Category Archives: Ballet

Musings of a former ballet dancer who’s returned, years later, to the studio as a student.

Khachaturian’s Sizzling Piano Concerto

Nothing in the classical music repertoire says “summertime” more to me than Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. I discovered this Soviet era gem three summers ago and my first thought, (after “WOW!”) was, How did this elude me up to now? Blame it on the fact that it’s rarely performed in concert halls these days. But make no doubt, it’s a sizzler. It’s decisive, flamboyant, arrives and departs in a pyrotechnic dazzle. Its first and third movements are a textured, color-filled feast for the ears. Its second movement melts your heart. Does the concerto lack a certain nuance found in other composers’ piano concertos, as some will argue? I’ll throw my analogy back at you: does the height of summer lack nuance? Hell, yeah! Nuance belongs to fresh, early May mornings and golden, late September afternoons. Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto belongs right here, with the heat, the direct, can’t-escape-it sunlight, the sultry evenings luring you outdoors to regard the massive, star-studded sky, where you think, “Wow.”

 

Khachaturian was born in 1903 to ethnic Armenian parents in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, where he was also raised. He was self-taught on the piano in his youth, and only later did he receive formal training, in Moscow. I’ve always grouped him in my mind with two other well-known Soviet era composers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. But a little background research on him revealed quite a different kind of Soviet. The other two composers frequently railed against the constraints of the Soviet regime, its stronghold on the arts. Khachaturian, on the other hand, embraced Communism and its ideology. Age fourteen at the start of the Russian Revolution, which soon established Soviet rule in Armenia (1920) and Georgia (1921), he took to it all with a teen boy’s fervor, signing on to join the propaganda tours via trains that traveled up and down the newly created Soviet corridor and pounded out ideological speeches and songs. The powerful connection between music and message exploded within him and he decided to embark on a musical career. Although he’d enrolled in the study of biology at a Moscow university, he nonetheless applied to the Gnessin School of Music, where he was accepted as a student of the cello. Music and composition became all that mattered in his world, and when the Moscow university expelled him from the biology program, he likely only thought, “Whew.” Thereafter, he moved on to the Moscow Conservatory, intent on creating music that “expressed the Soviet people’s joy and pride in their great and mighty country.”

“Wait,” you’re probably saying. “He’s an Armenian composer. Or is he a Soviet composer? Or Georgian—wasn’t he native to there?” Good point. Because, to complicate things further, although he is known as Armenia’s greatest composer, and is one of that nation’s greatest cultural heroes, he never set foot into Armenia until the period of the propaganda train tours, in his late teens. And he didn’t make an official visit to Armenia until 1939, three years after he composed his Piano Concerto. But make no doubt about it—he saw himself as an Armenian composer first. See, this was during the Armenian diaspora, and he and his family were part of an Armenian enclave in Tbilisi. Actually, all of it was part of a region called Transcaucasia, that included Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In a 1952 article entitled “My Idea of the Folk Element in Music,” Khachaturian wrote the following:

“I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards and musicians – such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking.”

The Soviet regime adored Khachaturian, his work, his powerful commitment to his Armenian heritage and Communism both. In him they found the perfect vehicle to demonstrate how the Soviet nations outside Russia were equally valued, and delivered an equally strong message that matched theirs. Which was hugely important for a composer during this time. (just ask the less obliging Shostakovich.) In Joseph Stalin’s own words, a composer in Soviet society had to be “an engineer of the human soul by writing music that communicates directly with the common man and instills in listeners loyalty to the ideals of Communism, love for the Soviet Union, and pride in the working class.”

Khachaturian’s piano concerto was composed in 1936, while he was a post-grad student at the Moscow Conservatory, under the tutelage of the great pedagogue, Nikolai Myaskovsky, who encouraged Khachaturian’s use of folk music and ethnic flavors in his compositions. It premiered in 1937. With its driving rhythms, distinct flavors, accessibility and charm, it was an instant success. Khachaturian garnered high Soviet honors and his career instantly took off. He would continue in his highly successful, highly public career, to give the Soviet regime what they wanted, and they would continue to reward him for it. Between 1936 and 1946, Khachaturian wrote a set of three concerti for the piano trio of Lev Oborin (piano), David Oistrakh (violin), and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (cello).

