I Finally Got My Dramatic Odette!: "Swan" Wrap-Up, Taye Diggs, and a Fun Reader-Participation Survey!

Irina Dvorovenko

So, Saturday afternoon I saw my third, and probably overall favorite, Swan Lake at ABT. As I mentioned in my last post, I had gone hoping to see Veronika Part in the lead role but, sadly, she was unable to perform due to an injury. I MUST see her perform this role at some point! Next year…

The Trouble With Favorites

So, taking her place were Irina Dvorovenko, as the White Swan, Princess Odette / Black Swan, Odile, and her husband and frequent partner, Max Beloserkovksy, as the Prince. Seeing Irina, whose performances I used to go to much more often, made me realize what I miss by having my favorites and only going to see them. Not that it’s unimportant to have favorites — I think it’s a huge part of what draws you to a certain company and then, in turn, to ballet or dance, in general. And, my two are of course him and most definitely him :) :) . The problem for me is, it means missing out on ballerinas like Irina, who, for some odd reason, doesn’t ever dance with these two guys. And I ended up getting everything from Irina that I had complained about not getting from the two previous ballerinas I’d seen!

Backtracking for a sec, I first saw Diana Vishneva and First Favorite Man :) , and, as I had blogged earlier, wasn’t very moved by Diana, mainly because she seemed to have no connection with Marcelo’s Prince Siegfried; her Odette (White Swan / Princess), as I said, existed in a completely separate world from him.

Then, Friday night I had my second SWAN viewing, with Second Favorite Man :) ) and Michele Wiles in the leads. To this one, I brought a friend, and one who has never, at least to her recollection, seen a live ballet performance. She’s familiar with classical music though, and with Tschiakovsky, and was interested in going because of that.

Classical, Story Ballets Involve Dramatic Action

It’s always fun to introduce a new person to ballet to see what they think, what their initial reaction is: whether they found the love of their life, were bored to tears, were completely stupefied, were completely mesmerized, or, by turns, were actually all of the above. I guess my friend was pretty much the last: in the end, she said she found Ballet intriguing enough to try another, but concluded that Swan Lake really was just not going to be her favorite. I’m a relative newcomer to the scene too, having been going for a couple years, and I pretty much shared her issues with this cast / production, which were the same as with the Diana / Marcelo one: a fun, flirtatious, overall good Black Swan who made the second half of the production a little more lively than the first, but a too ethereal White Swan who couldn’t garner audience sympathy, forcing the first half to be long and boring, and overall preventing the audience from connecting to the characters, story, and action. My friend said she thought the second ballerina (in the black) was better than the first: she didn’t know they were the same!

My feelings about Michele are a repeat of Diana: at the beginning, David’s Prince spots the Swan at the lake, prepares to shoot her with his crossbow, until he sees her transform into the beautiful girl Odette, then hides in the bushes and watches, transfixed by her beauty. Odette is supposed to spot him, and began fearfully to flutter away until he convinces her he means no harm. She then supposedly tells him her tragic story of being turned into a bird by the evil von Rothbart; mesmerized, he listens attentively, falls deeply in love. She falls for him too, and her plight is caught up in their love, as only his pure love can break the spell, allowing her to become a girl again.

Diana’s and Michele’s Odettes, however, are completely unmoved by, even unaware of, their princes. They danced beautifully as swans (Diana had more feathery, watery arms than Michele, though Michele blew me away at the tail end of the scene as her arms turned airy and liquidy and she nearly flew on pointe into the wings– don’t know why she couldn’t have done that throughout), their princes come out of hiding, toss their crossbows away, shake their heads to say, “no, I’m not going to hurt you,” and run to the girls. The girls are supposed to tell their princes the story of the spell, through that beautiful pas de deux. But Diana and Michele don’t even so much as look at the men throughout this entire scene. So, the men are basically having a conversation with themselves, an internal conflict over this creature, while she dances about in her own world. “Wait, when did she tell him the story?” my friend asked at intermission, frowning down at her Playbill. “I feel like I missed all of this,” she said pointing to the synopsis. She did; she missed everything because it didn’t happen.

Diana and Michele were better in the second half (where von Rothbart casts his daughter, Odile — the false Odette — in Odette’s likeness to trick and seduce the Prince), but still weren’t ideal. Their dancing was spectacular, all those crazy fast fouettes and pirouettes and jumps were thrilling, but, apart from the dancing, there was no drama: they still weren’t connecting to their princes, so the seduction and flirtation wasn’t there.

In other words, a drama happens when two or more people interact with each other. One character wants something from another and there is a conflict, leading to a dramatic situation. I realize that a ballet is not exactly the same as a play. A ballet involves, obviously, movement, part of which tells the story. But story-ballets (and, to me, even shorter, more abstract ones, as I’ll talk about later) are dramas and they need full, three-dimensional characters who bounce off of each other.

