IN DEFENSE OF THE “LIGHTER”  BALLETS

Scene 1, several years ago: Alastair MacAuley mourns Alessandra Ferri’s career development. He calls her the Lolita of ballet, and wistfully remembers the purity of her dancing in a plotless piece I think in her graduation exam, or in some ballet contest.
If it depended on him, he would throw away her amazing acting skill, and keep just the technical excellence – we would not have the gift of her lovely, unbeatable Juliet, for example. Or her Carmen.

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Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling in Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan.

Scene 2,  a few days ago: I give a try to any video of ballet that shows up in my FB timeline.  Watching one of them, I’m thinking oh my, how booooring! I skip to scene after scene, the lavish costums change, but the boredom level does not change.  Curious that someone would bother to stage such a ballet, I consult the credits. It was a Balanchine work. I am not surprised. Yes, sorry, I’m not a big fan of Balanchine.

Scene 3, today: Alastair MacAuley is retiring, and as a last pompous message, calls Don Quixote and Le Corsaire trashy ballets, and tells us soviets (you feel the bleeergh between the lines) are to blame for their popularity.  I quote:

I draw attention to two very unalike trends: one heartening, one dismaying. The first is the increasing penetration of George Balanchine’s choreography into national and international repertory. For those of us who remember how radical he often was in his lifetime (even in this city and far more often elsewhere), and how difficult many of his ballets were when young, this vindication is deeply satisfying; moving, too. Balanchine achieved a high water mark for the art. That dozens of one-act Balanchine ballets, like “Divertimento No. 15” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” are now regularly danced from Phoenix to Miami, from Vienna to Vancouver, is a victory of superlative modernism.

Against that, however, please observe the ghastly and ever-increasing popularity of such formulaic 19th-century ballets as “Le Corsaire” and “Don Quixote.” These war horses — trashily circusy, composed to minor-league music — abound in clichés. When I discovered dance in the 1970s, they were the specialties of Soviet companies alone: They exemplified the tosh that Diaghilev had banished to the past, and which all sophisticated Western companies rightly chose to avoid. Today, however, they’re frequently danced in New York (alas, here too Ballet Theater leads the way), London and many other cities. They demean ballet.”

Scene 4, also today: I come upon an article entitled Where has the joy gone?. Where is the joy of dancing? Why is it that the uncountable different feelings we experience are mostly absent in ballet? When did acting skill become such a low priority in dancing? 


Circusy?

He doesn’t dwell long on the reasons for his opinion. Circusy, he says. Maybe he means the variations in these ballets, specially the male ones, that require big jumps and tours. In what sense are big jumps more show-offing than 32 fouettés or intrincate small allegros? Or perfect, absolutely P-E-R-F-E-C-T lines? They just show-off different skills. Or maybe he is bothered that these ballets give the male roles more relevance? Holy Balanchine said “ballet is a woman”,  so please don’t display gross masculinity on stage, men should keep nicely in the background, hidden by the tutus.  Or is it because you can laugh in these ballets? NOOO, please don’t, ballet is a serious affair, we cannot condone with joy on stage. Of all the unwished for heartfelt reactions ballet can bring, mirth is maybe the worst!

Formulaic?

Oh, as if Swan Lake,  Sleeping Beauty, Giselle were not formulaic… Plots rely on the same elements, variations and corps dynamics have the same structure and steps, body-language and expression is kept to a minimum (in it’s stead loads of mime), lavish scenery and costumes. Balanchine is formulaic TOO in plotless work after plotless work with the same kind of stiff, contained steps, his corps in endless geometric forms – and you learn the much praised “Balachine style” or be prepared to scathing criticism.

Given MacAuley disdains of plots and acting skill, maybe he doesn’t like the plots of DQ and Corsaire? Yes, their plots are kind of trashy, absolutely not grand or affected, often more of the parody kind, and to make things worse, they have a happy ending! EVERYONE knows art must be tragic to be art. Don’t you?

