Category Archives: ballet

The UK invests in dance education

In America where chief LA Times dance critic Lewis Segal just got fired and Boston Ballet is cutting 20% of its dancers, the UK government has just invested £5.5 million into dance education. (No, not P.E. education, dance education.)

It’s interesting that they state the reason for dance’s popularity is fueled by dance shows on TV. Dance shows on TV has been great exposure for dance, although I personally can’t stand watching too much of it. There’s one commercial I couldn’t escape where they do a close up on a girl’s foot in toe shoes, and her feet aren’t very pointed. I guess toe shoes on TV is pretty novel and so that was the point of that shot, but that’s something that won’t get me to watch, nonetheless. And I’d much rather watch live dance! But it’s great for people who’ve never seen dance before, and it might get people into theaters.

I’m starting to feel like I live in the wrong country.

The death of classical ballet?

Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

Watching San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 showcasing great modern choreography (reviewed here) and especially its avant-garde piece, Eden/Eden, got me thinking about the future of ballet. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s exciting that great modern ballet pieces are still being created, as the ones showcased in Program 5. But how does this figure in with the great classical works, such as Giselle and Swan Lake? Is there room in one company, to satisfy both ends of the spectrum? Is one going to be phased out, in place of the other?

As sfmike mentioned in the comment below, the classical and the modern tend to “nurture” each other, in a symbiotic sort of relationship. Classical ballet is a foundation for the technique that’s tweaked by modern choreography. However, I can’t help but to think of a metaphor (I’m going to pull a metaphor from my other life in medicine) – it reminds me of the medical students who enrolled in Latin classes in order to help them with learning the Latin-based terminology for medicine. Latin can help, but precious little, and you could do without it as I have. Is this true for modern ballet as well? We can all appreciate modern ballet without liking or even having watched Giselle. Could we all survive and be happy without classical works? Is it just a ruse that classical works are necessary to round out a company’s repertoire, or are they keeping them in to satisfy the purists and dance elitists? Are classical works merely going to be stepping stones to modern choreography?

It’s no secret that some classical works, such as La Sylphide and Coppelia, are rarely being danced today. And even the classical works that are being performed, such as San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle, are being made over to make it more palatable to modern audiences. So in a way, classical works are already being modified. Perhaps this is inevitable. It’s hard to say that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m the first to admit I probably wouldn’t enjoy sitting through a 3-4 hour traditional Sleeping Beauty either.

I’m also thinking of modern audiences, especially to those who are new to ballet. I’ve recommended Program 5 to my scientist non-ballet friends, who ended up loving it, especially Eden/Eden. How are these newer audiences, ever going to appreciate the technicalities of Swan Lake? Is it really just a matter of taste if they haven’t been exposed to these pieces and just refuse to see them? And if this is the audience of the future, will that mean that classical works will be phased out because there is less of a demand for them?

I’m an audience member with high and particular standards, who loves classical works as well as good modern choreography. My fear is that classical works will become more and more obscure. It’s great to view great modern works, such as Morris’ Mozart Dances or Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Classics are timeless for a reason, and hopefully they’ll persist in modern repertoire even though I can see the progression towards placing less importance on them.

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5: Mixed Repertory

Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), After the Rain pas de deux, Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, and Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. © Erik Tomasson

I’ve always wondered what the future of ballet looks like, and Program 5 at the San Francisco Ballet offered a good preview. Onstage was a program that made Balanchine look as ancient as Petipa. The oldest piece on the program was Wheeldon’s Carousel, choreographed in 2002. More than just offering recent, modern ballets however, it offered good modern ballets. My favorite of the night was Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. Definitely my favorite Wheeldon piece so far, it features a man and a woman, looking very bare and simple, with the woman in ballet flats and loose hair. As the mesmerizing hypnotic slow music unfolds (with music by Arvo Part), the two dancers begin to melt into each other’s arms with complete surrender. An aching sadness pervades the air in their deliberate movements, as the two never make eye contact – when she falls into his arms, her gaze is aimed backwards as she arches her back; they often stand side by side, facing the same direction, or she wraps her arms around him and leans her cheek on his shoulder. In addition to complete trust without eye contact, this also implies a missed connection, as if they are harboring a guilty secret or wrongdoing, but trust each other anyway with unqualified acceptance. It includes a little bit of the experimentation that I saw in the piece Wheeldon created for SF Ballet a few years ago, Continuum. In this pas de deux, Wheeldon plays with the ebb and flow in the background of the steady music, as the two dancers push and pull through the slow music in inventive ways. This piece calls for a strong, steady partner – Damian Smith is probably one of the best partners in the company, and fulfilled his duties commandingly, with yearning compassion spilling out of every pore in his body. Yuan Yuan Tan completely trusted him, and her sensual langorous limbs were perfect for melting into him. The result left the audience mesmerized. It was a great example of modern ballet choreography, used in innovative ways with an intuition and understanding that everyone understood but could not quite verbalize.