Give the first movement a listen, and we’ll talk more afterwards. it features pianist Alicia de Larrocha with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rafael Frückbeck de Burgos conducting, who  all balance nicely the bombastic with the thoughtful. And there’s a treat in store: this is one of the few recordings that, in the second movement, utilizes the flexatone, a strange little steel instrument invented in Britain in 1922, which produces a sound like what you’d get if you mixed a musical saw with a poorly-tuned (and played) glockenspiel. (Stop scratching your head in confusion and just go LISTEN. And if you can explain it better, in the comments section below, I will give you a prize. Pinky swear.)


What did you think? Even though I’m a strings person and would normally gravitate first to the violin concerto, or its cello counterpart, it’s this Piano Concerto that has stolen my heart. I’m so intrigued by to those delicious, slightly dissonant chords — Khachaturian loved incorporating intervals of the second. He also embraced the Oriental music idiom, which surely pairs well with Armenian folk music.

And that second movement — oh wow, it never fails to cast a spell on me. It creates such a vivid inner state, the way the full moon on a warm summer’s night makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into another realm. Lying in the grass, looking up at the stars, everything tight in you eases and the world of imagination and possibility unfurls before you like a grand, endless, magic carpet. Story has it, it’s based on a Transcaucasus melody. A bass clarinet introduces and ends the movement. A new instrument for me; I’d been so sure it was a double bassoon, so deep and gorgeously brooding, but nope. Here, the bass clarinet is utilizing its full range—an octave below the more common soprano clarinet. It lends the movement its unique sound (the bass clarinet is more common in concert bands than in classical orchestration), along with that flexatone. Most recordings don’t use the flexatone, and instead let the violins carry the melody, which is a shame. Once you’ve heard a recording with the flexatone, without it, the strings seem to muddy what was mystical and wonderfully spooky. And the piano dialogues differently with a solo instrument. But, with or without flexatone, the movement is just stunning. Lush, spacious and so viscerally satisfying. And again, there’s that dissonance in the chords that works so deliciously. Remember what I said above about Khachaturian’s love of incorporating intervals of the second” ? That’s what you’re hearing.

Here is the second movement on its own. Very much worth a listen even though it doesn’t have the flexatone. The soloist is Aram Avetyan, it’s the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eduard Topchjan.

Khachaturian has got a rollicking good violin concerto too, and a cello concerto that doesn’t strike me as mind-blowing as the piano concerto, but let me know if you disagree. Khachaturian was more prolific than a lot of people realize, probably because, as a Soviet composer, much of his work found a home only in the (former) USSR. He composed quite a few film scores, which I hadn’t realized. In later years, he composed another set of three concertos — actually, concerto rhapsodies, which are a “single-movement, multi-sectioned concept balanced between cadenza and fantasy.” My ballet readers will know and love more than one Khachaturian composition, maybe not even realizing who the composer was for the Bolshoi’s ballet, Spartacus, and its gorgeous, romantic Adagio pas de deux. And the sweeping “Masquerade Suite.” And the Soviet ballet, Gayaneh.

Here are links to some of the things he composed (some of which might surprise you):

  • The Sabre Dance. You’ve heard it. Trust me. Head’s up: if Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” kind of annoys you and/or gives you a headache, well, brace yourself. This one’s worse. https://youtu.be/gqg3l3r_DRI
  • The 1942 ballet, Gayaneh https://youtu.be/_JlGS1m1PL4
  • From the above ballet, this stunning violin adagio: https://youtu.be/K6ZBSdjzKfk It’s featured in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and also heavily borrowed from by James Horner for his soundtrack to Aliens.
  • Violin Concerto (features violin legend David Oistrakh, and Khachaturian himself composing) https://youtu.be/TeKZAbFj83I
  • Cello Concerto https://youtu.be/HbkWS8wXqMg
  • Spartacus Ballet, the Bolshoi production, the Adagio pas de deux. (A MUST CLICK for any ballet dancer reader – the music plus movement will utterly transport you.) https://youtu.be/gVX0BoXc_Jk 
  • Adagio from Spartacus for music purists https://youtu.be/LZLMKkEGFRo This one is all sound, no ballet, and I think its sound says it all. A more nuanced listening experience than the above.
  • Here is my absolute fave, “Masquerade Suite.” The ballet dancer in me was instantly smitten upon hearing this, decades ago. The love has never abated. In fact, let’s embed so all can enjoy.

