ABT’s Nutcracker: a Pleasant Surprise

Nutcracker with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov

After watching the Mariinsky version of “The Nutcracker” on Christmas Eve, I stumbled upon the ABT version, filmed in 1977, choreographed by Vasily Vainonen and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. I must say that I prefer the latter by a large degree after studying both.

I had no idea that the same ballet could be that different. The story line is similar in broad strokes but boy, how ingenious is the ABT version in terms of transitions in the plot, rendering the whole ballet actually a story that makes sense, instead of a mishmash of numerous pretty scenes put together with a very loose thread that can only be justified as a “dream sequence.” Surely the ABT version is a dream sequence, too. But as it is explained in the very beginning, the gift that Clara is about to receive on this Christmas night is the gift of a dream—it is intended by Uncle Drosselmeyer, who is a kind of wizard himself, instead of having the various dances in the Land of the Sweets just happening by chance.

This gift of a dream is actually the birth of a romantic dream in adolescence, represented by the character of Clara. It is a rite of passage, a coming of age, very beautifully portrayed by the ethereal Gelsey Kirkland. I was literally in tears watching her every movement, which simply melded with the beautiful Tchaikovsky music. There is absolutely no jarring steps. One scene leads to another in a seamless way, and Kirkland’s delicate footwork and expressive upper body are really unsurpassed. She is totally convincing playing a teenager, and her “growth” throughout the ballet is gradual and subtle, unlike the awkward switch from a teenager to a full-grown adult princess in the other versions.

Her acting is also superb. There is not a drop of doubt that she is completely smitten by the prince, played by Baryshnikov, and her whole body language exudes the excitement and slight nervousness of a girl who falls in love for the first time.

Baryshnikov is marvelous in his technique and actually not so bad in his acting, either! Very convincing as a prince in love with the young girl and ready to show her the world.

I also like the relative simplicity and smaller cast of the ABT version. Every detail is well thought out and nothing is superfluous, whereas the Mariinsky version seems to be a dozen cup cakes too many!

The only regrettable part of the ABT version is the costume of Clara. It looks as if she was wearing a night gown throughout the ballet. Perhaps that was the original intention, as she is in her dream anyway. But imagine how much more enjoyable if she was wearing a more flattering costume!

I will save the details now and not spoil the fun any further. Enjoy the ballet!

Anna Pavlova and Turned-in Legs

Anna Pavlova

Ballet dancers have this obsession about turnout… or worse, that “perfect” 180-degree turnout that is so elusive and unattainable for most of us. But has anybody ever noticed how turned in the legendary Anna Pavlova was? And none of that diminished her artistry and dramatic appeal by even a tiny bit. Just read this passage which describes how Rudolph Nureyev liked the turned-in aesthetics:

“Rudolph has always admired the beauty of Merle [Park]’s legs — slim and turned in like Pavlova’s, with the same highly arched insteps…” (“Rudolph Nureyev, The Life” by Julie Kavanagh, Penguin 2007).

In the following video, you will be able to see some rare footage of Pavlova dancing solos. Listen to what the program host, Margot Fonteyn, said about Pavlova’s dancing: “Pavlova disregarded pure ballet technique. When it suited her it was only because she was interested in being expressive. Virtuosity had no purpose unless it served the purpose of dance. And yet at the same time, she had the speed and strength which would be hard to equal today.”

Cheers to turned-in legs and expressive dancing!

Steps on Broadway

Steps on Broadway

I love going to Steps on Broadway. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, with high ceilings, wooden floor and barres in the corridor, large, professional studios across the entire floor, and a wall adorned with photos of reknown dance teachers over the years. I remember seeing a signed photo of Maya Plisetskaya, given to Steps when she visited America.

On any given day, you might run into famous dancers and teachers. During the few times I was there, I had seen Isabella Boylston of ABT and one of the Billy Elliot boys take class. Before David Howard passed away, I also spotted him teach with great enthusiasm, despite the fact that he had to rely on a walking stick in class.

One time when I was getting changed in the locker room, I chatted with a fellow classmate, who was probably in her 60s. She recounted how she saw the performance of “Romeo and Juliet” by Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the 60’s (see video below). I could see sparkles coming out of her eyes and she smiled like a little girl. Obviously, the magic of these two legendary dancers has transcended time and stayed on through the years in her heart. How lucky she is to have that experience!

During my recent trip to New York, I took class with a Russian teacher, Alexander Filipov, who was a student of Alexander Pushkin, the teacher of both Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. At the Vaganova Academy, he had also studied under Asaf Messerer, before joining the Classical Ballet of Russia and deflecting to the West and joining the ABT and San Francisco Ballet in the 1970’s.

The class was “interesting.” Even though it is categorized as the “Beginning Intermediate” level, it was quite demanding. There were lots of repetitions of the same combinations for each exercise at the barre—very grueling practice but I reckon that the purpose is to help build strength and stability. The center exercises gradually became more complex and turned into a showcase for the couple of professional dancers in the class… 32 fouettés en pointe by a French ballerina Cécil, and big jumps and leaps by a male dancer, who took every chance as an opportunity to shine! Even though I could not follow these demanding exercises, it was a pure joy to watch the professional dancers take class.

A little side story: While in the locker room, I felt a woman sizing me up and down and checking me out when I was getting changed. I guess I was one of the slimmer ones who had a slight look of a dancer (I guess I stood out because I was considered small, being an Asian, compared with the typically larger body frames around me). Later on she was in the same class with me and she probably got disappointed about how poorly I danced. Nonetheless, it was quite possible that she was interested in me, and that was a new experience for me, ha!

Nuts about Nutcracker

Come December, ballet dancers and spectators alike are all nuts about the Nutcracker. There are so many versions of the ballet. Which one(s) have you seen and do you prefer?

