The Swan Lake Report

Okay, so we’re a month out from this. I gave a barrage of lead-up to it, just to leave you hanging, dear reader. Sorry! At least I’m not the only person who is tardy about reviewing a Swan Lake performance!

But I DID see Boston Ballet perform their new Swan Lake production.

This whole “world premiere” thing confounds me at times… how can something be new when, not only is it over a century old, but the company has performed it a zillion times before? I guess since Petipa did not have the foresight Balanchine had to preemptively smack down any “improvements,” his work is up for endless tweaks and modifications and with each one they can slap on the label “new & improved!” and create tons of hype to drum up business in the process.

I’m sorry, it appears my cynicism is shining through already. Maybe I’m just feeling a bit of Day After Christmas syndrome. After all, I totally bought into the hype, just as I did with the “new” Nutcracker a few years ago and somehow after all of that I ended up feeling as I did then: not disappointed, exactly, but a bit… hollow.

Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Let’s rewind back to the pre-Swan days when I was all giddy at the prospect of seeing my beloved Boston Ballet back on stage after, what, like, 6 months away from them? I missed them. Any excuse to see them dance is pretty awesome, and while I got to “meet” some dancers during the ASDP and got to see even more of them close-up during one of their Swan Lake rehearsals, it felt like an eternity since I was able to see them on stage at the Opera House.

So I had to do a full prep.

First off, there are outfits to be considered. It’s very silly, I suppose, but I plan each show outfit based on what’s going to be presented. And for Swan Lake one must consider… well, SWANS! White swan, black swan… or a little bit of both? I put together a black and white outfit with a little bit of romanticism and a little bit of edge. That’s what I’m claiming anyway.

But one cannot stop at the outfit, dear reader. No! There is also hair and makeup to take into consideration. One of the magazines I read regularly had an article in their November issue with all sorts of cute holiday hair-do ideas so I took my inspiration from there for a relaxed, but sparkly up-do. I’m not much of a hair stylist, but I must’ve managed a home run on this one, because I got a few compliments, even from strangers! Not bad for my hurried attempt! For makeup I took instruction from the lovely Kathryn Morgan’s tutorial on an Odile-inspired everyday look.

Yes, I even did the red lip liner bit on the eyes. It’s just a tiny detail, but I think it made the look. I may need my own personal Kathryn Morgan to tell me how to fix my face on a more frequent basis, because not only did I have nearly everything I needed for this look in my arsenal, but I loved how it all turned out.

Now that I was prepped and ready to go, I picked up my ballet companion and we headed into the city in a flurry of excitement in spite of the cold, dreary rain of a nor’easter. We ran from parking garage to Sip for a pre-show dinner where, whom should we see immediately upon entering, but a certain Mr. Nissinen holding court at the bar? Internally awkward moment ensues where ballet companion and I each pondered the situation. One the one hand we felt as though we should say hello because, well, if you’ve been to a couple BB shows you feel like you know the guy even though you don’t really, but at the same time he actually HAD talked to us just a couple weeks before when we went to see rehearsal, so we didn’t want to appear rude on the off chance he recognized us, but… if he didn’t recognize us then we’d just look like yet another pair of Crazy Ballet Ladies. I smiled, my friend waved, and thankfully we were immediately ushered to a table to avoid any further consideration on the subject!

Ah. After some delicious noms we scooted a few doors down to the iron gates of the Boston Opera House where we had to open up our impossibly tiny clutches to ensure we weren’t up to any nefarious schemes. Coats and umbrellas were checked. (NB: Do not bother with the coat check unless you have no desire to ever leave the opera house… the line after the show stretched nearly out the door. We inadvertently cut it, to our benefit, but don’t think we’ll be doing that again!) We were there early enough to catch the end of the pre-curtain talk which was more packed than I’ve ever seen it! Wish we’d caught the beginning because the talkers were ONLY M. Nissinen himself, alongside Miss Larissa Ponomarenko (former BB star and now a ballet mistress with BB), Misa Kuranaga, and Jeffrey Cirio. Only four of my favorite BB people ever! Swoon! Behind them the regular red velvet curtain had been replaced by a gorgeous dark blue velvet curtain with an elegant white border and what almost appeared to be a coat of arms at the center with a giant “S” and a swan on it. Pretty pretty!

The talk concluded shortly after we got there and we were shooed back to the lobby which was swarming with patrons to a degree I haven’t seen since Nutcracker! We stopped downstairs and they had a cute photo backdrop inspired by the lake scene. We asked a nice woman if she would take a picture of us in front of it. I mean, it was THERE!!! Why not?!

Then we headed back up towards our seats with a quick stop-over at the gift shop so I could buy myself a present I had picked out back when they first posted their Swan Lake merchandise: a gorgeous oatmeal heather drapey tee with 3/4 sleeves. Unfortunately it seemed I was not the only lady with her eye on that garment. They were sold out of all but a few in size large (which in a drape-y style would only serve to drive me mad as it would flop off my shoulders at every turn and perhaps give onlookers an unintended show. Sadness prevailed!

But there is no time for sadness when a ballet is about to begin, so we went in and took our seats, scanned our programs and listened to the orchestra tune up (I heard someone behind me say, “Do they have a pit?” Um… it’s a major ballet company performing in a major theatre, do you think they dance to old, scratchy records? Of course there’s a pit!!! Sheesh. The person then said that she could not see the pit… um, isn’t that the point?)

