Friday, November 30, 2007

Carnival of the Animals

As I have been promising, a discussion on the creation of Carnival of the Animals.  I always think its important to get the audience in the mood for whatever piece they are going to watch. So as a pre-show overture, we had snippets of different "animal" songs, finishing up with Sammy Davis, Jr's ultra-cool, ultra hip rendition of "Talk to the Animals" from Dr. Dolittle.
After which, I had a local actress (Dana Hooley) who has a lovely, distinctive speaking voice recite sections of different poems that related to the different animals that we would be seeing.

There are some specific poems, written by Ogden Nash, that go with the piece, but since I didn't use many of the original animals, and since I wasn't that fond of the punnish humor, I chose to use a variety of poems from different authors. This ended up working well, as I was using a variety of different types of music.

The first section of the ballet was all sort of a "Life Aquatique" section. 

Beginning with the original Aqaurium danced by a sextet of ballerinas in disk like tutus with watery veils over there heads...

We then moved to a samba-infused lagoon where we cavorted with a trio of frogs and a lizard. This dance section then finishes with an aggressive female solo set to a folksong about a "big Kaiman" or alligator.

I didn't really want to do complete costumes for this piece as...

1) The budget did not permit it and...
2) I like seeing people dance, not costumes
So the "fish" in the aquarium were fish because they actually did some movement based on the "Swim" a dance from the 60's as well as the use of bourees ( a ballet step that looks as if the dancers is skimming above the surface of the stage.)

The "frog" costume featured lots of green and large oversized glasses to mimic the frogs large eyes. The ladies choreography featured lots of plies in an exaggerated 2nd position on point.

The "lizard" choreography took advantage of dancer Chris Blurton's acrobatic abilities.

And the "alligator" was an opportunity to look at a new Swiss dancer, Corinne Emmenegger and see what she was capable of. Her long train on her vibrant green dress was meant to by a suggestion of an alligators tail as it swooshes behind her, making ripples in the lagoon.

The whole section was alot of fun, as members from each previous section would stay on and become part of the "happy, dancing" pond community. 

It was like a Brazilian Carnival, but very, very green.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Off to the Rockies

Okey Dokey. Tomorrow. we are off to Colorado Springs to perform the Nutcracker for the Thanksgiving weekend.

We have been going for a couple of years, so I have settled into a routine. We get there and I go off to have Thanksgiving dinner at The Ritz. It's not a swanky restaurant, its a local hangout. But they always have a complete Thanksgiving Dinner at a very reasonable price. 

After that I head over to the Peak, a independent movie house and catch whatever they are playing. This year it will be "Lars and the Real Girl." Which has gotten mostly good reviews, so that is great. 

Then I pretty much just keep to myself as much as possible, because I have to do something which I do not like doing... performing.

I have to play Herr Drosselmeyer in the show. And in the Nutcracker, that means half performing/half kid wrangler.

Ah well, will try to get out and see the scenery.

The "advance guard" tells me it is covered with snow. Time to pack the hats and mittens. When I get back in a few days, I'll talk about Carnival of the Animals.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Juliet, Juliet...

So here are some rehearsal photos of my Romeo and Juliet pas de deux. As you can see Pali is not in costume.

In Shakeseare's play, the focus is a bit more on Romeo than Juliet. Different choreographers choose to focus more on one character than the other. In my own mind, due to the fact that I am not that interested in staging sword fighting scenes, I will probably lean more towards Juliet.

So does this mean that I will be staging a full length version of the ballet next year?


As I had mentioned before, this pas de deux was created because of an opening in programing, due to Culture Shock not being able to perform at our evening show. But I am a big believer in serendipity. I knew that there was a desire from Robin to have a Romeo and Juliet back in the repetoire. I also knew that one of our lead dancers, Chelsy, wanted to do the part. So I figured, "Okay. the stars are aligned."

That being decided, I now had to look at the male dancers in the company and figure out who the appropriate Romeo would be. Romeo and Juliet need to fall in love "at first sight." They also need to look close to each other in age. Whenever we do shows for middle and high school students, the girls always go crazy for Pali, our Hungarian dancer. Who am I to argue with real 14 and 15 year old girls, as to what a 14 or 15 year old girl finds attractive in a guy.

