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• Mariinsky at the Double – Roger Salas
• Sylvie Guillem, the Icy Divine – Vittoria Ottolenghi
• The Swan of the Lakes – Alfio Agostini
• Béjart Ballet Lausanne Without Its Pygmalion – Jean Pierre Pastori
• Roland Petit, Dance and Show, Drama and Feathers – Alfio Agostini
• Cuba: The Proof of the Festival – Alfio Agostini
• The Return of "Coppélia" – Roger Salas
• Peonies Dancing...– Kevin Ng
• Norwegian Swans at the Oslo Waterfront – Erik Aschengreen
• Fracci and Ballets Russes – Donatella Bertozzi
• The Pavillon of... Nijinsky – Isis Wirth
• Glossy Divas and Divos – Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino
• La Péri Reborn – Jean Pierre Pastori
• Preljocaj at Home at the Paris Opéra – Sonia Schoonejans
• La Fille bien Gardée...during 50 years – Clement Crisp
• Citizens of the World, but Russians Through and Through – Mark Haegeman
• The Forsythe Effect – Sonia Schoonejans
• Joaquìn & Co., Spanish Dance is the star – Roger Salas
• Swans on Celluloid – Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino
• The Stuttgart Miracle: 50 Years On – Emmanuelle Ruegger
• Brandstrup, Emperor Titus and Berenice – Freda Pitt
• Birmingham comes to London – Freda Pitt
• Wheeldon, a "Classic" for Today – Clement Crisp
• Nutcracker Chinese Way – Kevin Ng
• Vienna under Legris's wing – Isis Wirth
• A Raymonda of errors – Alfio Agostini
• Cunningham Final Act – Anna Kisselgoff
• Souvenir d' Irène Lidova – Alfio Agostini
• The Kirov of yesterday and today on DVD – Cristiano Merlo

Mariinsky at the Double

In May the great Petersburg theatre opened a second venue, modern but sumptuous, which augments the Mariinsky’s prestige and activity. The number of performances increase and so, too, does the size of the ballet company (ex-Kirov) which will now be serving two theatres simultaneously, as well as touring overseas. All under the authoritative aegis of its star-conductor, Valery Gergiev

A sparkling grand finale concluded the inaugural performance of the Mariinsky II, St Petersburg’s new opera house. It was an evening which will go down in the theatre’s history and which brought together onstage over 450 artists: the ballet company, the choir, the orchestra and various leading soloists. All of them singing “Happy Birthday” to conductor Valery Gergiev, who turned 60 on that same day.
While the rest of the world is cutting theatre subsidies and closing down ballet companies, in Russia, deep in the East of old Europe, no one pays attention to the word ‘crisis’ – that phantom that is disturbingly haunting much of the world. Instead, in St Petersburg a richly painted curtain rises on a theatre worthy of the tsars.
Costing about 530 million Euros (way above the initially-forecast 200 million), the theatre momentously heralds the city’s artistic and cultural future, with imperial pride and lavish means. A new construction of 80,000 square metres, adding to the previous 23,000 of the old Mariinsky Theatre which has inspired this new venue and faces it on the other bank of the Kriukov Canal. It was designed by the Canadian firm of architects Diamond Schmitt of Toronto (after Dominique Perrault’s project was dropped in 2003).
The result is a costly Italian-style theatre with beech-wood wainscoting, dark grey upholstery, and thin translucent onyx walls, lit-up from behind. The house is dominated by a stupendous central stage, in the style of the imperial theatres. Understated spotlights hang down from the ceiling, though complemented with a cascade of Swaroski crystal. A monumental spiral staircase, practically suspended in mid-air, dominates the spacious foyer; the façade is enhanced by another staircase, made of glass. as in a fairy-tale of old, marble and other semi-precious stones have been brought in from Asia, A 65 metre-high fly tower, soaring seven floors above-stage and with three below-stage levels, makes this one of today’s most prodigious theatres.
The Mariinsky II joins the famous the Mariinsky and its nearby concert-hall, inaugurated in 2006, thereby completing a preeminent trio of theatre buildings. It fills the gap left by the burning-down, halfway through the 19th century, of the old Bolshoi Theatre (Big Theatre) of St Petersburg.
Gergiev himself has pointed out that today the Mariinsky can count on a staff of 2,500 workers (artists plus technical personnel), which he hopes will eventually increase to 3,000, to keep these three buildings in activity 365 days a year. The forecast annual budget is of 115 million Euros. Not content with this, Gergiev proposes to reach 153 million in the next three years, with the supporting foundations, in New York and Russia itself, working flat-out in order to reach said target.
Of note, and clearly this is of special interest to us, the dancers of its prestigious ballet troupe (ex Kirov) will be increasing in number to enable them to split into two groups and double the number of performances offered, in the two theatres as well as on continual tours around the world.
All this is the result of an uphill effort. There was a great deal of opposition in Petersburg, with many considering this project of colossal proportions to be a senseless waste. But today’s visitor in the so-called ‘Venice of the North’ cannot fail to admire this imposing – yet insubstantial – mass of crystal which, without defacing the harmony of the city, reflects the sky and pastel colours of the 18th-century imperial city.
In the big theatre, which seats 2,000, we are greeted by a first tribute to the splendour of the past and the old Mariinsky: the proscenium curtain is an exact replica of the other theatre’s 18th-century original, with its plush antique gold braiding. Moreover, during the gala, the backdrop reproduced (in relief) the interior of the Mariinsky, with highly poetic stage-play.
Even if we are still in the early years of the 21st century I think the world has probably witnessed one of the biggest theatrical and cultural events of this century. In these present hard times, it is as if the Baltic and the other northern seas were the last bastions of culture. Over the last few years ballet and opera houses have been inaugurated in Helsinki, Oslo and Copenhagen. Now this massive new theatre and the boosting of its orchestra, chorus and ballet company propel the Mariinsky into a dimension and perspective that would be simply unthinkable in the West.
Two significant celebrities of the Mariinsky Ballet led the dancing at the inaugural gala: undisputed star Ulyana Lopatkina and the elegant and poetic Vladimir Shkliarov. Another famous ballerina, Diana Vishneva, danced Alberto Alonso’s Carmen, with refined sensuality (and in a red costume, just like Alicia Alonso in her heyday).
Among other things, we note that Russian ballet seems destined to attain a sort of world hegemony, overshadowing that of other countries. This is easy to forecast. Innovation already seems tangible and influential also on the choreography front. The 2013 edition of the “White Nights Festival” in June and July will present not only a new opera by Rodion Shchedrin but also Concerto DSCH by Alexei Ratmansky (created for New York City Ballet, to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, in 2008).
The Mariinsky is the shrine of ballet, yet it is as if its importance had now spread geometrically. Gergiev himself has expressed this clearly in the way he has conceived the programmes of the various inaugural performances which featured not only the classics, but also two guiding lights of 20th-century choreography: George Balanchine and Maurice Béjart.
Balanchine’s Jewels was performed in the new Mariinsky, with a splendid and commanding Lopatkina in “Diamonds” while, in “Rubies”, Vladimir Shklyarov showed himself to be the most remarkable Russian dancer of the moment. Diana Vishneva, another ‘star’ of the Petersburg troupe (who splits her time between the Mariinsky and American Ballet Theatre in New York) was the centrepiece of another evening at the Mariinsky II: she danced Béjart’s Boléro encircled by the male corps de ballet of Béjart Ballet Lausanne – which flew in specially for the occasion (personally rehearsed by their director Gil Roman). The closing ballet was Symphony in C, one of Balanchine’s masterpieces.
The enthronement in Petersburg (a process that began a few years ago) of the Russian choreographer of Georgian origin, who fled (the then) Petrograd in the 1920’s, is further proof that Russia is opening up to an entirely new world. The most appropriate place to dance Balanchine today seems to be precisely St Petersburg: even though his principal choreographies were created in the USA, they remain the works of an artist in exile who always yearned for this company and theatre, where he had studied and which were his birthright.
Meanwhile, in the old Mariinsky Theatre, other ballets were being performed, the most important of which, Don Quixote, also brought with it the promotion of a young Oxana Skorik, dancing Kitri for the first time, to the rank of prima ballerina. Petersburg public and critics were quite bewitched by Skorik and all, including the theatre management, see her as the company’s next stellar ballerina.


Roger Salas
(BALLET2000 n°239 – June 2013)


 

 

Sylvie Guillem, the Icy Divine

She is without doubt the classical ballet "diva" of our day, the only one that the public rushes to see as soon as her name is announced, ready to adore her beauty, her dazzling virtuoso technique and her supreme assurance on stage. And yet, something is missing. And as against so many who admire her without reservations, there are those who emphasise the other side of the coin. That’s what divas of either sex have to expect.

If asked "Who are the greatest ballerina and male dancer in the world today?", most people would reply, "Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov". Curiously enough, it is just these two artists who make no impression on me whatsoever. I’ll try and explain this unreasonable lack of appreciation, if not animosity (to myself, too), conscious that the fault is probably all mine.

I’ve already written about Baryshnikov (in Balletto Oggi), and perhaps I’ll come back to him. So far as Sylvie Guillem is concerned, my problem goes back a long way, that is to say, to the day when, representing Italy on the panel of judges some years ago, I arrived in Bulgaria for the famous Varna competition for young dancers. I got there a few days late: when the first elimination round was over. Immediately, my friend the late André-Philippe Hersin, the French member of the panel for that year, before so much as asking after my health, launched into a speech of enthusiastic, overwhelming certainty that the young French candidate would win hands down, because she was miles better and better-looking than all the rest.

Oh dear, my "relationship" at a distance with Sylvie Guillem was starting very badly. I felt - even if good-humouredly - oppressed and betrayed by André-Philippe and by circumstances. As a result, when the day of the semi-finals arrived, I looked out for another young face and another exceptional technique to exalt. I settled on Katherine Healy, a 15-year-old American girl (who is at the moment a principal with the Vienna Opera Ballet). She was dark, small and a bit plump - the opposite of blonde, tall and slim Sylvie Guillem. Little Kathy jumped about like a cricket and span like a top, in the most virtuosic, acrobatic inventions of the classical repertory. Sylvie Guillem, on the other hand, had chosen a variation in a more lyrical style, not something to show off her virtuosity: she was real, very beautiful, and detached. Too detached, I said to myself, with a certain amount of irritation.

In the grand finale, if I remember aright, there was the third stage of my negative relationship with Sylvie Guillem, who performed Béjart’s La Luna solo, which all Italians identify with Luciana Savignano (who it was made for). Savignano was unsurpassed in this piece - and in no way detached. On the contrary, there was a vein of secret furies running through her interpretation, under the frozen moonlike crust. I said to myself that Sylvie Guillem showed only the frozen outside, with nothing underneath. I voted for Katherine Healy. Sylvie Guillem won by a large majority, naturally, and was awarded the Gold Medal.

Fairness made me feel obliged, anyway, a few months later, to invite Sylvie Guillem as well as Katherine Healy to appear in the "Dance Marathon" that I was in charge of until 1996 at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. There were a lot of stars taking part in that Marathon, including Rudolf Nureyev, Antonio Gades, Peter Schaufuss, Carla Fracci, Kevin McKenzie, Ohad Naharin, Vladimir Derevianko, and Elisabetta Terabust. Sylvie Guillem arrived with Rudolf Nureyev, who had shortly before become the director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, to which Sylvie Guillem already belonged. Nureyev followed her rehearsal with the attention of a true ballet-master, correcting, demonstrating and explaining. She received Nureyev’s teaching with the same air of a disdainful queen, an icy goddess, that she had shown at Varna. She asked me, in an autocratic tone, not to place her after Katherine Healy in the programme, but before her. She left me speechless, almost afraid, with that tone of hers that did not admit of a reply.

I hastened to do as she asked. She danced the "Black Swan" pas de deux: lovely to look at, perfect and cold. I said to myself, partly to justify my irritation and hostility, But the Black Swan shouldn’t be cold towards the Prince, she should be seductive and full of passion. She was very much applauded by everyone, the public and the critics. So much for me.

After that my difficulties with Sylvie Guillem were repeated on several occasions. In the first place in Italy, in various "Nureyev and Friends" performances. The shows may have been a bit hastily staged, but the technical standard was high. The cast was always excellent, with the constant presence, apart from Sylvie Guillem, of Charles Jude, Isabelle Guérin and Manuel Legris (who was said at that time to be her fiancé). I once had the chance to see her with a different group of "Stars of the Paris Opéra", headed by Patrick Dupond. Sylvie Guillem enraptured the audience with her Esmeralda variation, the one where she several times raises her tambourine above her head and strikes it with her foot. She was so pretty, so young, so acrobatic and so impeccable. To myself I thought (through my hostility, which I hid at the official level, amid so much jubilation) on a vindictive note, "She ought to go in for artistic gymnastics rather than dance" (then I read somewhere that she had indeed trained as a gymnast).

Now she’s out of reach: England has taken her over, like a precious stone, and placed her on a throne. What more can one ask? It’s as though the English were to give her the position that was Margot Fonteyn’s, and I couldn’t bear that thought.

But then she reappeared, with Maurice Béjart holding her by the hand at the end of his Bolero, proud and excited, as if Sylvie Guillem were his daughter. I remember nothing of that Bolero, except the applause, the Titian red of her smooth hair, the fringe, the dark red body stocking like a one-piece Jantzen bathing costume of the 1930s, and her almost masculine-seeming muscles. I was unable, in my secret thoughts, to chase away the most unfair and excessive comment on her new image. And when people asked me, after the performance, "Isn’t she fantastic?" or "She’s divine, don’t you think so?", I always replied in a soft voice, "Yes, of course", feeling glad that I didn’t have to write about the performance the next day.

But now things are getting more complicated: I’m going to be seeing Sylvie Guillem as choreographer and principal dancer in Giselle, and balletomanes are looking forward to the great event. With my head in the sand like an ostrich, I’m trying not to think about it. I can imagine her already: beautiful, acrobatic, very elegant in the first act, and pale and as cold as the moon, and with perfect steely pointwork in the second act. And I can already foresee her triumph, while I (being incapable of dealing with this further blow) go home with my tail between my legs, thinking of Yvette Chauviré, Noella Pontois, Carla Fracci, Natalia Makarova, hiding my regret.

Vittoria Ottolenghi

(BALLET2000 n°45 – Février/Mars 1999)


The Swan of the Lakes

"Swan Lake" is the most enigmatic of the great repertory ballets. Or at least, that is how it has been seen by the many choreographers who have so far laid hands on it in order to "reveal" its hidden meanings: sometimes only by reinventing the setting and the libretto, while preserving the substance of the choreography by Petipa and Ivanov; at other times making a completely new ballet. That is what Mats Ek, among others, has done, and also Matthew Bourne, with unpredictable success.

It is impossible to discuss seriously at the present time the ballets of the classical repertory, without feeling obliged to clear the ground of the errors - I would call them theoretical if the term were not too strong - and the nonsense spread about by a certain class of fashionable critics. They form an obtuse, evil brood with regard to the values that are specific to dance, they look at a ballet just like cows watching a train pass (the simile was originally André Levinson’s), not understanding what it is and what purpose it serves, they (I mean the cows and the train) think - who knows? - that it is something to make a noise with. And that is perhaps what they talk about in their bovine gatherings.

In the same way, those critics, who are unable to see in a ballet what really counts, the dance - or it seeming to them, as they do not understand it, something of little importance - look for other material in it: the literary plot, the "dramaturgy" (as they like to say), or perhaps the music (but that is a mistake that belongs to past generations, when it was the music critics who wrote about dance; this is an error that thouse dance critics do not make, because of their lack of musical knowledge), the scenery and costumes, or perhaps the physical or expressive qualities of the dancers. The dancing, if they deign to refer to it, is just an accessory to them.

And now at last I have arrived at the subject of this article. Which is Swan Lake, and the confused manner in which people talk and write about the many "versions", whether classical or contemporary. If one does not clearly understand that a ballet is a dance work, that it "consists" of dance, just as an opera "consists" of music and singing, one may well believe that the Swan Lake of Petipa-Ivanov, the one by John Neumeier and the one by Mats Ek are different versions of the same ballet; or, at the most, that Ek’s is a "rereading" of Petipa’s. This is nonsense that can only circulate in an environment of dance criticism that is underdeveloped from an intellectual point of view. Not even the least informed opera-lover would talk about, let’s say, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as if it were a "rereading" of Massenet’s Manon, and in fact everybody realises that if what counts in the opera is the music and if the music is different, they are two different operas, which will have different merits in accordance with their different musical value. That what counts in a ballet is the choreography and not the story is an elementary concept, but it it still far from being understood and perceived.

And if Swan Lake as a work of art is its choreography, that is to say, its dance, it is clear that different choreography (even if it has the same title, the same music and the same or similar narrative subject) will be a different ballet, a different, autonomous creation. The critics who out of personal bias defend what they call "rereadings of the classics" made by their favourite contemporary choreographers (as if Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake were not beautiful enough, so that it needed to be remade) and the "purists" who are scandalised when Matthew Bourne takes the title and the music and modifies the subject in order to make a choreographic work that is completely modern and all his own (as if by doing so he wanted or was able to spoil the "classical" ballet, or as if the sin of desecration stopped him from making a fine ballet) are equally foolish.

To sum up, there are different ballets by different choreographers and belonging to different periods, that are called Swan Lake to music by Tchaikovsky and on subjects that derive, in various ways, from the same 19th century libretto. Naturally, the same applies to all the other repertory titles. I am talking here about Swan Lake because its mysterious, symbolic subject has lent itself more often and better than others to stimulating the imaginations of choreographers.

