Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Russian cartoon using Pushkin's text for Golden Cockerel

"The story's false, but in it lies
some truth, seen only by inward eyes"

Thus ends this 30 minute telling of the Golden Cockerel story - "Zolotoy Petushok" - based on Pushkin.

There are a number of similarities with Ratmansky's 2016 version for ABT in terms of staging, characterization, and costuming. I don't know if he watched this as a kid (it came out in 1967, he was born in 1968) or if these details are in the Pushkin story.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Le Coq d'Or

Le Coq d’Or
American Ballet Theatre
Saturday, June 11, 2016 @ 2 pm

It's Ratmansky, but without the emotionally piercing sincerity of Seven Sonatas or Symphony #9. The story of Coq d'Or demands ironic distancing, which may not bode well for its longevity (a little repeat here of what Jennifer Homans called Ratmansky's "familiar postmodern ruses."). Still, as a political satire (albeit without the biting tone), there's a lot to admire here. 

The theme is entirely appropriate to our age, and to every age for that matter: we have a bunch of foolish men, doing foolish things, for foolish dreams.

There’s a foolish tsar who neglects his duties in favor of naps, good food, and erotic dreams. (He kind of reminded me of the response to Bill Clinton – everyone still seems to love him, even though he’s not a morally principled person.) There’s a seemingly foolish Astrologer, who uses magic (he creates a Golden Cockerel) and political machinations (he gives the Golden Cockerel to the tsar in exchange for his deepest desire) as part of a plan to entrap the glamorous Queen of Shemakhan. We also have two foolish sons of the tsar, one a daydreamer and another a mincing toy-sabre rattler – both get killed off in the second act; and a bellicose, doddering “General Polkan” who agitates for war like an aged bulldog.

Events proceed in cartoon-like fashion, aided by the almost tongue-in-cheek florid folklorism of the designs (Richard Hudson after Natalia Goncharova). Ratmansky’s Coq d’Or (which he first revived for Royal Danish Ballet in 2012) is based on 1913 and 1937 stagings by Fokine, and with the Goncharova décor – and an avian heroine - is clearly a cousin to another Fokine-Goncharova production from the early days of the Ballets Russes – Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910).

With the exception of the Queen of Shemakhan, all of the other characters seem completely out of touch with reality. Misty Copeland as the Queen played a realpolitik narcissist, one obsessed with power and completely clear headed about how to take it. She seemed to be the only person in the ballet who realized that she was playing a part in a cartoon.

At the end of the ballet, we learn that all the characters – except for the witchy femme fatale, the Queen of Shemakhan – have been projections of the Astrologer’s mind. This ending invites us to consider an alternate reality – like maybe this has been a power struggle between the Astrologer and the Queen all along? If this whole story of the Golden Cockerel and Tsar Dodon has been a divertissement, what was the real story?

Again I was reminded how much Ratmansky’s time at Royal Danish Ballet must have influenced him – a lot of this ballet relies on pantomime, a more old-fashioned mode of ballet communication which the Danes maintained over time, but the Russians cut. Choreography as such didn’t really stand out here; but the masterful comedic scenes such as the one between the tsar and his court conveyed another facet of Ratmansky’s great gift for creating sophisticated yet legible satires of human political and group dynamics (also on display in his Lost Illusions, which one might even consider a funny sort of sister ballet to Le Coq d’Or – they coincide in their themes of desire and illusion, fantasy and reality.)  This ballet may not have the staying power of his Nutcracker or even for that matter his Bright Stream, but it is a quirky testament to his incredible range as a choreographer. And, I have to say, for this viewer a welcome relief from a frequently monotonous ballet landscape of new works featuring fundamentally empty demonstrations of balletic edginess, alienation, and hyper-flexibility, which, let’s face it, only Bill Forsythe or maybe Karole Armitage in Watteau Duets really got right.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Why are there so few women in ballet who choreograph? Maybe this has something to do with it

Curious about the now inoperative ABT/Altria mentoring program for female choreographers, I watched the 2009 Works and Process video at NYPL. The video featured choreography by Aszure Barton and Lauri Stallings, and demonstrated the workshop process of teaching choreography with participants Misty Copeland, Xiomara Reyes, Gemma Bond, Nicole Graniero, and Elizabeth Mertz. Wes Chapman moderated discussions with Stephen Pier and Aszure Barton.
 On the one hand, it’s terrific that choreography as a learnable skill was being taught through this mentorship program. It’s also terrific that the program gave talented women such as Ms. Barton a platform for presenting work. And, it’s hugely regrettable that the program is no longer running.
 However, I found some aspects of the video to be troubling reminders of the very problems in the ballet world this program was designed to remedy. And while it’s tricky to voice concerns over a program so well-intentioned, and so desperately needed, I couldn’t help but notice the same infantilizing attitudes I experienced twenty years ago as a professional dancer.
 The set-up. First and foremost, the five women in the mentorship program – two of them principal dancers with ABT – we don’t even see until about 25 minutes into the program. Instead, Stephen Pier speaks for the women. He tells us how he himself “uncovers the gift” of choreography in them, as though they are in fact his raw material and he the master craftsman. He refuses to call them choreographers, because “choreography is a long road,” in spite of the fact that all five women have created dances. The message is that women can’t be authors unless a man discovers this ability in them and then eventually gives them the right to claim this title for themselves.
 When the five women do finally appear, after the twenty-five minute explain-fest by the sanctioning male authority figures, they are onstage and without microphones. Not one of them has spoken before Spier instructs Gemma Bond to show us her movement sketch from a workshop exercise. “Show me,” he directs. Each of the five women in turn perform their movement studies, and Spier asks them a question or two before we move on to the next. One choreographer isn’t allowed to finish her sketch. “Stop. I’ll let you perform the rest later” he says. Spier actually holds Xiomara Reyes’s hand while she speaks. Let me remind you: this is not a five year old girl, but a mature, long-time principal dancer with one of the top ballet companies in the world. The message still comes through: be quiet, do what you’re told, and no matter how accomplished you are, the man at the front of the stage is in charge.
 With these kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle cues, is it any wonder that women in ballet might not gravitate toward choreography? I don’t for a second doubt Spier’s good intentions, and it seemed like he had friendly relationships with the five choreographers (yep, choreographers). But that’s not the point. I think these attitudes are all the more insidious because they are largely unconscious. 
(images from Canadian choreography Crystal Pite's work)