The program was arranged so that there was only one intermission between the second and third acts (there are four acts total). Nissinen also added a prologue before the first act set to the opening movement. The curtain opened to reveal a picnic scene. Lia Cirio was in the center, reading, while her friends supped and flirted around her. I immediately recalled my dance studio’s production of Alice in Wonderland a few years ago as we had opened that with a very similar picnic scene. I doubt Nissinen has ever been found slumming in the ‘burbs at local studio recitals for inspiration, but it was funny how familiar the scene was! The friends packed up their picnic and went off, leaving Cirio alone when along comes Von Rothbart (played by “Guest Principal” — I guess that’s what they call a Principal when he semi-retires — Yury Yanowsky), up to no good. He tries charm and, failing that, goes for straight-up abduction, pulling Cirio into a cloud of fog.

Curtain down and then back up revealing a village scene. Prince Siegfried (played by Lasha Khozashvili) is hosting a wild kegger for his 21st… okay, so it wasn’t that crazy of a party. But there was some revelry with goblets including… the Polonaise we learned during ASDP! The pas de trois we learned in variations was also in this act. I was so excited to see choreography I had learned (I was worried that Mikko might have changed it all with the new production). I saw the most amazing thing during the pas de trois. There was a section with one of the females dancing solo — I think it might have been Seo Hye Han, but don’t quote me on that — and she did a pirouette, stopped the turn STILL EN POINTE, développéd devant, did a full grand rond de jambe STILL EN POINTE, and did one more revolution in arabesque. You could tell there were a few dancers in the audience as there were audible gasps from various corners. It was the most beautiful, controlled thing. I didn’t even know such a move was possible. OMG!!! After she finished her solo and the audience burst into wild applause the man sitting next to me leaned over and said, “That was beautiful, but what was it that you found so amazing?” so I tried to hurriedly explain what she had done and why it was so challenging. I don’t think my explanation cut it, but I appreciated him asking!

After the revelry, Princey gets all woeful about his mother’s demands to Get Married Already! So what better way to deal with his sorrows than to head out to the lake to shoot some birds. Except, you know, he goes and falls in love with one of the birds. Because… right, of course, interspecies romances, nothing weird here, folks!

So, curtain down, lights up, stretch legs, lights down, curtain up and… we’re back at the palace where the formal birthday party is going on including the parade of various “international” dances along with the seemingly endless pas de cinq. A few princesses are presented to tempt Prince Siegfried, but no, this man knows what he wants and it’s not any of the faces from this string of identical ladies. Enter Rothbart with a black bird. According to the program notes, Siegfried thinks that it’s Odette in masquerade. Because… birds dress up. Okay, sure. So he’s all a-swoon over Odile and I’m… all a-BLINDED by her sparkling costume! Yes, I’m a girl and I do love me some sparkle, but this looked like she was covered in LEDs. There was one part where she stopped dancing and was just standing in B-plus and yet still the audience could only see *flash-flash-flash* in time with Lia Cirio’s post-variation rapid breathing. So much for making it all look effortless. It was a bit unnecessarily blinding, I thought. And then they threw in some multi-media effects by projecting a video image of Odette to show Siegfried how sadly mistaken he was in thinking Odile was Odette and… it was a nice idea, but somehow came off kinda cheesy. Anyway, clearly Odette is now stuck in her avian ways. Whoops! Not cool, Mr. Princey-Prince. I hope you learned your lesson! All that glitters is not… your swan girlfriend.

Well, now that Von Rothbart managed to ruin a perfectly good party, there is nothing left for us to do but return to the lake and drown our sorrows. Except Siegfried mistakes this plan for just up and up drowning, I guess. There is much swanning by the swans and some struggles between Von Rothbart and Prince Siegfried and… the end.

I hate to say it, but by this point in the show, much as I love ballet I was kind of… well, truth be told, a little bored. Which I guess is my issue with a lot of story ballets. The climax ends up being a bit vague and cloaked in a whole bunch of bourrées and you kind of think… “That’s it?” Hm.

Maybe I’m just a victim of my own 21st century attention span. Not sure.

All cynicism aside, though, there was much to admire about this show. The sets looked as though you could step right into them and be transported to another century and the costumes (non-sparkly ones, anyway) were gorgeously vibrant. It was obvious how much work went into this and I think it paid off royally. The house was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. Ballet companion and I were chatting with a couple next to us during intermission and learned that they have a teen daughter who dances, though ballet “isn’t really her thing,” and they had first come to a Boston Ballet performance to see the new Nutcracker a season or two ago. They know nothing about ballet, but were so impressed that they’ve returned for shows since then. And… well, that’s really what it’s all about, right? Sometimes these ballets that can feel a bit old-fashioned, trite, and hackneyed to some of us serve as the “gateway drug” to get people in the doors and turn them into devoted fans. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have their own magic. While I love a good contemporary piece where the sets and costumes are minimalist and the focus is on the dancing, I also appreciate the artistry of an intricate costume and elaborate sets.

So… long-winded account, but there you go. If you’re craving some visuals, check out this video for a glimpse of the action! (At 0:30 there’s a 2 second clip from the polonaise we learned during ASDP!)

BB Up Close

In case I ever develop a case of the “I never win anythings” someone please remind me of this:

Apparently when I renewed my subscription for Boston Ballet’s 2014-15 season super-duper early I was entered in a contest. I don’t recall this fact. I was just so excited about the line-up and I adored my seats so much that I simply wanted to secure my spot in the next season’s action.

But I was.

And I won!

What did I win?

Oh
.
.
.
just the chance to go watch Boston Ballet’s Swan Lake rehearsals!

My non-ballet acquaintances were all, “Oh, that’s… nice?”

To which I replied, “Nice? Nice?! It’s fan-f&^$ing-tastic!”

Because I am a big ballet nerd.

Thankfully I’m well-acquainted with some other big ballet nerds and… as part of my prize I was allowed to bring one of them with me!

