Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux - NYCB - Baryshnikov and McBride

Well I'm certainly on a ballet kick this year.

I was very young back in the 70's, but all those years ago, even I knew that Misha was a very big deal.  So it was a surprise and a bit of a scandal when he left ABT, plus a successful partnership with Gelsey Kirkland, to dance at NYCB.

It wasn't the best of fits.  The magic of Baryshnikov's dancing in classical ballets was how effortless he made it all look.  That breezy relaxing look didn't translate into Balanchine's oeuvre.  This was due to two reasons: the main one being Baryshnikov's early training at Vaganova.  That elegant Russian technique was too ingrained into Baryshnikov to be utterly banished for Balanchine's style.  The next reason was that Balanchine wanted to show the effort that dancers took to dance in his ballets.  He liked the fact that they were breaking speed and endurance records for him.  Baryshnikov's early training and the egoistic impulse behind Balanchine's work were at very big odds.  Still Baryshnikov managed to overcome setbacks to do very well in many of Balanchine's works.

Another often unspoken reason why Baryshnikov didn't progress further into Balanchine's repertoire was due his height.  Balanchine was into tall, big and athletic ballerinas.  His favorites at the time, Karin von Aroldingen, the legendary Suzanne Farrell and rising star Merrill Ashley were too tall for Baryshnikov.  And that makes me wonder about some of the reasons why Balanchine invited Baryshnikov into the company.

True Misha was a legend and big box office.  But NYCB didn't need the box office at the time.  It had its own stable of hallowed, Balanchine trained dancers.

But it gets me thinking...was one of Balanchine's ulterior motives, in stealing Baryshnikov away from ABT, was to inspire prodigal ballet daughter Gelsey Kirkland to return?  If Kirkland had bit the bullet and returned to NYCB with Baryshnikov, they would have blazed a trail of glory through Balanchine's ballets.  It was never meant to be though.  The NYCB stage wasn't big enough for three very willful ballet geniuses.  Kirkland thought of Balanchine as a kind of neglectful and traitorous father figure.  Baryshnikov was in the process of running away from a very passionate, tumultuous relationship with Kirkland.  At the time, I think Balanchine knew his strength was declining which made choreographing new ballets for Baryshnikov difficult.  It seems a big what if of dreams when you think about it all.

Anyway, Patricia McBride became Baryshnikov's partner at NYCB.  Although they weren't very well matched, they did give this very lovely performance together.


Ratmansky's Cinderella - Mariinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky came to Brooklyn!  This year they chose BAM as their home away from home in NY.  Believe me, it was a very big deal.

Even so, I still hemmed and hawed about buying tickets.  Mainly because most of the performances were almost out of my price range.  The affordable tickets sold out very quickly for their performances of Swan Lake.  Because I really liked Ratmansky's version of The Nutcracker, I decided to forego Swan Lake in order to see his version of Cinderella.

This was one of Ratmansky's first choreography efforts so the production is a bit choppy in certain places.  But nothing that would scream amateur.  Unlike most productions which elide a few sections of the music, Ratmansky used the WHOLE score.  This meant the production clocked in as a weighty 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Anything that long is hard on the audience, especially little ones who everyone knows will be the main audience for a fairy tale adaptation.  I suppose that is why they took pity on us and scheduled two very long intermissions.  Still, a few judicious cuts to the music would have been a better route.

Despite being Fairy Tale fodder for the little set, Ratmansky seemed to have thought he was choreographing for adults.  Because this production was very somber.  It eschews tutu splendor for a very modernist style, machine age 1920's setting.  I'm still trying to figure out how Ratmansky managed to find a sad, bittersweet ending to one of the happiest of all fairy tales.

