Monthly Archives: February 2014

Shades, Ghosts and Birds: San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3

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My first glimpse of the magic that is “The Kingdom of the Shades” came when I was sixteen, via the opening sequences of the film The Turning Point. The music, the image of twenty-four women attired in white, descending a tiered ramp through silvery lighting, striking arabesques in perfect synchronicity, haunted me. Particularly once I got some backstory on La Bayadère. In Act II, Solor, a warrior, is grieving the death of his beloved Nikiya, a temple dancer, and this scene, in the Kingdom of the Shades, is merely an opium-induced hallucinogenic dream of Solor’s. It is, I quickly learned, one of the crowning glories of the corps de ballet repertoire.

On Saturday night I finally saw “The Kingdom of the Shades” live, performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It was an unforgettable image, the most compelling work on the night’s triple-bill performance. As I can’t very well show you what I saw live, here’s the Bolshoi’s rendition (with the Shades’ entrance beginning at roughly 3mn in. Check it out. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-4phC-CctQ)


 

Back to Saturday night’s performance at the War Memorial Opera House. The corps, descending the ramp to form six rows of four dancers, didn’t have quite the perfection of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers—arabesques weren’t at a uniform height 100 percent across the board, and a millisecond’s rush on coming out of the arabesques for some—but few companies in the world can outperform the Paris Opera Ballet here. And once San Francisco Ballet’s twenty-four Shades were in place, dancing with their slow, sustained développés and arabesques in unison, they shone. An unforgettable image, that mass of dancers in white tutus, moving as one. Soul-stirring.

Maria Kochetkova dancing as Nikiya did not disappoint—she never does, come to think of it. Guest artist Denis Matvienko, soloist with the Mariinsky, lent an exotic touch to the night’s casting, with a strong performance, but it seems the SFB men are so good to begin with, you can’t help but wonder why they pulled in an outsider. Give me Davit Karapetyan any time, thank you. Or Taras Domitro, Joan Boada. The three solo Shades, Frances Chung, Mathilde Froustey and Simone Messmer all had noteworthy performances. And, oh, my, the strength required to do the ultra-slow moves that Chung did so well. (A développé a la seconde, but en pointe, and holding the high extension while still en pointe.) I loved catching my first glimpse of both Froustey and Messmer in action. Gorgeous dancers, the both of them, and great additions to the company. (Read about this here: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/san-francisco-ballet-time/)

One regret is that the SFB chose to open the evening’s program with “Kingdom of the Shades” and not Ghosts. Commencing with the latter would have allowed audience members to appreciate the opener while savoring the anticipation of something more delicious to come. This way felt like eating dessert first, and made Ghosts seem a little like the vegetables.

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Ghosts is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, music by C.F. Kip Winger (who, interestingly, was a bassist for Alice Cooper in the 1980’s). Wheeldon is world-famous and much in demand, known for putting a contemporary twist on classical ballet steps, and vice-versa. In Ghosts, as principal Damian Smith phrased it in the program notes,  there’s “an intertwined, off balance partnership that never seems to unwind, a kind of thread that’s constantly knotted.” Great costumes, silvery, translucent and diaphanous like something out of a dream, by Mark Zappone. A Great Scary Thing abstract sculpture dangles high above downstage right. When it descends further, with a mechanical groan, the dozen(ish) dancers assembled glance up and over their right shoulders in unison, frozen in this tableau state for several seconds.

I found the dancing that followed to be beautiful, but curiously… un-engaging. There was nothing amiss, but nothing grabbed me by the heart and rocked my world. Not after Shades. I’d also been looking forward to seeing Damian Smith partnering Yuan Yuan Tan but, alas, those annoying eleventh-hour cast changes. I think this, too, tainted my appreciation. Lorena Feijoo seemed more power-house than nuanced, in an otherwise solid partnership with Gaetano Amico and Rubén Martin Cíntas. Yuan Yuan Tan was a standout with partner Vitor Luiz (although the fact that he wasn’t Damian Smith, who premiered this role with Tan in 2008, gave him an unmerited ding). Ensemble work was all solid and worthy—nods here to Dores André, Nicole Ciapponi and Shannon Rugani. Like I said, no complaints. But a plea to artistic direction: in the future, please don’t give us dessert first.

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In the way I’d hoped to fall in love with Ghosts, but didn’t, I hadn’t planned to fall in love with Firebird, but did. With music by Stravinsky, choreography by Yuri Possokhov, it was definitely not vegetables. Nor was it main course. More like an eclectic side dish you’d never tried before and found you liked. The first Firebird premiered in 1910, choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes, and this is one of many renditions that followed. It reminds me in some ways of the famous Rite of Spring which just celebrated its centennial last year. And perhaps that’s no surprise: same composer here, Stravinsky, and same choreographer, Yuri Possokhov (for the SFB’s version). And watching Firebird in its opening scene where Kaschei, the evil despot, and his creepy looking reptilian henchmen whirl about, Kaschei (played wonderfully by Pascal Molat) clutching a giant egg, the prize of all prizes, I felt the same gleeful energy that I observed in last year’s Rite of Spring premiere.

