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Leigh Witchel

La Sonnambula

37 posts in this topic

It's in rep right now at NYCB and it seemed like a good time to discuss it.

Do you like the ballet? Do you understand the ballet? :jawdrop: What do you think it's about?

Do you think it holds up after six decades? Who are your favorite Poets or Sleepwalkers?

Feel free to answer any of the above or whatever moves you on the subject.

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I love Sonnambula. I love its music. I love its Gothic atmosphere (which, earlier this week, was considerably lighter than I think it should be), and the contrasts of the Gothic against the merriment of the ball and of the Poet's two pas de deux. I love the originality of the pas with the Sleepwalker.

What is it about? Many things, I think. It is about being a social outsider, exemplified here by the Poet, but something I think most of us have felt at least at some time. It is about the mystery of sexual attraction. And it is about the poison of possessiveness.

My favorite Sleepwalkers have been Gelsey Kirkland, Allegra Kent, and Wendy Whelan. My favorite Coquettes have been Stephanie Saland and Kim Highton. And Peter Boal became my favorite Poet earlier this week.

How would you answer your own questions, Leigh?

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I'm going to hold off on answering if only because I have a knack of killing a thread deader than a doornail when I answer my own questions :jawdrop: I saw Hubbe last night though, and I thought his interpretation was very provoking at not at all satirical. It was very worldly - the opposite of Boal.

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I can envision something of what Hubbe must have been like, but nothing could have gotten me in to see his miscast Sleepwalker, thank you very much.

I will await, then, the development of this thread and your responses. :jawdrop:

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I'd argue he isn't miscast at all, but I'll save that for a bit :jawdrop:

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I've always loved the mystery of La Sonnambula as well. The sleepwalker strikes me as the baron's secret wife, sort of like Mr. Rochester's. When I first saw the ballet and watched the baron go off with drawn dagger, I wasn't sure whether he was going to kill the sleepwalker or the poet. Not only is the ballet mysterious, it's also raging with hormones -- the baron's guests pairing off and the coquette and poet thwarted in their attempt to do the same. I love the Rieti score based on the Bellini themes -- schmaltz on the verge of dissonance. If only the French horns were better able to cope with it.

I don't know how much Nikolaj Hubbe weighs but he was obviously too heavy to be carried by Yvonne Borree. Couldn't anyone have predicted that? I loved Whelan and Boal in it. My favorite sleepwalker was Kent of course. I liked Victor Castelli very much as the poet. Kay Mazzo was a good sleepwalker, as was the object of my fandom. I can't say that I have a favorite coquette. It's a good part for a lot of dancers.

At one time, after the sleepwalker carried off the dead poet, the light from her candle was seen moving from upstairs into the sky. I liked that. As it is now, the ending has an element of necrophilia.

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You can draw some ideas from Balanchines Stories of Great Ballets ----

He said the Host is an elderly man and the Sleepwalker is his wife.

I think she's an unresolved spirit like a Wili, haunting her husband's

home. Maybe his flirting and unfaithfulness led to her death. Maybe

he had killed her too.

In the last scene the light upstairs goes out as the guests are looking

up at the window. Does that mean the Host has retired, not caring

about the trouble he has caused?

Why did Jerome Robbins end Dances at a Gathering with the same gesture?

Maybe there should be a sequel. There could be a detective like Colombo

show up at the house to investigate the murder. Think about it.

Mark Morris would do a great job.

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I'd argue he isn't miscast at all, but I'll save that for a bit :)

Sorry, Leigh, if I was unclear. I don't think Hubbe would be miscast as the Poet, but I think his partner on Friday was miscast. I get to see him dance it with Wendy tomorrow. :jawdrop:

As it is now, the ending has an element of necrophilia.

Very true.

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I wonder if anyone else feels this way, but I think this would be a very interesting role for Ansanelli. Pairing her with Hubbe as the Poet could really produce something striking, and I think something along the lines of what he was working towards in the character.

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Ansanelli is proving herself to be such a versatile and surprising dancer, I'd like to see her in just about anything. She's shown hints of darkness that could be quite powerful when unleashed.