Irina understood this. Irina’s gorgeous Swan is dancing beautifully center stage, arms aflutter, in her own tragic world, just turning from swan to girl, when Max’s Prince, overtaken by her beauty, rushes toward her bow and arrow still in hand. Irina’s girl actually looks at him, realizes she’s in danger, holds her arms up to her face, shielding herself, and begins bourreing quickly backward. He tosses the bow and arrow aside and runs toward her, gesturing that he won’t hurt her. She then performs the beautiful pas de deux with him, perfectly conveying to him her sad story of the spell. Obviously, she can’t say anything in words (and the words are in the Playbill so it doesn’t matter), but, I mean, she tells him everything with her body and her facial expressions. She’s not in her own world; she’s “talking” to him. Even when her body is turned away from him, and she can’t look at him, she registers his presence with closed eyes, head tilted back ever so slightly, subtely, toward him. And his body language and facial expressions convey that he listens, hears, and understands. The whole story was perfectly, compellingly HERE. When von Rothbart enters from the back of the stage to claim her his Swan, taking her from the Prince, and the Prince retrieves his bow and arrow, Irina quickly bourres backward to von Roth., shielding his body entirely with hers, her head turned dramatically up, as if even to protect even his head from a blow. She even shakes her head “no” at the Prince. Irina’s Odette makes it all too clear that the Prince can’t kill v. Roth or she will die as well.

I know critics don’t often like Irina, and I’m not entirely certain as to why, but I’ve heard it’s partly because she “overacts.”And I seem to remember hearing specific complaints about those turned-up chins of hers. Well, all I can say is that I felt that she made more dramatic sense of this story than anyone else I’ve seen, and I wished my friend would have seen her Swan.

The Men, And What Makes Hallberg So Sexy?

As for the men: I’m not a huge fan of Max — he doesn’t seem to have the technical prowess or the stage personality of either of my favorite guys — his jumps are not as high and his legs don’t fully straighten out into splits when he does them, unlike with the other two, and doesn’t have Marcelo’s humanity and relatability or David’s brainy sensitivity or either man’s inherent sexiness of movement (can I just ask, for a minute, WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE WAY DAVID WALKS across stage? He has this way of settling into his hip socket, or maybe it’s that he lifts his pronounced, pointed foot entirely off the floor with each step, or maybe his weight is a slight bit more foreward, like in Rhumba walks — whatever it is, the way he moves about stage when he’s not leaping or pirouetting is so crazy sexy and so unlike anyone else’s movement. Since he’s practically the only American man in ABT, I wonder, is it an American thing — something in his training? Maybe it’s nothing more than that he simply has longer legs than most). And it’s definitely not something he does on purpose. Joan Acocella recently noted that he doesn’t seem to know he’s a star. He doesn’t seem to know how hot he is either :) !!– I hope it stays that way. I don’t want him to become a pompous ass!

But back to Max: regardless of the above, I thought he did a very good job with this character. He showed the growth of the Prince, noble but immature at the start, into a man transformed by love. He was princely, yet human and real. And, as I said, he worked very well with Irina’s Odette, listening to her story, reacting to it, using his body and face.

Miming Doesn’t Work

I met up with Delirium Tremens afterward and we chatted a bit. She has a big ballet background, having studied ballet at School of American Ballet and Joffrey, and she gave me this brief lesson in mime in case I missed something. It was really interesting, but some of the miming gestures looked to me nothing like what they actually are. Like, making fists with both hands and crossing your arms at the wrist is supposed to symbolize “death.” I thought when I saw the various ballerinas doing that, it meant “no” or was somehow intended to convey some sort of angst. But I didn’t know it meant, “if you do this it will result in death.” I’d have to see them again, but it made me wonder if perhaps the first two ballerinas I saw relied very heavily on mime to convey their stories, and that’s why I couldn’t understand? I know Irina did a little, but she backed it up with generally understood facial expression and body movement. If the choreographers and stage directors are going to rely on mime to tell a story, which I don’t think is a good idea, they need to somehow make everyone aware of what everything means, so that not only people with dance background can enjoy the performance!

Dancers Are Smaller Than They Appear!

I ended up hanging around Lincoln Center for much of Saturday afternoon since I was to meet Apollinaire at the Library of the Performing Arts (adjacent to the Met Opera House) later in the day for an evening performance. I ran into several dancers on their way to work– Adrienne Schulte, Herman Cornejo, and Jared Matthews on his way away from work (he performed yesterday as the Prince’s sidekick, and he was excellent by the way! Sky-high jumps, very agile and quick-footed dancing with a lot of precision and clarity. His prince sidekick was almost as good as the athletically spectacular Sascha Radetsky‘s — not quite as clean but almost, almost. Jared is working super hard, as is Sascha. Anyway, it’s so amazing to me how much smaller they all are up close when you see them on the street!