So I picked my time (there were four times during the weekend to choose from): Saturday afternoon.

Then agonized over what one wears to watch rehearsals: one does not want to look overdone or underdone and skirts are 100% out seeing as I could totally picture them giving us a nice scrap of marley in the corner from which to watch. The outfit I chose probably made me look a bit scattered, though I preferred to think of it as casual-chic-military-inspired-1950s-housewife.

Then agonized over whether we’d have enough time to get there (because, of course, we had our own class and rehearsals that ran past noon AND it was a nice warm day which Bostonians know cannot be wasted therefore pedestrians and motorists alike would be out in force AND the Head of the Charles regatta was going on in town, too).

But travel worked out perfectly: we were told to get there by 3:15 and I think we were at the door right on the dot. We met a couple staff members at the door and were told to wait there and to use the restroom if necessary NOW as we would not be able to wander in and out of the rehearsals.

So we waited politely until we were summoned to the elevators. There were two other women and a gentleman who were part of the “Winners’ Circle.” Somehow I was expecting a MUCH larger turn-out. They said they selected 100 winners! There were four times to pick from and I think they said that one of the Sunday times had a lot of people, but still… five people? Are all the other winners cray-cray? Or are they just super-popular with posher plans already in the works?

Whatever… that means larger scraps of marley for us.

Except, no. We weren’t actually marooned in a corner, peeping at the action like forlorn little mice. We were led up to the huge 4th floor studio and shown to a row of chairs that ran along the mirrors. Front and center! We were told to avoid certain areas for the directors, but other than that, we had our choice of seats right in the midst of the action.

Wow.

Although… hello, my name is Rori and I am conspicuous! Felt a teensy bit awkward to be positioned so we were staring directly at the dancers as they were warming up and running through bits of choreography before the action started. I mean, who knows, maybe they’re used to random people just hanging out watching them. But I was just relieved that I had been allowed to bring a friend so we could chat with one another and not let our awe be TOO obvious.

And then… well, then, Mikko came in. I say that like he and I are best buds; I should probably refer to him as MISTER Nissinen. But if you are a regular BB fan, you will easily recognize BB’s Artistic Director, not only from his picture in the programs, but from the shows themselves. I think I’ve seen him wandering around the Opera House at every show I’ve gone to, kissing cheeks and looking appropriately mysterious in his black leather jacket. You begin to feel like you know the guy even though the feeling isn’t even remotely mutual.

I guess black leather jackets are a bit much for running rehearsals. It was a black polo, track pants, and dance sneakers on this day. And… dear reader, he came right up and talked to the five of us! I guess I should have expected that, but I could also see someone of his stature being all, “I’ve got important artistic work to do, I’m not going to spend time talking to the ‘fans’ the subscriptions team decided we should drag into the studio!” But no, he was completely gracious, thanking us for coming (thank us?! NO, thank YOU!!!) and telling us that we would be seeing a run-through of acts III & IV of Swan Lake with Ashley Ellis as Odile and Eris Nezha as Siegfried. He told us about Nezha being from La Scala to which I was all, “Eek, I know, he and his wife came to talk to us during the ASDP!!!” Okay, that’s what I said in my head. Externally I only managed to smile and nod mutely because I could think of nothing witty or endearing to say.

And then… rehearsals got underway. I must apologize for not having any pictures to share with you. We were told we could take photos as long as we didn’t use flash and, of course, didn’t take video, but I would have felt really, really weird doing so. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was incredible and amazing to be so freaking close to the dancers. I thought Eris Nezha was going to land a grand jété in my lap at one point.

So many amazing things to witness.

For one thing… it really isn’t that different from when we do studio run-throughs before a show. Okay, so the dancing is obviously at a totally different caliber, but aside from that, the dancers who aren’t on are standing around watching, some of them are chit-chatting, some of them are checking their phones or sewing pointe shoes, etc.

Another thing is… yeah, they make it look effortless, but when you’re that close you can tell how much work it is. They are breathing like they’re running a sprint and “glistening” like nobody’s business.

Also… they don’t always keep their game face on during rehearsals. I saw some lip-biting, a few deadpan faces. I don’t mean that as a criticism at all! It’s actually a relief to me. I’ve always had a hard time getting super-emotive in rehearsals… I do fine on stage, but, for a current example, when we’re running Snow in the studio, being a smiling, beatific snowflake is not my MO in that moment. In the midst of going full-throttle for 6 minutes adding in a smile for a non-existent audience seems like a total waste of energy. I save it for the stage at which point, of course, it’s 110%, “Oh my gosh, I’m so THRILLED to be sucking in fake snow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done!!!”

But… they ALL clap for one another after each piece! I wasn’t expecting that. Not just clapping, but cheering and whooping for the hard stuff. I’ve heard that this is a close company, and that seemed to prove it, at least in some way. They seemed super-supportive of each other, working together to figure things out, etc.

And… for those people who think dancers are all built the same… they’re not. Woah. Revelation. I’m not sure if any of you have been following Katie (Kathryn) Morgan’s YouTube channel, but she’s mentioned multiple times in there that there are ranges of normal in ballet. You might have thought she was being PC. But she’s right. Maybe back in the Balanchine heyday the string-bean waif was the hand-picked ideal, but I think that is changing and it certainly is the case with BB. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all super-slender and you’d be hard pressed to find any pudge in that room, but… there are some bean-poles builds (guys and girls alike) and there are some very athletic dancers who have cores and quads of steel (again, guys and girls alike). It was nice to see women that I could look at and say, yes, if I were to work out/dance as much as they do, that’s what I imagine I’d look like.