Self-styled judges

There were always self-styled judges of what art is. And loads of art expressions they  consider(ed) unworthy. Tchaikowsky received much criticism because of the unbridled passion in his music. Michelangelo was criticized by the scandalous display of flesh. Byron was untastefully over-romantic. Some wrinkle their noses over operettas.
Really? So let’s face the truth: Giselle is just a typical gothic saved as high art by the white tutus, and the score is bizarre, with bright, lively tunes as background to tragic eerie scenes. And Bayadére, pure kitsch?

But ALL the ballets mentioned above require good classical technique and lines – may they be Balanchine styled, English, French or Russian styled. All styles are equally worthy,  Mr. MacAuley, but you seem unable to appreciate anything outside your bubble.  Modernism? Balanchine is already dated. Anyway, would you evaluate Andy Warhol higher than Rembrandt because of his modernism?  Or Shakespeare lower than Tennessee Williams?
Also, the ballets above, with the exception of Balanchine’s, all require good acting. In other words, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire require MORE skills than most of Balanchine ballets. They also depend more on the performer, who – not bound by strict rules – will add a new layer of creativity, which I find refreshing in any scenic art.

Opinions or universal truths? 

I can have my favorites, of course: but my taste is not an universal truth. No, no, sorry: if I’m conservative, my Weltanshauung will be fulll of “universal truths”, usually dismissive of everything and everyone that does not please me…

I’m glad MacAuley is retiring. I’m glad a whole older generation of deeply conservative ballet lovers and funders is slowly being replaced by younger, less biased ones (or so I hope). The former ones imposed their values on ballet for too long, and turned away a potential younger public that does not share their pomposity, smugness and why not say with all letters: repressed sensuality. Enough of people that don’t want to be stirred by what happens on stage – that want ballet as pure aesthetic pleasure – while in their private lives they are often… well, quite different.

It is NOT a coincidence that MacAuley, when he concedes there may be life after Balanchine, forgets to mention Crystal Pite, for example, with their deeply stirring, critical works on contemporary issues (and groudbreaking use of corps). She indeed is  modern. Ballet has been for too long the last bastian of shared hyprocisy in art.

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The Season’s Canon by Crystal Pite

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As a last note: don’t tell me you need deep knowledge and very refined aesthetic taste to know  a “good” ballet from a “bad” one. Art is art. Anyone with some degree of sensitivity and love for beauty can appreciate Johann Strauss as well as Beethoven, a naif painter as well as Rembrandt, Swan Lake as well as Le Corsaire, a Wilde comedy as well as a Shakespeare play. I refuse to let conservatives full of prejudice define the rules: I’m able to respect and appreciate different forms of art, different styles, different epochs. What is really hard for me to accept as art is Form without Content. 

Four Keys to the Future

I hardly have time to write, nowadays, but what will become of Dance, and more specifically about Ballet, is always in mind. I worry, as you know, about their vitality and future.

I was reading this blog of Greg Sandow on the future of classical music (a passion, but I do not follow and study like Dance), and came upon this, that… could have been written for Dance, just by replacing the word music!

Since the link doesn’t embed in the text, I quote:

“We’re in a new era. To adapt to it, and build a new audience, here are four things you should do:

Understand and respect the culture outside classical music. 

Your new audience will come from the world outside classical music. Where else could it come from? And to reach these new people, you of course have to know them. Who are they? What kind of culture do they already have? You have to respect them, because if you don’t, they won’t respect you.

Work actively to find your audience.

The people you want to reach may not yet care about classical music. So they won’t respond to conventional PR and marketing. They won’t come to you on their own. And so you have to actively go out and find them. You have to talk to them where they live, where they work, and where they go for entertainment and for inspiration. You have to inhabit their world.

Be yourself.

Your urgency, your joy, and your passion will draw people to you. But you can’t be joyful if you don’t love the music that you perform. So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing. Trust your new audience. Trust it to be smart, to be curious, and to respond with joy when it sees how joyful you are.

Make music vividly.

The people you reach will want to love the music you bring them. But can you meet them halfway? Are you bringing them something they really can love? Your performances should be entirely yours, performances nobody else could give. Your music should breathe. Contrasts should feel like they’re contrasts. Climaxes should feel like climaxes. Are you doing everything you can to bring your music alive?”

I’m grateful for Greg Sandow, prolixe me would never be able to write such a splendid resume!

