Last week I attended lecture-dems showcasing the work of two young choreographers, both of whom are also members of New York City Ballet. I wonder what they’re putting in the rosin over there at the StateTheatre, because there really seems to be an upsurge in creativity in the ranks. (But why, still, no women choreographers?) The notion that ballet is a languishing form flies out of the window when one sees their work and hears them talk.
“It has now become clear that ballet is undergoing an important evolution, and I’m not referring to the overwrought, effect-laden mannerisms of much of what is referred to as “contemporary ballet.” This is a change that is blossoming within ballet’s own idiom, using the specific skill-set of ballet dancers: jumping, turning, balancing, sliding, skittering on pointe, flickering the legs at warp speed, tipping and extending hyper-articulate bodies.”
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
Once again, Works and Process is putting on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. This year’s show is more elaborate than previous incarnations, with a full staging by Isaac Mizrahi, and choreography by John Heginbotham (formerly of the Mark Morris Dance Group). Mizrahi has put together quite a cast, including his friends Maira Kalman as the duck, and Gus Solomons, Jr. as the Grandfather.
“But – and here lies its lasting power – it doesn’t talk down to its audience, musically or dramatically. The harsh realities of life are not papered over with saccharine melodies or unrealistically happy endings. The duck dies as a result of her foolishness. Near the end, we are reminded of her plight as we hear her unhappy quacking in the wolf’s belly. And Peter is told, rightly, that he, too, could have died.”
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.”