Reawakened Beauty

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteny framed in a doorway overlooking Grenada. A left click will take you to a photographic retrospective of the dancer and her career.

Today marks the birth, one hundred years ago, of the great Margaret Evelyn Hookham. Well okay you might have heard of her as Dame Margot Fonteyn. Arguably she was the most famous English ballerina of the mid-20th century. Her career began with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 and she was it’s acknowledge prima ballerina when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She retired as prima ballerina assoluta from what had become the Royal Ballet in 1979: an almost unprecedented – surely challenged only by Alicia Alonso, but that is another story – 44 years as one of the leading dancers of the century.

If you hover your mouse over Oliver Messel’s original design for Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) you can catch a glimpse of Margot Fonteyn’s original costume from this iconic role.

I only had the joy of seeing her dance once in 1962: it was in her iconic role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. To this day I recall her gliding through the colonnade of Oliver Messel’s gloriously baroque palace in that subtle but stunning rose, pink and silver costume. By the time she reached centre stage she had transformed herself from a 43 year old ballerina into a glowing teenager at her 16th birthday party. I was to see other Aurora’s after that (Alla Sizova, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Ashley Bouder) but none captured that moment with quite the magic of Fonteyn.

There are various clips of her performing the Rose Adagio from Act I sadly none of them are entirely satisfactory however (despite the odd aspect ratio setting) the excerpt below from a film of the Royal Ballet production in 1969 when she was 50 years old captures much of the magic of her performance. It was filmed one Sunday afternoon at a theatre in Bournemouth with a touring company of the Royal Ballet. The stage was smaller than Covent Garden which accounts for a few changes in the choreography. Ironically producer Keith Money ran out of money and the rest was left unfinished. The film was stored in cans in the attic of a barn in rural England until they were unearthed many years later. It was broadcast as part of a documentary in 1990.

Fonteyn’s style is of an earlier school of dancing that grew out of Russian roots in mid-century Britain. Though very much an athlete (what dancer isn’t?) her’s is never an athletic display. She is softer, more lyrical, more musical than today’s dancers tend to be. The technique is there but never openly pushed to the front, it is at the service of the character and the music. The pauses when she reaches a position are almost imperceptible but those pauses focus on the drama and the mood. It is dancing at its most elegant, most dramatic and finest. And I count myself as privileged to have experienced it.

May 18th is No Dirty Dishes Day! I do wish the people who create these days would mind their own damned business!

Over the Stream

I had originally meant this little snippet from the Bolshoi Ballet’s 2004 restoration of The Bright Stream as a Lunedi Lunacy but began reading about the genesis of the original production and found that behind the inspired lunacy of this pas de deux lay a disturbing and tragic history.

The Bolshoi Ballet poster for the 2003 revival of The Bright Stream used a photo from 1936 of Asaf and Sulamith Messerer in the original Bolshoi production. The brother and sister were members of a dynastic dance family that included the great Maya Plisetskaya.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s ballet The Bright Stream (Светлый ручей – also translated as The Limpid Stream) premiered in Leningrad in 1935.  He had previously composed two full-length ballets, The Golden Age (1930) and The Bolt (1931),  and both had met with hostile reactions from audiences and the authorities.   Unlike the previous two this new work became a popular favourite and played to full houses both in Leningrad and when it was transferred to Moscow early in February 1936.

The witty libretto by playwright/theatre director Adrian Piotrovsky and choreographer Fedor Lopukhov involved a ballet troupe sent to a collective farm and a cheating husband in need of a lesson.  The plot featured romantic flirtations and theatrical situations that allowed Lopukhov, then director of the Kirov Ballet, to choreograph classical variations, vaudeville dances, a virtuoso comic pas de deux with a male dancer dressed as a sylph and perhaps the first example of a dog riding a bicycle in Russian ballet.  And it ended with the simple but committed workers of the collective farm showing the dancers from the city the virtues of collectivism.  What more could Stalin and his coterie wish for in a proper Soviet ballet?

Here is that gloriously funny and virtuosic pas de deux newly choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003 to Shostakovitch’s incredible score.  It features Ruslan Skvortsov as the Classical Dancer and Alexey Loparevich as the old dacha owner.

When the work transferred to Moscow Lopukhov realized that the authorities would not find the cross-dressing funny and the scene was deleted.  However that became the least of the three creators’ problems.  Shostakovitch had already come under fire for his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District earlier that year in a scathing attack in Pravda said to have been written by Stalin himself.  Within days of its Moscow premiere this new piece was roundly denounced in Pravada as music that “jangles and expresses nothing”.  Piotrovsky and Lopukhov’s libretto was attacked as an insult to Soviet farm workers and the choreographer was accused of turning honest Soviet farmers into  “sugary paysans from off a pre-revolutionary chocolate box”.