Yuan Yuan Tan as The Firebird was delightful to behold, her fire color more saffron than red. The unitard costume, by Sandra Woodall, dazzled me, as did Tan, with long red-orange hair cascading down her back, and a matching tail. Her dancing was explosive, playful and articulated. Watching her with that swishing tail and long red hair brought to mind one of those “My Little Pony” dolls that little girls have. Tell me if you agree. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3G2kitXwSY

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Drawn from Slavic folklore, the Firebird is a mythical creature that can bring good fortune, or bad, to those who capture it. In this ballet, the prince catches, and releases the Firebird, who aids him later in freeing the princess imprisoned by the evil Kaschei. Tiit Helimets as the prince was charming and likeable – I’ve considered him a rather aloof dancer in the past, albeit a highly competent one, as befits a longtime principal. Sasha de Sola was a delight as the princess, alternately sassy and girlish. Molat’s Kaschei managed to be both comical and menacing, and the prized giant egg, itself, almost seemed to be a character, one tossed back and forth between villain and hero. In one scene, the prince has the egg and is running, with Kaschei and his crew in furious pursuit. Of course they can’t run far; they are onstage. Possokhov cleverly inserts a slow-motion action that’s hilariously effective and makes you feel the speed and intensity of a chase scene. Great, memorable stuff.

Shades, Ghosts and Birds. You have until Sunday March 2nd to see the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 in action. Whatever order they put it in, the trio of tastings make for a satisfying, memorable night.

Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16”

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Last Friday night I attended Ballet San Jose’s “Neoclassical to Now,” the opening program of their 2014 season. Balanchine’s Serenade and Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop were recognizable and memorable, but I knew nothing about the evening’s third piece, Israeli choreographer’s Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. During the intermission just prior, someone dressed in a dark suit jacket and dress slacks, meandered onto the semi-lit stage and began to do his own little groove. Initially, it entailed a few desultory turns, more meandering, a few impromptu dance movements. The house lights were on; a good portion of the audience was distracted with conversation and/or out of the auditorium. Because, this wasn’t part of the performance, what was taking place onstage. Right? Or was it? Music was playing over the speakers, an irresistible cha-cha, but it had commenced at intermission, so no clues there. Thumbing through my playbill to consult the company roster, I was able to confirm that no, the person onstage dancing was not a confused and/or dangerously self-absorbed audience member. It was corps de ballet dancer James Kopecky. Which meant this was part of the performance. Or was it?

“No way,” I said to my husband, sitting next to me. “He’s just goofing around.”

“I think this might be the performance starting,” he said.

“But that’s impossible—half the audience isn’t paying attention.”

“I think that’s part of the performance too.”

It was funny as hell to watch; you never knew whether Kopecky was going to produce serious, “real” dance or clown around. One bit was a parody on Serenade, which had been the first ballet on the night’s program, where seventeen corps females stand solemnly, feet parallel, and on cue, all turn their feet out to first position, in perfect synchronicity. Very iconic. Kopecky’s Balanchine-esque echo segued, improbably, into Elvis-like hip gyrations. More craziness ended with a solemn, elegant, classical prep for chaîné turns. Which segued into more abstracted hilarity.

Ten minutes later, as other audience members returned to their seats, puzzled at the performance that seemed to have started without them, other dancers joined Kopecky onstage, attired in the same dark suits, each one slipping into his/her own dance groove. The house lights dimmed and there all of them were, dancing wildly, each one markedly different, like a something out of a Harlem Shake video clip.

Mr. Classical Girl had been right. The performance had begun.

It helps to make sense out of this madness if you know about Ohad Naharin and Gaga. (No relation to Lady Gaga. Please.) Naharin, choreographer of Minus 16, is the artistic director of the Israeli-based Batsheva Dance Company and the creator of a dance movement language he calls Gaga. It is a philosophy, a style of dance movement, that’s more about listening to our bodies than telling them what to do. It encourages dancers to liberate themselves from fixed notions about dance, stepping beyond training and discipline to connect with the soul, with inner creativity, with passion. It apparently encourages the audience, as well, to liberate themselves from notions of when the performance should begin. And as for how it will end, well, we’ll get to that later.

Minus 16, premiering in 1999, is a collection of vignettes culled from Naharin’s previous works. The music, too, is a startling amalgam, including the traditional “Echad Mi Yodea,” arranged and performed by rock group The Tractor’s Revenge, Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater,” the lone tick-tick of a metronome, and a techno-rendition of “Over The Rainbow,” to name but a few. I reviewed the evening’s program over at Bachtrack, which you can read HERE. Because I am lazy and don’t want to re-describe the same thing, here’s a nub of it.

