Posts Tagged ‘Giselle’

“Pina,” Wim Wenders’ 3D Dance Film

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

By Rachel Straus

“You just have to get crazier.” These words came from Pina Bausch, the late choreographer, whose dance troupe made the industrial city of Wuppertal, Germany an avant-garde theatrical destination for 36 years. In Wim Wenders’ 3D documentary “Pina,” screened on October 15 at Alice Tully Hall for the New York Film Festival, audiences got a taste of what Bausch’s crazy looks like. In one scene, a Bausch dancer walks through a park in a floor-length dress like a zombie queen. The woman careens to the ground, flat as a board. Right before smashing her face, her suitor scoops her up like a crane lift. Then she falls again, and again. The effect is part amusement ride, part suicide watch.

Bausch’s surrealistic collage-structured dances revel in the frightening, funny, fragile inner states of the human psyche. On Bausch’s stage compulsive disorders, misogynism, sadism, and run-of-the-mill cultural oppression cavort like lunatics at an insane asylum. Fortunately, Bausch chose her inmates well. Her cadre of dancers resemble one-of-a-kind flowers, grown in places as far afield as Brazil and Tokyo. Before one’s eyes, their limbs uncoil, tendril-like, always searching for something to grasp. Inevitably they fall. The metaphor is an obvious one, but Bausch won die-hard fans around the world with this trope in her 40-plus works. Her dances evoked desperate perseverance, in all of its illogical inanity. Her singular message was digestible because she made human effort, and failure, look beautifully irresistible.

Pina Bausch, 68, died June 2009, the night before Wim Wenders was to begin shooting their long-postponed film collaboration. Since 1985 Wenders, whose films include “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Paris, Texas,” and “Wings of Desire,” had been discussing with Bausch a project featuring her choreography. On stage Wenders explained that it wasn’t until he saw 3D film technology, he felt he could do Bausch’s work justice. Regular film, Wenders said, creates an “invisible wall” between the dance and the celluloid image. “Something,” he said, “did not work.” With that comment, Wenders invited the audiences to consider whether his 3D “Pina” does.

When Wenders’ 3D segments captured Bausch’s dancers on tramcars and busy roadways, in parks and glass houses, the film became bigger than life. The dancers’ gesture-driven performances in these hyper-pixilated landscapes grew mesmerizing with the sharp, glistening quality of the film. Among the rush of cars, swaying of  trees, and presence of pedestrians, the dancers became absorbed into a heightened but familiar reality, a piece with Bausch’s style of magic realism.

When the dancers were shot in the theater, however, Wenders encountered less success. His close-up camera work felt intrusive and aggressive. In one segment, Wenders’ camera closed in on a woman’s squirming back in Bausch’s 1975 “Rite of Spring.” By zeroing in on her struggle, Wenders made the moment personal instead of archetypal. In “Rite,” the cast resembles primitives. Their landscape is a dirt-strewn stage. The proscenium frames them the way an icon painting is framed by an architectural portal. The dancers become effigies; their individual features are abstracted through their unison, slicing movement.

Though Bausch’s performers occasionally saunter through theater aisles looking glamorous and talking to regular folk, when they represent universal beings, they do it on stage at at remove from the audience. Bausch didn’t offer ticket holders intimacy. She created a theatrical portal for her vision to be perceived. Her method was simple: She distanced the performer from the spectator. She created just the kind of wall that Wenders wants to permeate.

Whether 3D films like “Pina” will fan the flames of the American dance audience is much in discussion. Thus far a handful of 3D dance films have been produced, including The Kirov’s “Giselle,” Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance, and “Step Up 3D.” Turning a dancing body into a 3D piece of digitalia is fascinating, but whether it can compete with the power of live dance performance isn’t a slam dunk. When Wenders’ camera gave Bausch performers the space to disport themselves, he captured their beautiful craziness. He transmitted their quality of dangerous freedom. He didn’t come in for a close up. At these moments, I think, Pina Bausch would have been pleased.

The Ballet World and the Star System

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

By Rachel Straus

In 1955 the British dance critic R. J. Austin calculated that American Ballet Theatre, whose roster of choreographers continually changed, would focus on it star dancers to solidify its reputation as a premier ballet company. Austin calculated right. Today ABT is powerful because of its stupendous dancers, whether they’re on the masthead or employed as guest artists for only a season.

On May 21, throngs descended on the Metropolitan Opera House to see David Hallberg dance Basilio, the poor barber, across from guest artist Polina Semionova, dancing the headstrong Kitri, in “Don Quixote.” On May 28, Hallberg played Prince Albrecht to guest artist Alina Cojocaru’s Giselle in the eponymous ballet. What seemed to matter to audiences (and critics) in these full-length ballets, where fifty plus dancers performed, was the performance of these principal dancers. The audiences got their money’s worth. Semionova, Cojocaru and Hallberg are at their peak of their artistry.

Hallberg dances like he is in the act of discovery. He has mastered ballet technique to the point that he plays with steps, rather than merely executing them. His confidence as an actor grows nightly. As Basilio he was all brio, showing unswerving confidence that he could win Kitri, despite all those rich suitors. As Albrecht, Hallberg dances as innocently as Cojocaru’s Giselle, whose heart he breaks and who saves him from The Wilis that are bent on his destruction. When Hallberg sequentially scissors his legs in the air six times, he resembles Christ suspended on the cross. His arms stretch wide, his expression is deathly. Hallberg’s face as much as his legs reveal his passion, his fear that if he stops dancing the Queen of The Wilis will kill him.

But Hallberg’s ability to create meaning isn’t what ticket holders, at least those I spoke to, are discussing. Hallberg’s technique and beautiful leg line are the points that dominate the conversation. Balletomanes are comfortable objectifying dancers and reducing ballets to its dancing stars. The choreography takes a back seat to discussions about virtuosity, and how principal dancers’ performances measure up to other principal dancers’. And that is a problem, if you consider a dance an artwork, in which the movement of every one on stage imbues the work with expressive value.

This complaint about ballet being reduced to stars and their tricks is as old as Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810). The French dancer and ballet master argued in “Lettres on Dancing and Ballets” (1760) for creating a ballet whose power lays in the sum of its parts. The ballet master, writes Noverre, has a responsibility to the entire work:

“Without forgetting the principal players in the piece, he should give consideration to the performers as a body; if he concentrate his attention on the premières danseuses and premiers danseurs, the action becomes tedious, the progress of the scenes drawn out, and the execution has no power of attraction.”

Kevin McKenzie’s staging of “Giselle” ocassionally grows tedious. It’s not that the ensemble dancers in the village scene of Act I don’t perform their steps beautifully. It’s that their steps convey little about the village life in which their dancing is supposed to express. The villagers dance much like The Wilis, who are ghosts! In both scenes, the dancers perform ballet steps.

So why didn’t McKenzie create folk dances and take the women off their pointe shoes for the village scene? Because audiences want to see virtuosity, even among the corps dancers, and because ballet dancers want to perform ballet steps so that they can have a shot of performing the roles of Giselle and Albrecht some day. Unfortunately, the plot of “Giselle” gets ground down by this assembly line standardization of choreography, which churns out a few principal dancers who can dazzle with their turns and leaps. This keeps the audiences focused on the sport of dance, which tends to sap the overall quality and meaning of a ballet.

Mining the Past: A New Giselle, a Restaged Robert Wilson Ballet, and Charles Reinhart

Monday, January 17th, 2011

by Rachel Straus

Finding clues to a lost dance resembles detective work. If you’re the Sherlock Holmes type, dance reconstructions can become obsessively fascinating. On January 9 and 10, the Guggenheim Museum’s popular Works + Process series hosted Pacific Northwest Ballet—Giselle Revisited.

Under the artistic directorship of former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, PNB is undertaking a 170-year reconstruction of the French ballet. At the Guggenheim, Boal—alongside dance scholars Doug Fullington and Marian Smith—offered the sold-out crowd a Giselle history-mystery lesson, some mesmerizing mime, and bits of glorious dancing performed by Carrie Imler, Carla Körbes, James Moore, and Seth Orza.

PNB is reconstructing the ballet from a rare 1860s score once used by the ballet’s composer Adolphe Adam. The score includes note-for-note annotations of the mime and dancing. When Giselle scholar Smith got her hands on this score, recently purchased by a Cologne archive, she bent Boal’s ear. His patrons partially funded the reconstruction. PNB’s new-old Giselle will premiere this June in Seattle: Pacific Northwest Ballet Giselle Performances

The best part of the January 10 lecture-demonstration was when the dancers mimed the passages while Smith read descriptions of their action from the score. Given greater understanding of how the narrative details coincide with the musical passages, the dancers mimed with a purpose usually reserved for the ballet’s pure dancing scenes. When James Moore (Hilarion) expressed his concern that Carla Körbes (Giselle) had fallen for a two-faced cad (Loys/Albrecht), his body and face transformed. Moore’s miming is unaffected and intense. In these gestural moments, he stole the show.

