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

‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by Mikhailovsky Ballet

Mikhailovsky Ballet: "The Sleeping-Beauty" - www.balletomanehk.com
This year, the Hong Kong Arts Festival presented “The Sleeping Beauty” by Mikhailovsky Ballet of Russia. Like winning the lottery, I happened to have bought the tickets for the show with Polina Semionova and Leonid Sarafanov in the leading roles.

Prior to the performance, my biggest expectation was to see Polina and Leonid flaunting their extraordinary technique on stage, but the show turned out to give me so much more. I didn’t realize that the choreography is by Nacho Duato, a Spanish choreographer known for his European contemporary style. The changes from the “traditional version” with Petipa’s choreography and staged by the Mariinsky Theater, along with the brilliant costumes and sets designed by  Agnelina Atlagic, kept me wide awake the whole evening.

One refreshing change in Duato’s choreography is the absence of mimes. “I try to show the characters and their replationships through dance,” he said in an interview published in the playbill, adding that the mime scenes were a device in the old days for the principal dancers to take some time to rest in between, but due to the improved techniques and stronger dancers today, such a device is unnecessary.

With this change, the music becomes more alive with continuous dance movements without much slowing down of the momentum. Even the King and the Queen were seen dancing (the Queen visibly more), making them characters that are more vibrant.

When it comes to the movement style, the non-classical use of the arms and the head and  the sometimes exaggerated extension of the torso reminds me of William Forsythe–but dressed in Baroque costumes! To the traditionalists, this may look very jarring. But when this style was used by the fairies, it exudes a kind of oddity that is quite acceptable and amusing to me. After all, these are fairies with non-human qualities, and such movements add humor to the piece.

While many of Petipa’s classical steps have been altered, the overall feeling I got while watching the show was that the emphasis on the inner emotions of the characters trumps the flaunting of bravura techniques and high extensions. Many a high arabesque has given way to a more subdued line such as a lot of moderate back attitudes and low arabesques. There seems to be a more natural progression of the story line, with more subtle emotions conveyed as the number of exciting “tricks” was reduced.

Speaking of inner emotions, I really enjoyed the brilliant interpretations of Polina and Leonid in their respective roles. Polina was the perfectly convincing 16-year-old when she first appeared, innocent, wide-eyed, coquettish. When she was pricked by the huge needle given to her by Carabosse, you can literally see her energy diminish, as if her soul actually left her body on stage. I especially like the scene where she woke up after being kissed by the Prince and stumbled in a frail body before being able to walk again. The transition between a 100-year-old sleep wasn’t so abrupt as some of the other versions I have seen, where Aurora just perked up in a split of a second, ready to stand upright en pointe! (I later heard from my teacher, who was sitting very close to the stage, that Polina actually stumbled by mistake and made a thump, but it was a detail that I missed, being seated in the top circle).

Leonid also played his role as Prince Désiré extremely well, expressing a big contrast between how disinterested he felt about the women in the hunting scene and how he was enchanted by the Lilac Fairy and was later completely love-struck by the appearance of Aurora in a vision.

Without the miming, there was enough time for the characters to express their emotions more fully, and this was the biggest satisfaction that I got from Duato’s version.

Ekaterina Borchenko danced the Lilac Fairy and put up a strong performance. Her character played a heavier role than Petipa’s version, tying the various pieces of the plot with a red thread (or purple thread for that matter!). Some remarked though that the role should’ve been danced by a more experienced dancer who can hold down the ford.

The portraits of the fairies were a bit disappointing as the individual differences were not pronounced enough, neither through the choreography nor the music.

The Garland Waltz at the beginning of the ballet were danced by young adults instead of the usual children dancers in the original version, and the peach-green costumes really made the dancers look as if they were flowers swaying in the breeze.

I love the sets and the costumes. The contrasting lighting and colors of the sets between the scenes was a clever device to contrast the good with the evil, with black being the predominant color with every appearance of Carabosse, the evil fairy, whose costume and character play was outstanding.

As for the costumes, the ornamental Baroque style done in a restrained, minimalist way was a feast for the eyes. The colors were luxurious and harmonious. No wonder these costumes were worthy of a catwalk (see video below):

Now, let’s talk about the Rose Adagio, the highlight of every “Sleeping Beauty” production. I don’t recall seeing any actual roses received by Aurora during the scene. The four princes were given more frequent rounds to approach the Princess and so it appeared that each of them was given relatively less importance than in the traditional version. While Polina’s technique was impeccable, the focus of the dance, so tightly arranged, seemed to steer the audience in the direction of feeling the frustration of the Princess in having to choose among the four uninteresting princes rather than gasping at her technique alone. This subtle difference gives this adagio a refreshing feel.