“In the first vignette, the dancers are sitting in a wide semi-circle on metal fold-up chairs, dressed in suits, hunched over, weary-looking, elbows on knees. To the lively, effervescent ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ arrangement, the dancers throw their bodies and heads back against their chairs, one by one, eyes and arms to the sky, before returning to their hunch, creating a ripple effect. The exercise repeats itself, adding more exuberant synchronized movements each time, including pulling off clothing items and throwing them into a communal heap in the center.”

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It’s hard to explain why this is so irresistible and works so well, but it does. It was astonishing, mesmerizing. Ballet San Jose dancers performed it with perfect synchronicity, all of them literally hurling themselves into the performance. Here’s a link to Batsheva Dance Company performing it. They are the originals, but I have to say, I thought the Ballet San Jose performance was better, as good as it gets. The piece is a staple of the Alvin Ailey repertoire now, and you can find links to clips of their performance, as well, but I will still argue that their excellent performance didn’t surpass Ballet San Jose’s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktlzJ9IDjwE

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Sandwiched between the mad energy and electricity of the work’s opener and closer is a sensuous, thoughtful pas de deux, performed wonderfully on Friday night by corps dancers Lahna Vanderbush and Kendall Teague. To the music of Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater,” they move and sway, Teague approaching Vanderbush in an uneasy duet, his wiggling clasped hands before him, like a male preening in an elaborate courtship ritual in the animal world. Vanderbush both wary and intrigued, alternates between reaching for him, clinging, and moving abruptly away. Theirs is a mysterious, gorgeous pas de deux, with balances and holds like something out of Cirque du Soleil.

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The final part of Minus 16 really brings audience members to their feet. Um, literally. I won’t issue a spoiler here, but suffice to say, it’s one hell of a memorable finish to a memorable ballet/work. Go read my review if you want to know more. Or, better yet, go see a performance for yourself. Alvin Ailey Dance Theater will be performing this in the San Francisco Bay Area in April. And I have a hunch Ballet San Jose will be doing this one again.

Soon, we hope.

© 2014 Terez Rose

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Here’s an interview with Naharin about Gaga, and some of his dancers demonstrating its use. Good stuff:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGPG1QL1vJc

Nichelle at Dance Advantage has a great informative article on Gaga and Naharin that is considerably less wordy than mine (how does she do it?). http://www.danceadvantage.net/questions-about-gaga/

Be my Lupercalia Valentine

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So, a hunt for the origins of Valentine’s Day produces a variety of conflicting stories. Allow me to share my findings. Everyone seems to agree that centuries before Valentine was ever born, a festival called Lupercalia was celebrated annually. Back in the 700’s BC, Rome was but a shepherd settlement and hungry packs of wolves prowling through nearby woods were the greatest threat to the community. In mid-February the settlers held a purification and fertility festival, most probably honoring the pastoral deity, Lupercus. (Opinions vary here, but the festival is so old that even around the time of Christ, people argued about which god was being honored.) The celebration was said to ensure the safety and fertility of flocks, fields and people. Goats were sacrificed, blood was smeared on foreheads of a chosen few. Details here are specific: the blood was wiped with wool dipped in milk at which point the young men were required to laugh. Finally the priests (some say the besmeared young men), known as the luperci, ran around Palatine Hill and through the streets of Rome. Using whips fashioned out of strips of the sacrificed goat hide (called februa which comes from the Latin februare, “to purify,” which also gives us the month’s name), they lashed at people in their way. The young married women would push through the crowds for the privilege of being hit with the strap, thus ensuring fertility.

Apparently there was name-drawing too. Young women would put their names into an urn and the men would pick, paying special attention to the woman whose name he’d chosen. How far that attention went, well, let’s just say it was a time for “anything goes.”

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This festival connects with the story of Saint Valentine in the third century AD, during the rule of Claudius II, who prohibited marriage for his soldiers, wanting them free of any emotional attachment. Valentine was a humble Christian priest who performed clandestine marriage ceremonies for lovestruck soldiers. He was caught, jailed and finally beheaded on the eve of Lupercalia around 269 AD. He was canonized roughly 200 years later. (History shows us that there was a second Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, who was also martyred around the same time, but now some speculate that it was the same person. We’ll just ignore the inconsistency here.)

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When choosing holy days, the Christians were known to place them close to pagan festivals, a painless way to ease Christianity into Roman life and displace the original event. St. Valentine’s Day was set for the day before Lupercalia and Christian leaders began to downplay the usual raucous debauchery associated with Lupercalia. As the years passed, the februa flogging disappeared while the name-picking stayed.  Eventually, the pagan revelry was banned and only St. Valentine’s Day remained.