That done, I needed to decide which music I was going to use. There was of course, the Prokofiev score, the Delius score, a Berlioz R & J, and well loved Tchaikovsky concerto on the subject (which was used by Frederick Ashton). The Tchaikovsky (though it probably was more on my own personal taste level) is just too episodic for me. It just doesn't tell a story. Berlioz and Delius are not composers that particularly resonate with me. And I have always found the Prokofiev score to be too expansive for a love story between teenagers. In the end, I did decide to try to set a pas de deux to the Prokofiev and see if I could set something to it that spoke of "first love teenage-style."

Rehearsals went fairly easily. Back in September (while in my down time at Most Wanted rehearsals) I had put together a couple of movement phrases. I knew that the pas de deux would start with a brief solo for Juliet, followed by Romeo's entrance and that the couple would dance together in a state of rapture. One problem with this is that there is usually a section in the music (after Romeo's entrance) where the music swells and Romeo has a big solo. I have never liked this bombast. "I love you and now instead of dancing with you I am going to do a big variation while you stand there and love me." Again serendipty struck. As I was searching around, I found a shorter version of the music (that had that big music cut).


Now, I could just do what I wanted to do. Choreograph a simple love pas de deux for a young couple.

As I mentioned in the previous post, some versions of this pas de deux are extremely complicated and difficult. To me at least, the more complicated something is, the "older" the person performing it seems. Likewise, the less it allows a dancer to "breathe." Not physically breathe (as a dancers endurance will build as they rehearse the part), but breathe artistically.

And what is the point of doing Romeo and Juliet if you aren't going to be able to just stand there and wallow in the pretense of being in love... on stage.

"Rapture" is fairly easy for me to get into when I am dancing or choreographing. The difficulty here was that I felt (feel) that this particular music projects the IDEA of rapture, rather than actually achieving it. In otherwords, it has an element of cheesy-ness. So my big hurdle as a choreographer was to allow myself to "go" there.

So what says romance more than swaying. Yes, the pas de deux is filled with lots of parallel sways. Sways in unison. Sways while lifting Juliet. Sways facing each other. Swoon. Sway. Sway. Lift. Sway. Run. Run. Sway, etc etc.

It really isn't such a big hurdle, when you choose to do it. Now I just have to figure out how to tell the "whole story," complete with overwrought double suicide endings.

But I have a year to do so.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Romeo, Romeo...

Back to the ballet. As I mentioned, I choreographed a new pas de deux based on Romeo and Juliet.

Now the idea of Romeo and Juliet as a ballet is nothing new. The original Prokofiev score is well known and has been used not only for rapturous dances of young love, but for selling cologne, chocolate and any variety of 20th century products.

Now, I personally have held off on choreographing anything on the subject for aa long time, intenionally...

Leonid Lavrovsky choreographed the "first" ballet set to the theme in the middle of the 20th Century at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The production was best known for the sheer weight and scope it brought to the stage. Something other versions have emulated, which I find a bit much. After all, we are speaking about the first love between a 16 and 14 year old. The ballerina he chose to create the piece on was the lead dancer of the company, Galina Ulanova. Filled with plenty of lifts and emotional effects, the choreography is really much more about acting and arabesques. In fact, one critic once called Juliet's choreography an "apolegia for the arabesque."

Ulanova tended to be remembered for naturalistic movements. Although she was always being vaunted for her lyrical port de bras, people always remember the way she died on stage or a run, rather than the brilliance of a particular step or beauty of a particular line. For pedestrian movement elevated to art. That said, the lack of density in the choreography in Lavrovsky's ballet has allowed today's dancers to expolit their new, improved hyper-extended lines and sky high extensions.

A short while later, choreographer Antony Tudor created his own Romeo and Juliet on the dancers of American Ballet Theatre. Instead of the Prokofiev score, he used music from an opera by Delius. His leads were Alicia Markova, the leading romantic dancer of the era, and Hugh Laing, Tudor's longtime partner known for his brooding good looks and dramatic gifts.

The piece was much more compact, concentrated and stylized than the earlier ballet. While the piece was well received, it is not seen as often, one because the Tudor repertoire is not mounted as often as others, and two because the piece was created for American Ballet Theatre, which now chooses to primarily do the following version of the piece.

Kenneth McMillan created his version of the ballet on a new up and coming generation of dancers at the Royal Ballet. Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable (seen above) were his inspiration for the Shakespeare's young, foolish lovers. Seymour, in particular, was a new kind of dancer. Human, sensual, visceral, and passionate. Unfortunately, for Gable and Seymour, the management of the company felt that given the scope that the production had taken on, that the parts should be given to the superstars of the day, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.