The final wedding scene was wonderful and not too drawn out. I love the pussy cat scene a lot more than the Blue Bird, which did not show enough exuberance in my view. The solos and pas de deux by Polina and Leonid were the true highlights of the evening. Polina’s beauty and talent shined as brightly as her glittery tutu, while Leonid’s superior ballon and jumps were a show-stopper. There was a very sweet chemistry between the two.

All in all it was a very enjoyable performance, and it was a dream come true to see the two superstars of today’s ballet world up close!

Balletomanehk with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre - www.balletomanehk.com

Yours truly with Leonid Sarafanov at the Cultural Centre–Alas! The picture is so blurry due to my cheap smartphone, but still happy to have taken a snapshot with him. Wasn’t lucky enough to take a picture with Polina though.

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”

My Dad is Baryshnikov

Well, not really. That’s just the title of a Russian movie about a boy who is studying ballet in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

“Moy papa Baryshnikov” (2011), directed and written by Dmitry Povolotsky, is perhaps not too widely circulated outside of Russia and outside of the ballet circle. But for those of us balletomanes, this film is quite a gem. I enjoyed it not only for the ballet-oriented subject matter but also the clever treatment of the topic of a teenager’s coming of age and of the modern Soviet history of Perestroika.

The boy, Borya Fishkin, is played by Dmitry Vyskubenko (currently 16 years old), who in real life does study at the Bolshoi and is doing quite well—unlike in the film, where he plays an utterly clumsy and undisciplined ballet student who is always at the brink of being kicked out of the school.

In the beginning of the movie, Borya can hardly execute any proper positions and steps at all, and was constantly scolded by the teacher. The other classmates look down on him, except for one red-haired girl who seems to care about him. But his eyes are on the most beautiful and talented girl in the class.

While Borya is deeply in love with ballet, he is also very enthusiastic about all things from the West. Having some shady friends on his side, he regularly engages in black-market trading activities—selling Soviet souvenirs to American tourists at the Red Square in exchange for the American dollar, a banana or a pair of Levi’s jeans.

One day, his mother gives him an “illegal” tape containing footage of Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing on stage in America. Borya is spellbound. “He is God!” he proclaims. By coincidence, his friend sees that tape and comments very lightheartedly that Borya looks like Baryshnikov. This gives him the idea that Baryshnikov could be his father. His defection to the West must have been the reason why Borya ends up without a father! Bingo!

This “realization” changes Borya’s entire outlook. He starts to practice turning and bowing by watching the video tape over and over again. At school, his pirouette skills impresses the teacher and the classmates. He has suddenly become the center of gossips. Is he really the son of Baryshnikov?

The intrigue deepens while many opportunities open up to Borya, including the beautiful girl’s attention for him and a chance for him to take the lead role in an important school performance.

However, the story takes another turn from then on. I probably should not spoil the ending.

The actor who plays Borya is very convincing. Not only does he play a likable character, the feigned clumsiness in dancing must have been quite a feat for a serious dance student. All the skills must be unlearned and ugliness shown instead.

I also enjoyed seeing the portrayal of the Soviet society at the cusp of the breakdown of Socialism. I compare that to China under the Mao era, of which my parents have told many stories. It seems that there were still many more “luxuries” in the Soviet Union than in China, despite the prevalent lack of material comfort. What was common between the two societies was the rarity of meat and the need to line up for a long time in front of a shop for simple grocery items.

As for the coming-of-age theme, I really like the moment of epiphany when Borya “realizes” his status as the son of an international superstar, someone who is utterly different—which is what he strives for in a society where sameness is encouraged and individuality suppressed.

Because of the change in his belief system, his self-esteem suddenly goes through the roof and his performance shoots up miraculously! Of course, it is an exaggeration, a literary device in a fictional work. Still, isn’t true that when we climb out of the boundaries of the box we put ourselves in and believe in something larger, higher and more fabulous, “miracles” can indeed happen? And this doesn’t just apply to dancing. It applies to every area of our lives. It’s about living our fullest potential.

If it helps, find a role model, an archetype or a hero with whom you identify.

Feel the power of your own potential.

Allow the miracle in your life to unfold.

A recent video of Dmitry Vyskubenko practicing a variation in Don Quixote.

Related links:

The movie with Chinese subtitle available here.

What is the Mikhail Baryshnikov doing these days? Check out this video:
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