So, by keeping hold of the criteria, which are in any case very elementary, that I have set out in the preceding paragraphs, it will be possible to put in order the various productions of Swan Lake that are around at the moment, dividing them into three categories, which correspond with three objectives and choreographic works that are very different one from another.

The first, and most obvious, one concerns reproductions of the "classic" Swan Lake. The masterpiece that they all go back to is Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s ballet 1895 production - and that not because it was historically the first. In fact it was not. The first production dates from 1877, in Moscow, with choreography by one Julius Reisinger, which was probably mediocre and determined its lack of success (confirming my criterion, according to which a ballet is its choreography, and it is on that that its value depends). Nor did the 1880 production by Joseph Hansen fare better. It was necessary to wait for the production by Petipa and Ivanov at St Petersburg, which was a triumph, and on the basis of that the ballet began its long career as a classic of the repertory. That career has a Russian basis, but the matter is complicated, and this is not the place to discuss it. Dance is not written down (or rather, was not written down, other than rarely and vaguely), and the choreography of a 19th century ballet reaches us today through a series - that is often not even continuous - of revivals, reproductions, adaptations in taste, and technical innovations, over whole generations of ballet masters, teachers and dancers who are sometimes concerned with fidelity to the past, but not all of them, to a point where it is possible to talk of "a masterpiece by accumulation". The choreography of Swan Lake that we see today could, therefore, be described as "by Petipa and Ivanov and their century-long reconstructors".

As a result, the qualitative differences in the numerous productions of Swan Lake that can be seen around the world today depend on the competence, the choreographic culture and the stylistic taste of the choreographers and répétiteurs who have staged them. Among the most reliable productions the first place must obviously be given to the Kirov Ballet, the company of the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where the Petipa-Ivanov ballet was first performed, and where the tradition of the Petipa repertory has been best preserved, and with greatest continuity (not to mention the quality of the dancers).

The London Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake, which is by now a distant descendant of the first, fundamental production in Europe, by Nicholas Sergeyev for the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1934, has a claim to authenticity. At the Paris Opéra, the most familiar version is the one by Vladimir Bourmeister, which has frequently been performed there, from 1960 down to the present day (also elsewhere). However, it contains things that are not very convincing to a present-day audience. At La Scala, Milan, for several years a production by John Field, which was largely based on the Royal Ballet one, was performed. In the United States, American Ballet Theatre has always possessed a good traditional production of Swan Lake, which has now been revised by the current director, Kevin McKenzie. Alicia Alonso produced an authoritative Swan Lake for her Cuban company, in which she also danced. At this point I must interrupt what would become a real world tour.

The second category is made up of reworkings of the classic Swan Lake, with the choreography remaining wholly or partly unchanged, and therefore "traditional" in the sense clarified above. The choreographer therefore usually modifies the scenario, the setting and the characters, in order to make clear certain symbolic or psychological points or to invent new ones. The changes in the choreography come in the mime and some secondary dances, while the famous passages (such as the second act with the swan-maidens, or the third-act pas de deux) are for the most part retained.

Unfortunately, it is this sort of operation that tends to attract ex-dancers without choreographic talent, whom nobody would ask to make an original ballet, but who, on the other hand, do not wish to limit themselves to reproducing a classical ballet. So they invent variations on the story, they set it in a different time or place, with fancy scenery and costumes, they mess up the choreography a bit, they remake some of the dances (making them less satisfactory, given the improbability of improving the original masterpiece), and that way they get their name in the programme (and also the fee), as if they were real choreographers.

Of the many offerings of this kind that afflict dance stages, the soggiest Swan Lake that has ever come my way is the one by Yuri Vámos, in the Düsseldorf repertory (this Hungarian dancer being the director of the company there). Right from the Prologue, in which the infant Prince (and the audience) see the Queen Mother and the tutor making love without any restraint, up to the last act, in which the neurotic Prince kills the Swan – and the corpse falls on to the stage looking like a sort of straw-stuffed cockerel – there is such a series of pieces of nonsense that it leaves you in a state of consternation. To start with, it seems like a joke, but when you realise it isn’t, and that the choreographer had very serious and dramatic intentions, the whole thing takes on a surreally comic air.

A much more respectable production, which has met with great success in several theatres, is the one made by Rudolf Nureyev, which was reworked on various occasions before reaching its definitive version, which is still in the repertory of the Paris Opéra Ballet and at La Scala, Milan. Nureyev changed above all the role of the Prince, by enlarging it, as he did that of von Rothbart (which he danced himself in later years), and he made the ballet as a whole more elegant and modern. His choreographic contributions are, as always, unmusical and infelicitous, but they do not have too negative an effect on the substance of the ballet, which he had known very well in his youth, from his time at the Kirov.

However, the masterpiece in this genre is John Neumeier’s Illusionen - wie Schwanensee (literally, "Illusions - like Swan Lake"), for the Hamburg Ballet, which has its place in this category only because it retains the classic choreography for Act 2, but which would perhaps be more correctly considered an original ballet. For a more extended comment, you can turn to the review in this issue of the recent performances in Paris.

The third group of my subdivision - which is not really so neatly defined, but is theoretically not at all arbitrary - is made up of original creations that take their inspiration from the old Swan Lake, retaining its music and title, but the choreography of which is a completely new and personal invention of the present-day author. Therefore, as I said earlier, from the dance point of view it is absolutely improper to consider these as new versions or "reworkings" of the same ballet: they are, in effect, new ballets.

I will just mention a post-modern Swan Lake made for the Aix-en-Provence festival by the American choreographer Andy Degroat in 1982, and the recent one by Bertrand d’At for the Ballet du Rhin, and then I quote the three most important contemporary ones.

Mats Ek’s production for the Cullberg Ballet is called in Swedish Svansjön, and although it is not considered his masterpiece, it is the most fascinating and personal modern Swan Lake, from a purely choreographic standpoint, for the way it plays with a poetic synthesis that is halfway between a non-literal quoting of the classic and a pure creation, that being the incomparable characteristic of Mats Ek’s work.

From 1995 up to the present, Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake for his Adventures in Motion Pictures has enjoyed an extraordinary success worldwide. We have devoted our cover to it, and it is written about in this issue.

Lastly, Le Lac des cygnes et ses maléfices, made by Roland Petit for his Marseille company in 1998, shows another way of treating male swans, in Petit’s classical-modern choreographic style, but above all using his theatrical imagination, in which the drama is always suffused with sensual irony.

Alfio Agostini

(BALLET2000 n° 51 – March/April 2000)


Béjart Ballet Lausanne Without Its Pygmalion

On the morrow of Maurice Béjart’s passing, the world of dance wonders what future awaits his "child", Béjart Ballet Lausanne. Béjart was the life and soul of this company for twenty years, after the glorious era of his Ballet du XXe Siècle, in Brussels and throughout the world. Gil Roman, Béjart’s last remaining "signature dancer", is his heir apparent. Clearly, BBL must endeavour to keep Béjart’s repertoire alive, but at the same time it needs to open up to other choreographers. The big question, as yet unanswered, is: will the company cease to be attractive without its charismatic Pygmalion?

When founders pass away, their companies often undergo hard times. Especially if the celebrities in question carried most of the burden upon their shoulders. In the world of haute couture many fashion houses did not outlive the designers who invented their trademarks, whereas others, like Dior or Chanel, were instead able to continue their activities without too many problems. The same applies to independent dance companies whose repertoires are mostly made up of works by their respective artistic directors. Alvin Ailey’s death could easily have led to the dissolution of his American Dance Theater. But a shrewd board of directors and an inspired artistic director – Judith Jamison – allowed this magnificent company to embark on a new and successful voyage.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne is now facing the same problem.

In 1987, when the city of Lausanne in Switzerland invited Maurice Béjart to settle there, the offer was not dictated by the wish to have a ballet company. On the contrary, Lausanne seized the opportunity to link its name to that of one of the most prominent living choreographers, thereby allowing the name of the city to tour the world together with the company. Last November, as soon as the news of Béjart’s passing became known, everything clearly changed and the City of Lausanne gave itself three years to take stock of the troupe’s artistic and economic state of affairs and decide on its future.

Will BBL be successful in preserving the qualities with which we associate it? And now that its "soul" has flown, will it continue to attract young talent? Now that the Béjart repertoire can no longer be replenished, will it continue to be as attractive as it was? Basically, the question is: will the company stay alive or will interest dwindle to the extent that it will eventually be forced out of the large cities and end up performing only in the small towns?

Albeit discreetly, and notwithstanding his own belief (expressed on numerous occasions) that when a creator is no longer there to breathe life into his/her works, these are deprived of their anima, Maurice Béjart left instructions to ensure that his ballets would outlive him. He had set up a foundation whose mandate is to manage his repertoire. Its president is Gil Roman and members include those who were closest to the choreographer, such as his longtime friend, writer François Weyergans, ballerina and company director Maina Gielgud, the loyal Eidji Mihara and Marie-Claude Jequier, a lawyer, as well as the City of Lausanne’s former culture alderwoman. It will now be up to these celebrities to decide whether or not to grant choreographic rights to those companies that request permission to perform Béjart ballets.

As for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, it seems clear that the course ahead is one of continuity. Gil Roman, who used to be associate director but has always been one of the troupe’s most influential personalities, has officially taken over at its helm. Nobody knows Béjart’s work and all the problems inherent to the troupe’s tours (with which he has been dealing for years) better than he does and there is no doubt that it was Béjart’s wish that Roman pick up his legacy; Roman has every right to take over as successor. But we can legitimately ask ourselves whether, being over forty, Roman can continue to dance and be director at the same time. In any event, up until now Gil Roman has done nothing to publicize his new role… Unlike Béjart, Gil is not a communicator, yet there is no doubt that the successful management of a company also entails making it "visible". Moreover, Roman, who has a stern and demanding personality, has enemies as well as friends at BBL. It seems that he is trying to knock the corners off his character. So much the better. An ensemble is made up of human beings that will give their best only if they are motivated.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne now has an intense schedule of tours ahead. Obviously, the troupe is still in its "Homage to Béjart" phase. But what is going to happen in two or three years’ time? There is an ample repertoire to draw from and there is also talk of presently reviving Le Concours ("The Contest"). But shouldn’t companies also open up to new choreographic works, like Alvin Ailey’s troupe has done? Gil Roman appears so inclined. He himself has a background in choreography and seems to wish to continue producing new works of his own. Furthermore he does not rule out the possibility of commissioning ballets from established choreographers such as Jean-Christophe Maillot. In the past even Béjart had called on other choreographers, such as Olivier Perriguey and Lar Lubovich.

At this point the problem can be synthesized with this conundrum: how to renew the company without loss of identity. It is not going to be easy but – there are precedents that prove this – it can indeed be done.

Jean Pierre Pastori

(BALLET2000 n°193 – June/July 2008)


Roland Petit, Dance and Show, Drama and Feathers

From La Scala to the Paris Opéra, From Russia to Japan, 84 years old and 50 years after his best works, Roland Petit is still one of those choreographers that ballet companies most favour and that audiences continue to love on account of his stories-in-ballet, frivolous and dramatic at the same time, that cash-in on the popularity of dance celebrities and stars of the moment

It seems almost banal, let alone a trifle embarrassing, to write about Roland Petit yet again for the discerning readers of a dance magazine. One feels naïve if one speaks well of him; to speak ill of him would be would be almost blasphemous..!

That being said, a good journalist should necessarily commence his/her task by recalling that Roland Petit was born in 1924 and was the wonder boy of French ballet or, rather, of its rebirth after the War. Petit trained at the Paris Opéra with top ballet masters, under Serge Lifar’s vigil eye; a lively youth and a strong-willed choreographer-dancer, he left this company to found troupes of his own, with young exceptional dancers. His 1946 ballet Le Jeune Homme et la Mort ("The Young Man and Death"), based on an idea by Jean Cocteau (thanks to his "Pygmalion" Irène Lidova, the young Petit used to mix with the "right" crowd), brought to the fore a brilliant dancer, Jean Babilée; Carmen (1947), a small masterpiece, launched Zizi Jeanmaire, his muse and lifelong companion.

Ballets for his own and other troupes followed, as did a brief American interlude and choreographies for films and musicals (Hollywood was to influence him for good, although it is unclear whether this was a good thing or not); afterwards, still more ballets (over 150 to date) all over the world, both on serious or frivolous subjects, to lofty or base music as the case may be, often with scenery by famous painters and costumes by renowned fashion designers. Mon truc en plumes (1961) for the one and only Zizi, is a sparkling gem of inanity; Notre Dame de Paris (1965), on the other hand, is based on a classic of French literature and marked his anointment at the Opéra as a serious and dramatic choreographer – from then on, he was designated as a quasi-institution of the French ballet. In 1972 Petit was appointed director of the National Ballet of Marseilles, over which he ruled for 26 years as a despotic father-figure and as its sole choreographer, producing myriad ballets, often enhanced by guest-stars such as Makarova, Plisetskaya, Vasiliev, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Fracci, Dupond, Ferri etc., in cleverly tailor-made roles.

Petit retired about ten years ago and now officially resides in Geneva, with Zizi, but he continues to revive or produce new ballets in many theatres around the world, from La Scala in Milan and the Paris Opéra, to the Bolshoi in Moscow.

Having recorded the foregoing, and sprinkled in a few praises here and there, any newspaper has officially done its duty; and yet dance critic and competent reader alike remain somewhat perplexed.

Over and beyond the admiration due to an artist who undoubtedly has great talent, energy and charm, and who has been one of the brightest personalities on the European ballet scene during the last 60 years, the time has come to ask ourselves a basic question: does the hefty quantity of Roland Petit ballets featured on the playbills of some of the world’s major ballet companies (altogether out-of-proportion compared to works by other choreographers from the same generation – and who are certainly of greater choreographic consequence than Petit) make sense? It is unclear why European audiences should know the complete works of Roland Petit inside-out, and get to see them time and time again, whilst almost entirely ignoring those of Jerome Robbins, probably the 20th century’s greatest choreographer after Balanchine, or of another genius like Paul Taylor. Not to mention Merce Cunningham (whose works however, when all is said and done, are pretty unstageable by the subsidized companies); or Hans Van Manen, a true choreographer if ever there was one, who has had a fundamental influence on modern ballet in Europe over the last four decades. (On this subject, I hope nobody is so foolish as to maintain that Roland Petit has influenced the choreography of his times, with the exception of a few second-rate French dancemakers).

I already know what the answer to this question is going to be: the choreographers I have just mentioned are too complicated, the audiences love a Roland Petit ballet any day – and if, in addition, a famous star gets cast in the leading role, such a ballet is bound to be a huge success.

One might start by saying that "audience" is an artificial concept which serves only to conceal the apathy of artistic directors which, as it cannot be cured, must be endured. Let us get one thing straight: there is no such thing as "the" audience. There are different kinds of audiences: there is an audience for Bach’s Art of Fugue and one for Madonna; an audience for Cunningham and one for TV variety-show. First of all one needs to establish which audience is being catered for. As a person who is interested in the art of the dance and as a tax-payer, I believe subsidized companies, which have a cultural mission to fulfil and public funds allocated for this purpose, should cater for the former, mould and widen its horizons, leaving the latter audience to enterprises that provide commercial entertainment. This is, by and large, my point of view, although it is clear that while Roland Petit’s ballets may not be pure and sublime art, neither are they common entertainment. And while a few of his works may have come close to being classified as such a kind of entertainment, many others are ballets of undeniable elegance and theatrecraft.

Elisabetta Terabust, currently at the helm of the ballet company of La Scala, Milan (from an artistic point of view, the best director that this company has had in decades), used to be a fabulous dancer – whom I particularly loved and admired, if the reader will pardon my squeezing in a personal note. She was also, for a long time, one of Roland Petit’s stars and consequently knows his style through and through. She did well to propose a triple-bill of historically-significant Petit works: Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, Carmen and L’Arlésienne; however, in the course of the upcoming season we are going to find it rather hard to fathom Pink Floyd Ballet which Petit produced in Marseille 1972 and which, even back in those days, came across as a contrived pastiche for fashionistas.

By the same token, the Paris Opéra has every reason in the world to keep Notre Dame de Paris in its repertory, but hardly any to stage Clavigo, a recent and futile work.

It is true that a certain kind of audience wallows in feathers and champagne (a foible of his that Petit – I will concede – has since stopped indulging) and in watching the likes of Ferri and Bolle performing scenes of love, death and vaguely ambiguous and vapid eroticism in ballets based on famous and dramatic stories, but is not really interested in "dance" itself. Even Petit has been known to admit this himself, shrugging his shoulders with annoyance, like someone who knows but can’t be bothered. He received a classical training at the Opéra, studied with great ballet masters, was always fascinated by modern dance and his work is imaginative and inventive; yet, plainly, choreographic creation, the craftsmanship in his art, akin to that of the architect and of the musician in theirs, is not his forte. Within his overall production, Petit’s "abstract" ballets are of marginal significance – and some are so clichéd they are unworthy of a choreographer of such repute.

Irène Lidova, a significant figure and a mover and shaker on France’s post-War dance scene, discovered and was a passionate supporter of Petit. On one occasion, after watching the première of one of his works, she jokingly asked him: "This is all very well, Roland, but when are you going to make us a real ballet..?" He never spoke to her again.

We might avoid touching on this trait of Petit’s character – I refer to his spiteful egocentricity, the feeling that although he has had a lot in terms of success, money, gratification and achievement, he has not had as much as he deserved or was his due, to the resentful rivalry with his colleagues (especially his nemesis Béjart, his more triumphant contemporary and fellow countryman whom he used to call "l’autre", whereas Béjart did not bother calling him anything at all…) – and leave it in the realms of Petit’s privacy, were it not for the fact that this trait tells us a lot about Petit the artist. It reveals him as an impassioned artist who, however, obsessively expects success.