A third variable contributes to the way that we now celebrate the day.  Medieval Europeans believed that birds chose their mates around February 14th, as chronicled by Chaucer in the 1300’s who wrote, “For this was on seynt Valentynes day, whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.”  Young men therefore chose that day to exchange notes with sweethearts. History tells us that the first paper valentine was constructed in the 1500’s.  Shortly thereafter, Hallmark was born and has pretty much cornered the market on sentiment since.

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In truth, these days, I like my Valentine’s Day messages to be less syrup and more chuckle-worthy. Perhaps this comes from sharing a household with a teen boy. And so, as a Valentine to my son (and my husband can join us for the laughs), I present the tackiest/funniest Valentine’s Day images of the day, courtesy of CollegeHumor.com (http://www.collegehumor.com)

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Tasteless, offensive, crass… ah well. There you have it. For those of you now harboring a bad taste in your mouth, let me end with something… sweeter. And sincere wishes for a Happy Valentine’s Day.

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High Drama: Frank Almond and the Lipinski Strad

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One doesn’t think of the career of a professional violinist as being fraught with peril and high drama, but on the night of January 27th,  violinist Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and founder of the popular “Frankly Music” series, was leaving a chamber music performance in Wisconsin when a stranger approached him in the parking lot and shot him with a stun gun. As Almond fell to the ground, helpless, the assailant swooped down, grabbed Almond’s violin case and ran off, to a waiting getaway car. The vehicle peeled out of the parking lot, leaving Almond stunned, on the ground, and minus one very famous Stradivarius violin, the 1715 Lipinski Strad, valued at $5,000,000. Priceless, in truth. Irreplaceable.

I read this story earlier in the week, appalled by the overt nature of the theft, the targeting of one man, one violin, the stalking required, the planning, the use of a gun. This was far from the last stolen Strad story I shared with my readers, where the violinist had been distracted in a London train station sandwich shop, and the young thieves likely had no idea what they were getting. (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/stolen-stradivarius-recovered/)

The Lipinski Strad is an extremely high profile instrument and Almond is a very high profile violinist, well respected both locally and internationally. Both have been a source of media coverage in the past year, with the release of a CD, A Violin’s Life, which features Almond performing music that relates to the Lipinski Strad’s nearly 300 year old history. 1715 was at the height of Stradivarius’ golden era as a luthier. Giuseppe Tartini, composer and violinist extraordinaire, who composed “The Devil’s Trill,” first owned this instrument. Polish virtuoso Karol Lipinski played this violin. Almond, who plays the instrument on loan, courtesy of an anonymous donor, has devoted considerable energy to researching and making public the violin’s extraordinary life, through this CD. Is this, then, an ominous portent for prominent violinists, who will now forever glance over their shoulders warily as they walk out into the night, post-performance, precious instrument in hand?

It’s worth mentioning to non-violin folks that a theft like this isn’t like stealing a Rembrandt from a museum; it’s far worse. A professional violinist builds a powerful relationship with his/her instrument. Six to eight hours a day, on average, there it is, tucked right up under his/her chin, left arm and hand curved protectively around it to support it, play it, coax all those gorgeous sounds out of it. A lifetime of training has gone into the endeavor. Countless hours of frustration, sweat, toil, disappointment and triumph, and an almost fanatical devotion to the craft and that specific violin. For a violinist to lose such an instrument, particularly to theft, is personal agony atop extraordinary loss.

The story has a happy ending: on Wednesday, the Milwaukee police announced they’d taken suspects into custody, and on Thursday afternoon, reported that the instrument had been found, in a Milwaukee residence, in the attic. In a suitcase (yikes) but apparently undamaged.

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Ten days, from theft to retrieval. Way to go, Milwaukee Police department, Police Chief Edward Flynn, and FBI Arts Crime Team. Stories like this restore my faith in humanity and law enforcement. To thieves Salah Jones and Universal Allah, well, enjoy your time in prison, gents.

On Monday evening, Almond and the Lipinski Strad are scheduled for a performance that features the music from “A Violin’s Life.” It’s sure to be an incredible evening, compounded by all this high drama. Imagine if the violin were still missing? Would they have gone ahead with the performance? Earlier this week, as I read about the upcoming concert, I’d felt so sad for all involved. Now there’s a broad grin on my face. What a performance, indeed. What a story, for Frank Almond and the now-even-more-renown Lipinski Strad. Here’s wishing them both a hell of a show.

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Check out http://aviolinslife.org for great details about the Lipinski Strad, photos, its 300 year old history, and more about the “A Violin’s Life” project. Here, you’ll also find links to buying the CD, to Frank Almond’s own website, and information on his “Frankly Music” chamber music series, now in its tenth year. Also, Laurie Niles at Violinist.com had a great interview with him about “A Violin’s Life” back in May 2013, that’s a great read. http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20135/14636/