“America Applauds Soviet Ballet”

“America Applauds Soviet Ballet”
Just watched this documentary made by the Moscow “Central Documentary Film Studio” about the first Bolshoi tour to America in 1959. I’m not sure who this was made for, as it has a narrator speaking flawless English...

Just watched this documentary made by the Moscow “Central Documentary Film Studio” about the first Bolshoi tour to America in 1959. I’m not sure who this was made for, as it has a narrator speaking flawless English about the tour. What a fascinating film, though. Of course there’s a fair amount of diplo-speak about “peace and friendship” between the USSR and America brought about through art. Someone should go back and count how many times those two words were used; my guess is at least seven. 
Some of the biggest highlights include the company’s sightseeing itinerary. In New York, they visit the NY Stock Exchange. They visit NYCB; we see footage of Agon, and are informed that Lavrovsky told Balanchine that non narrative dance has no future. Backstage, the dancers meet luminaries such as William Randolph Hearst, Van Cliburn, Issak Stern, and the Russian ambassador to the US. These meetings are always filmed with the artists in costume. 
On the west coast, things get stranger. The company went to Marineland in Los Angeles, where we are shown footage of dolphins jumping through hoops to background music of Ravel’s La Valse. They go to visit Bette Davis at her house, and she appears to drink and smoke non-stop. Not to mention: encounters with USC student communists, Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland (a favorite), meeting “Aunt Jemimah” and the Bolshoi ballerinas participating in a “dance of friendship” with an unspecified American Indian tribe. Finally, and most bizarre to me, the company in San Francisco appears to do no other sightseeing than go to Oakland to see Jack London square. They show up on a Monday, and most of the stores and restaurants are closed. I think I remember reading somewhere that Jack London was a favorite author in Soviet Russia, so maybe that had something to do with it. But of all the places to highlight in a tour of San Francisco? 
The caliber of the dancing is very high. Plisetskaya, Ulanova, and Struchkova are featured. But I was really impressed with the corps de ballet in Giselle. 
This reminds me to make time for some of the books on ballet and cultural diplomacy that have come out by Clare Croft, Cadra Peterson McDaniel, and Naima Prevots. Fascinating material, and I’m so glad people are writing about it. 
Lopukhov wrote in his book Sixty Years in Ballet that he was first inspired to do a plotless ballet after watching Fokine’s 1913 ballet “Les Preludes” made for Anna Pavlova’s touring company. Les Preludes was one of those vaguely “Grecian” tunic...
Lopukhov wrote in his book Sixty Years in Ballet that he was first inspired to do a plotless ballet after watching Fokine’s 1913 ballet “Les Preludes” made for Anna Pavlova’s touring company. Les Preludes was one of those vaguely “Grecian” tunic ballets in Pavlova’s repertoire, perhaps originally inspired by Isadora Duncan who toured to St. Petersburg in 1904-5 and made quite an impact on the young Fokine. Muriel Stuart, one of Pavlova’s company dancers who had been with her from a young age, remarked much later on that she found this ballet somewhat tedious. Performer’s view vs. historian’s view vs. choreographer’s view. 

May 31, 2016

Day 1 at NYPL

Today was Soviet - Lopukhov - Ratmansky day at the NYPL dance division. I watched a fair amount of random stuff on video from the 1940s, viewed some clippings files, and photocopied an entire book in Russian. The usual oddness. Tomorrow: Lopukhov’s Ice Maiden, some Alla Osipenko (almost done with Joel Loebenthal’s book), and the Tanzsymphonie clips NYPL acquired some years ago. Good times. 
I watched Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper again today, after a day of Chabukiani, Ulanova, and USSR folk dance. This is the first ballet Ratmansky made for ABT, and one of his more narrative one-acts. One thing that occurred to me while watching (and which may not be valid): is Ratmansky a more versatile choreographer for men? The “monologues” or solos from the principal men in Dneiper (Gomes and Hallberg) had much more inventive movement vocabularies. 
This was also prompted by watching a clip of Ratmansky dancing a Bejart piece, where he’s supposed to be a “male fairy” bestowing a particular personal quality on a baby, a la Sleeping Beauty. [It’s on one of the “Works and Process” videos from the Guggenheim.) Grounded, almost sensual plies combine with the kind of plastique and cantilena you’d typically see in ballet from a woman. It’s Ulanova’s Odile (watched again today), except unpartnered and done by a dude. Astounding, really. Ratmansky had this very solid physique as a dancer, but he could move like quicksilver, and he has impeccable phrasing. You breathe with him as he moves. 
So now a thought is in the back of my mind - could we say that Ratmansky choreographs in both masculine and feminine languages for men, but is limited to the more feminine for women? Chamber Symphony might bear this out as well. At any rate, I’m going to keep asking myself this question the more I watch. 
PS. Marcel Gomes is a GOD. I could watch that man dance all day. 
(posted May 31, 2016)

Contemporary Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, Directions

Wow. Just finished an incredible two day SDHS special topics conference on contemporary ballet held at NYU and Barnard (May 20-21 2016). There’s no way I can do justice to all the individual presentations and panels I attended over these two days that inspired and challenged me, so I’m just going to start with a list of phrases presenters associated with or even defined “contemporary ballet” with that I gathered over the course of the conference.  

