Thursday, January 31, 2008

YouTube Treasures

If you ever need to go to Knott's Berry Farm, go during the week in winter time. We had the place to ourselves. No wait at the restaurant either. Boysenberry waffles. Mmmmm.

So while we are waiting for the dancers to come back next week from their break, I thought I could address one of the wonders of the 21st Century.

I LOVE watching historical dance footage (and current dance stuff as well.) Whenever I find an unexpected snippet of a performance by a past dancer, my heart "leaps" a bit.

It's wonderful that today, you can just click on to YouTube and see amazing performances by dancers that you would never have been exposed to. Yes, it's great to be able to read Edwin Denby's insightful critical essays of dance performances. But it is much better to read them AND see the artist he was writing about "caught" for all time.

Case in point... Carmen Amaya

Amaya was a brilliant technician AND performer. Quite simply put, she was electric. But now, you don't have to just trust me, you can check her out yourself at...

Did you? I hope so. Amaya was a trailblazer. When she began dancing, female flamenco technique was more reserved than male technique. Lots of arms and skirt manipulation.

Amaya took it upon herself to learn and EXCEL at the male technique. In order to show off her mastery, she began wearing male attire. SHE wore the pants in her company... AND the skirts. She was powerful AND feminine.

Watching her move, there is no doubt that she was in total command, when she took the stage. That command did not diminish as she grew older. Here is a clip of her in a cameo role as the mother of one of a pair of star crossed lovers in Los Tarantos.

She hasn't lost any of the fire that she had before. If anything, she is fiercer. I had actually been exposed to this later clip first. I sat through the whole movie (on a scratchy VHS video) just for this little moment.

How great that I can now compare Amaya at her prime to Prime Amaya.

Stick with me and tomorrow we will visit another great dancer from the past.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Grant Madness

Just a quick blog today as I am finishing a grant that is due tomorrow.

This one is for the California Arts Council.

Its for an Artists in Schools residency grant. Since I do so much work at Chula High and Chula Middle, I decided last year that perhaps I should get paid for it. It was fairly simple justifying the ongoing relationship that I have with the schools and using the CAC monies to improve and stabilize the relationship.

So if you want to help me out, and a whole bunch of artists in California, you can buy a license plate.

Just go to...

But I must be off now, so I can finish my grant, so I can zoom off to the birthplace of the boysenberry tomorrow... Knotts Berry Farm!


Monday, January 28, 2008

S'Wonderful - Finale

The final piece of the dance is just a joyous, continuing restatement of a waltz. Each dancer comes in completes the movement phrase and then exits.

Everyone comes back in and has a brief solo as the others dance in unison behind them. They then face flat front, restate the waltz and finish on their knees.

It took the dancers a little while to get used to the shifting back-up patterns, but once they got them down, they had a blast with it.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Friar's Point Shuffle - Trio

The penultimate dance in the piece was a trio, featuring Shannon (the first soloist) and the two men.

I thought this was a nice way to let Shannon have something like the dance that she didn't get to do in Sonnets (because of her injury). The difference between the two dances (apart form the fact that Sonnets was 3 guys and girl) would be that in Sonnets the girl is relatively passive. She is passed from guy to guy.

With this piece, I asked Shannon. "Why do you think you have two guys partnering you?" She couldn't think of a reason, so I told her... "Because you are too much woman for one man."

For me, things always have to have a logic to them. In this small ballet, there are a lot of choreographic "relationships."

Shannon BEGINS the piece alone. She then has the LAST "dance' with two men.

At the beginning of the ballet (after Shannon's prelude solo), the two girls who dancing with the guys are the two soloists. Shannon's partner is Abby. The two girls who have the partnered pieces in the ballet. Abby will have two dances (one with one guy and one with the other. 2 with 1) While Shannon will have one dance (one with two guys. 1 with 2.)

If you count the solo that Shannon in front of the curtain as a prelude, the two girls solos sit exactly on either side of the exact center of the ballet.

I hated math in school, but I loved order. Did I mention that as a kid, I used to go into stores and instead of going to the toy department, I would go put all of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries in order.

Order and chaos. The manipulation of energy is an important concept in keeping things interesting onstage.

Anyhoo, this all sets us up for the Finale, which is up next...


Saturday, January 26, 2008

There'll Be Some Changes Made - Solo

So here is the third solo of the piece and it is danced by Chelsy to the tune "There'll Be Some Changes Made." It was choreographed rather late in the process, but before Abby's two pas de deux's.

