Back to the ballet!

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Aaaaaah, the glories of Lincoln Center!

Jose and I treated ourselves to tickets for the winter season, and what a joy it was to settle back into those red plush seats below that gorgeous floral-shaped ceiling.

The first evening offered three Balanchine pieces, the first, his first, from 1928, Apollo. It was…the work of a young choreographer. It felt very much of the period. I’m glad I saw it — what else (beyond some classical music) — of the 1920s are we still consuming culturally?

The second piece, Orpheus, which I loved, was from 1948. Like the others on the evening’s program, it’s a ballet with no sets and very simple costumes, to music by Stravinsky. The minimal set was by now legendary designer Isamu Noguchi.

Orpheus, as all you Greek myths geeks already know, is the heart-breaking story of Orpheus descending into Hades to reclaim Eurydice — only if he refuses to look at her until they are back in the earthly word. But he looks, killing her instantly, forever.

The third ballet, pure form, is from 1957, Agon. Loved it. It’s everyone’s first ballet class; the girls in black leotards with simple blacks, the boys (as adults are called throughout their ballet careers), in black tights and tight white T-shirts.

It demands the fiercest technique — no gorgeous costumes or tricky lighting or elaborate sets to distract the eye. There were some wobbly moments of partnering, which made it a bit more human.

 

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The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

 

We had terrific seats in the orchestra, ($79 each, to me an absolute bargain for the value) and had a great time people-watching; such elegance! Ladies in floor-length furs, young girls in sparkly shoes, a pair of stylish young Parisiennes in the row in front of us.

I came home so excited to be back in the world of ballet, a world I entered as a young girl, taking classes with vague and unrealizable hopes of joining more seriously; I tried out a few times for Toronto’s National Ballet School and lived a block away from it in my early 20s, watching the fortunate few enter and exit those hallowed halls, walking with the dancer’s distinctive head-erect, shoulders-back, feet-turned-out gait.

In my 20s, I was fortunate to become a regular reviewer of the National Ballet of Canada (free tickets!) and was even flown from Toronto to Newfoundland to write about their life on tour, to help me produce an essay for their 35th anniversary program. Later, thanks to their PR director, I performed as an extra in eight performances of Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center — and have even been in its rehearsal rooms.

 

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The lights on the front of each balcony look like jewels and the gold is covered with a sort of netting effect. The proscenium looks like it’s made of thin gold chains laid together

 

Here’s a fantastic series of short films I found on Youtube about NYC Ballet, from 2014. If you love ballet, you will learn a lot about what happens everywhere but on-stage.

I now have a much better sense of NYCB dancers and some of their unlikely trajectories and backstories.

Interestingly, Peter Martins — subject of one of the videos and its long-time director — is gone, having retired in January 2018 after 24 allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by former dancers and dance students.

 

 

It is a brutal world.

It is a beautiful world.

 

 

Ballet at Lincoln Center, onstage and off

By Caitlin Kelly

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Watching a ballet at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City is one of my favorite things to do; if you haven’t yet been to New York or taken in a ballet there, add it to your to-do list!

Lincoln Center, three majestic white marble buildings centered around a stunning circular fountain, sits on the west side of Manhattan, spanning several blocks in the 60s. Walking across its plaza in the darkness always creates a sense of anticipation and elegance, whether you’re going to the opera or the ballet.

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The Koch theater, one of my great pleasures of living in New York

I’ve attended performances there over the years — and have even performed on  its stage, in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Sleeping Beauty, with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead.

I’d studied ballet since I was 12 and had written about it before, so I was invited to come from Toronto to New York to be an extra — or “super” in the ballet. I was one of four “ladies in black” whose presence on stage in Act One presages the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who casts the spell on Princess Aurora, and puts her into a deep sleep. I didn’t have to dance, but walk beautifully and persuasively in costume so no one would suspect I wasn’t a professional dancer.

As a freelance journalist, I was sent on assignment to write about it by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe & Mail — and dictated my story over the phone from my hotel room at the Empire Hotel to an editor in its Toronto newsroom. (No Internet then!)

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What an adventure!

We had no dress rehearsal. We didn’t see our costumes until opening night and my shoes were very tight. I didn’t know the score, and came down (!) several bars too soon, leading three others down a staircase too early behind me. Ohhhhhhh, shit!