Sibling rivalry – when your sister’s a dancer too

The story is as familiar as it is painful to many a dancer. A promotion or a lead role, just within reach, is irrevocably lost, given to another dancer. Someone you admire and respect, someone you might have toiled and danced alongside for years. Now you’re hurting, and all you want to do is go home, grieve, cry, vent, in the security of your home. Only this time it’s more complicated.

This time the other dancer is your sister.

While I myself have five sisters, none shared my passion for ballet while growing up, so as an adult, I decided to explore the situation fictionally. In my 2016 novel, Outside the Limelight, professional dancer Dena, three years her sister Rebecca’s junior, gets the promotion to soloist that Rebecca had been anticipating. The story, if you haven’t yet read it, follows the sisters’ ensuing relationship, through its bumps, challenging circumstances, dramas and traumas, and the ultimate realization that the bond of sisterhood surpasses all others

Real-life ballet sister scenarios play out quite frequently, I’ve since discovered. In a 2013 New York Times article, Patricia and Jeannette Delgado, both principals with Miami City Ballet, discussed their own situation. Much like in my novel, younger sister Jeanette, after years of being the subordinate, excelled extravagantly, prompting dance critic Alastair Macaulay to call her “one of the world’s most marvelous ballerinas.” Patricia, older by two years, was taken aback. In the article, she shares that, “I closed my eyes and opened them, and said, ‘Oh, my God. My sister is amazing,’ I knew she would have opportunities I wouldn’t get, and that was the first time I was dealing with that.” In the long run, however, Patricia credited Jeanette’s success as helping her to elevate her own dancing. “She was blowing me away, and I said, ‘I’ve got to turn it up.’ ” And she went on to do just that. (Read the full article here.)

Ballet sisters Zippora and Romy Karz, who both danced with the New York City Ballet (shown below together, and below that, with their other two siblings) offered their own perspective.

“I am blessed—my sister is my best friend,” said Zippora, the eldest, who rose to soloist rank. “We went through growing-up years, for sure, and I didn’t always turn to her, but she was always there. Romy and I were very different dancers and personalities, and different life happenings, so I don’t think we ever compared ourselves to each other.”

Romy, three years younger, agreed. “I never put myself on her level, and so the competition was not a struggle. I loved being her sister. When I first started at the School of American Ballet, she wouldn’t let me live with her. She wanted me to carve my own place, and for her to have hers, without taking care of me. Within a year, we found great comfort in our relationship with each other, and the desire to live together because we actually wanted to. Being her sister felt like a great honor to me.”

Challenges for ballet sisters can come in other forms. Zippora, who wrote The Sugarless Plum, a memoir chronicling her battle with Type 1 diabetes while dancing, did not share her illness with the other dancers. This increased the sisters’ closeness. “I knew of her incredible struggles with her health,” Romy said. “I knew how hard it was, so I worried a lot about her. That was stressful for me. It was hard to separate from my connection and caring of her, within company life.”

Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet, had not one but two ballet sisters, growing up. From the family’s home base in San Rafael, the three of them trained at the Marin Ballet. Mindy was five years older than Lauren, Corinne two years younger. All three went on to dance professionally, although Mindy was forced to retire at a very young age due to a bad foot injury that never healed properly. Lauren joined the Milwaukee Ballet after completing training, and Corinne joined the Houston Ballet.

Here, then, is another challenge ballet dancer sisters face: the prospect of being geographically separated. Cuban sisters and principal dancers Lorena and Lorna Feijóo spent their professional careers in San Francisco and Boston respectively. Sisters Maria Sascha and Nadia Khan, Montana natives, are based in Russia and Rome (and have two brothers, also professional ballet dancers, based in London and St. Petersburg). The Jonas sisters dispersed to New York, Milwaukee and Houston.

“It’s hard being in different companies,” Lauren admitted. “Living far apart, not being able to seeing the other dance, after those years of training together. You’re used to having that support right there, and then it’s gone.”

Years later, in an intriguing twist, Lauren co-founded Diablo Ballet, and a few years later Corinne joined the company, the two younger sisters finally dancing together on the same professional stage. This did, however, bring new sister-related challenges: Lauren had to refrain from showing any administrative favoritism toward this new dancer who was also her sister.