In his memoirs (Roland Petit – j’ai dansé sur les flots – Grasset 1993), which is far wittier and unconventional than the majority of books written by former dancers (although, like them, it too has hardly any interesting ideas, is packed with curious anecdotes and pathetic name-dropping of all the high-fluting non-dance celebrities with whom he mixed, though with very little about choreography), we come across the following passage:

"The left-wing intelligentsia, those who believe culture should be spelt with a capital K, reproach me for being a socialite artist. To them I represent the Establishment. What does that mean exactly? That I have been successful? What sort of success? That the public appreciates my work? Is that something to be blamed about?.."

Apart from the bizarre idea that there is a left-wing vanguard in the dance milieu, which still does not even have coordinates for essential issues, let alone politics, Petit’s point of view is quite clear. Here is another extract:

"Gaiety, peals of laughter, crying, sighing, regret, hatred, goodness, frivolous glances, vengeance and love, not forgetting death, all team up to produce theatre…"

That is what Roland Petit is all about. But as Irène Lidova wrote in 1952 (in her book 17 visages e la danse française):

"Roland Petit does not belong to the world of ballet, he is an artist apart, who draws his inspiration from the most trendy and unprecedented aspects of theatre art. He juggles with success, detests the trodden path, wants to shock and amaze and often wastes his most precious qualities. But when he finds his true identity and grasps the seriousness of his mission, then he will offer French ballet his authoritativeness and his warm and vivacious talent."

At the time Roland Petit was 28 years old. Today, after a long career which has not yet ended, it is still worth asking if he has fulfilled these expectations.

Alfio Agostini

(BALLET2000 n°194 – August 2008)


Cuba: The Proof of the Festival

There were fewer international guest dancers than usual at the 21st Havana International Ballet Festival, held last November. This was not surprising given the economic situation; however it still provided a concentrated panorama of the work of the National Ballet of Cuba and gave plenty of food for thought for all those who care about the fate of this great company, directed as ever by Alicia Alonso

Our long-term readers know that Ballet2000 – and I in particular – have always had a soft spot for the National Ballet of Cuba, its school, its festivals and its star-director Alicia Alonso. Independently of the special enjoyment and affection which the very unusual character of the Cuban Ballet conjures up for me, as for many others around the world, it has always seemed nothing less than a miracle – in a world in which the greed and squalor characteristic of economic (and ethical) laissez-faire mean that the common patrimony of mankind as exemplified by art and culture is left very much to defend itself – how such a high-quality ballet company and school could have arisen almost from nothing in a far-away island of the Caribbean, beset by economic, political and even military problems. (Let’s not forget that 50 years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro and his establishment of the régime that is still in power, Cuba is in a permanent state of defensiveness and hemmed in by economic sanctions, above all since the falling apart of its ally, the Soviet Union.)

And yet this is a State which has shown faith in its greatest artist, Alicia Alonso, and given her the possibility to form a company and a school which are not only key institutions in Cuba, passionately followed by Cubans, but have exported their own artists to theatres half the world over.

As though this were not enough, all the more so given the state of the country, every two years they put on the Havana International Ballet Festival in the Cuban capital, earning enthusiastic plaudits from the locals and attracting observers from all over the world.

About the guest artists, groups and choreographers invited, often turning up interesting novelties for us Europeans, our fellow Cuban enthusiast Elisa Guzzo speaks elsewhere in this issue. The real focus of interest at the Festival, however, remains the concentrated distillation of the work of the National Ballet of Cuba, on show in both its classical repertory and new productions. The main question on everyone’s lips, therefore, has always been – but now more than ever – the state of health of the Cuban Ballet.

Those most critical (if not to say the enemies, also politically-speaking) of the company claim that it has gone down in quality, that its best dancers are obliged to flee abroad, that its classical repertory is badly executed and its creations insipid, that Alicia Alonso, from the point of view of both age and health (it is well known that she is virtually blind), is no longer able to direct the company and that someone else should, therefore, take over.

After watching the Ballet of Cuba for so many years and, therefore, knowing it so well, as well as having now been able to judge its current state of health at the most recent Festival, I think I have a clear idea regarding these criticisms.

It may be true that the company no longer has the personality it had thirty years ago (but this is something that may be said about many of the world’s ballet companies), in particular because of the continual drain of its most talented dancers, who go abroad, not as once in search of "freedom" (an excusable minor form of hypocrisy, designed to ensure a better welcome in particular in the United States), but rather now to look for higher earnings and greater personal success and independence. Lorna and Lorena Feijóo, José Manuel Carreño, Carlos Acosta (all of whom, however, were legal emigrants) and others have found these but for many it has been a mirage. Since Rolando Sarabia – a marvellous dancer and perhaps (if I may be permitted the exaggeration) the most talented classical dancer in the world – "deserted" Cuba three years ago, he has simply disappeared from the international scene: a terrible disaster both for him and his many fans in the ballet world. And he is not the only one.

What "remains" of the Ballet of Cuba is less than what there might have been but it is still something. Viengsay Valdés, the leading ballerina of this Festival, may not have the perfect feet that are required to-day but she has a stage presence that is nothing short of illuminating and an amazing range of technical virtuosity, both in terms of équilibre and the endless turns she is called upon to execute. Her "Black Swan" in Swan Lake (seen here in a "popular" production in the Cathedral Square of Havana) has few rivals anywhere in the world. Another star of the moment is Annette Delgado, more suitable in Giselle (considered the Cuban "classic", in Alicia Alonso’s version, seen here in the magnificent Gran Teatro). Côté garçons, Yoel Carreño is the youthful but already established leading danseur noble but also a brilliant virtuoso, like all the Cubans; the same may be said of the younger Romel Frómeta, who, while possessing more power than Carreño, is, however, less graceful.

As regards the company overall and its performance of the repertory, I share the opinion of my good friend Frank Andersen, hitherto Director of the Royal Danish Ballet and, as such, a leading expert in classical-romantic ballet, who for this Festival restaged Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli for a fine group of young Cuban dancers, with results that thrilled not only him but also the spectators; and, as a spectator, after an evening of Giselle, he told me with complete conviction that, to his mind, no company in the world to-day performs this ballet as well.

The final issue for the critics concerns the succession to Alicia Alonso (whom we found aware, lucid and authoritative as always at the head of her company). In an exceptional and much-discussed article in the New York Times on the Ballet of Cuba, a couple of years ago, when asked if she was thinking of handing over the reins, Alicia Alonso replied bluntly that the question did not arise, as the Ballet of Cuba already had a director. Now, apart from the understandable possessiveness of such a formidable character in relation to her creation, the point here is not simply the change of generation. If her successor were to be recruited from among the senior members of the company, current assistant ballet masters or choreographers (we do not see how a foreigner could be appointed, since that would lead to a loss of the characteristics of Cuban ballet), and if they were to have the benefit of sight without seeing the vulgar shortcomings of taste, which could be easily put right, from which Cuban productions suffer, then to make one of them director would be to usher in a disaster far worse than the current position.

Without Alicia Alonso’s flair for keeping people together, her prestige and determination, the National Ballet of Cuba runs the risk of becoming a mediocre company, at the mercy of the stupidity of some ex-ballerina or ballet master or the adventures of a dancer who is still dancing, lacking the necessary cultural preparation, (artistic and not just technical) skill and experience. I am aware that my solution is hardly audacious but it seems to me a risk best taken as late in the day as possible, in the hope that in the meantime someone will come to light able to return the Cuban company to what it had become under the leadership of Alicia Alonso.

Alfio Agostini

(BALLET2000 n°198 – Février 2008)


The Return of "Coppélia"

"Coppélia" was first produced at the Paris Opéra by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870, to Léo Delibes’ splendid score, and subsequently went on to become a strange case in classical ballet history. It has been highly popular but equally – despite the fact that the Franco-Russian tradition has handed it down to us intact – a neglected ballet, often played down. "Coppélia" has now come back into the limelight thanks to two new productions, at La Scala, Milan and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. We have asked "Coppéliologist" Roger Salas to tell us the history of this late-Romantic ballet, while Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino and Marc Haegeman review the two new productions for us below.

New productions of Coppélia have recently been sprouting up in various cities of the world, the latest being in Moscow and Milan. For what mysterious reason has interest suddenly been rekindled in this late-Romantic ballet which has often been considered a minor work, or even snubbed? Apart from having one of the loveliest ballet scores ever written (by Léo Delibes), Coppélia has demonstrated how a work’s essence and peculiarity can transcend their times and continue to live today – and, thus, be a guarantee for success. In the same way as Giselle is a tragedy, Coppélia is a great comedy. It is likely that today’s ballet-goers are better disposed towards a comedy than towards a tragedy. However, Coppélia is a comedy with a curious and complex psychological setting: Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter’s libretto for choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon’s 1870 ballet was based on Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann ("The Sandman"). Sigmund Freud was also intrigued by this short story and discussed it in his essay Das Unheimliche ("The Uncanny", 1919).

Everybody loves Coppélia: "discerning balletophiles" and "fanatical balletomanes" alike. And there is no doubt that the main characters, Swanilda and Franz, are more akin to Lise and Colas of La Fille mal gardée than to the heroes and heroines of the Romantic era. They are young, light-hearted and in love, involved in concrete actions, rather than victims of magical dreams or tragic nightmares.

The choreographic material of Coppélia is well-known and clear, we know where it has come from and how it has been handed down to us: which makes the endeavours of those contemporary choreographers who choose to ignore it at all costs (nay, who wish to "improve" the long-standing French-Russian tradition of wonderful dancing) utterly senseless.

Among its many other merits, Coppélia was the first ballet to feature stylized yet fairly authentic mazurkas and czardas, whereas until then only Spanish Escuela Bolera dances had been included in the choreography. But then Coppélia too has its own short but exquisite Spanish bolero dance in Act Two.

Coppélia is a role in which the great Swanildas can revel in their success: from Anna Pavlova to Alicia Alonso (this was undoubtedly her most successful role), via Alexandra Danilova, Natalia Makarova, Antoinette Sibley and a magnificently bubbly Carla Fracci (who made her début alongside Erik Bruhn in Enrique Martínez’s version for American Ballet Theatre in 1968).

It is said that Coppélia is jinxed: choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon died of a heart-attack shortly after its première; Giuseppina Bozzacchi, the first Swanilda, died of smallpox during the Franco-Prussian War three months later, as did others who participated in the creation of this work. Is this not paradoxical, considering that Coppélia is synonymous with gaiety and mischievous pranks that have a happy ending? That is how George Balanchine remembers the ballet when, as a child (and later on, as a youth) he used to dance the mazurka with the Imperial Ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. That is why he chose to re-stage Coppélia for New York City Ballet’s full-evening programme in 1974 (another good vintage year for Coppélia productions all the world over) and asked Alexandra Danilova to dance the leading role.

The Coppélias we see today are the "grand-daughters" of the versions of yesteryear. Suffice it to say that when Cynthia Gregory and Ted Kivitt went to Havana in 1974 to dance Coppélia, taking with them the memory of the Martínez version which they had learnt at ABT, they found themselves dancing Alonso’s version which was 80% identical to Martínez’s. It made perfect sense for both descended from the same choreographic family-tree.

Rudolf Nureyev (who danced Bruhn’s version) once said: "while it may have been inspired by childish pleasures, Coppélia is never juvenile". Here is another key which explains contemporary interest in this ballet: the plot is by no means illogical, apart from the fact that mechanical dolls have gone out of fashion as toys and have since been replaced by Gameboys and other such electronic devices. On the other hand, Coppélia never entirely disappeared from the repertoire like many other historical ballets did; indeed there are many modern, and highly respectable Coppélias, such as Roland Petit’s rendition, Maguy Marin’s version with its multiple dolls, or Michel Descombey’s with its finale where the heroine flies off with her beloved Franz in a hot-air balloon.

Partly thanks to its superb music, partly to the simplicity and poetic element of its plot, Coppélia will never leave us.

Roger Salas

(BALLET2000 n°200 – May 2009)


National Ballet of China

Peonies Dancing

The Peony Pavilion – chor. Fei Bo, mus. Guo Wenjing

Hong Kong, Cultural Centre

The National Ballet of China opened this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival with a new full-length ballet The Peony Pavilion which was premièred in Beijing in May 2008. Fei Bo, a talented young in-house choreographer has adapted the famous 16th century play The Peony Pavilion into a two-act ballet including a prologue which lasts just under two hours.

The story is about rich girl Du Liniang falling in love with the handsome Liu Mengmei who appears in her dreams. After her death, Du is tried in hell, but her love moves the infernal judge who releases her back into the mortal world to be married to Liu.

Fei’s innovation was to add two additional female lead roles representing the alter egos of Du – a flower goddess as well as a Chinese opera singer. Fei’s choreography, quite fluent and effective overall, is at its best is in the two big duets. The dream pas de deux in Act 1 is ecstatic with some high soaring lifts. And the final reunion duet after Du’s release from hell is tender and moving.

The flowers corps de ballet dances in Act 1 are pleasant. In the beginning of Act 2 there is a long and satisfying solo for Liu in his search for Du. The trial scene in hell is lively and theatrical. And the final wedding tableau with the whole cast, set to excerpts from Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Romane, is joyful and spectacular.

The leading roles on the opening night were excellently danced. In the demanding female lead role of Du, who is constantly on stage and the focal point of the drama, Zhu Yan was splendid. Hao Bin was outstanding as her handsome lover Liu. Zhang Jian danced beautifully as the flower goddess.

The female corps de ballet danced gracefully with a uniformity of line. The guest opera singer Zhang Yuanyuan was impressive. GuoWenjing has composed quite good music for this ballet as well as incorporating excerpts from other composers including Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The sets designed by Michael Simon are striking. Dominating Act 1 is a white platform in the middle of the stage representing the peony pavilion which is constantly raised or lowered or tilted at different angles.

After the success of its last Chinese-themed ballet "Raise The Red Lantern" premiered in 2001, this is another original Chinese ballet for the National Ballet, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Kevin Ng

(BALLET2000 n°200 – May 2009)


Norwegian National Ballet

Norwegian Swans at the Oslo Waterfront

The Norwegian National Ballet has grown immensely in artistic wing-span over the last twenty years. The company which is the first and only classical ballet company in Norway stood for many years in the shadow of the Royal Danish Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet, which both have their roots in the 18th century while the Norwegian National Ballet is extremely young. After some forerunners in the early 1950’s it was officially established in 1958 and has thus just celebrated its 50th anniversary. The celebration took place in the most wonderful new Theatre for Opera and Ballet, opened last year and placed on the Oslo waterfront as a unique building. As an immense ice floe, it is slanting towards the water and constructed so that people can have a walk on the roof. And this walk, which has been popular for Norwegians as well as for tourists, gives lots of attention to both the opera and the ballet performing inside the house.

Inside the building the architects from Norwegian Snøhetta, who won the competition between 280 participants, have also made wonders in glass, white walls and wood. Everything is askew, which is not a bad idea, when you put the audience in the mood to experience art. The building has three stages – the main stage with room for 1,400 spectators.

The repertory of the Norwegian National Ballet has always balanced between the traditional classical ballets, a modern international repertoire, while providing modern Norwegian choreographers with opportunities. An early milestone was Glen Tetley’s The Tempest in 1980 which became the company’s trademark for the next twenty years. Close associations with Jirí Kylián and Paul Lightfoot have given the company a modern touch and the 50th anniversary in the autumn of 1958 was celebrated with the William Forsythe’s Limbs Theorem.

Artistic directors such as Sonia Arova in the 1960’s, Anne Borg twice in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Dinna Bjørn over 12 years from 1990 and until 2002 when the Norwegian Espen Giljane took over, have developed a company able also to dance the great classical ballets. This time I saw a Swan Lake, first performed in Oslo in 1967 and since 1997, in the Anna-Marie Holmes’ mise en scène. The company does not possess more than 54 dancers, but the quality is on a high level. Guest Jurgita Dronina from Lithuania danced as the Swan Princess. A beautiful, fragile swan. Petite but with both poetry and authority in her dance, together with a remarkable, soft and musical technique. Dirk Weysershausen was a solid and handsome prince, while the Japanese Gakuro Matsui, with his dazzling technique, was most entertaining as the Jester. Around them, a company with stage presence and precision: which makes even a traditional Swan Lake an experience that goes directly to the soul.

Erik Aschengreen

(BALLET2000 n°201 – June 2009)


Rome Opera Ballet

Fracci and Ballets Russes

Les Ballets Russes/1: Les Sylphides – chor. Michel Fokine, mus. Fryderyk Chopin; Cléopâtre – chor. Michel Fokine, mus. Anton Arentsky; Les Biches – chor. Bronislava Nijinska, mus. Francis Poulenc; The Three-Cornered Hat – chor. Léonide Massine, mus. Manuel de Falla; The Firebird – chor. Michel Fokine, mus. Igor Stravinsky

Les Ballets Russes/2: Pulcinella – chor. Léonide Massine, mus. Igor Stravinsky; La Chatte – chor. George Balanchine, mus. Henri Sauguet; Parade – chor. Léonide Massine, mus. Eric Satie; The Rite of Spring – chor. Vaslav Nijinsky (reconstructed by Millicent Hodson), mus. Igor Stravinsky

Les Ballets Russes/3: Petrushka – chor. Michel Fokine, mus. Igor Stravinsky; Jeux – chor. Vaslav Nijinsky (reconstructed by Millicent Hodson), mus. Claude Debussy; L’Après-midi d’un faune – chor. Vaslav Nijinsky, mus. Claude Debussy; Shéhérazade – chor. Michel Fokine, mus. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Rome, Teatro dell’Opera

In April and May, over a period of 28 days, the Rome Opera Ballet, under the direction of Carla Fracci, presented a special festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Paris appearance of the "Ballets Russes." This impressive undertaking, prepared over the past nine years with ongoing revivals of ballets from the Diaghilev repertory, included new stagings especially for the festival (Les Sylphides, Les Biches and a reconstruction of Cléopâtre.)

