the 2008/2009 season and going for another record, lucky we!), Wendy Whelan and young Beatriz Stix-Brunell still with Morphoses for this new season.

November

Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor (Royal Ballet)

The first – and very edgy looking – triple bill of the season provides the opportunity to see the dream team of Cojocaru, McRae and Polunin again in a new production of Glen Tetley‘s Sphinx. Along with a new McGregor. We can’t wait.

December

Carlos Acosta (Sadler’s Wells)

The bravura boss will be back at the Wells to perform Balanchine’s Apollo plus Jerome Robbins’ A Suite of Dances and Afternoon of a Faun. We think Sadler’s has gone a little “Ballets Russes PR happy” in comparing the man (albeit indirectly) to Nijinsky, but we forgive them: seeing Apollo in the programme is more than enough to lure us in.

The Nutcracker (Royal Ballet)

These days The Nutcracker is the most regular staple in the RB’s repertoire (I guess it’s trying to play catch with those 940+ Swan Lakes) but who can resist when high flyer Sergei Polunin is one of the princes? Plus, given that I can’t be bothered with yuletide decorations this is my only chance of seeing a proper Christmas tree.

For more information, refer to the official press releases by The Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells:

The Royal Ballet 2009/2010 Season

Sadler’s Wells Autumn 2009 Season

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