I don't like my pieces to look as if the dancers have been pedantically drilled for hours and hours, and then arrive onstage to dutifully perform their dance. I like the dances to look as if they are springing spontaneously from the dancers. So the sooner a dancer can show me that they can inhabit the choreography, the better. Or else I will be thinking, "That step needs to be changed, it looks unnatural on her body."

Which is not to say that sometimes I don't leave in difficult steps. But I can pretty much tell which steps will eventually work and which aren't worth the effort. Chelsy is a dancer who immediately makes the steps you give her look... like a dance.

We all thought that she "looked" great doing the solo. But she didn't "feel" good doing it. By the time she got to her favorite passage (near the end), she was too winded to enjoy it. She got through it, but she received no pleasure in doing so. In classical ballets, variations normally last 1 to 2 minutes. All 3 of the solos in this piece were 3 to 4 minutes long. They were also very dense choregraphically.

Dancers are NOT servants to the audience. They don't dance so that people can applaud for them (or at least they shouldn't.) They dance because of the joy and pleasure they get from dancing (or at least they should.)

So I worked with her to change a few things, so by the time she got to her "favorite" part, she could enjoy it. Whenever I start thinking of the "godlike perfection" of my choreography, I always remember two anecdotes...

Violette Verdy, I believe, was taking on a new role at New York City Ballet.

Verdy was an exquisite dancer, with a refined technique, but the ending of the pas eluded her. Rather than force her to do it the old way, Balanchine said something to the effect of, "Don't worry. You have a pretty pas de chat. We will do that instead and end with a shoulder sit. It will be our secret. We'll surprise the audience. It will be wonderful!"

The second story has to do with Margot Fonteyn, the leading ballerina at the Royal Ballet, during its formative years.

The company had been performing the classics under the steely eye of a repetiteur, who would not allow the slightest deviation from Petipa's originals. After WW II, a Russian dancer joined the company, Violetta Elvin.

She had been brought up doing the exact same classics that the repetiteur guarded so carefully. But she had a much less strict view of the necessity to adhere to what had been done before.

When Fonteyn (who was battling with the 32 expected fouettes in Swan Lake) approached Elvin (who was happily romping through a Bluebird variation that suited her to a T) about this, Elvin smiled, batted her eyes, and said, "In Russia, we think its more important to have a beautiful effect." Effectively taking the straight-jacket off of a generation of British ballerinas.

Dance is a plastic art form. It is also of the moment.
There is choreography out there which is equal to some of the greatest works from other art forms. But the art of dance lies in the dancer and what they are doing NOW, not how well they can approximate what someone has doen BEFORE them.

And isn't it funny how serendipity works, I just now realized how appropriate the title of Chelsy's solo was to the content of today's post. Ah, life!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, January 25, 2008

When Your Lover Has Gone - Duet

And now we have a second pas de deux.

Abby returns to the stage, but she has traded Askar for Pali.

This piece was a delight to choreograph. It was also the last piece set for the ballet. It has a more dramatic flavor than the piece with Askar.

Abby has such a pretty quality to her dancing that she doesn't often get a chance to show her more sensual side. She usually gets cast in soubrette roles. In Nutcracker, she is the Marzipan Shepardess who bemusedly herds her flock of errant sheep. So it was nice to give her a break.

This piece is a fairly classic adagio pas de deux. And by that I mean... there are no surprises. It moves along from one sequence to another, logically.

Without the element of surprise or change of tempo, it is then up to the dancers to create the tension necessary to keep the audiences interest.

In staging pieces to music from the Twenties and Thirties, I dislike nostalgia or sentimentality. To me, this was the "Modern Age" in the 20th Century. Retrospection was not the vogue. So while I use lines that are evocative of the time, I don't do so because I want people to "go back in time."

I want people to stay in the present. Memories are never as vivid as current experience. If a dance becomes TOO MUCH of a period piece, you place a barrier (of time) between the audience and the subject. I think this keeps an audience from fully engaging with the dancers.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Stairway to Paradise - Solo

This solo was also choreographed for inclusion at the In Studio performances in Spring of 07.

Like Jillian's dance in Joplinesque, it was taught to the whole company. And they all fell to the wayside, except for Kirsten Thorne and another dancer who was with us at the time, Atsuko Mihoura.

Originally, I didn't know whether this was going to be a solo for a guy or a girl. I think it could still be danced by a guy.

