finally got to put it all down! Now off to see what the others put
A trip to Edinburgh proved a very rewarding experience this year and many more fans than normal seemed to make the pilgrimage.
We all know why - on show were some of the slickest, most athletic, toughest and fastest performers you could wish to see. As I revelled in one glorious piece after another, I couldn't feel anything other than immensely privileged to be there - the Lady Boys of Bangkok know how to put on a slick show, that's for sure....
Lady Boys of Bangkok
Quite why so many of us find it interesting to see others change themselves so comprehensively I can't begin to fathom... and probably don't want to. But popular it is and the Meadows Theatre Big Top was full to capacity and the bar doing well as everybody seemed to be consuming bottled lager by the gallon. The show is a cabaret in which the girls strut and mime to great original recordings that most of us know and enjoy. The costumes are lavish in the extreme - nothing cheap or tatty here. So if the designs, music and vocals are guaranteed, what of the girls? Amazing one has to say. For most of them you would never know, which I suppose is the highest accolade they would seek. And being nosy you do try and look for tell-tale signs that all is not right - the odd bump in the wrong place etc. The best could join any cabaret dance troop or catwalk and nobody would be the wiser.
Attitude plays its part as well and one of the best performers was paradoxically the least convincing girl/woman on a physical level. But she was mentally a woman and had the audience eating out of her hands.
Here was the living, if odd, embodiment of the words "we can all be absolutely anything we want".
After an overdose of what can seem a slightly puritanical and serious New York City Ballet (NYCB) it was great to unwind and enjoy the simple pleasures of great music and uncomplicated slick dance in anything but reverent silence. Balanchine, who knew more than a bit about cabaret and shows, would have loved it I'm sure.
New York City Ballet
NYCB brought three programmes from their large repertoire - for the most part Balanchine works. This was his company, more than any other, and while there is debate about how well they are currently looking after his works NYCB are still the mother company and one likes to think that they carry/dance definitive versions of what are now well-travelled ballets in the repertoire of many companies. While many works would have been seen elsewhere there were inevitably new nuggets to be discovered by many of us.
Plots were not really Balanchine's thing - or rather not plot in the way you would traditionally imagine. However there are often undercurrents in his ballets and people see what they want or not.
Sets and Costumes
At first thought sets were not much in Balanchine's bag either - certainly not in the majority of works that most people know. He was much more into the simple back cloth and leotard, possibly with the extravagance of a little flowing pelmet for a skirt. But all this makes the impact of a set and grander costumes the greater and there was something of a cheer at the wild west sets and bar-room cowboy costumes of Karinska.
A note on Karinska
Karinska was Balanchine's costumier - put like that it sounds desperately mundane, which was not at all the case.
Like him, she was born in Russia and managed to leave in 1924 by subterfuge, though they did not know each other at that time. By way of Brussels, Paris, London (where she worked with Beaton for example and produced costumes for many ballet productions in the mid 1930's) she finally arrived in New York in 1939. Here she regularly costumed Balanchine's ballets though it was only in 1963, when NYCB had the money, that she was taken on full time. Until then she had been working on Broadway shows, operas and private commissions as well. Indeed back in the 1930's she was talked of like Chanel.
Karinska seemed to have understood bodies and fabric like few do - there are many references to her costumes fitting superbly and dancers feeling uplifted by the mere wearing of them. They look good on the move and yet never seem to hamper that movement. And her costumes are always of the utmost quality, with luxury detail. Originally she worked with designers but grew to become the complete designer/costumier... and she knew it: "I sew for girls and boys who make my costumes dance; their bodies deserve my cloths."
If you love Jewels ( or the constituent parts: Diamonds, Emeralds, Rubies which are sometimes danced separably) then it's Karinska you have to thank for such visual magnificence. I for one think of her designs and sewing ethic as needing to be preserved every bit as much as the ballets.
Alas there were no Jewels in Edinburgh but Serenade, Western Symphony, Symphony in C and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux were all hers and none would be the same without her greatness.
The NYCB dances
I'll just try to cover the highlights here, starting with the first night and going through to the last of the three programmes that made up a run. There are many other reviews available and so I don't aim for this to be particularly comprehensive (what a get out!)
Soto and Whelan got the big pdd and they do things that bring new meaning to it - it is more of a contest in their hands than any others' and there is a tangible plotting, picking of wits and love in there.
Soto, nearing the end of career, remains a powerful dancer and you can almost smell the pheromones from 50 yards
Whelan was like a Ferrari - she actually skidded in a supported pirouette such was the speed of it all - I swear I saw dust and rubber! For those into cars a Ferrari is not really the correct marque for her - more a Lotus - incredibly light, pared down - something striped right out and where the engineering is apparent. Whelan is a one off and should be designated a Ballet Site of Special Scientific Interest (BSSSI)
Kowroski is the relatively new girl and a young Principal. She is a stately, fast dancer if that is not too much of a contradiction. Incredible legs - so long and yet perfectly and spookily controlled - and a distant attitude that makes you hunger for more. Boal was ever the attentive partner and drew much praise in all he danced in.
