Eifman Ballet’s ‘Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death’

Eifman Ballet: Tchaikovsky: Pro et Contra--Curtain Call at New York City Center - Balletomanehk.com

What a wonderful performance of “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death” by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg! The company has just concluded its tour in New York at the City Center as part of its North American tour to … Continue reading

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.

My Connection to Margot Fonteyn

My headline may have you fooled into thinking that I have any sort of personal relationship with Margot Fonteyn. Well, in that case I have succeeded 😉

To say that I have a connection with her is actually not that far-fetched, even though such a connection is not personal.

What ties me to this prima ballerina absoluta, who still is very much alive in many balletomanes’ hearts, are two vintage items that I have collected.

The first can be considered my favorite piece of ballet memorabilia in my meager collection: An autographed copy of “The Magic of Dance,” written by Fonteyn herself.

The Magic of Dance by Margot Fonteyn - © www.balletomanehk.com

I acquired this book a few years ago from someone who apparently did not know who Fonteyn is, and was thus selling the book on eBay at an extremely reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised to find the ballerina’s autograph in the book as well as a pamphlet for a luncheon held in London to mark the publication of this book. Whenever I look at her autograph and touch the title page, a special kind of awe springs from deep inside me. Unfortunately, the pamphlet has been lost during a recent move. Luckily I have scanned the cover. I remember the inside spread shows the rest of the guest list as well as a seating plan.

The Magic of Dance Luncheon Pamphlet - © www.balletomanehk.com
In the book, there are a few lovely pictures of the dancer herself, including one taken inside the Drottningholm Theatre in Stockholm (which I had the great opportunity to visit one time), one in Shanghai and one in Athens. She wrote about dance history and all forms of dances in the book, not just ballet. Not surprisingly, one can find quite a lot of photos of her dance partner Rudolph Nureyev. This book has a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

The other item I want to share with you is a vintage ballet postcard showing Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Act I. On the back of the postcard, a beautifully handwritten message says: “June 16, 1953 Covent Garden, ‘Sylvia’ Sadlers Wells Ballet. Margot Fonteyn – Sylvia, Michael Somes – Aminta. Beautiful setting and decor. Superlative dancing by both of the “stars” – also, by John Hart (Orion) and Alexander Grant (Eros). The group dancing was also near perfection.”

There is something magical in reading someone’s handwritten note that summarizes a ballet performance in such earnestness, albeit in great brevity. The magic lies in the nostalgia of a bygone era. Today, most people would not take the time to do this sort of thing. A selfie inside the theater, a short status update on Facebook or a review on a blog are the most common ways to record our experience at the dance theater. But a handwritten note on a postcard? This just feels so much more tactile, more real. Not a bad idea to revive this practice, eh?

Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty, 1953 - www.balletomanehk.com

Today, it is not difficult to find tons of digital images of ballet stars past and present. But owning a postcard like this helps to shorten the distance between me and the dancer. This postcard is framed and sitting on my desk, and Margot Fonteyn continues to inspire me with her beauty, grace, elegance and strength.

What are your favorite ballet memorabilia? I would love to hear from you.

Related article:

Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

Congrats, Misty!

Photo by New York Dance Project

 

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!

Related articles:

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland Is Promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater (The New York Times)

Misty Copeland’s success shows ballet leaping in the right direction (The Guardian)

Geeking Out With Misty Copeland’s First Ballet Teacher On The Bigness Of Today (Huffington Post)

Misty Copeland, New York Dance Project

Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Original Short on Misty Copeland

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.

Carla-Körbes-Calling

“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!).

PNB_Livestream_The-Vertiginous-Thrill-of-Exactitude

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.

PNB_Livestream_Rubies

“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.

Carla-Körbes-Diamonds3

“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.

PNB_Livestream_Seranade4

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/

Maya Plisetskaya: The Forever Swan

Maya Plisetskaya

Legendary Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya passed away of a heart attack in Germany last night. She was 89 and survived by her husband Rodion Shchedrin, a world-renowned composer. Read the news here: http://bit.ly/1zF5mWM

Born in Moscow on November 20, 1925, Plisetskaya was one of only two ballerinas in the Soviet Union who received the honorable title of “Prima Ballerina Assoluta,” the other being Galina Ulanova.

Plisetskaya  joined the Bolshoi Theater at the age of 18 and continued to perform until she was 65. Her delicate performance of “The Dying Swan” in Tokyo at the “high” age of 61 left an indelible impression on audience all over the world.

In real life, not only was she NOT dying but thriving for almost another 30 years, choreographing and giving master classes. Not so long ago, I saw a picture of her attending a performance featuring Diana Vishneva, Russian ballet diva of our times, and the love she shared so generously with the star of the new generation.

Besides “The Dying Swan,” her dancing in “Carmen Suite” and “Bolero” were phenomenal.

Here is a documentary of Plisetskaya made in 1964 in the Soviet Union, Plisetskaya Dances (DVD available here).

And here is something more recent: a TV program celebrating her 80th birthday:

Because of her vitality and longevity, many people in the ballet world actually never thought she would die!

Plisetskaya a exemplifies how a true artist can make an indelible impact in millions of people’s hearts. Her beauty is beyond society’s limited definitions. It emanates directly from her soul–ageless and timeless. It is very touching to know how she has dedicated her entire life to artistic work in lieu of raising children. She has lived a long and fulfilling life. This ballet star will forever shine in the sky!

Related blog:

Gramilano: “Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya dies at 89”