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Is it possible to epitomise a role and drive it to perfection?


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#1 Ballet fan

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Posted 26 September 2009 - 03:45 PM

Fist let me start by saying that in no way I am denying Alina Cojocaru's great talent, nor is this a competition thread.

Giselle is a ballet that I adore, not only because its plot has a great deal of humanity and explores many interesting issues about redemption and regret, which are eternal companions of what a lot of people call "the human condition". Being from a country where ballet is rare and scarce, my exposition to this wonderful ballet came in very late.

My first Giselle was the Bolshoi video with Galina Ulanova. Needless to say I fell in love with her as a ballerina. The diaphanousness and truthfulness of every gesture and every step, helped create a character so real like very few I've seen on any performance. The way she rejects Hilarion, and makes clear through lovely mime that he heart belongs to another. Her mad scene was so moving because she makes the sheer, concentrated pain that Giselle feels so palpable.

The second act of Giselle was equally lovely through gorgeous line and extremely proficient and light footwork from Ulanova's part and expressive port de bras.

Now on to Cojocaru's performance.

Let me reiterate my initial disclaimer of not denying her talent, but even though Alina has a great physique for Giselle (she's extremely slender and tiny), I felt her Giselle was extremely childlike, if that makes any sense. It's not only Cojocaru's facial features, it's the whole package. Her Giselle was sooo innocent that one could hardly wonder why Albrecht chose her for his charade. A critic said that Cojocaru was able to make clear in her dancing how she hardly knows "Loys" and that she's becoming aware of blossoming sexual attraction. I did not see this. There's no denying that Cojocaru's dancing is technically impecable and expressive with everything you expect from a Royal Ballet principal, but I simply did not see that extra layer that only ballerinas like Ulanova (and let me mention Markova as well) can put to the role. In the mad scene, I thought Cojocaru overplayed a bit the "crazy" part. The mad scene requires less "crazy" and more "detachment". What I mean is that, in this particualr scene Giselle needs to convey a sense of so much pain that she slowly but surely detaches herself from the reality surrounding her and wants to return to the status quo of happiness that existed before the betrayal. It's easy to play this scene with more melodramatic flair, portraying Giselle like someone who never had a grasp of true reality in the first place, which I think goes against what the story is trying to convey. Her second act was very good, since she has such an airy jump , but her footwork needs a little improvement, so she can add a little bit of more sense of urgency to the fact that Myrtha will not relent to sparing Albrecht's life and she has to dance in his place to let him recover.

What made me write this very long thread is not only a desire to compare and contrast two performances exactly 50 years apart, but that were performed in exactly the same place, but also since I'm a great admirer of both the Bolshoi Ballet and Royal Ballet I read a lot of reviews not only from professional critics but from the public who are really wild balletomanes. It just bothered me that someone from ballet.co.uk would say that Alina Cojocaru's Giselle was so perfect that it would be a moot point to see anyone else in the role today, which I feel is tremendously unfair for other great ballerinas. And it raises a whole other issue of "perfection in art". I don't think perfection in a role can be achieved. There are always nuances to be discovered.

So the question I'm raising is: can anyone, such as a legendary dancer, be so perfect in a role that any other performances can be seen as inferior or is there always something new that a dancer can bring to a role even if it's centuries old?

I know that maybe my views on Cojocaru are a bit controversial, but it's just the way I feel after seeing her Giselle and Galina's. Mine is just one example among hundreds, but I'd love to hear other examples of many other roles and many different dancers.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 27 September 2009 - 06:29 AM

Ballet fan, you've posed an interesting question.


So the question I'm raising is: can anyone, such as a legendary dancer, be so perfect in a role that any other performances can be seen as inferior or is there always something new that a dancer can bring to a role even if it's centuries old?



I'd say yes and no. I remember a performance of MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" danced by Ferri and Bocca in DC in the 90s, I guess, that literally had the house screaming. Curtain call after curtain call. Three of the older critics here looked rather sad. They felt it did not come near to the standard of emotional depth -- similar to what you wrote asbout your two "Giselles" -- as Fonteyn and Nureyev in those roles. It wasn't nostalgia, and it wasn't "they're my faves and nobody else can do it better" (as is the usual accusation; sometimes that's true, but not always). It was a sadness that something was gone, and that, for that performance, a new "standard" was being formed that, they felt, was far below the old. (I never saw F&N do R&J live, but I took their point. The performance that night had certainly been exciting, but not more.)

On the other hand, the first "Swan Lake" I ever saw was Nureyev's (with Monica Mason, whom I admired in other roles :) ). I thought it perfection. It was everything I'd read about the ballet, and everything I'd read about Nureyev. And the next night was Anthony Dowell with Makarova, and although Dowell was totally different, I thought him equal in every way. It was a good lesson to learn one's first season in ballet.

And then there are created roles. There have been roles so identified with performers that the audience won't stand an interloper -- Baryshnikov in "Push Comes to Shove" for years, Farrell in many roles. (I'm using past examples because I can't think of a ballet created in the past 25 years with iconic roles.) Modern dance, the same. Every time a dancer left "Esplanade" he or she took something, and I still miss Ruth Andrien, Carolyn Adams, Nicholas Gunn and Eli Chaib. Each had one particular quality -- force, lightness, anger -- that their successors haven't.

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 27 September 2009 - 08:14 AM

So the question I'm raising is: can anyone, such as a legendary dancer, be so perfect in a role that any other performances can be seen as inferior or is there always something new that a dancer can bring to a role even if it's centuries old?



Ballet fan, you've posed an interesting question.


This IS a good question, and partially because we want to be sentimental about our favourite dancers and close off the possibility that someone else could even be a candidate. And aside from the dancer, we want to see something ultimate, which may be why we fixate on the dancer--s/he seems to have captured that 'ultimate', and we don't even really want to entertain the possibility that s/he could be equalled or surpassed.

And the question is phrased perfectly, because the answer is obvious, even though we resist it. There IS always something new a dancer can bring to a role either 'centuries old' or 'epitomized' by another 'legend'. Of course, it's a bit more subtle, because even if a dancer does bring something new, it doesn't necessarily follow that the old 'idealized' one is 'inferior'. That one is always going to be treasured.

It's also that ballets made for a dancer retired, but still living, are harder to see someone else do if you have a strong attachment to the original--say, all the original Balanchine dancers in 'Jewels', especially 'Diamonds' perhaps. But when they're gone, as all the original Petipa Swans and Beauties are, we already did make the transition away from the original performance to 'ideal Odettes' and 'ideal Auroras' in the late 20th century. I don't see how Sizova's Aurora can be improved upon, but part of that is that I am so fond of it I don't want to. I hadn't thought ot it this way before, and that part I have to be aware of--and get over, because it's not really a meaningful perception.

#4 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 27 September 2009 - 09:14 AM

I don't see how Sizova's Aurora can be improved upon


It can't, Patrick...it can't..

#5 Fraildove

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Posted 27 September 2009 - 05:32 PM

Having Mme. Sizova teach me the 3rd act wedding variation was and remains to this day the highlight of my ballet career. Even in the studio, dressed in a button down blouse, pants and teaching sandles, she was still princess aurora reincarnated!!! It was humbling and inspiring all at the same time.

This is a very interesting conversation. Funny that Cojocaru and Ulamova started this whole thread. I would have to say my opinion of the two are opposite. I have never liked Ulanova in Giselle, and were I to be completly honest, I have never seen a ballerina who became her completly (I think Gelsey Kirkland was probably incredible in this role, but sadly that was before my time and I have never seen a video of her complete Giselle. I would love to hear from anyone who saw her dance this role. If her 1st act variation is any hint I can only imagine how moving the rest must be!) that is until I saw Cojocaru. Granted I have never seen her live, but she is exactly what my mind envisioned from her physical appearance to her dancing. I have never cried in a mad scene until I watched her. My heart was breaking for her. For me, I can't imagine any other dancer give a more perfect rendition.

I guess that as everyone has their own personality what works for one can be completly opposite for another. I can't imagine giving up hope that the role could be danced better, but every time I see Giselle I will be mentaly comparing. Hope this makes some sense!!!