In regards to general performance, the first thing I noticed was that all the dancers seemed to really enjoy taking part in this production. It requires a lot character work from all involved not just the leads and the company really put their hearts into it.  Still there were a few mishaps, most likely due to extra verve rather than sloppiness.  One of the Corps members somehow managed to get her legs twisted up, she suddenly started to sink to the floor during the Winter Fairy section.  I was sitting close enough to see the stunned and mortified look on her face.  But there was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable collapse.  Luckily two of her dance mates were able to grab her and haul her back to her feet.  Another little problem was the racket caused by the company's toe shoes.  But I'm hesitant to totally lay the blame on the dancers.  I noticed the same problem during ABT's production of The Nutcracker.  There may be something about BAM's stage floor that exacerbates the sound of the dancers toe shoes.

Even from the first, Ratmansky was determined to bring out the male dancers from behind the ballerinas.  There are a lot of great dance sets for men in this production.  In a surprising twist, Ratmansky cast female dancers for the stepmother and two stepsisters (usually men play these roles) while the 4 Season Fairies were danced by men.

The Stepmother and Stepsisters were extremely fun characters.  Out of the three and even the whole cast,  the standout was Anna Lavrinenko as Kubishka.  She was such a joy to watch, was obviously having a blast in a role that allowed her to lampoon traditional ballerina steps and attitudes.  What worked more in her favor is that she has the type of face that was all the rage during the 20's, so the style of the costumes and hair were quite becoming on her.  Xenia Dubrovnia danced the other sister, Khudishka, as a kind of charming but spacey nitwit.  In the role of the stepmother, Anastasia Petushkova took over the role for Daria Pavlenko.  Petushkova had a lot of energy and authority in her dancing.  But her face and attitude was rather vivacious and open.  The role seems to require a bit more hauteur which Petushkova doesn't have...yet.  But if she continues dancing the role, she will continue to grow into it.

Cinderella was danced by Anastasia Matvienko.  She was so slight and delicate, at times I thought she would just fade or float away.  In fact her body form seems to be the epitome of Russian ballet right now which means long, tall, narrow, wiry and extremely emaciated.  Now I don't think Matvienko suffers from eating problems or anything of the kind.  I think she was chosen because she naturally displays these characteristics.  But the extreme thinness was sometimes quite disturbing to watch.  This preference wasn't always the case, I used to have VHS tapes of the company from the 70's and 80's which showcased quite healthy looking dancers.  The standout of the time, because her type was so rare, was Galina Mezentseva.  Mezentseva was so tall and extremely thin, she was almost otherworldly.  Today practically the whole company looks like Mezentseva.  The ballerinas who do not are shoved to the back of the corps line or are cast in the sexy girl roles.  It is probably un-balletomane to say but I much prefer the look of American dancers.  I prefer the athletic lean look and the noticeable strength that makes me think our dancers could dance through brick walls if need be over the wraith look that Russian ballet prefers.

Another look that Russian ballet likes that is definitely NOT due to the influence of Galina Mezentseva (all her dance videos on youtube show healthy looking knees), is the hyperextended look of the legs.  I don't think that locked in knee creating a kind of scary looking backward curve in the leg is attractive.  It looks to me just what it is, a deformation in the leg.  There were time during the ballet that Matvienko's legs were creating an unhealthy, backward bowed look which was not beautiful.  It took me out of the ballet and had me fearing for her health.

But lets get away from the picadillos of Russian ballet fashion and just talk about the dance.  Anastasia Matvienko was a perfect for Cinderella.  She was a lovely actress and very lyrical in her dancing style.  She had good rapport and chemistry with her partner, Alexander Sergeyev.  Sergeyev was a great prince and had a lot of good humor in his interpretation.  His solos showcased a lot of virtuosity with changes from quick battement footwork to large jete leaps.  The prince in this ballet does a lot more than just be amazed by Cinderella.

The company was backed up beautifully by Gergiev's musical direction.  In fact most of the audience were just as excited to see Gergiev conduct as they were to see the ballet company.

I'm glad I decided to see this performance and I hope the Mariinsky returns to Brooklyn next year.

Below is an excerpt from a prior performance of Cinderella a few years back.