I have only seen the ballet once in a live performance by the New York City Ballet. At that time I hadn’t become a balletomane or a ballet student yet, so my memory is faint and I can’t really say much more than just being mesmerized for a moment by the snow flakes floating down on the stage!

It wasn’t until much later did I realize that what I saw was the version created by Balanchine in 1954, which popularized the ballet and established it as an annual Christmas tradition—a tradition that has since been used by ballet companies all over the world as—eh um—a “cash cow.” The very first performance of The Nutcracker was staged at the Mariinsky Theater in 1892 (see modern staging by Mariinsky above), but it wasn’t an instant success. It only became popular after American ballet companies staged it, the very first being the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. Balanchine changed a few characters and made it a highly popular ballet ever since.

Recently I have finished reading the biography of Rudolph Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh, in which Nureyev’s work on the Nutcrackers is detailed. I’m glad to have come across an article on Culture Kiosque that reviews different versions of the Nutcracker, with the verdict that Nureyev’s version is the best. It would not be hard to see that Nureyev has made the Prince an exceptionally interesting character to watch. His dancing rivals that of the female lead role. In fact, it was his idea to turn around Marius Petipa’s original choreography so that the male dancer would no longer play the “porter” role. I think he had succeeded big time!

Below you can see the footage of Nureyev himself dancing the pas de deux with Royal Ballet dancer Merle Park in the 1968 production, which he staged with the Royal Swedish Ballet:

And here you can see a modern version of Nureyev’s choreography performed by the Paris Opera Ballet:

A Night with ABT

David Koch Theater

Every time I visit New York, my dance experience is enriched. I am totally amazed at the quality of the ballet audience there. Most recently (November 2013) I went to see an ABT performance right after I landed. I was seated next to a long-time balletomane. We quickly strike off a pleasant and animated conversation. Well, she took sympathy for me for having to switch seats with my friends because the petite lady in front of me brought a thick cushion to sit on, thus blocking my view entirely even though I paid a high price for the second row seat.

Our conversation swiftly turned to something more pleasant though, from compliments for the guest artist who just performed, Guillaume Côté, to how we both prefer the ABT to New York City Ballet, to how amused she was about my craziness of watching a performance right after landing from Hong Kong. I told her that I had read in Rudolph Nureyev’s biography of how he used to plunge into watching ballet performances after having flown long distances in order to absorb and learn new works. “I am inspired!” I told her.

She even spotted Allegra Kent, a former Balanchine dancer known for her ethereal quality, standing in the aisle chatting with friends. See the picture above where I have made a pink circle? That’s Kent! She is very petite, has frizzy red hair and was wearing a pair of spectacles. I would not have spotted her if my neighbor had not pointed at her direction. Apparently, current and ex-dancers make regular appearances at the David Koch Theater and Metropolitan Opera House. Such a regular occurrence is, to me, an eye opener as well as an eye candy.

Ballet and Jeans

Still remember those days when you found yourself struggling to get your jeans up your hips? Well, those days are over! Check out the Levi’s jeans commercial featuring a pair of Korean dancers above. I never imagined that one could dance ballet in jeans, let alone that beautifully. Of course, the epitome of stretchy jeans can be found in the well-known UNIQLO commercial featuring the revered ballerina Polina Semionova:

And I’m pretty sure you balletomanes out there would remember the jeans commercial that Tan Yuan Yuan did for GAP.

Tan Yuan Yuan GAP Commercial

So far I have only tried the UNIQLO  jeans and I have to say they are truly stretchy, comfy and flattering, just as Polina attested in this video. But whether I can do the same leg-lifting feat that she did is a whole other matter!

Dance Magazine Award 2013 Goes to Tan Yuan Yuan

Tan Yuan Yuan Dance Magazine Cover

Congratulations to Tan Yuan Yuan, my favorite Chinese ballerina, for being awarded the prestigious Dance Magazine Award this year. She received the prize in New York on December 10, 2013. While visiting New York last fall, I met a guy called Michael Tong through the tenant of my mom. He is currently in the auction business and came to my mom’s place to look at my late father’s artwork, among other things. Turns out that he was actually an organizer of ballet tours for many years in the past. He was the one who brought San Francisco Ballet to China in 2009. He told me he knows Tan Yuan Yuan very well, having gone to the same school with Tan in Shanghai but in a different era. He also recounted all the hurdles and red tape he had to go through in bringing U.S. ballet companies to perform in China.

First, he had to persuade the U.S. ballet companies (including SF Ballet and Tulsa Ballet) to take the “A cast” to China in addition to the B and the C casts. At first they were not convinced, but there was a lot of diplomatic work to do in order to prove that Beijing had the best facilities and an adequate audience who appreciate ballet. Having finally secured the casts, then there was the business side to manage. Each cultural exchange cost millions of U.S. dollars to put together—paying for airline tickets, hotels, venue and promotion, etc. He told me he had to get a lot of corporate sponsors so that the dancers could be paid properly, with a daily stipend and good hotel accommodation. In the end, he said, those companies expect nothing short of a return favor of sponsorship somewhere “down the line.” This is what is meant by guanxi in China. He seems to be politically well-connected, being able to invite all the important political leaders to attend the performances.

Still, it was not easy to sell tickets. While the shows with principal dancers like Tan were able to sell most of the tickets, shows with the B and C casts were able to fill only about 60% of the seats. In the end, for all the effort, his company earned “only about US$200,000” for each tour. Nonetheless, it was a satisfying experience for him. And after a successful visit by the San Francisco Ballet in Beijing, the U.S. Ambassador invited him and the ballet company members to a dinner at his own residence.