The piece did indeed add to the Fonteyn/Nureyev mystique (and the coffers of the ballet company), but it was never designed to be a "star' vehicle. Seymour and Gable did get to perfom the piece and had wonderful careers apart from this, but the ballet which should have become synonymous with their names, has not.
McMillan's choreography has probably become the most recognizable to modern audiences, with its unique lifts and complicated transtions. It is more like Lavrovsky's in scope than Tudor's, complete with a numerous scenes of swordfighting, jostling with prostitutes, and manly rough housing (with pirouettes of course!) Lots of capes, too!

But that isn't all, choreographers like Frederick Ashton, John Neumier, and John Cranko have also had their swing at R & J...

Rudolph Nureyev's version for the Paris Opera is beyond difficult. So much so that you find yourself asking, "Really? Can't you just cut the dancers some slack for a second?"

And just because dancers have done one version, doesn't mean they can't "shop around." Witness Vladimier Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova, below in the Lavrovsky ballet...

And then again in a version by Maurice Bejart...

So why do I need to do Romeo and Juliet? Especially, since a version was done a some years back here at SDB by Thor Sutowski.

Well, the answer would be because the time seemed right. So next, I'll have some rehearsal photos and a bit of a discussion on my own feelings about Romeo and Juliet. Or Juliet and Romeo, as it turns out.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

"To focus all energies to accomplish a single goal excites beyond belief..."

Al Oerter is one of only two athletes (Carl Lewis is the other) to win 4 consecutive Olympic gold medals in the same event. Al is the only athlete to also set a new Olympic record with each gold.

Alfred Oerter Jr. had never won a major international competition when he went to the Melbourne Olympics, as a college sophomore. On his first toss in the finals, he set an Olympic record and a personal best. No one came within five feet of him.

Less than a year later, Al almost died in a horrible auto accident. He recovered, but appeared headed for defeat in the 1960 Rome Games. In the finals, teammate Rink Babka led Oerter by 15 inches. But Babka noticed Al's left arm was out of position before he threw... and told him. With one throw left, Al listened, adjusted his windup and threw the discus for another Olympic record, personal best, and second gold medal.

In 1962, he became the first athlete to throw the discus more than 200 feet. Six days before the 1964 Tokyo Games, he tore the cartilage in his ribcage. Doctors told him not to compete or risk internal bleeding. He ignored them. He later remembered thinking "These are the Olympics and you would die for them." Covered with ice packs, bandages, and shot full of pain killers. In agony and behind the leaders, Al somehow let out a throw that again, set an Olympic record and won him his third gold.

Mexico City. 1968. He had a pulled thigh muscle, and wore a neck brace because of a chronic back problem. On the day of the finals, it began to rain. After repeated bad throws, he threw away the brace. On his next throw, Al set his fourth Olympic record, beating both the competition and his previous personal best by more than five feet. He finished with the three best throws and a 4th gold medal.

Oerter retired after 1969, but at age 39, he started training again.

Things didn't work in his favor. In 1980, at 43, he was an alternate on the U.S. team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. An injured tendon kept him from competing in the 1984 Olympic Trials at age 47. Earlier that year, he had a throw of 222-9, a distance further than the gold winning distance at the Olympics that year.

Teammate Jay Silvester once said: "When you throw against Oerter, you don't expect to win. You just hope."

In his later years, Al found a new passion... abstract art. Some of his earliest heroes had been the avant-garde artists in New York as he grew up. To that end, he took up the brush...

or heaved a paint-filled discus at a canvas...

and created a foundation for Olympians who, like him, also found a second passion in art.

So why does Al resonate so much with me?
Perhaps its because the story of someone who was able to once every four years... focus all of his being, energy and concentration into a single movement (at a single moment) that became superhuman in its scope and being... is thrilling.

By all accounts, Al was a serious, thoughtful, well spoken guy. Strong but unassuming. And his gift was natural. By his own assesment, he had lousy technique. But he once said, "I could throw a baseball, a football or a golf ball a country mile. It was just easy to throw anything."

As I mentioned in the last post, Al Oerter died this past October, but that isn't the end of this story.

A few years ago, I was surfing the net and I wondered, "Hmmm. You can find anyone via the net these days. I wonder what would happen if I googled "Al Oerter." I pressed "enter."

And out popped

I took my little curser thingy over and punched it.