That goes for feet, too. I, of course, saw plenty of to-die-for feet. I also saw some that were remarkably adequate. In fact, one of my favorites, corps member Sarah Wroth… yeah, her feet don’t appear much bendier than mine. Obviously you can’t be completely flat-footed; you have to be able to have the foot and ankle flexibility to get over your boxes. But banana feet are not a requirement.

It was great to see the rehearsal process. Even though these are professionals it was clear that this is a work in progress. It’s a nearly-finished work, but there are always tweaks to make, entrance cues to learn, details of placement. Mikko talked to us a bit towards the end while the ballet mistress was working with the swan corps and was saying that the individuals learn their parts: it starts messy, but gets better. Then they all come together and it’s like the whole process starts again. Then, of course, once they get that level down they move to the stage with the full costumes, props, and scenery, and again there is a process where you run through and things are awry, but they work it all through until the curtain goes up. Lots of building up and breaking down in the process of getting it to a completed work (and even then, as anyone who performs knows, there are always notes and things to learn and work on, even as the audience thinks it’s seeing a “finished product”).

All in all a fabulous afternoon peeking behind the curtain. As an amateur dancer, it was amazing to see how many parallels do exist. Dance is dance, after all. But it was also incredible to see so much amazing talent up close in one place. I feel so privileged to have been able to indulge in that afternoon and am so grateful to Boston Ballet!

As we were walking out one of the staff members came looking for us and said they had gifts for us… as if what we just experienced hadn’t been sufficient! They gave us totes filled with a mug, pen, magnet, and the requisite publicity pieces.

BB Swag

We chatted with them a bit before we headed out. I guess this was the first time they’ve ever done something like this, opening the doors for patrons to see the rehearsal process, so they were curious what we thought. All five of us were equally agog.

As my friend and I exited we saw one of the dancers outside hop on his bike and ride away. Somehow it seemed absolutely ludicrous that one of these amazing dancers would just… get on his bike and go… home? I don’t know what we thought he should do. Grand jété to the moon? I guess it’s just surreal to realize that these dancers, as awesome as they are, are still just… people. At the end of the day it’s their job. And they think what any of us think when we leave work: “Crap, I drank all the milk this morning, need to stop and get more. Did I pay that bill that’s due tomorrow? Oh, and I need to call Suzy and see if she still wants to get together tomorrow.” It’s not, “Aw yeah, I’m a star!” And to most people, I guess they’re not. They look at them and see some guy on the T, some girl walking down the street.

But as ordinary as they all ultimately are, to some of us they represent something so incredibly special, and they are superstars in our eyes. I am eternally grateful that they allowed us into their world, even for just a few hours, to see what their “day-job” looks like, to dream and admire and appreciate and expand my ballet education just a bit more.

Thank you, Boston Ballet!

If the Gym Suit Fits

New studio year has started, but we’re still in the pre-Nutcracker lull (auditions coming up this weekend, stay tuned!)…

Which means that Saturday morning classes are followed, not by a series of rehearsals, but by leisurely breakfasts with the ballet pals.

This past Saturday four of us gathered around a table at our usual haunt alternately chatting about dance gossip and random accounts of our lives. Somehow our conversation got around to… gym class. Not classes at a gym, but physical education class from elementary, middle, high school. How it arrived there, I have no idea. All of us are many years removed from that era!

But there we were. The eldest amongst us asked whether any of the the rest of us had to wear gym uniforms… none of us did. The woman around my age and I waxed rhapsodic over our memories of the Umbro shorts and Champion sweatshirts that were the hallmark of our PE classes. But that was as uniform as we got.

She went on to describe the hideous one-piece outfits they had to wear in her time which sounded like rompers of some sort: shorts with an attached, blousy top that zipped up the back. I remember my mom telling me about these. We all giggled at the thought of having to appear in public in such a get-up.

Then conversation shifted to something else before we all got up to leave. The woman who was talking about the gym uniform said that she was going to go to a dance store to pick up some essentials and I remembered my recent discovery that my bottle of Jet Glue had congealed and I needed to get more. So I tagged along for the ride.

But, of course, no one goes to a dance store just to buy essentials. I mean, if you’re smart, you do, but if you’re human, you will be seduced by a rack of leotards or the display of shoes or something. I happened to spy a warm-up, on the clearance rack, no less, that I had seen months ago on my last visit to this store. It was still there and marked down to a ridiculously low price. I tried it on, pronounced it divine, and added it to my bill with the bottle of Jet Glue.

My companion looked over to see what I found. “It’s a warm-up, see… It’s all-in-one, shorts with a top attached which, um… come to think of it is actually rather blousy.”

Oh, holy hell, I just bought myself a gym uniform!!!

Hahahahaa!!!!

Okay, I’m pretty sure it bears no true resemblance to a gym uniform, but as I heard myself describing it we both cracked up laughing. *snort*

Regardless, I’m still pretty excited about this cozy cuteness! I had a hard time finding a pic on the Googles, so I assume it’s discontinued, but here’s one I found (Jozette for Mirella). Mine is in violet.

Mire_MJ7901_21

The Misty Buzz

So, the whole Misty Copeland Under Armour ad has been everywhere lately. Even people I didn’t think were into ballet are posting it on their Facebook feed and it’s all over the news lately.

If you’ve — somehow — missed it, here you go:

Let me start by saying that there are a lot of great things about this ad.

I love anything that puts ballet into the media.

I love that it shows the true athleticism required to be an elite dancer. It’s not just flapping one’s arms about and looking pretty… you need to have incredible strength to make it look that easy. So kudos to UA for showing that.

It bucks the unhealthy waif myth about ballerinas.

And, it has a kick-ass reminder to stay strong and keep working hard for what you want.