This is a project that Fracci has personally overseen, directly taking responsibility for the realization of Les Sylphides (a perfectly accomplished task, following in the best tradition of choreography being handed down from one generation of interpreters to another) as well as dancing in Jeux and L’Après-midi d’un faune.

In so little space it is difficult to report on such an immense chorographical and musical project. It would require a detailed report to chronicle the various merits (other than the inevitable historical interest) and weaknesses of reconstructing, and in many cases reinventing, choreography that has been long-lost. The general impression is that it was a project of remarkable value, which galvanized and highlighted the quality of the Roman company, as well as a number of prestigious guest artists. Moreover, these programmes consolidated the company’s 20th century repertory (carefully rebuilt by Fracci over the past 10 years) and were well received by the public, performed to full houses on some occasions. It also garnered the company an invitation to New York for the revival of Balachine’s La Chatte. The company was at its best and took full advantage of the "Pax Romana" which the Teatro dell’Opera has enjoyed these last few years, after many wretched decades which almost destroyed the tradition of ballet in Rome.

But despite the splendid season, storm clouds are gathering once again and the fate of the company hangs on a thread. One can only hope that perhaps the international prestige of an artist like Carla Fracci will save it.

Donatella Bertozzi

(BALLET2000 n°201 – June 2009)


Hamburg Ballet

The Pavilion of … Nijinsky

The Prodigal Son – chor. George Balanchine, mus. Sergei Prokofiev; Le Pavillon d’Armide –chor. John Neumeier, mus. Nikolai Tcherepnin; Le Sacre du printemps – chor. Millicent Hodson, after Vaslav Nijinsky, mus. Igor Stravinsky

Hamburg (Germany), Staatsoper

To bring the "Dance Days" and its season to a close, the Hamburg Ballet under the direction of John Neumeier, presented, as well as the tradition "Nijinsky Gala", an evening in homage to the Ballet Russes.

The evening included the latest of Neumeier’s creations, Le Pavillon d’Armide (the title of a ballet by Michel Fokine which featured amongst the first works performed by the Ballet Russes on May 19, 1909 in Paris, with Nijinsky as protagonist). Encapsulated within the work, he included the pas de trois from Pavillon "reconstructed" by Alexandra Danilova in 1975 as well as the Siamese Dance from Les Orientales (1910), again created by Fokine and a favoured showpiece of Nijinsky.

For Neumeier the pavilion of the title is that of the Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland where Nijinsky was interned. "Le Pavillon de… Nijinsky" is now the third ballet that Neumeier has created inspired by the life and personality of the great artist. The first was Vaslav (1979), then Nijinsky (2000). Sentimental? Nostalgic? Definitely emotional! It is a genre of which Neumeier is the master and that he knows how to convey with the smallest steps and gestures. And as always he is aided by dancers who know and meet his expressive desires: the powerful Otto Bubenicek as Nijinsky, the willowy Joëlle Boulogne as both his wife Romola and Anna Pavlova, the flexible Ivan Urban in the role of first the Doctor and then Diaghilev, as well the virtuosic Yohan Stegli in the "Siamese Dance", not to mention the marvellous Alexandre Riabko in the pas de trois.

Perhaps in comparison with its predecessor Nijinsky, this Pavillon could be seen as only a divertissement. But what is important is that it works as a dance story, the flashbacks finding their own logic, if not in the present, then in the maze that was the human and artistic enigma of the great dancer.

As for the rest, there was nothing of significance other than the young Alexandr Trustch in Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son (1929), which is part of the company’s repertory. He was a revelation. Though a bit short, he has an imposing presence on stage.

And there was nothing new in Le Sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") by Millicent Hodson (1987), inspired by Nijinsky’s original choreography. But the contrast in the programme between the pure structure of Balanchine, the theatricality of Neumeier (punctuated by the classicism of Danilova’s reconstruction) and finally, the radical en dedans of Sacre with its 123 vertical jumps for the Elected One, suggests that perhaps Nijinsky proves to be the most modern of the three.

Isis Wirth

(BALLET2000 n°203 – October 2009)


Glossy Divas and Divos

Sylvie Guillem yesterday and Roberto Bolle today: these dancers have created a new type of ballet stardom, one that is more akin to fashion than to art. They are good-looking, have an admirable technique and are worshipped by the public out of a sort of aesthetic adoration, regardless of what they are dancing. Newspapers, TV and adverting are the bulwark of their success. And books of photographs, which celebrate only their physical beauty

One could almost say that a genetic mutation has occurred. Sylvie Guillem yesterday and Roberto Bolle today, these two superstars have given rise to a Third Millennium-style fan worship; the image of the fashionable ballerina/danseur has assumed new characteristics. Suffice it to say that there is an audience that will go and watch Sylvie and Roberto, no matter what they are actually dancing. We are referring to the devotees of their new type of beauty, akin to that of the top models who populate glossy-magazines and TV, enhanced by their special dancing talent. The fans of today’s divos and divas essentially worship their idols’ gorgeous, phenomenal and slightly "monstrous" physiques.

Sylvie and Roberto are miraculously and aesthetically perfect dancers according to our current day standards, they are unconditionally admired and imitated by the new generations all the world over, including in a country like Russia where, up until now, entirely different values held sway and dancers were classified according to their temperaments, physiques and role-suitability. In other words, dancers here never used to be expected to dance the entire repertoire, but only those roles for which they were suited, lyrical or sparkling as the case may be, taking into account their personal characteristics. Definitely not the case in the West though, where the name on the billboard is what counts for the audience, with the star dancing whatever happens to be on the programme, in his or her individual style.

In the West Guillem, followed by Bolle, have taken this to the extreme. The myriad images of them, published in photographic volumes and in all the media, have contributed to this state of affairs. Sylvie poses as Terpsichore’s darling in her chic and widely-circulated nude photographs, taken both by herself and by her fiancé Gilles Tapie. Her portrait-tome Invitation, which Sylvie launched in 2005 (when she was 40 years old), weighs all of 5 kg. A real challenge to the sturdiness of our book-shelves.

As for Roberto, he has two such tomes, Roberto Bolle alla Scala and the recent Roberto Bolle, An Athlete in Tights (with photos by Bruce Weber, a well-known fashion photographer), which celebrate the ancient myth of Narcissus in a glossy, contemporary key.

Before being admitted to the Paris Opéra Ballet School, Silvie trained in gymnastics; recently, Roberto seems to have been spending a lot of time at the gym as well as at the dance barre.

The two of them flirt with advertising, be it for watches or fashion designers. That’s why everybody knows who they are, all over the world.

She has a pert little French nose and long red hair, he has blue eyes and black Italian curls; both are tall, well-proportioned and with an elegant muscular structure. Yet the twain are cold idols who do not convey emotion. Suffice it to watch Béjart’s Boléro, icily interpreted by the lofty Parisian (now London-based) star. Both have technique and prowess and have been trend-setters. Sylvie launched the fashion for long-limbed ballerinas, with legs that go up an unprecedented 180° and over, no matter if she happens to be dancing Giselle – where there is no requirement for it, indeed it is totally out-of-place – or a ballet by Forsythe who is her ideal choreographer because he pushes the lines of classical ballet to their extreme limits. It is of little consequence: all the audience cares about is her, not her interpretation.

Roberto Bolle has danced roles from the classic-Romantic repertoire, often in the versions by Rudolf Nureyev, with his unchanging princely air, even when he should be concealing it: such is the case of Albrecht, who may be noble but is disguised as a peasant in the first act of Giselle.

Sylvie, with a touch of naive arrogance, has taken it upon herself to "modernize" the repertoire. In this sense, her Grace Kelly-style Giselle has been a box-office hit, but certainly can by no means compete with the traditional ballet, nor with the truly original and brilliant version by Mats Ek who, incidentally, made a superb duet for her and Niklas Ek entitled Smoke.

Yet while Sylvie has sought out new openings for herself in contemporary dance, alongside Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, Roberto does not seem at home in modern ballet, not even in Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort ("The Young Man and Death"). He dances magnificently, but is devoid of the emotional nuances which the piece requires. He is 35 years old and has the physique of a "hunk" which is difficult to preserve, should he not be worrying about the future and seeking new horizons, over and beyond the classical repertoire? I wonder if he ever asks himself this question now, while he is at the height of his popularity.

In any case, both Sylvie Guillem and Roberto Bolle are not really flexible to new forms of choreography: they are always and solely cast in the roles of themselves, with their bodies "tuned" in the same way and with the same intellectual and psychological approach – regardless of what they happen to be attacking at a given performance.

What is it that really distinguishes them from the stars that came before them? In a way they reflect the new requisites of the "market" and, especially, of "communications". This consists in visibility, bordering on the over-selling of one’s image; a touch of controversy also helps, e.g. Sylvie’s difficult character and Roberto’s revealed/concealed sexual preferences, together with an aura of envious amazement vis-à-vis their fees (at the top of the world scale) and the fabulous, eternally on-the-road lives that they lead.

Thus any theatre that invites today’s superstars can be sure to achieve a sold-out house, supported by media campaigns advertising that "they" are the world’s best, most stunning, most talented, most glamorous dancers. Unconvincing interviews (it is hardly surprising that people so concentrated on themselves, engaged full-time in working-out their stage bodies, suffer from aphasia) in which the interviewer attempts to ask them how they spend their time when they are not dancing, often – and comically – complete the planetary diffusion of their legend.

Quite the contrary of Rudolf Nureyev, who used to run away from journalists and rip the film out of their cameras: he was legendary because he avoided publicity and, in so doing, was a true divo.

Diva she was (and indeed still is)…but this word does not say it all for the one and only Alicia Alonso: an exceptional artist, devoted to her art to the point of sacrificing her life and eyesight to it; and in addition a spearheader of her country’s cultural policy, choreographer, ballet school and company director: incomparable.

The Russian divos – Vassiliev, Plisetskaya, Makarova and Baryshnikov – were elusive, on account of iron curtains and a difficult language, not to mention the habit of keeping quiet under the Soviet regime.

All the stars of last century had a magical aura of unattainability about them. Their art was what counted, not visibility in the media. Even when Makarova and Baryshnikov became American they did not drop their self-reserve, they were far too busy remounting the classical repertory (Natalia) or splendidly dancing contemporary works (Mikhail).

So what about the "divos" of today? In a sense they are plastic stars, invented by the ballet market (and not only). Could this be a good thing, could it be a way of ensuring that ballet does not die out? Perhaps, but the fact is that when an artist who dances with her soul, like Uliana Lopatkina, appears on stage, the difference is there for all to see. Thank goodness.

Elisa Guzzo V.

(BALLET2000 n°206 – January 2010)


Ballet of the Staatsoper Berlin

La Péri Reborn

La Péri – chor. Vladimir Malakhov, mus. Friedrich Burgmüller

www.staatsballet-berlin.de

Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden

In their "versions" of 19th century ballets there is little commonality in the approaches of Vladimir Malakhov, dancer-star-director of the Ballet of the Berlin Staatsoper, and of Pierre Lacotte, the master of reconstructed Romantic choreography. Where Lacotte works to literally reconstruct, as accurately as possible, forgotten steps, Malakhov is faithful more to the spirit than to the letter of the work.

Malakhov says that he had been thinking for a long time of staging La Péri (1843). The recent acquisition of the Friedrich Burgmüller score allowed him to make his dream a reality. That oscillation between dream and reality are also characteristic of the Romantic ballet. The plot of La Péri – to a libretto by poet Théophile Gautier is based on the opposition of the earthly and the heavenly, love sensual and love spiritual.

As inspiration for his choreography Malakhov relied on two main elements: the music, of course, by Burgmüller, a German composer who spent most of his career in Paris, and prints of the Romantic period which have become more charming with age. Of Burgmüller, we know little except the "peasant" or " grape pickers" pas de deux which Adolphe Adam inserted in the first act of his Giselle. The most that can be said is that his music lacks the finesse of Adam, and still less that of Tchaikovsky. But the arrangement by Roland Bittmann and Torsten Schlarbaum, with the insertion of orchestrated piano pieces (conducted by Paul Connelly, director of the Staatskapelle Berlin), served the work admirably.

As a choreographic and dramatic work, this Péri is hardly original. It is a beautiful work to be sure, but one does not search too deeply for the meaning of the rejection of carnal love (Nourmahal danced by the voluptuous Beatrice Knop) in favour of platonic love (the Péri of the divine Diana Vishneva of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg).

The character of Achmed (danced by Malakhov himself) does not differ significantly from any of the major male figures of the Romantic ballet: Albrecht, James, or even later, Siegfried. The one difference being that here the hero does not survive his spiritual love! But in the understated and fine settings of Jordi Roig – Assyrian references in the prison, "Turkish" landscapes for the following two acts – and with the support of a magnificent corps de ballet, this travel back in time affords many pleasant moments. And most particularly the dazzling trio of Malakhov, Vishneva, Knop. No one can argue with that....

Jean Pierre Pastori

(BALLET2000 n°208 – Avril 2010)


Preljocaj at Home at the Paris Opéra

Angelin Preljocaj is one of the few choreographers in France today who is also capable of creating works for a ballet company. And so he has returned again to the Paris Opéra where "Siddharta", his fourth commission for the theatre, was recently premièred. His love affair with the great Parisian company dates back to 1994 and the highly successful "Le Parc" But, judging from this new production, the affair is undergoing a "crisis"…

Few choreographers nowadays are capable of producing both for ballet and contemporary dancers (i.e. those who did not study classical ballet). Angelin Preljocaj is one such all-round choreographer. This is partly thanks to his eclectic training: he started off in classical ballet, switched to German expressionism with Karin Waehner, then discovered American modern dance thanks to Merce Cunningham – all of which before joining the troupe of French "nouvelle danse" choreographer Dominique Bagouet (who had himself studied with Rosella Hightower).

This is why Preljocaj’s works feature even in the repertoires of the world’s major ballet companies and why such companies do not hesitate to ask him to produce for them – examples being New York City Ballet, for which he created La Stravaganza in 1997, and (more frequently) the Paris Opéra for whom he recently produced his fourth work; not to mention ballets made for other troupes and which have also been taken into the Opéra’s repertoire.

Preljocaj seems to enjoy switching from one world to another (often opposite) world; already back in 1990, while he was busy creating for his own troupe (founded five years earlier), he was concurrently producing for the Lyon Opera Ballet an "on pointe" strip-cartoon style Romeo and Juliet, to music by Sergei Prokofiev. And right now he is making a ballet on The Apocalypse of St. John for ten dancers from his own troupe and ten from the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. Quite a combination, and one which allows him to mix the rigour of a longstanding classical tradition with the ever-changing versatility of modern dance.

But it is at the Paris Opéra that Prejocaj has found a very special osmosis.

Rudolf Nureyev, at the time director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, was struck in 1989 by Preljocaj’s revolutionary revisitation of Les Noces, more similar to a rape or war between sexes than to a wedding; thus he invited Preljocaj to revisit two more Diaghilev ballets in 1993, as part of the theatre’s tribute to the Ballets Russes: Le Spectre de la Rose and Parade.

The following year Brigitte Lefèvre, who had in the meantime become director of the Parisian company, commissioned from him a ballet for the Opéra dancers, Le Parc ("The Park"). It was an immediate hit! Set to music by Mozart, with an additional score by Goran Vejvoda, and against a pastoral backdrop – with temptation and love lurking in the bushes – Preljocaj set out to discover a new art of loving amidst the various aspects of love, from the sublimation of libertinism, to the suppression and liberation of passion.

Le Parc was unanimously acclaimed by critics and public alike, was revived by other international companies and awarded the Benois de la Danse.

Four years later, Casanova, also commissioned by the Opéra, again provided an opportunity to reflect on the nature of love of which, this time, Preljocaj highlighted the melancholic and "ailing" aspects. It was the time when the dance world was still burying many of its members, killed off by a "love sickness": AIDS. Preljocaj did not dwell on the legendary character of Casanova, the incorrigible debauchee, but rather on what goes on underneath the skin, the juices that flow voluptuously between bodies and the sexual satisfaction which inevitably leads to the dissolution and decay of those very same bodies. Another a big hit!

In 2004, with a new generation of dancers in the company’s ranks, Preljocaj produced another work for the Paris Opéra Ballet, as part of a shared programme with British choreographer Wayne McGregor: Le Songe de Médée ("Medea’s Dream"). Marie-Agnès Gillot, Delphine Moussin and, especially, Alice Renavand who alternated in the role of the infanticidal mother gave memorable interpretations. Once again, Preljocaj looked at the love myth from an unusual angle, examining the ambiguity of maternal love, rather than the jealousy of the betrayed wife.

Thanks to these creations – but not forgetting also Annonciation ("Announciation") and Trait d’union, respectively for two female and two male dancers, as well as all-male work MC 14/22 "Ceci est mon corps" ("Take, Eat: This is my Body") for 12 dancers, all of which taken into the Opéra’s repertory in 1996, 2003 and 2004 respectively – a deep relationship of trust and mutual gratification exists between Preljocaj and the Paris Opéra dancers. Their expectations were therefore high for Siddharta as, presumably, was the frustration which this work aroused in them, if we are to judge by their half-hearted performance.

Clearly nothing should ever be taken for granted.

