Butterflies Are Free

I have remarked more than once that many of my posts of late mark the passing of people I grew up listening to, reading about, or seeing. Last evening another legend of dance fluttered into the wings: Alicia Alonso. She overcame incredible odds both personally and politically to become one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. Her story is a remarkable one and has been well-rehearsed in the many obituaries that are now appearing world-wide.

Alicia Alonso as Giselle with her long-time dance partner Igor Youskevitch. They were the iconic vision of Romantic ballet in my young mind.

I remember pictures of her as Giselle in the ballet books I took out of our local library when I was not yet in my teens. She was the iconic image of the classical ballerina, often shown with Igor Youskevitch, her most frequent partner. Unfortunately I never saw her on stage only on film which though it captured her technique perhaps missed some of that stage magic, that aura that captivated everyone who saw her. My dear Simonetta was fortunate to see her perform, if only briefly, and wrote a lovely reminiscence that she is allowing me to share.


The ballet community is expressing its sadness on the passing of 98-year-old Alicia Alonso because no ballet lover was filled with anything but awe and deference towards this legend of a ballerina and it is in the human nature to wish to preserve for ourselves all that we (mistakenly) feel “belongs” to us – whether our worldly belongings, the fleeting moment, or those human beings that we love and admire. Yet it would be wise to realise that love and respect mean letting go and allowing those who have lived long and successful lives to break out of their chrysalises which in waning years aren’t always the best of abodes. When my beloved mother passed away 17 years ago, I imagined her as a butterfly that had emerged from the body of an aging lady to fly away into newfound youth and beauty. I wept for my bereaved self, but I was happy for my butterfly of a mother. The idea of the liberated spirit being akin to a butterfly has led to a succession of thoughts today which strangely link together Alonso and my darling son Simon D’Aquino and which I share with you.

Simonetta at a dance event with the 92 year old Alicia Alonso (centre) in 2012.

The great Cuban ballerina last appeared on stage in Rome with the Cuban National Ballet at the Teatro Nazionale, I believe in 1995. I was still a ballet critic in those days and had been invited to the premiere but that night I could not find a babysitter for my little Simon who wasn’t yet even 3 years old, even younger than in the photo below. I realised that this would probably be my last chance to see Alonso perform (well, she was almost eighty – I saw her again in 2012, but not on stage). I was loath to miss the show so I made the snap decision to take my little toddler with me and hope for the best: he might just nod off, I thought, or if he was going to snivel and whimper, I’d just get up and leave – but I’d give it a try.

My dear Simonetta with her son Simon who at this stage was already a confirmed balettomane.

When I got to the theatre it was fully booked but my Simon was so small he could sit on my lap and, being in baby-friendly Italy, they let me in with him. It was a mixed bill, the apotheosis of which was a ballet in which Alonso, wearing an unlikely costume as a butterfly, appeared briefly – propped up by a couple of porteurs – to do a bit of fluttering and enthrall the audience in spite of her advanced age. My little Simon didn’t go to sleep at all: he sat wide-eyed and transfixed as he watched Alicia and her dancers. I mused that one day an elderly Simon would be able to tell the young that he had seen the great Alicia Alonso dance – and it would sound as mythical as when Alberto Testa (who has also recently passed away) used to say that he had seen the legendary Anna Pavlova dance!

Simon d’Aquino as Peter Ryabovsky in a staging of Chekov’s short-story The Butterfly at the Barons Court Theatre in London.

That evening was the beginning of Simon’s love affair with ballet and the theatre in general. From then on he would come with me to see ballets, operas, and plays of all descriptions and, when he finished his schooling, he chose to study drama and embark on an acting career. Yesterday Alonso, who two-year-old Simon had seen as a butterfly, flew away. Tonight Simon debuts at the Barons Court Theatre, London in a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. Simon has the star role, that of the bohemian painter Peter Ryabovsky. Oh, I forgot to mention: the play is called…THE BUTTERFLY.

Tonight I have two wishes. One that the great Alicia Alonso rest in peace. The second is for Simon – in bacca al lupo!

October 18th is National No Beard Day – something that doesn’t apply to either Simon or I. It’s also National Chocolate Cupcake day which may!

6,700 Surnames

For our brief overnight in Amsterdam after the cruise we choose the Quinton Zoo Hotel which as its name implies is close to the Artis Zoo. In other times the area had been the Jewish Quarters. A migration of Portuguese Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula had contributed to the growth of Amsterdam as a trading centre. It was to remain the centre of Jewish life and culture until the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.

The Hollandsche Schouwburg was first a theatre, then a prison and deportation centre for Dutch Jews, and now stands as a memorial to those who were taken from their homes never to return.

As we looked out our window I remarked to Laurent that the building across the street looked very much like a theatre, as indeed it was. But a theatre with a sad history. Built in 1891 the Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre) was one of the more popular theatres in Amsterdam however with the Occupation because of it’s location the name was changed to Joodsche Schouwburg (Jewish Theatre). It did not serve that function for long and in 1942 it became a prison and deportation centre as Jews were rounded up and sent first to Westerbork or the Vught transit camps, and from there to the camps at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or Sobibor. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 80,000 men, women and children were sent from here to almost certain death.

Along the sidewalks on the Plantage Middenlaan, the main street in what is now known as the Jewish Cultural Quarter, brass “stones” bear the names of people deported from the Old Quarter and sent to the extermination camps. The word “vermoord” means “murdered”. These two were in front of the Nationaal Holocaust Museum.