I’ve done many crazy things in my life, but staring out at that enormous audience in that prestigious venue, was fairly terrifying. I did all eight performances, exiting every night, as one does, though the stage door — which I now only get to see from the outside.

Last weekend I went with a friend to see the New York City Ballet’s version of Swan Lake, a classic first performed in Moscow in the 1890s. The music is gorgeous, the story — as often with classical ballet — one of deception and mistaken identity, the action orchestrated by a wicked sorcerer against a noble prince being forced to choose a bride.

The NYCB version is short, with only two acts, and the stage set is spectacular — designed by a Danish artist, poet and geologist. One of the reasons ballet is such a rich experience is its combination of sets, costumes, music, choreography and extraordinary dancing, creating a wealth of beauty.

The dancing we saw was a bit spotty, some of it excellent and some of it raggedy, including some of the pas de deux work where partnering is key, the ballerina relying heavily on her partner’s strength and sensitivity to allow her to do her best.

We had excellent seats in the second ring (balcony), with great sight lines; the Koch Theater has four rings, (you can see fine from higher up, but binoculars are helpful from that height.) Our tickets were $103 apiece, which is a lot of money for one show, although I paid $85 in 2006 to see Romeo and Juliet for similar seats, so it’s not much of a price increase in 11 years.

Having written about the ballet several times from backstage, I also really appreciate knowing what it  takes to make every performance even possible.

 

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Read your program notes carefully and you’ll find credits for everyone from the wig master to physical therapists and masseurs; it truly takes hundreds of highly-trained specific talents to mount a production, even before the first dancer begins to pirouette. Those pink satin pointe shoes can cost $100 or more per pair — and the corps de ballet alone had 24 women.

 

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Dancers work through pain every day

 

I’ve been going to the ballet since I was a small child in Toronto, and never tire of it, whether the warhorses of Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Lake or more modern pieces. One of my favorites is Serenade by Balanchine. That music brings tears to my eyes every time — and the opening montage is unforgettable.

I’m glad I did all those pliés and tendues, because I know, in a small way, the incredible hard work, athleticism and dedication it demands.

 

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The Koch Theater railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

Have you been to the ballet?

 

 

What did you see?

 

Did you enjoy it?

 

 

Everything is beautiful at the ballet…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Dancers work through pain every day

Fresh pink satin pointe shoes.

Clouds of dry ice.

Swans.

Layers of tulle.

Men in tights, soaring through the air as if they have strings pulling them aloft.

Dancing mice.

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If you love dance, music, gorgeous costumes, physical prowess, grace and strength, ballet’s for you!

NB: to my British readers — on December 19, BBC2 will broadcast the documentary “Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom”

People sometimes assume all ballet is stuffy 19th century tedium — Swan Lake, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty — but there are many modern ballets as well that eschew fancy costume and sets for minimalism.

If you’ve ever seen Rodeo, choreographed in 1942 by Agnes de Mille, you’ll know what fun it can be.

Even if you can only afford a seat in the 4th tier, (aka the nosebleeds), take a pair of binoculars and savor it all.

Even better, take a young friend, boy or girl, and introduce them to the utter joy of detaching from a screen, while gasping with wonder at what an exquisitely-trained human body can do.

Any boy who dismisses ballet as “sissy” needs to witness its astounding athleticism — and watch the terrific film “Billy Elliot.”

I’ve been studying ballet since I was 12 and took classes in Toronto at the National Ballet School; I auditioned to become a full-time student at the school a few times but was told I had the wrong body.

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The interior of the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like light motif repeats in the exterior and hall interior

In the decades since, I’ve reviewed ballet many times in Toronto, danced eight performances at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty with Rudolf Nureyev in the role of the prince, and teared up every time at the opening notes of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade.”

It is exquisite.

Here, from The Wall Street Journal, a story about it a former dancer who performed it:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

 

To some people, ballet is a hopelessly outmoded art — created in the 15th century and popularized in France by King Louis XIV.

I find it elegant and love using and watching its French formal vocabulary: dégagés, fouettés, battements, arabesques, pas de chat, (literally the cat’s step, a leap with both feet tucked inward facing one another).

I take a jazz dance class twice a week; even there ballet still dominates, as  its positions and movements form the foundation of many other forms of dance.

Ballet is a body language — once you speak it, it’s in you for life. Even when I lift weights at the gym, I’ll sometimes finish with a “port de bras”, graceful extensions of my arms out to my fingertips.

