Thursday, June 28, 2012

Le Sacre du Printemps

I have a slight obsession with Le sacre du printemps. I love the Stravinsky score. I love the expansive choreography it has inspired. I love the history of the premiere in Paris, 1913. I have listened to the 36 minute orchestration over fifty times. I have watched over 20 productions of the ballet both live and recorded and I have had the privilege of performing in one production.  I have read the most recent biography of Segei Diaghilev, the man who brought the originators of Le sacre, Nijinsky and Stravinsky, together and produced the first incendiary performance.  I have watched the Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky movie several times (the first 20 minutes of the film is the imagined opening night of the ballet). The infamy, mythology, history, and reality of Le sacre du printemps incite feelings of passion, vigor, and reverence within me.
If everything I am saying sounds like a foreign language to you and you are unsure what Le sacre du printemps is and if it's even something worth knowing, here is probably the most familiar cultural association with Stravinsky's beast.

Disney's seminal classic Fantasia is how I first heard the notorious pounding, ritualistic rhythms of Stravinsky's score.  In fact, as a child I would often request that we could skip the "dinosaur part" to the much more palatable Beethoven's Pastorale nymphs-frolicking-pegasus-flying-dionysian-hilarity-and-comfort part (and I was a kid who loved his dinosaurs), because something about the music was too dissonant for my young ears and watching the dinosaurs perish was depressing.  However, this film introduced The Rite of Spring and many other landmark pieces of music in the Classical canon to an incredible amount of people outside the rather insular world of Classical music lovers. Like me as a 4 year old.
If Fantasia is the one-and-only Rite of Spring for you, first of all, props to you because this movie is one of the best things to ever be created on celluloid, and secondly here is a little back story.

The above clip is the Joffrey Ballet's re-creation of the original Nijinsky choreography that premiered May 29, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.  Watching it now it seems very tame and old-fashioned, but when the music and the ballet premiered it caused a riot in the theater and changed the landscape of music and dance in the 20th century.  Stravinsky's inspiration for the score came from Russian pagan rituals.  The libretto is simple and the punch line is that a village girl is chosen as a sacrificial rite to the God of Spring and she must dance herself to death in front of her fellow villagers. Stravinsky also stated that he wanted to  capture the brilliance, intensity, and extreme suddenness of the beginning of Spring in Russia--how everything seems to explode from frozen tundra to colorful, lively landscape in a few moments. Nijinsky's choreography featured ballet dancers' feet turned-in with bent knees and angular, sharp gestures, the anti-thesis of Petipa and the Romantic story ballets.  This combination of innovative and shocking music and choreography incited a riot in the Parisian theatre causing the police to have to put a cease to the discord that remained throughout the entire performance regardless of their presence.
This piece of music is a leviathan in terms of cultural weight and precedence.  It has inspired over 100 different versions of the ballet ranging from solo to post-modern to equestrian.  Here are a few noteworthy versions:

I have cited Pina Bausch's version of Le sacre on this blog before, but it is so brilliant and I love it so much that it is worth mentioning again. The use of soil is as simple as it is effective in creating a matching atmosphere worthy of the demanding music. If you want to see more of it (and an awesome movie) watch Pina, the Wim Wenders film in honor of her work.

This is Maurice Bejart's version from 1970 that caused almost equal outrage in Europe when it premiered as the original. People thought it was blasphemous, degrading the music with overtly sexual movements from barely clothed dancers.  Those complaints seem laughable now when we think about our current definition of overt sexuality, but Bejart was a rule breaker who paved the way for many choreographers who imbue a strong sense of sexuality and non-ballet movements in their choreography.

State of Darkness from Molissa Fenley on Vimeo.

Molissa Fenley is one of my mentors at Mills College and she created State of Darkness as a solo for herself which she performed internationally. It is an incredible piece of work and quite possibly takes the most amount of endurance ever imagined as the performer is onstage for 36 minutes of straight dancing. In this recording it id performed by Jonathan Poretta of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Fenley set it on Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB, back when he was a principal at City Ballet. (There's a cool documentary of her setting it on Boal with Baryshnikov.)  Take note of the weight of the stage space and the relationship with the music.