Lauren and Corinne Jonas. Photo by Ashraf

I asked Lauren what helped the two of them overcome any sense of competition in their youth. “It helped that we were very different dancers,” she replied. “I was very Don Q, good at fouettés, jumps, pirouettes. Corinne was more Juliet, lyrical and flowing. Although, we looked alike and choreographers liked playing around with that.” In choreographer Sally Streets’ 1997 ballet, Encores, Lauren danced in front of a mirror, where she encountered her mirrored self: her dancing sister.

I asked these ballet professionals what kind of advice regarding sibling rivalry they might offer today’s aspiring ballet dancer sisters. All were in agreement: figure out what you yourself are good at, what makes you unique, and work to improve and refine that.

“We all have to carve out who we are,” Romy said. “It’s a natural thing to feel jealous of someone who has what you want, and that may be better arches, extensions and parts in a ballet, and that may be your best friend, your worst enemy or your sibling. I think it’s healthy to feel what you’re feeling, and then to examine what you can do about it. Harboring those feelings won’t bring you closer to your own goals, but focusing on your own work and keeping your focus on your own goals will.”

Classical Girl (in orange) with her own sisters.

Here are but a few names of professional ballet dancer sisters through the past generation. Can you add to the list?

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief
Patricia and Coleen Neary
Johnna and Gelsey Kirkland
Tina and Sheri LeBlanc
Kathleen and Margaret Tracey
Laura and Elise Flagg
Svetlana and Yulia Lunkina
Leigh-Ann and Sara Esty
Mary Mills Thomas and Melissa Thomas
Zenaida and Nadia Yanowsky

This article first appeared at Dance Advantage with The Classical Girl’s permission.

© 2017 Terez Rose

SFB’s Unbound: a Festival of New Works

Looking for The Classical Girl’s review of Program B? Here you go! www.bachtrack.com

Prepare yourself, dance world. San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound, a festival featuring twelve new works, is about to land in San Francisco. And it’s going to be big. An unprecedented, mind-expanding, creatively explosive extravaganza that includes the following:

  • Twelve internationally acclaimed choreographers
  • Four programs running through seventeen days
  • Twelve world premieres
  • Glorious, fresh, neoclassical ballet
  • Boldly inventive experimental ballet
  • Music that runs the gamut from classical to electronica
  • An affiliated symposium open to the public
  • Choreographer interviews and rehearsals archived to watch at your convenience

Curious about programs, dates, a sneak peek? You came to the right place! First the sneak peek…


Now onto the programs…

Program A
Sculpted space. Digital dependency. Classicism in sneakers. Three unique voices offer three distinct takes on where ballet’s headed. 

  • THE COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT – Choreographer: Alonzo King; Composer: Jason Moran
  • BOUND TO© – Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon; Composer: Keaton Henson
  • HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING Choreographer: Justin Peck; Composers: Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Laner, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen

Dates: Fri Apr 20, 8pm; Sun Apr 22, 2pm; Sat Apr 28, 8pm; Thu May 3, 7:30pm; Sun May 6, 2pm

Program B
Groupthink. Tragic passion. Opposing energy. Three innovative thinkers examine the ties that bind and the differences that distinguish.

  • OTHERNESS – Choreographer: Myles Thatcher; Composer: John Adams
  • SNOWBLIND – Choreographer: Cathy Marston; Composers: Amy Beach, Philip Feeney, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt. Music Arranger: Philip Feeney
  • ANIMA ANIMUS – Choreographer: David Dawson; Composer: Ezio Bosso

Dates: Sat, Apr 21, 8pm; Wed, Apr 25, 7:30pm; Sun, Apr 29, 2pm; Fri, May 4, 8pm

Program C
The ephemeral in the eternal. Family heritage. Savage beauty. Three artists move forward while drawing from the past.

  • BESPOKE – Choreographer: Stanton Welch; Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
  • YOUR FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM – Choreographer: Trey McIntyre; Composer: Chris Garneau
  • GUERNICA – Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; Composers: Joe Andrews, Michel Banabila, Tom Halstead, and Charles Valentin-Alkan

Dates: Tue, Apr 24, 7:30pm; Fri, Apr 27, 8pm; Wed, May 2, 7:30pm; Sat, May 5, 2pm

Program D
The space between life and death. Passionate connectivity. The music of Björk. Three dancemakers evoke the spiritual connections that span life and death, the beauty and pain in relationships, and a surrealist dream ballet. 

  • THE INFINITE OCEAN – Choreographer: Edwaard Liang; Composer: Oliver Davis
  • LET’S BEGIN AT THE END – Choreographer: Dwight Rhoden; Composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Philip Glass, and Michael Nyman
  • BJÖRK BALLET – Choreographer: Arthur Pita; Composers: Björk Gudmundsdottir and Sjón

Dates: Thu, Apr 26, 7:30pm; Sat, Apr 28, 2pm; Tue, May 1, 7:30pm; Sat, May 5, 8pm

Boundless: A Symposium on Ballet’s Future
Bringing together noted artists, scholars, and critics, this event provides an opportunity for discussion, debate, and collaboration about ballet in the 21st century.

Dates: April 27-29th. Details and times can be found HERE.

Unbound Live Highlights
Clips from past live stream productions that give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Unbound ballets being rehearsed, featuring interviews and excerpts of choreography.

Dates: Anytime, right HERE

Now. Ready to see some gorgeous dance films? Each one was inspired by a new work from Unbound. All are original short films that bear the name of their world premiere ballet.

Cathy Marston’s Snowblind

Snowblind “was inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella ‘Ethan Frome.'” Director: Mark Kohr; Choreographer: Cathy Marston; Producer: Jesus Peña; Music: 2 Piano Pieces, Op. 62, No. 2 Exaltation by Arthur Foote, Arranged by Philip Feeney; Director of Photography: Steve Condotti; Editor: Mark Kohr; Dancers: Mathilde Froustey, Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer

Dwight Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END

LET’S BEGIN AT THE END  Director: Matthew Mckee; Choreographer: Dwight Rhoden; Producers: Christine Busby & Steve Condotti; Music: Michael Nyman; Director of Photography: Joe Lindsay; Editor: Matthew Mckee; Dancers: Frances Chung, Sasha De Sola, Jennifer Stahl, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, Esteban Hernandez

Alonzo King’s The Collective Agreement

The Collective Agreement Director: Kate Duhamel; Producer: Jesus Peña; Choreographer: Alonzo King; Music: “The Collective Agreement,” written, published, and performed by Jason Moran; Director of Photography: Jesse Eisenhardt; Editor: Kate Duhamel; Visual Effects Artist: Brandon McFarland; Dancers: Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Max Cauthorn, Jahna Frantziskonis, James Sofranko, Anna Sophia Scheller, Solomon Golding

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Guernica

Guernica “found inspiration in the art of Picasso.” Director: Kate Duhamel; Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; Music: “Jump Cuts” written, published, and performed by Michel Banabila; Director of Photography: Heath Orchard; Editor: Kate Duhamel; Visual Effects Artist: Brandon McFarland; Dancers: Dores Andre, Solomon Golding, Julia Rowe, Myles Thatcher

Tickets are going fast for this amazing event, so don’t wait too long! To check dates, pricing and availability online, go HERE. (Choose the program and dates you’re considering, and click on “tickets” in lower right hand of screen.) Otherwise you can call the San Francisco Ballet ticket office at (415) 865 2000, Monday through Friday, between 10 am and 4 pm, Pacific Time. (On performance nights, the phone lines will remain open until showtime.)

Hope to see you there!

National Ballet of Canada & Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” come to San Francisco

The National Ballet of Canada in Neumeier’s Nijinsky.
(© Bruce Zinger) guest company

“The National Ballet of Canada’s production of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is a triumph on all fronts.”
— Canada’s The Globe and Mail

While the San Francisco Ballet keeps busy in preparation for its epic *Unbound New Works Festival, with its twelve exciting new commissions, the stage at the War Memorial Opera House gets turned over to The National Ballet of Canada and their presentation of John Neumeier’s  Nijinsky. Watching this preview of Neumeier’s masterpiece, all I can say is, “Oh, wow. Give me more. And more!” Take a look for yourself.

Choreographer John Neumeier is the longtime artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, on whom he set this ballet in 2000. Not only is Neumeier one of contemporary ballet’s most important voices, he is a world authority on the life and work of Vaslav Nijinsky, having maintained a lifelong interest in the artist. The National Ballet of Canada’s website shares this about the charismatic Nijinsky who stunned and entranced audiences for a brief ten years before retiring from the stage at age twenty-nine. “Renowned for his unforgettable stage presence, his astonishing technique and his groundbreaking approach to choreographic expression, Nijinsky shattered for all time not just the prevailing notions and expectations of the male dancer, but the limitations that convention had imposed on the range of dramatic possibilities in dance itself.”

Neumeier’s ballet draws from several aspects of Nijinsky’s life, presented in a meditative, non-linear fashion, that ultimately reflects the madness that will come to consume him. The ballet’s opening scene is set just after WW I in a hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the real-life Nijinsky offered the audience his final performance as a dancer. Through this, we, the other audience, become privy to the man’s memories, his genius, his choreography, important relationships and life events, premonitions, and the madness that seemed to have taken over the world, as well.

Guillaume Côté in Neumeier’s Nijinsky.
(© Erik Tomasson) guest company

The music accompanying the production, for my classical music enthusiast readers out there,  features Chopin’s Prélude in C minor, the first movement of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Rimsky-Korsakov’s sumptuous  Schéhérazade (Movements I, III and IV), the “Adagio” movement from Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, as well as his Symphony No. 11.

Here’s what critics are saying about the production:

  • “A triumph of dramatic intensity… the National Ballet rises to the challenge of presenting John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a spectacular, sprawling, surreal and often mind-bending homage to ballet’s most legendary male dancer.” — Toronto Star
  • Nijinsky soars to intense heights… a richly detailed production” — National Post
  • “Under the enlightened and demanding direction of Karen Kain, former great international ballet star, the company has earned its place at the highest level, enriching its repertory considerably by collaborating with the greatest choreographers of our time” — Danses Avec La Plume

Here is National Ballet of Canada dancer Félix Paquet explaining about what’s required from him as he portrays Nijinsky as the Faun and the Golden Slave, both iconic Nijinsky roles that are featured in Neumeier’s ballet. it’s fascinating and informative to watch.

Interested in going? Here are some details for you:

Where?  War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco
When?   April 3 to 8, 2018, 7 performances total
How?    
Purchase tickets online HERE or call (415) 865-2000
Run Time  2 hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission

Principal casting for the San Francisco dates of the production has been announced!  

Vaslav Nijinsky
Guillaume Côté (April 3, 6 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Skylar Campbell (April 4 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)
Francesco Gabriele Frola (April 5 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 7:30 pm)

Romola Nijinsky
Heather Ogden (April 3 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Sonia Rodriguez (April 4 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)
Svetlana Lunkina (April 5, 7 at 7:30 pm)
Xiao Nan Yu (April 6 at 7:30 pm)

Serge Diaghilev
Ben Rudisin (April 3, 6 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Piotr Stanczyk (April 4, 5, 7 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)

Casting is subject to change

* San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound: a Festival of New Works  is a ground-breaking celebration of innovation within ballet, featuring twelve new commissions and world premieres, taking place in four programs, April 20 to May 6, 2018. Want to know more? Here’s a preview from the San Francisco Chronicle. For further information or to order tickets, go HERE.

Just as my last blog, “Debussy’s ‘Afternoon of a Faun,'” offered a teaser of this blog and this program at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, I can’t resist ending this with a teaser of San Francisco Ballet’s forthcoming Unbound extravaganza. It’s going to be an amazing two weeks, chock full of amazing, innovative ballet. The following is a photo shoot that features the company’s dancers in poses from featured Unbound works that photographer Erik Tomasson turns into stunning art. Check it out!

Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”

 

When I listen to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” often referred to as simply “Afternoon of a Faun,” I’m reminded of the vertiginous feeling of gazing at a 3-D computer-generated picture, one that, once you’ve allowed your eyes and brain to shift slightly, draws you inside a world you previously hadn’t been able to see. Here, now, you’ve entered a phantasmagorical place, with spiraling, descending pathways and billowing shapes that your eyes can slide down or climb up, respectively. A world where the tried-and-true rules don’t apply. I don’t know about you, but I love the feeling, the sensations. It never fails to take me on an inner journey, far from my mundane thoughts, the dreary to-do treadmill of daily life.

