Friday 6 January 2012

Learning the steps

Take Frederick Ashton’s 1937 skating divertissement Les Patineurs: a trifle light as air, but oh, the complex demands that went into making it seem so. Balletic art, like any other, should conceal its difficulties, but I do find myself becoming ever more reverent in my attitude to the discipline of dance. And I wish I knew more about its steps and positions. So far my knowledge is as tentative as my gardening – I know the species I admire, in this case stunners like the multiple fouettés, the fabulous fish and fan dives, but not much in between. 2012 would be a good year for learning the vocabulary: but how – in classes, or just passively, online? At any rate I did feel last year that I shouldn’t sound off about ballet performances until I’d got more detailed knowledge about the moves under my belt.

Which is why the little extras served up on the new Ashton triple bill DVD are so meaningful. Actually it’s not exactly new, putting together a fair conspectus of Royal Ballet stars from 2004 – including Bussell and Samodurov – alongside those still very much active in 2010 (which is when Les Patineurs was filmed).

As I only have 30 words on it in a BBC Music Magazine roundup, it must be OK to rhapsodise about the bonuses to Les Patineurs, all three of which cast a richer light on Ashton's choreography to Meyerbeer's music (the Constant Lambert arrangements start so well, with extreme registers in the galumphing waltz, but don't go on to shine a la Lanchbery).

You’d probably guess that the insouciant role of the Blue Boy is a toughie, but how much more respect I had for spunky Steven McRae (pictured up top by Bill Cooper) after I’d watched the rehearsal sequence in which he’s put through Ashton’s paces by self-styled caretaker of a tradition Christopher Carr. I wasn't expecting it to appear on YouTube, and it wasn't there when I started writing, but now it is. [UPDATE: And now it isn't, since the Royal Ballet has reasserted copyright.]

Which makes some of my precis redundant, so I've hastily trimmed; but watch it through [clearly this no longer pertains, but it's a bit late to go back and reinstate all the original text I'd cut away] for wisdoms on the fresh up-to-dateness of the ballet, the difficulty for 1937, the breathtaking rehearsal work on the butterfly jumps which have defeated some male dancers - Baryshnikov included - though clearly not the original performer, Harold Turner. 'Head lower into the centre of the circle', urges Carr, 'legs flying round the outside...The hard bit is after you've done one set to get ready to go again.' And of course the sequence has to finish with the 'iconic' ending, 'hops in second and continuously turning until the curtain comes down'.

Well, that was clear, at least in the demonstration. And here's the Blue Boy's first solo - sadly not the number featuring the butterfly leaps - between the witty entry of the Blue Girls (Samantha Raine and Akane Takada) and the Pas de deux of the Couple in White (Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather).

What's not to 'get' in that? Whereas you’d have to be a real ballet expert to understand the subtleties of Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet, third on the DVD bill – for some insiders, his finest achievement. I can sense the finer geometric points, but not as acutely as I do Balanchine’s extraordinary rendition of another Stravinsky score which dances even though it was never intended for choreography, the delectable Capriccio for piano and orchestra in its places as the second, ‘Rubies', ballet of the diverse Jewels.

Whatever the chic New York gimmick that prompted this troika of Balanchine-filtered French (to Fauré), American (to the Stravinsky) and Russian (four movements of Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony) styles, it makes a satisfying whole. There are two magical short Pas de Deux in 'Emeralds', and inevitably the prima ballerina assoluta Ulyana Lopatkina glitters aristocratically in 'Diamonds', but my heart truly leaped at the centrepiece of 'Rubies', where Irina Golub's extensions and her playful mirror-work with Andrian Fadeyev make the most immediate impression.

Technically, it's superb, but Balanchine proves once again that no choreography is worth its salt if it doesn't provide a perfect reflection of music that, in this case, is chameleonic and elusive. Which I suppose brings me back to first the notes, then the steps.


wanderer said...

What an unexpected and delightful diversion down memory lane, thank you, to the days when The Australian Ballet was as British as, well, as Ashton - when John Lanchbery was in residence, and in the pit, Dame Peggy van Praagh was in the rehearsal room, and Elaine Fifield on point.

Actually, I especially liked the opening two women on (skate) point, slipping backwards as only Ashton would choreograph, and the angle of the hands! I can see Bobby Helpmann as one of them.

While I'm not sure I fully agree about its 'today-ness', it is just lovely to revisit the Ashton style, as well as glimpsing Mr Carr's meticulous (hair) style. And, Steven McCrae is looking particularly cheeky.