Sonia Schoonejans

(BALLET2000 n°209 – May 2010)


The Royal Ballet

La Fille bien gardée… during 50 years

La Fille mal gardée – chor. Frederick Ashton, mus. Ferdinand Hérold

www.roh.org.uk

London, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

We celebrate this year the golden jubilee of Frederick Ashton’s comedy masterpiece, La Fille mal gardée. It is a work that rivals Coppélia as a triumph of balletic humour and its sunlit grace, its joyous narrative, and even more joyous steps, have won it a place in the repertories of major dance-troupes round the world, not least the Paris Opéra Ballet, the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.

I remember – who could forget? – its first performance on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in January 1960. From those opening moments, as the day begins and the cockerel leads his bevy of hens in that happy little dance, the audience was enraptured. There could be no doubt in our minds that we were seeing something quite extraordinary: joyous, unfailing in humour as in choreographic invention, radiant in all its aspects.

The old score had been skilfully revised by John Lanchbery. Osbert Lancaster’s scenery and costumes were witty, heart-touching, joyful. Ashton’s dances poured out in a seemingly effortless and buoyant fashion, and the dancers were radiant, shown with a kind of loving delight in their gifts by Ashton’s ingenuities. Nadia Nerina soared and sparkled and touched our hearts by her sincerity as Lise. David Blair was all yeoman worth and bravura as Colas. Alexander Grant made us laugh and also won our sympathy as Alain, and Stanley Holden made Widow Simone an authentically funny and even touching figure in the great traditions of English popular theatre, with the culminating delight of a brilliant clog-dance. The cheers at curtain fall on that first night have echoed down the years with unfailing delight at every performance that I have seen – in London and Paris and Moscow and Birmingham (where that city’s branch of the Royal Ballet also honours this splendid work of art).

In March, The Royal Ballet marked this golden jubilee with a revival led by Marianela Núñez, who is a superlative interpreter of Lise’s dances and emotions, with Carlos Acosta an engaging Colas, and William Tuckett a sunny, fussy, genial and splendid Simone. This masterpiece triumphed as it always does, its sincerities as well as its humours properly shown. And Frederick Ashton’s genius won our hearts yet again.

Clement Crisp

(BALLET2000 n°209 – May 2010)


Citizens of the World, but Russians Through and Through

The Iron Curtain may have been torn down, but the myth of the Russian dancer persists. The aura of mystery which surrounded the Soviet idols of yesteryear has now given way to the fascination and glamour of Russian dance celebrities of today who, no longer confined within the borders of ‘The Russias’, frequently ‘guest’ or are principals with the big companies of Europe and America. And just like their predecessors, they too are adored by enthusiastic balletomanes all over the world

Last summer, a young Russian dancer caused quite a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during her début appearance as Giselle with American Ballet Theatre. There was tremendous enthusiasm on the part of audiences and critics alike. Robert Gottlieb in The New York Observer summed it up best of all: "There hasn’t been an ABT debut performance this exciting since Baryshnikov’s decades ago." This time it was 23-year-old Natalia Osipova, a soloist of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, who had conquered ballet-minded New York.

There’s indeed no denying that Russian dancers continue to exert a special attraction. Even though fans no longer spend the night on the street in order to catch a ticket, the pulling power of a Russian guest "star" – or not quite – remains a highly delectable and profitable prospect for even the greatest ballet companies of today. It suffices to browse internet ballet forums to understand that Russian dancers are still able to spark highly animated debates.

Yet not so long ago Russian dancers were about as mythical as Loch Ness or the Abominable Snow Man. Every ballet lover in the West was talking about them, though very few had actually seen them. The rare tours by Bolshoi and Kirov which started in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and some notable defections (Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Makarova and the Panovs, to name but a few of them) only further fuelled their mystery and appeal.

In the last two decades, however, the situation has changed considerably. Towards the end of the 1980’s Soviet dancers were finally allowed to appear as guests with Western troupes – the Bolshoi’s Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa, the Kirov’s Altynai Asylmuratova and Farukh Ruzimatov, young and gifted hopefuls at the time, were among the first to benefit from the changing political climate. The formula was set. The dancers were signed up for some performances, yet the ties with their home companies were never severed. It gave an extra dimension to their careers, allowing them to perform in productions or work with choreographers they could only dream of at home, while bringing in return their own, idiomatic style and approach to the guest companies.

Fast-forward to 2010, the world has become a very different place. Russian dancers can travel freely and several have joined Western companies permanently. Others have now largely built their careers by combining their performances at home with more-or-less regular guest appearances abroad. Glamour may have superseded the mystery of yore, but the special attraction is still there.

Practically every Russian dancer of repute has appeared in international galas or performed as a guest abroad at least once or twice, so any listing can only be restrictive.

Yet if we consider the international dancescape of the last ten years, there are very few Russian ballerinas as popular and in demand as Svetlana Zakharova (31). Best-known for her roles in Swan Lake (which she has danced in at least nine different productions around the world), La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty, Zakharova epitomizes a post-Guillem silk-and-steel glamour, combining enviable natural physical qualities, a challenging performance style, and an unquenchable artistic curiosity. Ukranian by birth, she completed her training in St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy to join the Mariinsky Theatre, becoming principal ballerina and one of the most talked-about dancers of her generation almost overnight. Collecting multiple awards, but also multiple sceptical reactions to her high extensions, in 2003 Zakharova moved to the Bolshoi Theatre, now has her own gala-programme ("Zakharova and Friends") and boasts an international career built upon invitations from virtually every company of repute in the world (one exception: London’s Royal Ballet). Her performances with the Paris Opéra Ballet (which gave an immense boost to her international career), La Scala in Milan (as the first Russian to become étoile of that company) and the New National Theatre in Tokyo have especially proved extremely successful.

Diana Vishneva (34) has equally established herself a firm place on the international scene. Vishneva also graduated from the Vaganova Academy and, along with Zakharova, belongs to the crop of talented ballerinas who emerged from the Mariinsky stage in the mid-Nineties. Although in essence a soubrette, blending dark-eyed expressiveness with mannerism and earthy charisma and excelling in no-nonsense allegro work, Vishneva has always denied the traditional Mariinsky categorization and now boasts an impressively versatile repertoire. Following invitations from La Scala and the Paris Opéra, her career abroad took flight after 2002 when she became a regular principal guest artist with Malakhov’s Berlin Ballet and, a year later, with ABT. Multiple awards, plus the drool of a huge international following, as well as (unlike Zakharova) the majority of the critics at her feet, in 2008 she presented her own ballet-programme, unequivocally dubbed "Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion", in the USA.

A younger ballerina from the Mariinsky who is gradually making a name for herself is Evgenia Obraztsova (26). A Vaganova graduate from 2002, gold medalist at the 10th Moscow International Competition (2005) and laureate from several other contests, Obraztsova stands out from most of her colleagues at the Mariinsky not only by combining the best from the traditional St. Petersburg classicism with a contemporary projection, but also by tons of natural charm and fine acting skills. Petite and with a doll-like face she is the ideal soubrette-ingénue, shining in both Romantic and classical ballets. Interestingly, Obraztsova’s international career took shape in Italy, where since 2005 she performed repeatedly with Carla Fracci’s Rome Opera Ballet, the Arena Ballet in Verona and La Scala. More recently, she has appeared to great acclaim with NBA Ballet in Tokyo and London’s Royal Ballet.

The already mentioned Natalia Osipova has quickly developed into the most talked-about young dancer in Moscow. This 2004 graduate from the Moscow Choreographic Academy is a petite, raven-haired beauty boasting the energy of an atomic power-plant, the carefree spirit of a teenage girl, yet also the magnetism and aplomb of a fully-fledged ballerina. Osipova’s artistry is reminiscent of the old Muscovite performing tradition, but shaped in a contemporary mould. She can handle the most intricate terre-à-terre combinations with virtuosic fluency and speed, possesses a breathtaking leap and ballon, and does so with a rare communicative sense of joy: she has already been described as "the most brilliant and most Muscovite ballerina of the last decade". The winner of numerous prizes at home and abroad, her international career took off last year thanks to her performances with ABT in Giselle and La Sylphide. Earlier this year Osipova also made her débuts with the Paris Opéra Ballet in Nureyev’s Nutcracker and with La Scala in Nureyev’s Don Quixote, reappearing with ABT in its 2010 Spring Season at the Met.

Another ballerina of international fame, Polina Semionova (26 years old), has been a star with the Berlin Ballet since she was 18 and is Malakhov’s regular partner. She trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow (her native city) and has won numerous competitions, from Russia to Japan. She has exquisite lines and has also danced in London, New York, Moscow, and at La Scala, Milan.

As for the male dancers, both Vladimir Malakhov and Igor Zelensky are in their early forties and can look back on successful international careers. Malakhov especially, combining principal positions at ABT, Vienna State Ballet and Berlin Ballet (of which he has also been director since 2002), has garnered a diehard fan-base on both sides of the Atlantic and in Japan. Zelensky, who has been the Mariinsky’s foremost principal for the last twenty years, is one of the rare Russian artists who have also succeeded with New York City Ballet.

The Bolshoi’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze (36) is Russia’s most famous ballet star. Flamboyant, exotic, effortlessly charismatic and smirkingly self-aware, he leaves very few indifferent. His international career remains however comparatively modest, in spite of occasional guest appearances with the Paris Opéra Ballet, La Scala, New National Ballet Theatre in Tokyo, and as a member of the "Kings of The Dance" gig.

A more prominent name is that of Denis Matvienko (31) who graduated from the Kiev Choreographic School and has been a member of various Russian troupes, including Bolshoi, Mikhailovsky and Mariinsky. He is a familiar face in galas worldwide and has performed as a guest principal with La Scala, New National Theatre in Tokyo and Paris Opéra Ballet, among others. A frequent partner of Svetlana Zakharova, or of his own wife Anastasia, whatever Matvienko may lack in polish he amply makes up in technique and charisma.

28-year-old Mariinsky star Leonid Sarafanov, originally from Kiev, boasts a virtuosistic yet subtle technique; he has danced in La Sylphide and Don Quixote at La Scala, Milan and is expected back there during the coming season.

Some young Russian dancers have become surefooted guests at galas around the globe. One of these is Daniil Simkin (23), a sparkling virtuoso and puckish heartthrob who was taught by his mother and struck gold in Jackson and Varna among others. Formerly a member of the Vienna State Ballet, Simkin is now with ABT. The Bolshoi’s young whiz kid Ivan Vasiliev (20), is also barely at the outset of his career, yet has been wowing gala-audiences worldwide.

Among the dancers who are well-established stars with international troupes we should at least mention the following three Ukrainians: Ivan Putrov (The Royal Ballet of London) and couple Irina Dvorovenko-Maxim Beloserkovsky (American Ballet Theatre).

Marc Haegeman

(BALLET2000 n°211 – July/August 2010)


The Forsythe Effect

No one has influenced choreography during the last twenty years more than American William Forsythe who has been active since the early 1970’s in Germany. He is now the director of his "The Forsythe Company". His ballets are sought after both by traditional companies such as La Scala, Milan or the Paris Opéra and by more modern-minded troupes such as the Lyon Opera Ballet. It is at La Scala and in Lyon that we shall be seeing the latest "Forsythe programmes" – though they are in fact revivals of previous works of his, now considered "classics" of the contemporary repertoire

A great artist inevitably becomes a point of reference for his or her generation; however when admiration is so extreme that one ends up identifying with the model, personal creativity is jeopardized. That is why the dance scene saw a myriad of pseudo-Balanchines in the Fifties and Sixties and of pseudo-Béjarts in Eastern Europe, while some years later it was Cunningham who became a model for many contemporary choreographers. Twenty years have gone by and now it is 61-year-old William Forsythe who has the largest number of disciples.

We should point out that Forsythe’s working method – like his generous personality – is in no way dictatorial; on the contrary, he would be the first to say that it is not his intention to impose anything on anyone. Indeed, nowadays he works with a reduced troupe (The Forsythe Company), leaving wide scope to his dancers and the works he produces are completely different from the large-scale ballets he made in the Eighties and Nineties. Forsythe has strongly influenced his contemporaries, to the point that he alone has been capable of bringing together the lovers of classical ballet with the modern or contemporary dance hardliners – and at times he has even succeeded in reconciling them. Classic companies such as those of the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, the Paris Opéra and New York City Ballet have taken his ballets in their repertoires, but then so have more contemporary troupes, such as the Lyon Opera Ballet.

How did this American, who lives and works in Germany, become the star of all the main international festivals, regardless of the type of dance offered thereat?

In the first place because Forsythe has positioned himself at the confluence of all the existing streams of dance. He has a deep knowledge of ballet and its history: The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude could well be seen as his personal tribute to Marius Petipa and George Balanchine; He also learnt his American lesson (Trisha Brown is one of his favourite choreographers). Upon arriving in Germany, Forsythe studied Rudolf Laban’s theories on space and subsequently developed and applied them to his choreography. Lately, conceptual artists like Christian Rizzo and Jérôme Bel have fascinated him and nowadays his own works are halfway between being performances and installations. His ravenous curiosity picks up every single trend on the dance scene.

He is firmly rooted in his time, extraordinarily sensitive and attentive (and by no means merely in a formal manner, I might add) not only to current notions on extreme speed and imbalance, but also to the intellectual theories of his generation, particularly those of contemporary French philosophers – Michel Foucault and, particularly, Jacques Derrida. He had the brilliant idea of applying to dance Derrida’s method for analyzing literature and philosophy, a method which consists in ferreting beneath the apparent rationality and well-presented logical arguments in order to bring out all those concealed elements (e.g. a repressed idea) that could lead one to question the coherence of purpose. Derrida’s "deconstructivism" is also an attempt to unmask whatever seems obvious and natural.

Forsythe "deconstructs" classical ballet using this very method. He delves into its unspoken or forgotten aspects, brings out the cracks and works with "the fragments or residues", as he calls them. In In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated he preserves the traditional "theme and variations" format, yet aims to show us that which is normally hidden in the classical technique – with the dancer hopelessly seeking to balance himself before he can undertake a jump.

Deconstructivism also has its devotees in architecture and one of these, Daniel Libeskind, is in sync with Forsythe. Both use fragmentation, dislocation, interruption etc. to create forms that alter our normal perception of space. Libeskind’s zigzag design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin leaves empty spaces between walls; in the same way, Forsythe plays with discontinuity, intermittences and fractures, thereby dismantling the codes that have hitherto applied to performing. His 1984 ballet Artifact intermittently disappears from the spectators’ view, with the curtain coming down abruptly in the middle of the performance: unperturbed, the dancers continue dancing and the audience wonders what on earth is going on.

Both in architecture and dance the aim of this subverting process is to reveal rather than conceal and it has asserted itself as a positive and inventive trend. Thanks to his unstable geometry and his destructed codes, Forsythe has taken traditional classical ballet and multiplied its possible combinations. It is difficult to remain indifferent to this choreographer who is a veritable physical/intellectual machine. Little does it matter that these days Forsythe’s work has taken a different direction, more experimental, more subdued.

Sonia Schoonejans

(BALLET2000 n°212 – September 2010)


Joaquín & Co., Spanish Dance is the star

Spanish traditional dance is undergoing a period of profound change. This varied and complex genre is popular abroad with its two contemporary stars, Joaquín Cortés and Aída Gómez, respectively representing modern stage flamenco and traditional Spanish dancing at its most refined

While ballet in Spain is riven by power games and bureaucratic hitches, Spanish dancing (which aside from the traditional classical 19th century "Escuela Bolera" also comprises flamenco in its most modern denominations) is undergoing a sort of internal revolution which is bringing about profound changes in both concept and form.

The reign of José Antonio Ruiz, artistic director of the Ballet Nacional de España (BNE), seems to be coming to a close after over six years (the duration of his second mandate at the company’s helm). Everyone agrees that BNE needs a thorough revamping and change of direction. On another front, contemporary "cross-over" flamenco is growing in popularity and is increasingly in international demand. Medium-size troupes are sprouting up and the absence of prominent personalities – rising stars that could one day take over from those great artists who are now in the full ripeness of their years – is evident.

The New York Flamenco Festival, which is now into its 10th year, has a major influence on the Spanish scene. This festival began as a fairly modest affair but has gradually grown. It is subsidized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Regions and has "offshoots" in Washington, Chicago and Miami. To perform at this festival is a "must" for Spanish dancers today, but what is to become of this event in the future remains a mystery that its organizers do not intend to disclose. One of the festival’s regulars is María Pagés who is highly respected in the USA. Recently Mikhail Baryshnikov invited her to his choreography centre and together they co-authored various projects. This year Miss Pagés debuted in a controversial work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. We must mention here Israel Galván who has become highly popular abroad, but not so in Spain where there are those who adore him but others who consider him nothing but a passing fad. After the successful performances of his El final de este estado de cosas, Redux in Lyon and Montpellier, the work was recently restaged in Madrid with predictable results. Galván is an argumentative, authoritarian, surreal and unique artist that goes against the mainstream yet fits in admirably on the current scene: he does what he likes and so it is very hard to assess his work from a conventional standpoint.

La Escuela Bolera, performed in soft slippers and with castenets, is the Spanish dancing style that is closest to classical ballet, as well as the most difficult one. Its popularity is declining and its future is shrouded in mystery. Some specialists maintain that the fact that it is badly taught even in the conservatoires is jeopardizing its preservation. The leading celebrity of this Spanish form of ballet, Aída Gómez, has realized an ambitious project entitled Permíteme bailarte which has been presented amost everywhere in Spain. It is an anthology of styles and dances, with choreography by herself and Mariemma, that pays tribute to Pilar López and Antonio Ruiz Soler, the two pillars of Spanish dance. We have to give credit to Aída Gómez for having been the first artiste of the 21st century to devote attention to this important tradition and its styles. Indeed, bolero has become her battlehorse. She is now touring her Carmen, the first version created by a woman according to the rules of Spanish dancing – and this has allowed her to approach the subject from a different angle. Using the well-known music from Georges Bizet’s opera, Aída Gómez has produced a contemporary rendition of Carmen which has breadth and is dynamic: a work that reveals a modern theatricality and goes beyond those stereotypes (so rife in other renderings of the story of the legendary cigar-factory worker from Seville).

