Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Mariinsky's Alina Somova: A Refined Odette

Mariinsky Ballet, Swan Lake, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC—June 28, 2014

The classical Russian style of dancing, while precise, elegant and admired by many as the gold standard for ballet technique, can for me at times seem too disciplined or even a bit too constrained. That is in part why, when choosing casting for the dual role of Odette-Odile in the Mariinsky's esteemed “Swan Lake”, I chose principal dancer Alina Somova—a ballerina who, at least from what I had read, seemed to depart a bit from the traditional Russian mold.

I suspected that Somova might bring something unique to the Mariinsky’s beloved classic. But I was also intrigued by the fact that she had elicited such controversial reviews, with some critics praising her as a rising star, and others criticizing her artistic choices as undisciplined and indulgent. One critic, in particular, caught my attention by questioning whether Somova was a “dancer or circus pony”. I wondered why this dancer, who appeared so beautiful in photographs, had invoked such differing opinions, and I wanted to see for myself what she was all about. If nothing else, her portrayal of Odette-Odile, alongside principal dancer Vladimir Shklyarov as Siegfried, promised to be interesting.

When Somova emerged as Odette from the sea of white swans impeccably danced by the Mariinsky's corps de ballet, I was immediately struck by her extraordinary physical gifts. Shorter than she appeared in photographs, she has disproportionately long and hyper-extended legs, willowy arms, beautiful feet, and extreme flexibility (which has become her trademark). Although criticized in the past for distorting classical lines with her flexibility, for me her stunning extensions and huge arabesques—even if not typical for Odette—enhanced rather than offended. Her extensions were well-controlled, never surpassing 180 degrees, and I thought to myself: if she’s got them, why not use them? That she did beautifully, embodying the choreography with gorgeous lines and an exquisite, youthful delicacy. While lacking a sense of tragedy brought to the role by other interpreters I have seen, Somova's Odette was ethereal and tender, as well as extremely musical, allowing the tragedy of the story to be evoked through Tchaikovsky’s score.

I wondered, however, how a dancer so flexible and seemingly weightless could summon the strength needed to master the technical demands of Odile. Her first entrance as Odile was convincing and strong, and I commented to my friend that she looked like a completely different dancer than the delicate Odette we had just seen. She fared well in the pas de deux, achieving a breathtaking balance with her foot well above her head a la seconde. But during Odile’s solo, technical issues, particularly with turns, began to prevent her from fully commanding the role, and pure grit and determination seemed to be what carried her through the famous fouette turns at the end of Act II. Still, the audience loved her; if less than commanding, her Odile was full of charm and personality and, of course, gorgeous lines.

I left the performance thinking that there is more to this dancer than can be seen in one performance. Akin to a circus pony only in her ability to “wow” an audience, Somova's dancing goes much deeper, and one gets the sense that she is still evolving. I would love to see her in a different repertoire and wonder how her energy would be suited to Balanchine or to other more contemporary choreographers. Although her Odile may still be a work in progress, her Odette made a lasting impression of a special dancer whose refined artistry will hopefully not go unnoticed.

Here is a video excerpt from a previous performance by Somova of Odette (available on YouTube):

Monday, January 27, 2014

Photos of Ballet West

Special thanks to Ballet West for providing these beautiful photos (see my previous post for a review of their Nutcracker production):

Ballet West Soloist Sayaka Ohtaki as Arabian in Willam Christensen’s The Nutcracker; photo by Luke Isley.

Ballet West Principal Artist Katherine Lawrence as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Willam Christensen’s The Nutcracker; photo by Erik Ostling.

I am hoping to have another chance to see Ballet West dancers Beckanne Sisk and Tom Mattingly perform this coming March 29th in Richardson, Texas, with my prior school, Chamberlain Performing Arts. They will perform a mixed repertoire program including Rubies from Jewels (choreography by Balanchine). More information on this performance can be found here: Chamberlain Performing Arts Focal Pointe.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Two Unforgettable Dancers at Ballet West

My husband and I had the opportunity while visiting Salt Lake City recently to see Ballet West perform their annual Nutcracker on the evening of December 28th. Upon arriving in Salt Lake we were impressed by the presence the company seems to have in the community, at least judging by their advertising efforts; brochures for the company’s 50th Anniversary Season seemed to be literally everywhere! It was my first visit to Salt Lake (and my first time seeing Ballet West live), and though I wasn’t there long enough to really experience the city, it seemed at first glance to be a city with an arts culture that appreciates their ballet company.