What was less convincing was Doug Fullington’s part of the presentation, where he discussed this reconstruction’s use of Stepanov notation. Unlike music scores, notations rarely give the full scope of the choreography. Nicholas Sergeyev, who recorded Russian Imperial Ballet dances from the late 19th and early 20th century, used Stepanov notation. When Sergeyev fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution, he took his Stepanov notation scores (including Giselle) with him.  The Royal Ballet, previously called Sadler’s Wells, became the recipient of Sergeyev’s knowledge.

But here’s the rub. There is much documentation (from RB founder Dame Ninette de Valois and others) about how Sergeyev’s notation and memory possessed major holes.

In light of this information, it was odd that Fullington presented the Stepanov score as something relatively concrete. Boal was more candid. He told the audience that due to the gaps in their reconstruction, they were looking at Giselle productions by the Paris Opera Ballet and others for inspiration.

The evening ended with Act II’s grand pas de deux, a major artistic and technical endeavor for any ballerina. If this Works + Process in any indication, Carla Körbes is going to rise to the occasion in the female lead. From every pore of Körbes’s dancing body radiated the desire to make this Giselle matter.


Another unearthing from Terpsichore’s past came care of the Martha Graham Dance Company. The 85-year-old troupe is reviving Robert Wilson’s 1995 Snow on the Mesa. The commissioned work—made fours years after Graham’s death and in homage of her life and art—will open the company’s New York season (March 15-20) at the Rose Theater. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described Snow on the Mesa as “a must see, with the marvelous Graham company projecting drama to the hilt.” (New York Times 1995 review)

On January 11, two sections of Mesa were performed for an invited group at the company’s cramped Upper East Side headquarters. Wilson, whose only attempt at modern dance making is Mesa, references some of Graham’s enduring interests: developing imperiously sexual female characters, costuming her men in loin cloths, and using set designs (particularly Noguchi’s) as landscapes to depict the subconscious and the forbidden.

Mesa appears to be a lovingly rendered homage. It doesn’t, however, white wash Graham’s leviathan personality, which dominated the stage through her choreography for her heroines (whose roles she initially performed). When dancer Xiaochuan Xie (as Graham) sauntered across a set of low white benches, they became a catwalk, a fitting platform to taunt her male consort, Ben Schultz (as Erick Hawkins).

At the Rose Theater in March, the company will offer four different programs, seven Graham works and a world premiere by Bulareyaung Pagarlava. In the last decade, the troupe underwent a trial by fire (see New York Times coverage of legal battle). In this decade the Martha Graham Company will hopefully be able to focus on their repertory treasure and future.


Last week included a third spectacle devoted to looking back. On January 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, several hundred sat in celebration of the American Dance Festival director Charles Reinhart. Reinhart’s children largely organized his 80th birthday event, which also served as a goodbye ceremony. Reinhart will retire from his 41-year-old post soon. His second-in-command Jodee Nimerichter will take over the reigns of the summer festival, located at Duke University in North Carolina.

Because Reinhart is a dance man, the assumption was that dance performance would be the main event at his celebration.

Though there were performances by Pilobolus, Eiko & Koma, Shen Wei, and Paul Taylor Dance Company, dance was only part of the proceedings. A film about Reinhart, made by his daughter Ariane, started the evening. It was quaint. It was a home movie. In picture after picture, natty Reinhart is captured posing for the camera, with a bravura associated with the modern dance choreographers he championed.

Following the movie, Master of Ceremonies Mark Dendy took center stage. A choreographer known to play the bad boy, Dendy was dressed as Martha Graham (in a gold lame gown). While the movie presented Reinhart as something of a dance prince, Dendy’s snarky remark— “Charles has influenced all the artists of the world”—created a hushed stillness in the theater.

The evening ricocheted between the intimate (Reinhart’s friends and family spoke) and the professional (companies performed, Anna Kisselgoff lectured). Reinhart’s kids are clearly not veteran presenters. Perhaps they should have left the show’s programming up to dad.