Link to full text

 

Emploi and double-standards

How can you explain that dancers that don’t fit certain visual standards are considered unsuited for Ballets where Form is privileged,  while dancers without any acting skill are considered suitable for ballets where Content is more important?

Has Ballet definitely given up on being a performance Art?

Is any flawed performance accepted, as long as physical standards are obeyed?

Absurdity… you see performances that, if not for the costume, could be of any ballet! Solor undistinguishable from Ali, Desire identical to Franz, Colas plus a guitar becoming Basilio… Aurora with feathers in Swan Lake, clad in red in Don Quixote…

Even this, however, is not so bad as having Giselle identical to Juliet and Margherite… or Franz as unpleasant as Prinz Rudolph!

Oh, come on, spare me!!!

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Quote of the Day – Sylvie Guillem

Sylvie-Guillem“For all of you, who are sending me all those incredible notes thanking me… It’s the opposite I have to thank all of you who followed me and bought tickets , filling up theatre showing to all the” professionals of the profession” you , as me, were thinking there was a different way to approach classical ballet , there was a different way to tell stories ..those fantastic classics as Swan Lake , the scariest one to dance, is not a stupid duck with a tutu a point, but a woman who suffers , accepts to die for the man she loves, who care about the triple pirouettes and the quadruple fouettes if the public is not touched by what you are saying .”

Posted on her Facebook Page on this date. The whole text and the following comments are worth seeing!

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On Ferri and Vasiliev, or Magic and the Comfort Zone

Magic and the Comfort Zone

A short time ago Alessandra Ferri posted this on her Facebook Page. OF COURSE she would like the little drawing – this is what she is, someone who is always taking risks, and delving further and deeper into her artistry. She is wonderful, all I ask for in a dancer! If there is an example that all dancers should follow, it’s hers.

It was sad when she retired some years4_194451 ago, and I hoped she would at least coach a whole new generation of dancers to become as amazing as she was. But she had really retired…  And then, two years ago she did something that was Alessandra Ferri all over: she dared to come back, after 7 years away, when she was 50 years old.

She, nonplussed, got involved in wonderful, daring, beautiful projects – I’m grateful she constantly steps out of her own limits in search for more – and keeps creating magic for us. Now she’s working with Wayne MacGregor on a project about Virginia Woolf’s works!

Art cannot exist except in constant change, constant experimentation, constantly going beyond what IS… because that is how Life is! Art withers away, becomes empty and dry if it does not encompass evolving Life, and more than just that, goes beyond it. So I have a great respect, and a special fondness, for artists that are restless, that constantly experiment, seeking new kinds of challenge, new ways to serve their Art.

See this photo.

Ivan The Terrible
Ivan Vasiliev – Rehearsal of Ivan, The Terrible

Are you WOWing? I’m too! That Ivan Vasiliev even DARES such a jump! I only hope he did not fall flat on his nose after this incredible moment, because I like his handsome nose!  Luckily, if there is someone capable of landing nicely after that, it’s him!

Now see this short video (a few days later – and whole nose!).

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Ivan Vasiliev is dancing (with Denis Savin)… a choreography of his own. I don’t know about you, but I am WOWing again! About the choreography’s value? Too few seconds, no way to know if it is good, yet.  NO, this is not what I’m cheering here.

Even before I can see the whole piece, I applaud that he is trying new ways that early in his artistic life. Others did try their hands on choreography, a lot later most of them, and given their experience by then, maybe could be a lot surer about their work. Ivan challenges himself so much, I bet he is never sure of what will happen.  Even so, he goes for it, and goes with all he has.  Sometimes things work out nicely, sometimes not that much – and often he creates magic so powerful as to melt us in our seats. THAT is all I ask!

When he first appeared on stage, I believe a lot of ballet-lovers thought THERE was someone that could be the ultimate Perfect Dancer, and were disappointed that he never became this idealized being (even grudging him for that – badly – a problem that is theirs, not his).

Against all safety (not only physical!), against ballet’s status quo approval, sometimes against audience wishes, against a lot of opinions on his private life, his technique, his looks, his behaviour, Ivan goes his way, not unerringly, but HIS way –  a road he is opening as he goes on. Not arrogance, but bravery is needed to do that. He is brave, and is doing EXACTLY what every artist MUST, and should do. The effort needed – inevitably – is making him grow all the time, if we see it or not, if we like what he is growing into or not.