#6 LiLing

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Posted 28 September 2009 - 11:37 AM

Fraildove,
I did see Kirkland, and I'm afraid I am not capable of the verbal poetry necessary to describe her Giselle. All I can say is, it was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in the theatre. I was emotionally drained, and haunted by it for days after.
I have seen many highly acclaimed Giselles since Kirkland, and have never experienced one that matched that experience for me, although I don't like comparing dancers, and try to value each for what they bring to a role.

On the question of definitive performances though, I think there are two points to consider. First of all, no two performances by a dancer are exactly the same. Some make notable changes in their approach when they go back to a role in future seasons. Different partners will elicit different responses. Tempos are not exactly the same every night, even with the same conductor. Many dancers deepen their interpretations of roles as they mature and accumulate more life experience. Therefore, the performance you saw is not necessarily the one someone else saw, unless you are talking about a video.
Secondly, we all experience works of art differently, depending on what we bring to them. If one is old enough to revisit a novel, painting or ballet you loved in your salad days, and don't find it satisfying in your present state of mature sophistication, or now "get" one you didn't when younger, you know what I mean! :wub:

So, I say let us treasure memories of great performances, but keep an open mind, we might be in for some suprises.

#7 MakarovaFan

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Posted 30 September 2009 - 08:38 AM

This is a great topic, ballet fan.

In my opinion, no male dancer has done more for the role of Spartacus in Grigorovich's production than Vladimir Vasiliev. It's a flawed ballet to be sure, but Vasiliev's riveting immersion in his part and the coupling of virile, commanding presence with Spartacus's humanity and frailties is so much more than any other dancer I've seen.
And, or course, his technique is gasp-provoking.

Margot Fonteyn's Aurora is legendary. She doesn't have the extensions or jumps or later dancers like Sizova and Cojacaru, but Fonteyn's youthful radiance seizes one's heart and doesn't let go.

One more thing about Spartacus. In ballet of today, and this may be controversial on the board, the youtube footage I've seen of Svetlana Zakharova dancing Aegina is superb. I once thought she had no acting ability, but Aegina proved me wrong. She was a sexy, authoritive Lady Macbeth of the Roman age; Timofeyeva paled in comparison. For me, Zakharova owns the part of Aegina.

#8 duffster

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Posted 30 September 2009 - 07:45 PM

Still, to this day, I remember a performance of Fall River Legend, so powerfully danced by Sallie Wilson. It really shook me and gave me the chills. For me, she truly epitomised that role.

#9 richard53dog

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 04:27 AM

So, I say let us treasure memories of great performances, but keep an open mind, we might be in for some suprises.



In a nutshell, this is how I feel about this issue. You never know when you will encounter the next great performance and it helps to be open minded enough to meet it.

#10 Nanarina

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 09:02 AM

:) They are srill waiting in the wings, the Stars of the Future, that have learnt from the famous Stars of the Past, ready to put their own interpretation on the roles we all love and appreciate.

#11 papeetepatrick

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 09:56 AM

Still, to this day, I remember a performance of Fall River Legend, so powerfully danced by Sallie Wilson. It really shook me and gave me the chills. For me, she truly epitomised that role.


Was she the original Lizzie? I never saw her in anything, but she was Elizabeth in the Graham 'Episodes', I think miliosr had mentioned her. We had also discussed 'Fall River Legend' and a lot of people talked about seeing it over the years. but most not too excited about it in, say, the last 30 or so years. I had seen the Dance theater of Harlem's production and had not thought it was as menacing as I had expected it to be.

#12 Farrell Fan

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:57 AM

Sallie Wilson was a great dramatic ballerina and a Tudor specialist. She also made news once by pouring a scotch-on-the-rocks on Clive Barnes's head. It's sad to think they're both gone now.

#13 dirac

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:58 AM

Alicia Alonso was the original Accused, although I understand Nora Kaye was terrific in it.

#14 LiLing

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 03:44 PM

Fall River Legend was actually choreographed on Nora Kaye, but she was ill or injured, and so Alonso danced Lizzie in the premiere. Kaye came back to make lizzie one of her signature roles.

#15 innopac

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 02:21 AM

Is it possible to epitomise a role and drive it to perfection?

Yes, Maximova in Anyuta.


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