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Which dancers in Theme were your favorites?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 10:45 AM

We've been talking about "Theme and Variations" a lot here. I thought it might be interesting to find out which past performances of "Theme" you treasure, which formed your opinion of the ballet?

I saw many more performances of the ABT "Theme" than the NYCB "Theme." I saw NYCB do it the first season I saw ballet, but I have no memory of who I saw (blush). When I saw the ballet again in New York, it was danced by Heather Watts, whom I didn't think particularly suited the role. I also saw Ashley and Farrell, who were very different, of course, but both perfectly suited to it.

"Theme" was in ABT's rep consistently throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I can't remember (double blush) if I saw Makarova in it -- surely she must have done it. I remember Kirkland the most clearly. She was about 21 or 22 and was extraordinary -- technique, atmosphere, presence, the whole nine yards, as it were. She seemed so frail, but didn't dance frail. Croce's "porcelain-coated steel" comes to mind. While she was not a warm performer -- no grins, no eye contact with the audience -- she was an extremely vulnerable one; the warmth was to her partner, and shown through her body.

I have vague memories of Van Hamel (whom I usually loved in everything) and Cynthia Gregory, but the clear one is of Kirkland.

During the late 1970s, when the company got the full-length Sleeping Beauty, Theme seemed to be demoted, relegated to Saturday matinees and given to soloists as (it seemed) a consolation prize for not getting the real thing. I saw some performances in that vein that I wish I could forget. But one good one stands out for me -- Kristine Elliot, a small blonde dancer with an unfashionable line (she was more Fonteyn than Makarova) who was very regal and very musical.

Later, in Copenhagen, I saw Rose Gad, an extremely musical dancer who phrased her dancing beautifully. Another "exotic" version of the ballet that I liked immensely was the Kirov's production which was shown in D.C. about 10 years ago with Asylmuratova. A colleague said at the time that she was more orchid than rose, which was true, but I still liked her. After years of seeing ABT's kiddie version, it was good to see a grown up one again. (I should say, too, that Theme has looked better at ABT in recent years; no longer a "kiddie version." I'm very sorry I missed Gillian Murphy's performance; I've heard so many good things about it. And during McKenzie's first years as director, I thought McKerrow very good as well.

I also saw Eleanor D'Antuono a lot. There were some who said she was very like Alonso, and others, overhearing that, who reached for their (metaphorical) knives.

Of the men, I especially remember Fernando Bujones. Not, perhaps, the most princely partner, but quite impressive and powerful in the flying ronds de jambe and double tours.

But then I saw an old film clip of Youskevitch, and I have never seen anyone dance with such power, in this or any other ballet. Those air turns were up and down with the speed, force and steadiness of a jackhammer.

I didn't realize, when I started this post, how many Theme casts I'd seen. A role that can provide fine performances from an Alonso and a Farrell -- and an Asylmuratova, Kirkland, McKerrow, Ashley and Van Hamel -- surely ranks as a classic -- one for the time capsule smile.gif

#2 Melissa

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 11:20 AM

Last Summer I saw Theme at ABT starring Paloma Herrera. Technically she was excellent, but aside from that she's didn't do much for me. To me she's bland. It's such a hair raising ballet -- just one treacherous and marvelous thing after another. I was very impressed by the corps' performance.

The only other Theme I've seen was at NYCB's televised Balanchine Celebration about 10 years ago with Darci Kistler and Igor Zelensky. He was very good, but looked like the last place in the world he wanted to be was on that stage.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 11:25 AM

My training in New York coincided in the 80's coincided with the period when it was primarily Ashley's ballet (I think she alternated with Nichols, but I may be wrong.) I'm sure her take on the ballet (and Croce's writing, as well, which firmly places it as an allegro ballet) formed my own interpretation of it.

In her allegro roles, Ashley was Diana the Huntress or the Virtuoso Triumphant. Even more telling to those of us training (especially if you had read her biography) she represented the triumph of the Good Student - the basic story line of the biography. Ashley's method of trying to control or understand her career was to work harder at doing things better. I still have a real respect for the Good Student in a ballet like Theme because I don't regard it as "holy" like Mary remarked. I regard Theme rather like Croce wrote, as one of the "Tchaikovsky Gut-Crunchers", a test of the dancer's mettle, a reason I feel much more kind to Stafford's performance than most. I saw Kistler (for me, the major Balanchine ballerina of my viewing years to date) do the ballet for several years; I love her, but it was one of those ballets she was wildly inconsistent in. On a bad night, it was not pretty.