After the Rain followed another Wheeldon piece, Carousel (A Dance). It had a completely different tone, reminiscent of an old MGM movie musical. It possessed all the elements that a modern audience would love – a sparkling set, modern costumes, and pretty imagery. It’s a pretty piece, but not much more than that. Set in a carousel, with ensemble members rotating in repetition as the horses, the rotating motif served as an apt swirling background for the love story in the central pas de deux. In the program notes, it states that the young girl is supposed to have an edge, as she goes for the “older man”. I was a little appalled that they considered Joan Boada an “older man”, and this didn’t come across at all. The central couple seemed no more than a normal teenage girl and boy at the fairgrounds, flirting. Dores Andre danced as his partner with youthful independence. My favorite part about this piece were the demi-soloists, mirroring the atmosphere of love and the fun of the fairgrounds, danced by Frances Chung, Elizabeth Miner, Rory Hohenstein, and Jaime Garcia Castilla. They were a great group that danced well together, with cheerful warmth. Historically, they were promoted to soloists around the same time (or since I started going to SF Ballet more seriously) and so it was great to see them dance together.

Helgi Tomasson debuted his piece, On a Theme of Paganini. As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t holding my breath with this one. However, it started hopefully, as he started with a motif of the flipped hand (shown in the picture below) .

Joan Boada and Vanessa Zahorian in On a Theme of Paganini © Erik Tomasson

This movement in itself is very witty, and a great starting point. However, the choreography never went far enough to explore its possibilities in innovative ways. The result was choreography that seemed overworked because it wasn’t going anywhere, and it felt like the piece could have been much shorter with the same results. Tomasson repeatedly displays a penchant for the melodrama and the cliche – the ensemble men dance in typical masculine bravura fashion, with big jumps and sweeping arms, and he really likes to have the girl curl up in the guy’s arms for no apparent reason in his pas de deux. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a fog machine had been turned on. Some positive things though – this piece had more complexity in its layers that I’d seen in his previous pieces. And as always, he knows how to showcase his dancers really really well. He pulled out all the stops in casting the biggest stars of the company, and I realized what a rare honor it is to see two star principals dance onstage at the same time (Maria Kochetkova and Vanessa Zahorian) in addition to three superstar men (Davit Karapetyan, Pascal Molat, Joan Boada). Kochetkova and Zahorian matched each other well in their precision, and mirrored each other well. He also cast three very tall men as demi-soloists (David Arce, Christopher Mondoux, and Anthony Spaulding) for a dashing dramatic result, although only for too brief moments onstage. It’s hard to see this piece working on any level with any other company than San Francisco Ballet, since it seems so tailored to exactly what the company has to offer now.

The evening closed with Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden. A few months back when I called into the NPR program that featured the SF Ballet, I asked how SFB is catering to younger audiences through its programming, and its answer given by executive director Glenn McCoy, who answered my question in short, by saying, “cutting-edge choreography”. The example he gave on air was this piece, Eden/Eden. Certainly cutting edge, this piece addresses the very futuristic issue of cloning, and utilizes video and electronic music for a multimedia experience. The music is by Steve Reich called “Dolly” from Three Tales (a video opera), led by conductor Gary Sheldon with earphones on. Interspersed with the buzzing electric music are short vocal phrases, describing the process of cloning, technology as an extension of normal evolution, and creating robots that are going to outsmart the human race. It suggests the possibility of humans as machines, with a voice that says that a silk flower isn’t a real flower. (Scientifically, I have problems with that statement because that isn’t a perfect analogy, but I will let it slide for now.) Humans as machines is then reflected in the dancers, who emerge from the ground with skin colored costumes and skin colored skull caps, who then proceed to dance in a pulsing, disjointed, and urgent fashion. The costumes are reminiscent of empty shells, vehicles to carry DNA, like a single celled enucleated egg. Partnering is gender-irrelevant, with dancers controlling and moving each other’s legs and reacting mechanically to each other. As superhuman machines, the dancers whip off multiple fouettes instinctively. Their heads move separately from their bodies, as do their hips and other joints, as a machine that is the sum of its parts. It continues like this in a disturbing progressive fashion, as anticipation builds in addition to the questions asked above the music. A transparent screen falls in front of the dancers, onto which lights and patterns are projected for an added cohesive effect of frenzy. In its final moments, a voice asks if we have it all planned out, as Yuan Yuan Tan peters out and collapses slowly onto the floor. The energy onstage was electric, with the dancers going full force the entire 30 minute piece. Anthony Spaulding was a particular standout, with a powerful presence and extra fire. The overall effect is a disturbing and chaotic high, which forces the viewer to consider the social message of science and where it’s going.