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Some comments from a Poet. This is a bit of an interview I did for DanceView in 1994 with Henning Kronstam, who was the RDB's great Poet and danced the role for 20 years. I liked the idea that the Poet was unfulflled artistically, that the encountered with the Sleepwalker opened his soul, and now he would be able to write, to fulfill his gifts -- or would have been, if he hadn't been killed. That, to me, is the tragedy of Sonnambula. It's the ultimate Outsider ballet. He's searching for experience, he finds it, and then he has to die. Another take on "don't touch your dream." For the young Poet, the Poet at 20, it's a tragedy because it's a young life full of promise; he's Icarus reaching for the sun. And for the older Poet, the Poet at 40, it's perhaps a deeper tragedy, because he's never fulfilled his talent -- perhaps dissipated it in the search for experience -- and he finally is granted his insight, life comes together for him -- and he has no chance to use it.

DanceView: Your first leading role was the Poet in George Balanchine's La Sonnambula. Had you seen the ballet before it was in the repertory?

Kronstam: It was danced in Copenhagen by the DeCuevas Company, where John Taras was ballet master at that time. Taras was doing the Baron himself, George Skibine was doing the Poet, Marjorie Tallchief was doing the Sleepwalker, and Jocelyn Vollmar was doing the Coquette. And right away, Niels Bjorn [Larsen], who was the chief at that time, thought that that was a ballet for us, and talked to Taras about it. And Taras came, he came into the class, and he said [pointing]: "That one."

Q: I would think it would be a difficult role for a young dancer.

Kronstam: Yes, because he has very little to dance. He is just standing there, all alone on the stage when the guests leave, and with the focus of 1400 people [the size of Copenhagen's Royal Theatre, Old stage] on him. So there I think I learned what it meant to fill the stage. And it was a role that was so close to my personality at that time.

Q: So in that way, it was easy to do?

Kronstam: Yes. He's a fragile person, you know. He's easily conquered by the Coquette, and when he sees the Sleepwalker, it's a soul that he has a contact with. She is so serene and so light, after all of the noise of that party. And he doesn't understand why he has to die for it, because there are so many beautiful things he could write. These are all things that John said to me a long time ago, in 1955: "You have to think, in the last minute, of all the beautiful things you would have said to the world before you just-stumble over."

Q: I'd never thought that the Sleepwalker is somebody who's serene. I've usually seen it done as this mad woman who's been locked in the tower.

Kronstam: No, no. She's kept there because she is his daughter, or a virgin bride, or something like that. She's never been let out, and has never been to parties. She is always closed in. Her whole desire is to meet other people. And to him [the Poet], she is the dream of his poetic writing, or his painting, or whatever he is. The first one, the Coquette, she is human life. You can paint her like this: boom, boom, boom, boom, and there she is. But the Sleepwalker is indescribable for him, and he cannot get in touch with her. It's a much bigger drama than where they just play with it, and say, "Oh, well. She can't see. Take the light up and down," you know. Much bigger.

And of course, the Coquette is very important too. All the girls who get the Coquette say, "Oh, do I have to do that one? Why don't I get the Sleepwalker?" And she is so important, because she is building up the drama. The Coquette has to have a coolness about her. Because sometimes it's done like: "Well, tonight, I am just one of those whores. Kiss my hand." She is happy for his [the Baron's] big house, his big parties. She is happy for all the jewels she gets, and everything else. But she doesn't have him as a husband, because that one is up there in the tower. The Baron is an old man, and she sees a young, handsome man, and he is different, and that is what attracts her. Then, of course, if she can get him by her seductiveness-you know, maybe she doesn't even want him, but she wants to try it.

Q: Why is the Poet there? Did someone invite him?

Kronstam: Maybe somebody in the party invited him, and he doesn't know anybody. So when he comes in, he just looks around, and somebody is coming to say hello, and he doesn't know what to do. And then he sees a very beautiful woman, and she seems like she wants to talk to him. And that's what gets the interest there. Of course, she goes further and she tries to seduce him. But she is not heartbroken when she is taken out by the Baron.

And then he just stands there and says, "Well, what was this?" Until he hears that SCREAM from the tower—and that's in the music. And it should be seen on his back that something has happened before he starts his walk back. It should be like, like somebody has—well, caught him, or something like that. And it is her spirit, which is a spirit that works with his—yin and yang. That's what it is.

Q: In the pas de deux, he is trying to reach her?

Kronstam: It's to wake her up, to get through to her. And she is just impossible. He gets more and more desperate, and not more and more playful—which I saw Lloyd [Riggins] do one evening. I went to him and I gave him such a hell. He was laughing at the part when she puts her leg out, and then he puts one arm, and then the other arm [on the ground in front of her leg to stop her]. He laughed over her, like it's fun, it's a fun play. I said, "Lloyd, this is not fun. You are trying to stop her. It's like Giselle. You want to get to this person. You want to understand. You want to talk to her." "Oh, I never thought about it like that," he said. I said, "Well, please do."

