Violette Verdy

“Phrasing is a recognition of the values of talking, of thinking; it’s an evaluation, an itinerary,” says Violette Verdy, the great ballerina, coach, and storyteller. My profile of Verdy just came out in The Nation. You can read it here

 Violette Verdy in George Balanchine's Jewels, 1967. (Martha Swope)
Violette Verdy in George Balanchine’s Jewels, 1967. (Martha Swope)


Past Glories

As I was watching a screener of Ric Burns’s “American Ballet Theatre: A History,” which will broadcast on PBS on May 15, I was struck by the contrast between the exalted, almost religious feeling ballet lovers have toward the works of the past and the conflicted attitude of opera lovers toward the “canon” today.

Ratmansky Unplugged

14ratmanksy2_span-articlelargeLast week, the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky sat down with Paul Holdengraber of the New York Public Library for an extended conversation about his influences, interests, taste, ideas about ballet, and a million other things. There is an audio file of the conversation on the NYPL’s website. If you’re interested in ballet, it’s essential listening.

The NYPL talk made me think of the various interviews I’ve had with Ratmansky while preparing articles on his Shostakovich Trilogy and his first season as ABT’s choreographer in residence. I put together some of his comments  for DanceTabs last year.

Conductors Make the World Go ‘Round

Ever wonder what goes on in the pit while ballerinas leap and spin upon the stage? Well, now you’ll know. I wrote an article about conducting for dance, a subject that has always fascinated me, for the Times. It will appear on Sunday, Aug. 3, in the Arts and Leisure section. (If you receive the weekend paper, you’ll get in on Saturday). Meanwhile, it’s already online.


Ballet Archeology at the Guggenheim

Anna Pavlova as Nikiya in La Bayadere. photo from here:
Anna Pavlova as Nikiya in La Bayadere. photo from here:

Last night, the dance historian Doug Fullington, of Pacific Northwest Ballet, gave an excellent presentation at Works and Process, shedding light on the original choreography of three nineteenth-century “exotic” ballets: Le Corsaire, Le Roi Candaule, and La Bayadère. Eight dancers traveled with him, as did two excellent musicians from the PNB orchestra: the Concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim and Associate Concertmaster Brittany Boulding. As would have been customary in a nineteenth-century rehearsal, the dancers were accompanied by two violinists, with one executing the melodic line and the other a reduced version of the orchestration. Fullington has studied Stepanov notation (the language in which ballets were recorded at the Imperial theatres at the end of the nineteenth century), and so was able to glean information from documents kept in the Harvard Theatre Collection, such as a notated solo for Nikiya in La Bayadère, as performed by Anna Pavlova. (As he pointed out, though, the notations often describe only the legs, the directions, and the stage patterns, so some creative input is often required.) Among other things, the solo was performed at a much brisker tempo than it is now. Another notable aspect of most of the dances was the great variety of petit allegro steps, beaten jumps, coupés, fast, brisk, skimming glides, buoyant turns.

Leora Neuville, Seth Orza, and members of PNB in a moment from the final act of La Bayadere. Photo by Jesson Matta.
Leora Neuville, Seth Orza, and members of PNB in a moment from the final act of La Bayadere. Photo by Jesson Matta.

The dancers were excellent, and game. Seth Orza, one of two men, danced with his usual air of seriousness and self-deprecating gallantry. Liora Neuville’s fluid, musical arms were especially lovely. Of course, bodies and ballet technique have changed quite a bit in the last century-and-a-half. No current dancer can approximate the qualities of a Pavlova or a Karsavina (and probably wouldn’t want to). In fact, when Fullington showed period photographs from these ballets, the audience tittered. Those dancers have almost nothing in common with the hyper-athletic, streamlined, racehorse physiques we see today. (But what personality!) We have only a limited idea of how they moved—there is very little film footage of Pavlova, for example. But, in the spirit of authenticity, leg extensions were kept low, arms rounded, eyes modest. It’s amazing just how much detail one can see in such an intimate setting.

The one thing I missed was a discussion of the “exotic” elements of the ballets: the sources of inspiration, the imagery, the unique attraction the 19th century had for the “Orient,” and the ways in which these themes were treated in the realm of character dance.

You can watch the entire session here:


For more information, here are Fullington’s informative background notes: Petipa Exotique

Childhoold, boyhood, youth: on Elizabeth Kendall’s new biography of Balanchine

Elizabeth Kendall’s vivid new biography of Balanchine’s early years, Balanchine and the Lost Muse, came out last summer, but my review of it for The Nation is out today. In her book, Kendall conjures a series of ghosts, from the boy Balanchine once was, to his classmate and friend, Lidia Ivanova, who died tragically young. In addition to being an extraordinary work of scholarship, it represents a tremendous effort of love and of the imagination

Here’s the review:

Kendal jpeg