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Balanchine on Film

A Pacific Northwest Ballet Special Event

by Francis Timlin

April 27 – May 11, 2004 – Nesholm Family Lecture Hall at McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

[Francis Timlin reports on Pacific Northwest Ballet's special event, "Balanchine on Film," featuring screenings on three evenings.--ed.]

April 27:  From Silence to Sound

The first of three evenings devoted to Balanchine on Film was held at the Nesholm Family Lecture Hall in the McCaw Hall complex at Seattle Center on Tuesday, April 27, 2004. The first segment, subtitled "From Silence to Sound," featured excerpts from historic silent film footage of "La Valse" and "La Source," with piano accompaniment added by Pacific Northwest Ballet pianist Dianne Chilgren at the behest of the Balanchine Foundation in 1994.

"La Valse" was a made from a pirated film taken on a hand-held camera at a performance at Jacob's Pillow in 1951 by Carol Lynn. The dancers are Tanaquil LeClercq and Nicholas Magallanes. The piano was added at Sony Music Studio in New York by Dianne Chilgren after arduous study of the footage and many adjustments were made to synchronize tempo and inflection. The film was shown first in silence, followed by the version with music. LeClercq was a most astonishing performer in this work. Her arm movements are extreme -- they reminded me nothing so much as a wild, caged bird, trapped and scheming to break free. Her performance was barely able to be contained within the dimensions of the film frame; it constantly threatened to explode into another dimension. She was altogether quite extraordinary, gripping and compelling.

Following this breathtaking excerpt, Violette Verdy appeared onscreen discussing Balanchine's affinity for and knowledge of French music, which she stated was unlike that displayed by any other choreographer. Among her favorites were "Emeralds," "La Source," the Ravel "Sonatine," (all done for her), "Gounod Symphonie" (his tribute to formal French gardens), and, of course, "Symphony in C." Balanchine loved the Paris Opera and saw it as a noble temple. Verdy said that Balanchine had a "gourmet" approach to choreographing French music.

The excerpts from "La Source" showed Verdy's classically rounded proportions, partnered with Edward Villella's catlike jumps. Verdy indicated that she thought Villella's very quick release on his jumps were the secret of his ability to appear to stay suspended longer than many dancers.

Following intermission, we were presented with a complete version of "Western Symphony," filmed in 1956 for French television and recorded at the Paris Opera. (PNB Artistic Director Francia Russell had recently joined New York City Ballet at the time the film was made and she was applauded when she came into view.) The principals were Diana Adams and Herbert Bliss (Allegro); Melissa Hayden and Nicholas Magallanes (Adagio); Allegra Kent and Robert Barnett (Scherzo); and Tanaquil LeClercq and Jacques d'Amboise (Rondo).

"Western Symphony" is the last record of Tanaquil LeClercq in performance, as she fell ill in Copenhagen the week following the filming. The third movement (Scherzo) is also rarely seen in contemporary performances.

A most intriguing group of principals, Diana Adams made the "Allegro" of the first movement seem stately with the ease and amplitude of her movement. Melissa Hayden’s "Adagio" seemed more like an Allegro, the part filled with turns and rapid small movements. Allegra Kent is eponymously characterized, with incredibly fast turns and directional shifts, together with some amazing elevation from partner Robert Barnett -- I wanted to see this movement a few more times. Finally, LeClercq and d'Amboise were well matched, she with her unique intensity and he with his ability to help channel that intensity into a meaningful partnership.

May 4:  “Balanchine Lives!” (Michael Blackwood, 1997) and “New York City Ballet 1965” (WNET, 1965)

The second of the three evenings devoted to Balanchine on Film was held on Tuesday, May 4, 2004. The evening was devoted to two presentations: Michael Blackwood's hour-long 1997 documentary, "Balanchine Lives!" and the 1965 documentary produced for WNET, "New York City Ballet 1965."

The premise of "Balanchine Lives!" is that Balanchine's choreography continues to live through its transmission to new dancers and new companies through the efforts of those who stage his works around the world through the auspices of the Balanchine Trust. In this film, six works are being set on six different companies in Europe and in the U.S. A camera crew was dispatched to each location and shot candid footage of the interaction of the various stagers with the company members as they were being taught a new Balanchine work.

The works, companies and stagers are as follows:

"Concerto Barocco," staged by Patricia Neary for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo; "Jewels," staged by Elyse Borne for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; "Liebeslieder Walzer," staged by Karin von Aroldingen and Sara Leland for Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse; "Theme and Variations," staged by Susan Hendl for Miami City Ballet; "A Midsummer Night's Dream," staged by Francia Russell for Pacific Northwest Ballet; and and "Donizetti Variations," staged by Nanette Glushak for the Bern Ballet.

Commentary from stagers, artistic directors, and others included: Francia Russell, Patricia Neary, Bernard Taper, Victoria Simon, Barbara Horgan, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Karin von Aroldingen, Sara Leland, Nanette Glushak, Edward Villella, Susan Hendl, Patricia Wilde, Elyse Borne, Kent Stowell, Kay Mazzo, Suzanne Farrell, Martin Schlapfer, Suki Schorer, Violette Verdy and Bart Cook.