But… I have some issues with the ad campaign, or at least some of the press it’s generated.

For one thing, I’ve seen a lot about how this shows that ballet is a sport. Ballet is NOT a sport, it is an art. Yes, it is an art that requires a great deal of athleticism. But it is not a sport. Sure, it is reduced to sport in some areas. We try to grade dancers on technical abilities and artistic merit. But so much of what makes ballet great is the unspoken communication between performer and viewer. And that can be a very personal thing.

I mean, I love hockey. And yeah, it can get me very emotional at times. But much of the emotion is related to whether a goal was scored or a save was made. As a spectator and fan I don’t really care if a goal was pretty or not, if a save was a case of x-ray vision or pure, dumb luck. It’s the end result.

In ballet there’s so much more to see. I’ve gone to ballets where my companion and I saw the exact same show and had two very different interpretations and reactions to what we saw. There is no final score. The end result is up for debate.

So, sorry, opiners, Misty Copeland is an athletic artist, not a sportswoman.

Then, the voice-over. Is this a letter that Misty received? Or is this something Under Armour made up for a good story? Because from what I’ve read of Misty, she never even really danced until she was 13 and was encouraged to pursue it even though her family had doubts. She had such pure, raw talent that the ballet teachers who saw her pushed to do it, far from the discouraging tone of the words in the voice-over. Maybe this is a real letter, but it just doesn’t jibe with what I’ve read of her story. I want to know more about that…

And then there’s something else… I guess maybe the fact that this is so focused on this feeling of rebellion. That, yeah, Misty might not be the image that pops into someone’s head when they think of a generic ballerina, but she had grit, strength, and a don’t-tell-me-no attitude that propelled her to the elite ranks. I’m sure all of that is true. It’s just… there are a lot of plucky, gritty, strong, determined dancers that don’t make it. And the message of this ad seems to be, well, clearly they just didn’t want it enough. The reality is sometimes you do all you can and things don’t work out the way you wanted. And sometimes you end up in a dream position without even knowing that’s where you wanted to be.

I’m not quite sure what point I’m trying to make here. It’s just, I see all these people (mostly people who know zip-zero-nada about dance) being all, “Ooh, this is so awesome, so inspiring!!!” and I’m like, yeah, it’s cool, but…

Something about it just doesn’t quite ring true to me, and I can’t put my finger on what that is.

Anyway, all that aside, the big burning question I have out of this ad campaign is… when is Under Armour going to get into the leotard business? Because, seriously? I sweat like nobody’s business in class and I could use some of that awesome wicking technology in my leos so I don’t look like I just I’ve been to the swimming pool instead of ballet class.

Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds…

But why no sapphires?!?!

Why did you shun my most favorite of jewels, Mr. B? I think it would have rounded out the piece quite nicely, no?

*sigh*

As you have probably guessed, I finally saw George Balanchine’s iconic “Jewels” (1967). Boston Ballet wrapped up their 2013-2014, 50th anniversary season with it, and in doing so served to fill in a major hole in my ballet education!

The build-up to the show was nearly on par with the Nutcracker. Lia Cirio leaping in her “Rubies” costume has been plastered all over taxis and buses and such in Boston for months now. Meanwhile, “Pricked” was pretty much not advertised at all. Curious decision on their part.

My ballet companion for the evening and I got into town early enough to catch the pre-curtain talk. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance. Usually there is only a large handful of people in the audience, but there was probably twice the typical number for this one. The curtain was open giving us a sneak peak of the “Emeralds” backdrop, a cool, pale green backdrop with large green jewels pasted on it in an intricate design. The wings were draped in white. Very elegant feel, even if it gave me the impression more of peridots (a stone I am well-acquainted with, being an August baby!) than emeralds. The other thing we noticed was that there almost appeared to be a large stain in the middle of the backdrop, like the guy in charge of creating the backdrop spilled his beer while pasting stones on it or something. I’m guessing it was probably more likely the shadow of the “Rubies” backdrop behind it, but it was kind of distracting and shabby-looking.

Shannon Parsley, BB’s ballet master, led three BB dancers onstage to the chairs lined up across the front. These dancers represented a cross-section of the company and included Erica Cornejo, Principal; John Lam, Soloist; and Paul Craig, Corps de Ballet. Ms. Parsley gave a brief(ish) recap of the season for anyone who had been asleep for the past six months. I wanted her to wrap this part up a bit more quickly. Honestly, the people who are going to show up for the pre-curtain talk are most likely going to be the avid fans who already have a clue what the company is up to and don’t need the monotonous summary of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But… this probably is standard protocol for these things, so I tried to sit attentively and not fidget.

They then moved to the dancers who each talked about one of the pieces: Cornejo discussed “Emeralds,” Lam “Rubies,” and Craig “Diamonds.” Probably the most poignant part was when Cornejo, who danced in “Jewels” the last time BB presented it (in 2009, I think?) discussed that this is one of her first major ballets after returning to the stage post-baby. She dances the role of the “walking ballerina” in “Emeralds,” which is a role of someone who has lost her love, very emotional, but that becoming a mother has given her additional emotional fuel. She teared up on stage talking about it! Lam talked a bit about the energy required for the jazzier “Rubies” and Craig discussed the Imperial Russian feel that “Diamonds” demands.

After a few questions we were dismissed and went to indulge in overpriced cheap cabernet sauvignon and pretzel twists. Dinner of champions!