Following in Gómez’s footsteps, BNE has produced its own Escuela Bolera programme (currently showing), the lynchpins of which are the resurrected masterpieces by Antonio Ruiz Soler and Ángel Pericet. These include Eritaña (music by Isaac Albéniz) which "grande Antonio" made in 1958 and revived for BNE in 1981. The programme also includes Seis sonatas para la Reina de España by Ángel Pericet to music by Domenico Scarlatti which has not been performed since it debuted at Spoleto in 1985. The point is that it is very hard to dance the bolero style in a correct fashion and this explains why the new forms of flamenco, so self-assured, showy and over-the-top, tend (alas) to dominate the scene.

The "fusion" trend which became the rage in the 1990’s ended up by prevailing over the traditional repertoire, analagously to what happened in some of the big ballet companies (including the Paris Opéra) where works that were deemed "old-fashioned" began to be cast aside in favour of new creations which, paradoxically, were no sooner created than forgotten. This trend subsequently subsided or became more balanced. However, it is clear that flamenco and all Spanish dancing should shake off this imperative which prevents one from distinguishing between "obsolete" and "ancient" and between what needs to be refreshed and what needs to be preserved without losing its authenticity.

Today’s "fusion" trend, however, goes beyond and taps into the richness and variety of Spanish dancing of yore, wisely avoiding that destructive minimalism that has been so harmful to dance in general. Very rarely has simplification yielded worthwhile aesthetic results, and even more rarely when it comes to ballet. Flamenco, for example, has tended to resort to just three elements in the composition of its shows: taconeo, a stark stage and ethnic percussions sometimes cross-bred with jazz ones. Hopefully this tendency is dying out and today’s choreographers have understood that there is nothing outdated about looking back and scouring the recesses of collective memory. This is now leading to a "vintage" trend such as that followed by Ángel Rojas and Carlos Rodríguez with their Nuevo Ballet Español, or by Antonio Najarro, a former principal of the Ballet Nacional de España, who is making a name for himself and his troupe on the international scene. This "vintage" propensity can be seen both in costuming and in the exhumation of certain archaic bailes that were no longer being performed (but had lived on only in period films or in the memories of the old teachers). A similar trend is gaining ground in the theatre. Recently, a flamenco dancer of quality, José Merino, and a well-known ballet dancer, Jesús Pastor, came together in what turned out to be a truly exciting show: Encontra2. The graceful ballerina body of Selene Muñoz endeavours to find ways of achieving aesthetic renewal and greater plasticity. We should also mention dancers like Jonathan Miró and David Coria.

International celebrities change with the times but Joaquín Cortés continues undisputedly to be in the vanguard. Notwithstanding his somewhat unprofessional aspects – Cortés is Spain’s one and only world-famous media celebrity, whose fame as a dancer is comparable to that enjoyed by the legendary Rudolf Nureyev in his heyday – Cortés has resuscitated with vigour the new version of his iconic work Calé (a Gitano word) in which he surrounds himself with an all-female corps de ballet, highly skilled and highly spectacular. This energetic dance of the Amazons, centred around the figure of a triumphant Achilles, shows the true colours of the artiste from Cordoba: he is the best and most international Spanish dancer of his generation. Cortés has always been obsessed with extracting flamenco from its traditional and repetitive context and he is now consequently working on a complex project for his troupe: establishing a school and choreography centre in Madrid the purpose of which will be to change, yet again, the aesthetic direction of Spanish dance and its international reverberation. Since the days of Antonio Gades, no one has ever exerted as much influence as Cortés.

Antonio Gades was the key personality who preceded him and his spirit, together with his production, live on thanks to the troupe subsidized by the Fundación Antonio Gades, an institution that has administered the legacy of the great dancer/choreographer who died about ten years ago. The Compañía Antonio Gades continues to perform those five works which can be restaged with rigorous observance of their original style: Bodas de sangre (Gades’ most widely-performed work which has also featured in the repertoires of classical companies such as the Rome Opera Ballet, the Ballet de Nancy and the National Ballet of Cuba), Carmen, El Amor Brujo, Suite flamenca and his final creation, Fuenteovejuna. In May 2011 the company will present all these titles at the Teatro Real de Madrid, in a billing that has the air of being a well-deserved posthumous tribute to this great artist – though in fact his works are more alive than ever. The thought of them makes it all the more evident that the ever mysterious and corporal Spanish dance is currently undergoing a creativity crisis.

Roger Salas

(BALLET2000 n°213 – October 2010)


Swans on Celluloid

"Black Swan" was recently presented at the Venice Film Festival and will be on release next March. The White Swan and the Black Swan: two popular actresses "doubled" by two ballet dancers. Although there are several films about dance or featuring dancing, not many of these are actually set in the ballet world like "Black Swan"; those that are, tend to be sentimental American movies where the ballet milieu is so stereotyped that it comes across as being totally phony

Extreme sentiments, unding devotion, impossible loves – for ballet has no place for loves other then for itself – but above all, the allure of a universe where passions are super-human, nay inhuman. Ballet dancers come from Ballet in the same way as Martians come from Mars; it is a world apart, indeed so out-of-this-world that it provides excellent fictitious subject matter.

Yet if there was ever a world unsuitable as the setting of a good film, that world is surely the fascinating and mysterious world of tutus and pointe shoes, work-out and sweat, talented choreographers and dancers who join forces to give birth to the art of ballet. This is a world that is hard to describe in an authentic way from the inside – exception made for documentaries, normally celebrating someone or something, but nonetheless highly useful – without resorting to banal dialogue and stereotypes in the scripts, whether they be tinted with the colours of a thriller or those of a drama of passions.

Discussions on the triviality of films on ballet or ballet dancers, with screenplays that adapt their intrinsic stories, are underway again as we await the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan which opened the 67th Venice International Film Festival.

After The Wrestler – about another entertainment "monster" – with the beautiful and damned Mickey Rourke, Aronofsky has taken the dual and infernal myth of the black/white swan and turned it into a psychological thriller set in the world of New York ballet. Natalie Portman stars in the role of prima ballerina Nina entrapped in a scary web of fierce competition against her new and inevitable rival, played by Mila Kunis. The choreography is by Benjamin Millepied – who also appears as partner of the two ballerinas (Millepied trained in France, in Bordeaux and Lyon and is at present a principal with New York City Ballet as well as a much sought-after choreographer, both in the Big Apple and in Europe). The dancing doubles of the two actresses are Sarah Lane, from San Francisco, and Uruguayan Maria Riccetto, both of whom are young promising soloists with American Ballet Theatre. The two were coached by ABT’s revered ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson, a former Royal Ballet of London ballerina who passed away last December while the film was still being shot. Obviously the credits on the playbill mention none of the above-mentioned, thereby feeding the illusion that it is Portman and Kunis themselves who perform the frenzied fouettés before our eyes.

But also in "top of the pops" video-clips there is no mention of choreographers and dancers, all that counts is the pop star, with or without doubles or stunts.

In the Black Swan trailer Vincent Cassel, the choreographer, shouts to his ballerina: "Seduce us, attack it!" Here we go again with the "blood, sweat and tears" of Terpsichore’s victims – in this case with the added bonus of nightmarish lesbian relations between the two she-swans thrown in for good measure. We have gone full-circle back to a 19th century tale of two ballerinas: one white and gentle, the other black and ferocious, bloodshot vampire-like eyes and all.

These fearsome ideas descend directly from the ancestor of all ballet films: The Red Shoes (1948), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and starring Léonide Massine and Moira Shearer. The latter is the ballerina who is not permitted to have a normal love-life because her talent condemns her to sacrifice body, mind and heart to the cruel goddess of dance, as imposed by the Russian impresario who has discovered her. The bewitched red shoes, given to her by the ruthless Devil/Choreographer (Massine), send her dancing to her death. An "infernal" story which still smacks of Ballets Russes aesthetics, with numberless allusions to their ruthless impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

Other films with ballet stars followed and fell into the inevitable trap of stereotypes of ballet as a special place of virtuoso technique, doping, muscular physiques and creatures divorced from everyday lives. We are fascinated and try to discover their secrets as we watch them in class: the men are seeking to achieve personal and artistic freedom by taking talent to its extreme limits, the women are totally devoted to their master and choreographer and will fight to death in order to remain his favourite or win his love.

A typical example was The Turning Point (1977), starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Brown (at the time a young soloist with ABT) and directed by Herbert Ross (who was married to ballerina Nora Kaye). In this film, Shirley MacLaine has had to give up her dancing career (while her rival Anne Bancroft has made it to the top but now envies her former rival’s quiet domestic life) yet she fulfils her ambitions through her daughter. The latter, however, is seduced by a Russian dancer – the fair-haired Misha, of course. Baryshnikov’s variation in the final pas de deux from Don Quixote is one of his most dazzling displays of bravura, superbly filmed and edited.

Herbert Ross was also the director of 1980 film Nijinsky, starring George de la Peña in the title role, Leslie Brown as his wife Romola, Carla Fracci as Tamara Karsavina and Anton Dolin as Maestro Cecchetti.

Taylor Hackford’s White Nights (1985) has a political slant and tells the story of a Russian ballet dancer (Mikhail Baryshnikov) who has defected to the USA and of an Afro-American Communist who has sought asylum in the Soviet Russia (tap dancer Gregory Hines). Following a plane accident, Misha ends up in the USSR again and is dramatically forced to flee the country for the second time (this magazine devoted its March 1986 cover-story to Baryshnikov and this film).

Dancers (1987), also by Herbert Ross, is a romantic film which takes place in the wings of the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, Italy: a troupe is rehearsing a new production of Giselle, with Alessandra Ferri in the title role and Julie Kent as a young dancer who has got a crush on the company’s artistic director (Baryshnikov, yet again) who in turn has had affairs with other dancers – including Ferri. Leslie Brown is a cynical Myrtha, while Canadian ballerina Lynn Seymour (from the Royal Ballet of London) is the ballet mistress.

We have to wait until 2000 for the next two ballet-themed films. The first is a highly-successful British film by Stephen Daldry entitled Billy Elliot, a charming and "politically correct" story about a young boy whose father (a Yorkshire miner on strike during the Thatcher era) wants him to learn boxing. Billy, however, stubbornly takes ballet lessons and ultimately becomes the star of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. The second, Center Stage, is directed by Steven Jacobson and is about the usual group of would-be ballerinas, some more talented than others, all of whom in search of fame. There are two real ballet stars in the cast: Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel from American Ballet Theatre; the latter plays the role of the principal who competes with the choreographer as to who is more creative and has greater appeal vis-à-vis the girls.

It was expected that Robert Altman’s The Company (2003) would be hard-hitting, like his Ready to Wear film about the fashion world; instead the film turned out to be a portrait of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, albeit laced with irony here and there, and the main character alludes to choreographer/director Gerald Arpino. Starring former ballet dancer and producer Neve Campbell, The Company features excerpts from no less than17 ballets, including Light Rain, a lyrical piece by Arpino, Tensile Involvement by Alwin Nikolais, an extract from La Vivandière and Blue Snake by Canadian choreographer Robert Desrosiers.

Lisa Niemi’s One Last Dance (2003) is also about a company: Niemi, Patrick Swayze and George de la Peña are its three principals who, when the brilliant artistic director dies, try to save it by resurrecting a dance piece that was created for them some years earlier.

A documentary – a much more accurate, serious and plausible genre – has recently been made by Frederick Wiseman and is entitled La Danse, Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris. It follows the daily routine of the Parisian troupe with its classes, rehearsals, discussions on administrative matters and performances. The camera wanders through the troupe’s theatre, the grand Palais Garnier, "capturing" its étoiles – particularly Nicolas Le Riche, Marie-Agnès Gillot, Delphine Moussin and Agnès Letestu – as they rehearse or dance various pieces on stage, including Genus by Wayne McGregor, Paquita, The Nutcracker, Le Songe de Médée by Angelin Preljocaj, Romeo and Juliet by Sasha Waltz and Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice.

We have purposely mentioned only films about life in the ballet. There are many dance films (see website www.ballet connections.com/balletanddancefilms which delves into the relationship between dance and cinema) and this is hardly surprising. After all, what better subject can there be for the camera to film than human bodies moving in structured, rhythmical, graceful and communicative ways?

Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino

(BALLET200i n°214 – November 2010)


The Stuttgart Miracle: 50 Years On

Propelled to international fame by John Cranko in the 1960’s, the Stuttgart Ballet is still one of the world’s major troupes thanks to the high quality of its dancers and to its rich and varied repertoire. In February the company is holding a big festival to celebrate its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago the Württemberg National Theatre (Germany) appointed John Cranko as director of its ballet company. In just few years, this young South African choreographer of English origin who had begun his career with The Royal Ballet of London, was to make the Stuttgart Ballet a company of international repute. Critics called this ballet miracle "das Stuttgart Balletwunder" and three key factors made it possible. First of all, Cranko’s talent as a choreographer, particularly for narrative ballets: suffice it to mention his ultra-famous Romeo and Juliet (1962), Onegin (1965) and The Taming of the Shrew (1969). Secondly, thanks to the talent of the troupe’s dancers, especially the charismatic Márcia Haydée. The third factor was the ‘talent of the public’ (as Jean Cocteau used to call it) which was able to appreciate the outstanding quality of what was being offered in Stuttgart and flocked to see it.

When Cranko died prematurely in1973, the Stuttgart Ballet lived on because he had endowed it with solid foundations on which to continue building up its future. After a short tenure by Glen Tetley, Márcia Haydée took over at its helm. Nor should we forget that already in Cranko’s time, one of the Stuttgart Ballet’s vocations was to mould young choreographers and the Noverre-Gesellschaft (the Noverre Society) was established for this very purpose. From this powerhouse emerged choreographers of the stature of John Neumeier (who created his celebrated Lady of the Camellias for Márcia Haydée), Jirí Kylián, William Forythe and, later on, Uwe Scholz; ballets by these authors remain in the company’s repertoire to this day.

Reid Anderson has successfully been at the Stuttgart Ballet’s helm since 1996. Anderson, who used to be a soloist when Cranko was director here, has kept the latter’s legacy alive: he invites outside choreographers to create for the company and has appointed two young choreographers as the Stuttgart Ballet’s resident choreographers (Christian Spuck, who is to take over as director of the Zurich Ballet in 2012, and Marco Goecke). The company members are comfortable in all styles, with a predilection for the most demanding of styles: academic ballet. Unsurprisingly, Balanchine’s works feature prominently in the repertoire.

Thanks to its celebrated school, this 60-strong ensemble (plus 10 extras) continues to boast an excellent standard and superb principals and soloists. The 7 female principals are headed up by Alicia Amatriain and the delicately-built Sue Jin Kang who is an ideal interpreter of Márcia Haydée’s legendary roles. There are 8 male principals, among whom Marijn Rademaker, Jason Reilly, Friedemann Vogel and Alexander Zaitesv. 7 soloists are ‘in the wings’ waiting to be promoted, while 10 demi-solistes are hot on their heels. It is worth mentioning at least one up-and-coming talent, singled out by choreographers that have recently been working with the company, who definitely seems propelled towards a successful career: his name is Daniel Camargo.

From 4 to 27 February 2011 the Stuttgart Ballet is organizing a long festival to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Nederlands Dans Theater II, the Hamburg Ballet and the Royal Ballet of Flanders have been invited to appear. The programme features works by "home-grown" choreographers, such as Orlando by Marco Goecke (based on Virginia Woolf’s novel by the same name) and Leonce und Lena by Christian Spuck (after Georg Büchner’s homonymous play). The Stuttgart Ballet itself is offering various programmes: a mixed bill made up of works by Maurice Béjart, Cranko and Hans van Manen, a reprise of Mauro Bigonzetti’s ballet I Fratelli ("The Brothers") based on Luchino Visconti’s film Rocco and his Brothers. A more intimate programme will comprise a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Las Hermanas, after Federico García Lorca, and works by seven other choreographers, including Song of my People (which Cranko made for the Batsheva Company in Israel in 1971) and Glen Tetley’s Ricercare. Gala performances with international stars are scheduled on 12 and 13 February.

The celebrations also include seminars, a roundtable with leading international ballet company directors, events for youngsters and children and a big reception for all former dancers and collaborators of the Stuttgart Ballet.

Emmanuèle Rüegger

(BALLET2000 n°216 – January 2011)


The Royal Ballet

Brandstrup, Emperor Titus and Berenice

La Valse – chor. Frederick Ashton, mus. Maurice Ravel; Invitus Invitam – chor. Kim Brandstrup, mus. François Couperin; Winter Dreams – chor. Kenneth MacMillan, mus. Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; Theme and Variations – chor. George Balanchine, mus. Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky

www.roh.org.uk

London, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup, who is mostly active in London, frequently chooses complex themes based on literary subjects. His latest work for the London Royal Ballet (lasting only 16 minutes) follows this trend, originating in a single sentence from the Roman historian Svetonius including the words "Invitus Invitam", filtered through Racine’s famous 1670 tragedy Bérénice.

The most striking feature in the ballet is the set, by Richard Hudson, of a double brick wall, sometimes resembling a castle, sometimes blank, at the beginning showing two doors, one marked "Titus" and the other one "Berenice", with white markings occasionally appearing as if by magic. The work is sub-titled "Against his Will – Against her Will", encapsulating the reluctance of the Emperor Titus and his mistress Berenice to part. It is fundamentally a pas de deux, interrupted by distressed departures and returns, the choreography largely composed of lifts, some quite hazardous. Their frustration is clearly shown through the excellent performance by Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, but it has to be admitted that this new work is something of a disappointment, though the music is very apt.

