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Joffrey Ballet of Chicago: "Diaghilev Dynasty"

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#1 Treefrog


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Posted 02 March 2003 - 09:18 PM

This was possibly the most fabulously interesting ballet program I’ve ever attended. The Joffrey presented three pieces originally commissioned by Serge Diaghilev: ‘Les Noces’, ‘Parade’, and ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’. We saw this afternoon's matinee, the last performance of seven. The music was live, which enlivened and enlarged the performance considerably

I knew going in that the dances and music in this program would be very different from the classical fare. Frankly, I did not expect to like them. Not that I am overly charmed by classical story ballets, but in the past I have found Stravinsky’s music too jarring to be pleasurable. Of the three ballets, I was probably looking forward most to “Parade”, if only for the Picasso set and costumes, and because two years ago a picture of Calvin Kitten as the Chinese Conjurer graced the cover of Dance Magazine (when Kitten was named one of the 25 dancers to watch). I did feel reasonably well versed about “Les Noces,” thanks to this recent thread in the Ballets area of the board.

Well. Neither the theme nor the music of “Les Noces” was “likeable”, to my mind, but I found the combination visceral and compelling. The music IS jarring, but so is the theme: two young people, scared out of their wits, leaving home for the uncertainty of an arranged marriage. (Dolphingirl’s quip: “So, it’s basically like reality TV?”) The plain brown, uniform costumes, the deadpan expressions, the minimalist movement – all strip this piece down to the rawest of bare emotions. The choreography largely concerns a group of boys and a group of girls, each in turn commiserating with their friend and preparing him or her for the impending marriage. What is important here really is the group, or the juxtaposition of groups, and not particular movements by individuals. This is NOT the piece to see if you are looking for flash, verve, and lots of tricks. (This is true of ‘Printemps’ as well; the family resemblance between Nijinska’s choreography here and Nijinsky’s in ‘Printemps’ is striking.) The dancers in ‘Les Noces’ move from one frozen tableaux to another. Boys and girls are separated until the moment when the bride and groom approach and embrace in mutual consolation; then the groups of boys and girls intermix, and one somehow feels optimistic for the newlyweds’ future. I literally heaved a sigh as the curtain fell, and for a moment I truly wondered if I had been holding my breath the whole time.

‘Parade’ provided the lighthearted, comic relief in between the two heavier themes. The Picasso set and costumes were even better than I anticipated. Kitten reprised the role of the Chinese Conjurer, very successfully. I thought the most interesting of the "acts" was the American Girl, danced by Stacy Joy Keller. This role manages to convey myriad popular images of early 20th century America: gangsters, street fights, working women, high-rises, a culture slightly out of kilter. At least, that’s what I saw in the dance, so to the extent that it was intended Keller succeeded admirably. The horse, of course, stole the show. I don’t know whether it was to the dancers’ credit (David Gombert and Michael Smith) or Picasso’s that the horse’s face (mask) seemed to convey distinct emotions.

Once I saw ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’, I understood why there were riots at its premiere. What a shock it must have been! Again, somber, raw, nothing pretty or delicate. No virtuosos; once again, the ensemble is the thing. Weird, turned-in postures that evoke a clumsier, less evolved past. No doubt the original audience wondered the same thing I did: “How is this ballet?” Nevertheless, I found it urgent and compelling, although not as emotionally powerful -- nor as beautiful -- as ‘Les Noces’.

This was not a program in which one could single out specific dancers for praise. Indeed, with so many dancers on stage, all largely dressed and wigged alike, it was difficult to discern who was who.

Nor was the program to everyone’s liking. I met up with two acquaintances who clearly considered this a wasted afternoon. Unfortunately, this was their first visit to the Joffrey, and from our conversation it was clear that they had had no concept of what the program would comprise. What they got differed hugely from their expectations. One of them, a novice adult ballet student, bemoaned the lack of role models. “Doesn’t the Joffrey have any good male leads?” he asked plaintively. Well, yes, it does. But this wasn’t the program in which to see them.

One last note: we were lucky enough to attend a pre-performance talk by the Joffrey’s community outreach director, Carla Graham-White. This talk was part of the company’s initiative to attract and educate younger audiences. (The initiative also includes providing half-price tickets to anyone affiliated with a ballet school, whether as student or bill-payer or staff/faculty.) The talk was very informative, and hopefully forestalled among the fifty or so attendees the kind of disappointment my acquaintances encountered. We were also shown some of the costumes and wigs that the dancers would soon don. Since the talk took place in the orchestra seats, it was also fun to watch as the company ended class and the crew cleaned and set up the stage.