Hybrid; process-oriented; off balance; relational; relevant; Africanist whether it knows it or not; a spatial condition; a temporal condition; a colonialist pathway; improvisation dependent; memorial in function; a marketing ploy; a liminal space; a global product; technique taken to its edge. 
Quite simply, one of the main issues that emerged was how to create change in the ballet world, and if contemporary ballet is part or could be part of that process. Many panelists spoke of painful experiences in the ballet world stemming from their identification or non-identification with categories of gender, race, and sexuality. While the elite ballet companies struggle to pull in younger viewers, they don’t seem to realize that there are so many perspectives missing from their programming - perspectives that matter, and that provide rich material for ground-breaking ballets rigorously (yes, rigorously) grounded in - or given flight through - ballet technique. As VK Preston pointed out, there is a “traumatizing function” to the weight of the ballet tradition you encountered - for me, all those Swan Lakes and Agons - by which she meant you just CANNOT escape these ballets, they have an afterlife that permeates your very being. Since we can’t escape from them, let’s lovingly reimagine them, as so many have already done, bringing all of our experiences and voices to bear. 

Shostakovich Trilogy - ABT Friday May 20, 2016

I’m here for a conference on contemporary ballet, a special topics conference through Society of Dance History Scholars. I’ll blog more fully about the conference tomorrow when it ends, but just *have* to make some comments about the ABT performance of Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy I saw tonight. As usual, seeing a different cast highlights new aspects of the piece. Luciana Paris doing what I call the drummer girl role in Symphony #9 made me see that this role could be interpreted as a shock worker - kind of strident, relentlessly optimistic, driving everyone on to greater productivity or socialist consciousness or what have you. A reprise of the heroine from Ratmansky’s Bolt, maybe. 
I’m not sure this comes across completely to the audience, but I think that the heroism (shown through bravura steps) of Symphony #9 is absolutely supposed to be ironic; one third of our joyful band of komsomols gets mowed down in a slow-motion firing squad. Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle, who feel more like sincere, real characters than the (at times) agit-prop poster figures of the ensemble, explored more openly than I have seen before the watchful anxiety of this pas de deux. Bolle had these panther soft landings that accentuated the enforced “hush” this couple must grapple with; Part radiated nervous energy with the extremities of her body - a foot, a finger, a hand - while remaining grounded in deep plies and elongated side bends (kind of like a more modern dance version of epaulement.) 
I’m talking about the Chamber Symphony tomorrow at this conference, so I’ll give it a (partial) rest for tonight. It’s the ballet I have most closely studied of the Trilogy and so I have a special affection for it - but I see why some critics find it melodramatic. Interestingly, Russian-language reviews of the Trilogy that I have come across liked Chamber THE BEST of the three. It’s certainly the least “postmodern” of Ratmansky’s abstract ballets, if we understand that term to mean an artwork that deliberately undercuts a stable meaning. (And this is something that Ratmansky has been criticized for, notably by Jennifer Homans.) There’s just no doubt about what Chamber is about: it’s Shostakovich’s life, and it’s made abundantly clear that it was not easy to live through the 30s and 40s in Stalinist Russia. If you look at the choreographic themes and how they circulate, though, the ballet becomes more of a fascinating portrait of what the act of reminiscence would look like, translated into movement. 
Piano Concerto #1 has my favorite music of the evening, but it’s not my favorite ballet of the Trilogy. The audience really loves it. (It would seem that, as with Balanchine’s Jewels, I like the ballet that everyone else just wants to get through. Yes! It’s true! EMERALDS IS MY FAVORITE!!!) This is a case of an embarrassment of riches; Piano Concerto #1 positively seethes with invention. I wondered about the lifting of the backdrop at the end; the scattered detritus of the Soviet era - red toy planes, bolts, and stars - disappears, leaving us with an unmarked future (or unmarked past?). A wish-fulfillment on the part of the choreographer? 

Women Ballet Choreographer’s Residency at Djerassi

Women Ballet Choreographer’s Residency at Djerassi
Today I attended the first of these annual residencies planned for the Djerassi Artists Residency Program out here in Woodside, CA. The goal of this program is to bring funding, visibility, and...