McGregor’s Eden/Eden. © Erik Tomasson

If this is the future of ballet, there is much to look forward to. With this program, it really cemented in my mind that one of San Francisco Ballet’s best strengths is its solidarity in modern ballet choreography. Their dancers absolutely absorb and breathe the choreography naturally. I was thinking though, if a ballet newbie sees Eden/Eden and enjoys it, how will that viewer ever be able to appreciate Giselle? Or do they need to?

Program 5 runs through March 18.

San Francisco Ballet Program 5

San Francisco Ballet: Program 4, A Tribute to Jerome Robbins 3/8/2008

Or, Garrett Anderson’s Big Night Out

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Pascal Molat, Davit Karapetyan and Garrett Anderson (and David Arce as the bartender) in Robbins’ Fancy Free.
© Erik Tomasson

Program 4 of the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary season is a tribute to Jerome Robbins, an American choreographer who is equally well known for his ballet choreography in addition to his work as a director and choreographer of movies, Broadway musicals and plays, and TV programs. With a long list of more popular works from the 1940′s through the 1990′s, I wasn’t all to familiar with his choreography aside from vague impressions of the movie West Side Story, which he directed and choreographed (and a brief introduction to Fancy Free danced by ABT last year). Program 4 served to be a great introduction to Jerome Robbins and his choreography to Bay area audiences.

Jerome Robbins is, above all, a story teller. He uses movement to convey stories, with a narrative that runs through his pieces, even his abstract ballets. Modern audiences with little or no exposure to dance would easily be able to follow his stories, yet the quality of choreography is never compromised, as movements are used in fresh ways to propel the plotline and to embody emotion, from the hilarious to the quietly reserved.

One of Robbins’ well known pieces is Fancy Free, a rip roaring light hearted quest for three sailors in a night out on the town for the most mysterious of holy grails – how to catch the attention of a girl. There is anticipation, indignation, competition, all shown through high kicking and high flying movement. Garrett Anderson danced the role of the sweetly sensitive sailor, in his first appearance of the night, wooing Vanessa Zahorian gently and awkwardly, albeit their duet lacked a certain chemistry. Pascal Molat was the high flying sailor, utilizing his natural gift for comedic acting to its fullest. Davit Karapetyan danced the role of the sailor initially left out, who attempts to seductively sway his hips back into the competition with a reserved calm yet hilarious results. It’s hard to watch this without comparisons to ABT’s version of it last summer. SF Ballet’s version was packed with dramatic details (after all, Robbins is known for being a perfectionist), whereas ABT’s seemed to skim over details yet captured a little more of the lilt that was so appealing in this piece. Overall, it was a spirited well-acted performance that the audience obviously enjoyed.

Fancy Free was followed by Robbins’ abstract ballet, In the Night, set to the nocturnes of Frederic Chopin. It features a couple dancing to each nocturne, representing three different relationships. Although the choreography was abstract, each couple told a story to the audience. It was definitely the quietest piece of the night, even a little bland, although it showcased Robbins’ narrative abilities through dance alone. Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin danced beautifully as a couple first in love, with Katita Waldo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba danced as a couple long been in love with a reserved yet simmering emotion. Lorena Feijoo and Damian Smith danced with fiery anger and passion, yet in the end, she lies down prostrate before him and he lovingly lifts her wrists and pulls her up to her toes and then into a high lift, and then catches her in his arms. That full movement from the floor to the sky and into his arms was in one fell swoop, and lovely in its completion.

The evening ended with the most anticipated piece of the night, San Francisco Ballet’s premiere of the West Side Story Suite. West Side Story Suite completely brought down the house due to its orchestral music and its dancing. Truth? I’m a little ambivalent about ballet dancers, singing. I realize that this piece was made to attract younger audiences to the theater, although if you wanted to see singing and dancing, I would recommend seeing a Broadway musical where performers specialize in these skills, whereas ballet dancers do not. The poor sound amplification did not help either, where I rarely understood a word anyone was singing. It’s hard enough to ask dancers to sing, and then ask them to sing… and harmonize… and sing with an accent; it’s a little too much. Despite this, the SF Ballet dancers sang with laudable effort and sang much better than I had anticipated (especially for Matthew Stewart, who has a clear sweet singing voice). The key to this suite’s success was the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by the always perfect Martin West, who fulfilled their difficult duties with this daunting score with a larger-than-life brash (American?) confidence. In this piece and in Fancy Free, the orchestra emphasized nicely the brassy quality of Leonard Bernstein’s music, which I know isn’t easy. It adds a lively three-dimensional aspect to the choreography that is so essential for the full theatrical experience.

