For me the two works on this New York City Ballet digital program are worlds apart. I have loved Ballo della Regina, choreographed by George Balanchine especially for Merrill Ashley in 1978, since I first saw it years ago now. On the other hand, After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in 2005, has never been a favourite for me, especially when only the pas de deux is shown rather than the whole work.
The production of Ballo della Regina that was streamed on this occasion was filmed in 2016 and featured NYCB principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the leading roles. I was interested to hear, in the introduction to the program, that Merrill Ashley handed down the ballet to Fairchild for her graduation performance from School of American Ballet in 2002. A graduation performance! And from the astonishing performer Merrill Ashley! Well the film was made around 14 years or so after that graduation and Fairchild has more than lived up to Ashley’s belief in her.
Ballo della Regina is probably not the most intellectually demanding ballet in any repertoire but it must surely be one of the most technically demanding. The female lead needs such fast and precise footwork, incredible musicality to keep the footwork in time with the music, and extraordinary energy. And the steps themselves are beyond the ordinary with unexpected changes of pace and direction and exceptional use of the pointes. The male lead is also pushed technically, again with unexpected additions to standard movements. Both Fairchild and Huxley rose to the occasion and gave a performance that equalled any I have seen before and surpassed most.
Like most streaming programs Ballo is only available for a short time, but here is a short excerpt from the ballet with commentary by Fairchild, which should be available for longer.
The ballet is such a wonderful example of Balanchine’s choreography. We expect to a certain extent the fast footwork (although perhaps not always as demanding as we see in Ballo della Regina) but in Ballo we also see his particular use of arms and upper body (unusual inclines of the body and again those unexpected combinations). Then, when the whole cast is on stage, we notice so clearly his particular use of space along with the way he places the dancers in that space. Ballo was a great addition to the many available lockdown programs.
As for After the Rain, I have never liked what to me are awkward poses—upturned feet, parallel positions, crouching and collapsing bodies, back views of the dancers and manipulation of bodies using the feet, for example. They sit uncomfortably alongside those parts of the pas de deux that are anything but awkward. Still it was interesting to see Wendy Whelan in the role that was made on her. She was partnered by Craig Hall and the performance was filmed in 2012.
Michelle Potter, 4 May 2020
Featured image: Promotional image for Ballo della Regina and After the Rain pas de deux. New York City Ballet, 2020
New Zealand School of Dance is one school with two discrete streams, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Their Graduation season is always an uplifting affair as the fledgling dancers leave the nest where they have spent the past three years in intensive training. We can guess they’ll each be wishing for just one thing—life as a dancer. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t all get what they wish for, though over time that will, for some of them at least, stretch to include ‘teacher’ and ‘choreographer’ as well.
There are students from New Zealand, including Maori and Pasifika, and several countries beyond, Australia and Asia. The seeds of teacher training included in the curriculum here would help them find work for life back home if not here. We won’t be done with our life on Earth until everyone, in every country, has had a chance to dance, if only as a way to enhance recognition of choreographic masterpieces when they see them. There was such a masterpiece on each of the two programs and I’m shivering to tell you about them, as well as share a few thoughts about possible future directions.
The Ballet program, Tradition, opened with an excerpt of La Sylphide, from Bournonville heritage. Nadine Tyson (alumna of the School and a long-term dancer with RNZB), staged the work which was danced with care and love. The fact that Henning Albrechtsen, the world’s finest free-lance Bournonville teacher, had a residency at the School just last year, will have paid off in the students’ understanding of this demanding and darling style, renowned for its contained vigour and life-affirming ebullient spirit within ballet heritage. (A pity no program note could remind us that Poul Gnatt was for years the most renowned interpreter in the world of the leading role of James. His oral history includes a fabulous story about that, and relates to New Zealand).
It was Gnatt who first raised the voice to form a School to serve the needs of the Company he had already established in 1953. It would be 1967 before the National School of Ballet opened its doors. A paragraph to that effect could be included within the printed program, with further reference to its 50 year history recently written by Turid Revfeim (alumna of the School and long-term dancer with RNZB). History will not go away just by our staying quiet, and a background program essay is needed to pick up and weave back together the threads between School and Company that have recently, by neglect, been torn asunder.
It is deeply satisfying to sight a young dancer in the back row of the corps of La Sylphide who, as have others, used her time at the School to develop the technique and to hone the style that she simply did not have three years ago, but that she will now carry back to her Asian homeland and thus spread good in the world. She may not know that this sentence is about her, but I do. Well done all.
The following Tarantella, by Balanchine, 1964, a romp to Gottschalk music, gave a superb chance to a pair of young students to strut some marvellous stuff. There’s also a link across to Bournonville via the tambourine, but these days dancers with tambourines are so polite. If you’re going to dance with one, don’t you need to thrash hell out of it and rattle the discs to let everyone know that dancing with one is different from dancing without one?
Sfumato by Betsy Erikson (we need program notes to identify the choreographers) was an extended work, from 1986, to Boccherini, but that does not carry the vitality of the Baroque repertoire that preceded his era. The work is staged by Christine Gunn, long-term teacher at the School, and by Nadine Tyson. The dancers all do well, but the challenges of choreographic structure on this music remain. In past years there has been one work on the program done to live piano accompaniment (after all, the two best ballet pianists in town—Phillip O’Malley and Craig Newsome—are on the staff here) but this line-up did not offer that opportunity.
Then followed After the Rain, a pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, and the theatre fell silent. A man and a woman, dancing to Arvo Pärt’s music, Spiegel im Spiegel, for piano and violin (offering resonance back some years to alumna Raewyn Hill’s memorable choreography, Angels with Dirty Feet, to the same music). Every moment, every gesture, every position held and line followed, every lifting, sliding and lowering, shows choreographic mastery. They are not having sex, they are making love, in any generous understanding of those words you care to bring to reading them. It’s a triumph for a School anywhere to include Wheeldon’s work in its Graduation program. It was rehearsed by Qi Huan, premier dancer for years at RNZB, and the calibre of his work shines through the students’ performance.