I was lucky enough to perform at Lincoln Center in my early 20s, although “perform” is less the right word than “survive.”I wrote about it for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

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As an extra — they’re called “supers”, short for “supernumeraries” — I had no knowledge of the score or how my movements related to those of all the others on stage with me. My costume was heavy and very expensive and my shoes were far too tight. My role was both essential to the overall look and feel of the performances and far too small to matter to anyone in charge.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more scared, staring out at an audience who had paid very good money for professional excellence. (My orchestra seat for the Nutcracker this month was an eye-watering $170.00.)

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I learned not to wear anything beneath my costume. As I left the stage entrance, a few people asked for my autograph. We stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, its enormous red neon sign glowing still high above Broadway.

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I came away from NYCB’s Nutcracker with surprisingly mixed feelings. The entire first act is mostly acting, with very little dancing, which I found dull. Act II’s pas de deux was wobbly. And some of what was amusing in 1954, the year the ballet was made, reads a little less so today — like the three Chinese characters who embody now-dusty stereotypes.

If you’re a dancer visiting New York City, you must visit the dance supply shop Capezio, (named for its founder), which has several city branches. The one at 51st and Broadway is huge, on the second floor, and you enter, oddly, through the lobby of an office building.

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Inside is everything a dancer could want, from those black rubber pants and shorts to help shed weight (!) to a rainbow of leotards, tights, shoes, even round rotating platforms to help you perfect your pirouettes and long wooden forms over which to bend your arches to make them even higher.

The array of protection on offer is a testament — as any pointe veteran knows — to what a beating your toes take when you encase them in glue-stiffened satin and dance on them.

Inside those satin shoes is as much padding as one can fit!
Inside those satin shoes is as much padding as one can fit!

It’s amazing to watch, but pointe work is never kind to the feet and toes supporting you, no matter your age or skill.

Check out this great video of dancers at an airport — killing time doing plies!

Do you have a favorite ballet or dancer?

Have you studied it?

 

Sleeping Beauty At Lincoln Center — A Few Decades After My Performance There

The current New York City Ballet Production of “Sleeping Beauty”, which premiered in 1991, is drop-dead gorgeous. It’s being performed until February 7 at the Koch Theater — re-named last year for a major donation; it was formerly the State Theater. It’s all white marble and gilt800px-New_York_State_Theater_by_David_Shankbone, opened in 1964 and designed by Philip Johnson, with gilded panels on the front of each level, an enormous jeweled chandelier in the ceiling and metallic lace balustrades.

The current version of “Sleeping Beauty” is slightly different from the one I grew up with, and performed there, with the National Ballet of Canada. The company came to New York and I was invited to write about the experience of being a super (short for supernumerary), an extra. They’re hired for many ballets and operas, and may not — as I was not — be a trained dancer or experienced performer.

I was a Lady in Black, one of four women whose presence presaged the entrance of the Wicked Witch Carabosse, who, enraged at being omitted from Princess Aurora’s christening, casts a spell on her. In the NYCB version, the witch is accompanied  by four creepy, crawling black winged flies; you can always tell when Carabosse is on her way, signaled by the shimmering of tambourines.

Being a super is a blast, if utterly terrifying. We never got a dress rehearsal, I didn’t know the score and my shoes were painfully tight. Just to make a great story — not on purpose — I came on-stage on opening night about 20 bars too soon, with three others following my mistaken lead. Ooops.

Another night my heavy costume, with its thick skirt, got caught on a soldier’s sword and I couldn’t move safely without fear of tearing the expensive fabric. The music, of course, kept playing as the dancers caught behind me cursed under their breath.  I somehow untangled myself so the entire cast could get offstage in time.

Being around Rudolf Nureyev was almost as scary as being on-stage in front of thousands of paying balletomanes. One night he stayed off-stage for a whole lot longer than usual, swearing loudly, after kicking a garbage can so hard he cut his foot. Normally, he’d come off-stage and slide into a pair of clogs, right over his slippers.

It was heaven tonight to re-acquaint myself with the ballet and all its characters: The Bluebird, Catalabutte, Puss ‘n Boots and The Lilac Fairy. The Rose Adagio, the signature test of every ballerina who dances the role of Aurora, went fine in Kathryn Morgan’s hands — and feet.

As they sang in “A Chorus Line”:

Everything was beautiful at the ballet.
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.
Yes,
Everything was beautiful at ballet.
Hey!
I was happy… at the ballet.