“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
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.
Last 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.
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.
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 petitallegro steps, beaten jumps, coupés, fast, brisk, skimming glides, buoyant turns.
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
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
Saw Herman Cornejo last night in Don Quixote, at ABT. He and his Kitri, Xiomara Reyes, were celebrating ten years as principals with the company. I was struck by how much he has matured as an all-around stage presence in the last couple of years. Not only does he dance with precision and deep musicality (that’s not new), but he’s able to be fully himself onstage, engaged, warm, generous. He’s dashing without being flashy, in the fine tradition of Julio Bocca, Ángel Corella, and José Manuel Carreño (though he still lacks their instinctual partnering finesse). He has also refined his physique; despite being quite small, his lines are long. You would never mistake him for a simple “jumper.”
Here’s a video of the Basilio variation from a performance in Argentina last year (unfortunately it doesn’t show him from close-up):
And an interview from Misiones, Argentina, which shows his engaging personality, which shines through onstage:
This interview, in ArtForum, is quite fascinating. Hallberg talks about his questions about ballet, and his desire to work in other forms of dance. He discusses his feelings about the limitations imposed on him by the traditions of ballet. Here’s an excerpt:
“When you take something like Swan Lake, you’re a cardboard cutout of a prince, one who falls in love with birds. It’s a fairytale. I’m not saying people aren’t moved by it; of course they are. That is why it’s lasted. But I’ve questioned what my voice is in something like that. I’m made for this, I’m built for this, I’ve trained for this. I’m the prince; but do I just put on my white tights until my body starts to expire and then call it a day?”
And his search for a voice:
“There are so few artists in the ballet world who embody an individuality of their roles, of the classics. [Natalia] Osipova is one, [Diana] Vishneva is one. Osipova is someone who innately has to do it the way she does it, or else she can’t do it. She can’t be told what to do; this is her, bursting out. So few ballet dancers are successful in that. And I feel like I am unsuccessful in that regard, that I have never truly found my individual voice.”
It’s also interesting how little he talks about music, which, one would think, would be one major motivation for dancing.
All in all, a very interesting portrait of a dancer who seems to be at a crossroads.
On Nov. 30, I saw Tere O’Connor’s latest program at NYLa, consisting of two pieces, Poem and Secret Mary. The most exciting aspect of the evening was the involvement of Silas Riener, formerly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He’s an exciting performer, and his dancing brought focus and clarity to the second work, Poem. The other interesting detail was the number of references to ballet that popped up in the two pieces. Anyway, you can read my review here.
And here’s a short excerpt:
“Tere O’Connor can be a frustrating choreographer. Look for structure and you’ll likely be thwarted, frustrated, or worse. Because it clearly is there, but you can’t understand it. The usual signposts – music, narrative, development – don’t help. As he himself states, his interest lies in “placing distinctly unrelated strains of material into complex relational networks that do not search to create narrative resolution.” That’s just the way his mind works. It’s an insider’s game: you can sense that the dancers know why they do certain things at certain times, but you, the viewer, are not privy to that logic.”