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

An Interview with Herman Cornejo (for DanceTabs)

I recently sat down with Herman Cornejo at a café downtown. We discussed everything from the cruelty of the artform, to the excitement of working with Alexei Ratmansky, to his love of drawing. Here is a link to the interview.

And a short excerpt:

“Well you know, it took a long time for Kevin [McKenzie, artistic director of ABT] to give me the principal roles in the classical ballets, even when I was already a principal. And yes, sometimes it was frustrating, but you know, now that I think about it, I feel like things happen when they are supposed to happen. I’m ready, I feel different about them now. Also, coming back to the Met after having been injured for almost four months I felt very different. Maybe it was because I was so happy to be back there, but I had rested, I’d had time to think about things.”

The Danes get their Bayadère (DanceTabs)

A group of dancers from the Royal Ballet came to Works and Process to discuss and show excerpts from their new production of La Bayadère. I wrote about it for DanceTabs.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Petipa’s Bayadère was set in a typical nineteenth-century Orientalist fantasy, a mythical India of the distant past in which temple dancers performed fire rites and submitted to (or rejected) the advances of high priests. Hübbe has scrapped that idea and moved the action to the late nineteenth, early twentieth, century, the height of the Raj. Nikiya is still a Hindu temple dancer – or devadasi – but her lover is no longer an Indian warrior, but rather a British officer, Sir William. William’s betrothed (Emma) is now the daughter of a British Vice Consul, not an Indian princess. In effect, William must choose between a white woman of his class, and an Indian woman far below his station. Hübbe has injected both race and colonial politics into the story – it remains to be seen whether the flimsy, fairy-tale plot can sustain such a dose of historical realism.”