Corrective Measures

My exercise routine has been sporadic since the past holidays.  I have to get back into the swing since I've put on a few pounds.

But instead of my usual exercises, I've become obsessed with correcting my bunions.

Bunions develop for quite simple reasons that are so easy to correct but there isn't enough information out there to help people to prevent them from forming.

They develop mainly from footwear.  The tapered toe look of our shoes are what gets the bunion problem started.  Our shoes are pushing our toes too tightly together which pushes them out of alignment.  What exacerbates the problem is that we wear footwear (sneakers mainly) that not only have a tapered toe but have a built in lift at the toe.  What this does is train people to walk incorrectly.

Incorrect gait means the majority of our weight and walking force is directed to our big toe.  After many years of this maladaptive walking habit, many of us will notice a reddened, bulge appearing at the base of the big toe.  That is a bunion.  Once you have it, it never goes away but there are orthotics and exercises for it to relieve pain, discomfort and correct its hideous look just a bit.

So I did some searching online and I found this site, which was a godsend in my opinion.

Correct Toes

Correct toes is an orthotic developed by a podiatrist to help the patients he was treating for bunions and other foot problems.  This orthotic is a brace made of flexible, medical grade silicone that fits around the toes.  It essentially holds your toes in proper alignment.  There are insertion areas at each end of the orthotic in which you can insert rubber or cardboard to widen the spacer if your bunion is severe.

The instructions advise to wear correct toes for an hour each day then progressively longer until you can wear them all day.  There are links on the website to shoes that can accommodate the correct toes orthotic.

I will say the orthotic is on the expensive side.  It costs about $65 dollars which is a lot more than the devices you get in your local pharmacy.  However don't hesitate if you really need this device, it is worth every penny.

I've used Correct Toes now for almost a month and it has made noticeable improvements to my feet.  My toes now appear straighter (as I've said before the bunion will never go away but it can be improved).  They are comfortable and almost immediately relieved the soreness due to the bunions.  Another improvement you will notice is how the orthotic begins to correct not only your toe alignment but your gait as well.  The device will stop you from putting all your weight on your big toe.  Ideally you should wear the device at home all the time, preferably bare foot or with toe socks.  Due to gait corrections, you may notice a bit of stretch in your arches. Some people will also notice stretching in their outer thighs as well.

Correct Gait

Once you've worn Correct Toes for awhile, really start to notice how it influences you to walk.  If you can't buy shoes to fit the device right away, try to mimic the corrections in your regular shoes.  For most people this will mean walking with toes pointed straight forward.  Because our shoes are tapered, it forces the weight toward the big toe.  This also turns into a sort of splay footed, duck walk for most people in varying degrees.  Be sure to always be aware of your toes pointing straight ahead.  At first it will feel as though you are walking pigeon toed, but that is not the case.  As you walk, place the weight of your body toward the outer toes not the big toe.  When you get it right, you will feel it.  You will feel your weight being supported by all five toes, you will feel your arches start to work and give you support.  Also make sure that your knees are fully relaxed, even slightly bent.  Do not brace your knees, that will put some of your walking force onto your knees and that will mean pain.  Personally I'm still trying to break my old walking habits, it will take awhile.

Youtube has great videos regarding exercises and stretches to help minimize bunions.  Below are a few examples.

Bunions can be helped without invasive surgery.  It is just a matter of being diligent in changing bad body alignment habits.


Past Envy

I remember when Nigella Lawson first hit it big years ago. Nigella was like Britain's sexier answer to the Martha Stewart phenomenon in the US.

Mostly what I remember about the Nigella breakout was hearing how sexy she was at the time.  All the guys I knew were into her.  And most of them did not cook nor had any interest in cooking but were all docile followers of her show on PBS.

After Martha, Nigella marked the change from cooking shows being about food made by staid and conservative people into more about pretty faces who threw pasta into boiling water.  This is not to say that Nigella can't cook, I own a book or two by her, her recipes are always rather good.