And there was a personal site, run by Al, selling memorabilia and his paintings. So I thought what the heck... and wrote an honest-to-goodness fan letter and sent it off. Now mind you, Al had a god-like status to me (only matched by Julie Newmar, in whose presence I once became a blithering idiot unable to form sentences. God only knows what would happen if I met Natalia Makarova) The next day I got a beautiful, thought out response engaging in the more spiritual aspects of discus throwing that I had brought up in my letter and that how interesting it was that I was a choreographer, since his wife was a dancer in the manner of Isadora Duncan.

After a few more exchanges, where I was on Cloud Nine (but attempting not to be an overly fawning fan), Al sent me what is now my prized possession... a discus with a quote from one of his e-mail responses written on it.

That quote is the title of this post.

Did I ever really meet Al Oerter... no.
Were we friends... no.
As he was lying on his deathbead was he thinking about our "conversations" as he was re-living his Olympic triumphs, the birth of his daughters and wedding days... no.

But that quote is mine.

It is for me alone.

From Al.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Romeo Will Have To Wait For The Passing of A Prince

Hello all,

I was supposed to write today about the Romeo and Juliet Pas De Deux that I recently choreographed, but that will have to wait a few posts.

First off, we had our first lecture demonstration of the season today. It was a Nutcracker LD, (actually two of them). Way out east in Alpine. Alpine Elementary. A very nice school with very nice students. I didn't watch the first LD. I don't want the dancers to feel as if I am micro-managing, but I did watch the second.

I always try to give dancers a chance to perform parts that they normally wouldn't perform (or haven't yet performed) at these school outings. As such, I think its important that I watch them in the parts, otherwise it may seem a bit as if I don't care about the LD's. Which is the furthest from the truth.

At today's shows, there were 400 kids. Which is roughly equivelent to the audience for a show at a mid-sized theatre like the Lyceum. But they are often performed on stages which are the size of a postage stamp with slippery floors (or carpeting) and no theatrical lighting whatsoever. Usually without the ability to run through much. So it really gives an insight as to a dancer's character, professionalism, and mental flexability to see how they cope in these situations.

It is easy for some to blow them off as "not real" performances. But the students don't see that. They are there to see BALLET DANCERS. And art can happen anywhere.

But now the real reason I am not talking about Romeo today. This is going to be long, so bear with me.

We all have heroes. Or at least we should.

When I was about 12 or 13, KPBS (public televison) was airing a series about the Olympics called Olympiad.

It was the first of what would later become Bud Greenspan's stirring, memorable ongoing profiles of Olympic champions. I can remember watching it on my little portable black and white tv in my room.

The names still make me swell up with a stir of emotion.

Fanny Blanker-Koen, the dutch mother of two and housewife, who won 4 gold medals in the 1948 Olympics, at a time when women's athletics was frowned upon.

Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn

Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio to become the "fastest woman on Earth."

Abebe Bikila, the two time marathon champion who ran in bare feet because that is how he was used to running in Ethiopia.

And I don't even like sports.

Two stories always had a particular resonance with me. The first was of the 1964 Japanese Women's Volley Ball team

These women had endured years of backbreaking, dehumanizing practice and drill to get where they were. In the end, they won the Gold medal, but the look on some of their faces was less of triumph than of utter release. They were emotionally spent and could not stop crying. This coming from a culture where showing emotion is considered bad taste. The voiceover mentioned that each of the women would need to ask herself whether it was all worth it. You could see that for some that answer was going to be no.

To this day, I remember the variety of intense emotion that showed on each of the faces.

The other story that has stayed with me all of my life is that of Al Oerter, who I will discuss in my next blog entry.

Al Oerter died on October 1 of this year. I just found out about it two days ago as I was surfing the Internet.

Al was my hero.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Don Quixote in Rehearsal

The first piece presented on Saturday was the Don Quixote pas de deux. Below is a rehearsal shot of the piece. (Askar isn't really going to wear a t-shirt in the show.)

We collaborate every year on our student matinees with Culture Shock Dance Troupe. Due to conflicting performance schedules, they were not going to be available for our Saturday evening show. This opened up some programming space for some smaller pieces to be presented.

Don Quixote was one of these.

Don Quixote or DQ or the DQ Pas De Deux is a classical duet that is part of a larger three (or FIVE) act ballet. Because of the technical brilliance required, it is often presented all on its ownsome as part of an evening of mixed rep or at gala performances.