The three men had committed the ultimate sin of creating something that was considered “coarse naturalism and aesthetic formalism”.  The ballet was immediately withdrawn and did not appear again for more than half a century. Shostakovitch’s commissions disappeared and his 4th Symphony denied its intended premiere that December.  He was never to composed another ballet.  Lopukov was stripped of his position as director of the Kirov and only saved from the gulags or execution by the fact that his ballerina sister Lydia was married to the much admired British economist John Maynard Keynes. For the rest of his professional life he was relegated to minor positions in the Soviet dance scene – seen now as a major loss to the dance world.  Piotrovsky was not so fortunate.  He had previously been accused of “formalism” in his position as a theatre manager and artistic director of a film studio and here was one more charge against him of “un-Soviet” thinking.  Within a year  he disappeared into the Gulags, a victim of the Great Purge, and it is assumed he was executed there.

A work meant to be light, entertaining, and uplifting had proved the downfall of its creators.

On this day in 1384: Jadwiga is crowned King of Poland, although she is a woman.


A Short Evening of Petit

December was an eventful month musically with much going on operatically, orchestrally and on the dance scene. Couple that with holiday happenings and schedule conflicts meant some things had to be missed. But some fancy footwork and manipulating of TrenItalia schedules did allow me to see a Riccardo Muti conducted Moïse et Pharon at the Teatro dell’Opera on my birthday and then make a run to La Scala for the new Die Walküre the next night. Observations on both those performances should follow shortly. I had been looking forward to the mid-month Academia Santa Cecilia Christmas concert – note not Holiday Concert but Christmas Concert – and the opportunity to hear both Arthur Honegger’s Une cantate de Noël and the much talked about young baritone Jacques Imbrailo but other commitments made it impossible.

However I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see Eleonora Abbagnato, the Sicilian born premiere danseuse, of the Paris Opéra Ballet in Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne at the Teatro dell’Opera. And the fact that it was being paired with Petit’s ground-breaking Carmen starring Polina Semionova, one of my favourite dancers, made the evening a must-see. So on the second last night of the year our friends Simonetta, Brigitte, Lorraine, Simon and Laurent and I ensconced ourselves in a palco at the Teatro dell’Opera for una Serata Roland Petit.

Abbagnato is as much known here in Italy for her commercials and magazine appearances (including a few of the gossip rags) as she is for her dance work but that all falls in the shadows when she steps on stage. This is a dancer who has “star” in every step she takes and even her stillness has impact. Though the role of Vivette doesn’t have the showy opportunities that Petit gives to his male dancer in this tale of obsessive love it is technically and theatrically one of nuance and Abbagnato makes every moment on stage electric.

As often happens at the Teatro dell’Opera the originally announced cast list qualified as a work of fiction – Benjamin Pech, Abbagnato’s frequent partner in Paris, was scheduled to dance Frederi but was replaced by Alessandro Riga, a dancer who received his major training here in Roma. It was an impressive substitution. Petit’s choreography for the village boy driven mad by his love for an unfaithful girl from Arlés requires virtuosity as both a dancer and an actor: after a slightly tentative beginning Riga delivered both. That final desperate descent into madness was electric and the suicidal leap breathtaking. He is listed as a “guest artist” for several productions in the coming months – it will be interesting to see him in other types of roles.

I had seen L’Arlésienne many years ago when Petit’s Ballet de Marseilles brought it to Ottawa along with the Carmen that he had revived for Karen Kain. I don’t recall it having the same impact as it did in this performance. Even with the less than stellar company of the Teatro dell’Opera the power of this piece of dance-making, with the central drama set within the framework of the folk-inspired movements of the Corps de Ballet, came through.

Here is Eleonora Abbagnato with her frequent partner (on and off stage) Jérémie Bélingard in the final scene of L’Arlésienne. Unfortunately it is split in two clips and the dark setting does obscure some of the complex leg work that Petit demands of the male dancer – but Bélingard is incredible in this performance as is Abbagnato in a quieter way.


My friend Simonetta and I turned to each other almost simultaneously at the end of the Carmen and muttered “dated”. This is arguably Petit’s most famous work and one of his earliest – it was created in 1949 for his Ballet de Paris and more particularly for his wife the great French ballerina-performer Zizi Jeanmarie. Looking at it now it is very much dance theatre of its time – even the once striking decor and costumes by Antoni Calvé have a musty feel to them. On the way home Laurent remarked that he kept thinking “Gene Kelly” and there was a certain truth to that – the choreography has a quality to it that marks it as a piece of dance from the 50s. Perhaps with a Carmen of more sensuality than Semionova – she’s just too nice – and a José of more passion than Robert Tewsley it would have had more impact. I recall seeing Semionova and Roberto Bolle dancing the pas de deux at a Gala two years ago and feeling at that time that there was something missing. In both instances the technique was there but not the sexuality.

The company put a good deal of energy into the performance and notable amongst the gypsies, cigarette girls and riff-raff of Seville was Alessandra Amato as the chief bandit. She is a dancer who has demonstrated rare skill over the past few years and it has been interesting watching her develop. Hopefully the Company’s new director, Micha van Hoeck, will give us more opportunity to see her in other roles.