Then it was back to the theatre to our assigned seats to settle in for “Emeralds.” Ashley Ellis and Yury Yanowsky were the… happy couple (?), while Lia Cirio was the “walking ballerina” with Lasha Khozashvili was her partner. I haven’t really formed much of an opinion of Yanowsky before, other than the fact that I thought he bore a passing resemblance to Grégory Fitoussi (I’ve been thoroughly sucked into the world of Mr. Selfridge and the character of Henri Leclair, with his broody eyes and heart-melting smirk, may have been a small part of that obsession… I am completely at a loss now that the season is over!). But I love that Yanowsky is one of the few dancers who started with the company in the ’90s. In fact, he’s surpassed two decades with BB. That alone makes me fond of him. In such a youth-obsessed world, he’s showing the poise and elegance that an experienced dancer brings to the stage with no signs of disintegrating technique. Ellis looked radiant paired with him.

Lia Cirio seemed to lose herself in this one, which I liked… in some ways. “Emeralds” seems to have a rather refined feel to it, with the exception of this one couple that seems to wander through as if lost. Cirio threw herself into the role with abandon, but at times it felt like it was teetering on the edge of losing complete control. I suppose that’s the line one tries to balance on and she managed to keep from crashing over on the wrong side of the line.

And then the pas de trois. The casting was terrific and I’ve decided I really like that Isaac Akiba kid. Doesn’t hurt that he’s a home-grown dancer from BBS. He’s got a youthful look to him that lent itself nicely to the playful feel of the pas de trois, but behind that exterior is a very solid technique. I expect he’ll be growing through the ranks in the coming years.

After intermission, in which I supported the local economy by purchasing a Jewels tee (it was 3/4 sleeved and boatneck, trés cute!) and we made the rounds of the audience to find the other people we knew, we were treated to the jazzy “Rubies” set to music by Stravinsky. I guess this was supposed to be a bit of a tribute to Broadway, though perhaps Bernstein might have been a better composer?

So maybe a minute into the piece we hear this clacking. At first ballet companion and I thought that maybe the dancers had REALLY rosined up their shoes and were sticking to the marley… but then we realized that it was their costumes! The gigantic red stones on the skirts clacked together as they moved and made a tremendously distracting racket. Has it always been that way? Does it drive the dancers bananas to have to wear those? I know it would annoy the heck out of me!

Aside from that, I did like the energy in this one. I tend to like very active dancing with lots of jumps and non-traditional movements. Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga were the central couple on the day I was there and, of course, I love them… though somehow I didn’t feel that this piece highlighted their chemistry and talents as well as other roles I’ve seen them in. Hmph.

After second intermission came — duh — “Diamonds” set to music by Tchaikovsky for the Imperial Russia experience. This one was impressive for the sheer number of dancers that are featured. Kathleen Breen Combes and Alejandro Virelles were the lead couple and can I tell you… I have a crush on Alejandro’s feet. My ballet companion had told me in advance to look out for them, but I don’t think I could have missed them. Ugh… makes a girl totes jeals. What a line! Breen Combes was absolutely lovely… until the very end. She is somehow both down-to-earth and totally elegant at the same time. She shows a level of maturity and grace that is lovely to watch. But something happened in the last few minutes. Not sure if she injured herself or if her shoe died a spectacular death, but I could tell she was struggling at the end. I feel so bad when I see that happen to dancers, especially lovely ones like her! I would guess, though, that if I were not a balletophile I probably would not have noticed. She kept going, masking any fumbles quite well. I did notice that the dancers were wearing white pointe shoes in this one, and I wondered if that contributed to the problem. Unlike the boatloads of pink shoes that the dancers can rifle through to find the right ones, I’m guessing there are only a few pairs of shoes in white, so the dancers might end up with something they consider less than ideal… just a theory on that one! I actually found the shoes distracting… might have liked them more if they were wearing white tights, as well, but I found it just interrupted the lines.

So, that was “Jewels.” Like most masterworks, I would need to see it a few times to truly absorb what all was going on and cement my opinion of the piece. As of now, “Serenade” is in no danger of being dethroned as my favorite Balanchine piece, but there were elements of this that I really appreciated. One thing I love in nearly all of Mr. B’s pieces is how he set steps to the music. Like many dancers, I have a tendency of choreographing dances in my head when I hear music, and it can be challenging when being choreographed ON and feeling that what you’re being asked to do doesn’t match with the music. Mr. B’s choreography matches what I hear in the music… so I feel some sort of bond with him over that, I guess!

And finally I’ll leave you with BB’s videos. First up is corps member Roddy Doble giving his thoughts on the pieces:

And now some snippets of the performances! This features the same cast I saw, but not sure if it’s from the same show or not.

Get Pricked

Boston Ballet is wrapping up their home season this coming week. Boo, hiss. But they are going out with a bang, presenting their last two shows back-to-back. Gotta be hell for the dancers, but good for those of us in the audience!

First up was Pricked, an evening of mixed rep.

The first piece on the bill was also the oldest: “Études” (1948) choreographed by Harald Lander originally for the Royal Theatre Copenhagen. BB has had it in their rep since ’88. They used a photo from “Études” for the cover of the subscriber folder which shows dancers at the barre in silhouette against a blue-lit backdrop. I loved the idea of a ballet that highlights some of the more routine parts of a dancer’s life, so I was looking forward to seeing this one. It was a full company piece with over 40 dancers featured at various points.

It starts out with this adorable segment of dancers at a long barre executing various tendus, dégagés, ronds de jambes, etc. The way it is lit you can really only see the legs and arms; everything else appears to be in the shadows. This lends itself to some really cool moments, but unfortunately for this to be truly stellar it needs to be majorly, majorly in sync. One foot turned out at a slightly different angle or someone rond de jambing with a slightly different accent makes it look a bit off. But, then again, that is reality, so… From there it progresses into the silhouette scene. And then the barres eventually go away and it goes through the other ballet class elements, but of course with fancier clothes, billion-times better technique, and without that one person who is perpetually going the wrong way and looking lost.