Miranda Weese is not a Good Student, she is a Virtuoso Triumphant, and I have enjoyed her performances in the role very much. She's not a textbook classicist, but I happen to like that on her. She dances very much in the moment; if something isn't perfectly placed, it's because she's thinking more about the performance itself than about her lines. She pairs very well with Damian Woetzel in this ballet, who is probably the man I've seen most in the role. At this point, I think he's done the ballet so many times you can see him creating impromptu difficulties for himself (single pirouettes alternating with doubles at the Sat. Eve performance, for instance) just to keep his interest from flagging. It is a bit amazing to me to think of that level of facility being so natural that it becomes boring. It's beyond my ken!

#4 cargill

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 02:09 PM

The first time I saw it, van Hamel was dancing, and that is one of my unforgettable experiences, though I am ashamed to say I don't remember who she danced with. Kistler, not surprizingly, since she was such a radiant Aurora, glowed. I was not fond of Ashley in it, since I was constantly aware of how hard the steps were. I have very fond memories of Judith Fugate dancing with Peter Boal, and being so moved by their pas de deux. Not surprisingly, I also LOVED her Aurora. I don't much like ABT's production with its cutsy costumes and black backdrop I would crawl to see Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes dance it. She was so regal with an underlying warmth, and he danced with such graceful power. I have only seen Youskevitch dance it on film, and he is one of my time travel if only's.

#5 Manhattnik

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 02:53 PM

I recall Van Hamel doing a bang-up job on Theme with Kevin McKenzie. Not surprisingly, it's her adagio that really sticks in my mind, soft, glowing, regal all at once. She tends to be one of my favorites in any role in which I've seen her dance.

Honestly, though, it's hard for me to put anyone above, or even on a par with, Gelsey Kirkland's best performances. I can't add much to what Alexandra's said. Her technique was so astonishing, it was almost beyond technique, if I can be forgiven for such a hyperbolic cliche.

Speaking of Gelsey and Theme, I remember reading in Dancing on my Grave how she stood up to Lucia Chase and insisted on dancing the solo that Balanchine had made on her when he revived Theme in 1970, before Gelsey jumped ship. Imagine my surprise when I checked out the clandestinely made films of Gelsey's 1974/5 Theme at the Dance Research Collection to see her dance -- the Alonso solo. Go figure.

And, although it's often mentioned (by Gelsey, for example) as an unsuccessful try by Baryshnikov, I think he was just fine -- perhaps trying a bit too hard to be Mr. Classical in places, but he was so darn good at it. And he would make sure to follow the double ronde de jambes en l'air saute with an assemble to a nice, clean fifth, instead of the rather sloppy failli everyone does now.

At City Ballet, well, I adored Ashley. I didn't think she made the steps look hard -- she made them look bigger and clearer and grander, even the most rapid-fire allegro (no, I'm not getting into those gargouillades again).

I'll never forget Alexander Godunov's debut at ABT in Theme, with Cynthia Gregory (who was as you'd imagine -- strong, imperious, strong, magisterial, did I mention strong?). He made it through more or less, but by the time the finale came along he had a distinctly "What the heck am I doing here?" look on his face.

At NYCB, of course it's Miranda Weese's role now, although I'd love to see Somogyi try it, or Meunier (has Monique done it?). I've already sounded off about Stafford, so I'll remain mum there. Oh, I would pay good money to see Ashley Bouder get Theme.

Looking back, I'd like to put in a kind word for Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson in Theme. McBride was no slouch in the allegro, with her inimitable verve and impetuosity, and perhaps less grand than glamorous in the adagio. And I've never seen anyone handle the big turning solo like Helgi -- double tour to the right, entrechat quartre, double tour to the left, etc., etc. Elegant, a bit understated, yet damn impressive nontheless.

I am sad I don't remember much of Farrell, and quite relieved to be able to say the same about Watts.

Of the current crop at ABT, well, none moved me very much, among the women. I do agree that Gomes looks to the manner born.

[ January 24, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]



#6 dirac

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 02:59 PM

I remember reading somewhere that Makarova did do it. I have nothing interesting to add here, but I do have a query -- I understand Nureyev once had a try. Did anyone see him?

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 04:35 PM

I didn't see Nureyev -- before my time. I believe he only did it twice, very soon after he defected, with the Ruth Page company. There's a story -- perhaps in the John Percival biography? -- that is a stunning slice-of-Soviet-life. ABT came to Leningrad and Nureyev was sent out of town so that he couldn't mix with the foreign devils. He was very upset because he couldn't see the repertory, especially Theme. He asked a friend to film the performance for him. Film was either very expensive, or very scarce, or both, so Friend watched the ballet first, before trying to shoot it, and then filmed it, but stopped the camera at repeats -- i.e., he only filmed one of the double tours. So Nureyev didn't know how many there were until very shortly before he had to go on and was, um, surprised!!!

