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Ballet 101, 2018-19 edition

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PNB has presented a wide variety of audience education programming, starting with the Stowell/Russell years, and increasing with Peter Boal's directorship.  Last year they folded most of their independent offerings (not attached to a specific performance like pre and post show talks) into a series under the title Ballet 101, which included some fantastic material.  (the session on "The Business of Ballet" was especially great -- I posted some over-long notes about it earlier in this forum).

This season they're continuing with this format, and have announced all the topics for their series.  Like last year, they have both lecture and studio demonstration events, some keyed to specific programs and some more general.  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens!

#1 Dressing the Dance: Costumes & Wardrobe at PNB
Tuesday, October 9 October 23, 7:00 pm (changed date, see next post)
PNB boasts one of the most highly-regarded costume shops in the country. Learn what goes into building and maintaining the many costumes (and more) in the PNB repertory during this panel discussion featuring Costume Shop Manager Larae Theige Hascall and her team of artists.

#2 Ballet Basics: Ballet in Form – Online Dance Education Resources
Saturday, November 17, 3:00 pm
Discover more about ballet technique and instruction in our latest Ballet Basics session, a studio presentation by PNB School faculty member and former PNB Company soloist Marisa Albee, founder and producer of Ballet in Form, the first educational website from the professional ballet world. Ms. Albee will be joined by fellow faculty member and former New York City Ballet dancer Dana Hanson, with Professional Division students of PNB School.

#3 Ballet Classics: The Sleeping Beauty Fairy Variations
Saturday, January 19, 3:00 pm
The six solos choreographed by Marius Petipa for Princess Aurora’s godmothers in the prologue of his 1892 Sleeping Beauty are a study in symbolism, structure, musicality, and pointe work. Dance historian and PNB Audience Education Manager Doug Fullington will lead this studio presentation featuring PNB School Professional Division students dancing Petipa’s original choreography for these solos.

#4 Music at PNB: The PNB Orchestra, Conductors & Pianists
Tuesday, April 2, 7:00 pm
The New York Times has dubbed the PNB Orchestra “the best ballet band in America.” Meet the team that heads up music at PNB in this panel discussion including Music Director and Principal Conductor Emil de Cou with members of the PNB music staff and orchestra.


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Last night was the "Music at PNB: The PNB Orchestra, Conductors & Pianists, with Doug Fullington moderating the panel of:

  • Emil de Cou, Music Director & Principal Conductor
  • Rodger Burnett, Principal Horn & Orchestra Personnel Manager
  • Mona Butler, Principal Bassoon & Orchestra Librarian
  • Christina Siemens, Principal Company Pianist

It was a truly amazing and enlightening evening, with so much description and history packed into two hours that went by in a flash.

I knew that the orchestra players in Seattle had their own union and that they broke off a major national union which main represented musical theater and other commercial musicians, not primarily orchestra players.  I also remember that cellist David Sabee spoke about having a recording studio and working on film scores with other Seattle musicians in a Seattle Chamber Players Q&A.  I had no idea that the split was precipitated by Seattle Symphony, which wanted to make recordings, and that this union arrangement is what makes Washington State able to be uniquely competitive price-wise with Europe for recording film scores in the US.  

When I moved to Seattle, I thought that the Symphony, Opera, and Ballet shared an orchestra -- they all performed at the Opera House before Benaroya Hall was built for the Seattle Symphony -- but I came to learn that Symphony and Opera shared players, but PNB had to form its own orchestra when Seattle Symphony wanted to focus on its own rep.  

Burnett, Butler, and de Cou described the audition process, consisting of one blind round and then a second, face-to-face round, how they had recently hired Principal Trumpet -- Burnett said that the Principal Trumpet is often the leader of the brass -- and Flautist, one found on first try and another taking more auditions over a longer time, and the intricacies of working around leaves of absences and mandatory rules for replacing players.  de Cou said that kids often come down to the pit during Nutcracker intermission and chat with the musicians over the barrier.  He said that now girls can look in and see a woman who plays the trumpet (Sarah Viens) and envision that for themselves.  

Christina Siemens had a very different audition process, trial-by-fire and trying to keep up and keep the beat, and then hired first as an hourly pianist and then becoming a full-time staff member a few years later.  She described having to try to convey the orchestra and sometimes a soloist only having a piano and two hands.  One thing she said was key is learning the choreography and another was not being tied to tempi from the beginning of the rehearsal process, since it changes over time.  