Upon seeing this production for the first time, I've searched with no reward of finding out who choreographed this and who the performers are, all I know is that it took place in Paris.  There is not much to say other than, " Horses!!"  This production definitely takes the aesthetic of pagan ritual to a whole new level in terms of performance and the performed body. I would love to know what this rehearsal process was like and who funded it, because it is insane.

This version was created in 2001 by Angelin Preljojac.  It takes the libretto and the idea of an isolated vulnerable sacrificial woman to a very literally and although I'm not wild about the choreography or the obviousness of the concept, the dancer is an incredible mover and it is important to know within the canon of Le sacre ballets and what they inspire.

This is an excerpt of the production by choreographer Shen Wei. His company was born out of the American Dance Festival and he is one of the most innovative modern dance choreographers currently working.  This version is not set to the full orchestration but to the score Stravinsky composed for two grand pianos.  In addition to being much less costly to produce, it also creates a different relationship with the movement.  I think Shen Wei did a superlative job matching the sparseness of the piano score with a sparse set, costumes, and choreography. He said, "after repeatedly listening to Stravinsky's archetypal score, I identified several body systems and created a movement vocabulary that matched the quality found in the music as I heard it."

Salvatore Aiello's Rite of Spring is perhaps my most favorite version of the ballet, and not just because it was the one I performed in ( I was on stage a total of two minutes).  To me it matches movement with the music most perfectly and presents the libretto in its original conception  with fresh energy and exquisite dancing.  It saddens me that this version is so unknown because it is truly a masterpiece.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

SF Ballet: Don Quixote

Last night I attended SF Ballet's new production of Don Quixote and I was left speechless.  It was without a doubt the best production of Don Q I have ever seen in my life.  (For this reason I fear this will not be a compelling review, rather, just me gushing adoration for this ballet).  This new production features gorgeous original costumes and sets by Martin Pakledinaz; it was a feast for the eyes.  In fact last night was an orgy for all my senses, the music, the dancing, the costumes and sets, the whisky I drank during the first intermission, all delicious.  What really made this production was the jaw-dropping performances given by both Maria Kotchetkova as Kitri and Taras Domitro as Basilio (they are posing in the above video).  I have expressed my adulation for Kotchetkova on this blog several times already, but after last night I want to bow down and kiss her probably mangled feet from the incandescent dancing she performed.  I did not know what to expect from Domitro, but just like Kotchetkova every step and every movement was elegant and virtuosic, and he was a wonderful comedic actor.  During the final wedding pas de deux I literally could not stop myself from smiling.  Not only did they perform the classic steps with chutzpah as well as grace, they infused extra bravura that galvanized the audience into uproarious applause.  I have never seen an audience so excited, so involved, so delighted.  To put a large ripe cherry on top of the already gluttonously good cake that was last night, I experienced all of this from Box Q, perhaps the most wonderful vantage point to experience any production on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

Nataly and me in front of the door to Narnia, I mean our seats for Don Quixote.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SF Ballet: Balanchine (I'll Never Quit You)

This week SF Ballet is presenting their "All Balanchine" program featuring Divertimento No. 15, Scotch Symphony, and The Four Temperaments.  I saw the program Friday night and it was stunning.  Many dancers and dance-makers nowadays like to make shallow complaints about "Balanchine being overdone" or "not finding a connection in the work."  To those naysayers, I say, that is ridiculous.  I'm not saying everyone needs to love the work as zealously as I do, but the beauty and genius of his choreography is unmatched in its ability to transcend.  Helgi Tommason, the artistic director, did a wonderful job choosing three ballets of very different styles and qualities that showed the breadth and depth of Balanchine's oeuvre.

The program opened with Divertimento No 15 set to Mozart.  This ballet is often described as "crystalline," everything about it is so pure and clean and void of any superfluous accents or nuances that can often stifle movement.  Every movement appears completely necessary for the dancers and for the music.  My favorite SFB prima, Maria Kotchetkova, shined in this work, performing the most difficult petit allegro with effortless energy that allowed the audience to let the movement and music wash over them and not focus on the demanding technical execution.

