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Although last night’s “Swan Lake” at the Aronoff Center was a massive collaboration involving Cincinnati Ballet, BalletMet Columbus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, two dancers at the heart of the story made it come to life for me.
The first moment Patric Palkins as Prince Siegfried bounded onstage, he personified a very young man unsure of anything in life, but most of all sure he had not met the love of his life. After finally meeting her in the admittedly strange form of an enchanted swan/woman (Janessa Touchet), the devotion of each to the other was complete.
Okay, there is one major bump in the road, when the Prince is fooled into thinking Odile (also played by Touchet), daughter of the evil Von Rothbart (Zack Grubbs), is the One, but in the end love triumphs, even if it’s in the form of a so-called apotheosis where the two are united not on earth but in heaven. Unfortunately, I was denied this last glimpse of the lovers, since the set was constructed so that a large clump of hanging branch blocked my view from the right balcony.
But be that as it may . . .
It’s hard enough to take in this ballet, there’s always so much going on, that having a through line, as they say, in the form of the lead dancers is essential.
This was Touchet’s third time in the role, and she’s said this will probably be her last time doing the ballet. I sincerely hope not. But even more touching was Palken’s debut in a full-length “Swan Lake.” This talented fellow was recently promoted from the corps to a senior soloist, and it’s easy to see why. Though he had opportunities to show his ability to get into the air and seem to hover there, he also had plenty to do just displaying Touchet, whose Swan Queen is definitely the star of the show.
Every partnership is different. This had extra interest because Palkens is younger than Touchet (well at, least in ballet terms. They both seem very young to me!). The tenderness and care with which he related to her gave the story a resonance I appreciated. His dismay at being fooled into pledging his troth to an imposter was poignant, as were the final embraces of the lovers as Von Rothbart continues to force them apart.
I’ve come to think that sometimes I bring as much to the show as the dancers. This time, I did actually experience this ballet as a tragic love story between two soul mates, and for whatever reasons – including choreography, staging, dancing, music – it moved me greatly. Can’t ask for more.
Here’s the link to my newest feature for Cincinnati CityBeat:
Recently, I wrote a Fall Arts Preview in dance for Cincinnati CityBeat (the alternative paper here in town). It’s worth noting that for 2013-14, the company’s first production, “The Kaplan New Works” series again has featured three women choreographers (Jodi Gates, Heather Britt and Gina Patterson). For the 2012-13 season, Cincinnati ranked first on the list, with seven women against sixteen total for the entire remainder of the list. Just do the math!
For the rest of 2013-14, Victoria Morgan’s “Frisch’s presents The Nutcracker,” and the world premiere “King Arthur’s Camelot,” join Cincinnati Ballet & Over the Rhine (Jodi Gates again). Only four women total, but two of them have work presented twice!
Photo by Peter Mueller.
Recently I asked choreographers on the same bill (the upcoming Cincinnati Ballet Kaplan New Works, opening next Thursday, 9/12/13, at the Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Studio) questions: where they got inspiration for their work, and how doing a piece with quick lead and rehearsal time for a small venue stretched their choreographic chops. I asked them about their style and their music, and how music drove their movement. The resulting article appeared August 21, 2013, in CityBeat’s “Fall Arts Preview”: http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-28412-cincinnati_ballet_rings_in_50.html
The one choreographer I was not able to speak with personally (James Kudelka) recently responded through his agent with answers to questions I emailed him, trying to replicate the things I asked Heather Britt, Jodi Gates, Gina Patterson and Val Caniparoli about their “new works.” By popular demand, his contribution to the series, “The Man in Black” is appearing for the second time during the New Works series in Cincinnati, so it’s the exception to the rule in this case, but no less fascinating to hear about.
Below, in his own words, Kudelka talks about the evolution of the “The Man in Black,” how he decided to have his cast perform in cowboy boots, how the music (Johnny Cash covers) influenced his work. [The covers are: : In My Life, Four Strong Winds, Sam Hall, If You Could Read My Mind, Hurt, and Further On Up the Road.] He explains his own evolution as a native Canadian choreographer, and offers, even though his own work doesn’t always fit easily into that category, his take on ballet in our time. My queries are in italics.
I was asked by [former BalletMet Columbus Artistic Director] Gerard Charles to do a work to a ‘popular music’ score. I asked Gerard to suggest some music. Johnny Cash was on the list, and his albums would have been ones that were played in my house as a child by my older brothers. I had also recently seen the film Walk the Line which made an impression on me. But I mostly thought it was prison music.
It didn’t take long to find the later American albums through another choreographer who mentioned the covers to me on those recordings. I was asked for 20 minutes of dancing, which translated into my having to find about 6 suitable pieces to make a suite of songs. That was a challenge since most of what I liked was not upbeat and getting an order that worked took some trial and error. There needed to be flow without it seeming like everything was slow.
“Four Strong Winds” was originally recorded by Ian and Sylvia Tyson when then were still together. I was very young when I first heard that. Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian icon. His “If You Could Read My Mind” has always been a favourite song from way back. Sam Hall is the only upbeat piece. I had never knowingly heard any Trent Reznor before then.
The dance was made quickly, in fact was made on the dancers left behind while the rest of BalletMet Columbus was in Cincinnati doing “Swan Lake” that year. I did one song a day on one cast over five days. The final song was done some months later.
