I feel my life is complete–almost–after seeing yesterday’s YAGP gala in celebration of Julio Bocca’s life and career. Here is my review–a return of my long-lost blog. Enjoy! Continue reading
Congratulations to Misty Copeland, for having been promoted to Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre a few days after she debuted her role as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. She is the very first African-American ballerina who has ever been promoted to the rank of Principal Dancer in ABT’s 75 years of history. A true historical landmark.
Besides her unique style of gracefulness and technical prowess, I really like her strength and her athleticism—qualities that the stereotypical ballerina does not and should not possess. Some critics have pointed at her muscular limps and disqualified her as a pure classical ballerina based on that! Others have argued that her artistry is not at a level where a principal dancer should be. Not having seen her perform live, I am not in the position to judge the quality of her presence and artistry. But summarizing the dance reviews I have seen so far and the videos of her dancing, I have no doubt she has great potential to hone this vital aspect and grow into her principal role. To me, a dancer’s evolution is even more interesting to watch than a “finished product” that is perfect and has no room to improve.
What truly excites me and thousands and thousands of audience members worldwide, is that she has opened a new window to who the modern ballerina CAN be. The possibilities are limitless. By far, the strength of Misty’s mind is her greatest asset, and she has become a true inspiration for so many people, especially aspiring dancers of color. Yes, her promotion is a complicated story and has generated innumerable controversies on whether she deserves the principal role just because she is a great black dancer, and whether or not ABT should be more inclusive in its dancer profile.
To me, it is too difficult to separate the underlying politics from the artist. But why should we? It is a healthy debate. Misty’s vocal and proactive stance on the need to make ballet more inclusive has created wonders. She is bringing in a whole new group of audience who would otherwise not have become interested in ballet at all. And needless to say, she has inspired countless little brown girls to explore and advance in the art form. Just that itself is no small feat.
Bravo, bravo, Misty!
The first and only black soloist to ever grace the stage in the American Ballet Theater’s history has come out with her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” I pre-ordered it just in time to arrive before my surgery last month and gobbled it up quickly as I lied in my hospital bed, recuperating. It turned out to be a wonderful choice–a fantastically written account of the stormy childhood that Copeland experienced, moving from one stepfather to another, from motel to motel, having hardly enough to eat, and finally stumbling into a ballet class at the age of 13 without really knowing what ballet was all about.
As fate had it, Copeland found herself plunged into the magical world of classical ballet. To her surprise, she was told that she had the natural physique and talent for this “foreign” art form. Within three weeks of training she was en pointe–and doing it well; and within a few short years she started dancing professionally for ABT, her dream company. The road from there on was not all smooth and glittery. Quite the contrary. Reading her struggles was heart-wrenching, to say the least. At the same time it gave me a great sense of encouragement. My struggles could hardly match hers, although it would be unfair to have any kind of comparison as I am not in the professional ballet world–only an amateur adult student. Still, having just had a major surgery, not knowing when my body would be back in shape again to step into the ballet studio, her perseverance through one hardship after another gave me tremendous inspiration.
In the book she has written in great length what it takes to be a true ballerina. Here is one of my favorite passages:
“It takes so many things to be a great ballerina: talent, strength, the ability to pick up choreography and then turn on an inner light when you perform. Having the right combination is the difference between being an artist who can capture the nuances of light in a watercolor and one who paints by number. I don’t think that most people realize that.”
Most of us ballet students and dancers have a rough idea of what it takes to become a professional dancer. However, I think few of us have any real idea of how much harder it is to be black in this predominantly white world of classical ballet. I thought I knew–until I read this book. Nothing prepared me for the kind of hardship Copeland had gone through.
I will leave you the reader to find out the details from her book. But let me just finish off this review with another passage that I like:
“I rarely get angry when I think about my childhood, wishing for what we could have been if we’d had more of a nurturing home environment. It made us all strong fighters, primed to push through the toughest of struggles. But I do get frustrated with people who experienced relatively ideal lives and yet don’t appreciate what they’ve had. Performing with ABT, I have sometimes overheard my dance mates complaining about going to the same vacation spot with their families, going on and on about how they’d rather be sunbathing than rehearsing, or how bad we have it at ABT versus City Ballet, or some other inconsequential thing. I would think about all that I had been through, what I had to navigate and overcome to stand on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. What are these people fussing about?“
Even though I do not relate to her particular experience as a professional dancer, I do relate to her feeling of appreciation of having become a stronger person through pushing through a lot of tough struggles. It is here where I find the greatest resonance.
- The media is abuzz with the fact that the June/July issue of the Pointe magazine has included Misty Copeland on its cover, along with two other black ballerinas, Ebony Williams and Ashley Murphy.
- President Obama appoints Misty Copeland a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition
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!
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.