I knew very little about Scotch Symphony before the program.  It is the first of Balanchine's non-narrative works I've seen that uses a backdrop.  While the ballet is plotless it draws influence from the Romantic ballets, specifically La Sylphide as well as the military marches of the Highland Scots.  I was particularly impressed by the variation for the Scottish girl in the beginning who  dons red pointe shoes and performs the same choreography as the men before  breaking away into her own solo.  Akin to the Romantic ballets, much of Scotch Symphony is a romantic pas de deux; while the two leads had strong chemistry, I was slightly disappointed in Sarah Van Patten's performance.  I wanted her to be more generous.  Otherwise the ballet was tender and humorous and featured some very impressive Bournonville-esque footwork.

The program ended with The Four Temperaments, long hailed as Balanchine's neoclassical masterpiece.  This work is so beautiful and profound that I almost hate to try to attach words to it.  The "Melancholic" variation has always been one of my favorite Balanchine solos (something I've always wished I could dance) and Jaime Garcia Castilla danced it exquisitely.  His body moved seamlessly between languorous back arches to lofty leaps.  The choreography and the non-costumes of practice clothes are unforgiving to anything less than perfection, and luckily every member of the ensemble delivered.

Also, of all the programs I've seen this season, the orchestra sounded particularly luscious for this program, adding, I'm sure, to the post-performance elation I felt walking out of the Opera House.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Eiko and Koma: Fragile

The average audience member accustomed to the safety and predictability of the proscenium stage experience often meets the phrase “performance installation” with cringes.  The phrase is so vague.  Neither “performance” nor “installation” explicate anything beyond someone does something somewhere.  This open-endedness frequently breeds heavy-handedness on grand topics; with few boundaries it is easy to lose focus both as an artist and as an audience.  This is not performance installation specific, but it is more prevalent in the genre.  Fortunately, when a performance installation is successful in maintaining a focus and creating its own boundaries the effects are startling and profound.  This was the case with the presentation of Eiko and Koma’s Fragile at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  The Japanese husband and wife duo accomplished the creation of a microcosm that while founded in the simplicity of two human bodies in repose became complex in its investigation of the body as an historical vessel and the construction of gender.
The physical space created for the performance was textured and organic.  Within the walls of the Center’s white box theatre an inner room was delineated with papier-mâché style canvas partitions with black feathers embedded into the material and holes of varying sizes that offered glimpses into the womb-like arena where the performance took place.  Within the center of this installation lay Eiko and Koma completely nude and painted an ivory hue, lying atop a bed of black feathers.  Behind them sat the Kronos Quartet who accompanied the performance with live music.  Upon becoming accustomed to the nuances of the atmosphere created by the installation the focus of the performance was dominated by the infinitesimal subtleties in movement performed by Eiko and Koma.  Both performers appeared androgynous, equally hairless and covered in paint, transcending the cultural norms of the gendered body on stage.  Although the frame and musculature of the two differed, the male’s sex, and front side for that matter, was never completely revealed, creating a complement and counterpoint to the highly exposed female body.  With the female body frontally exposed and the male body’s continual posterior presentation, the two were in essence two halves of one whole.
By focusing on the most mundane gestures and slow sustained movement, like the vulnerability of an exposed chest, the intensity of an unblinking gaze, or a gradual reaching, Eiko and Koma remove the illusion of the abiding gendered self and reveal an historical body that reflects the shared acts of gender normativity and continues into the foundation of gender identity.  In Fragile the viewer is confronted with bodies void of virtuosity or façade.  The performers are not only exposing their bodies to an audience, they are exposing each body in the room.  It is this inclusive quality that distinguishes it as a successful use of the installation forum and genre.  Throughout the performance the lights continually transition from a focused spot on the two performers to raised house lights that fall on every body in the space, performer and audience member alike.  This luminous effect does not allow the audience to become completely lost in the microcosm created by Eiko and Koma, when the lights came up on everyone, the viewer was reminded of their own body, their body’s relationship to the other bodies in the space, and their body’s own gender performance.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: Story/Time