The problem with this piece was that (as has been mentioned) it hadn't been video taped. And unfortunately there were big hunks (about 50 percent) of choreography that Kirsten (nor I) simply could not remember.

So I had to rechoreograph, which is no big deal, except that I had liked the original. The original was also harder than the second version, but for some reason, the second version tired Kirsten out more.

I love this photo. It is such a transitional, blurry mess, but she looks so free in it. Like one of those gauzy pictures of Isadora Duncan's students.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Improvisation for the March of Time - Duet

The structure of this ballet is as follows...

1st soloist. Group dance. Duet girl and partner. Second soloist. Duet girl and second partner. 3rd soloist. 1st soloist dances with two men. Group Dance.

So after the introductory group dance, Abby comes back in with Askar.

The dance that they do is fairly acrobatic (as you can see.)

But Abby is always able to project a sense of calmness and precision in whatever position she finds herself.

Like the Rhinoceros dance in Carnival of the Animals, some of this dance was recycled from a performance with the Grossmont Symphony. But it suits this music, as well.

The new choreography highlighted a bouncy soubrette quality of Abby's, along with Askar's willingness to toss her over his shoulder over and over again.

The dance ended with a nice series of lifts on the diagonal. The final ending was a bit troublesome, as, musically, it just sort of petered off. We tried everything (a lift offstage, a pirouette, etc, etc).

Finally, we just sort of let the dance degrade and had the dancers meander off.

That worked best.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nobody's Sweetheart

Shannon's dance takes place on the apron of the stage.

As she finishes, she rises and crosses upstage as a black drape opens (courtesy of me pulling it, Yes, I work on the crew as well, How's that for multi-tasking?) There are 2 guys and 3 girls already in position, as Shannon melds in.

Danced to Nobody's Sweetheart, this is basically just a mirror dance. The two girls and guy on stage left exactly mirror the two girls and guy on stage right. Step for Step.

For most of the dance, we see the guy dancing with one girl as the other girl does a solo (duet, remember the mirror). They come together briefly to form a trio (2 trios). Then the guy changes partners, so that his original partner is dancing alone and he is dancing with the first soloist. The number comes to an end shortly after that, as each couple runs off. Followed by the individual girls exiting.

When I gave the guys their costumes, I told them "You wear the ties as belts." They came back to me with the ties around their necks. Since Askar is from Kazakstan and Pali is from Hungary, sometimes there can be a little language problem. So I said...

"No, as belts."

Blank expressions.

"Around your waist."

Blank expressions.

"Like Fred Astaire."

Blank expressions.

"Just do it."

They couldn't fathom that someone would tie a tie around their waist.

Ah well.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Jazz Suite #1 - She's Funny That Way

Okay, Jazz Suite #1.

This was actually the middle piece of the program. However, it was the last to be started. We have a larger jazz piece in the repertoire, Opus Swing. It utilizes a cast of about 24 and is set to the lush big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman.

But (non-commercial) jazz is usually (and was usually) played by small combos. For a while, I have wanted to set a smaller jazz piece that would reflect the intimacy of this intimate, yet intricate sound.

Like the Joplin ballet, this piece was created over some months. The first solo created actually falls in the middle of the ballet, and I'll discuss that when it pops up.

The second piece created became the solo (danced by Shannon Hunter, set to "She's Funny That Way") that opened that ballet.

Shannon has a unique style. Soft and absent-mindedly sensuous. She can dance in the corps quite well, but I think that she actually needs to be onstage alone for the audience to catch the nuances of her phrasing. Alone or surrounded by attentive men.

As mentioned in our discussion of Sonnets (in an earlier post), Shannon was replacing another dancer in just such a "attentive men" number, when she suffered an ankle injury and had to be replaced. The doctor told her that she would be unable to dance for a few months.

As we had our fundraiser coming up, I needed to create some unique dances for it.

Nothing was wrong with Shannon, apart from a bad ankle, so I decided to choreograph a dance for her where she would just stay on the floor. Rolling.

I also knew I was doing the jazz piece in the next season, and I knew that I would need a variety of intimate solos.

What can be more intimate than a beautiful girl stretching on the floor?

Floorwork is something I am quite comfortable with. When I started dancing, jazz and theatre dance was very much influenced by modern dance. Not a day went by when we weren't falling, sliding or spinning on the floor.

The piece was very popular at the fundraiser... and after watching it over and over again, I decided it should open the ballet.

All along we thought that someone had video taped it (as the show had been recorded by a few people). But both this dance and the other solo from Jazz Suite had not been shot.

