Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet
edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
available from Oxford University Press

Have you accumulated a personal dance library over the years? If so, what’s in it? Dance-inspired novels, memoirs, biographies, photobooks? And probably a fair amount of edited anthologies. Texts and volumes dedicated to a single subject but from a variety of scholarly voices and perspectives. This month, a new publication from the famed Oxford Handbook series might take a place on the shelf – The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet, edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen, published this year by Oxford University Press.

Being a mammoth handbook of over nine hundred pages, I wasn’t planning to read the entire thing; instead, sampling a number of the articles within, starting of course with the Introduction. Contributed by the two editors, the introduction provides important context on how such a huge subject (contemporary ballet) will be tackled in the pages that follow, as well as a lovely acknowledgment that this is not the only way to approach the topic. The discussion of how contemporary ballet distinguishes itself from classical ballet was particularly noteworthy, and brought to mind similar conversations about modern dance and postmodern dance. And the readability must be praised. So often, academic books are unnecessarily wordy, and the point gets buried in the prose. Here the message was definitely well researched and analytical, but also clear and concise.

Delving into the book, Deborah Kate Norris’ Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s caught my eye. Likely because prior to the premiere of Marston’s Snowblind for San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 Unbound Festival, I read the source material in preparation - the novel Ethan Fromme. Near the beginning of the article, Norris outlines a plan to focus on Marston’s literary/narrative journey while concurrently discussing gender disparity in ballet choreography. The chapter lives up to both these promises and more, including special attention to the role of the dramaturg and to the importance of dramaturgy in ballet. 

Jennifer Fisher’s fascinating (and again, highly readable) Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets was the next article I was drawn to. Ballet22, a new Bay Area company with a view towards upending gender norms in ballet, pointe work and pas de deux, has recently burst onto the scene. So, Fisher’s work, which addresses that very subject matter, felt of particular interest. Gia Kourlas’ Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney points to the incomparable artistic talent of Mark Morris (transcending genre, form and style), while highlighting his choreographic contributions to ballet. Discussions of music and costume imbue the commentary, which also includes personal remembrances from the dance realm. 

The last two articles I chose were situated right next to each other in the handbook. One being the last article in Part VI: The More Things Change…, and the other launching the book’s final section, Part VII: In Process. The former, Mindy Aloff’s Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), A Ballet Epic for Our Time brought another artistic powerhouse to the contemporary ballet dialog: Justin Peck, who currently holds the post of Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor at New York City Ballet. Aloff frames her study by focusing on a 2014 collaborative composition with Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere We Go, and closes the article with an essay penned by Peck himself. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Everywhere We Go, and after reading Aloff’s analysis, I hope to get the chance. Emily Coates’ Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet was the final piece I read, a fascinating discourse on the entrenched gender realities of ballet, investigated through the lens of Apollo, the 1928 creation of George Balanchine.  

If you end up reading the whole book, it will be an impressive feat. Because, as previously mentioned, it’s an enormous tome. And I really think that’s its one flaw, or barrier to accessibility. Even breaking the information into two separate volumes would make it more manageable. But in any event, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet is going to be a terrific reference addition to any dance library.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Diablo Ballet - "Love Stories"

Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton in
Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance)
Photo: Rosselyn Ramirez

Diablo Ballet
Love Stories
Streamed online June 20th, available until June 27th

Last week, the SF/Bay Area experienced a bit of a heat wave. It definitely felt like summertime, at least for here. Though if you had the opportunity to check out Diablo Ballet’s final event of the 2020/2021 season, you may have thought it was mid-February. Titled Love Stories, the filmed/streamed program brought together three works that saluted affection, devotion, relationship and gratitude. But really, the bill was a love story to the greater Diablo Ballet community, as the company looks towards next fall/winter and a return to live performances.

The Diablo premiere of Sean Kelly’s CoppĂ©lia’s Wedding kicked off the festivities, a seven-movement ballet with classical charm to spare. Each chapter felt very much like a pronouncement of happiness and joy, like one might expect at a wedding celebration. The womens ribbon variation was delightfully ethereal, filled with intricate petit allegro. Jackie McConnell and Felipe Leon’s duet was equally sharp and buoyant and featured a favorite choreographic moment of contrast. Standing beside each other, she glided into a gorgeous 2nd position echappĂ© while he delivered a textbook perfect entrechat trois. In addition, their lovely port de bras boasted some inventive heart-shaped imagery. And Donghoon Lee deserves a special mention – a pure revelation in his solo wedding variations. What a technician and what an artist!

The most intoxicating element of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) is the ever-rotating, ever-moving shifts he creates in tone and mood, mirroring the amusement park ride to a tee. Originally created for New York City Ballet in 2002, and premiered by Diablo a few months back, the pas de deux takes inspiration from the 1945 musical Carousel, in music (by Richard Rodgers) and in costume design (by Holly Hines). Though rather than expressing a linear narrative, Wheeldon’s duet is more of a collage of emotion and atmosphere. 
Dramatic passion imbues the first part of the duet, danced with enviable quality by McConnell and Raymond Tilton. Swirling spins and swooping port de bras bring a youthful, carefree hope to the table. Complete and total abandon arrives in soaring, sky-high lifts. And Carousel (A Dance) concludes with a quiet, sweet connection.

If you look up the term ‘frugivory,’ you’ll learn that it refers to the dietary reliance on fruit and fruit products that some species have. Bruno Roque's 2019 ensemble contemporary piece uses Frugivory as its title, and it made its Diablo premiere on the Love Stories program. Fruit certainly played a part throughout the work. Apples, banana and I think mangos rolled across the stage at one point. But the love story that I saw felt like it was about something different. A love story between the beat of the music (by Dead Combo) and the movement in the body. Legs pedaled, fists pulsated, arms swung and feet crawled with metronomic regularity. Being deliberately rhythmic and ultra-precise was the name of the game. Frugivory followed an A-B-A structure, with the first and last sections having a similar dynamic (though not the same phrase material), and the middle portion being the contrast. In the middle part, text was introduced as a new theatrical element in the work, scoring choreography and gesture. While both fun and innovative, it did affect the overall flow, especially of a piece that wasn’t super long. 

Though not specifically related to the Love Stories program, I would be remiss if I didn’t laud the marvelous digital season that Diablo Ballet created. Under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, the Film Direction of Walter Yamazaki and the entire production staff, they manage to newly film the majority (maybe even all) of their season offerings. There’s nothing wrong with screening archival material. But Diablo Ballet’s 2020/2021 season (along with many other companies) shows that not only can new work be safely created in the studio and previous work restaged, but it was possible, even in this bizarre year, to capture and share that resulting art.