Today I attended the first of these annual residencies planned for the Djerassi Artists Residency Program out here in Woodside, CA. The goal of this program is to bring funding, visibility, and support to women creating dances in the ballet idiom. This is a subject that has been in the news lately, but it’s been a topic of conversation in dance studies for quite some time (cf Lynn Garafola’s Where Are Ballet’s Women Choreographers?, circa 1996., for a terrific overview.) 
Why ballet, you might ask? Aren’t women also experiencing difficulties in other dance genres as well? I can’t answer that, although the answer is probably “yes,” but I can tell you that women in ballet face particular ballet-culture-specific issues. As choreographer Myles Thatcher, who attended the conference as an ally remarked, from the time they’re young female dancers are told not to stand out, not to be an individual, and that there’s always someone waiting to take their place if they don’t like it. Men in ballet face a different set of challenges, but usually ballet schools are so happy to have them there that they get a greater sense of individuality and freedom as they go through school. 
We need to tell our female ballet students that they don’t always have to be such “good girls.” They need to start thinking of themselves as artists, and we need to nourish their creativity. I think every young ballet student should watch some Karole Armitage from the 80s for a punky predecessor along these lines. (Who was also 100% acknowledging her tradition, too - her Watteau Duets is an homage to Agon.) You CAN be in ballet and be different. 
Choreographer Amy Seiwert made a point that really stuck with me: what is the ballet world missing out on if women aren’t choreographing? What perspectives are lost? With so much attention being paid here in the States in the years after Balanchine’s death on the future prognosis of ballet, it strikes me that a more diverse generation of ballet choreographers is at least part of the answer to the somewhat floundering situation we face. Today, watching a piece by Julia Adam that featured a female protagonist with a bad back dancing to an ear-sawing rendering of Radiohead’s “I’m a Creep,” I felt like I saw some of those perspectives more clearly. And not because it was Radiohead and edgy, but because it was smart, honest, and choreographically interesting ballet. 
Screendance, or dances on/with/through film, is offering a new platform for women to make work. Greta Schoenberg, who produces the SF Dance Film fest, stated that over 50% of their submissions are from women. When the institutions are slow to change, this new medium makes it easier for women (and for everyone) to get their work out there. 
Some other nuggets. Many of the women mentioned how becoming mothers had really changed their perspective. I’ve noticed that about myself, too. Sometimes I find myself in the opera house wondering, why all this hoopla about romantic love? You want complicated, passionate, all-consuming relationships? Try being a mother. It’s crazy intense. Why don’t we have more dances that capture this aspect of human experience? 
Kudos to Kathryn Roszak of Danse Lumiere for pouring herself into making this conference happen. 

(May 2016)

Dance Film Festival

Last night was a mini-screening of short films featuring the talents of SFB dancers sponsored by the Museum of Performance and Design and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. And when I mean talents, I mean dancing, choreographing, directing, photographing - the works. What emerged from the evening were distinctive voices, taking ballet beyond its opera house formality, and into spaces as diverse as the sacred quiet of the Presidio to the post-apocalyptic ur-urban warehouse. 

I couldn’t help but be reminded of 70s feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey and her “scopic pleasure” or how the camera directed the eye to gaze upon, and consume, the female body. Last night the male body was more on display, particularly in “Lion,” - choreographed and performed by Garen Scribner and another equally god-like fellow (forgive me, I don’t have my program notes!). In contrast, Dana Genshaft’s choreography for Emma Rubinowitz - a radiant and slightly mysterious pixie in a yellow crew neck sweater skipping about to George Harrison - allowed a more conversational feel with the camera. Sometimes she runs up to it, and looks straight at it, other times skips away and resumes her dance. She invites our gaze and then refuses it. (The first half of this piece I found more interesting than the second, where our yellow pixie (of course) finds her yellow man-pixie complement in the forest. Why did that guy have to come along, even if it was Esteban Hernandez? She seemed to lose her quirk when he showed up.)
Julia Adam’s piece, “Restless” was my favorite, even though there wasn’t a ton of dancing in it. As Julia pointed out, it’s kind of “Game of Thrones” - ish. Maybe more like Lady of the Lake meets Arwin. There’s a lovely lass, with long, flowing hair, in a long, flowing dress, darting about in the forest, hiding in trees, being spooky and ethereal. A neo-wili. I found the whole thing delightfully creepy and slightly subversive, especially with the Natalie Merchant fractured fairy-tale lullaby in the background. This lady is NOT a good Mom - she clearly can’t find her children, and she’s acting like a squirrel. 
Overall, film as a medium is providing developing artists a venue beyond the black box for exploring visual ideas. The same medium however also sometimes makes it hard to “see” the choreography - it scrambles the temporality and spatiality of the traditional concert stage, giving us a new definition of “choreography” altogether. 
I’ll be at the SF Dance Film Festival this October - hope to see you there!

Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty

Monday’s night’s cast was the New York debut of Vishneva, who premiered the role of Aurora in Costa Mesa. So I had to be there.