Q: I asked you previously if they ever laughed in Denmark, and you seemed shocked at the idea. But in New York, every time I've seen it, the audience laughs at that part

Kronstam: I have to think about it, if they ever laughed when I did it. No, they didn't. They didn't. Because it was a fight to get her to wake up. It's a beautiful role.

Q: Did you keep finding new things in it?

Kronstam: You don't find new things in the ballets. You find new things in yourself, because it's yourself that changes. Sonnambula I did for twenty years. Then you really get into the role, and you really know what it's all about. But now, with five performances, maybe with two casts, I think it's mad. The audience gets cheated and the dancers get cheated, because they never get the feeling of owning the roles.

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Thanks for posting that wonderful interview with Kronstam, Alexandra. I've never seen a Sleepwalker-Poet pas de deux that's been completely audience giggle-free, but some have come close. In this connection, I've been heartened by the receptions given the "Five Pieces" section of "Episodes" recently. Formerly treated as a laff-riot by most audiences, they now seem merely mesmerized. So maybe there's hope for Sonnambula.

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Interestingly, the other night my daughter after seeing the performance felt that the Sleepwalker was the Baron's daughter. I felt she was wrong but clearly that's not the case.

I've rarely heard the NYCB audience laugh at this ballet and when it happened it seemed like nervous laughter.

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I always assumed the Sleepwalker was his wife, but, when you think of it, you don't know. Also, we always say The Baron, but it's The Host. I think that choice must have been significant -- it makes the stabbling more of a betrayal, more outrageous and decadent.

Some Poets -- Baryshnikov, Yuri Possokhov -- make the pas de deux almost comic. "Aha! Light dawns! You are asleep and I can make you do anything I want!!" And I think the audience responds to that. That's quite a different feeling than the second act of "Giselle" (I think Kronstam used that analogy with Riggins, in the interview above, because he had just worked with Riggins in "Giselle" and could use some of the same cues.)

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My program from NYCB this afternoon sits four inches from my keyboard and lists the role as The Baron.

Don't tell :shhh: , but I went down to see Sonnambula (only) from the very rear of the orchestra this afternoon, after having read Kronstam's comments (above) and with them fresh in my mind. Hubbe's intense but shaded performance delivered so much. At his entrance, he seemed almost malevolent, but as the Coquette charms him and relaxes him, he loses that dangerous edge. It is interesting that the pdd with the Coquette starts with both his arms around her, and contact between the two is rarely broken, in contrast to the pdd with the Sleepwalker, in which there is almost no direct physical contact. There is also the symbolism of the Mazurka (is that what it is?), when the Poet finds himself "locked" into the very center of the group (tug, tug), only to be turned away as everyone else exits, reinforcing the ambiguity of his status.

I don't think it's important whether the Sleepwalker is wife or daughter. Her protected, virginal state is what matters.

This afternoon's pdd literally brought chills to my skin and tears to my eyes. Wendy and Nikolaj had the hearts of the whole audience (you could tell by the rapt silence, except for a teeny titter at his first attempt to stop her). After so many viewings of this ballet, I was filled with suspense. Magnificent. :)

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I don't think it's important whether the Sleepwalker is wife or daughter.  Her protected, virginal state is what matters.

I agree. While I can understand that it may be important for dancers to work out some kind of logic in the story in order to help them perform, I don't think that that benefits the audience. In fact, I think the contrary is true -- some ambiguity makes it a richer experience for the viewers. It can mean so many things, instead of just one.

With regard to the ballet performed in Denmark, I imagine there must be differences from the version done at NYCB. The Danish version is probably closer to the original, called Night Shadow. (Alexandra, is it really called La Sonnambula today, and if so has the title changed over the years?) Since Balanchine constantly fiddled with his ballets, the version he eventually staged for NYCB in 1960 probably differs in some respects. (The Host/Baron nomenclature may be one of these.)

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In Denmark, it's called Søvngængersken. (literally, The Sleepwalker)

And they do call him the Baron (well, Baronen), as does the cast list in "Repertory in Review." I've read Host in reviews, but I have no idea where now.