 “Raise your hand when you think one minute has passed,” requested Bill T. Jones of the audience at Zellerbach Hall in his pre-performance speech for his company’s new work Story/Time.  Jones brought out the stage manager with stopwatch in hand and the audience fell silent as they tried to determine the length of one minute as timed by the stage manager.  Hands progressively rose until the stage manager said, “Time,” and the audience chuckled and shifted, and Jones said, “That’s all you need to know about tonight’s performance.”  Story/Time performed the weekend of February 24-25 by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company consisted of 70 one minute stories told live on-stage by Jones, while the company of dancers performed choreography around the storyteller and a musician electronically distorted the sound of Jones’s voice and periodically created accompanying soundscapes.   The work was inspired by John Cage's Indeterminacy, the stories told and the choreography dances are chosen randomly before the performance and paired by chance.  As satisfying as the idea sounds, knowing the length of one minute was not all that was needed to know the performance. 
The 70 one minute stories that made it by chance into the night’s performance can be easily categorized as cultural and political.  These two categories are a very kind euphemism for name-dropping.  The majority of what Jones had to say dealt with dining, drinking, and socializing with other rich and famous people who hold incredible clout in the worlds of art and intelligentsia.  Whether it was intended or not, the innate political nature of money, art, access, and privilege within the stories were projected onto the bodies of the dancers.  Regardless of the movement changing from performance to performance, the implicit and explicit meaning of the sixty-second sound bytes became integral to the nature of the movement, even if its creation was without textual support.  When Jones was not discussing the livelihoods of wealthy artists, he often discussed the destitute poverty and institutional racism as experienced by himself and his family (prior to his success).  Once again the cultural politics of race, class, gender, and access are imbued onto the dancers via the storytelling.  This relationship was explicitly apparent in the one story that was told twice verbatim and then inverted to a scenario involving the dancers.  The story dealt with a poor family being evicted from their home while an evil landlord and his goons rape and pillage.  Along with the repetition, this story seemed decidedly removed from chance operations as the choreography very much acted out the story and the props were assembled in the semblance of a living room.
Contextual and theoretical critiques aside, I believe the company is one of the strongest modern dance companies currently performing and touring.  The dancers perform beautifully as an ensemble and each offer a unique movement quality to Jones's choreographic style--a mixture of release technique, ballet, and yoga.  Also, although the stories themselves were markedly exclusive, Jones has one of the best voices for storytelling.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

SF Ballet: Trio, Francesca da Rimini, Les Carnaval des Animaux

Last Saturday night I attended SF Ballet's 3rd Program of the season, a triple bill that featured Trio by Helgi Tomasson (the artistic director), the world premiere of Francesca da Rimini by Yuri Possokhov (the resident choreographer), and Les Carnaval des Animaux by Alexei Ratmansky, which was made for the company several years ago.

SIDE NOTE:  There is a very generous alum of the Mills College Dance Department who keeps a box at the ballet and donates tickets to every program to current Mills students.  I had the extreme privilege of using one of those tickets last night, and, whoa dang, if I never had to sit anywhere else that would be fine by me.  First of all each box has its own door that leads to a small powder room with a mirror and very comfortable chair, a place for you to hang you jacket and accoutrements, as well as menus for dessert and champagne should you feel so inclined.  Then you pull back a curtain, and blamo! you have your very own box with six seats, and this one was right in the center.  The most perfect place in the whole theatre to view dance.  Everything is gilded with gold leaf and the seats look very Rococo.  I felt like I was in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and let me tell you it was awesome.  My apologies for the tangent, but I felt it was necessary to explain my superb vantage point in viewing these ballets.  And back to the ballet....

Tomasson's Trio set to Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence is a three part ballet that sandwiches a partnering heavy pas de trois with the classical style pas de deuxs with male and female variations and corps de ballet.  The set and costumes were stunning.  The ballet was very strong in structure and drive, but choreographically thin.  Neither of the pas de deuxs had discernibly interesting or novel partnering, and though the pas de trois was danced beautifully, the way that the woman was constantly being tossed back and forth between the two men left me wishing the men would partner each other and mix it up a bit, also I couldn't stop thinking about a very similar part of Cooper Nielsen's ballet in Center Stage.