As other have noted technical conventions in this ballet are different, and those differences are fascinating to note. While standing in B-plus, the women place the back foot on demi-pointe which creates a more relaxed line. Arabesques are frequently somewhere between a bent-leg arabesque and an attitude. Several of the women’s variations end in a fourth position tombé with the back leg bent. Except in arabesque penché, the legs do not travel above 100 to 110 degrees. There’s more fine detail in the arms and footwork – Aurora’s violin playing pages in the Rose Adagio, who were kids, did gargouillades - a step you rarely ever see, let alone performed by children. Vishneva and Boylston, who did the Diamond fairy in the 3rd act Jewels pas de quatre, looked comfortable in this technique, but I think the other ABT dancers need some time to get their sea legs. The energy is more contained for these steps so you can’t get by with big extension after big extension. Plié and foot articulation have to be spot on. For the men, beats reign supreme. Gomes brought the house down with a brisé volé sequence with several direction changes. Some people were bothered by the fact that he only had one solo in the 3rd act, but I didn’t really notice so much – there’s such an integration of dancing and mime that every moment on stage becomes of equal importance, and different kinds of virtuosity shine…
 Speaking of mime, Ratmansky has restored a lot of the pantomime that has been cut over the years. He’s also kept the tempos according to the score. The steps and the story make more sense as a result. Carabosse (a spiky, jealous, violent old crone superbly played by Nancy Raffa) and the Lilac Fairy (Veronica Part) don’t just gesture vaguely and briefly in the scene where Carabosse delivers her curse; they tell the story, with every detail contained in the pantomime and perfectly synchronized with the score (incidentally this sequence is very similar to the one I learned from Giannandrea Poesio, who restores cut mime sequences, at a workshop several years ago).
 There’s also a lot more sweetness in the movements and gestures. This is a love story, first and foremost. In a moment of pantomime in the Act 3 pas de deux, Aurora declares her love for the Prince. The happy couple frequently holds one another close, hands clasped, with the tenderness of newlyweds. Princess Florine and her Bluebird also intertwine arms, with her leaning against his body in an attitude derriere, her head resting against his chest. It’s a completely new pose for me – I’ve never seen anyone do that in a Bluebird pdd – but it is part of a revamped interpretation that focuses on the pdd as love story.
 I was struck by a recurring theme of speech and music in this production. The pantomime sequence of “listen to what I have to say” with the tapping on the head, and then the gesture of pulling words from the mouth, occurs over and over again, highlighting the ability of the body to “speak” to music (as does all of the pantomime). And how many musical instruments were carried in the Rose Adagio by various pages and attendants? Too many to count. I may be mis-remembering this, but I think Aurora plays one of them.
 There were a few things I missed, like the introductory music for the 3rd act pdd for Aurora and Desiree. Right now they just come on after Cinderella (or is it the Ogres? can’t remember) with little fanfare, and it’s an odd moment. Also, I personally did not like the ogre costumes with the baby parts sticking out of their boots – a little too Grimm’s fairy tales (was Perrault as gruesome?). The Cinderella divertissement was kind of overlong.
 But whatever. This is a fascinating production that I wish I could see many, many more times.
(from June 2015)

Walking on Air - Seeing Ballet and the Shosty Trilogy

Today I taught our first “Seeing Ballet” class which teaches dance analysis and close observation to audience members. I was nervous because there is a ton of information to impart about how to watch dance - it’s a testament to dance’s richness, but a real bear to wrestle down in an introductory level one hour class! Our subject was the first two minutes of Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony. And then I was BLOWN AWAY by the insight and perception of our participants and learned so much from them. Wow. I feel so blessed to have facilitated these discussions and honored to be a part of them. Next week: Melancholic from The Four Temperaments. 
After teaching Seeing Ballet I went to see the full Shostakovich Trilogy with my husband. I’ve been studying these ballets for a while but was able to see even more tonight. Janice Ross’s talk the other night on Soviet Ballet brought a lot of things into focus for me. I loved how she called the ending of Symphony #9 a forced folk dance at an office party. Nailed it! I am FASCINATED by the interplay between public and private in these ballets. We go from glimpses of tortured interiority to lock-step jollity often within an instant. The corps is often the “official” face of things, but even they can’t maintain the fiction of the heroic, one-dimensional Soviet poster citizen. The whole scene with the dancers standing in lines and in my mind being gunned down to this satirically triumphant music is pure genius. Ratmansky picks up on all of the jokes in the music that make a mockery of the victory this symphony was supposed to celebrate. There’s an element of forced dancing and forced gaiety for me. The third male soloist, the one without a partner, strikes me this way. After all, he starts out by waving goodbye to an imaginary person at the back of the stage. But many of his other steps (especially the ending, with the big turn sequence) seem to shout “big finale!” even as he falls on the stage in the end - another shooting victim? There’s a perverse sense of humor in the mock heroics. Which even calls into question the situation of the dancer, having to “perform” to a particular standard whether he or she feels like it or not. There’s a subversive edge to this ballet because it draws our attention to how even this performance might be “forced,” and how we are complicit in consuming it, in demanding the big smiles, the energy, the virtuosity…
And Chamber Symphony, don’t get me started. IMHO it’s the best of the bunch, maybe because we analyzed it for today’s class so I’m more familiar with it. I see most of the characters as mental projections and memories of the lead male/Shostakovich figure. We are seeing a picture of his mind - swirling thoughts and the like, forces coming and going, thoughts picking him up and putting him on his feet, memories bolstering him, bringing him to life, bringing him to his knees. He gestures frequently toward the upstage diagonal, where one of his lady loves leaves him finally in her death/resurrection scene. And I can’t stop thinking about comparisons to Balanchine’s Apollo to Stravinsky (three muses and all, and a few borrowed steps), with this being a thoroughly different view of the life of the creative artist. Our lead male is desolate, lost, disconnected, grieving, and ineffectual - I love how he tried to “conduct” the dancers at the end but slinks off as they assume monumental poses. Shosty’s work remains and we love it, but the man himself felt like shit. It’s a far cry from Balanchine’s Apollo, who ascends to Parnassus after mastering the muses and his art, and at the end shows nothing but majesty. I remember reading somewhere that comparing Stravinsky and Shostakovich was like putting them both in a race but where one of them (Shostakovich) was wearing chains and knew he would be shot at the end of the race. 
(from April 2015)

