Balletomanehk’s 2014 in Review

A big thanks to those of you who have been reading my blog. Due to a major surgery, 2014 was an inactive year in terms of my ballet dancing. It pretty much reset my technique back to square one. But during those inactive months, I devoured books, videos, articles and images of ballet the same way a starving person devours every piece of food in sight. I imagined myself dancing and tried to activate the brain cells related to dance and movement. I even managed to watch a few live performances. Well, it wasn’t nearly as bad being an armchair dancer after all. What will 2015 bring? I certainly hope to continue to bring you interesting content in the upcoming year! Dance on, my ballet friends!

The WordPress.com has prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,500 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

A-Life-in-Motion

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.

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Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo Catalog

Ballets Russes Catalog

In my meager vintage collection of ballet memorabilia,there is an original “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo” playbill/catalog for the season 1938-1939. Léonide Massine was the artistic director for the company, which was run by S. Hurok at that time.

It’s interesting to see the important role ballet played in entertaining the people in that era. Ballet dancers seemed to be regarded the same way as glamorous movie stars and enjoyed the status of celebrities.  In the top right corner of the collage, you can see a picture of Alexandra Danilova sitting next to Salvador Dali; in the picture below, you can see Dali and Henri Matisse in a rehearsal, where Massine was present as well. Some of the big head shots of ballerinas look like those black-and-white portraits of actresses in the golden Hollywood era, while others look a bit like pin-up portraits.

Besides photos of dancers, paintings of costumes and set designs, and synopses of the ballets being performed during the season, there are many advertisements throughout the catalog, selling perfumes, cosmetics, department stores, restaurants, hotels and even apartments. In addition, there are smaller ads of dance schools, books and magazines.

Through the synopses of the ballets, one can discern the high level of creativity and productivity at that period–and prior to that, during the time of the original Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.

To give you a glimpse of the diversity of the repertoire, here are some of the various numbers listed in the catalog:

  • “L’Epreuve d’Amour, or the Chung-Yang and the Mandarin”, a ballet in one act designed by Andre Derain and Michel Fokine in a “chinoiserie” spirit, set against the “pseudo-Chinese” scores of Mozart (once lost but rediscovered in the 1930’s). For a Chinese, this theme is very intriguing and I would really love to see this one being performed today!
  • “St. Francis” (American premiere), choreographic legend in one act and five scenes, music by Paul Hindemith, choreography by Léonide Massine.
  • “Le Beau Danube,” music by Johann Strauss, story and choreography by Léonide Massine.
  • “Les Elfes,” ballet in one act, music by Mendelssohn, choreography by Michel Fokine.
  • “Coppelia ou La Fille Aux Yeud D’Email” (Coppelia or the Girl with the Enamel Eyes), ballet in three acts, music by Léo Delibes, choreography by Nicholas Sergueff after Ivanov and Mérante.
  • “Icare,” choreographic legend in one act, choreography by Serge Lifar, percussion arrangement by J. E. Szyfer.
  • “Don Juan,” choreographic tragi-comedy in three tableaux after G. Angiolini, music by Gluck, new version by Eric Allatini and Michel Fokine.
  • “The Seventh Symphony,” music by Beethoven, theme and choreography by Léonide Massine.

Sometimes I’d dream of living in the early 1900’s so I could watch the dancers of Les Ballets Russes perform live, and partake in the excitement of the constant creation of new works for a wide-eyed audience that was not yet blasé.

Giselle… Love’s Eternal Tragedy

Giselle

Two nights ago I attended a performance of Giselle at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It was part of the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival. The touring company was Milan’s La Scala Theatre Ballet and the leading roles were danced by Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg, two of the world’s top dancers today.

Act I was delightful in the beginning and absolutely captivating at the end thanks to the marvelous performance of Zakharova and Hallberg, but the peasant dances made me yawn and wish I had a remote control to fast forward to where the two stars would appear again!

While Zakharova’s slim, tall and bony physique and generally cool facial expressions may not lend herself to be that perfect sweet peasant girl, I was quite satisfied about her role-play. She did manage to convince me of being an innocent, happy-go-lucky girl who experienced love for the first time. Her super archy feet are very expressive. Her pale and frail body was actually ideal for highlighting the part of the story line where she fell ill from her heart condition after exhausting herself from dancing.

It was the mad scene that made me cry. Tears welled up so much that my vision was blurred. When Giselle lost her mind, it brought forth a universal theme of love’s betrayal, something that so many of us have experienced or witnessed. Zakharova’s acting in this scene was superb. I like how her feet—not just her face—so sensitively expressed her melancholy. She did not go into full-scale hysteria when interpreting this scene, like in some other versions I have seen. Her descend into death was a gradual loss of senses and increase of agony. This was what made her emotions so real, and what provoked that heart-wrenching cry from me.

Hallberg was beautiful and charming as he always is–his physical appearance just perfect for the role of the nobility Albrecht. His performance was impeccable.