There are also two dancers (Christina Aresti and Bennet Gartside, in black practice clothes) who sometimes make brief appearances; altogether it was rather mystifying.

Frederick Ashton’s scintillating La Valse (made originally for the ballet company of La Scala, Milan in 1958) entered the Royal Ballet repertory a year later; it made a very satisfying opening to the programme, with just the right atmosphere, with the requisite touch of mystery in the waltzing couples led by Lauren Cuthbertson and newcomer principal Nehemiah Kish. André Levasseur’s elegant costumes against his ballroom set are a perfect choice.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, loosely based on Chekhov’s play Three Sisters, is not one of his most successful works, so it is hard to see why the company decided to revive it: its 55 minutes seemed even longer. On the first night Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta was miscast in the role of Vershinin (perhaps given him because of the presence in the theatre of Alicia Alonso, his "patronne"), but Marianela Núñez, Laura Morera, Edward Watson and the others all did their best.

What a relief when the curtain went up on Peter Farmer’s imposing set for Balanchine’s wonderful Theme and Variations! Tamara Rojo danced very well in the role created by Alonso but her thunder was stolen by Sergei Polunin in his magnificently virtuosic variation. On the following day, Sarah Lamb, brilliant and radiant, and Steven McRae gave equally impressive performances.

Freda Pitt

(BALLET2000 n°216 – January 2011)


Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham comes to London

Concerto – chor. Kenneth MacMillan, mus. Dmitri Shostakovich; Slaughter on Tenth Avenue – chor. George Balanchine, mus. Richard Rodgers; In the Upper Room – chor. Twyla Tharp. mus. Philip Glass

www.brb.org.uk

London, Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Birmingham Royal Ballet turned to Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with a varied triple bill that satisfyingly showed off the versatile talents of the dancers.

Kenneth MacMillan made his Concerto, to Dmitri Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, in 1966 for the ballet company of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin; an instant success, it has entered the repertory of numerous companies. The lyrical slow movement with a pas de deux at its heart is particularly impressive, but the other movements are equally inspired, demanding speed and accuracy.

It was quite odd to me to see on the same day George Balanchine’s great 1947 Theme and Variations at The Royal Opera House in London and his 1939 spoof Slaughter on Tenth Avenue at Sadler’s Wells. It was hard to recognize that the same choreographer was the author of both. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, set in a sleazy bar, was originally part of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical On Your Toes. The comic parody involves a gangster, a gun man, a striptease girl, policemen and, above all, a Hoofer protagonist who exhausts himself continuing to dance to stave off his death. It is all rather complicated and not at all edifying, but it is also very funny. Alexander Campbell made an endearing Hoofer and all the cast – including Ambra Vallo as the striptease girl and Mathias Dingman as the gangster – seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience.

All the company’s brightest dancers took part in the revival of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, to Philip Glass’s score. They all danced their heart out in Tharp’s diabolically demanding choreography, requiring exceptional stamina as well as superb technique. The nine sections feature differing numbers of dancers, only the final section using the whole group of sixteen. They would all deserve praise, but I would at least pick out Elisha Willis, Carol-Anne Millar, Ambra Vallo, Robert Parker, Chi Cao, Joseph Caley, Angela Paul and Gaylene Cummerfield.

Freda Pitt

(BALLET2000 n°216 – Janvier 2011)


Wheeldon, a "Classic" for Today

We have been following 38-year-old Christopher Wheeldon’s brilliant career from its early days. This English choreographer is outwardly more "classical" than any other choreographer today, yet he is so greatly in demand all over the world that he can afford to play hard-to-get with the big companies and even to walk out on his own New York-based troupe. A full-evening ballet of his will be premièred shortly at The Royal Ballet in London; in the meantime Wheeldon has created a new "Sleeping Beauty" for The Royal Danish Ballet

We are in London awaiting the opening performances by The Royal Ballet of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, his first full-evening ballet for the company. It is, in any event, a significant creation, since this is the first full-length staging that the company has produced in 16 years, the most recent having been Kenneth MacMillan’s 1989 Prince of the Pagodas and Twyla Tharp’s Mr Worldly Wise of 1995 (a piece both confused and confusing, long and incoherent, and wholly misjudged for the Covent Garden audience).

Wheeldon has, since his earliest creations, been hailed as a classical choreographer for today, possessing a talent for making dance in the academic style which both refreshes and renews the manner. His gifts are undeniable, and his decade’s sojourn as a choreographer and dancer with New York City Ballet has made very clear and very splendid this identification with the grand manner of ballet, with the renewal of a style which needs just this injection of fresh ideas sprung (as such ideas should spring) from the long and noble traditions of his art. Of his many early works, Polyphonia which he made for New York City Ballet during its 2000-2001 season and which explores piano works by György Ligeti, is a brilliant and commanding statement of his talent, not least in its sure and inherent musicality, that rare skill to clothe a score in well-fitting movement.

Nevertheless, his career has been, one might say, somewhat uneven: I have a sense that he has been over-used, over-extended in his creative process. From his earliest years as a dance-maker, commissions for new work were abundant, typically taking him from New York to Moscow to Hamburg to San Francisco and Boston and London. There have also been ventures on to Broadway to make dances for a musical, The Sweet Smell of Success, and a commission to provide the dances in a film, Center Stage. Too much attention, perhaps, and even too much work, attended by enthusiastic acclaim, and, inevitably, some disappointments voiced by public and professional commentators, have made his progress seem uncertain.

His decision a few years ago to create his own company, Morphoses, was brave, idealistic, and he produced fascinating works for the troupe. But Morphoses had no permanent base other than regularly scheduled seasons, notably in London and New York, no permanent ensemble, and his choice of other choreographers to help build the repertory was less than encouraging (and in some instances perfectly dreadful), while certain of the dancers were less than compelling, albeit such stars as Wendy Whelan, Leanne Benjamin, Maria Kowrowski, Edward Watson guested with the troupe and were admirably shown in the always-interesting works that Wheeldon made for them.

He has also made stagings of two of the great nineteenth-century classics: a Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet, which I found confused and somewhat at the mercy of the Pennsylvania troupe’s forces, and latterly a Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Danish Ballet, about which a commentary by Erik Aschengreen is also to be found in this issue.

Wheeldon has achieved a great deal in his 38 years, and must be seen as the most successful and widely regarded classical choreographer of his generation. He has, as his creations continually assert, a musical sensibility, a fluency of imagination, resourcefulness in finding themes and the dance-means to realise those themes that mark him as a grandly gifted dance-maker. His years as resident choreographer with the New York City Ballet (from 2001-2008) asserted his merits, his undeniable talent. His creations, then as now, are marked by a questioning and highly responsive musical intelligence – his ballets seem to spring without strain from their score – and a manner that can seem plotless yet conveys strong emotional or narrative meaning. What he has made thus far augurs wonderfully for what is to come.

Clement Crisp

(BALLET2000 n°217 – February 2011)


Hong Kong Ballet

Nutcracker Chinese Way

Firecracker – chor. Yuri Ng, Yuh Egami, mus. Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky

Hong Kong, Cultural Centre

Hong Kong Ballet is one of the most important classical ballet companies in Asia, whose artistic director is the Swedish Madeleine Onne. Beside the great ballet classics, the company dances George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Rudi van Dantzing, Krzysztof Pastor, Nils Christe etc.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in February, Hong Kong Ballet revived Firecracker, based on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This ballet, premièred last year, is choreographed by Yuri Ng, the city’s leading classical choreographer, and Yuh Egami, a dancer of the company.

Firecracker is an intelligent nostalgic recreation of Hong Kong around 1967, when the then British colony was rocked by months of violent riots in support of the Cultural Revolution in China. The title Firecracker is doubly apt since firecrackers, which are traditionally let off during the Lunar New Year, were actually banned by the colonial government after the 1967 riots.

Ng devised a new and original libretto which fits pretty well into Tchaikovsky’s music, making some minor changes to his choreography this year. The central protagonist is no longer the young Clara but instead Uncle Drosselmeyer who is recast as Uncle Tak, a retired manager of a Hong Kong film studio. Tak is visited by Clara during the Lunar New Year and starts reminiscing about his glorious past career.

In Act 1 of this production the Stahlbaums’ Christmas Eve party is, as expected, changed to a New Year reunion. And the battle scene between the toy soldiers and the mice has been adapted to show a confrontation between policemen and a rioter in 1967. The choreography is too tame however for this scene; the snow scene, which is reset in a hospital where Uncle Tak is recovering from his illness, is much better. The white corps de ballet of snowflakes has been imaginatively replaced by a team of six white-clad nurses tending to Tak. This witty hospital scene has the most original choreography in the whole ballet.

In Act 2 the national dances have been transformed into humorous vignettes paying tribute to the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s. The choreography is all pretty effective. The Waltz of the Flowers is turned into an amusing sketch depicting the local euphoria during a visit by a member of British royalty.

The final pas de deux is danced with great fun by two movie stars who are shooting a movie. The Sugar Plum solo, danced by the movie actress at a faster tempo than usual, has choreography adapted from Lev Ivanov’s great original choreography.

Firecracker showed off the Hong Kong Ballet dancers at their best. Kenji Hidaka was warm as the elderly Tak, while his youthful incarnation was nimbly danced by a very talented corps de ballet dancer, Shen Jie. Liu Yu-Yao exuded glamour as the movie star, while Li Jia-Bo was hilarious as her onscreen lover. Chen Qing impressed as the sinister black figure representing time past.

This can be a suitable Chinese-themed work for the company to show on its overseas tours.

Kevin Ng

(BALLET2000 n°219 – April 2011)


Vienna Opera Ballet

Vienna under Legris’s wing

Don Quixote – chor. Rudolf Nureyev (after Marius Petipa-Alexandr Gorsky), mus. Ludwig Minkus

Vienna, Staatsoper

Former danseur-étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet Manuel Legris (47) seems to be doing a good job with his company since becoming the director of the Vienna Opera Ballet in September 2010 (the company has been re-christened Wiener Staatsballett, Vienna State Ballet). He himself had Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Don Quixote remounted and the dancers showed an almost impeccable mastery of classical technique.

Not that the Viennese company lacked brilliancy or a certain technical quality in the past, but Legris aims at taking it to an even higher level.

First he enlarged the repertory with sundry acquisitions (George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, as well as works by young choreographers including Jirí Bubenícek, Paul Lightfoot and Sol León) and with a creation, Marie Antoinette, by choreographer Patrick de Bana (who used to dance with Béjart and, in Madrid, with Nacho Duato). His efforts continue with the revival of this Don Quixote by Nureyev which had been missing from the Vienna Opera for 26 years (the great Russian dancer created it in this theatre in 1966, on the basis of Marius Petipa’s ballet that had been later reworked by Alexandr Gorsky).

Nureyev’s relationship with the Vienna Opera was important and studded with successful results. He never directed it, though; yet destiny has ordained that that post should be assumed by one of his "disciples".

Maria Yakovleva’s blazing Kitri sparkled more with technical bravura than with interpretative prowess, showing more and more élan as Act 3 approached. She’s got everything it takes: extensions, tours (double and triple in the fouettés) and jetés leaps – the famous en diagonale ones in Act 1 being quite daring.

Her Basil, young Russian Denys Cherevychko who has accurate lines (one appreciates Legris’ Parisian "trademark"), formed a harmonious couple with her.

While he showed a more brilliant temperament than she did from the beginning, in the pas de deux their entente was obvious. Though not very tall (as is the case with other vituoso dancers of the Russian school), he compensates with his ballon, his brilliant doubles cabrioles, his sauts de basque and his pirouettes à la seconde.

Olga Esina, the other principal dancer in the company, was an impeccable Dryad Queen, confident in her (sustained) leaps on pointe, as-light-as-a-feather in her sauts de chats, and, above all, elegant, lovely and haughty. In the "Dream" scene the precision and uniformity of the female corps de ballet were noteworthy. The corps boasts a sound technique and lovely lines (maybe the French influence again, but coupled with the sensitivity of the Russian school where most of the troupe’s dancers were groomed).

Moreover, the same quality and precision is to be found also in the male corps de ballet of this large company (103 members).

I must also mention Ketevan Papava as the "Street Dancer" and Eno Peci’s Espada the Bullfighter. They danced with brio and commitment like all the interpreters of the secondary roles. Such energy clearly spilled over to the audience and made this Don Quixote a treat.

If Legris goes on working like this, the Wiener Staatsballett will reach a level that will arouse the envy of many other prestigious companies.

Isis Wirth

(BALLET2000 n°219 – April 2011)


Ballet Company of La Scala

A Raymonda of errors

Raymonda – chor. Sergei Vikharev after Marius Petipa, mus. Alexander Glazunov

Milan, Teatro alla Scala

One of the few 19th century ballets to have remained in the repertoire to this day, in more or less authentic shape, Raymonda is one of the least performed. Yet it is not only one the best preserved (thanks to the Kirov-Mariinsky tradition of St Petersburg), it is also a real masterpiece, the last the genius of Marius Petipa produced; indeed perhaps his purest and most perfect ballet for it brings to maturity the choreographic art of his century (it dates from 1898) and looks towards the ballet of the new century, bypassing the experience of the Ballets Russes (which was in a way a deviation) and ideally opening up the way to George Balanchine.

Thus La Scala was completely right in accepting its ballet director Makhar Vaziev’s idea and staging a production of Raymonda that boasts philological intentions; it entrusted the choreography to 50-year-old former Kirov dancer Sergei Vikharev who has gained renown in recent years as a "reconstructor" of ballets of the Russian tradition.

Here, though, is the rub: Vikharev is a respectable professional of classical dance, but he seems to limit himself to a naïve idea of ballet "philology" (in spite of his habitual collaboration with Pavel Gershenzon as history consultant, a serious scholar who writes interesting and not trite ideas in La Scala’s programme; but I found that such ideas were not followed-up in the realisation of the ballet).

The world of music has been reckoning with philology, i.e. discovery, reconstruction and critical revision of old operas, for decades, and is still struggling with the problems – more theoretical than technical – that such activities entail. This is all the more true as far as dance is concerned as here we are still at a primeval, not to say primitive, stage.

It seems that the intellectual approach is not yet that of a mature "philologist" who reconstructs the works of the past critically so as to understand their original artistic truth, over and above the appearances under which they have been handed down to us; it is rather the naïve attitude of the antiquarian who means to recuperate them "exactly as they were at the time of their creation", so as to display them and smile at them with tenderness.

Such an aim cannot be attained in the ballet. Even in a relatively felicitous case as Raymonda, the choreography of that distant première is practically lost. Vikharev states that he made use of the choreographic notations of Nikolai Sergeyev, who had been a dancer with the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and afterwards, from 1904 onwards, a ballet régisseur. Sergeyev’s notations are now in the Harvard Theatre Collection (USA). Apparently they enable one to reconstruct, with a certain degree of precision, the mime and various dances of the principal characters, as well as a few of the other women soloists’ variations. This is not much. Moreover, Vikharev candidly admits that this scarce material corresponded largely to the choreography that had been used for decades at the Kirov in Leningrad, in Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1948 version (available on a VAI DVD filmed in 1980, starring the great Irina Kolpakova).

This means that the serious and valuable work that must be acknowledged by the responsible of this Raymonda at La Scala is to be found in the choreographic essentials, i.e. the dances; but they are nothing but the integration of the basic Kirov version with the newly-found documents.

As far as the ballet as a whole is concerned – the so-called "dramaturgy" and, especially, the meaning of the work in the spirit of its author and in the history of dance – "objectivity" is an ingenuous mirage. One should have chosen and interpreted, in fact one should have performed a "critical" operation, in the knowledge that the Raymonda of tradition is the result of a series of reworkings in the course of a century in Soviet Russia: a century and a country in which artistic ideals have come a long way from the author’s original ones.

Raymonda’s plot is as elemental as they come, therefore perfect for a ballet. The young protagonist is a Hungarian aristocratic damsel in a fairy-tale Middle Ages; she is engaged to a knight who has left for the Crusades, she is waiting for him and dreams of him; but in the dream, evoked by the spirit of a protecting White Lady, a fiery Saracen appears who desires her. He then also turns up in reality, but the knight comes back and defeats him. Wedding and celebrations.

A trifling plot, then, for a sequence of dances of magisterial structure that are often highly poetic choreographically-speaking: pas de deux and variations, classical or demi-caractère solos or ensembles, and a final grand pas that makes us understand why George Balanchine called himself a perpetuator of Petipa’s work.

This is the point. In this last masterpiece of his, Marius Petipa no longer looks backwards to the pantomimic ballet of Romanticism, to Perrot and to Saint-Léon, but forwards, towards the future, to a dance free from the bonds of narration, of theatrical characters, of "expression" and naturalism.

In this he was misunderstood (it could not be otherwise) and criticised by his contemporaries, forced almost to abjure and swear his faith in old habits, to add mime scenes so as to satisfy an old dancer, beloved by the public (Pavel Gerdt, in the role of Saracen Abderakhman). "The main thing is lacking: dramatic content", affirmed painter Alexandre Benois, without suspecting that the main thing in a ballet is dance (but this is a discovery that was still to come in the future and even today is not clear to many).

Many years later André Levinson, possibly the first great dance critic of the 20th century, wrote that the aristocratic or bourgeois audience of the Russian Imperial Theatres watched a choreography of a genius like a cow watches a passing train (exactly the same can be said of many dance critics today – especially the Italian and French ones).