So when we were ready to actually start the piece in earnest, we had to reconstruct it from memory. Luckily, most of it came back to us. The rest... we just tweaked to fit.


Sunday, January 20, 2008


So we have come to the end.

The piece finishes with a fairly standard classical finale.

All of the dancers re-enter, in corresponding groups, perform a few flashy steps and finish.

I was happy with it for the most part, but will be tweaking a few of the steps at the end. I don't think it was as legible as it could have been.

So I think we will see both this finale and the finale to Carnival of the Animals re-visited and presented at our In Studio series in February.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Magnetic Rag - Solo

And now we have the final solo of the piece, danced to the Magnatic Rag.

This piece is danced by Bernadette Torres, along with the 4 girls who backed up Jillian in Elite Syncopations. It features lots of tricky changes of directions... along with some very twisty-turny eccentric work with the legs.

Two things of note in this piece...

The first is the timeline. As I said before, 3 of these numbers were choreographed years ago. Then this year, I used them as the basis for an expanded work. So 2 more pieces were developed for the Spring Studio series. Then one of the older pieces was reconstructed for our fundraiser. This piece was developed after that as part of a joint summer program we had with John Malashock and Jean Issacs.

I have used summer programs to develop pieces before. Since Bernadette was taking part in the workshop, I figured that I could develop something for her to be used as acounter to Jillian's already choreographed solo.

The second thing of note is that it is too long. For the summer program, it needed to have some length, as it was performed by itself. But in the ballet, it is supposed to balance out another solo. I left it long, because I was expirementing with form. I was trying to see if a longer solo could be sustained (not by the dancer, but by the audiences attention) at the end of the ballet.

Because the audience does register that the ballet is almost over since they have seen each of the principle couples takes stage and dance. When Bernadette comes center, they do register "Oh yes, its that other girl who was separated from the rest." and the shape of the ballet makes sense to them.

The problem was that the dance is 4 minutes and 46 seconds long, compared to Jillian's 3 minutes and 6 seconds. A minute and a half may not seem long to you, but on stage it is forever. Especially near the end of a piece.

The good thing is that I know where the cut in the piece is going to be and I am sure that it will make the piece stronger.


Friday, January 18, 2008

A "Classic" Two - Step

The final piece for the couples is accompanied by Sugar Cane (A Classic Two-Step).

This piece features Chelsy and Askar.

It has a little more "bite" than the other two versions. Whie both Chelsy and Askar can be quite romantic when they dance, I wanted to play up a little more of the bravura element of their dancing to contrast with the previous couple dances.

This dance features a lot of assisted jumps on point. Jumping and hopping on point is a crowd pleasing feature of ballet. Seeing a girl bouncing around on the tips of her toes is exciting because... it looks hard... and it looks painful. Well, it is hard and it is painful. But in the case of this piece, the men were basically holding the girls off the floor, so that no weight was coming down on the toes.

So it was rather fun for the girls to "pretend" that they were jumping on point.

Since Chelsy and Askar are also our Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier in Nutcracker, some of the steps that were put in their dance echo the traditional grand pas de deux from Nutcracker.

As I had mentioned before there is a teeny, tiny shred of a "story" in this piece.

It really is just that the guys are dealing with the girls much as the Poet figure in Les Sylphides dances with the sylphs. They are the visions of an artist. In this case, the guys are standing in for Scott Joplin and the ladies are the classical form. It begins by being elusive (Rachel's pas), then he begins to manipulate it (Abby's pas), and finally he is able to confidently present it (Chelsy's pas.)

I never told the dancers this because I didn't want them to over interpret it.

I also took a cue from Joplin's own subtitle of this piece. A Classic Two - Step. Stress the classic.

Pas de deux (which is the ballet term for a duet) literally means Step for Two.

So we are doing a classical Step for Two to A Classic Two-Step. Nifty.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Elite Syncopations - Solo

First, I would like to welcome anyone who is coming to the blog for the first time, thanks to the nifty, new San Diego Ballet newsletter. You have all caught me in the middle of a dissection of one of our premieres from this last season... Joplinesque.

We are now smack dab in the middle of the piece and are coming upon the first of two solos.

A fairly bouncy tune titled Elite Syncopations, danced by Jillian Nealon.

The piece was put together along with the Bethena Waltz for a studio performance in the Spring of 07. It was our inaugural show in our new studios.