Susan Scheid said...

When I first came to New York in the late 1970's, I made it my business to "try out" all the cultural wonders, and that included ballet, about which I knew nothing. How lucky I was to have stumbled into the New York State Theater (we shall ignore its new name) while Balanchine was still alive and some of his finest dancers were at their peak. I hardly knew what I was looking at, dazzling though it was (Jewels and Symphony in C are two that I loved), but what I did, at least dimly, recognize is what you so elegantly express in the close to your post: "Balanchine proves once again that no choreography is worth its salt if it doesn't provide a perfect reflection of music that, in this case, is chameleonic and elusive. Which I suppose brings me back to first the notes, then the steps." Nothing else I saw after that quite measured up.

Anonymous said...

Very perceptive writing on the ashton and balanchine ballets.

The detailed knowledge of the music usedin the ballets adds a lot tothe interest of you comments on the ballets.

Please write soon about Ashton's Symphonic Variations as I would be interested to hear your views and aslo Jerome Robbin's Dances at a Gathering. Keep up the great writing. Liam

Susan Scheid said...

This is only to say, lest you think your absence might go unnoticed, that you are missed. I am hoping that the reason is immersion in some mighty project (as in Prokofiev, v. 2), and that you and yours are well and enjoying life.

I also thought you might be amused to know, my birthday is coming up, and I have been promised a concert of my choosing. Of course, the problem is, my birthday is 1/31, which I share with Franz Schubert (very fine), but also Philip Glass (not so fine), who will be 75, so you can guess the rest. I persevered, and managed to find an un-Glass-tinged opera (the "Enchanted Island" baroque pastiche at the Met). My dream would have been a full program of Sibelius tone poems, a joint program of Adams/Mattingly, or a pairing of Sibelius's and Tchaikovsky's Tempests or . . . well you get the idea.

Fond wishes from Over There,


Will said...

David, it's been an unusually long hiatus and if there's s problem, I'm wishing you the very best. I hope we see you here soon again!

David Damant said...

Yes, David, please come back soon !

Susan, I should be glad of a comment on 'The Enchanted Island ' I heard it on the radio. It was quite amusing, and fun to try to remember where the various extracts came from. Perhaps a visit to see the piece might be worthwhile, but I thought from the radio that it was an enormous effort for a fairly light outcome. But I may be being stuffy

David said...

Thanks for your concern and support, all: everything a bit on hold with unwellness at the moment, but I hope to blog about it - all - as soon as I'm a bit better. Mighty miffed to have missed out on the big Prokofiev fest, in which I was supposed to be participating (that doesn't matter as much as missing Jurowski's big concerts).

Many happy returns for the 31st, Sue, enjoy the Handel cornucopia, and best wishes to all.

wanderer said...

David, if thoughts should help then mine and others are yours for the healing. Your silence has been deeply disturbing and can I say it was some relief to hear your voice and without intrusion wait whatever reassurance you will offer us.

Howard Lane said...

Dear David, I'm sorry you haven't been well and wish you a very speedy recovery. I thought you were having a break or rest from posting, and being away ffrom home hadn't been online much recently anyway.

I am now in Sydney and sadly missed Claire's birthday which was on the 30th. Your recommendation for the Meistersingers was great and as far as I can tell much appreciated.

Magic Flute is at the Opera House but no time to fit it in before I leave. I did marvel at the Picasso Masterpieces from the Musee National at the Sydney Art Gallery however. One or two familiar works but many new to me. Danielle who works in fine art marvelled at the immense value of the collection. We felt it could easily solve all the Eurozone's economic woes.

Hoping you are well soon and looking forward to your next blog posts.

Shin-ichi Numabe said...

Dear David, I'm writing in London. Tonight is the last night of my stay. It is a great pity that I could not see you during I'm here.

The Prokofiev Festival was tremendously great. Jurowski's conducting was truly masterly, especially in Symphony No. 6 and Ivan the Terrible. Yumiko and I enjoyed them very much.

We are sincerely hoping that you will recover very soon.

David Damant said...

Susan -

Any report on "The Enchanted Island" ?

David said...

Shin-Ichi, my deepest apologies and regrets for not having been able to see you and Yumiko when you were over. You can well imagine that it took a lot to keep me away from all those incredible programmes... I hope all is well with you and yours in Tokyo, and again sad not to catch up after the rather worrying exchanges at the time of the disaster.