The dancing in West Side Story Suite was absolutely superb, filled with a fierce sharpness in ensemble dancing and a finesse all at the same time that continues to stay in my mind. With the opposing Jets and the Sharks fight with heated rage, the male ensemble dancers kicked, fought, and threw livid looks with an unforgettable intensity. The intensity was punctuated even further with vocalizations such as commands, mocking laughter, and shouts. Speaking on a ballet stage is unexpectedly jarring to ballet audience’s ears, and this jarring effect utilized to its full effect by conveying the intensity of hate between the two gangs and setting the scene for the ensuing love story to take place between Tony and Maria. The role of Tony was danced by Garrett Anderson, who danced with a poetic softness of a naive hero in love. Rory Hohenstein danced the role of Riff with dangerous wild abandonment that was thrilling to watch; it’s an almost-feral quality I saw last in Diana Vishneva – that’s probably a jump in comparison, but I’m going with it anyways. Shannon Roberts as Anita was the audience favorite, a hip-swiveling performer with sass and sauciness to spare. The explosive energy and a piercing sharpness in the dancing with a natural approach to movement rather than the ballet-ish movement that would look out of place, elevated this piece to an unforgettable intense and thrilling experience.

Some general notes – this was a great night for Garrett Anderson, who danced both in Fancy Free and in the West Side Story Suite, and a great way for me to be able to see a dancer I hadn’t seen that much before. He dances with a lovely lyricism and a charming poetic quality.

Also, I wanted to say hello to my seat mate, Dr. R, a French horn playing orthopaedic surgeon. He served as a great example for a possibility for my future, a merging of the arts and medicine, who spent his one night in San Francisco at the ballet. A great seat mate is hard to come by, especially if you’re left to the mercy of strangers, and it was nice to have an intelligent being with similar arts interests and a sense of humor to share opinions with. If you’re reading this, please click here for the definition of “blog”, I don’t think I defined it for you very well.

This is definitely one of the programs to catch at the San Francicsco Ballet, where the excitement is palpable and the dancing is thrilling and it’s oh-so-fun. It’s really great for ballet newbies and first-timers, since Robbins uses a more universal dance language vocabulary that is more intuitive for modern audiences. Program 4 ends on March 20.

San Francisco Ballet Program 4 : A Tribute to Jerome Robbins

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Rory Hohenstein in the middle, as Riff in West Side Story Suite

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Did anyone else see it? Any thoughts on alternate casts? I’m curious about a different cast for Fancy Free and what that was like.

Photos © Erik Tomasson

Mr. Tomasson

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From the San Francisco Magazine

I admit, I feel like I’ve been hard on Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. So far on this blog, I have only spoken of his choreography, which I find limiting. But reading Rachel Howard’s in-depth article on him really opened my eyes to more of him.

After all, he is the director of my favorite ballet company, which says a lot. One of my favorite things about him is that he has a great eye for a diversity of dancers, of picking dancers ranging in size (from tiny Tina LeBlanc to the recently retired towering Muriel Maffre) and styles (from spitfire Lorena Feijoo to demure Maria Kochetkova). He also has a great knack for showing off the best features of his dancers, from his extravagant galas to the pieces he picks and even choreographs. (For example,

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his “7 to Eight” wasn’t the most interesting, but it showcased Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and its other dancers so well that my friends enjoyed this piece the most in Program 1 this year.) Another thing that I respect about him is what happened during an open Q&A before a performance last year. An audience member asked about his thoughts in dancers and eating disorder issues and the ballet standard for having thin and unhealthy dancers. This is always slippery territory for an artistic director of a ballet company to defend to the general public, but I was impressed at how he he handled the question with care and thought. He even mentioned that the San Francisco Ballet dancers have actually been lauded as one of the healthier dance companies, and this is refreshingly true.

Here’s my nod to Helgi Tomasson. He has been integral in pushing San Francisco Ballet to where it is today, and the future looks even brighter from here.