Many times, I will choreograph a solo for a specific person. Sometimes, I like the whole group to learn it and pick from among them. The latter was the case with both this solo and one that was created for Jazz Suite #1. I didn't set out to make difficult dances. But somehow I did. At the end of the process, there was really only one dancer who was able to move as quickly in some of the movement phrases as this ballet demanded. And that was Jillian.

As you will notice, these photos were taken at two different run thrus. In the top photo, Jillian is still wearing her watch (a no-no). In the second, she has removed it (thank you). The solo feature lots of little jumps, hops on pointe, back bends, bends to the side, bends forward, pirouettes, and a fair amount of strutting on stage. Through out she is backed up by the 4 corps girls from the first movement, who were dancing on either side of her and the other soloist.

Since all of the dancers had learned the piece, it was fairly easy work to set up the corps girls, as they echo Jillian's steps as she does them.

My favorite part of the piece came at the end, when the 5 girls just marched on point towards the audience in unison. It was a fairly simple step, featuring an exaggerated arm swing and head tilt, but it always made me smile when it happened. The all just looked so happy and confident!


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pretty Two-Step

After the quartet, the trio of couples stroll back in. Now Abby and Pali take center stage and the other couples echo them to the tune of The Strenuous Life.

Their dance takes advantage of Abby's delicacy and clean positions. She has a very crisp, clear, piquant style which makes her a joy to watch because her dancing is so "legible."

"Presentation" is a quality that dancers must always be aware of. It doesn't mean that a dancer must be constantly mugging at the audience. But a dancer must always be aware of the effect they are making to an audience.

Are they presenting (communicating) the dance in such a way that the audience "gets" it? Otherwise, you might as well just be dancing in your living room alone. Which is great too, but why go onstage if you don't have something to "say."

So unlike the previous couples dance, there isn't any drama in this piece. It features the girls using their legs very much like scissors. Tight and straight. As they switch from position to position, they are manipulated by the guys to change direction as well.

There wasn't anything particularly difficult about setting this pas. The only thing of note was that a step had to be changed after the piece had been staged.

When you are setting something, you tend to do so in stops and starts. Towards the end of the dance, there was a diagonal of releve's for Abby that weren't a problem when we did it in pieces.

Abby looked very nice doing it.

But when we put it in the framework of the entire dance, it was just too much for her ankle at the end of four minutes of dancing. We kept it in for awhile, to see if it was a matter of endurance, but it wasn't. Given that there are so many other steps that could easily take its place, we changed it to an off balance releve into 4th, that was equally pretty. And more fun to perform.

Here we have another example of "presentation." Even though Abby is facing back (this is actually a turning lift), her arms and legs are still making a clearly legible line to the audience.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Quartet - The Entertainer

After the couples first number, the quartet of girls who danced upstage center in the opening return.

They dance to the very popular, The Entertainer.

Back in the 70's, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing this piece being played somewhere on the radio. We can credit the uber-popular team of Robert Redford and Paul Newman for that.

Before they were hawking salad dressing and independent movie festivals, they made a string of insanely, profitable films (from which they made an insane amount of profit and became the beloved philanthropists we all have come to know. Love that Newman's Limeade.)

One of these flicks was The Sting (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year).

The movie featured The Entertainer as its recurring theme. The popularity of the movie (and its ubiquitous theme song) started a ragtime craze, that contributed to the playing of ragtime in ballet classes and Kenneth McMillan's Elite Syncopations.

See how the real world influences art!

Anyhow, this particular piece was originally choreographed for Stephanie Aubuchon, Amy Kaplan, and Khristina Kravas. Three of the company's principal dancers. It was also one of the pieces reconstructed from the performance with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. We didn't perform it at the studio performance in the spring, rather we redid it for our fundraising event in June. So it was ready in plenty of time for inclusion in the ballet.

Here is Kirsten at the beginning of the dance. The movement begins with a soloist setting a theme. The other girls then join in, as she begins to develop variations on the original theme. Through the piece they take turns as soloists and explore different permutations of duo's, trios, and a quartet.

For anyone who can count, you can see that our original trio has become a quartet. So some of the architecture of the dance had to change. When the dance was originally performed it was also half as long. That was because that was all the orchestra wanted to play. So there was some amount of new choreography that was developed for the new quartet version.

Here is one of the pitfalls of photography. It looks as if the two forward facing girls have either fallen off point or are ahead of the two girls facing the back. In actuality, they are doing a different movement phrase altogether. The girls facing back are executing an attitude turn. the ladies facing front are transitioning from hops on pointe.

Labels: , ,