Howard, I'd forgotten that the girls were in Australia - so Danielle is now in the fine art world, eh? Sure you had a good time there - does anyone come away with a negative impression of Oz?

And Sue, if you're still flicking over, I too am curious to know what you made of The Enchanted Island and hope you had a wonderful birthday.

Howard Lane said...

Many impressions of Sydney, somewhat coloured by my past family history. My cousin and her family have also recently emigrated here.

Coming home to a much colder Blighty today, hoping that our plane can forge through the forecast snow.

The first performance at the newly opened Opera House in 1973 was War and Peace, I have learned. An iconic space honouring an iconic work by the great Russian!

David Damant said...

Am I correct in remembering that the larger arena at the Sydney Opera House in not the one for opera? Because the stage was too small - or what was the reason why the larger arena is used for orchestras etc?

Olga Bramley said...

Dear David,

We are sending you a few words about the performance and the Russian Star from St. Petersburg:
Sergey Zakharov- is a legendary name-the name lives in the heart of millions of Russians! He used to be called Russian Robertino Loretti. As some of exceptionally talented people, he was made to suffer a lot, when at the height of his popularity during the late 70s at the order of an influential Soviet official he was banned from the stage, and a lot of rare recordings of his young voice have been ordered to be destroyed from the radio archives.
Several generations of women have lost their hearts to him, having watched on countless occasions the film Nebesnye Lastochki (“Swallows from Heaven”) in which he plays the handsome hussar, and listening, with bated breath, to Mister Iks (“Mister X”) or Yabloni v tsvetu (“Apple trees in blossom”). And even today you can find the young girl sneaking backstage to catch an adoring glimpse of his vivacious, attentive eyes and to ask for his autograph.
The singer has never performed in this country to a wide audience before! (Only closed Russian events, like the Russian Winter Ball, and the Russian Song Festival)Many special Russian Classical songs will be performed for the first time to the wide British audience!
(We realized this, when we were entering the details into the concert diary-titles of songs, and composers were entered for the first time into the database.)
We expect, this will be a truly exceptional performance! watch this on You tube
I attended Hvorostovskiys concerts, but you cannot compare the passion, with which Sergey Zakharov performs!-magical appeal!

Would you consider writing a review for this charity event?

Best regards,
Olga Bramley

Eurolog UK(Chair) , Registered charity no. 1127800,

Katharine Richman said...

Hi - I am the Programme Editor for The Bach Choir. I wonder whether it would be possible to use your excellent programme note for The Bells in our concert programme (Feb 29 RFH)? Sorry to post this request here, but am not sure how else to contact you. Many thanks.

David said...

Thanks, Katharine, would be happy to oblige. Would you mind leaving your e-mail, please?

wanderer said...

David Damant, as briefly as I can:

The major hall was intended to be a multipurpose opera theatre and the minor hall a drama theatre. Construction had gone as far as the installation of the stage machinery in the larger hall (which I saw and remember well) when the threat of a boycott from the powerful Australian Broadcasting Commission, then running the symphony orchestras, saw the major hall redesigned as a concert hall and the smaller hall became the opera theatre. It has the too small stage and pit, and the concert hall has difficult acoustics. The ins and outs of all that is not for here, but you need to revert back to the 60s to understand the thinking.

Howard - the War and Peace I remember as if yesterday, a monumental achievement, an antipodean exaggerated effort to emphasise 'we can', and 'we did' (not unlike the Sydney Olympics). Sam Wanamaker directed, (Sir) Edward Downes, the man behind the inspired choice, conducted his own translation with most of the company on stage, 13 scenes and all. Elizabeth Connell is I think the only one still singing. A day later the concert hall opened with (Sir) Charles Mackerras conducting an all Wagnerian concert with Birgit Nilsson. The stuff of dreams. Gratuitous blog link, skip the rabbiting on, but there are three links (embedding not allowed) of the opening concert which may be of interest.

David Nice - please excuse us chatting around the bed, and do get well soon.

David Damant said...

Thank you Wanderer ! I wish Mr Gates would give me a billion or two so that I could pay for the interior to be sorted. Exterior-wise, of course stunning

Admiral to sailor during World War II, on coming into sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge

"Good heavens sailor, what on earth is that structure? "

"I couldn't say sir, I'm from New Zealand"

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, David! And here I have been resisting coming over, on the thought that you were writing V.II of Prokofiev, and so didn't want to “fill up the inbox.” So I now must add to those of others an intense sending of good thoughts your way that you will soon be well again.