The Soviet era naturally went on criticising and adapting Raymonda to make it look realistic and thus this ballet, in which Petipa foresaw the liberation of dance into an autonomous art, was tamely brought back to comply with the dramatic criteria of the theatre. Yuri Grigorovich’s version is a good example, but even a great dancer such as Nureyev, in his own Raymonda at the Paris Opéra, showed himself to be blinded by this same prejudice.

Now I think that the big mistake of this latest Raymonda at La Scala is that instead of revealing Petipa’s genius and novelty, its "reconstructors" have taken up the criticism of the past and pushed his ballet backward, towards the Romantic ballet from which it was instead consciously emerging.

So we have all that fussy mime again (today less palatable than ever), a fiendish Saracen, an all-explaining White Lady, soldiers and duels, and the wish to give an impossible stage "truth" even to Raymonda herself, who is not a "character" but a choreographic role, and one of the longest, most complex and demanding roles in the whole history of ballet.

Luckily, as we said, the dancing has been preserved and it is still the substance of this ballet; the spectator must concentrate on it and not let him/herself be swayed by ridiculous scenes and costumes that evoke the medieval pavilion in Disneyland. The authors tell us that they were based on original sketches and designs made in1898; they do not stop to consider (how is this possible?) that those colours and sketches on a stage lit by the lights of hundred years ago, had a very different effect on the perception of the audience of that time, from the childish, garish one that we perceive today, in our highly changed conditions and accustomed as we are to different visuals.

One should mention the dancers of the Milan première. Olesia Novikova (a guest from the Mariinsky) has the natural sense of style which she learnt in the "home" of Petipa, is elegant and graceful, but certainly does not possess the sovereign musicality and luminous dance of the Ballerina with capital B that such a part requires. Friedemann Vogel (from the Stuttgart Ballet) is the perfect fairy-tale knight, but also an excellent classical dancer and partner – albeit in the reduced scope the role gives him.

As for the other soloists and the company, the alert spectator has known for many years whether or not they are capable of dancing a great ballet classic at a level that the great name of La Scala would require. But we shall discuss the home dancers again on the occasion of the next (and hoped-for) revivals of Raymonda.

Alfio Agostini

(BALLET2000 n°224 – November 2011)


Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Cunningham Final Act

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its final performance, a very last "Event", in New York last December. Thus, the production of a genius of modern and contemporary dance, who considered each of his works to be unrepeatable acts of creation, risks extinction according to his own last will and testament. But the Merce Cunningham Trust has no intention of dying and grants rights for some "repertoire" pieces to other companies

When I asked Merce Cunningham if he wanted his works performed 100 years from now, he laughed and said, "No, dancing will be completely different then." And so the Merce Cunningham Dance Company closed down at the end of December after six performances during three days in New York. But that is not the end of the story, as the Merce Cunningham Trust, an organization formed in 2003, made clear in announcing its plans for the future.

Nonetheless, these performances as well as the company’s preceding season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (featuring a welcome revival of the rarely seen Roaratorio) and Merce Fair, a somewhat academic survey of Cunningham’s career at Lincoln Center Festival last summer, all constituted a continuous and varied homage by New York to one of its great artists.

Nothing however was as thrilling as the first of these tributes – the passionate and vibrant memorial performance by current young members and older former dancers from the troupe who performed together shortly after Cunningham died at 90 on July 26, 2009. Both the first and final December performances (with a two-year world tour in between) took place in the cavernous space of a former officers’ marching hall in the Park Avenue Armory, a 19th century military building now mainly used for exhibitions and large-scale spectacles.
And both the 2009 and final appearances were organised as an "Event", the name Cunningham gave to his assemblage of excerpts (sometimes combined with segments of new choreography) that are seen without their usual context.

In the Armory, these collage pieces became a magnified Event. In 2009, the dancers performed within perimeters delineated on the floor and the audience easily walked from one space to the another, sometimes following the dancers. Despite Cunningham’s then-recent death, the mood was joyful and offered a celebration of his life. In this three-ring circus, the Event captured the essence of Cunningham – a mix of concept and playfulness, of discipline and anarchy.

Robert Swinston, the company’s senior dancer and now the Trust’s Director of Choreography did a magnificent job of assembling the segments and structure of both Armory Events. But in December, the mood was sober and formal. The dancers performed on three raised platforms instead of on the floor. The visual impact was strong, even if viewers saw two of three stages at a distance. In some parts of the hall, the artist Daniel Arsham hung his clusters of small white balls. Some viewers stood for nearly an hour on raised galleries, surveying all three stages. Most sat near one and rarely saw all three platforms at once.

It took an effort to see how the choreography on two of the three stages related to the one close to the viewer although its was obvious that the dancers moved from one stage to another, that group segments on one stage contrasted with solos on another.

Swinston created a typical Cunningham exercise in perception and simultaneity, enhanced wonderfully by trombone and trumpet soloists positioned high around the hall; below, on one side, electronic or conventional instruments provided the sound score by longtime Cunningham composers Takehisa Kosugi, David Behrman, John King,and Christian Wolff.

But unlike the 2009 celebration, this Event seemed less original, less wild, more dedicated to a formula. Many ideas associated with Cunningham were present – his love of the non-linear, his search for possibility and flexibility – the startling alogic of the choreography (often created through chance procedures). Attracted by the huge publicity surrounding the final Events, newcomers to Cunningham seemed as baffled as audiences were 50 years ago.

Although he did not want his company to continue, he did not oppose plans to have his works performed by groups and students not trained at his school. The Trust is closing the Cunningham school, yet it will sponsor technique classes and workshops. It will send Cunningham dancers to stage works in college dance departments and for other companies. The demand is there. Benjamin Millepied has already asked for a Cunningham work for his new company in Los Angeles. But how will it look onstage?

Cunningham was imitated by young choreographers for years (especially in France). But today this is no longer true and no one throws coins now to determine which direction to face. Yet whatever his methods, Cunningham taught us to look at dance in a new way. By the end, he worked in splendid isolation, loyal to himself. One can preserve Cunningham’s repertory but not his unique creativity.

Anna Kisselgoff

(BALLET2000 n°227 February 2012)


Souvenir d’Irène Lidova

Irène Lidova was a dance critic and organiser, a personality who was important in various fields and over many generations, and, besides, an especially faithful and affectionate contributor to our magazine; and, lastly, for as little as it matters, my friend and absolute adviser on all matters throughout this activity that I have chosen, or that has fallen to me.

Irina Kaminskaya – Lidova after her marriage to Serge Lido (a French adaptation of the Russian Sergey Lidov) – was born in Moscow in 1907. Therefore, her loss should have for us the serenity of a natural conclusion, and of a nature that was very generous not so much in granting her a long life as in preserving (and even increasing) up to the last an intelligence of life and such a great love for it (to that extent, perhaps being cruel) that no-one who did not know her well could believe.

It would take more than this note, but I will give a brief account of what I learnt about her in twenty-seven years of friendship, in person in Paris or around the ballet world, or through our daily telephone conversations.

As a child, during the years of the Bolshevik revolution she emigrated from St Petersburg to Paris, leaving Russia in a state of devastation by crossing a frozen lake in Finland, hidden in a sledge. In the French capital, where she was awaited by relations, the family was installed in a quiet flat in rue Chernoviz, where Irène lived, later with her husband, and finally alone, until now.

Like many daughters of Russian émigrés, she had lessons in classical ballet in the small Paris studios where, in order to survive, some of the ex-Imperial ballerinas, including the great Olga Preobrajenska, taught. She was only an amateur student, but the passion for dance took hold of her for ever. After studying art and literature, she entered the world of journalism as a sub-editor of a news magazine, Vu. There she managed to slip in her first dance pieces, in that way beginning to get to know the artists. Serge Lifar, who reigned over the ballet at the Paris Opéra, was her first idol (she once said to me, "I’ve been a fan of a lot of dancers, but Lifar was the only one I adored"), and it was the first sign of that symptom of balletomania that is the dedicated and passionate falling in love with dancers (which she not only recognised but cultivated, with a strange mixture of lucidity and abandon). She met a compatriot who was studying economics, they got married, she infected him with her passion and transformed him into one of the most famous dance photographers of the 20th century. The twenty-five albums of photographs, one a year, by Serge Lido, with the comments (and above all, the choices) of Irène Lidova are an extraordinary witness to a whole ballet epoch.

There were hard years - the war, the Occupation, the immediate post-war period - but they were full of life, and creative. One day at the Paris Opéra school, she chose three boys to be photographed by Serge Lido: they were Roland Petit, Jean Babilée and Jean Guélis. An infallible eye was one of her most important gifts: at the theatre, even in her last year, when she had limited sight, she would immediately pick out a talented youngster from a whole corps de ballet - even in the back row; and the evening was illuminated by the enthusiasm of her discovery.

She placed beside Roland Petit an infant prodigy of a dancer and choreographer, Janine Charrat, she took them round to her friend Jean Cocteau, and they thought up a group, with Jean Babilée, Ethéry Pagava, then Renée (later Zizi) Jeanmaire and other protégés of Irène, and thus the first masterpieces of French 20th century ballet were born. Later on, among those she worked with was the Marquis de Cuevas’ famous and adventurous company.

She was faithful in her artistic loves, but her judgments were very decided. One day, many years after those poor and happy beginnings, she asked Roland Petit at the end of a performance, "Well, Roland, when are you going to make a real ballet for us?". I can understand now what she meant, but he took it badly and never spoke to her again. Artists are like that, all the best you do is taken for granted, one unwelcome word is an irreparable betrayal. Irène knew that better than anybody; she went on loving him and saying and writing that Roland Petit was the greatest talent she had ever met with.

In her circle there were also lasting friends, and in the rue Chernoviz flat large numbers of people from the dance world called their regularly, while the telephone was the remedy when there were no visitors in the sitting-room. Nina Vyroubova, Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat, Joseph Lazzini, Mario Porcile (the director of the Nervi Ballet Festival - a place that Lidova loved, and where we spent memorable summers), the impresario Paul Szilard, Lilavati and Bengt Häger, John Taras, Carla Fracci, the critic John Percival and the film director Dominique Delouche were among the most assiduous visitors, up to the last days. Even Rudolf Nureyev, in his early Paris days, was a regular guest for Irène’s Russian suppers; but he soon forgot. She had a particular passion for Russian ballet and Russian artists; perhaps it was a way of rediscovering her roots, at least in the art that she loved, feeling herself to be Russian and speaking her native language. She was proud of being to a certain extent their "ambassadress" in the West, above all in the years during which contacts were rare and difficult. She became friends with some of them: Maya Plisetskaya, her beloved Katia and Volodia (Maximova and Vasiliev), then the younger Vladimir Derevianko and Vladimir Malakhov, one of her discoveries.

Among her closest friends, there had come into being a family of chosen members, above all after the unexpected death of her husband in 1984, which distressed her greatly. There was above all Milorad Miskovitch, another protégé of hers in the happy times, an admired dancer and a friend for ever; he was a kind of son, and as such he received the friends at the funeral on 31 May, in the Russian church in Paris. The other "son", more recently acquired, was myself. And another Italian, of a later generation, Toni Candeloro, who lived in the same house in the years when he danced in Paris, forming with her whenever she went out, a strange couple; as we all know, you can sometimes get irritated with children, but with nephews the understanding is absolute.

I nearly forgot to mention, because it was so well-known, that she possessed an uncommon intelligence, an intelligence that was not conventional, cultured but intuitive, that went straight to the heart of things in art and life and was solidly based on her formidable memory. At ninety, she was able to remember the complete cast of a performance that had taken place fifty years earlier, or she could tell you in a few precise strokes about the career and personality of a dancer who had been forgotten by everyone else. But hers was not the old person’s eccentric memory, fixed in the past; she remembered a day from fifty years ago as she remembered the day before, she was interested in the present and curious about the future. To discover a young choreographer or a gifted dancer was more important to her than having known Lifar or Robbins or having often seen Alicia Markova dance. On the other hand, she did not, like some pathetic elderly people, have the affectation of always wanting to seem up-to-date; in her last years, she really was above all such things, secure in her ancient wisdom and very aware of the present. Classical, modern, contemporary seemed to her senseless words. She loved Giselle but had encouraged and defended the young Merce Cunningham in France when nobody was yet taking any notice of him.

I realise that I am writing one of her "rencontres": the speciality that she had devoted to Ballet2000 for so many years. Perhaps it is because I read, translated and corrected so many of them that I have now written one myself. I shall miss it a great deal - and I am sure, dear reader, that you will also miss - that page towards the end of the magazine, with that old spectacled, smiling face ("c’est votre journaliste américaine", she would joke), with her tightly written piece, all short, incisive sentences, framed by one of Serge Lido’s lovely pictures. I can’t imagine not being able to life the telephone every evening at about seven o’clock, to discuss our little dance matters, or to ask her something that from now on I’ll have to look for, to no purpose, in books. There is one more void, in the dance world, and in the world.

Alfio Agostini

BALLET2000 n. 67 – July 2002


 

The Kirov of yesterday and today on DVD


In his account of the Kirov Ballet’s 1961 London début, Clement Crisp recalls two great dancers of the Soviet ballet, Alla Sizova and Yuri Soloviev. Today we can still watch them both in a 1965 film of The Sleeping Beauty (available on a Kultur DVD). Another iconic dancer can be seen in this film: Natalia Dudinskaya as Carabosse (not the usual traditional mime role in this production but, on the contrary, a highly-demanding technical one).
Another Sleeping Beauty on DVD (likewise on a Kultur label), dated 1982, brings us the then almost 50-year-old Irina Kolpakova, nonetheless radiant and fresh. The extraordinary stage vitality of this dazzling ballerina can also be appreciated on a VAI DVD of a 1980 production of Raymonda.
To continue our tour d’horizon of the ‘classics’ (which constitute the Kirov’s priceless legacy), viewers will be able to admire Galina Mezentseva in Giselle on a 1983 video available on DVD (Kultur); partnered by Konstantin Zaklinsky, she may not be an entirely traditional Giselle, stylistically speaking, yet she is certainly impressive and touching. The Mezentseva-Zaklinsky couple also star on a DVD of Swan Lake released by Kultur – who have also released a more recent (1990) Kirov version of this ballet with Yulia Makhalina, a modern, understated yet sensual Odette.
Lopatkina’s Swan Queen, on the other hand, is neither modern nor ancient, as can be seen on a Decca DVD; this ballerina’s interpretative genius comes across at its best in Swan Lake, giving viewersa mesmerizing aesthetic experience. Fans of the Mariinsky Theatre’s “diva” will certainly not wish to miss Bel Air’s “2006 New Year’s Eve Gala” DVD which features her in The Dying Swan (and also carries a divertissement from The Sleeping Beauty in Serghei Vikharev’s “choreological” reworking of this classic).
A 1977 video of La Bayadère is available on a Kultur DVD with Gabriela Komleva as Nikya; this great tragédienne, but who is also in her element in the “Act of the Shades”, is partnered here by Rejen Abdyev (not the best of Solors). This video allows us especially to appreciate both the superb technique of Tatiana Terekhova as Gamzatti, in an astounding grand pas, and the beguiling corps de ballet in the “white act”. VAI has released a 1989 recording of the Kirov in Le Corsaire, starring Altynai Asylmuratova, Elena Pankova, Evgheny Neff, Farukh Ruzimatov and Zaklinsky. When it comes to The Nutcracker, I recommend a Philips DVD of the traditional Vasili Vainonen version, with Larissa Lezhnina in the main role, rather than Kirill Simonov’s new version (available on a Decca label) which, apart from Leonid Sarafanov’s presence, is far less interesting.
The numerous fans of this former Mariinsky dancer will, no doubt, prefer to see him on another Decca DVD: in the Kirov’s production of Don Quixote where his velvety, refined and unfussy technique shines, devoid of gratuitous showiness. On the same video we can admire Olesia Novikova as Kitri, Alina Somova as the Dryad Queen and Evghenia Obraztsova as an enticing Cupid. Another Don Quixote, more dated but nevertheless highly attractive, is the version starring Terekhova and Ruzimatov, available on a Kultur DVD. She seduces us with her remarkable leaps and stunning fouettés, he with his exuberance and pirouettes and tours galore.
Kultur’s DVD of Oleg Vinogradov’s Coppélia, on the other hand, is not a ‘must’, while that of Yuri Grigorovich’s The Stone Flower (2005), with Anna Polikarpova (who has since joined the Hamburg Ballet) and Alexandr Gulyaev, may appeal to those who are interested in the iconic Soviet ballets.
And now we come to the Ballets Russes repertory. An Arthaus DVD entitled “Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky” brings us a Fokine evening filmed in 2002 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris (where Diaghilev’s troupe actually debuted in 1909). The ballets include: Shéhérazade (with Svetlana Zakharova, before she transferred to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and Ruzimatov); Le Spectre de la rose (with Igor Kolb); the Polovtsian Dances and The Firebird (with an intriguing Diana Vishneva). The Firebird (but with Ekaterina Kondaurova)is also featured on a Bel Air DVD, together with Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (“reconstructed” by Millicent Hodson). Another DVD (Immortal), entitled “Ballet Miniatures”, features two more Fokine ballets: Carnaval and Une nuit d’Égypte (“Egyptian Nights”, later entitled “Cleopatra”), starring Asylmuratova as an icy Cleopatra and Ruzimatov.
Amidst miscellanea, the most invaluable DVD is undoubtedly Arthaus’ “Kirov Classics”. Of particular interest are Chopiniana, breathtakingly danced by soloists and corps de ballet alike, and, above all, the sumptuous grand pas from Paquita, with Yulia Makhalina and Igor Zelensky. Diamond-pure classicism, sparkling virtuosism and imperial grandeur. The Kirov hallmark.

Cristiano Merlo

(BALLET2000 n. 222, September 2011)