I would like very much to see Hubbe. I don't think he's anything like Kronstam was in the role (they're so different by temperament and appearance, and as far as I know, Hubbe never worked with Kronstam on this role) -- Kronstam was innocent and not dangerous in this, but Hubbe has an edge to him, and a dangerous Poet would be very interesting indeed! But I think he'd need to have a Baron and a Coquette that were very strong, and oozing decadence.

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Q: Did you keep finding new things in it?

Kronstam: You don't find new things in the ballets. You find new things in yourself, because it's yourself that changes.

I like the whole interview with Kronstam, but this comment really struck me today. It seems to imply a different attitude towards classic roles than many directors and performers take today, and a different attitude towards the permanence of the repertory -- it will still be there while you are changing. I have to mull this over.

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I think that was my favorite thing, of all he said in two years of interviews. It made me think, too. It was definitely key to his approach -- and how he could keep something fresh over 20 years. Many dancers have the same make up and set of face: this is James, or Albrecht, whether the person dancing him is 20 or 30 or 39-and-a-half. It was his approach to staging ballets, too (which I wish others would emulate!) The ballet was a Platonic Ballet. You didn't go in and rip it apart. You studied it, as you would a strange and wonderful new flower or seashell, until you understood it -- found the Platonic Ballet -- and then staged it. It would be revived by new dancers. It never changes, only the dancers change, and that makes it look new with every cast.

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I always liked the ballet from the first time I saw it. At the time, I think I grasped what Edwin Denby so beautifully described: "It gives you a sense--as Poe does--of losing your bearings, the feeling of an elastic sort of time and a heaving floor". At that first performance, way back then, I was delighted with the Bellini score and the fantastic gothic surrealist (is there such a thing?) headdresses and masks worn by the party guests. Danilova, Magallanes (later Franklin) and Tallchief danced the leads. Maria Tallchief is still my favorite coquette. She had the necessary dramatic persona for the part, and the sleepwalker was fully realised with Allegra Kent. I have seen quite a few poets over the years, but none that stand out. Kronstam understands the poet so well, I wish I could have seen him. However, someone mentioned Peter Boal----he is such an intelligent dancer I hope to see him.

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Thank you for that, atm, and a reminder of that beautiful Denby quote.

I only saw Allegra Kent once, at the end of her career, but for me, she was The One. I also liked Kirkland, who was so ephemeral she was a pair of shoes, a nightgown, a candle and a face. There was no body. But Kent was a person, a mystery with an implied past.

I wish I could have seen Danilova in this one. She's the one my friends (who also loved her "Raymonda") remember. All swear she picked the Poet up, carried him 'round the stage (which is true, I think; this has been dropped) AND up the steps in the tower AND all across the little bridge, or whatever it is.

From the photos, I would have liked to see Mona Vangsaae's Coquette. She was in the 1956 Danish production. She looks world-weary, and the seduction, and the danger, is under the surface. She matched my image of the sophisticated European mistress.

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I wish I could have seen Danilova in this one.  She's the one my friends (who also loved her "Raymonda") remember.  All swear she picked the Poet up, carried him 'round the stage (which is true, I think; this has been dropped) AND up the steps in the tower AND all across the little bridge, or whatever it is.

Memory can be tricky when it comes to performances. In her memoirs, Danilova wrote that many people remember her carrying the poet offstage while on pointe (imagine doing that! :sweating: ). Of course, she never did, but she was pleased that she had created that illusion.

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i've witnessed arguments -- jovial arguments -- among the Remembers, as to whether she made the trek across the bridge or not. I haven't heard the en pointe version, though (I remember readnig it in Danilova's book, though). Soon, we'll read she picked up the Poet herself..... I guess that's another qualification for Sleepwalker for me. I don't want to see a Sleepwalker who looks as though she COULD pick up the Poet herself.....

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The ballet was a Platonic Ballet.  You didn't go in and rip it apart.  You studied it, as you would a strange and wonderful new flower or seashell, until you understood it -- found the Platonic Ballet -- and then staged it.  It would be revived by new dancers.  It never changes, only the dancers change, and that makes it look new with every cast.

Oh dear -- this is so different than current attitudes. I love the idea of the Platonic ballet!

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That discussion is especially interesting for me, as I saw that ballet only once, a few years ago, and it was by the POB school- probably not a very suitable choice, as it's quite a dark and complicated story to be danced by young teen-agers! I wish it had entered the POB repertory instead (I wonder what people like Hilaire or Legris would have looked like as the Poet, for example).

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