The SFB’s season feels like it’s almost over because of the New Works Festival and the extra program with the guest artists from the visiting companies (National Ballet of Canada, NYCB, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo). These special programs are great additions, but it feels like it cuts the season a bit shorter than usual, and I’m missing some of SFB’s usual fare, such as Mark Morris’ charming Sandpaper Ballet. SFB presents its “A Tribute to Jerome Robbins” starting later this week.

SF Ballet’s A Tribute to Jerome Robbins: Program 5

Two very different Giselles: San Francisco Ballet

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Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

From my experience, people watch Giselle with two very different expectations. One group watches Giselle for the spectacular dancing, for the technique and artistry – the classic standards of ballet. For the leads, the difficult demands include superb technique with a well of emotional depth and stage presence. Giselle also requires a corps with pinpoint precision, in which one leg at the wrong angle can stick out like a sore thumb. This audience group looks for exemplary dancing, in the most traditional sense. The second group watches Giselle with the expectation of character development and great acting skills, and may even forgo technical prowess for proper dramatic development and believability of the character’s motives and intents. (Technically, there are two other groups as well – one group who requires both great dancing and great character development in order to be happy, and another group that doesn’t care either way.)

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching two consecutive performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle, with an example of each set of expectations – the matinee cast excelled at the technical and artistic demands of Giselle, while the evening cast was better at the character development of Giselle. The matinee cast was led by Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle and Tiit Helimets as her Albrecht, with Sofiane Sylve as Myrta. Before going into this performance, I had a few expectations – I was fairly warned of Tan’s acting skills, and I thought that she would be a spectacular Wili in the second act. Both turned out to be true. In the first act, I had a hard time believing that Yuan Yuan Tan was a peasant; her arms had an airiness that would be more fitting as a Wili rather than an earthy peasant girl. Tan has the uncanny ability of making everything she dances her own style (insert adjectives such as fluid, regal, precise, womanly, a more mature/deeper artistry); it’s just not traits that anyone would normally associate with a peasant girl. The second act however, was unforgettable. Tiit Helimets got a chance to shine, and his chemistry with Tan was mesmerizing, as their bodies seemed to melt together and speak as one. Helimets has gorgeous extensions to spare and a reserved princely aristocratic air, but I was most taken by his complete in-the-moment embodiment of emotion, from his facial expressions (seen a little bit in the photo above) to the way he related to Tan. Every single moment when he was dancing, Albrecht’s acknowledgment of the gravity of his actions was manifested in Helimet’s entire body, as if he was dancing for the last time with the love of his life. Nothing was outrightly external, but restrained emotions simmered, with passion seen in yearning extensions that were held a second longer, and Albrecht’s guilt and Giselle’s forgiveness seen in every movement. Seeing them dance together (my first time seeing them together) was breathtakingly gorgeous – passionate, tragic, gentle, forgiving, and very moving to watch. As a Wili, Tan’s softly fluid artistry betrays her love and forgiveness for Albrecht despite being a cool and aloof ghost, her hovering arms protecting his life. Emotion and dance cohesively melted into one, and the second act with Helimets and Tan was stunningly beautiful.

The evening cast starred newly hired principal Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada. Kochetkova is much smaller in size (when she is placed on a cart with the children, she is actually the same height as the children), and she embodied the spirit of a young girl, with a light flirtiness and precise attack. From the flirty downcast of her eyes to the way she slowly uplifted them to look into Boada’s face, you see a girl slowly falling in love for the first time with a growing trust as the first act progresses. Even though it was my second Giselle for the day, the first act flew by for me as I found myself getting caught up in the dramatic action. In the second act, her mad whirling attitudes as soon as her veil is lifted off brought tremendous applause. As a Wili, she still shows traces of the young girl as she flits across the floor, so fast that she was sometimes ahead of the beat, and her precision and lightness was lovely. Her chemistry with Joan Boada felt incomplete in its emotional depth, however. Joan Boada made a handsomely dramatic and passionate Albrecht, but at times his high energy felt unharnessed and a tad unfinished, especially on some of the landings on his jumps. His dance of death in the second act was filled with sky high jumps and passionate bravura, and his partnering of Giselle’s soft jumps across the floor made her look like she was floating across the floor.

The supporting principals were equally impressive. The matinee Myrta was guest principal Sofiane Sylve, who portrayed Myrta as a rock solid unflinching queen of the Wilis. She particularly excelled in quick footwork, where she played with the music’s downbeat with thrilling musicality. The evening Myrta was soloist Sarah Van Patten. I’m seeing more of her these days, and her artistry is progressively leaving a lasting impression. Her Myrta was expressed through her eyes. Wide-eyed and unblinking as a ghost intent on killing, yet her eyes were also pools of sadness. Her delicate upper body belied her regret and tragic past as a jilted lover, with an external steely resolve that seemed that it could crack at any moment. Both Myrtas were glowingly beautiful. Hilarion was played by two principal dancers – Damian Smith (matinee) played Hilarion with more gravitas, while Pascal Molat (evening) danced with more dramatic energy, and even brought out moments of humor.

Another interesting thing about this production of Giselle is the way that it showcases the strength of its soloists and its corps, both in ensemble work and in solos. The corps is key to the effect of the Wilis seen in the second act. The SF Ballet corps isn’t always cohesive, but they were a unified and a scarily determined marvel on Saturday, distilled in a single man-killing machine. The peasant dance in the first act also gave some corps members to shine – corps member Diego Cruz (matinee) shined in his technically perfect solo, while principal Nicolas Blanc (evening) was less technical but danced with more spirit. Soloist Frances Chung sparkled in the peasant solo in both performances, and she danced cleanly with sunny broad strokes. Corps member Clara Blanco danced one of the lead Wilis in the matinee, and she held a particular regret in her arms that was sad and lovely.

To me, forgiveness is the biggest virtue that speaks of love. Passion and lust – that’s for beginners. Forgiveness? After all, it is divine. Some of the most moving pieces of theater addresses forgiveness and grace; Les Miserables comes to mind, where grace rules to change people. The story of Giselle can seem silly to modern audiences, with shallow characters and and a twisting plotline (for instance, why does Hilarion have to die?). Giselle herself drives me crazy, actually, because she’s frustratingly not very bright, and Giselle and Myrta represent two female stereotypes that aren’t so flattering. But it remains a classic, for many other reasons including the fact that grace and forgiveness displayed on stage is something audiences never get tired of watching, especially when it’s so beautifully done as the performances I saw on Saturday.

The last performances of Giselle was today; their next program, a tribute to Jerome Robbins, starts on March 6, with Fancy Free, In the Night, and the West Side Story Suite. It’s interesting to read reviews of NYCB’s West Side Story suite, and knowing this is what I have to look forward to. It sounds like a musical with pointe shoes, complete with the singing dancers. I’m looking forward to seeing how this translates onstage.

San Francisco Ballet 2008 Season

Has anyone seen SFB’s Giselle? What are your thoughts? Do you watch Giselle for the dancing, and/or care about character development onstage? When was the last time (if ever) you ever saw two shows in one day?

Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion

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Last weekend, Jen and I hopped in a Prius and drove six hours home for the weekend, listening to NPR’s Cartalk and This American Life and the Drowsy Chaperone soundtrack the entire way. While we were at home, we stopped by the Orange County Performing Arts Center to see another ABT principal, Diana Vishneva.

Diana Vishneva, of course, was ravishing. Everything that has already been written about her is true – a great technician with unbridled passion and so much fun to watch. The best thing about this show, in addition to Diana herself, was the fact that she took great risks in picking choreographers who choreographed for her – Alexei Ratmansky, Moses Pendleton, and Dwight Rhoden. They even wrote short pieces on what it was about Diana Vishneva that inspired them in these pieces. She wasn’t safe in choosing these very different choreographers, very different from what she would dance at ABT or the Mariinsky Theatre. Despite her noble intentions, most of the night just didn’t work.

The night opened with Alexei Ratmansky’s Pierrot Lunaire. Alexei Ratmansky wrote in the program that even in her happiest roles, he is struck by Diana’s dark side that always peeks through, and he wanted to build on this. And so he proceeded to choreograph for her and a small ensemble, a ballet about a clown with disturbing fantasies, including fantasies of sex, death, and religion. (Let me repeat, a clown.) In addition, the ballet was set to the dark disturbing music of Arnold Schoenberg, with a mezzo-soprano (Elena Sommer) singing in sperechstimme, or speech-singing, which sets a dark scary quality that sounds like chanting I’d hear in a tomb in the middle of eastern Europe. The choice of isn’t easily accessible to a general audience, including my own ears. Despite the choice of music, the music was brilliantly performed by musicians with a world class presence and a clarity of tone. Standouts were Elena Sommer, the mezzo-soprano, and Nikolay Mokhov, the flute player.

Pierre Lunaire was confusing as a review mentions that the choreography follows the plotline of the words that were sung, unfortunately, in German. So the non-speaking German audience members were left guessing at what was going on. I didn’t even understand who was the clown until after the piece, I had to go back to my program to read that the part of the clown was passed to different dancers during the course of the piece. And it’s nearly unforgivable that Ratmansky thought to put Diana in a clown’s dunce cap.

The best piece of the night came next, Moses Pendleton’s “F.L.O.W.”, short for For the Love of Women. It was strongly based on images, and were delightful to watch. The first act opened with a pitch dark stage, and a glowing hand appears like a snake to charm the audience. Three pairs of dismembered limbs danced with humor, making shapes and even at one point, making bird heads that pecked at each other. The second act was of Diana on a raked mirrored stage, writhing (albeit beautifully). The third act was Diana in a beaded dress, spinning and whirling as the beads flew in the air around her. It was filled with breathtaking and pretty images, with no apparent meaning behind it all. It’s odd to me that the only choreographer with almost no ballet experience pulled out the best dance of the night. Perhaps it requires a sense of being so far removed from the subject, to think that outside the box.

The evening closed with Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Dwight Rhoden’s piece, “Three Point Turn”, who created the “danciest” piece of the night. It was refreshing to see her strike an attitude (the ballet pose, not her manner), and she danced with the amazing Desmond Richardson. I have to admit, he was a big reason why I bought a ticket to see this show, and to watch him in action was amazing. As Diana does, he embodies every move to the fullest. He excelled most in his solos, and it was great to watch him go. The piece was filled with three couples, interacting and symbolizing different phases of a relationships, dramatic with off center pointework and lots of pointed developpes. The piece was a bit long though, and towards the end, things started to feel repetitive and too one-note with the overall sense of drama and urgency that didn’t change.

Overall, the performances were amazing – Diana herself, Desmond Richardson, the dancers and the musicians. She took a great risk in working with three hot choreographers, who weren’t able to consistently create three great works. (The OC Register review was titled, “Ballerina’s ‘Beauty’ thwarted”. Ouch.) But as long as the dance world continues to take these risks that this show took, it’s bound to hit jackpot at one point.

After the show, we walked over to the stage door. It started so innocently to get autographs, but to my horror, I fear that we may have permanently been integrated into her documentary. She came swooping out, all smiles and beauty in motion with a cameraman following her, videotaping her every move. So I think he got footage of us getting her autograph, asking about a performance she gave at the Met that Jen attended, and getting a picture with her. AAAAHHHH. Jen asked her if she was filming a documentary and she smiled and said yes, we will be on film. I knew I should have dressed up more that night, I didn’t even do my hair.

I realize that my bias is that I love to see Diana in certain roles. The last time I saw her was dancing Giselle with ABT in New York with Vladimir Malakhov (what great casting!), and her tragic Giselle with her heartrending arms was the best I’d ever seen. This program was too much of a drastic change, and although she attacked the choreography will all her heart, if she couldn’t save it, I don’t think anyone could.

Updated: there are better pictures in the NY Times, click here for the pictures of her show.

Dance on the internet

There have been several events recently that have popped up in regards to dance on the internet. It’s amazing how dance companies have really started to recognize that there is an audience on the internet, and are acting accordingly. Dance on the internet increases visibility and accessibility – probably one of the biggest reasons why dance isn’t as popular as, let’s say, Justin Timberlake, is that information isn’t so readily accessible, especially for an art steeped in tradition. The internet can be used to view dance (such as Youtube), as well as to read about it, research it, and to discuss it (in areas such as blogs).

I was recently invited to attend movmnt magazine‘s blogger discussion to discuss dance issues and blogging, and how blogging can be used to promote dance to an increasing online public. Thanks to David (and Tonya) for the invite, I really wish I could have made it, only if I wasn’t several thousand miles away. :) It’s always a fascinating topic, and I’m learning a lot just by reading about the discussion you guys had. The most surprising thing that I learned was at the Cedar Lake’s blogger night, where they invited bloggers from the dance world to attend a dress rehearsal and join in an informal chat with the director, that the entire run sold out after all the bloggers blogged about it. That is awesome – it gives credit to how powerful online blogging can be, and how it can really be used to promote dance and actually sell tickets. It continues to amaze me that there is a demand for dance blogs – readers actually read our blogs, and buy tickets accordingly. How cool is that?!?

A little about movmnt magazine – it’s a magazine founded by journalist David Benaym and dancer Danny Tidwell (of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, he’s the only reason why I started watching the show, and he totally should have won) “created for the fashion-forward, arts-oriented, and socially conscious web 2.0 generation” (as quoted from their website).