Why Can’t Ballet be “Intellectual”

Small rant here.
Here’s my problem stated in an oversimplified way. First,  I was a ballet dancer. A professional one. I went to the Kirov Academy and trained with the best. Not tooting my own horn here, but this is my background. I also have a PhD in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley. Ever since I was a dancer I have LOVED thinking about the meaning of the ballets I was performing and the philosophical implications of performance and what performance does. 
In my academic world of performance studies and to a certain degree in dance studies as well, ballet is considered hopelessly elitist and not worthy of serious study (unless you want to bash it, or unless you want to talk about Forsythe and contemporary theory). It has been a struggle for me to find a way to engage with the art form I love in a theoretically and historically appropriate way with this audience. 
In my role as consultant for adult education for a ballet company, I’ve found a way to combine both knowledge strands, the ballet career and the academic one, but it has not been without some odd moments. Like being told by a representative of a professional organization devoted to ballet in higher education that you ruined ballet when you tried to “over-intellectualize” it. This comment pertained to a course I developed to teach audience members basic skills of dance analysis. I’ve also run into a number of instances in which I was asked to tone down what was perceived as an overly academic orientation to speaking about ballet. I do think that such comments have merit - I am very conscious of presenting material in a way that is accessible, and jargon-free, and I appreciate it when people alert me to potential trouble spots  - but I also HAVE to ask the question, would we be so worried about a scholarly tone in a program book at the symphony? Or the opera? It concerns me that ballet institutions of various kinds would be so defensive about intellectual or scholarly engagement with the art form. At times in the past, ballet has been denigrated as a feminine, decorative art form, unworthy of serious consideration; do we continue to delegate it to this status in the 21st century? 
(from 2015)


Just watched Ballet Imperial - Maryinsky Theater, Alina Somova - you should check out “Bela Shenker” channel on youtube for all forms of contraband Balanchine, for those of you who are interested. This is a new ballet for me and  I watched it with great interest. The Ballet Imperial previews a few themes in later Balanchine works - those diagonal walking steps in the pas de deux show up later in Diamonds; I also couldn’t help but think of Allegro Brilliante (maybe the costume? and the chaine turns with the piano arpeggios?). And of course the Swan Lake references - wow - pretty overt in the pas de deux, when the man is seeking his lady love amongst the corps. Also a parallel with Diamonds, the SL references. Some similar steps, too, like the attitude penche promenade. 

But what REALLY strikes me - again - about the Balanchine ballets, particularly those that harken back to tradition (as the “Imperial” of the title clearly does - to the Imperial ballet, the days of Petipa and the patronage of the tsar) is the juxtaposition of the formal constraints of ballet with their temporary breakdowns. Ballet Imperials begins with the basic reverance of ballet; a bow, basically, that serves as a formal language that initiates relations between men and women. The ballet then observes the usual hierarchies - a corps de ballet of women, who perform the filler when the female and male soloists are not on stage, with the juiciest or most climactic music reserved for the principals. But there are these moments where the formality seems to evaporate, as when the female lead pauses in complete stillness as the corps dances feverishly around her - it’s almost as though she is taking her spot in the corps, but becomes momentarily paralyzed. The pas de deux can be so intimate (not sexually, emotionally) as to break down almost jarringly the courtly etiquette that Balanchine is paying homage to here. 
For me, these are the moments of Balanchine at his best - at his most twentieth century, at his most forward looking. The love for ballet tradition is there, but it is accompanied by a nostalgic awareness of the end of the era of the “Imperial”. Formality needs to be replaced by the rich, complex interiority of real human beings. 
(from 2015)

Romantic era ballerina-choreographers

OK, so this evening I was reminded by a loyal SFB patron and balletomane that I have not posted in a long time! Thank you, Jeremy, for nudging me back - AND for actually reading this blog! 
Recently I’ve been interested in two Romantic era ballerinas who also choreographed ballets - Therese Elssler, Fanny Elssler’s sister, and Fanny Cerrito. Therese Elssler created many divertissements for her and her more well-known sister, whom Therese frequently partnered en travestie (Therese as the male, Fanny as the female) - Therese was quite tall, 5'6" for a ballerina at that time. Therese also produced a full-length ballet, La Voliere for her sister, whose plot is highly suggestive when you look at the two sisters’ biographies. In the ballet, a woman who has been abandoned by a man (Therese) brings up her sister (Fanny) without any knowledge of the male sex. Of course, a man does gain access, and falls in love with the innocent sister; madcap adventures ensue, and all comes right in the end with a marriage and a reconciliation. Given the complications that various male suitors introduced into the Elssler sisters’ lives - pregnancies and illegitimate children, for one - and the necessity of accepting high-ranking male protectors in the early stages of a career - it seems fitting that Therese created a ballet that fulfilled a wish-fantasy, perhaps, of a self-sufficient world for two sisters who only had to rely on one another. 
Fanny Elssler also choreographed one of her most popular solos, the Cachucha, which was frequently excerpted from the ballet it originated from, Le Diable Boiteux. Elssler’s cachucha was one of the most popular dances of the Romantic era, and it was created by a woman. 
I’m also intrigued by the career of Fanny Cerrito. Cerrito was from Naples, trained at La Scala, and enjoyed her greatest success in London, where she reigned as one of the leading lights of the Romantic era. She was married for six years to Arthur Saint-Leon, the eventual choreographer of Coppelia (1870). Together they created the ballet La Vivandiere, which today survives as an excerpted divertissement (a pas de six) now credited solely to Saint-Leon, who worked in Russia for a time. Cerrito also worked with Theophile Gautier on the libretto for a full-length she choreographed for the Paris Opera, Gemma, in 1854, where she also danced the title role. 
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the negotiations that led to these productions. How did these women get their full-length ballets produced - at great expense - at the most prestigious theater in Europe? OR, perhaps it wasn’t that big of a deal after all? Perhaps their reputations, their work as dancers gave them a platform of respect? I’m so curious about what gender politics were at work when a woman created a ballet at this time. The view that has gotten a lot of airtime in the past 30 years is that Romantic era ballerinas were dominated by voyeuristic males and lacked a voice, quite literally. I think this is an oversimplification. Yes, the Foyer de la Danse was potentially exploitative (a backstage mistress market for the man-about-town), particularly of younger dancers who lacked prestige and means. (But what was the alternative for some of these women? Frankly, outright prostitution. ) And female dancers gained respect as artists, teachers, AND choreographers at a time when women were meant to be invisible in the public sphere. In fact the salaries for men, no matter how accomplished, at the Paris Opera were capped at 10,000 francs, while women could go from 10,000 to even 30,000 or 40,000. Saint-Leon was earning a relatively embarrassing 24,000 francs for choreographing AND dancing while ballerina Carolina Rosati raked in 60,000! 
If only Therese Elssler or Fanny Cerrito left us a memoir, so that we could understand their working conditions, their motivations, and their thought processes. But I think it is nevertheless worthwhile just to be reminded that Romantic era ballerinas DID choreograph. 
(originally published January 2015)