After the war it sat derelict and in 1962 all but the facade of the theatre was demolished. The space became a memorial garden, chapel and a Wall of Remembrance to the victims of the Nazi Occupation. The Wall does not list individual names but simply the 6,700 surnames of families that were deported and murdered.

The Wall of Remembrance behind the facade of the Hollandsche Schouwburg incised with the 6,700 family names of the 140,000 Dutch Jews deported to extermination camps during the Nazi Occupation.

October 12 is Old Farmers Day – now, now Steve don’t take it personally.

Mercoledi Musicale

I’ve mentioned before that I compile the programme notes for concerts by our PEI Symphony Orchestra. In the printed programme I’m limited to 500 to 600 words about composers and works for the entire concert. Online I’m limited to what the attention span of the average internet surfer is – so I’m figuring 100 to 200 words max!

Programme cover designed by Maggie Lillo at Ruby Square Graphics.

Okay I’m being snarky there – imagine your surprise! The online notes are much longer than that and I wonder, as I do of these posts, as to how much people do read of them. However to be honest, as with these posts, my programme notes are written more for my own pleasure than anything else. And I’ve discovered much about composers that I thought I knew, become reacquainted with works that were known and pieces discovered for the first time. Research is a great adventure but it can be a challenge not to get distracted and get entangled in that infamous web.

For this month’s concert I’ve been working on Jean Sibelius and his 4th Symphony, Maurice Ravel and his Ma mère Oye Suite and a new Trumpet Concert by Canadian composer John Estacio that our orchestra co-commissioned. I’ve come to quite dislike Sibelius while still admiring his music; Mr Estacio being a living composer I go with the official biography but he seems an admirable man as well as an exceptional composer.

Now Maurice Ravel – that’s another story! I’ve come to adore the man as much as I do his music. Now I’m sure he had flaws but I’ll be darned if I can find any at the moment – nor am I looking for any. And I’ve listened to the Mother Goose Suite in myriad incarnations including guitar and harp! It’s a work I’ve heard so often that perhaps I only listen to it with half-an-ear in the past while. I have a new appreciation of it now.

Normally I would be posting a video of the piece however I came across a version by the Scott Brothers Piano Duo on their website that includes animations by Tom Scott. As well as the music and animations there are brief notes on each movement. A left click on the screen shot below will take you to the page. It may take 15 minutes to view the five videos but the music is magic and the animations capture a good bit of that magic.

October 9th is International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction ???? Hey I don’t make these things up okay!

Norse Legends

As Laurent mentioned in his post on our stop in Ålesund we took an excursion to the Viking islands of Giske and Godøy via the ingenious system of three undersea tunnels that were constructed in the late 1980s to give unrestricted access to their various communities.

Statue of Rollo, Duke of Normandy in Ålesund given by the city of Rouen.
Photo by Delusion23

They are referred to as the “Viking” islands as traces of early settlements have been discovered throughout the small archipelago. Burial mounds and graves of significant size have been found on Giske, Godøy, and Vigra. It is believed that Gange-Rolv or Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, was from the Islands. His descendent William was to become King of England in 1066 and was the founder of the Plantagenet line. A monument of Rollo stands in Ålesund, a gift from the city of Rouen in 1911 on the 1000 anniversary of the founding of the region of Normandy. Despite challenges from Danes and Germans who also claim Rollo that statue is good enough proof for most Norwegians.

From the island of Giske looking towards the Norwegian Sea – some of the most dramatic skies I’ve ever seen. This was the tail end of Hurricane Dorian.

Our main destination on Giske was the 12th century stone church that serves to this day as the centre of worship for the Island. Unlike many early churches it was constructed of white marble. As there are no marble quarries anywhere in the region the provenance of the stone is a mystery. Only small traces of the marble are visable though the chalk that covers the walls today.

It served as the private family chapel of the noble Giske family but fell into disuse during the time of the Protestant Reformation. In 1750 Hans Holtermann, a wealthy businessman, bought the estate and with Hans Strøm, clergyman and scientist (?) began a restoration of the derelict building.

Certainly this house of worship fell,
Forgotten by the whole world,
A Holtermann received it,
A princely owner and guardian,
And raised thee to thy former might.
And the king approved of the work.
Now, oh Church, saved,
May you sing God’s praises.

Epitaph by Hans Strøm (1726-1797) on the restoration of Giske Kyrkje in 1756.

We were not able to see the interior of the church which was a great disappointment. When it was restored in the late 1700s Jakob Sørensøn Giskegaard (1734–1827), a local woodcarver created an unique reredos, pulpit and organ loft. The photo below was taken circa 1910 and a left click will take you to a series of pictures that reveal what we missed.

Photographer unknown circa 1910 – National Archives of Norway

Both of my faithful readers will tell you that I am a taphophile – graveyards and cemeteries to me mean the stories of people and places revealed. Incised on stone and iron names and dates tell us that for a time someone lived, loved, laughed on and then left this earth. One of our group mentioned to the guide that Giske seemed to be a common name on the memorials. He explained that it wasn’t the family name but an indication of where they were born and indeed a few of the stones bore the names of other communities in the region.

Fashions change even for grave markers – it appears that during the mid-19th century these white marble medallions were popular.

The stone wall around the churchyard was an astounding piece of masonry as was one of the outbuildings. The structures must have been at least five feet thick and obviously built to withstand the winds that come off the North Atlantic.

Here are a view shots from the tour bus window as we travelled from Ålesund to Giske and Godøya. We can only imagine how beautiful the landscapes – fields, small fishing communities, and forest stands – would look in the sunshine. But you have to admit those skies are pretty dramatic.

October 8th is Touch Tag Day – you’re IT!