A note on the NYCB corps
The only thing that disappointed in the opening Agon was the corps who seemed a bit jaded... indeed the most notable thing about the run was the variability of the corps at times. I was talking about this with Bruce Wall who mentioned that Balanchine did not particularly want a corps that was necessarily all together (hope I have not misquoted you Bruce). I also recall Anthony Dowell once saying that he wanted a corps full of distinctive dancers with character.
I'm afraid I just can't really understand a view that wants corps members to be different. Surely the corps derives its power from unity with the result being the greater than the sum of the parts. Every inaccuracy or disturbance merely robs the corps of its power. The Kirov understand this and their corps thrills like no other. In their case it's not just about drill and precision but even having dancers of the same height. And it works.
Perhaps it's because in the 'West' we value individualism much more and in any event dancers naturally want to present something of themselves. But working in the corps is not about individuals and who said ballet was ever fair and democratic anyway!
Dances at a Gathering
I was really looking forward to this, many fans talking with affection about the RB version in the 1970s. For me it proved a major disappointment. Very major.
There seemed nothing but endless swooping duets to Chopin piano Mazurkas, Waltzes and Etudes. After about 5 pieces I was ready for the end - it seemed to have run its course and I would just have put it down as lacklustre. By 10 pieces I was ready to slit my wrists with the tedium of it all. And there were so many false endings. After an hour we got to the 14th and final piece. I think I would put this down Almost at the Bejart "Mr C" end of tedium in the extreme.
Symphony in C
Horrid corps work - most folks were saying how poor they seemed. Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard were sharp however - he was constantly noteworthy in many pieces. Nilas Martins (the boss's son), looked less happy and has not found the NYCB threatening look/manner. He also needs to get his hair cut I thought.
This opened up the next programme and again I found myself thinking the corps looked rather out of it and un-together. But this may just be my lack of appreciation of the NYCB way and a bias from seeing the Kirov corps.
Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins. I saw them dance this last year in New York and it was the hit of the trip for me. Alas in Edinburgh it did not look quite so special. Somehow the authority that I saw in Martins last year was gone and even Borree looked to have slowed up some. Or perhaps I've speeded up.
The Four Temperaments
One of the earlier Balanchine pieces (1946) and a geometric and threatening look. Peter Boal and Albert Evans lead this out with style. Evans is particularly flamboyant and hard to ignore as he brings his magnetism to bear on all. The 4 soloists/corps members dancing with him were absolutely stunning too: all together and really emphasising the choreography.
Symphony in three Movements
Another great leotard ballet with Whelan and Soto welcomed again in the pdd. By now I'm starting to flag a bit though - Balanchined out.
A mighty fusion of choreography, music and design that raises the spirits. I can't think of it as twee or anything other than great and moving dance and an elegy to the female form. That it was the first Balanchine piece ever choreographed in America, and for students, always amazes me. The corps were in good form again, all moving as one etc.
I think the NYCB production is a little different from the RB version - slightly different numbers at times. Balanchine was always tinkering and 'our' Apollo is different as well.
This was choreographed by Peter Martins (the company's Artistic Director or in NYCB terminology Ballet Master in Chief) to a specially commissioned score by the minimalist composer John Adams. Adams excelled himself - the music is compulsive, driven and exciting and it's hard to imagine anybody not responding too it. Martins does a reasonable job on the choreography but Ashley Page's later version for the Royal Ballet is far edgier and uses the music better I think.
Miranda Weese and Jock Soto looked good, but Benjamin Millepied really stood out here with his speed, attack and commitment. The company also looked particularly bright in this - perhaps pleased to be doing something different for once.
And I have to mention the costumes (by Steven Rubin) in various shades of pink and red. To complement them the backdrop was the darkest red moire. All gorgeous
Tchaikovsky Pas de deux
Whelan moved well but does not look right for something so poetic and classical. And her costume, which looks so good on most dancers, merely exacerbated the 'ill at ease' look of it. Boal was the consummate partner.
I'd never seen this before and it proved a fun audience-pleaser after so many rather more cerebral and serious works. The Karinska costumes positively glow with affection.
Western Symphony is led out by 3 couples (3 movements) and based is on 'normal' ballet made western and fun. The backdrop is of Wild West townscape - painted like Facade. And there are bar girls, hodowns, horse riding analogies but all under cover of rigourous ballet technique. Albert Evans won us all over as the cowboy torn every which way in chasing a girl.
It was a terrific end - without it one would still have had an enjoyable time but to see a new piece of Balanchine and love it for its difference is a great thing indeed.
Did it work?
Yes. One of the world's great companies and, odd moans about the corps aside, anybody making the trip to Edinburgh should have been well pleased. To see NYCB and the Kirov in the same week is a marvellous thing - I only hope that the companies continue to remain so different.
As for Edinburgh there is Nederlands Dans Theatre, in all its guises (1, 2 and 3) still to look forward to. Best to make the most of because the organisers say that dance will be given slightly less priority in the future. Sad, but their feeling is that they brought important companies to the UK at a time when London venues were being redeveloped and with Sadler's Wells, teh Royal Opera House and (soon) The Coliseum, back on line London will be more the catalyst. Lets hope the theory works.