Ballet and “Presence”

Currently reading “The Pina Bausch Sourcebook” edited by Royd Climenhaga. This idea really caught my fancy in his introduction. He writes that,“The modernist agenda in performance practice throughout the twentieth century increasingly moved away from presenting a world as a marker of another reality and towards the condition of being in time and space on the stage itself” (3). YES! This distinction seems so spot on to me. Just think of those 19th century Romantic ballets, with their “worlds apart” wilis and sylphs, and then the Petipa ballets, with their exotic locales (Egypt, India, Spain, Hungary), and their second act vision scenes/white acts. All this imaginative fantasy geared toward creating an alternate world. Contrast to the Balanchine leotard ballets, where music is made visible - how more “being in time and space” can you get? And the current focus on presence in contemporary choreography, on the qualities the dancer brings forth in his/her commitment to the movement onstage, in the intensity of his/her focus, and how these qualities trump obvious panderings to “meaning” and so forth. Combined with extreme technique, the palpable focus, intensity, and commitment of the performer - his/her presence - is the new sublime in contemporary ballet.

published in 2014

The Reflexive Impulse

I’ve been doing some background reading for the course I’m developing on ballet analysis (or, how to watch ballet more deeply) for SFB. Today’s selection was Susan Foster’s “Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance." 
There are any number of juicy theoretical nuggets in this book, but the following caught my eye. Foster discusses contemporary choreography’s ability to theorize itself, which she describes as "the capacity to reflect critically on its various enterprises and to choreograph commentary on its own artistic process” (xx). She goes on to state that this “reflexive impulse” became evident with Cunningham and carried on through the work of the Judson choreographers (Rainer, Brown, Dunn, etc.) I believe she is referring to the tendency of these artists to use dance to pose questions about the nature of dance itself (like Rainer choreographing the moving of mattresses about the performance space to break down the distinction between trained movements and pedestrian movements). 
Ballet has its own moments of reflexive impulse, I believe, which are different in flavor from those of Cunningham et al, but no less illuminating about underlying assumptions, attitudes, and ambivalences at work in the art form. I am taking Foster’s phrase “reflexive impulse” here to mean any case where a ballet appears to comment on the production, meaning, and performance of ballet itself. I’ve been thinking about how this happens, and I have a few examples. They differ from the Judson crew in the sense that many of these ballets did not set out to provide critical commentary on themselves, or to interrogate consciously the status of ballet itself. But the interpretation is there, and in some ways I find it more exciting that such reflexivity might be operating under the surface. This is the basis for my obsession with Balanchine’s La Valse (1952). La Valse belongs to a strand of surrealist, neo-gothic ballets choreographed by Balanchine in the late 20s, early 30s (Cotillon, for example). The ballet also references 19th century anti-dance treatises about the dangers of dancing (and especially waltzing) for women through the death of the woman in white. In one 19th century anti-dance treatise I came across, a huge bat with outstretched wings hovers over a man and a woman who dance together, portending death. In his plans for the ballet, Balanchine considered having the death figure dressed as a bat. Perhaps coincidental, but the message is strikingly similar: someone is stalking the woman who dances. In the death of its female lead La Valse also subtly links the awakening of dance knowledge with the awakening of sexuality, and I can’t help but think of Giselle here (and elsewhere I have written about how the ballet Giselle comments on the status of dance itself - its dangers, its freedoms.) Critics have seemed curiously oblivious to the shocking ending of La Valse - the woman in white is lifted by a group of men and her body spun around, while the corps de ballet circles around them madly (Ravel’s “dancing on the edge of a volcano” - some of the music was written in reference to WWI); many noted the fashion model posing of the first section and wrote the ballet off as a fluff piece or a Bonwit Teller window, as one critic had it. I think the three women in the beginning are clearly fate figures - so prevalent in the Balanchine ballet - their movements are so stylized as to be hieroglyphics; and what are we to make of that first pas de deux between the woman in white and her partner, which combines Graham contractions, pantomime gestures with no referents, and maybe one or two recognizable ballet steps (at the very end)? I’m digressing. Underneath this champagne exterior of the ballroom in the second part comes a shadowy figure, a man in black (the former “bat”) who offers the woman in white feminine but sinister trinkets: a black bouquet, a jet necklace, gloves, a shroud, a cracked mirror. Her acceptance of his gifts, which are really tokens of vanity, begin her downfall, but it is through the waltz, through dance itself, that she is danced to death. Probably, Balanchine was just playing with combining glamour, mystery, and the macabre (even if he was aware of the anti-dance literature). But for me, looking