I feel like there wasn’t too much to say about this one. It’s neat to watch especially for anyone who studies ballet and has some pretty elements. The number of people in it is pretty spectacular. But placing it in the same show as “D.M.J.” and “Cacti” leads to it inevitably getting short shrift. Not really sure how this one fit into the “Pricked” theme. I felt like this might have been better placed in a show with perhaps more neo-classical stuff. Not sure.

Second on the program was “D.M.J. 1953-1977″ (2004) by Zuska, originally premiered by the National Theatre Brno of the Czech Republic. This was BB’s premiere of the work and — according to the program notes — they are the first North American company to perform it. This piece was much more my speed in terms of the raw emotion it displayed. It opens with with a man standing practically on the apron in front of a black curtain next to an object we assume represents a grave of some sort. Lasha Khozashvili was the male lead on the evening I was there and the pain he displayed was palpable. The curtain rises to show couples across the stage on what appear to be small platforms. They dance in unison in a nearly ritualistic sort of dance. Lia Cirio was the female lead and, I assume, is meant to represent the lost love. Cirio and Khozashvili seem to search for one another through this sea of dancers.

As the piece progresses the platforms (which I guess are actually super-thick mats of some sort) are used as props in a way. At one point they are lined up to create a wall which dancers peek over (the audience thought this was funny, though I’m not sure it was meant to be so). At another they are lined up and one gets pushed over to create a giant domino effect. Then, at the end, they are set up in a way that creates a giant sofa of some sort.

At that end Cirio and Khozashvili, almost literally, lay bare their emotions. The other dancers are gone. Up until that point the corps seemed to represent friends, perhaps, of the leads. They seem to mourn at various points, and yet their dances almost represent the challenge that those of us on the periphery of mourning experience: sadness, yet enough distance that our main focus remains navigating our own lives (and, in this case, loves). Inevitably, those at the center of the loss are left to process it alone. And that’s where this piece concludes. The leads are now wearing nude costumes and there is a pile of roses in front of the giant mat-sofa-thing. They dance together as if fighting against the inevitable. It was truly moving and the two leads were masterfully cast. I’m not always Lia’s biggest fan. I mean, I think she’s a tremendous dancer, but some roles I’ve seen her in just don’t seem to fit. In this, though, she and Lasha gave a heart-wrenching performance. Truly moving.

I was curious about the title, whether the initials and dates might have represented someone the choreographer had lost, but apparently the “D.M.J.” part is simply the initials of the last names of the three composers whose music was used in the piece. Hm.

The final piece of the evening, and the one which most obviously contributed to the “Pricked” title (though those roses in the second piece helped) was “Cacti” (Ekman, 2010). This was another BB premiere. The piece was first performed by Lucent Danstheatre in the Hague, Denmark.

“Cacti” was, by far, my favorite of the evening, if for no other reason than the energy of the piece. You can experience some of that energy here:

The costuming in this was pretty androgynous so you couldn’t always tell from the audience who were the girls and who were the guys. I kind of liked this because it showed that the female artists can (and do) perform with the same level of raw intensity that the men can. We spend so much time trying to make ballet look pretty that it’s awesome to see that those same ethereal-looking dancers can rage with the best of ‘em.

There was a fair amount of humor interspersed throughout this piece from the voice-overs to some of the scenery elements (including a cat that fell out of the rafters and a male dancer lying down holding a cactus that may or may not have appeared slightly phallic). That being said, there were a few people in the audience that either indulged in too much champagne at the bar or who had a really low threshold for amusement because they were roaring throughout nearly the whole thing and I wanted to find them and tell them to kindly STFU, already. Then again, I might be guilty of taking my ballet-going self a bit too seriously. Who knows.

Regardless, it was a highly energetic and entertaining way to end the evening. While I wasn’t sure how well all of the pieces fit together in one bill, it did manage to demonstrate the incredible breadth and talent that BB has. To have the same dancers go from the very technical and classical “Études” to banging their hands on the floor in “Cacti” shows that BB is a force to be reckoned with.

I’ll also put in a plug for their very awesome t-shirt designers. The tee for this show managed to encompass both beauty and edginess.

Pricked Tee

Though it’s hard to see in this picture it also has an Anne Brontë quote printed along the bottom of the design that fits right in with the theme: “But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose.” Love it!

The Silberhaus Party

15th December 18xx

The Silberhaus family had their annual Christmas party this weekend. This was the first year that husband and I were invited, though I loath to admit that I was not initially excited to receive the invitation. Surely I find Frau Silberhaus to be a kindly woman, but I have heard rumors about past parties and the eccentricities within. Husband impressed upon me that such an invitation could not politely be refused, however, and I knew in my heart he was right.

He encouraged me to buy a new dress and to find new outfits for the children in an effort to cheer me. While the idea of a new gown was exciting, I knew that the invitation was no cause for foolhardiness and assured him that our best clothes would serve us in fine stead, even in the grand surroundings of the Silberhaus drawing room. We would be expected to bring gifts to the party and the money would be better spent there.

I did allow him to convince me to have a new skirt made up to wear with my beautiful burgundy bodice — the one with the lace edging and the points on the sleeves. The dressmaker chose a beautiful fawn color and trimmed it with lace and a purple ribbon. With my lovely cream-colored cape I admit I felt quite grand.

Husband put on his best suit and our children were dressed in their finest clothes, though I failed to notice that our son managed to quite rumple his blouse until we were nearly at the party upon which time it was too late to do much about it. At least his hair was neat and the girls were lovely with their curls and bows.