We attended Ballet West’s last regular Nutcracker performance of the season (other than their “Nutty Nutcracker”, which was their actual last performance), so I wondered if the dancers would seem exhausted after performing more than 25 shows. Although there were a couple of cast changes (Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly replaced Haley Henderson Smith and Rex Tilton as Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier), the performance as a whole was brilliantly danced. I had read great things about Ballet West’s Nutcracker when they brought it to the Kennedy Center in 2012 (unfortunately I was unable to attend) and had high expectations, but the overall stellar level of dancing from every single dancer on stage exceeded my expectations. Rather than write just another Nutcracker review, I wanted to focus on two dancers who wowed me unexpectedly: soloist Sayaka Ohtaki, who performed the Arabian pas de deux with first soloist Christopher Sellars, and corps de ballet artist Joshua Whitehead, who performed the lead Russian dancer.

I was somewhat familiar with Joshua Whitehead due to the fact that he was featured on the second season of Breaking Pointe, the reality show on Ballet West that I very much enjoyed watching. However, Joshua was an apprentice dancer during Breaking Pointe’s second season and did not dance a featured role during the show. Now in the corps de ballet, Joshua danced the lead Russian dancer with technical assuredness, unaffected style and an easy jump. But it was the pure joy radiating from his dancing that practically stole the show that evening. At times during the performance it seemed as though some of the dancers wore an artificial smile (maybe this was the one telling sign of fatigue at the end of the run). But Joshua’s smile and his every movement communicated an honest joy and excitement to be where he was at that moment, dancing his heart out. What a thrill to see!

Sayaka Ohtaki was not featured in Breaking Pointe and was unknown to me, and when I saw the casting for Arabian I was disappointed not to have the chance to see Allison DeBona in the role, whom I admired from the show. But I was taken aback the first moment that Sayaka stepped on stage, and I could not help but ask myself--who is this gorgeous dancer and why I am not familiar with her? Although beautiful and with a delicate, perfect ballet physique, Sayaka’s presence and style were what made it impossible to take your eyes off her. Her self-assured authority coupled with sensuousness and exquisite lines made her ideal for the role. I could see from my program that she was also cast as Sugar Plum Fairy in several performances, and I wished that I could have also attended on one of those nights to see her at her full potential.

I wanted to also mention soloist Beckanne Sisk (who had a lot of exposure on Breaking Pointe) and principal artist Katherine Lawrence, who each gave very memorable performances. Beckanne is clearly amazingly gifted and made a very strong impression in the Waltz of the Flowers pas de deux with principal artist Christopher Rudd. Beckanne’s dancing looks effortless and she has that “it factor,” although her dancing could still benefit from further refinement at times.

Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly performed the difficult pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier with an honest authenticity, full of intelligent artistic choices. Katherine is not a “diva” ballerina but instead dances with a humble graciousness that reveals the dancing itself.

Each of these inspiring dancers left me wondering, long after the performance had ended: how can I see more of this gem of a company? The next time they visit the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, I will be sure not to miss.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Kyle Froman Photography

Special thanks to photographer Kyle Froman for allowing the gorgeous picture above to appear on my site--Kyra Nichols in the final lift as the Waltz Girl in Serenade (choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Tchaikovsky) during her retirement performance with the New York City Ballet in 2007. I have admired Kyle’s photography since reading his book several years ago—In the Wings: Behind the Scenes at the New York City Ballet. In addition to offering an inside look at life in the New York City Ballet through the lens of his camera, Kyle provides an honest and touching narrative of his experiences dancing for NYCB as well as an hourly account of a typical dancer’s day.

Kyle is a fellow Texan, and I remember watching him and his brother Kurt perform with Mejia's Fort Worth Ballet many years ago before they left to join NYCB. You can read about Kyle’s amazing journey from dancer to photographer here: "BWW Interviews: Kyle Froman in his Own Words: Photographing Ballet to Broadway".