Vitali Krauchenka’s Awesome Swampy von Rothbart

And, one more little note on SL: can I please please please see more of this guy:

His swamp-creature-y von Rothbart was compelling beyond words. The ballet ends with him, dying after Odette’s death has taken the life from him. I’m not a fan of pure evil; but rather prefer nuance and complexity, and, not to sound cheesy,but his performance honestly almost brought me to tears.

His von Rothbart loved Odette and is just in so much pain in that last scene after she’s committed suicide. He makes me feel so much sympathy for him, even though he’s supposed to be “the bad guy.” And with that intense, oh so familiar music building to a dramatic crescendo, he makes the tragic ending so moving. Please, Kevin, more Vitali!

Taye Diggs

Okay, Taye Diggs: Very briefly, since this post is now bordering on 100,000 words — Saturday night, Apollinaire invited me to go with her to see Taye Diggs’ newish modern dance company, Dre Dance, at the Joyce in SoHo. I know Diggs only for his role in the movie GO, but he was a star of the original Broadway show, Rent, and acted in the movie version as well. He has other Broadway credits, but who knew he was a modern dance choreographer!

It was a lot of fun. I sat next to Diggs himself during the first half, then his co-choreographer, Andrew Palermo, during the second. Diggs is a much smaller man in real life too! I guess that is kind of the rule in the performing arts: everyone looks larger than life on stage or screen… The dancing was very interesting, very dramatic. They gave us press packets including a DVD of rehearsal and I’m going to look over everything and perhaps write more later, but for now, my initial reaction was that I thought it was, just, really cool. Choreography was original and involved a lot of emotional intensity and was set to mostly contemporary, very rhythmic music with a strong, fun beat — kind of poppy but not recognizably so, except for a little Rufus Wainright. The program was a compilation of pieces they’ve choreographed over the past two years, with the exception of one new piece, so the performance as a whole didn’t have a single narrative or theme. But, storyless though the whole was, with each piece the dancers themselves, through interactions with each other, told a kind of mini story — angry and fighting one another at times, at points hungry for attention from each other, needily begging each other for compassion (one dancer tried to climb atop another, hugging her, the other pushing her away). Each dancer very intensely wanted something from another, from the others as a unit; it was full of drama, which is Diggs’ thing after all. During the last piece, a woman came out in a business suit, hair tied in a bun. In a moment of anger, she ripped off the suit jacket, ripped the knot out of her hair and shook and shook and shook, first body then hair. Then, she calmed herself, took a deep breath, and slowly put her suit jacket back on and hair up. I found this such a short, yet powerful statement about the necessity of composing yourself for work, for life, of taming the inner self in order to get along in society. All of the pieces were this way: small vignettes containing characters who desperately wanted something from each other, creating intriguing, compelling sitations that made you desperately want to know the fuller story. The complete antithesis of my first two SWANS.

Fun, Reader Survey!

One last thing: there’s a really fun discussion underway on the Foot in Mouth blog. Apollinaire Scherr and I were discussing the never-ending question of why ballet is not as highly revered right now as it once was, and I had posed the question of why opera and some other of the “high arts” are currently more popular. San Fransisco dance critic Paul Parish surmised that it’s because opera is better recorded and therefore more accessible to the public. As someone who became an avid balletomane initially through a video not a live performance, I disagreed, and responded here.

This is a really fun discussion, and please, all of you Ballet fans out there, do participate! What initially drew you to ballet? Was it a film / video or a live performance? Was it “Center Stage” or another ballet movie? What are your favorite videos? Is a live performance better than a video? Why or why not? And do you agree that ballet is not well-recorded and thus cannot reach as large an audience as opera? Why do you think other arts or other dance forms are more popular right now than ballet? And, what can be done to better promote ballet? To add your two cents to this debate, please go to Foot in Mouth and add your comment, either here or here.

6 Comments

  1. I’ll probably drop by Foot & Mouth and join the discussion..but your awesome review (thanks! to those of us not in nyc :p) and discussion reminded me of a nytimes article i read today about classical music:

    “What has changed is not how much the tradition means to its devotees, but how little it means to everyone else.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/arts/music/02conn.html?ref=music

    I think this quote is totally relevant to the ballet world as well.

    btw, I think opera is even less popular than ballet outside of nyc (and italy)…it’s just that the met has such big fans in the city :) i wonder if the sheer numbers of ballet fans outnumber the numbers of opera fans. i don’t know though! Opera seems more “inaccessible” than ballet, but that’s just my perspective since I love both and trying to think from a layman’s point of view… and personally, i know more straight guy friends who would be willing to go see an opera (esp. if they are on a hot date) but would rather be caught dead than be seen in a ballet audience.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! And thanks for that link — the quote IS totally apt. Why does it mean so little to everyone else now! I personally feel the same about opera — I’ll go but I feel so much more drawn to ballet and one reason I think is that it’s easier to grasp for the average person (at least for me) and so is more accessible in that way (especially the big story ballets).