#8 Melissa

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 04:38 PM

Cargill & Manhattanik,

It was Gomes I saw dance Theme with Herrera and he was wonderful -- elegant and stong as could be.

#9 Estelle

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 05:46 PM

"Theme and variations" was the first ballet I saw at the Paris Opera. It was in the summer of 1993, it had just entered the POB's repertory, and was in a program also including Robbins'"Moves" and "The Concert". It was the first work of the program, and was danced by Isabelle Guérin and Laurent Hilaire- but unfortunately, I remember very little of it, because of the circumstances (being for the first time in the Opéra Garnier, trying to regain my breath after having run from the metro station to the third floor because we were late, and also trying not to think too much of the not very successful oral exam of physics I had had in the afternoon at the Ecole Polytechnique...).

Unfortunately, it hasn't been danced much at the Paris Opera since then. I saw it two other times, once in a lovely "Balanchine/ Tchaikovsky" program, and once in a tour to Montpellier. I can't manage to remember the casts right now, one of them was Legris/ Arbo, but I don't remember the other one (Legris/ Guérin or Hilaire/ Arbo). Since it was years apart, it's difficult to compare. I wish they could dance it again (but unfortunately, I wonder which of the current POB dancers would be
good in it- perhaps Dupont?)

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 06:34 PM

For me the first one that comes to mind is Clairemarie Osta.

#11 Estelle

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 07:06 PM

Thanks to google, I managed to find an old alt.arts.ballet post of mine, and so in Montpellier it was Hilaire and Arbo (and Osta was a demi-soloist).

Leigh, you're right about Osta, so far she's always been excellent in the Balanchine repertory. However, the direction doesn't seem to appreciate her much, and I'm afraid she's not very likely to be given such a role if they dance it again. frown.gif

#12 britomart

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Posted 24 January 2002 - 10:47 PM

This is a great topic, especially for the memories it revives! Like several of you, my "vision" of Theme was formed by Gelsey Kirkland, but unfortuntately I only saw her on video. How many times I watched that "Dance in America" series video of her and Barishnikov at the Performing Arts Library in NYC. There is one moment especially that I remember, early in the pas, where the couple is doing the low, carried saut de chat lifts downstage from side to side. In all of the live performances I have seen, the ballerina either looks directly ahead or at the audience, but Gelsey looked at her partner, giving the moment a delicious intimacy. I find the pas so oddly romantic. It's as though now that both partners have displyed their public faces, or technical sides--balletically speaking--we are given a moment of insight into a connection so briefly glimpsed at the very beginning of the ballet. That's the genius of Balanchine though, isn't it--the attention to form, detail and technique while simultaneously managing to encompass something much more emotionally profound. As to others in Theme, I have to admit they've been few and far between in terms of impression. Of those I've seen live, the two who left a lasting impression were Cynthia Harvey, for her crystalline,technical brilliance and Miranda Weese for her musical fearlessness and absolute commitment to the energy the role demands. As for men, I've seen Damian do it several times, and while it probably takes all the effort of a shower for him, he's never disappointed me, and Angel Corella did a beautiful job with it the last time I saw it performed at ABT.

[ January 24, 2002: Message edited by: britomart ]



#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 25 January 2002 - 12:02 AM

Just to be contrary, I'm going to make the deep, dark (and HIGHLY minority) confession that I am probably one of the three people on earth (the others probably being Heather Watts and Peter Martins biggrin.gif ) who watched that video and was not taken by it. To me, it seemed Kirkland was modelling the role on Giselle, when I wanted to see an Aurora. It was just too unwarrentedly tragic for my tastes.

There, I've confessed it. The stoning may commence.

#14 liebs

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Posted 25 January 2002 - 12:08 AM

The only ABT dancer I remember seeing in Theme was Harvey with Bissell. It closed the program on one dismal Sat matinee at the Met and made the whole experience worthwhile.

At NYCB, I've seen McBride, Farrell, Nichols, Watts, Kistler and Ashley with a variety of partners. I vividly remember seeing Nichols and Lavery at an open rehearsal just prior to their debut and then seeing the debut performance. Lavery was wonderful in the role, I especially remember the pirouette series.

#15 Manhattnik

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Posted 25 January 2002 - 12:39 PM

There, I've confessed it. The stoning may commence.

Go to the Dance Collection and look at those clandestine Kirkland films. Even though they're silent, they are a much better record of Kirkland at her best in Theme than the video to which you refer.


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