But my buying her books is only a recent event.  When she first became a sensation, the sight of her face caused me burning, gnawing jealousy.  Even when I was interested in the recipes my interest was always accompanied by the desire to hiss and smack her.  As I say again, I was rather young so it was all due to my being a hormonal, territorial female.  This is the main reason young women have such prickly friendships with one another.

Now that I'm older, the hormones evening out, I can look back on Nigella with a more rational eye.  And I can see why she was so alluring to guys.  She is pretty.  She is a tall, dark haired and attractive.  Her manner is both studied and rather impromptu.  She really likes food.  Her body is rather curvaceous and was definitely against the resurgent Twiggy look that was popular at the time.  She is definitely not girly as she plunges her hands into raw egg, meat, fish etc.  When she gets cake icing or syrup on her hands, she has no compunction against shoving that part of her hand into her mouth and licking off the sweets.  So she comes across as rather wild and untamable.   Basically she does all the things guys would call piggish if their wives or girlfriends displayed the same behavior.  But since Nigella was pinup fantasy and would never ruin fantasies with real life, it was all so sexy.

Anyway, the link below is a clip from her eponymous show, "Nigella Bites".  Haw haw, get the Freudian joke?  What a glimpse into the future of the cooking show biz.  At least Nigella could cook.

Happy New Year!


Not in a way you'll Understand

I've loved The Red Shoes since I first watched it as a young child.  But through the years, I've had to string together a lot of confused readings that I've received from it.

You see I've always looked upon the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov as more than professional.  In fact, I've always thought of it as a heterosexual relationship even though I always perceived Lermontov as primarily a gay man.

Lately I've come to suspect that this is not a fair reading to a gay audience because it speaks directly to their experiences.  But yet, I still can't accept that Lermontov is totally asexual in his dealings with Vicky.

But then I've come to look upon the film as about a gay man who suddenly discovers that he is attracted to one and only one woman.  That he still desires men, his attractions are still to men but this one woman arouses in him such passion that he has no experience to handle it.

Lermontov is a man who has sublimated his sexuality to art.  Partially due to being unable to express his homosexuality but also because he looks upon desire in general as weakness.  He wants to be taken, taken by art.  Despite being an ascetic, Lermontov cannot totally kill his desire.  He is a force of nature, he is walking sex.  He pulsates with sensuality that seems to say yes to both men and women.  You can see it the way he admires Julian Craster's bashfulness over being complemented about his stolen score (ironically, eventually stealing the younger man's wife).  You can see it the way he gives Vicky a pointed double take when he first meets her.

The fact is, sexuality is an inevitable component to art.  You can't have one without the other.  Because Lermontov indulges the muse of art, it also lets in the desire.  At first Lermontov's dealings with Vicky are totally predictable to himself.  He strings her along with his personal charm and invites her into his ballet company out of simple curiosity.

His sexuality and artistic ambitions are ignited by her in one pointed scene.  He witnesses her naked, almost orgasmic, expression of ecstasy while she dances in a small production in a back alley theater.  He is given a glimpse of her own worship of art and her sexual nature, which moves him so much that he runs away from the theater.

This is the beginning of his obsession with her, his desire to own her talent, her soul and her body.  Her body now has a duality for him, it is both the ultimate expression of art and it promises a release to his thwarted sexual libido.  She becomes a person for him, she becomes a sacred source that can fulfill all he wants and society would not deny him.  However, he denies the love and desire for her because even though he knows she is worthy of him, he also wants the world to desire her, he wants to turn her into an idol of dance, a living goddess.

Vicky herself is not blind to the attraction between herself and Lermontov.  She probably recognized the attraction before he did, because she thought she had an understanding with him when he invited her into the company.  However she is confused by his hot/cold nature in his dealings with her.  And that pointed scene at the small theater doesn't ignite the same passion in her.  Instead she reacts with fear, she instinctively knows that she has inspired something that threatens to overwhelm her.