I have no issue with spaces, though some dances are more appropriate for some venues more than others. “The Man in Black” does well in intimate rather than spacious theatres.
Your piece is so different (cowboy boots, etc.) that it might be interesting to hear where you think it fits into the arc of your choreographic career and perhaps ballet rep in general. Is this ballet? Why?
I would be the first to say now, that though I trained as a ballet dancer, that I use ballet but I don’t make ballets, whatever they are, and that is usually in the mind of the viewer and their expectations and history with the form. Ballet is my main dance medium for me to make theatrical work. Sometimes the dances will actually look like ballets, but I don’t have the gene that allows me exploit the limitations of ballet and make it into something incredibly unique, as a Balanchine or a William Forsythe (who to me was at one time, perhaps not now, his natural successor).
I work with many kinds of dancers and early on it became clear to me that working with what is in front of you is what is most important as opposed to wishing that there was another group of dancers of different training or ability. For me, the dancers in the room deeply inform the process, getting the seed of the frail ideas at the beginning of creating a ballet to germinate. I think this working method is what makes it possible to make ballets for different organizations of differing strengths and avoid the trap of doing your one ballet on different companies. That there are some pieces that transcend the original cast is fortunate but not always possible. Fortunately MiB is one that with a certain amount of rehearsal and explanation can make the voyage from place to place, company to company and dancer to dancer.
You can go back to Michel Fokine’s writing and he says it is only important that the choreography support the idea and he did not do all of his dances on pointe. When I tried to imagine working to the Cash songs with flat shoes and pointe shoes it seemed I needed to find another way. Putting them all in the boots created a movement texture. It made all the walking in the dance, and there is a lot of simple walking, important because the body’s structure in a raised heel is so different. The boots created sounds, and those sounds could be exploited. They also created the ability to glide and slide. The silhouette is sexy. The weight is shifted. The universe is now about the dance and not ballet. So it isn’t ballet.
But ballet is great training. And it has integrity and discipline and architecture and all that and moreover is very useful as it evolves to create new forms. And I like that. I have spent a lot of time with contemporary trained dancers. In the 80s I worked with Graham and Limon trained performers and, following in the footsteps of Glen Tetley and Lar Lubovitch whom I admire, I morphed modern dance into ballet dancing into my own . . . the spiral in particular, the weightedness rather than the lightness of classical technique. A more open torso and generous carriage of the arms, attached to crisp legwork and long lines through the whole of the body. Dancing that is not as upright as much ballet training and dancing has become in our time.
I try not to question my methods and decisions too much, and therefore I try not to judge them in the aftermath. The important thing for me is to keep myself on the edge of my knowledge so I have to learn more. MiB is one of many pieces I have made and I am glad that they are all different from each other. These kinds of works, song cycles, are necessarily episodic and I lately have leaned towards longer musical statements that ask for deeper research and extended moments in time. I am not much one for recent trends in mash ups, using many different composers music within one dance.
How you think, if you do, fit into a Canadian sensibility?
Not for me to say. Perhaps at one time I did but Canada is a country that is changing a lot, some things for the good and some things not so great and I am not only talking about art and creativity and institutions. It is a sign I suppose of maturity that Canada is looking more outward again. When I was getting started there were perhaps five Canadian novels a year being published, very few Canadian composer’s music was being played, and choreography came for the most part from outside the borders. There was a push for indigenous work and mechanisms were created to support that. In our own lives sometimes we look in, and at others we look out. Both are necessary.
Or maybe it’s Country Music as a category/mood that inspired you more?
I think I have clarified earlier that I am not a country music fan per se. All of the examples you gave of Canadian artists were adults when I was a teenager so I am not of their generation and I didn’t follow that closely. I happily spent a lot of time listening to the classical repertoire. It is only lately that I have begun to compile more music of today, or at least the last five years.
I responded as creatively as I could, and happily was successful with it, to a purchase order that at first seemed completely out of my area of expertise.
Or maybe just the sound of Johnny Cash’s voice?
Yes, his voice in these songs is very poignant. It might be a boomer thing, since I am on the last edge of that and I am well aware that though death could still be somewhere in the future I am over the halfway point. I think this is informing a lot of my view of the world at the moment, and that of my generation. I really think that dance need not necessarily only be about beautiful young people and their agility and facility. I probably would not have felt that when I was in my 30s. A controlled and seasoned performance, like Cash’s on these recordings, says something about time, and aging and the ballet or dance stage can make room for this. And therefore gives some notice and recognition to people who have actually lived a long time. If you look at audiences they are mostly of boomer age. But you know. I have looked at ballet audiences my whole life, and they were always older. In a sense ballet in our time, for the last 50 years at least, has been about young people dancing for older people. The search for a younger audience is futile. But the exposure to the form through Nutcracker and fleeting theatre visits, and ballet lessons, and exploitative films like “Black Swan” (which I will admit I haven’t seen) are all education and setting up the future audience, in my opinion.
Cincinnati Ballet dancers: Thomas Caleb Roberts, Danielle Bausinger, Patric Palkens. Photo by Peter Mueller.
Here’s video footage from Cincinnati Ballet with choreographer Heather Britt: