An Evening of Balanchine

So, what did you do on January 22nd? Well, in case you didn’t know, that day is the inimitable and enigmatic “Mr. B”s Birthday. That’s George Balanchine (1904 – 1983), founder of New York City Ballet, School of American Ballet and generally recognised as one of the most important choreographers to have ever lived.

So did you get a Balanchine fix on his birthday? I certainly did! It started with me picking up a student rush ticket to NYC Ballet’s 8pm performance, before heading to four and a half hours of Ballet class.

If you’re a student, under 29 years of age, reading this, then I hope you know about NYC Ballet’s student rush policy. What? You don’t? Well let me enlighten you! If you head to at the start of the week and click on “Student Rush” they list all performances that week which have student rush tickets on offer. Then, on the day of the performance (for me it’s generally when I’m still working at 1am the night before) you go to “Buy Tickets” and at the bottom order 1-2 student rush tickets. Each ticket is $15 (with no nasty hidden transaction fees) and you pay for them via the web. Then later that day (at least an hour before the performance) you head to the David Koch Theater box office and pick up your tickets with your student ID. How easy was that? Not only that, but unlike most Broadway shows, you don’t automatically get put in limited view seats at the back/sides of the theatre – it all depends on what tickets are left for that performance.

In fact, I was delighted to find on picking up my tickets that I would be in an Orchestra seat for the performance! I was in P103, in the Center Orchestra. That’s a ticket worth $125! And I paid $15? I almost felt guilty walking away with the ticket – surely this was too good to be true?

Well, turns out it wasn’t and off I went to my classes at the Joffrey Ballet School. After three great classes (including some [slightly dodgy but nevertheless finished] assemblés en tournant and double pirouettes!) I was tired but ready for some more Ballet. Off I headed to the Lincoln Center and the evening celebrating Mr. B’s legacy.

The enigmatic Mr. B (Photo © Tanaquil LeClercq)

Just after being seated the lights dimmed and Jared Angle, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht appeared in front of the curtain to give a short introduction. As they talked about Balanchine you realised how important this man was to their lives, and he lives on through them. It was also an important evening for NYC Ballet principal Ashley Bouder (who was performing in Stars & Stripes) who was celebrating her 6th anniversary as a principal – congrats Ashley!

Mozartiana (Music by Tchaikovsky, Choreography by Balanchine)

Whelan, J. Angle, Huxley

So on to the dancing! I arrived to the David Koch Theater not really knowing anything about Mozartiana except for the composer and choreographer. As the curtain rose I immediately got a sense of a time frame for this Ballet – Mozart’s era. Wendy Whelan appeared, surrounded by four girls from the SAB (which, incidentally, Balanchine founded).

Now I had been told that this Ballet had no plot, like many of Mr. B’s works, yet I can’t resist fitting a story to what I see on stage. At first glance I had the sense that through the Preghiera the girls were learning grace from Whelan – almost like a finishing school. However, as the piece progressed I shifted to the idea that Whelan represented what these girls would grow into – and if that is the case the girls have a great future ahead of them! While the young girls were rather cute (yet still technically great), Whelan was the epitome of grace. I guess being a principal at NYC Ballet for 20 years will do that to you!

Mozartiana (Photo © Paul Kolnik)

Next up was the Gigue being danced by Anthony Huxley. This was a really fun variation that seemed to sum up the feelings of a young man with the whole world ahead of him. Huxley danced it well, adding a nice jaunty feel to it and I noticed that the choreography involved a lot of back. By that, I mean that there seemed to be certain sections with him facing away from the audience which I really liked – not because I didn’t want to see his face, but rather it gave a new perspective to movements that you are used to seeing face on. Later on I envisioned Huxley’s character as the boy who grows up to be Angle, but again this is just my interpretation.

The Menuet was danced by four corps girls and I was a little disappointed. In my ignorance I don’t know if it was the choreography or dancers but it felt like four separate dancers rather than a unit. This distracted me from the feel of the movement and just slightly jarred my enjoyment. In my fake-storyline these were the teenage copies of the SAB girls.

We then moved on to the Theme et Variations, danced by Whelan and Jared Angle. This was fantastic, and a really nice pas de deux. It spoke to me of a journey of love from first glance to lifelong devotion. To that end, this movement started really playful: for example Whelan had some cute yet precise pas de bourrés and Angle had some nonchalant balançoires. As the variations continued their love for each other deepens, and so the dancing gets more serious resulting in beautiful poses from her and impressive turns from him.