In the meanwhile, though I haven't a bit the background to bring to it, Enchanted Island was a rollicking entertainment, enjoyed by all three who went. (That alone was good enough for me, as I’ve been known to take good sports along to some pretty peculiar stuff.) Hard to miss with the selection of music—we had fun trying to guess when the score slipped from Handel and landed on Vivaldi (though we were almost surely wrong). I think the whole was cleverly stitched together, music and libretto both, and beautifully sung. I loved the countertenor who played Prospero (Anthony Roth Costanzo, not Daniels, in this case), and Luca Pisaroni as Caliban brought real poignancy to what might have been a laughable part. The sets were perfect for the frothy whole. Directed and designed by the same fellows who did the unmentionable—but here I am mentioning it again—Satyagraha, McDermott and Crouch, about whom I think, David, you’d noted some complaints, but I think the result here was better, no peculiarities like bundles of scotch tape, really in keeping throughout.

I think David D may well be right that it was “an enormous effort for a fairly light outcome”—there were a couple times where I thought, wait, are we introducing a little too much of a Broadway musical feel here?—yet it did seem everyone was having a whale of a good time at it. I tended to think of it, anyway, as New Year’s Eve fare, which tends often to be a bit bubbly and light, and, much as you know I’m a sucker for waltzes, this was surely an improvement over dragging out Die Fledermaus for the 3,000th time. (Or maybe I’m being crotchety there.)

As side note, I actually have a post coming out Thurs/Fri on the concert I really, really wish I’d known of and got to that week. And just now, Mr. Nice, I want you to know I’ve been busily listening to symphonic tone poems (again), Sibelius and Dvorak, not to mention a bit of childhood Prokofiev, for a post coming up a bit later on. Which is just to say that, while I haven’t been Over Here, you’re in mind, you are missed, and I sign off once again with best wishes for the return of your good health.

Howard Lane said...

All quiet on the West Brompton front - David, sending your our best Shrovetide wishes for a speedy recovery. Claire's hand is much improved and we are looking forward to pancakes and maybe a spin of Petrushka or two.

A sad coda to the wonderful memories of the 1973 opening of Sydney Opera House is the death on Saturday of Elizabeth Connell who sang in it.

toubab said...

David Darling,
thinking of you and very much looking forward to seeing you in the spring! All my love and wishes for a speedy return to health and happiness.

Susan Scheid said...

Dear David: This is just to say how much you are missed. I am sending good thoughts your way daily for your return to good health.

Will said...

Hi, David--
I so muss your posts and hope that whatever the problem heals soon.

I just got word that the Boston Lyric Opera will produce James MacMillan’s “Clemency" which it had a hand in commissioning. I am obliged to you, as you know, for introducing me to MacMillan's The Sacrifice and am delighted that we're getting one of his operas here.

Take care and I hope we hear from you soon.

Susan Scheid said...

David: You continue to be missed, I hope you know, and recently, as you’ve been particularly on my mind, I felt I must write a note. Remember the “terminology” discussion that broke out in comments to one of my posts (Finnegan’s Hat, about a Contemporaneous concert)? There was a point at which I wrote that “the music has communicated itself better than my words about it can begin to do,” an inadequacy I often feel, and keenly. I will never forget your encouraging words back: “I don't know, Sue, I think measured writing like yours that springs from genuine enthusiasm and passion can guide people to finding the key to music. It's never AS good as the real thing, but it can be ALMOST as good - and runs parallel.”

Those words have meant a great deal to me as I struggle to add my own wee voice in advocating for music that inspires me. Recently those words accompanied me as I tried to write about a Contemporaneous concert, Just for Us, six world premieres by six young composers, each, I thought, a precious gem. I do feel what Contemporaneous is doing is so worthy, so free of gimmickry, so much simply about discovering music they love and playing it to the very best of their considerable ability, that I could not let this concert go by unmentioned. But oh my, even with audio so I could re-listen, it is so tough find the words. Your words to me stayed with me, helping me to persevere. It is but one among many reasons (Sibelius! Mahler/Abbado/Lucerne—I keep a copy of your notes on the 9th together with the DVD, I’ll have you know!) your cyber-friendship has meant such a lot to me.

I have now gone on too long, so I will close, and, with grateful thanks, I continue to send good thoughts your way for your return to full and blooming health.



David said...

You've done a marvellous job there, Sue, and I'm so touched by your persevering goodwill. I do so hope to have something to post soon. Meanwhile, keep up the excellent work!