For those with knowledge of the novel or any version of the play, the two characters portrayed by the dancers are not Don Quixote and Dulcinea. They are Basil the barber and Kitri, his fiancee. In the most familiar version of the ballet, the action revolves around them and the Don is a peripheral character.

The ballet (choreographed by Marius Petipa in Russia) was first presented in the middle of the 1800's. Roughly 100 years later, George Balanchine created a new version of Don Quixote (to a new score) that DID revolve around the Don and Dulcinea. The piece was pretty much viewed as a love letter to his muse at the time, Suzanne Farrell. Unfortunately, although the ballet contained some lovely dancing passages for Farrell and others in the company, the new musical score was badly received and the ballet on the whole was not looked upon with favor. It has since become a "lost" work, with only a few snippets of Farrell's kept alive on film.

So it is the original Russian ballet with (pseudo Spanish styling) set to the Austrian score (with pseudo Spanish styling) that we see to this day.

Like any other classical pas de deux, DQ starts with an adagio. This is an adagio with a difference however. At times, it seems more like a competition than a romantic duet. There are traditional balances, lifts, and side-by-side steps, but neither the music nor the choreography bespeak of any sort of intimacy. We are looking at two show-offs. Which is more interesting since in the complete ballet, this pas de deux is supposed to be occuring at their wedding.

The adagio is followed (as always) by the male variation. Why? Because in classical ballet the ballerina is the more "important" of the two. So the "star" always comes last. Years ago, when Mikhail Baryshnikov was at the height of his dancing ability, popularity and star appeal, he was dancing in a gala performance at American Ballet Theatre with Natalia Makarova. They were performing the pas de deux from the last act of Sleeping Beauty. Baryshnikov was a MAJOR movie star and a HUGE box office draw at the ballet. There was no doubt that there were more people in the audience to see him than Makarova. He had just put together a new (more difficult) male variation and sheepishly asked her if she wouldn't mind doing her variation first, so that he could have a bit more time to breath. She did and that was the end of the discussion. With his tale between his legs, the mega-movie star had to allow the ballerina to reign supreme on the ballet stage.

So as noted, Askar wouldn't be wearing jazz pants (or white socks) in the show. This was a good variation for Askar to work on. Although it has many Spanish styings, it still needs to be kept clean and clear. It also needs a great deal of power, but the dancer has to look relaxed in his use of the force. He can't look overwhelmed or out of control. He must exude confidence.

After the male variation comes the female variation, Bernadette's two pics show some of the difficulties in shooting dance. This was not a photo shoot. Manny was shooting during a single run through of the piece on stage. The step above is a transitional step (a glissade) that is used to get into a larger step like the one below ( a grande jete).

Now, if we were doing a photo shoot we would have Bernadette do the step above over and over. That wasn't the case here. And often times the photographer is seeing a dance for the first time. Many aerial steps look their best for a split second. So to catch that split second, when you don't know when its coming is quite a feat.

And then as always, the dancers finish triumphantly after more bravura turns and leaps.

The second piece of the evening was The Swan. Since we couldn't do Carnival of the Animals that evening, I decided to let Rachel do the Swan all by itself (as it is also often done). Since she wasn't with the constraints of the ballet, I also told her that, if she wanted to, she could "die" as is traditional when the solo is done by itself. She did.

The last piece performed before the first intermission was a new pas de deux choreographed One that I had intentionally stayed away from for awhile.

Romeo and Juliet.

More on that next time.


Back Again

Okay, I am back again.

So much has happened. Haven't had much time to get online. But I suppose I could also have been much more dilligent in signing on and writing SOMETHING.

In September, two of our dancers did a guest appearance with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. They needed a waltzing couple to come out at the end the Blue Danube and swoop around the stage.

Then the ballet had a show with the Grossmont Orchestra. We performed a piece choreographed to Marquez' Danzon #2.

But the big thing that happened was that we had our Fall Rep show. Normally, we do a week long series of matinees for school kids and then a weekend of performances. Unfortunately, our school matinees were scheduled for the same week as the big fires in California.

As the schools were all canceled for the week. We had to postpone our shows.

We did however do the weekend shows. And thank you to the the loyal, stalwart patrons who came out to support us.

5 pieces were presented. Saturday night featured a more "adult" program and Sunday was geared to kids.

I don't know why but I can't upload photos right now. There were photos were taken at a rehearsal by Manny Rotenberg, which I will try to upload on the weekend.