As the piece finishes the rest of the dancers return, giving a glimpse at three stages of life, and I guess love too. I suppose from that view it makes sense for there to have been no young boys in the Preghiera – girls aren’t interested in boys at that age. There was a lovely moment where Whelan and Angle dance with the young girls and I couldn’t help but smile seeing him take the hand of one of them – his hand must have been about four times the size of hers!

So overall I enjoyed Mozartiana. The music was stunning (but then again when is Tchaikovsky anything but?) and the dancing great. Ulbricht had mentioned in the pre-curtain speech that he always has to really think about the Mozartiana part Angle played before performing it and I can see from an emotional side why this would be the case. What initially seems like a ‘plain’ dance actually has, at least to me, quite a few more layers underneath than you first expect.

Prodigal Son (Music by Prokofiev, Choreography by Balanchine)

De Luz, Kowroski, la Cour, Brown, Anderson, Suozzi, Hendrickson

I had seen Prodigal Son once before this performance, however that had only been on DVD. Baryshnikov had been the Son in question on the Choreography by Balanchine DVD and I was eager to see this piece live. With music by one of my favourite composers Prokofiev, and Balanchine’s unmistakable choreography it truly is one of the stand-out pieces of 20th Century choreography.

Tonight, our Son would be Joaquin de Luz, a dancer who’s name I’d heard many times but can’t recall ever seeing perform.  Needless to say, de Luz did not disappoint: he was amazing.

The first thing I think he brought to the role was depth and maturity. Whereas when Baryshnikov did the “drumming on thighs” he seemed a petulant child, de Luz instead seemed a genuinely angry young man. Don’t get me wrong, the virtuosity was still there and the amazing leaps in the first “act” (those iconic flying kick-like jumps) were testament to that (no pun intended!). But at the same time, when de Luz is finally reunited with his father I truly felt he had walked hundreds of miles to get there.

So what’s the story? Well if you’re not up to date on your Bible parables the short version is thus: rebellious son gets sick of overbearing dad, runs off with two mates, drinks lots, eats lots, gets seduced by a smouldering temptress, his two mates fight, he gets drugged and mugged and finally returns home in rags with the realisation that he needed his dad after all. Pretty standard, eh?

Jared Angle mentioned in his pre-performance talk that he liked how Balanchine let the dancing tell the story rather than mime in Prodigal Son, and he was right. Although Prodigal Son is certainly a narrative Ballet the dance is tantamount to the story and any mime is built right in there. I certainly saw a big difference between this and say Martin’s Magic Flute which I saw in the Fall and involved much more direct mime.

Prodigal Son (Photo © Paul Kolnik)

After the Son runs away he is greeted by a load of bald drunks. They’re rather creepy and taunt the Son and his friends. Soon enough the seductress arrives, danced brilliantly by Kowroski. Her first dance is what I described to a friend as the “train” dance as it involves her long red train/gown.

In later years Balanchine would become famous for his stripped back pieces – with dancers in plain leotards and tights – where the costumes are unable to detract from the dancing. Yet here the costume is part of the dance, and skilfully used. As the red velvet wraps around the seductress’ body we are reminded of a snake, and this image is evoked further by Kowroski’s hand rising behind her head, like a viper’s hood.

But this serpent wanted to sink her proverbial teeth into only one thing and so starts to seduce de Luz with provocative and startlingly direct dancing. The following dance between the pair had a very interesting dynamic with de Luz thinking initially that he was in control, but yet his power was supplanted at every turn. This was paired with very interesting choreography which felt at times to be almost acrobatic.

Eventually the seductress entangles the Son and as they “talk” the two friends start to bicker, argue and then fight. I thought Hendrickson and Suozzi were great here (and earlier in the scene). After their spat, Kowroski pours drink down de Luz’s throat, who ends up stripped and beaten.

Finally he makes it home and, after being discovered by his sisters, is reunited by his father – who forgives him and carries him off in his arms. For such a short narrative Ballet there is a great deal of emotions shown and this is certainly a satisfying and fitting end.

It is quite hard to believe just how old this Ballet is. With the “classic” Ballets they often betray their age, yet there is nothing here to indicate it’s existence for 82 years. Partly I guess this from reinterpretations of the Son role by different dancers – I could see a big difference between Baryshnikov and de Luz (neither better than the other, just different) and I would like to see Ulbricht dance the role this season if possible to see his interpretation too.

Stars and Stripes (Music by Sousa, Choreography by Balanchine)

Bouder, Veyette, Pereira, Muller, Ulbricht

So I’ve already seen Stars & Stripes before, but I was still really excited as this is pretty much a dream cast for me. Now I know it should be about the choreography and not the dancers, but Bouder, Veyette and Ulbricht are three of my favourite dancers at NYC Ballet. And sure, Stars & Stripes may not be the most sophisticated of Balanchine’s Ballets, but it is certainly impressive and a whole lot of fun.

First up was the Corcoran Cadets led by Erica Pereira and the first thing I noticed was how tight the corps girls were. This was a nice change from the Mozartiana corps girls and they all attacked the choreography with precision and timing. Pereira shone as their leader and validating her position as soloist in the company. Both times I have seen this “campaign” I have been mightily impressed by the section where the leader grabs her ankle and extends her leg out fully while on pointe – impressive balance!

Next up was the Rifle Regiment led by Gwyneth Muller, who incidentally had been one of the four corps dancers in Mozartiana. She was better in this than the earlier piece, however there was still something not quite right about her performance. It seemed a little overplayed and I am confused why they didn’t give the role to a soloist. Perhaps they are preparing Muller for a promotion? Although still good, I didn’t enjoy this campaign as much as the others, just not my cup of tea.

Next along came the boys to dance Thunder and Gladiator led by the excellent Daniel Ulbricht. Obviously being a male-only campaign I thoroughly enjoyed it, and Ulbricht looked every bit the gladiator. I did find it amusing how Ulbricht was about half a foot shorter than any of the corps guys, yet his leaps were the highest and most impressive. I was astounded by him when he danced Taratelle with Bouder at the Fall Gala and I was astounded yet again. His tours en l’air were phenomenal and he is just a pleasure to watch. The corps were great and they proved just how impressive and athletic male Ballet dancing can be.

Bouder and Veyette in Stars and Stripes (from

This lead on to one of my highlights of the night, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette dancing Liberty Bell and El Capitan. Now I’ve got to say that Bouder and Veyette were made to dance this Pas de Deux! They both are fantastic technical dancers and their lines blended well with each other, but they also brought a great deal of acting and comedy to the partnership. Whereas I feel this campaign could easily be seen as a pure virtuosity piece, they added a level to it I hadn’t seen in my first viewing. The virtuosity was certainly there: Bouder was as exact as always and Veyette’s turns were damn impressive but over all of that there was a delightful cheekiness to their actions. For example when Bouder finishes her variation and Veyette walks on and salutes her, instead of a crisp salute he gave a jaunty almost flirtatious one which garnered some chuckles from the audience. Like I said earlier, they made the perfect pairing for this piece and it’s no wonder NYC Ballet chose a picture of them dancing it to be featured in their Balanchine’s Birthday program.

And so we reached the finale of both the piece and the evening. As the different regiments filed on to the stage, Liberty Bell and El Capitan lounged at the front of the stage watching their soldiers show off their skills. Interestingly, this was the part where I most noticed the difference between Orchestra seats and fourth ring seats: the first time I saw this piece (from the fourth ring) I was struck by the formations of the regiments, and treated them as groups of dancers. Now, from the Orchestra seats I instead concentrated on the specific steps and individual dancers. Maybe this was also due to the fact that I had only had a couple of lessons before that first performance whereas now I can recognise certain combinations and steps I’ve learnt in class (although performed with much more skill and flair than I’ll ever manage!). Either way, it let me view the finale in a completely fresh light and made it an interesting experience, which was a lovely way to finish the evening.

So here’s a toast to Mr. B! It may be nearly 30 years since he passed away, but tonight proved he is still living strong through New York City Ballet and we should all be glad for that!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Guess who’s gonna be on stage?

Okay, so something crazy is going to happen. On May 7th 2011, I will dance on stage at the Patriots Theatre, Trenton in a Ballet. Yup, me. Little old only-started-Ballet-four-months-ago-and-still-feels-like-I-know-nothing me. Now don’t get fooled, I’m not going to be doing the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux or Siegfried in Swan Lake. In fact, I’m going to be a really small part in the production, but I’m still majorly excited/scared because I GET TO PERFORM! In case you’d forgotten, this was actually number 2 on my New Years Resolutions list but in fact it was probably the resolution I was least convinced would actually happen. So yeah, this is kind of a major deal for me.

So what am I performing? Well I’m going to be in the Czardas in the Princeton Ballet School’s Spring production of Coppelia!