    Ugh, don’t get me started on straight men and ballet … I just got into a huge fight with a guy who supposedly likes “dance” but wouldn’t even try Cinderella because men in tights repulse him so — he even said nasty things and made horrible faces about my favorite dancers, which I feel is not only homophobic and immoral because homophobia is immoral but personally disrespectful to me as well. I don’t think I am going to be able to remain friends with this person, sadly…

  3. That’s a great quote from Jennifer – and so relevant, too. “Everyone else” is usually much more willing to accept differences or new interpretations to classic works. It’s a challenge, as a fan, to stay open minded as things change.

    Re: miming – Tonya, you should check out the mime on Royal Ballet videos. It’s a world of difference from any mime I’ve ever seen with American Ballet Theatre; in fact I never really got the point of mime until I saw the Royals do it, and I became a believer. There’s an added element of clarity and urgency to their mime, and the odd gestures like hands crossed for death do actually make sense when they throw their entire bodies and faces into it. This Royal Ballet master class online – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/tchaikovsky/video/ – has Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley teaching the Swan Lake mime passage to some young dancers, and is very illuminating. I’d also suggest renting the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty w/ Viviana Durante on Netflix, and watch Anthony Dowell and Elizabeth McGorian have an entire, vivid conversation in mime, duking it out over Aurora’s curse.

    Interesting comments, too, regarding Dvorovenko. She is indeed a gorgeous dancer, with a strong technique and glamorous looks. But I think most critics aren’t so interested in her because she tends to do the same kind of thing no matter what role she’s in. I haven’t seen her “Swan Lake”, so it could very well be as spectacular as you say but her Terpsichore in Apollo was danced with the same fliratiousness as Kitri in Don Q – and so was her Juliet and her Raymonda! Eric Taub on ballet.co.uk once wrote “One of the best Kitris I ever saw was her Giselle,” (http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_05/nov05/et_rev_abt3_1005.htm). Nevertheless, I find that she’s usually great in a tutu and imagine that the classic Petipa roles like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty suit her quite well – as you wrote.

  4. Here is Anthony Dowell’s mime scene from Sleeping Beauty on YouTube, from that Royal Ballet Sleeping Beauty that I mentioned:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5fyKt5nso

    There’s a great explanation for how this mime scene works on the Het National Ballet DVD of Sleeping Beauty with Sofiane Sylve. Sir Peter Wright explains why the motions are what they are, and also explains how the movements change by character. You can see, for example, the mime for “I speak” – with Carabosse it looks like she’s pulling snakes out of her mouth, but when Lilac Fairy does it, it looks like she’s singing beautifully.

    Needless to say – referring to another part of your post – I’ve learned a lot about ballet from films and DVDs!

  5. Thanks so much for all that, Art! The first link (with the miming instructions) I need to download plug-ins or something like that for, so I’ll have to do it tomorrow, but I watched the YouTube one with Anthony Dowell and you’re right, the miming actions are really understandable. And Carabosse and Lilac do look totally different doing the same thing, so the dancer can still “act’ the miming. I’ll look for those DVDs too.

    That’s interesting about Irina — the quote is rather funny! I did think her Odette was very different from her Odile though and her Odette was not flirtatious and Kitri-ish at all though. But as for the rest, I guess I haven’t seen her in very many classics — just Le Corsaire, and then a bunch of Tharp pieces, which I think she does very well with.

    Okay, off to ABT again (tonight is David and Gillian in Cinderella :) ) Thanks again for all those links and DVD suggestions on the mime!

  6. Well, I think ballet is popular enough … I went to the great Ferri farewell performance too. Bought my ticket about 2 months in advance, and could only get the very last row. (I actually prefer back rows, but in a lower section). You can’t even see “the balcony” in the big scene from there.

    Anyway, ballet will always be something that some people get and some don’t — much like silent movies. They take a different kind of understanding than conventional storytelling.

    And for me ballet almost never works on video. It’s missing the live element of *risk*. Much as a live performance by a juggler can never be duplicated on film. I watch these farewell performances (saw Bocca too) with a constant thought of “please don’t fall.” And then when they carry it off … that’s something that doesn’t translate to film.

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