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 09:56 PM

Treefrog -

Thank you so much for your report. I'm kind of glad there wasn't reality TV in the Diaghilev days. I'm just a little frightened someone might have decided Temptation Island could be a dance. . .

My feelings when I saw the revival many years ago in NYC (probably in the late 80s) were very similar to yours; I actually felt like I was looking like a mausoleum for a ballet rather than the ballet itself. I think it may be because what we are looking at is not Nijinsky's choreography, but a reconstruction of the choreography. It's Hodson & Archer's best guess after years of research. This included interviews, an examination of Marie Rambert's notated score (she discovered she had it and it gave at least an outline of the action, ie "the youths make a circle") and whatever sources or memories they could find. But it was everything but the steps. With respect to the enormity of the effort, I thought Hodson had more of a sense of scholarship than theater.

I love Les Noces, but I've never gotten to see Parade. I hope Manhattnik will chime in; he has fond memories of Gary Chryst as the conjurer.

#3 Paul Parish

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 10:00 PM

Hello Treefrog,

Thank you for posting about Les Noces --


It is one of the most tremendous ballets I have ever experienced in my life --

And I saw it done by the OAKLAND ballet -- back in about 1988, I can still recall, it seemed like the building was going to explode -- the music was so tremendous, and the dancing!!! It was like they were stomping, but they were on toe-- like stabbing the floor.

And then it would get weirdly quiet, an the girls would be doing some ritual of braiding the brides hair, and they'd make a tableau where they'd make a pyramid, laying their heads sideways so that all the heads stacked up and so they looked like the stairs on a Mayan temple..... it felt like this might turn out to be a tragedy...

It was just one of the most imaginative things I've ever experienced - -and it made the Oakland ballet famous -- they took it on tour and played it in New York and places, and all of a sudden the Oakland ballet was big news.....

It's wonderful that the Joffrey is performing it..... Mr. Joffrey was right, Diaghilev's vision was seminally important..... all of ballet in America comes from the flotsam and jetsam of Diaghilev's company that washed up on our shores --

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 10:02 PM

Paul - the interesting thing is that the Oakland balletmaster - Howard Sayette - has exclusive rights to set the ballet now.

Was he who was in charge of that production?

#5 Paul Parish

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Posted 02 March 2003 - 10:34 PM

Nijinska's daughter Irina was alive then and she did it, I think-- It was timed to the publication of Nijinska's "Early Memoirs," I bought it ht next day, EXCELLENT book...

Irina came up to Oakland a lot -- they had les Biches in the rep also (which since I'd seen the Royal Ballet do it, I thought they couldn't really do it very well -- it called for too high a style -- though the hostess was always VERY well done, by SUmmer Lee Rhatigan and later by Lara Deans Lowe, and the two little girls were beautifully danced by Julie Lowe and Abra Rudisill -- the corps girls' quatres weren't stylish enough, and the athletes' sixes ditto, Erin Leedom was terrific as the pageboy -- remember, she has a solo variation with unsupported double pirouettes that close sous-sus? Leedom could NAIL those, she stood there like a sword stuck in the ground, sovereign, enigmatic, challenging, immaculate, with her little white gloves; later Cynthia Chin did the role, and SHE was gorgeous, like an Erte)...

ANd Irina helped them reconstruct le Train Bleu, which hadn't been done for 50 years or so and WAS a lot of fun.... not an important ballet, like Sacre, but it did feel like they did manage to reconstruct it successfully..... it's very light, but quite adorable.... Susan Taylor was brilliant as the tennis player, just brilliant....

The Joffrey might want to do it.... it presents a lot of opportunities for a company with dancers who like to characterize.... there's a lso a Betty Boopish part for a little ballerina, very silly but if there's a comedienne in the company, she might have a lot of fun with it.... And there's a guy who turns cartwheels (Dolin originated the part) who's full of malarkey....

#6 Estelle


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Posted 03 March 2003 - 04:04 AM

This is just to say that there also was a review of that program, by Jack Reed, in the "Joffrey Ballet" section of the board:


I've seen "Les Noces" and "Le sacre du printemps" only on video... and I'm getting quite jealous when reading this thread!

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