Finale from Princeton Ballet School's Sleeping Beauty (Spring 2010, credit: Mary Dunbar)

What does this mean? Well, a Czardas is a Hungarian folk dance, and the villagers in Coppelia dance this in the first act (don’t worry – I’ll be posting all about the storyline of Coppelia soon) and I’ll be dancing it with all the other experienced adult students at PBS. I say ‘experienced’ because in fact when I first found out about Coppelia I thought I wouldn’t be able to dance in it at all. This is because for students like me in Ballet 101 (first year of classes) the only opportunity was to be a Super – which in theatre-speak means a non-interacting extra (i.e. non-dancing in Ballet, non-singing in Opera).

That being said, I emailed Douglas – my teacher and director of the company – asking if there was any way I could dance rather than just be an extra. I asked him to be honest about if I would manage (I would much prefer to find out now that I’m not ready then have to drop out mid-rehearsals) and he sent back a lovely email reassuring me that he’s sure I’ll be able to manage and that they would love to have me in the Czardas. I was absolutely thrilled – the Czardas is for all adult students in Ballet 201 or higher (for which you have to have taken classes for a year to be in).

I immediately sent in my form with all my details and got to work filling out my costume measurements, with the help of a friend. First off was a few standard measurements: height, weight, shirt size, pant size and the like. Although I guessed that as a dude I didn’t have to worry about putting down a dress size!

Next up were the more complicated ones. First up, waist size. Done. Next, chest size. Done. Next, shoulder size. Done. Next, girth. Don…PARDON?! I was stunned, confused and slightly scared all at once. I now know that girth is in fact the distance from a shoulder, through the legs and back up to the shoulders, but this was not what came to mind immediately. What? I have a dirty mind? Well, I’m a 23 year old guy – whaddya expect? :)

So, after finishing off the costume form with only a mild case of emotional-trauma, I’m now all set for the production. I’ll find out fairly soon if I’m in the matinee or evening cast (although Douglas mentioned on Monday that there’s a chance I might be needed in both) and then rehearsals start in March. They’ll be every Friday for two hours and I’m really excited to see the rehearsal side of a Ballet. The dance is being choreographed by one of the School’s teachers (based on traditional choreography) so hopefully I’ll get to see a little of the choreographic process along the way. I’ll also have a costume fitting at some point and then the acts start getting put together at the end of April. And to keep me busy until rehearsals start, I’m scouring NetFlix for different productions of Coppelia – suggestions welcome!

All in all, I can’t wait – with me moving back to the UK in June I was worried I wouldn’t get the chance to perform before then. It’s sure to be an interesting and eventful journey towards May 7th, and you can be sure I’ll be blogging about it left, right and centre. Wait, should that be stage left? :)

Until next time, keep on dancing!

P.S. According to Wikipedia this is the standard Czardas rhythm. I’m not going to lie, it looks terrifying!Czardas Rhythm

Diaghilev and Bourne

A couple of months ago my friend, Jo, told me that she was planning a surprise Christmas present for me and asked for dates when I would be back in the UK and free. We arranged for me to meet her in London on January 2nd but I had no idea what we’d be up to.

So with a lot of excitement, and a bit of trepidation, I met Jo on a cold Winter’s afternoon in a Starbucks. I was handed an envelope and, on opening, was greeted by a crossword – themed all things theatre. After getting a little help from Jo on certain clues I unscrambled the highlighted letters to read where we would be going for the first half of my present – The V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum!

Why were we going there? And more importantly why am I mentioning it here? Well I had just read that morning about an exhibition at the V&A entitled “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes: 1909 – 1929″ containing costumes, scenery, videos and artefacts from Diaghilev’s time at the helm of the legendary Ballets Russes. Having watched the documentary “Ballets Russes” (a must-see) only a few weeks ago I was eager to learn more about this impresario.

Abstract portrait of Diaghilev from V&A museum

Picking up our tickets we entered the exhibition and the first section was devoted to Diaghilev’s life before creating his Ballet company and what spurred him to produce that very first season in Paris 1909, and start touring in 1911.

Next up was the marvellous Nijinsky. Diaghilev’s dancer, choreographer, lover and muse, he would also break Diaghilev’s heart when he abruptly married in 1913 and subsequently was dismissed from the company. He would later return for two seasons during World War I but ultimately succumb to schizophrenia (I never said this was going to be a happy story). This section showcased drawings, paintings and sculptures (including a Rodin) of Nijinsky at his work, be it dancing or choreographing.

The third section was possibly my favourite, and was simply entitled “Creating Ballet”. This focused on how Diaghilev matched some of the greatest composers, choreographers and artists of the time to produce spectacular works. There was also a video from Michael Clark on how a choreographer approaches creating a Ballet, and another from Howard Goodall on how a composer writes music for Ballet.