at the ballet, I can’t help but think it says something about the strange power not just of dance but especially of ballet - so pretty, so beautiful on the outside, like the gifts given to the woman in white - but marked in some way with a destructive force. (I haven’t read Elizabeth Kendall’s book yet, but I think she makes an argument that the woman in white in La Valse is Lydia Ivanova, who died in Russia in extremely suspicious circustances; Kendall argues that this figure haunts a number of Balanchine ballets). I do think it is worth asking what it means to portray dance as a force of death, even if this portrayal is occurring unconsciously. I find it deliciously naughty, an inversion of the usual norm of ballet idealizing human life. I also find it closer to part of the lived experience of being a ballet dancer (notice I said part of). Amid the true joy of developing one’s craft and expanding one’s range that comes with every new ballet, the body is being worn down. Amid the joy of performing, the performance ends and can never be recaptured. Ballet’s beauty is a beauty that is fleeting and precarious and hard-won; it is a beauty that can be dangerous to the one who seeks to clothe him or herself in it. (Don’t put on the ballet gloves of destruction! - the woman in white thrusts her hands triumphantly into the long gloves held out by the man in black). 
I’ve gone on so long on this that I’m not going to get to my other examples of the reflexive impulse. But to toss out there:
1. many many nineteenth century ballets use dance as a narrative device - it provides an excuse for dancing if your main character is a dancer or loves to dance - but that these narrative devices may also be read reflexively
2. Jerome Robbins did many ballets that to my mind are about ballet communities or about what happens in the studio; Afternoon of a Faun is an obvious one, but I think you could argue that Dances at a Gathering offers a view of a dance community
3. The way that Alexei Ratmansky references moments in dance history seems potentially reflexive to me, especially in the progression I’ve seen the past few years with regards to Shostakovich. He started with some recreations of Soviet era ballets (1930s) with music by Shosty - Bolt, Bright Stream - and then the more abstract Concerto DSCH. In the Trilogy we see the elaboration of the undercurrents of those earlier Soviet era productions - In Symphony #9 dancers appear persecuted by an unseen menace; the Chamber Symphony presents Shostakovich himself, oppressed, desperate, ultimately defeated. 

Thoughts from the Library

It’s been a while…the Casey household moved from San Francisco down the Peninsula, and we’re still swimming in boxes. Ah, moving. 

As part of the move, I have designated Fridays to be my library day at the now nearby Stanford. Today I took a pass at the main library, just to find my way around. I figured out where all those lovely GV books are, the current periodicals, the bathroom, how to turn on the lights in the stacks, etc. 
One big takeaway: wow, there are not that many books on either contemporary choreography OR dance analysis. 
I could have predicted the former, but not the latter. By definition contemporary choreography is happening now, and book publishing is notoriously slow. I’m sure there is a robust article population waiting to be mined. 
But dance analysis? The nuts and bolts of how to look at dance? Not much. Or at least not much from the past twenty years. If we went to the literature section, how many books would we find on text analysis? Like hundreds? This is on my mind because I’ve been discussing offering dance analysis mini-workshops to patrons through San Francisco Ballet. Looks like I’m on my own, namely, some watered down Laban and a bunch of other stuff I’ll borrow from here and there. 
[note: when I wrote this in 2014 I didn't know about Janet Adshead's edited book on Dance Analysis.]
I found the Spier edited anthology on Forsythe (William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography) and read the Sulcas article. I had this thought after going to NYC, and I had it again today: Karole Armitage’s work has been unfairly forgotten in the genealogy of contemporary ballet. She was a complete pioneer who brought ballet and punk together, at times paying homage to classical technique, at times deconstructing it. Sulcas discussed how for Forsythe, the dancer’s instability, or the moments where they lost their balance and their balletic certainty, were sought after moments of “authentic reaction.” This instability, or loss of control, I absolutely see as well in Armitage’s work (thinking of Drastic Classicism here). However, for Armitage, instability often allows a release of agitated physicality that still betrays a classical shape; instability for Forsythe, at least as I read the Sulcas article, permits a glimpse of something “real” that cannot otherwise be seen. In this one respect, Forsythe shows us a Romantic tinge, whereas this philosophy appears entirely absent from the work of Armitage. 
The Sulcas article had a number of insights I found extremely helpful in understanding Forsythe’s contribution:
1. tendu along with a shifting epaulement is characteristic of his movement vocabulary (of course! that’s exactly it!)
2. Forsythe struggles with following duality in many of his works: the desire to attain beauty, and the resistance to settling for beauty (18)
3. For Forsythe, ANYTHING - film, a mathematical equation, linguistics - can work as a source of movement (18); he states that “anything can go with anything”