It’s no surprise Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—or “Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune” in its original French—is one of my favorite short pieces of classical music. It’s held me in its grips from the moment I first heard its opening solo flute notes, the responding call by a horn, a harp. Debussy was not a “follow the set rules” kind of guy. He was pretty much the opposite. In his compositions, the “rules according to my tastes” deliver volumes of sensation. A warm afternoon. A time long ago, back in the days of mythical creatures. Nymphs and fauns and lush foliage and shimmering waves of summer heat. Unexpected emotions rise, within the music and the listener both. Languor, sensuality, euphoria, curiosity, an awareness of the exotic. You are flung back to your own childhood, your adolescence, all awash in new experiences, colors, sensations. You are every place you’ve always wanted to be, your heart contracting and expanding, seemingly at the same time. For ten fleeting minutes, you let the music cradle you, transport you. Afterward, it leaves you disoriented and a little dizzy. You stumble away, back to the everyday world, your everyday life, and yet forever altered from the experience.

I like to imagine how the audience must have reacted in that opening performance in Paris, 1894. This was still the Romantic era, after all, with its conventions on tonality, scales, sequences. Audiences were used to hearing Beethoven and Brahms and maybe a little Wagner if they were feeling the urge for something turbulent. Chopin, a generation earlier, had dazzled with his pianistic originality, just as Saint Saens had managed to impart a touch of the exotic into his own compositions. But Debussy? He was young, still rather green, known to chafe against the constraints the masters before him, through the years, had mandated in musical composition. He loved literature and art, and for Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, he’d taken, as inspiration, a poem by one of France’s greatest poets at the time, Stéphane Mallarmé, and his 1876 creation, “L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune.” The poem was a work of art, having taken the poet a decade of deep searching, pondering, revising, to come up with a finished, published product that was, in his mind, music already. (Mallarmé was part of the “symbolist” movement of poetry, that, in a nutshell, strove to evoke, to illuminate, elaborate on the human condition,) So, here’s this 1894 concert hall audience, all expectant, knowing the poem: sensuous, story-like musings of a faun—mythical half man, half goat—and his erotic pursuit of two nymphs on a warm, drowsy afternoon. The lights in the concert hall darken, the musicians ready themselves, the conductor raises his baton, and you hear… this.

Stirred you, didn’t it?

If you’re like me, you might wonder what sort of mystical alchemy was involved, that Debussy’s music can do so much more than, say, Brahms, whose music is decidedly masterful and at the top of its craft. I think It has to do with the fact that, like the symbolist poets, there was a drive to consider the vast sprawling world of inner feelings, the human condition, the resolutely ineffable. It’s interesting to note that the French poets of this time, which Debussy so admired, considered music to be the pinnacle of art — not necessarily the music you hear in a concert hall, so much as the “music” that arises from the finest of art works. Mallarmé’s reaction to Debussy’s turning his poem into “real” music is debated–some say he was pleased, and complimented Debussy on the effort. Others say he mildly resented that his poem, so full of “music” already, was now eclipsed by Debussy’s music. The guy had a point. Who hears the title “Afternoon of a Faun” and thinks, “Ah, yes, that poem! Mallarmé’s opus!”

Care for 10 interesting factoids about Debussy? Here you go!

  • He was born Achille (pronounced as a “shhh”)-Claude de Bussy in 1862.
  • In spite of an aristocratic-sounding name, he came from a poor family and was schooled at home (while his siblings were shipped out), obtaining private piano lessons more by unexpected circumstances and good fortune more than planning and good funding.
  • He was accepted to the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of 10, where, over the next eleven years, they would endlessly chide him for “courting the unusual” and encourage him to deliver something “more befitting of his great talent,” which was to say, the same old thing they’d been hearing for generations.
  • He was the 1884 recipient of the highly prestigious Prix de Rome, which gave him a four-year residence at Rome’s Villa Medici, which he hated, and was miserable, and [barely] lasted two years before returning to his beloved Paris, where he lived for most of his life.
  • While he resisted much of the traditional schooling that came his way, both in music and academia, as an adult, he read voraciously and enjoyed socializing with the literati. He was a frequenter of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous Mardis (Tuesdays) salon, the place for poets, artists and literary minds to gather in 1890’s Paris.
  • His musical inspiration came frequently from poetry. I’ve shared, in past blogs HERE and HERE the way this shows up in the works, “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir.”
  • Debussy had originally planned for this work to be three part: a prelude, an interlude, and a paraphrase finale. Sidetracked by work on his opera after he’d completed the Prelude, he dropped the idea of two more parts.
  • Wagnerian opera, and Javanese gamelan music, fascinated and engaged the young composer, each playing a part in his artistic development, leaving an imprint that would resurface in his music.
  • Even though Debussy’s work was considered by many to be the peak representation of musical impressionism, he himself disliked that term, and saw himself as a “modernist.”
  • He died during the final year of World War I, unable to have a public gravesite funeral service because of the constant aerial bombing of the French capital by the Germans.