The next two sections followed the Ballets Russes from the outbreak of the First World War to 1929 and showcased some phenomenal pieces. This included the original front piece of The Blue Train, hand painted by Picasso himself. There was sections dedicated to Stravinsky, Cocteau, Massine, Matisse, Fokine, Prokofiev, Chanel and of course Balanchine.

Preparing to perform with the Ballets Russes - postcard from V&A Museum

Just before the final “Legacy” section there was a fantastic room in which Stravinsky’s Firebird score played while projected on the walls a silhouette of the dance was projected. Although with flames in the background and many close-ups of the dancers head (I want to see the feet!) it at times felt more like a James Bond opening titles it was still visually and aurally impressive.

And so the exhibition ended with Diaghilev’s death and the legacy of such works as Firebird and The Rites Of Spring. Although I would have liked for the exhibition to then concentrate on the fate of the such characters as Massine and Balanchine, we were shocked to discover we had been there for two hours already, and would have to rush to grab some dinner before the second half of my present. I must commend the V&A though for having the largest range of Ballet books on sale I have ever seen. Flight baggage weight restrictions were the only thing stopping me from buying far too many of them!

I finish the Diaghilev section with a quote from him which I love summing up his approach to Ballet:

“There is no interest in achieving the possible, but it is exceedingly interesting to perform the impossible” – Diaghilev


So what about my second half of my present? Well first I had a word search to complete (this time opera themed) which revealed that we would need to head to Angel station, but with no hint as to what we would be doing there. We headed to a Tapas restaurant and I was given my present – a ticket to see Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella!

I was floored – and more importantly, really excited to see this. I had heard so many good things about his version, and had enjoyed his Swan Lake so much, that I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with this classic fairytale.

So what did he do? Well to start, he set it during World War II, in London during The Blitz. This was, as with most of what Bourne does, a stroke of genius. It allowed for a complete shift in our perception of the fairytale, and let Lez Brotherston design some dark and foreboding scenery (for which he received an Olivier Award when the production premiered in 1999).

Program for Bourne's Cinderella

Opening with an air raid safety video (“don’t look up at the sky!”) the curtain (where a blue shoe resplendent in diamonds sits in the midst of a blitzed London) rises to reveal our Cinderella (the talented Kerry Biggin) garbed in drab grey tending her wheelchair-bound father. Slowly her step-siblings appear: two self-obsessed stepsisters, a creepy shoe-obsessed stepbrother, a fashion-conscious and effeminate stepbrother and an annoying young stepbrother (playing with his model aircraft). Finally the distinctly evil stepmother appears, immediately ordering Cinderella around as if she was a servant.

The step-siblings prepare for the party at Café de Paris (for which Cinderella received no invitation) and their respective dates (all army personnel) arrive. Having no date, the youngest stepbrother dances with his mother before staying by the door, placing his hand on the postbox and practicing his tendus – far too cute for an evil step-sibling!

Suddenly a Pilot bursts through the door and we are introduced to Harry, the Prince of our tale (played by the ridiculously talented Sam Archer). After Cinderella helps him with his injuries the pair are mobbed by the family and the Pilot runs off in fear. The family leave for the party and leave Cinderella alone.

Retrieving a stunning pair of blue, diamond-encrusted shoes from the coal bucket, Cinderella grabs her stepbrother’s mannequin and starts to dance. Briefly passing behind a column the mannequin is suddenly transformed into Harry, although a rather inanimate version. This was the first showcase of Sam Archer’s skill at both acting and dancing. He was required to keep a frozen face throughout the dance and moved stiffly – akin to Drosselmayer’s magic dolls in the first act of many a Nutcracker. He did this with great aplomb, and Kerry Biggin partnered with great skill throughout what must have been a very difficult dance.

As he transformed back into the Mannequin suddenly The Angel appeared on a window ledge – clad in a striking silver suit and our story’s analogue to the Fairy Godmother character. He convinces our young damsel to leave for the party and she dashes out the door, with her blue shoes on, into the middle of an Air Raid. As our young couple get chased by Air Raid Wardens they catch glimpses of each other but invariably get ushered away from one another. After a slightly dodgy gas-mask dance (involving spanking of ‘gas-mask dogs’) a bomb hits and our Cinderella collapses centre stage. The Angel appears and the rubble clears to reveal a crescent moon. The Angel starts to dance and is joined by eight or so dancers in stark white. This was one of my favourite dance sequences in the production, with a lot of aerial movies, including many jumps with one leg á la seconde (not sure of the technical term but I loved the lines they created). The curtain falls and Act One draws to a close.