The role of Giselle’s mother was rather weak, compared with the ABT (recorded) version I have seen, in which she played more of a controlling matriarch, chastising Giselle and trying all she could—with physical rigor—to separate the young couple who had just fallen in love.

The soloists and corps de ballet from La Scala gave a very disappointing performance. Their jumps were heavy and extension quite poor. Luckily in the first act they were peasants, so despite the poor techniques, it did not feel so jarring. It was in the second act that these flaws really showed. As willies, or ghosts of the forest, their pointe shoes were noisy, their landings were heavy, the port de bras not so graceful, and their formation dances sometimes felt like zombie dances. As a friend of mine said, the company had chosen its supplemental corps on this tour, probably because it did not take Hong Kong seriously. While Nicoletta Manni, who played Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, generally danced beautifully and did not make too many faults in her performance, a good number of her jumps just felt like big thumps on the floor. Her face was not stern enough as the evil queen of the ghosts, and I feel that a taller dancer would be more suitable for this role.

Svetlana Zakharova as Giselle

By contrast, the two stars’ performance in Act 2 was the highlight of the night. I “ate up” every movement, every phrase, every gesture and facial expression, at times hard, as my vision was blurred again by my tears. Zakharova was perfect for the role as a ghost thanks to her physique and her melancholic facial expressions. Hallberg’s expression of remorse and his powerful yet graceful jumps were a delight to watch. I feel a lot of stage chemistry between them in this act. The archetypal ideal of love that transcends all human faults, including betrayal and jealousy, was so vividly portrayed. It was all very emotionally touching, and utterly devastating that the two lovers could not consummate their love due to the circumstances in “real life.” This is the eternal tragedy of love, a recurring theme in countless artistic and literary works. It makes me question: Are we condemned in this human condition forever and ever?

Perhaps that “living-happily-ever-after” ending of fairy tales are just what it is–fairy tales. That eternal longing for unattainable love is perhaps what makes love as a concept so romantic and tragic at the same time.

Ballet: My Faithful Companion Through Thick and Thin

Pied sur la Barre

“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world.”
~Nelson Mandela (July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013)

This is very true in my case. Ballet—that perfect combination of music, dance and, above all, beauty—gives my soul the comfort, solace and healing that I need, a refuge from the rough edges of reality, a glimpse of the Truth that is ever-lasting and irrefutable.

Since I started learning the art form, my earthly life has tumbled through the deep valleys of darkness over and over. Ballet often manages to transport me to Cloud Seven, that completely happy, perfectly satisfied, euphoric state.

Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

“Margot Fonteyn Autobiography” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1976)

Fonteyn Autobiography Collage

In Fonteyn’s autobiography, her voice reflects a cheerful personality, always looking at the world with a sense of innocent wonder, gratitude and humor. Sure enough the Prima Ballerina Absoluta had endured much hardship in her life, ranging from her physical pain as a result of dancing so much and so hard, to the tough marriage with her Panamanian politician husband who was shot in a coup d’etat and became paralyzed the rest of his life. Seldom do we hear any whining or complaints from her account. I imagine her to be an extraordinarily strong woman. I was a little surprised she did not give as much coverage on her relationship with Rudolph Nureyev, her epic stage partner, as I expected. But we did get a good glimpse of how it was for her to work with the many male dance partners she had throughout her long and luminous career.

Being a Chinese, I especially enjoyed reading her accounts of her early life in Shanghai and Tianjin! She even visited Hong Kong in her childhood and met a tall Norwegian in Repulse Bay who told her all about Russian ballet. Here is an excerpt:

“The following summer that I spent on the beach in Hong Kong was the most important of my childhood because I literally lived in the sea from morning till night, swimming and diving until water was the most natural element for me to inhabit. A tall Norwegian, who had spent several years as a diplomat in Russia before the Revolution, was my great friend. He was a handsome man, big-boned but lean and well-preserved with the blue eyes of a sailor, and he loved dancing. At every tea dance in the Repulse Bay Hotel we waltzed and foxtrotted and danced the paso doble, he so tall and me a little shrimp of eleven years, but in perfect harmony. I could say it was my first dancing partnership. He had loved the ballet in St. Petersburg and Moscow, knew about all the ballerinas and talked to me for hours on the beach about Tamara Karsavina in Sleeping Beauty. My uninformed mind could not visualize the delights he was describing, as I did not know at that time what a big ballet company was. Many years later I danced in Oslo, where I got a letter that said: “I wonder can the famous Margot Fonteyn be the little Peggy I used to know in Hong Kong?” Enclosed was a snapshot of us sitting together on the beach, and written across the back were the words, This is Peggy, she swims like a fish and dances like a ballerina. It was dated Summer, 1930.”

 I was surprised to hear about Fonteyn’s insecurity regarding her technique and performances. In fact, she had to overcome some physical limitations in order to dance properly. Her humility is something that I did not expect of a Prima Ballerina Absoluta and a Dame.

Overall, a really enjoyable book.

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!