Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #1

Spring Book Corner

Selection #1
Ballet Class: An American History
by Melissa R. Klapper
published by Oxford University Press
available March 2020

Ask any school-aged child about their current extra-curricular classes or the camps they attend over summer vacation - the sheer volume and variety is certain to astound. Ceramics, coding, debate, organic gardening, disc golf, cello. The seemingly endless list of possibilities grows every day. And yet, some of the traditional favorites always seem to remain popular amongst the group. Like soccer, piano and ballet. It is to this last option, the recreational pursuit of classical dance, that Melissa R. Klapper looks in her new book, Ballet Class: An American History, available this month from Oxford University Press.

Ballet Class is a thoroughly delightful and informative read - a well-rounded study that looks at ballet class through several different lenses. For dance history buffs, significant attention is paid to the early days of ballet class and the events that drove its rise and popularity. From the establishment of the big schools like Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and the School of American Ballet to the historic touring artists who introduced ballet to a wide audience in the States to the different ballet traditions and forms that were brought into regional and local studios from other parts of the globe. I particularly enjoyed Klapper’s comment on page sixty-five that, “No given technique was necessarily superior.” I wholeheartedly agree, but wonder if today’s teachers (and those from decades past) would concede or insist that their syllabus is the best!

Twelve impeccably researched chapters (plus extras), Klapper’s investigation does not shy away from the tough issues and heavy realities of ballet class. She tackles its lack of racial diversity, gender stereotypes and imbalances, implications of visibility, sexuality, the socio-economic realities of participation and the tension between it and modern dance. She delves into individual personhood, suggesting the different internal truths that might linger in the psyche after time spent at the barre. Both positive and negative. Certainly it is a space that can spur concentration and discipline, encourage artistic expression and nurture joy of movement but sadly, at the same time, can simultaneously give rise to body dysmorphia and condone infantilizing interactions.

Ballet Class is an academic book to be sure, but has a very approachable style. The prose isn’t full of seven-syllable words, something commonly found in similar studies. And Klapper’s writing is very conversational – throughout Ballet Class, you feel like you are having an in person dialog with her. The only thing missing for me was a bit more attention to the general structure as well as thorough descriptions of the exercises that make up a typical ballet class. Yes, there is an early chapter (entitled Ballet Class 101) that has some of this information, but seeing as how the entire book is dedicated to ballet class, a more detailed illustration seems like it would be an appropriate, and helpful, addition.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Monday, January 27, 2020

San Francisco Ballet - "Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Sat, January 25th (matinee)

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in
Wheeldon's Cinderella©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Do you ever watch a story ballet and ponder whether the expected outcome will actually transpire? Might Romeo and Juliet finally live happily ever after this time? Will Siegfried discover that Odile is part of Von Rothbart’s diabolical plot before it’s too late? Perhaps Aurora can avoid Carabosse’s spindle? When I am filled with such questions, I know I’m witnessing a great story ballet. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is one of those greats. Every time I see it, including at this viewing, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering if Cinderella and Prince Guillaume will find their way to each other. A co-production between San Francisco Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet, the work features amazing design, stunning effects, riveting storytelling and above all, gripping choreography. When Cinderella debuted at SFB in 2013, it became an instant hit, and will surely be part of the repertory for decades to come.

There is much to love in Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Starting with the prologue, which is inspired. In the first few scenes, the viewer meets all the main characters years in the past. You see Cinderella and her father lose her mother and grieve that loss. You see Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin’s youthful mischief morph into expected duty and responsibility. While short, these early scenes provide such brilliant context and help one understand what drives the main characters. Cinderella quickly fast-forwards, the children grow up (through theatrical magic) and the ballet’s plot really gets going. As Cinderella, Frances Chung gave a genuine and vulnerable performance from start to finish, but a standout solo was at her mother’s gravesite. Running the gamut from sorrowful port de bras to playful sissones, the variation was a clearly her way of conversing with her mother. Her way of sharing her life, and all its ups and downs, with someone who isn’t physically in the same realm any longer. Soon after, her father (Tiit Helimets) arrives with her new family: stepmother Hortensia and stepsisters Edwina and Clementine. Portrayed by Sarah Van Patten, Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel respectively, each turned in a winning interpretation, equal parts evil, sly and at times, hilarious. More superlative performances came from Esteban Hernandez as Benjamin (his leaping acumen always astounds me), and Joseph Walsh as Prince Guillaume, who was the epitome of gallantry in every movement and gesture. And of course the enchanted forest! Absent are any friendly mice helping Cinderella ready for the ball, instead Wheeldon created a magical tapestry of characters and spirits to lead the transformation.

Act II brings us to said event, and what a lavish affair it is! The corps de ballet was as vibrant as their gorgeous gemstone costumes, designed by Julian Crouch. And so many unexpected delights imbued the choreography – the use of parallel in Cinderella’s solo and the quiet, still passé balances that countered the Prince’s bravura jumps. The shorter Act III is all about Guillaume’s journey to find the foot that fits the shoe left at the ball. It includes another clever prologue, where various members of the kingdom try-on the item, their empty chairs eventually rising to the ceiling in a huge suspended arc, almost like a mini proscenium arch further framing the action. Eventually, Cinderella and Guillaume find each other and marry, symbolized by a beautiful design moment where the chandeliers from the ball descend through a giant tree, the tree that had been planted years before at her mother’s grave.        

As wonderful as the performance was, unfortunately the experience of being at the theater was anything but. I rarely comment on this kind of thing, but this time, it’s necessary. Patrons, fans, subscribers, please, please, please remember that if you’re at a weekend matinee where the ballet is based on a children’s fairy tale, children will be in the audience. This was Cinderella after all. And in a month or so, SFB is slated to revive George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another full-length narrative that is being billed “for all ages.” Be kind. Be gracious. Be welcoming. It doesn’t cost you anything. Foster artistic curiosity. Don’t thwart it because you somehow feel inconvenienced.