After a short intermission explosions begin to go off (without warning) and the curtain rises on a blitzed Café de Paris. Although there are hints of glamour these are overshadowed by the devastation and multitude of bodies. As The Angel appears he casts his spell and the scene begins to repair itself – signs right themselves, rubble disappears and lights turn back on to reveal a 1940s club filled with revellers.

After the partygoers dance, Cinderella’s stepfamily appear and immediately commandeer the clubs dance floor by numbers, if not sheer intimidation. It was here that a nice little subplot starts – the effeminate stepbrother catches the eye of one of sisters dates, and heads off to the corner with the soldier. As the ball goes on they get more drunk, lose more of their inhibitions and eventually kiss before the watching eyes of his mother. Rather than the expected outrage the evil stepmother reveals she couldn’t care less and the brother leaves arm-in-arm and very happy (although I doubt the sister was best pleased!).

As the stepfamily gets comfortable, Harry arrives (minus bandages) with two of his fellow pilots to a rapturous reception. After the trio show off some impressive dancing our heroine arrives looking gorgeous in a sparkling gown, the familiar blue shoes and some rather suspect peroxide blond hair. As she descends to met her ‘Prince’ she is grabbed by the bandmaster (doubled by the father) while Harry is grabbed by the Stepmother. As the dances proceed they struggle to reach one another and once again Sam Archer’s acting outshone the rest of the cast – the level of uncomfortableness on his face was so large and real that you began to feel discomfort just watching him. I’ve also got to mention that the Stepmother was really quite impressive in this section – I had not expected her to dance at all in the production, and she ended up being one of the most impressive female dancers!

Eventually our couple pull themselves away and retire to Harry’s flat, but not before we see the Stepmother shoot Cinderella’s father (I’m still unsure why this was included, or what it symbolised as later the father reappears unharmed).

The second scene begins with Harry and Cinderella in bed and as Harry awakens and gets ready to leave, Cinders stirs. After convincing him to stay a little longer, the pair dance to express their love for one another. Dressed only in nightclothes, this was the most moving piece of dance in the entire production and the intense sense of intimacy reminded me much of the Prince/Swan Pas de Deux in Bourne’s Swan Lake. In fact, the dance almost made me uncomfortable at times – this seemed so very real and I felt like I was seeing something very private and special. This was partly due to Archer and Biggin conveying naïve love through both their faces and movement.

Just as the scene comes to a close we segue back to the Café, as the bomb hits. Suddenly the scene is destroyed with the walls both figuratively and literally fall down around the guests. As the smoke clears Cinders is back to where she ended the first Act, and back to her regular clothes and brown hair. As the Red Cross paramedics place her on a stretcher they leave one of her blue shoes for the Pilot to pick up, and we come to realise that it was all but an unconscious dream. This was all a bit too much for Jo, who was nearly in tears as we got a drink during the second interval; “but Cinderella is meant to be a happy fairytale!”

As we moved onto the third, and final Act the storyline came thick and fast. Cinders awakens in a Red Cross aid station with only the one shoe on. I was seriously impressed by her dancing at this point – I can’t imagine it is easy to dance in one high-heeled shoe! There was a really clever scenery use of white screens here – eight on wheels with a dancer behind each. This made for a very fluid feel to the stage, and allowed for the focus to switch between different rooms by a simple rearrangement.

After Cinders accepts she will never see her Pilot again, we see Harry, stunned and injured, wandering around London. Heading to a tube station he is greeted by a multitude of prostitutes and rent boys (this wasn’t the most PG Cinderella!). After being tempted by a prostitute the Salvation Army arrive spreading their doctrine in full comedic force, and scaring off all the street walkers.

Surfacing, the Pilot frantically offers the all-important shoe to all around him. This scene reminded me of Bourne’s scene in Swan Lake involving the Prince drunk outside the bar. Eventually some yobs steal the slipper and threaten to throw it off the bridge. After a brief tussle, Harry recovers the shoe and runs off, still on the hunt for his love.

Back at the hospital, Cinderella’s step family arrive, full of bad intentions. After forcing their way into her rooms the assorted step siblings present a variety of gifts. Maybe I’m being naïve and overtly optimistic, but I would like to think that the stepbrothers and stepsisters were being genuinely nice, and have started to realise how important Cinderella is to them. On the other hand, as they leave the stepmother attempts to smother Cinderella with a pillow. Yep, after that not even I could justify the stepmother being a nice person.