The film showed Patricia Neary demonstrating with her customary degree of incredible energy and commitment. She insists on demonstrating everything full out and comments only that she finds it frustrating that after five hours in pointe shoes her energy occasionally flags. I found her admonition to the dancers to "get rid of the rags around your waists" because it was not something that Mr. Balanchine would want to see touchingly amusing.

Speaking of the differing points of view that can be afforded by exposure to different Balanchine stagers, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot contrasted Karin von Aroldingen with Pat Neary. He indicated that Karin's approach was based upon suggestion and inference, allowing more room for individual interpretation by dancers, whereas Neary was very insistent that every step be "just so" and was very intense. He suggested that while each approach had its validity, he thought one approach was perhaps less wearing on the dancers than the other.

Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Patricia Wilde talked about her decision to produce "Jewels," in response to many audience requests to add the other two movements to "Rubies." She decided that she wanted to see this happen while she was still the artistic director. Her decision to have Elyse Borne handle the staging was based upon Borne’s experience as a performer in the work. Glimpsed among the dancers in the brief clips of the rehearsal process in Pittsburgh was current Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Stanko Milov.

I particularly enjoyed the interplay in the clips from Toulouse, with Karin von Aroldingen and Sara Leland staging "Liebeslieder Walzer." Von Aroldingen owns the rights to this piece and is often the "first call" when a company wants to produce it. Requiring only eight dancers, it is within the reach of smaller companies, but has other expensive features, notably the costumes, which were discussed in some detail on the film. Once again, a current PNB principal -- Christophe Maraval -- was one of the dancers being rehearsed on film.

Susan Hendl was handed a challenging assignment staging "Theme and Variations" for Miami City Ballet. She deferred to artistic director Edward Villella regarding male dancers and partnering issues. She made one point that stood out: that the entire piece is based upon tendu battement. Further, that tendu battement is the fundamental step that lends much of the fleetness to Balanchine footwork.

The camera crew spent extensive time at Pacific Northwest Ballet during the period when "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was being rehearsed for its debut in the Martin Pakledinaz costumes and sets. It was poignant to see some dancers who were part of that production who are no longer with the company: Lisa Apple, Brent Davi, and Anne Derieux, among others. Finally, there was brief footage of the artistic director from Toulouse, Nanette Glushak, working with a company new to Balanchine, the Bern Ballet, on "Donizetti Variations," a work that capitalizes on classical technique.

Following the film presentation, Francia Russell made herself available for a ten minute question and answer session. Among the questions:

Noel Mason asked why PNB has never performed "Liebeslieder Walzer." Francia stated that in addition to the expenses required to have von Aroldingen stage the work, build the now required set, and construct the expensive costumes, she believes that "Liebeslieder" is an acquired taste. She forthrightly proclaimed that it was her "desert island" ballet. Kent Stowell also chimed in that it was his favorite Balanchine ballet; he performed it often with Suzanne Farrell. The main fear seems to be based on the New York experience: "the audience leaves in droves." This is apparently because the first half is performed in heeled shoes and changes to pointe only in the second half. By this time, much of the audience has decided to leave. She stated that she would only do it if the door were barred against the Exodus and that everyone would be required to see the piece "at least three times before being allowed to say that they didn't like it."

Jodie Thomas asked what was going to happen to Balanchine's works once they fell out of copyright protection. Russell said that she would bring this up with Barbara Horgan at the Balanchine Trust, with whom she would be having dinner the following evening. One of the other purposes of the meeting is to discuss the status of "Symphony in C," currently in limbo due to the passing of John Taras, who was granted control over the piece by long-time NYCB administrator Betty Cage, to whom Balanchine left the work. The piece has been out of PNB's repertoire since the early 1990s due, in large measure, to Russell’s disagreement with Taras' insistence on a particular "version" of the piece, as well as outrageously high performance royalties. The piece was originally included on the 2004-05 season roster, but was quietly replaced with "Ballet Imperial" when the disagreement could not be resolved with Taras. Francia stated that the scenario might change once again; we can hope.

Another questioner asked about "Vienna Waltzes," currently a prominent part of NYCB Balanchine Centenary programming. Russell responded that it requires a huge cast and PNB, at 50 dancers, does not have enough. At some point in the past, however, discussions had been held about co-producing the ballet with San Francisco Ballet and integrating casts from SFB and PNB in a production that would have toured from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle with possible stops in Portland and Vancouver. The project never got off the ground because of finances although it remains an intriguing concept.

Following a brief intermission, the half-hour television documentary, "New York City Ballet 1965" was shown. These works were filmed in a studio, largely with piano accompaniment. Balanchine is shown intermittently and makes a very few comments. The works and their exponents are:

"Agon" Pas de deux, Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell; "Tarantella," Patricia McBride and Edward Villella; "Meditation," Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D'Amboise; "Tchaikovsky Pas de deux," Melissa Hayden and Jacquest D'Amboise.