Emerge, a solo for a male, by Australian choreographer Louise Deleur, was a world premiere. Also rehearsed by Qi Huan, it received a focused performance.
Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello, choreographed for RNZB in 2001, is a smart and sultry number and a fitting finale to this satisfyingly varied program. Here staged by Turid Revfeim, again a School alumna as well as long-term Company stalwart dancer, teacher, choreographer and administrator there, and now teacher at the School, it gives scope to a large cast who find the style and pizzaz to mix humour into its moves.
2018 marks 20 years since Garry Trinder became Director of the School and there can be no doubting his commitment to the wellbeing and developing careers of the students. Chair of the Board, Russell Bollard, spoke in tribute. The small print in the program reminds us that dancer and staff reps are included on the Board. Any decent workplace these days knows to represent the spectrum of its people among its governance. It’s a mark of confidence, high morale, respect, common sense and fair play. Top marks to this institution for that
In Jane Albert’s interview with Alice Topp and Richard House in the printed program, Topp speaks of her hopes for the future. She says: ‘…my ultimate dream would be to become [the first female] resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet.’ It isn’t clear who actually said or inserted the bit in square brackets but it’s not correct. The honour of being the first female resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet is already taken. It belongs to Natalie Weir who was resident choreographer during the directorship of Ross Stretton.
Looking back to 2010, when I last saw Balanchine’s Symphony in C, I can’t believe I was so lucky to see the cast I did. My review of that performance is at this link.
Looking back even earlier, I was also lucky way to see the Diana and Acteon pas de deux when it was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1964. It featured Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano! The photographer Walter Stringer captured a few images of Nureyev and Serrano from the wings.
10 March 2016, Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
In this triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon from the Royal Ballet, it was especially pleasing to see the full version of After the rain. Its visually arresting choreography for three couples in the first part, performed to Tabula rasa by Arvo Pärt, shows Wheeldon as his sculptural best as arms and legs swing from pose to pose and dancers move in unison and counterpoint. Dressed in grey practice clothes the six dancers perform in front of a geometric lighting design (59 Productions) consisting of of two squares of light. A central one, blue-ish white in colour, sits inside a larger one of grey-ish blue. Simple but effective, these two squares echo the colours of the costumes and also the formally structured choreography.
The pas de deux that follows, often danced without the opening movement, was a disappointment for me. Perhaps I needed to be sitting closer as I missed the quiet emotion that I have seen in performances by other companies? But then a seat in the theatre shouldn’t affect such things if the work is well performed. Perhaps too the physiques of Zenaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke, who danced the pas de deux, were not far enough apart from each other to highlight what I think are the qualities of this section, danced again to Pärt, this time to the gently reflective Spiegel im Spiegel? The work was made originally for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet and together, with their very different body shapes, they suggested an entrancing strength and frailty that was not apparent, and that I missed, with Yanowsky and Clarke. In fact I’m not sure what their performance suggested beyond a dance for two.
Wheeldon’s newest work, Strapless, a one act narrative ballet centring on the scandal surrounding the showing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mme Gautreau in Paris at the Salon of 1884, was a mixed blessing. When the curtain went up on an empty picture frame attached to a grey-coloured screen I was consumed by curiosity. How would this work unfold? And the opening moments, as Mme Gautreau took her time choosing her wardrobe for the unveiling of Sargent’s portrait while her husband fussed at her slowness, was very nicely choreographed with movement that defined the two characters. Strapless returned in its closing scene to that opening picture frame, which this time was not empty but contained the finished portrait, although now Mme Gautreau was broken in spirit by the scandal that emerged when the portrait showed that one strap of her black gown had slipped off her shoulder. Without the trappings of her former life, and dressed only in a skin-coloured, body-hugging costume, we watched as she sought to make sense of her situation.
In between the opening and closing scenes, the work felt like a cross between a Broadway musical, with a ‘chorus’ of dancers representing Parisian society performing choreography that seemed like it had come from a Busby Berkeley show; and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend when that same chorus started to look like tight-lipped parishioners. The score from Mark-Anthony Turnage didn’t help either as it hardly sounded like the era of La belle époque.
Lauren Cuthbertson as Mme Gautreau was not having one of her best nights, unfortunately, and was a little unsteady on occasions. And with so many changes of scene in a one act ballet—the work began in 1884, slipped back to 1881, came forward to 1883 and ended where it began in 1884—there was a need for moveable scenery (screens, door frames and the like), Unfortunately again, the scenery was trundled on and off very noisily and so many people (characters and scene changers) constantly slipping on and off stage was decidedly disruptive to the smooth unfolding of the storyline. I also found it hard to follow who was who among the male principals. The printed program, like all Royal Ballet programs I have encountered, was excellent, full of explanatory notes and articles, but any work for the stage needs to be easily understood, I believe, without having to resort to reading a convoluted story in a program.
Circumstances were such that I was unable to stay for the final Wheeldon work, Within the golden hour. But perhaps it was just as well. I am able to retain, as a result, an image of a work I enjoyed immensely on a previous occasion in San Francisco.
Michelle Potter, 12 March 2016
The image above is a detail of an unfinished version of the Sargent portrait, which I saw in the Tate Britain and which has no strap at all on Mme Gautreau’s right shoulder. In the version that was shown in the Salon of 1884, and which caused the scandal, the right shoulder strap was painted as having fallen off the shoulder. The final version, in which Sargent repainted the fallen strap into its regular position, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.