We see Harry arriving at the Red Cross station and his injuries get seen to. For reasons that are not inherently clear (I think the fact he keeps waving a shoe around makes the doctors believe he is crazy) he undergoes electroshock therapy. Just as the shocks subside, Cinderella walks into the room and the two stare at each other.

Now I’m an eternal optimist, but even I suspected that Harry would fail to recognise Cindella (if not, why bother with the shock therapy?) but it seems Bourne has a heart, as smiles appear on both faces and the lovers reunite.

The final scene takes place at Paddington Station just after midday (or midnight) on platform 12 (I loved the little nods to midnight and the number 12 throughout). Couples appear ready to say their goodbyes before servicemen head off to war. There is even a nice little Brief Encounter tribute going on to one side of the stage (Bourne has said that the film was one of his main stylistic inspirations for the production).

As Cinderella and Harry arrive we see that the pilot carries a suitcase with “Just Married!” painted on the side. As they say their goodbyes ready for their honeymoon we also see the older stepbrother say an emotional goodbye to his soldier and the father is wheeled on. Cinderella’s senile father fails to recognise her until just as she is about to board. All of a sudden he realises who she is and she can hardly contain her joy as they hug. Then came one of the most striking images, as Harry and the Father salute each other – her old protector recognising her new.

As they depart the focus moves to the side of the stage, and a woman in glasses at the station Café. The Angel appears and places his hand on her shoulder, leaving us with the feeling that as Cinderella’s story comes to it’s conclusion, another is only just beginning.

And with that, it was time for the bows and much applause. As with Swan Lake, the dancers did not merely come out to bow, instead there was choreographed dancing highlighting each member of the company. I really like this touch from Bourne – it showcased their talents and let the limelight shine on some of the corps that would usually be ignored in the background.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and urge you to see it if you get a chance. It proved to me that Swan Lake was not merely a fluke for Bourne. Although I still have no clue exactly what style of dance to call it, and would probably have enjoyed a little more classical dancing (not a pointe shoe in sight), he once again managed to pull out deep emotions in me in an enrapturing way. I was also seriously impressed by the sound – Bourne had an 82-piece orchestra recorded in full surround-sound last year, and overlaying this with air-raid sirens and explosions made for the most immersive sound I have ever experienced in the absence of a live orchestra.

All in all this was a pretty amazing day and a pretty awesome surprise present! If you have seen either the exhibition or Cinderella please feel free to share your thoughts on them in the comments section.

Until next time, keep dancing!

Nutcracker: A first viewing

Okay, so I have an admission. Until this Winter I had never seen a Nutcracker. There. I feel so much better now I’ve got that off my chest. This might not seem a big admission for my non-American readers, but for all you Statesiders it seems this is like me saying I’ve never celebrated Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanza or any other winter holiday. I mean, even my flatmates have seen a Nutcracker or two in the past!

For my British readers I think I can most easily equate Nutcracker-fever in the US to the bombardment of Pantomines that hit the UK shores in early January. Indeed, there are a lot of similarities – a family friendly afternoon at the theatre, a good dose of comedy, a heavy dose of “magicalness” and a bit of cross-dressing (Mother Ginger/Panto Dames) thrown in for good measure.

So, the weekend before Christmas I finally got the chance to see a Nutcracker – and ended up catching two before the weekend was over! What made the experience a little bit more special was that these performances were by the two Schools I take Ballet classes at: The Joffrey School (performing with the Gelsey Kirkland Academy) and The Princeton Ballet School (with American Repertory Ballet).

So what were they like? Well… Magical!

First up was Joffrey School on the Saturday night, after 4 hours of class at the school during the day. Arriving at the theatre I got shown to my seat and started flicking through the programme. I was pretty surprised to see that the production had been choreographed by Gelsey Kirkland and her husband Michael Chernov. I recently read her autobiography so was certainly intrigued to see what her choreographing would be like.

Soon enough the lights dimmed, leaving a single lit lamppost on stage and the familiar opening bars of Tchaikovsky brilliant score played out (unfortunately the performance was accompanied by a recording). Immediately I was transported to a magical story, seeing Marie (I always thought the girls name was Clara?!) getting excited for Christmas and then receiving the all-important Nutcracker from her uncle (or is it godfather?) Drosselmeyer.