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Meeting of Ballet Past and Present

George Balanchine said that "dance is music made visible." I have never heard it said better. For me there is no truer expression of music than dance; they are practically inseparable, indistinguishable, one from the other. It is impossible to hear a piece of music that I have danced to, or seen others dance to, without thinking about the dance. By the same token, I cannot count how many times I have tried to explain why I love a piece of music only to realize that, but for the dance, I might not have connected with the music in the same way.

Although I have never considered myself to be the blogging type (in fact, putting my thoughts in front of all of cyber-space feels a bit strange), my husband thought that I should put all my time spent thinking about ballet (and ignoring him) to good use. So there was born the idea of this blog—to write about the ballets that I see or read about, and the dancers whose careers I follow. But this first post is also about a small part of my own journey, in particular my recent trip down memory lane to visit two special places that made ballet and music so relevant to my life.

I received my first professional ballet training nearly 25 years ago from Kathy Chamberlain at Chamberlain Performing Arts in my hometown of Plano, Texas. I don't remember exactly how I landed in Kathy’s class at the age of 13, but I remember thinking that I was not going to make it through that first class. Kathy trained at the School of American Ballet and teaches based on a Balanchine style. Her class was harder than any class I had taken, and her dancers were so good (many of her students are now dancing professionally all over the world). Last August I decided to pay Kathy a visit at her studio for the first time in many years. We spent an hour catching up, talking about her students, her company and where life had taken us. What a special person and teacher! Our visit motivated me to continue reconnecting with my past as a dancer.

I left home to attend the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) for my junior year of high school and spent two and a half years studying at the school. It is a unique place not only for its ballet training, but also for its multidisciplinary community of artists. Set in a conservatory-like atmosphere, students in the high school and college programs study one of a number of disciplines such as dance, music, visual arts and drama.

Even though UNCSA is only slightly more than a five hour drive from my current home in Washington, DC, I had not been back to visit since 1995. It was with much anticipation that I loaded up the car last December with my three year old son and a good friend (a ballet-loving lawyer like me) and headed to Winston-Salem. In addition to seeing the school, I was looking forward to seeing Gillian Murphy, UNCSA alumna and principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and Gonzalo Garcia, New York City Ballet principal dancer, who would be guest starring on the opening night of UNCSA’s annual Nutcracker production.

Upon arriving to campus, we were taken on a personal guided tour to see the developments on campus since I left in 1995. Although I was eager to see how the campus had changed, I longed to see the ballet studios where I had started and finished so many days as a student. There they were, upon me as if I had never left; in fact, it seemed as though the studios had not changed a bit in all those years, right down to the casting/schedule board in the same place on the wall. Before leaving campus, we caught a glimpse of Gillian and Gonzalo warming up in one of the studios to prepare for the evening’s performance.

UNCSA’s annual Nutcracker is a marvelous collaboration between the Schools of Dance, Music and Design & Production, with 100% of ticket proceeds benefitting the student scholarship fund. The ballet is accompanied by the UNCSA student orchestra, this year conducted by guest conductor Charles Barker of American Ballet Theatre. It was to be my son’s first Nutcracker (and his first full-length ballet), so my bag was stocked full of distractions to ensure that I would not have to make a rapid exit. From the moment the overture started and the first party guests arrived in Act I, he was captivated by the story, which was skillfully portrayed with a level of detail unmatched by most Nutcrackers I have seen.

The beginning of Act II revealed the first view of Gillian, reigning over her Kingdom of Sweets with all the warmth and grandeur that should embody the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Seeing her on this stage at the height of her career could not help but evoke memories of her dancing the same role as a prodigious student, nearly 20 years ago. The student corps sailed through the Waltz of the Flowers with sublime ease, the dancers looking as if there was nothing else in the world they would rather do. Gillian’s and Gonzalo’s rendering of the pas de deux was flawless and transcendent. As the audience rose to their feet during their bows, it seemed only right and fitting that my son’s first Nutcracker was one so artfully performed by my school.

Here are a couple of pictures:

Here is a recent video about UNCSA (added on February 12, 2014):