We were nearly the last to arrive at the party due to the snow that had started, but were greeted warmly by the family and their servants. Shortly after we bid our hellos, though, we received quite a fright as a cloaked gentleman swirled in behind us, his face hidden. Husband and I rushed to protect the children, but as the gentleman removed his black cloak we soon realized it was simply their children’s odd, but harmless godfather Drosselmeyer. He waved in a young man and introduced him as his apprentice. The apprentice immediately asked the young Miss Clara Silberhaus to dance and the other children followed suit (with a little prodding from us).

As the children danced husband and I were able to take in the room and greet some of our fellow guests. I was relieved to see so many friends among the party-goers. Most of the women were wearing new dresses purchased for the occasion, but I was comforted to note the Frau Silberhaus herself was wearing a bodice I’ve seen before dressed up with a new skirt and sash.

I am afraid the children became a bit raucous in their dancing and there were some falls in their frenzy and some tears which I’m afraid came as the result of some of the naughty tricks young Master Silberhaus played on one particular girl. One of the maids entered with a tea cart full of sweets at just the right time to help dry the tears and distract the children. While they were thus occupied we were invited to partake in a toast, which was followed by a glorious round of waltzing. Unfortunately our dancing was brought to an abrupt halt by more of Fritz’s tricks.

Godfather Drosselmeyer must have had enough, for he gathered the children around him and we watched as he took out his pocketwatch. What could this mean? He swung it before him briefly before calling Fritz up to stand beside him. He then proceeded to somehow put the boy in a trance by telling Fritz to stare at the watch while it swung back and forth. What followed was such a sight to behold! Fritz returned to the group of children, but instead of sitting with them he took the hand of the young lady he had been tormenting for the bulk of the evening and kissed her hand. Repeatedly! They then waltzed for a few seconds before he took a corsage from Drosselmeyer and placed it around the young girl’s wrist. A few more kisses and a few more waltzes… it was truly a miracle. But then! Drosselmeyer snapped his fingers and Fritz realized in horror what he had done and went running to his parents. I suppose it was mean of me, but I could not help but stifle a laugh.

The magic was not over, however! The children were summoned to go sit along the sides of the room and two large boxes were brought in. What could they contain? They opened to reveal two life-sized dolls! Drosselmeyer’s apprentice brought in the key and the godfather proceeded to wind up the dolls who then performed a droll little dance for us! It was such a sight to behold and the children, girls especially, were absolutely entranced.

Husband helped to carry the dolls out while Drosselmeyer then brought in — oh, you shall never believe it! — a bear! I nearly fainted. What could he mean, bringing this mean, wild animal into a home, especially one with so many small children? The man was surely mad. But then music began and this ferocious animal rose up on two feet as if it were a human and began to dance! Can you imagine?! A dancing bear! It even somersaulted through a hoop that Drosselmeyer held before him. Once the music stopped the bear dropped back to all fours and was led out of the drawing room. I have never witnessed anything so unusual!

I worried that our evening would continue with more of these antics, which my constitution surely could not bear, but thankfully Drosselmeyer was momentarily out of surprises and the Silberhaus family took the opportunity to gather the children around the tree to hand out presents. We certainly did not expect such generosity from our hosts. The girls each got dolls and the boys… well, the boys received toy swords and pull toys in the shape of mice! I tried to hide my horror at the latter. As the girls were exclaiming over their dolls Drosselmeyer brought out yet another surprise for young Miss Clara: a nutcracker doll. I would expect that she would have preferred one of the pretty dolls that the rest of the girls received than that horrid wooden thing with its sneering grin, but she seemed awed by it and eagerly ran around to show it to each of the children.

Fritz immediately began pouting. Rather unbecoming behavior for a boy of his age, though, to be fair Clara was being a bit of a show-off and I cannot imagine what Drosselmeyer was thinking by only getting a special gift for one of the children and not both.

What happened next, though, oh, I can hardly bear to write it down, but it must be said… Fritz grabbed Clara’s nutcracker doll and wrenched it from her hands and before anyone could intervene he broke its head clear off its body! Clara was inconsolable, and I can only imagine that Frau and Herr Silberhaus were beyond embarrassed at the behavior of their children. Fritz was roundly scolded, though why he was permitted to stay at the party was beyond me. Our son would have been sent to bed immediately!

Thankfully Drosselmeyer had a bit more magic in him and repaired the doll so that you could never tell it had been broken. The girls all danced around with their new dolls and it was so beautiful to behold. That is, until the boys got antsy and rambunctious and descended on their pretty scene with swords raised and rats trailing behind them. I am sorry to say that our own boy was part of this scene, terrorizing his sisters. He is a sweet boy, but I’m afraid he does idolize that naughty Fritz. Husband and the other men came to restore order and I went to soothe the girls, but after a short time the boys descended on us yet again.

Frau Silberhaus suggested that the toys be put away for the time and that we all join in a dance. We had a lovely time dancing when suddenly a whirling dirvish caught my eye. Grandmother Silberhaus had risen from her comfortable couch and was twirling about the dance floor! Can you imagine!? She consumed more than her fair share of wine, I’m afraid! She even exposed her polka-dotted bloomers to us in her scurry before nearly toppling over. Thankfully her son was able to save her just in time!

With that latest in the string of odd events of the evening there was an unspoken understanding amongst us guests that it was time for us to take our leave of the party. We gathered up our children and I braced myself to head out into the snow.

It was a night I won’t soon forget. I do wonder if perhaps I had a bit too much wine, myself, though. I could have sworn that as we were leaving I saw a large rat run past with a crown on his head and a sword clutched between his teeth!