Joffrey Ballet School Nutcracker (from

I’m going to take this time to comment on the girl who played Marie (I don’t know her name) who was fantastic. I’m not sure if her size (or lack of it) betrayed her age but for someone so young (13/14 at the most) she danced and held herself like someone who had been doing it for twenty years. She had such confidence (but without arrogance) and rightly so, her technique to my amateur eyes seemed near-flawless. Then with the introduction of her Nutcracker/Prince (a little older – maybe 18) she rose to his maturity and matched it, so that their first act Pas de Deux was stunning.

Fairly quickly the first Act was over and Marie and her Prince headed off to the land of the sweets (or something like that) ready for Act Two. Sitting at the intermission I started talking to the lady next to me who asked if I was a dancer – after assuring her I was just a mildly hopeless beginner she commented that I had the “look of a dancer”. Not entirely sure what that means but I’m going to take it as a compliment!

If anyone doesn’t know the storyline of The Nutcracker then all you need to know about the second Act is that is doesn’t really have one. I mean, Clara/Marie and her Prince are in Sugarplum Land and loads of people dance for them before she wakes up. That is literally it. On the negative side, this means that the second Act is kind of pointless. On the plus side, that means there plenty of time for dancing without a minor thing such as story or logic get in the way!

So the second half was a variety of divertissements to some of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable music. All in all the dancing was great, a few slip-ups but considering the age of the performers they did very well. After another Pas de Deux the curtain fell and the applause started. All in all this was a fantastic production. I’m still not entirely sure of the choreography – it seemed a little stiff and harsh at times for my liking whereas I like to see a bit more flow in the movements – although it was still great to watch.

So with my first Nutcracker out of the way I headed to the NJ State Theatre on the Sunday afternoon to watch the Princeton Ballet School/American Repertory Ballet. This was the Nutcracker I was most looking forward to – my teacher Douglas Martin (artistic director of ARB) had choreographed an entirely new production (and would be playing Drosselmayer) and my other teacher at Princeton (Edward Urwin) would be performing with the Company as Arabian and possibly Rat King.

Taking my seat I realised that this production was on a different scale to the night before – the State Theatre was packed, there was a live orchestra and choir, the stage was about double the size and the main roles would be played by professional dancers.

As the curtain rose I once again felt that magic (sharing Clara’s Christmas-excitement) and after the necessary story-section (with plenty of laughs) came the real treat of the first Act – the Snow Pas. I had actually seen a preview of this Pas at one of the school’s ‘On Pointe’ sessions but with all the costumes, scenery and orchestra it was as if I was seeing it afresh.

ARB/Princeton Ballet School Nutcracker (Michelle de Fremery as Snow Queen, photo by Leighton Chen)

I know I am probably a little biased (Douglas was my first teacher after all) but Douglas really excelled himself with the choreography, and the dancers certainly danced the hell out of it. It was so smooth and yet technically impressive, with the Cavalier’s variation particularly impressing me. Although at times I feel Pas de Deuxs can be a little too much like showing off how in love the couple are, this seemed to have some story to it. Yes, it was romantic, but it was also a welcome to Clara and the Nutcracker (and, by proxy, the audience) to this magical land and an invitation to explore.

Thinking that nothing could top that, the second Act started and the divertissements came thick and fast. All were great although I’m coming to realise that whatever production I see (the two live and three on DVD) I’m never really keen on the Chinese/Tea dance, and I can’t pin down why. It was great to see Ed dance Arabian, surrounded by three smouldering temptresses, and, as with all the company soloists, the dancing was exemplary.

Finally it was time for the Sugarplum Pas de Deux, which featured the same Cavalier from earlier but a different partner. Just when I thought Douglas had reached his peak with the Snow Pas, he produces something even better for the Sugarplum Pas. Everything seemed to just flow naturally throughout the whole Pas, and it was nothing short of magical. I was impressed how he had managed to make two very distinct Pas de Deuxs; I had expected to see pretty much a repeat of the Snow Pas (especially with the Cavalier dancing both) but that was not the case.

Just as the Pas was coming to a climatic close the finale began and all the dancers from the previous divertissements returned to the stage and began an energetic closing dance before Clara gets carted back to bed and awakens from her ‘dream.’

Needless to say I was applauding and bravo-ing along with the rest of the theatre, and it was great to see the performers get the reception they deserved. A fantastic performance, and a fantastic choreography (Bravo Douglas!).

So over a weekend I went from no Nutcrackers to two, and loved every minute of it. I can certainly see why this has become such a big tradition in the US, and can only think it is even more magical for young children. I have since watched three different Nutcrackers on DVD and although I still think the storyline is kind of stupid, I’m definitely going to try to keep up the Nutcracker tradition for many years to come. And who knows, maybe one year I might even be in one!

Until next time, keep dancing!