Though there have been great dancers who have assumed the roles of Carmen and José there have never been any to challenge the sensuality and sexuality that Zizi and Petit brought to those first performances. Fortunately it was caught on film in Black Tights, a 1960 dance film that featured four dance pieces choreographed by Petit for Zizi, Moira Shearer and Cyd Charisse.

It was an enjoyable evening but as I made note in the title a rather short one. Perhaps budgetary constraints stopped van Hoecke from programming a third Petit work to fill out the evening. It would have been interesting to see another of his works – Le Loup, Le jeune homme et la mort or even the Company’s lead male dancer Mario Marozzi in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which he danced here several years ago. However given the current financial situation – the Company is only presenting 4 programmes this season – I should just thank the gods he was able to give us an evening of dance at all.

04 gennaio – Beata Angela da Foligno

After the Bolle’s Over

Roberto Bolle Gala - Photo Luciano RomanoWell last night was the night, Roberto came to Roma and the town succumbed. Teatro dell’Opera was packed – not a poltroni or palci to be had – with the great, the near great and the “don’t I just think I’m great!” There were insane Italian TV personalities, Bolle-boppers of both sexes, Government Ministers, movers in the arts world, dancers – we shared our box with a lovely ex-dancer and her husband – and then those of us that just wanted to see the ballet… oh okay and Bolle.

And make no mistake Bolle was the reason we were there and he knew it but in a rather modest self-effacing way. He shared the stage with 10 other dancers – all leading dancers with their respective companies – and only appeared in four of the eleven numbers. It was a mixed programme with a fascinating range of choreography: from the Romantic (the Petipa Esmeralda and Swan Lake, the Coralli/Perrot Giselle) to 20th century classics (Petit’s Carmen and MacMillan’s Manon) to the modern (John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian, Jiri Bubenieck and Ben Van Cauwenbergh.)

Highlights? Well of the Bolle’s bits the Carmen with Polina Seminova was well done if slightly cool (but then no one sizzled in Carmen quite like Zizi.) But the Manon finale with the Royal Ballet’s Mara Galeazzi tore the place apart. The impassioned dance that MacMillan created for Des Grieux and the dying Manon blazed across the stage with raw intensity – God I wish I had seen Bolle and Ferri in it.

The rest of the selections were well danced but the two that grabbed the audience’s attention the most were a male pas de deux and a male pas de trois. Neurmeier’s Opus 100 for Morice danced by Otto Bubenicek and Ivan Urban, a simple but beautiful tribute to friendship and affection was brilliantly danced to the music of Simon and Garfunkel (Friends and Bridge Over Troubled Waters.) Equally well received was Jiri Bubenieck’s Le Souffle de L’Esprit with Urban and Bubenicek joined by Alexandre Riabko dancing an exuberant number to the Pachabel Cannon. All three are with the Hamburg Ballet which suggests they have a very strong group of male soloists. Kylian’s Bella Figura as danced by the Nederlands Dans Theater’s Natasha Novotna and Vaclav Kunes had some stunning visual moments. And Novotna closed the evening with Bolle in Kylian’s Petite Mort which was a stunning opportunity to admire their joint technique and Bolle’s near naked body. But understand we were there for the ballet!

The only gripe about the evening – the recorded music. It worked in the modern dances but worked against the dancers in the classical pas de deux. Normally a ballet conductor bases the tempi on the dancers, here the dancers were at times forcing themselves to keep up with the recorded tempi. And Roberto could have given us an encore!

There were only three ad pages in the nicely done free programme – the one above, another for a 5 star Hotel in Rome and the one below.

Bolle was appointed a UNICEF Ambassador several years ago and has shown special support for children of the Sudan.

04 decembre – Santa Barbara

You Shall Go to the Bolle Cinderella

Well I was expecting the Roberto Bolle Gala at the Teatro dell’Opera to be sold out within minutes of tickets going online but the listing still hasn’t appeared as of noon today. As I was heading to Centro to get my hair cut – when you find a “barbiere di qualita” who can do something with what’s left of my hair you stay with him not matter the distance – I dropped in at the Box Office and was able to pick up extremely good seats about an hour after sales had opened. I’m not sure why its not selling out given the amount of publicity our boy Bobby is getting these days but it could be the high (for Rome) price of tickets.

Thought I would just post this video of a scene from Excelsior with Bolle (fully dressed for a change)mostly because of its kitsch value. This was the great hit in the 1880s and celebrates the progress of the 19th into the 20th century: Electricity, light, the telegraph, the steam engine, the Brooklyn Bridge(!!!), tunnels linking France and Italy, the Suez Canal are all recreated in a series of tableaux. It’s been referred to as Le Cosaire meets H.G. Wells and it looks like great fun. Its in the repetorie of La Scala and I’m just hoping they revive it sometime in the next four years.

08 novembre – San Goffredo