Above all, Debussy was a composer who defined a moment—that in which the classical music world would begin to question all rules of harmony and composition. “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art,” he once famously said. While he’s still considered by most to be a Late Romantic composer more than of the Modern school, you can see him and his style’s clear demarcation. Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, Liszt, all came before. Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all came after. Pierre Boulez famously pronounced Debussy’s “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” to be “the beginning of modern music.”

I find it so fitting that Debussy’s ground-breaking “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” should be utilized, eighteen years later, by another legendary, ground-breaking artist. In 1912, ballet phenomenon Vaslav Nijinsky, then with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, created his ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun.” He was the lead dancer; no one else could have done it justice. No one else could have so shocked the public, foretelling a new, modern realm of dance to come. The vitality, originality and willful disdain of long-held rules that Nijinsky brought to his art makes him seem like Debussy’s twin. And for Nijinsky, much like Debussy, the newness and overt sensuality of the opening performance in Paris shocked and disturbed some of spectators. This was not the art they’d come to know and had grown familiar with. This was new and vivid, with all sorts of new flavors and textures to consider. It didn’t just stir the soul, it stirred… other parts.

But we’ll leave this blog to Debussy. Not only does Nijinsky deserve his own blog, the National Ballet of Canada will be coming to San Francisco in April to perform “Nijinsky,” John Neumeier’s evening-length ballet about the man, his art, his madness. The Classical Girl is SO looking forward to this production. I’ll be posting a blog preview of the production in the week to come. (Editor’s note: it’s done and you can read it HERE.) In the meantime, however, I can’t resist giving you a flavor of what happens when Debussy and Nijinsky–and we mustn’t forget Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry–put their considerable talents together for an unforgettable “Afternoon of a Faun.” The dancer is Rudolf Nureyev, another legend that some day I’ll devote a blog to. This recording is old, which, in my mind, only adds to its sensuous, evocative allure. I can feel Nijinsky’s presence all the more clearly.

All right, I have to add one more. It’s taken from the 1980 Herbert Ross film, Nijinsky. So it’s Hollywood’s version of Nijinsky premiering “Afternoon of a Faun” in Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. It’s really good, and allows you to see certain nuances up close. But, be warned. The end of the ballet is… racy. But so was Nijinsky. Pushing those borders. And so was Debussy. All for art. Give it a look, if you dare. (Warning, this music will stay in your head ALL DAY once you’ve left this page. My apologies.)

Okay, one last thing, and this time I mean it..

Mallarmé’s 1876 masterpiece poem is damned long. But it’s lush and sensuous, and, really, you sort of do need to read the poem in order to understand what both Debussy and Nijinsky were striving to put into music, and movement, respectively. This is one of several translations that exist from the original French. If you read and find it lacking, please do share a translation you feel is better.

L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
So bright
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.

Let’s see….
or if those women you note
Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:
But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say
Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?
No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless
Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles
No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs
To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze
Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe
Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,
Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,
The visible breath, artificial and serene,
Of inspiration returning to heights unseen

O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Or plunge…’
Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour
Not seeing by what art there fled away together
Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there
The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever
Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,
Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.

Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss
That softly gives assurance of treachery,
My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery
Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;
Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,
The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,
That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,
Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse
The beauties round about by false notes that confuse
Between itself and our credulous singing;
And create as far as love can, modulating,
The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank
Or back followed by my shuttered glances,
Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.

Try then, instrument of flights, O malign
Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!
I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length
Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings
Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:
So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness
To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,
Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky
And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,
Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.

O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.
‘My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal
Neck that drowns its burning in the water
With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of hair slipped by
In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!
I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised
By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)
Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.

I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy
Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides
Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking
The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering
Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one
To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned
By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.
‘Happy at conquering these treacherous fears
My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle
Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:
For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh
In one girl’s happy depths (holding back
With only a finger, so that her feathery candor
Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,
The little one, naïve and not even blushing)
Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,
This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,
Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.’

No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness
By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:
You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already
Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:
And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.
At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves
A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:
Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus
Setting in your lava her heels so artless,
When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.

I hold the queen!

O certain punishment…
No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!

Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.