I never looked for a perfect dancer, I always looked for magic-creating dancers, and for Dance’s vitality and evolution. That means that I’m not only NOT disappointed over some failed idealization of Ivan Vasiliev, on the contrary, I like the notion that he has human flaws and artistic flaws the same as EVERY SINGLE artist, dancer or not, that came before him and will come after him – ALL have, more or less, their specific weaknesses and strengths – and still, is an outstanding artist. As a fact, THIS is, in my eyes, what make artists so special:  that even being imperfect human beings, like we all are, they are able to raise above mediocrity and become great, and create something special! The beauty of that notion – that Humanity, imperfect as Nature always is, is able to create Art!

I wish we could let artists, whatever Art we may be speaking of, be free to be what they are and do, and just be grateful when they create something almost too good to be true… then they could continuously try without fear of making mistakes or being “not perfect” (in all the ways different minds deem necessary)! Myself, I can certainly patiently wait, through several performances, until I hit the one that blows me off my seat! THIS one is worth all the trials, and eventual errors, that came before! There is no safety in Art, no way to secure a miracle each single time.

Alessandra in Pavane
Alessandra Ferri in Pavane by Hidemi Seto

If artists are allowed to try and make mistakes, they eventually find THEIR way to do things, and become ALMOST a certainty of a small miracle each single time. This will not happen, however, if we demand certain behaviour, or a certain kind of skill of them, or a certain kind of performance.  Artists must be free, and technique… ah, technique…  must be just the necessary and sufficient not to limit them in what they want to achieve!

Rehearsal of Notre Dame
Ivan Vasiliev rehearsing for Petit’s Notre Dame

It is not for us to say what they should achieve, or how… we are at the receiving end, a passive end, we totally depend on them, and our efforts to guarantee a certain result always have the exact opposite effect… The most we can do is tell them how we feel when they perform – with no expectations – because if their drive to go forward is too strong, they will not be interested, not even in us.  And that’s the way it should be!

We, reviewers, audience, fans, are often mighty preposterous (and silly) in what we demand of artists – as if we had the ultimate knowledge on how they should be and create. My, we know nothing about ourselves and make a mess out of our own lives, how can we be so arrogant about these special, gifted people that give us so much?

Grateful! We must be just GRATEFUL!

Ivan, the Amazing As Ivan, The Terrible

The Bolshoi announced that Ivan Vasiliev will perform Ivan, The Terrible on 14th and 15th April. His partner will be delicate Maria Vinogradova – all made of beautiful lines, and a good actress herself. Both evenings were sold out before you could blink…

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Maria Vinogradova and Ivan Vasiliev rehearsing Spartacus

Prince Rudolph, that he will be performing on 11th April, and The Terrible are roles where Ivan Vasiliev can use ALL his skills… and at full power.  There are not so many roles of that kind, so that both will be in his repertoire now is great news!

John Neumeier – Creating on Emotion

Spring and Fall - ENB
Photo: Spring and Fall – ENB ………….. Link to video: Spring and Fall – Hamburg Ballet

It’s about time I start writing about choreographers. Last night was again a sleepless one, and I spent hours watching different stagings and performances of La Dame aux Camélias, choreographed by Neumeier.

Conclusion? all performances are beautiful, no exception. La Dame has such a lovely and expressive choreography, on such lovely music – it may even be performed (and sometimes is) by dancers that have not that great technical or acting skills – it doesn’t matter, its beauty is impossible to spoil.

There, I believe, resides Neumeier’s greatness: what he creates has a life of its own, his choreographies are in themselves objets d´art. They can be shown in a better light, when performed by great dancers (and then they become a regular WOOOW affair!), but their magic does not depend on dancers as some other works do – it’s the other way round,  his works HELP dancers make a great perfomance.