Siemens also is a wonderful singer, and she was featured on stage in Kyle Davis' hour-length ballet "A Dark and Lonely Space."  She talked about how the stagehands had her back and made her platform really comfortable for her.  There was kudos for Mark Morris when he made Kammermusik for the company, because he knew exactly where in the score he was and where they should be. 

During Nutcracker season, a great attraction are the Christmas lights that players use to adorn the music stands, each with light figures that express an interest or something important to them, and that there's a foot switch for each group of lights.  Burnett said that he was responsible for calling "lights" in the pit.  Butler described how there is a Big Hair night during the Nutcracker, but those without big hair wear Santa hats, and she showed a photo of herself with herself with her fellow bassoonist  and stand-mate (Dana Jackson) all hatted out.  Butler also said that Jackson had been in youth orchestras with her daughters, and I think it was Burnett who said that Viens was originally from Tacoma, and, if I'm remembering correctly, Principal Violist Alexander Grimes is from Seattle, too.  (He was the violist onstage for Cacti last Fall.)  We don't get to see into the pit the way we can keep track of Seattle Symphony musicians on stage, so it was great to hear about some of the younger musicians with ties to the area.  I apologize for stumbling: I didn't take notes, because the presentation was too engaging.

I knew that de Cou conducted for the American Symphony Orchestra in DC, but it had gone right over my head that he conducted for Suzanne Farrell Ballet.  He said it was working for Farrell that he realized how much he missed conducting for ballet, having conducted for San Francisco Ballet before moving to DC. (I remember hearing him speak in a pre-performance talk at SFB when I did a lot of work in the Bay Area.)  I was astonished that a full-length ballet gets only six hours of rehearsal, and a one-act gets about 2.5 hours.  That sounds like such a short amount of time, especially when there's so much new work and difficult scores.   Everyone learns their part before coming to those rehearsals, which, according to Burnett, are generally the Tuesday before the Thursday dress.

Burnett spoke about his responsibility as Orchestra Personnel Manager both in terms of finding replacements and holding auditions and in finding extra musicians where needed.  No place is it needed more than in Nutcracker, and he said that no two shows had the exact same musicians.  He also described how some musicians could not make it in for Sleeping Beauty because of the snow this winter -- PNB did not cancel shows -- and he had to find very last minute replacements. 

As Orchestra Librarian, Butler is responsible for securing rights and scores and for preparing the individual scores, including getting the bowing from the concertmaster and making sure all of the string scores are updated with them.  That in itself sounds like a full-time job, especially given how complex and changing copyright laws are, in the US and internationally -- for example, Prokofiev was treated as in the public domain during Soviet times, since the US and Soviet Union didn't recognize each other's copyright, but then became under copyright (and the Prokofiev family) post-Glasnost.  Butler explained different kinds of rights schemes, and how one that is prevalent in Europe doesn't work in the US, especially if companies want to do works more than once.  Also younger choreographers tend to pick scores where the expectation of the rights holders is based on commercial use.  So there's a lot of back and forth so that the choreographers can use the music they choose. And then there's the issue that a lot of film scores were destroyed to make room in studio archives, and that sometimes music has to be transcribed from recordings, like the Toussaint score for Tharp's "Waiting for the Station."

Nutcracker was a recurring theme, and of all of the music that the orchestra plays, and how often the musicians play it, it was listed as a very difficult piece where musicians have to be on their toes throughout.  At the end there was a small slide show, in which we were treated to photos of some really wonderful-looking food created by the musicians for each other and also some pages of scores, annotated with musical and non-musical content, including a New Yorker cartoon in the middle of one page.  Butler is responsible for removing all of the added decor before she sends back scores, and, in answer to an audience member's question, yes, she does have to use an eraser.  Doug Fullington added that the original Giselle score was also adorned, and that the little drawings were not always flattering.  At one point, he said that Christina Siemens was being overly modest.  (Pot. Kettle. Black.)

This is just bits and pieces of what was discussed.  It was such a warm and interactive discussion, and I wish it had been recorded as a podcast.  And if anyone was also there, and I've misstated anything, please correct me.

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I had another obligation last night, and so could not go to this -- thank you so much for these notes.

I wish that the company would revive the Morris "Kammermusik."  I remember some really interesting moments from it, even after all this time.

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