Francesca da Rimini by Yuri Possokhov

This ballet was a world premiere by choreographer in residence Yuri Possokhov based on the story of Francesca da Rimini as told by Dante.  In the story Francesca cheats on her husband with his brother, they are caught, the husband kills both of them, and they all spend eternity in hell.  Very Dante.  Set to a Tchaikovsky symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32, the ballet was a one act drama that brought the house down.  The title character was danced by Maria Kotchetkova, one of my new favorite primas, who technical ability and grace was equally matched by acting and musicality.  In addition to the love triangle the ballet featured three denizens of the underworld, making their presence sporadically known by sliding in and out of the set with undulating choreography, and seven ladies-in-waiting who served as a sort of Greek chorus, either mimicking the actions of the main characters or continuing the plot with transitions.  It was stunning and the reaction from the audience was as passionate as the ballet itself.

Les Carnaval des Animaux by Alexei Ratmansky

The program ended with a ballet as comical and cheerful as Francesca da Rimini was dramatic.  Ratmansky's Les Carnaval des Animaux was created for the company in 2003, and features inventive and smile-inducing choreography to each of Saint-Saen's animal-character sketches.  Particularly satisfying was the "Aquarium" section with Sofiane Sylve as a jellyfish, and the elephant section danced by a young ballerina in a pink tutu.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

SF Ballet: Chroma, Beaux, Number Nine

My good friend and fellow balletomane Nataly accompanied me to the SF Ballet's second program of their season tonight.  It was a very mixed bag, featuring Chroma by Wayne McGregor (above), Beaux a world-premiere by Mark Morris, and Number Nine by Christopher Wheeldon.  Each work was abstract and non-narrative and each work had a unique relationship with their prospective musical accompaniment.
I have never had such an immediate feeling of dislike about a ballet as I did about Chroma.  I use the word "hate" sparingly, but I almost want to use it about this ballet.  It was rife with cliches and lacked any strong structure or sound transitions.  Any worthwhile moments felt like watching super-lite Jiri Kylian work from the '90s.  Half of the musical accompaniment was orchestrated versions of White Stripes songs which seemed completely arbitrary and reinforced the lack of cohesion.  McGregor stated that he wanted the work to feature physical extremes.  When I first read this in the program I was hoping for something akin to Balanchine's Agon, instead it was like watching a ballet made for Las Vegas, no artistry, just lots of hyper-extension and bombastic partnering that offers the audience no genuine connections.  I was shocked and disappointed to find out that this ballet has won many accolades and is the work that landed McGregor the resident choreographer position at the Royal Ballet!  This made me think that this is choreography that the patriarchs and matriarchs that hold administrative positions in ballet companies believe to be new and edgy when really it's just crap ( similar to how all the old Broadway critics thought Spring Awakening was reinventing the musical for my generation when really it was a 19th century story about adolescent sex with underwhelming top 40-esque pop music).

Mark Morris's world premiere Beaux got everything right that Chroma got wrong.  With a cast of nine incredibly talented men, Morris successfully blended gesture with ballet, created character and personality in an abstract, non-narrative ballet, and utilized the beauty of understated movement to complement the bravado of men in ballet.  It was wonderful to see the personalities of the dancers in the movement, a quality that is usually reserved for modern dance.  Isaac Mizrahi's set and costumes were the only unfortunate contribution to the production.  The non-set was a large floating screen hovering in front of the cyc that was pink and brown army camouflage print.  The unitards the men wore were a similar pattern.

I originally saw the ballet Number Nine in January at the SF Ballet Gala and had very mixed feelings about the choreography.  I immediately loved the score by Michael Torke, but I felt the ballet needed editing.  Also at the Gala the dancers looked insecure in the movement, like perhaps they needed more rehearsals.  Tonight, however, I was completely won over.  I think the key was my place in the audience.  At the Gala I sat in the orchestra whereas tonight I sat in the balcony; the balcony offered a far superior view to appreciate the patterns and mathematical precision of the choreography.  Also the dancing was strengthened by having a more skillful and seasoned cast.  As always Yuan Yuan Tan was absolutely stunning in the "blue couple's" choreography.