At the time of filming, the oldest work on the program was "Agon," and it was a mere eight years old. The "Tchaikovsky Pas de deux" was five years old; "Meditation" two years; and "Tarantella" one year old. The freshness and verve in both the choreography and the performance were readily apparent in every case.

Melissa Hayden and Jacques D'Amboise were astonishing in their turns which, in each case, began slowly, sped up, and slowed down again. Villella did everything except chew the scenery (which was nonexistent) in “Tarantella” -- the space was too small to contain his energy. Farrell was a credible "vision" in D'Amboise's agonized dream in "Meditation," performed to a Tchaikovsky violin piece, not the Massenet work from "Thais" so often thought of in connection with the title. Farrell also looked amazing paired with Arthur Mitchell in "Agon."

May 11:  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (BBC, 1999)

On Tuesday, May 11, 2004, the third and final evening of PNB's Balanchine on Film series was devoted to PNB's February 1999 performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. The production was redesigned with new sets and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz in 1997 and was seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998. Filming took place during four live performances on the Sadler's Wells stage. PNB also toured this production to Istanbul and Hong Kong in 2000 and the first act was seen at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2002.

Notwithstanding the fact that five years have passed since this performance was captured on film, the company that performed this work in 1999 is remarkably similar to the company that will perform it again in June 2004. Patricia Barker (Titania), Paul Gibson (Oberon), Jeffrey Stanton (Demetrius), Ariana Lallone (Hippolyta), Batkhurel Bold (Theseus) and Kaori Nakamura (Butterfly) are very likely to reprise these roles in 2004. Departed from the company are Seth Belliston (Puck; moved to NY), Lisa Apple (Helena; retired, teaching at PNB), Julie Tobiason (Hermia; retired, teaching at PNB), Ross Yearsley (Lysander; retired, business school), Charles Newton (Titania's Cavalier; retired, 2nd year student at UW Law School); and Timothy Lynch (Bottom; retired but performing occasionally, teaching at PNB School).

Martin Pakledinaz had previously won plaudits for his costume designs for "Cinderella" and for several Seattle Opera productions such as "Lohengrin," (which is being revived in August). "Midsummer" was his first foray into scenic design. The premiere in 1997 was timed to coincide with the Dance Critics Association annual meeting in Seattle. Many lamented the absence of the Karinska designs and castigated the new designs as "loud," an adjective that resurfaced in some recent reviews of his designs for "Sylvia" at San Francisco Ballet. While they may require a paradigm shift for those accustomed to the traditional Karinska designs, I find that them very evocative of the real landscape of rural England and simultaneously of the fantasy world of the fairies who predominate Act One. Applying the perspective of the fairies, the outsized flower petals, frogs and insects, blades of grass as tall as trees -- all are very much as they might appear to such tiny and unobserved fantasy beings. The color palette is bolder and ultimately darker than the pastels that predominate in the Karinska designs.

Patricia Barker is bred to play Titania and her portrayal is both regal and technically astonishing. Similarly, Paul Gibson is very assured Oberon. Seth Belliston will be missed as Puck, as will be Lisa Apple as Helena, Julie Tobiason as Hermia, and Ross Yearsley as Lysander; of the four young lovers, only Jeffrey Stanton remains in the company. It was also interesting to observe Carrie Imler, Noelani Pantastico, Mara Vinson and others in corps or soloist roles.

The first act runs for a good hour and condenses the narrative into that length of time. Following intermission, there was a bit of discussion about the making of the film with Doug Fullington and principal dancer Louise Nadeau. Fullington was in charge of the PNB School children who traveled to London with the company to play the "bugs." Along with the children came 76 parents -- 160 people altogether. His holiday vacation in 1998-99 was fully consumed with making airline arrangements for all of them.

Louise Nadeau recounted the fact that PNB was the first company to appear at the reconstructed Sadler's Wells Theatre and upon their arrival they found a full complement of construction workers and equipment still in the building, sheet rock dust everywhere, no signage, and many building components not in working order.

Answering a question about performance challenges, she talked about the differences in make-up techniques required by television and live theatre, and a similar challenge regarding the lighting design choices. Since these were live performances that were to be simultaneously filmed for television, much time was spent in discussion of compromises that would serve both the live audience and the requirements of television (more subdued make-up, brighter lighting). Four HDTV cameras were used for filming. The stage at Sadler's Wells is more narrow and more shallow than the stage for which the sets were designed, with four or five feet of wing space before encountering the wall.

Nadeau and Olivier Wevers are the pas de deux couple in the second act Divertissement; roles that I hope they will reprise in June 2004. Balanchine was purportedly inspired to set the mood of a verse from the Revelation of St. John, a realization of the perfect prayer. Incorporated in the set design are the moon and the stars. Nadeau spoke movingly about the intense level of trust, respect and love reflected in the pas de deux.

Altogether, a perfect warmup for our series of live performances as time draws near to Midsummer's Eve.

Edited by Jeff.

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