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It's Time

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Balanchine's Petipa' Lecture/Demonstration

by Dean Speer

October 5, 2007 -- PNB Studios, Seattle, Washington

Recording and notating dance – and its reconstruction – is a labor- and time-intensive process.  If you think in musical terms of how a composer has to write down a note one at a time, and how long that takes, you’ll appreciate what is required to record dances by hand.  Then there’s the reading of these scores and the time it takes to interpret and teach the movement, steps, and patterns to eager dancers.

I used to be certified in Labanotation (named after Rudolf Laban, who studied movement in the early part of the 1900s) and can tell you first hand that the score reading skills take a little while, but learning how to observe movement, analyze it, and then record it takes a few months to learn.  In the United States, there isn’t much demand for this service and, unfortunately, the Dance Notation Bureau in New York has been shuttered.  Locally, as far as I’m aware, only Lois Rathvon reconstructs dances from Labanotation – typically for the University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company, which revives, performs, and videos historic modern dances.

I’ve long been aware of the reconstructions, particularly the ones done many years ago for both Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and later for London’s Royal Ballet, including its famous revival of “Sleeping Beauty” in 1939, brought to America a decade later.  These were done by Nicholas Sergeyev who brought Stepanov’s scores out of Russia.  It should be noted that while Stepanov invented his method of notation, most of the actual recording of Imperial Ballet dances was done by others who had learned it.  (The scores now reside at Harvard.)

Doug Fullington’s use of these scores to reconstruct some of Petipa’s dances and to show them side-by-side with selected Balanchine excerpts is exceptional, probably unique, and was a highlight of recent dance watching for me.

Divided into six parts, the evening provided a nice variety – long on charm and interesting choreography. 

Part one showed two male variations with demi-solo women, also known as, pas de cinq – one man and four women:  galop from “The Awakening of Flora” (Petipa) and “Theme and Variations” (Balanchine).  Fullington describes the contrasts: the Petipa has more symmetry and is to simple music, whereas the Balanchine uses more complex music, the steps are bigger, there is more jumping, increasing the virtuosic challenge for everyone.  He preserves the architecture and hierarchy and injects greater variety and interest into the steps.                                        

The second was choreography for boys, via ‘Dance of the Arab boys’ from “Raymonda” which used parallel lines and shapes – the motif being the boys slapping their knees while jumping from one leg to the other; like a skip but without the transitional step before the hop.

Male variations was third with Gorsky’s ‘Male variation,’ of Act III from “Swan Lake.”  The choreography is based on the French school – emphasizing small jumps and beats.  This was contrasted with ‘Variation 5' from Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15" which shows some of the neoclassical developments such as quick changes of position and direction and not always being “presentational,”  sometimes with an off-center angularity that enhances interest.  He also uses “sits” in pauses.

Next came pas de deux and demi-character choreography with Kaori Nakamura, impeccable with her timing in the ‘Kingdom of the Shades pas de deux’ from “La Bayadère,” ably partnered by Lucien Postlewaite.

Typically used now for ‘Soldier’ in “Nutcracker,” the original choreography to this music was for ‘Harlequin and Columbine’ here shown by Jodie Thomas and James Moore with the motif for Mr. Moore being hops in arabesque – forward, back, turning – with his arms severely down at his sides.

Peter Boal noted with amusement that when Mr. Moore was a student of his at SAB, he continually admonished him to bend his elbows, and now Moore got to do a straight-armed solo!

The pas de deux from “Apollo” is the one where Terpichore does that glorious, slightly off-center dévelopée a la second/écarté and then steps over Apollo into arabesque. [It begins with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of God reaching his finger to Adam – muse to Apollo.]  Surely, it is one of the defining moments of ballet.  It was great seeing Postlewaite paired with PNB’s Brazilian beauty, Carla Körbes.  Her interpretation was worthy of the gods.  As an historical aside, it included overhead lifts, which were considered quite new at the time; before then, they were considered vulgar.  There is a reference to Sleeping Beauty’s ‘Rose Adagio’ – that of the rising dancer where the ballerina is seen in the same pose but at different levels.

Fifth in the lineup were two pas de trois:

While I was a student at Cornish College, Lois Rathvon reconstructed “Minkus Pas de Trois” for us.  This was one of my first exposures to staging dances from notation.  It was also a fun dance to do.  As soon as James Moore, Kaori Nakamura, and Mara Vinson began with that wonderful tombé, pas de bourée, hop (temps levé) motif, I thought, “Ahah! – That’s it!”  Same for the coda ending of “chugging” third arabesque hops.

Contrasted with this was Balanchine’s “Emeralds.”  The dancers also begin connected, but he inventively changes it so the man ends on the right end of the line.  It seems like a distillation and a streamlined version of Petipa’s pas de trois.

The program concluded with “Further development of the male variation.”

Fullington in his program notes observes that, “Prince Désiré’s variations as danced by Nikolai Legat in the third act of The Sleeping Beauty requires a level of concentrated stamina and virtuosity that surpasses the requirements of much of today’s classical choreography, raising the question of how the dance was performed by Legat.”

While it is true that the level of dancing has generally risen over the decades – and included in this is the stylistic how something is danced – the baseline technical standard itself and fundamental language of  ballet remain about the same – specific poses and steps.  A visual dance history lesson for me occurred when I saw ABT perform many years ago and Eleanor D'Antuono was dancing.  She had joined the Ballet Russe when she was young – at the time she was a Principal with ABT.  While her technical ability and standard were clearly quite high, how she moved in comparison to her colleagues was quite different.  You could easily see contemporary training in them and hardly any in her.  One was not better than the other, just different.  We’ve become accustomed to the former, and indeed expect it.

Some aspects of this contemporary training are seen in transitions, connecting steps, and the dancer’s approach to phrasing and musicality.

The other piece of the how question that Fullington brings up is stamina.  When we read how Taglioni’s father used to train her with not just eight battements in each direction, which almost seems nearly too much today, but 164, you quickly get an idea of the kind of stamina these early dancers had.  In other words, they did lots of repetitions.  Not all so long ago, Martha Graham didn’t consider herself in shape unless she could do something like 800 jumps – in a row without stopping – and this for modern dance.

Indeed, stamina is one issue that all performing artists grapple with – how to build and maintain it, so that we can dance, sing and act, without feeling like we’re just getting through it.  Breath control for all is key.

I suppose the last bit of the “how” might be the question: “Did Legat do this variation cleanly and elegantly?”  Since there is no film record of him, we can only suppose so, yet this does raise the question – clean and elegant by today’s standards?

Clean and elegant indeed was Lucien Postlewaite, who performed the variation in sections, and he certainly has the “chops” for its requirements – and then some.  Fullington reported that the ending was either four or six pirouettes, with six apparently written over the four.  Mr. Postlewaite good naturedly repeated this back to Fullington and, at the conclusion spun out six – to the cheers and applause of the audience.

Finally, Benjamin Giffiths did the ‘male variation’ of the Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée.” First set on Ib Andersen for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, it’s a solo that’s endlessly aerobic, with many directional shifts in turns.

The ballet and dance world at large needs more programs like this.  Instead of just reading about Petipa (or Balanchine for that matter), we can see what the dances actually were like, enjoy them and then compare and contract them for ourselves.

Bravo to Fullington and the PNB ‘team’ who put together this small, historically significant miracle.  It ended all too quickly for me, making me wish that I could push the magic “rewind” and “play” buttons.

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