Throughout the film both Vicky and Lermontov know they are heading into some sort of an affair.  They are just using different schedules.  She thought she had it made when she received the meeting request in which Lermontov told her that he was producing The Red Shoes ballet starring herself as the lead.  At the time of the request, she thought it was merely a date and a culmination of the attraction she knew they shared.  It was important to note that she did not shy away from that possibility and welcomed it.  Her willingness to get to the next step in their interaction gets lost in the excitement of the new ballet and she discovers real, unconditional love with Julian Craster.

The real character fault of Vicky is that she refuses to take action.  Throughout the film she drifts along allowing others to steer her around rough waters.  She allows Lermontov to be in control of her career.  Ultimately she allows Julian to direct their love life.  Unlike Lermontov who is inspired and aroused by talent, Vicky is aroused by Julian's more balanced approach to his art.  Out of all of them, it strikes me that only Julian has experienced normal love affairs.  He is long past losing his head over a paramour and more interested in creating emotional/intellectual connections with his partners.  Vicky becomes just as obsessed by Julian as Lermontov is with her.  So much so that she allows Julian control over her for fear of losing him.  And since there is no word or hint of protest from Vicky over their partnership, Julian thinks that there is absolutely nothing wrong.  He becomes blind to the fact that there is no give and take because Vicky has no experience in voicing her independence.  However the closer they get the more Vicky realizes that art and real life are easier to combine for men.  She has to make a choice.  She wants ballet more than anything and she wants her husband just as much.  The desire for both pushes her to the brink leaving her open to an obsessed Lermontov who will now stoop to any level to bring her back to him.

The last scene in which both men fight her hand is frightening in its intensity.  Mainly because it is obvious that Vicky has no psychological resource to withstand this kind of attention.  Lermontov wins this argument because he has no desire to give in or even take Vicky's thoughts as consideration.  He only wants what he wants because he has been starving.  In his mind he has been starving for real art, starving for a muse, for sexual passion and a partner to share it all with him.  Only Vicky can provide this for him and he grasps at her unaware that his forced choice for her destroys her as a person.  His look of utter triumph, his clasped fists punching the air and his eyes shut tight say more about Lermontov's lust for Vicky (in all senses not just sexual) than words ever could.  It shows a man imbalanced by passion that he has long denied himself and it has made him crazed.  Something that was totally preventable.  If he had just allowed himself to act on the attraction he had for Vicky before fame, before art...he could have had it all.  Instead he destroys the woman he desperately needs.  I don't believe that Lermontov ever feels this way for another female artist and I don't believe he allows himself love with a male artist.  I think he will go on, fetishizing the memory of Vicky and her talent until the end of his days.


The Nutcracker - Baryshnikov and Kirkland

There are so many wonderful Nutcrackers out there and clips of them can be easily found on Youtube.  Of course, I can't post links to them all.

So my last post is dedicated to my favorite Nutcracker since I was very little.

The Baryshnikov and Kirkland version is legendary.  For many years it was a holiday staple on PBS and everyone watched it.  This version nicely bridges the gap between children's entertainment with some psychological imagery for adults too.  At the time Baryshnikov and Kirkland were in love and it shows on screen.  The choreography for the Sugarplum Fairy variation is practically a love letter to Kirkland.  Another piece of greatness for this version is that it does feature Kirkland's dancing.  There are so few video recordings of her at her peak.  I can't understand how one of America's greatest 20th century Ballerinas managed to avoid the camera.  At least we have this record.


Various Nutcrackers

The following clips are available on home video and are beautiful productions.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's production is gorgeous and boasts set and costume design by Maurice Sendak.

This production is more along the lines of Baryshnikov's interpretation in that it is very psychological in the Freudian sense.  Clara imagines herself dancing with a Prince who is like her father and envisions her mother as a gorgeous, caged peacock.

The NYCB Balanchine version was made into a film in the 90's.  It is a more innocent version without the darkness that is present in the original story.