R.I.P. Violette Verdy, Luminous Balanchine Ballerina

Violette Verdy in Jewels (Emerald), 1967

Violette Verdy in Jewels (Emerald), 1967

Two days ago, Violette Verdy, Balanchine ballerina and coach extraordinaire who helped to bring the Balanchine legacy to generation after generation, passed away at the high age of 88. She had earlier directed the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet, and later became a ballet coach, a writer and an honorary music professor. Her contribution to the arts was enormous! (Read more about her in this New York Times article.)

I first became aware of Verdy when I first started to learn ballet as an adult. It was about nine years ago. I bought the DVD “Violette et Mister B,” in which I saw how she coached Isabelle Guerin in “Dances at a Gathering,” among others. Her energy and humor, and her fervor in passing on the Balanchine style in the most faithful manner really impressed me.

Here is a clip from the DVD:

And here is a video of her talking about Balanchine, taped at her home in 2005. The opening and closing shots in the video come from the film “The Poor Little Ballerina,” shot in 1950 when Verdy was only 16 years old! Look at her technique and acting skill, both of which were quite marvelous given her tender age.

May this beautiful and strong flower of the ballet world continue to bloom wherever she is now.

George Balanchine and his ballerinas in "Jewels." Verdy was the one standing directly behind on, in the Emerald costume.

George Balanchine and his ballerinas in “Jewels.” Verdy was the one standing directly behind him, in the Emerald costume.

Farewell, Carla Körbes

I never saw Carla Körbes dance live, and the first time I ever watched her perform was her last. And how lucky I am that I did, thanks to the live streaming of her farewell performance on June 7 to a worldwide audience, credits to the company she retired from, Pacific Northwest Ballet—the first American company to ever broadcast an entire evening’s performance via live stream.

The program was a mixed bill event, and Carla was not the only one who bid farewell to an extremely enthusiastic audience. Soloist Kiyon Gaines also said goodbye with warm applauds from his loyal fans. The program that evening (morning here in Hong Kong) included six ballets.

The first one was “Dirty Goods,” choreographed by Andrew Bartee, with music by Oregon band The Chromatics. I don’t like the music but apparently a lot of audience members loved it—the immediate audience feedback is a special experience thanks to the chat room feature during the live stream (which became distracting sometimes). This modern piece reminded me of Trisha Brown’s style, with dancers dressed in casual wear dancing movements that remind one of everyday movements, against a backdrop of some video clips of a person walking in the forest and another hiking, etc. Interesting but not my cup of tea.

The second one, “Calling,” was the first appearance of Carla in the program. The opening of this short piece gave a stunning effect, with the 33-year-old Brazilian dancer clad in a super long creamy white dress that draped across the center stage, making mostly upper body movements. This piece is choreography by Jessica Lang (no, not that actress you might be thinking of) with music by Trio Mediaeval. The imagery from start to finish is a singular column of white with a towering feminine energy reaching out, out, and out. I was mesmerized and transfixed by this minimalist creation, reading into it my own struggle to reach for some distant dreams—life’s calling—with the feet planted firmly on the ground. When she did make that rare move with an arabesque or the lift of one leg, it accentuated the contrast of freedom and restraint. A very deep and spiritual performance. I can’t believe I was in tears already by the middle of this four-minute performance.

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“Calling”: Stunning costume, minimalist but intense choreography, supremely touching performance bt Carla Körbes.

 

The third ballet in the program was “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” choreographed by William Forsythe. I had never seen the entirety of this ballet until this time, and it was simply fabulous! The live music performance was a delightful switch from the use of recorded music in the previous two pieces. Long before I got to know about this ballet, I was already in love with the Pringle tutus. This was like a huge Pringle feast for me (not that I like the actual potato chips… yuck!).

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Pacific Northwest Ballet performs “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” by William Forsythe.

 

The next ballet, “Rassemblement,” is a contemp piece choreographed by Nacho Duato and featuring Elizabeth Murphy and Kiyon Gaines, who gave his final appearance before retirement. The music was beautiful but I wasn’t paying enough attention to the dance as I was distracted by the discussions among audience members on the screen 😦 Kiyon received many bouquets and lots of applause after the performance. One can tell that he is well loved by his fans.

The fifth piece consisted of excerpts from Balanchine’s “Jewels“. It was very cleverly arranged so that only the most dynamic and exciting parts of the ballet were included. It was a good introduction to those who have not seen the piece without stretching the time. The “Emeralds” act featured a pas de deux with Laura Tisserand and Charles McCall. The “Rubies” act featured a pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths. I have seen many version of “Rubies,” the most recent one being Bolshoi’s performance in Hong Kong, which I thought was a disappointment. By contrast, the performance by PNB dancers was a great success in my eyes.

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“Rubies” pas de deux with Jahna Frantziskonis and Benjamin Griffiths.

 

The highlight of Jewels was the “Diamonds” pas de deux featuring Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz. Carla had a short, creamy white bell-shaped tutu, which is quite different from the large pure white pancake tutu (similar to Odette’s) spotted in other productions. She looked sweeter than a cream cake and flowed beautifully in the stream of Tchaikovsky’s score. Her dance was grace and perfection embodied.

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“Diamonds” pas de deux with Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz.

Here is a video of the “Diamonds” pas de deux, posted by PNB afterwards:

https://www.facebook.com/PNBallet/videos/10153098827513952/

Then came intermission, and everyone in the virtual audience was chatting incessantly about how much they anticipated the grand finale, “Serenade.” But when we heard the music that so solemnly announced the beginning of the ballet, a black screen greeted us for what seemed like eternity! There was a technical glitch, which was finally resolved after a few minutes. As a result, the live stream audience missed seeing the most anticipated beginning. Nonetheless, some tried to calm others down by highlighting the fact that we were all extremely lucky to be able to see the live performance free at all! The whole experience itself was indeed history in the making.

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Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in a pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Serenade.”

The final scene of "Serenade," when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

The final scene of “Serenade,” when Carla was transported away from the stage with the escort of her fellow dancers.

 

Although the quality of the live stream was less than perfect, it was tolerable when watched without full screen. And I am actually OK with the reduced quality. My reasoning is that, if everyone can watch a live ballet performance at home at a high quality, what would entice people to go to the theater anymore? Sure, it would still be extremely difficult for someone with limited resources like me to travel to the other side of the globe to watch this performance live. But at least, to ensure the continuity of ballet as an art form, whose excitement largely hinges on the risks and uncertainties inherent in live performances, it is best to leave it alone to the exclusive experience of being personally at the theater.

Here are some scenes captured from Carla Körbes’ final curtain calls. She received so many flowers and the applause just didn’t want to stop!

Carla Körbes' curtain calls

Carla Körbes’ curtain calls

 

After her retirement, Carla will be married to Patrick Fraser, a photographer who published a photo book of her and shot this slow-motion portrait of her on video:

Best wishes to this phenomenal ballet dancer of our time, who cleverly left the stage before the stage left her.

Related Article:

DanceTabs’ interview with Carla Körbes:
http://dancetabs.com/2013/02/carla-korbes-pacific-northwest-ballet-principal/