Another cool discovery of dance on the internet – Kristin Sloan, who is NYCB’s Director of New Media as well as the creator of The Winger, has launched a Youtube channel of NY City Ballet. It’s so amazing to be able to click on and watch clips of a company that I would never otherwise see, due to distance (and my unabashed preference for ABT, although perhaps it may be because I’ve never seen NYCB aside from Macaulay Culkin‘s brief foray into ballet), and to see what great dance is like in addition to San Francisco Ballet. :) It would be really cool if the vids spotlighted a dancer, to show what they’re known for, and for what style, and to highlight their dancing in a diverse array of roles. When people talk about “Yvonne Bouree’s style”, I never know what people are talking about (never mind the fact that it’s actually really weird that I even have conversations like that.) And backstage peeks are always fun too! This is a great way to make a company more visible and accessible online, to pique people’s curiosity, and to show off the best. And ballet dancers would make much better Youtube stars than the other talentless stuff that’s all over Youtube!! The Youtube channel is here.

Let me predict that it’ll be a short time before other ballet companies follow suit? That would be so much fun.

Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia

Nina Ananiashvili in Alexei Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations

Just got back from watching Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia at Cal Performances. In general, it was an uneven evening, especially in Balanchine’s Chaconne. It’s a young company, and they can only get better, but at times, it felt a bit student-showcase-y, with many loose ends, such as floppy feet and a complete lack of confidence and musicality. With that, Nina Ananiashvili is very good at bringing this ballet company into modern times; I just happened to catch her at the beginning of this company’s rise. I’m impressed by their repertoire with progressive pieces, as well as the traditional standards such as Giselle, which they’ll be performing later this weekend. It’s a great example of a ballet company incorporating good modern choreography, and they can only get better.

With that, the best piece of the night was Yuri Possohkov’s Sagalobeli, where the company literally came alive and seemed to be having fun for the first time. The dancers looked confident, and played more, even to the point of a dancer falling in her solo. But the enthusiasm showed, and the audience felt it. The music was traditional Georgian music, but the ballet was refreshingly un-folkloric nor old. Possohkov’s choreography was freshly inventive and sensual, with an unexpected move at every turn that kept the audience engaged and delighted. He has a true talent for inventive corps formations, as well as innovative lifts and partnering. When I think of Possohkov, I think of a couple in the middle of a whirling spin, with legs and arms whipping around, and then stopping as the woman leans into a deep arabesque, with her partner pulling on her hand. This is truly the best I’ve seen of Possohkov’s choreography, and SF Ballet is truly lucky to have him as their resident choreographer.

Nina Ananiashvili danced in Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations. This is the first time that I’ve seen Ratmansky’s choreography. I didn’t see anything truly special nor outstanding; I see some Petipa in his choreography, and it looks like he based this piece deeply rooted in the Russian tradition. Nina A. however, was lovely; she looked like a cloud, floating in a lovely way. She would make a great Giselle, it would have been great to see her dance more.

The other piece was Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, danced by Nino Gogua and Lasha Khozashvili. They didn’t look as comfortable as they danced in the Possohkov piece, but did passably well. I can’t wait to see NYCB dance it when they dance at the War Memorial Opera house later this season.

One note: it’d be great if this show had timed the dancers’ bows and the curtain. The curtain kept on falling in the middle of the performers bows, as they were running downstage with arms uplifted, to take their bows. The lighting was awkward too; a percentage of the show was in muted darkness, as well as misplaced spotlights (is the spotlight supposed to only highlight the hands in Duo Concertant? The spotlight didn’t seem too sure if it was supposed to include the body or not). If Alastair Macaulay had a problem with the lighting at the SF Ballet programs, he would have had a field day with this one.

Edited to add: The problem with Duo Concertant is that it lacked the extra extension, the snap and verve – it was more than proficient given the material.

The theater was teeming with San Francisco Ballet dancers last night – they’re not performing in Giselle until Saturday. Spotted were artistic director Helgi Tomasson, dancers Yuan Yuan Tan, James Sofranko, and Gennadi Nedvigin, who got accosted by a group of giddy pre-teens in the lobby, and SF dance critics Rachel Howard and Allan Ullrich. It was a great audience, and the theater was pretty packed.

Bolshoi’s Alexei Ratmansky turns down NYCB

Ratmansky to turn down the job as NYCB’s resident choreographer

Aw, I’m a bit disappointed, although I’m sure it’s for the best. This weekend is shaping up to be a Ratmansky-filled weekend for me, with Nina Anashiavelli and the State of Georgia Ballet at Cal Performances, and Diana Vishneva and the Kirov (with Desmond Richardson) in Orange County.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!