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Photo: La Dame aux Camélias – Marcia Haydée, Ivan Liska and Neumeier ………….. Link to video: Marcia Haydée, François Klaus, Ivan Liska in a most extraordinary scene

Neumeier is, by his own definition, a choreographer of human feelings:

“I’m a choreographer who works from emotion, from relationship, from situations, human situations, I try to make these situations as subtle, as different, as many-sided as possible. I never thought of Dance as anything else – ever – but the expression of a person’s emotion. For me Dance is not sport, it is not an acrobatic exercise, it is a physical expression of complete humanity. Dance is not really an Art form, unless it can express all that being human is.

*****  Ok, Neumeier, give me your feet so I can kiss them!

La Dame is certainly one of my favourite works – as everyone elses, I bet, but he created so many exquisite jewels: Spring and Fall (another favourite), The Little Mermaid, Death in Venice, Nijinsky (high on my wishlist), Liliom,…

Photo: Nijinsky…………. Link: the Bubenicec brothers Jiri and Otto as Nijinsky, and Anna Polikarpova as Nijinsky’s wife – a must see!

Most are at once lyrical and like sandpaper on soft skin – a tenderly done punch in your stomach. The Little Mermaid he created: of course! he is so right in the way he depicts her – in my mind (and heart) she is not, any more, like the lovely drawing in my Andersen book, but looks and behaves like Yuan Yuan Tan – and stands for anyone who feels alien and fragil in a strange hard world. He makes you ache inside…  and keep wishing for more.

The Little Mermaid - Yuan Yuan Tan and
The Little Mermaid – Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets

His works are often explicitely sensual, and no way to go around that – prude ballet-lovers are advised to stay away, sexuality is definitely there, under bright spotlight…  I recently saw a performance where Margherite and Armand just suggest the (choreographed!!) kisses in their PDDs, as if they were dancing a virginal Nutcracker instead of a courtisane‘s passionate story… I almost can see the frown on Neumeier’s brow!

Male dancers have lots of wonderful opportunities, sometimes more than women, but ultimately which gender gets more to do – and spotlight – depends on the subject and the plot –  it is just one more example of his honesty when choreographing.

Some things I love about him: the clever way he uses classical ground-stones to create something that is all his own; his themes and the way he handles them; the way he uses choreography to express feelings and ideas (never a dreadful outdated mime, relieved sigh!) . Then there are the great scores he – thankfully! – chooses, most are as nice to hear as to see danced. And he prefers dancers who know how to act (no wonder Alina Cojocaru is one of his favourites!). There are a lot of them in Hamburg: Silvia Azzoni, Helene Bouchet (love her!), Carsten Jung, Lloyd Riggins, Otto Bubenicek, Alexandr Trush, … It may even be that in Hamburg acting skill is a requirement to become a soloist or principal (hhhmmm, nice!)…

Alexander Riabko and Kusha Alexi   -  Joseph's Legend
Alexander Riabko and Alessi – Joseph’s Legend

But there are things I don’t like: in his stagings (he is keen on them, sometimes they are his own design), costumes are often unnecessarily ugly and unbecoming, and I highlight unnecessarily – AND not always easy to dance with. Costumes should never, NEVER be a problem to a dancer. I know you are thinking about the Mermaid, but even in La Dame those full skirts of Margherite, pretty as they are, are inadequate to the kind of complicated lift often used in the choreography. All that fabric is always in the way, or end up in a ball around her throat, or completely blind poor Armand… And then that napkin that is Joseph’s costume… or did they wash the thing and it shrinked to half its size?  In Ivan Vasiliev it would look like a tie!

Also, when he goes really contemporary, the choreography is somewhat less pleasing to the (my) eye than in his a little more traditional ones.

UPS! These last paragraphs sounded like an unsophisticated, or worse, uncultured critic, didn’t they?

In my original text, at this point I started a sidetrack to justify my apparently close-minded opinions. But the thing became too long (once again),  and I turned the whole sidetrack into an independent post (soon) . It was a comment on contemporary choreography, anyway, not on Neumeier himself – and if you don’t know me, don’t get the wrong impression: I love contemporary!

Never mind these “dislikes”, however, they are triffles that don’t make a dent in my admiration – he is placed VERY high on my Hall of Fame.

On my wishlist are also the updatings he made of several classics – but these I didn’t see, so I have no opinion on them, yet (was that a relieved sigh from you?!?).