Saturday, December 09, 2006

A night at the ballet

I took the Last Amazon to see the Nutcracker Suite at the ballet last night. As strange as it may sound, I have never taken my children to see any ballet. The Last Amazon did beg for ballet lessons. Eventually I caved but not before I found a suitable Russian ballet mistress for a couple of lessons. I also knew that Madame would terrify all desire to dance out of her. It only took three lessons for the Last Amazon to succumb to my adult wisdom and realize that gymnastics was really more her style.

I never wanted my daughter or sons to dance. I did it. Ballet is very harsh mistress. Really it’s as rewarding as having a lover who you love beyond all distraction who refuses to set you free but will never leave his wife either. To this day my children never fail to tell me how ugly my feet are and there is many a day when the knees and one ankle never let me forget they make up a critical part of what’s left of my body.

The best performances are usually at night and my children were always early to bed and early to rise. Besides, most of the decent ballets are far too long for a mother of young sons to manage to keep her boys suitably still and quiet - short of tying them down in their seats and gagging their mouths. If I did that, no doubt some well meaning soul would have reported me to the Children’s Aid Society thinking I was abusing my children, rather than understanding; I was doing my duty to humanity and my fellow patrons. And it’s not like I could have counted on support from my other half. Getting him to a ballet would have necessitated a great lie, lots of illicit drugs, as well as a vague promise of munchies held out till the end.

The Last Amazon was absolutely breathless with excitement and anticipation with the thought of going to see the National Ballet of Canada in action. The National Ballet of Canada has ranked up with some of the great ballet companies of all times and should be a national treasure. I know the Nutcracker Suite very well, and through the years I have seen many different stagings of it by various ballet companies. It’s a great introduction to ballet. The music is lends itself so well to dance, and when you couple it with the pageantry that the story line requires it becomes a visual musical feast of epic proportions.

I knew the National Ballet Company had changed its staging in the hopes of giving the ballet a new look for a bit of a lift which struck me as odd. It’s a classic and the NBC had one of the best stagings of it around which made it a guaranteed crowd pleaser and cow cash – that is, until former artistic director James Kudelka got his hands on the staging.

Rumours had reached even my isolated ears that the Kudelka had changed the staging significantly but I really hadn’t paid enough attention to how dramatically it had changed. Silly me, I had thought it was more in the line of costume and props, adding or deleting a scene rather than the very fabric of the production’s soul.

Let me try to state the positives first. The costumes design and lighting are wonderful… except for Snow Maidens in Act 1 Scene 3. Those have got to be the lamest designs for a classic tutu I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. They look like they are wearing some kind quilt holder suspended by white mosquito netting hung about their waists. It made me think Space Age Frisbee does ballet and it utterly takes away from the dance.

The stagehands at the new opera house are worth every penny but I have two issues; one with the sound engineer running the board (like where were you bud? I kept looking for you.) and the other with the orchestra. Now, if a ballet orchestra is too loud, it really takes away from the theatre, but it has to play loud enough that the sound of the dancer’s feet are masked. That is just one of the little things a sound engineer is suppose to listen for.

Nothing takes away from the theatre and magic of a ballet when one hears each dancer’s foot pounding down on the stage. It’s not only distracting but positively grating. And I wasn’t close to the stage. For all you non-initiates to the inner workings of ballet dancing; a dancer’s feet have to hit the ground quite hard most of the time. One needs to pound to ensure proper placement and one needs the momentum of a good push as a lift up. The art is making the audience believe that one’s step is all airiness and light.

A final word to the wise; if you are ever going to watch a ballet in a small theatre which either has a small orchestra placed along the side or uses taped music - do not sit up front close to the stage. You stand a good chance of being covered in dancer’s sweat.

Call me hopelessly old-fashioned but having the orchestra dressed in mostly jeans is just downright tacky for classical ballet. I fail to understand what was wrong with the standard uniform of black suits/white shirts for the men and women in a little black dress. All those wild coloured sweaters and jeans are an affront to the audience whenever one of the orchestra comes into view. Standards people!

Speaking of standards, I was completely fluxed when the audience started to applaud when a dancer did one measly fouetté en tournant. This is a standard kind of whipped turn which is executed as a series of 32 turns per fouettes – if you will. One never does a single revolution for a fouetté en tournant. One does 32 or 64 or 96 so what’s the big deal with a 32 turns to make a single fouetté en tournant? Trust me on this, any dancer who cannot execute a single fouetté en tournant fails their intermediate exams. This is no cause to applaud especially when executed with a limp extension. No one expects anyone in the audience to be able to do any of the turns, but its not cause to applaud a single movement and it’s just down right stupid to do so. Nothing says “Rube” better.

I got the tickets for free so I suppose I don’t have cause to gripe about the fact that I thought I was going to see the National Ballet of Canada stage the Nutcracker Suite rather than the National Ballet School of Canada featuring a few dancers from the National Ballet Company of Canada. But if I had shelled out $155 per seat for my daughter and me - I would be feeling positively murderous. At the very least, I would be writing the Ministry of Consumers Affairs to report NBC for false advertising and consumer fraud.

It is ballet tradition for ballet companies to use students for some of the roles in the Nutcracker Suite. Depending on the staging, the role of Clara might or might not be a promising student, and the crowd scenes at the beginning are often filled by students. Many a promising dancer has had a career wrecked by the inability to handle stage fright effectively in a critical role. The Nutcracker is the perfect venue for showcasing and acquiring the necessary skills to get a handle on a case of nerves. Nothing to demanding or complex for the students, but still lets them get a taste and wets their toe shoes. But a professional ballet company should do 99% of the dancing and make up 99% of the performers on stage at any given time.

In this production, the quality of the dancing is incredibly spotty throughout,. Whatelse can one reasonably expect from High School students? Even my daughter, who does not know the name of a single ballet position or how it is to be corrected executed, turned to me at the end of Act 1 and asked; “Why are the dancers all so shaky? And what’s up with the hands?” I just gritted my teeth and said “Nerves.”

The performance is probably a better staging than your ordinary high school production, and certainly its better choreographed, costumed, and light than your average high school production, but it’s a far cry from the minimum of what expects from a professional ballet company.

I now understand why all the Russian character dances were cut from the choreography. The production relies so heavily on students who do not have enough mastery of dance to be able to execute them, but utilizing a dance of A Flock of Sheep for Bo Peep is downright lame. And what’s up with dancing Waiters, Chefs and a Bee? It was cute but totally irrelevant within a “Christmas” ballet.

Just pray tell; when do the toys come to life? Besides, I missed the great fight scene between the Toys and the Rat King’s mice. A bit of trivial from the old staging. The fight scene was not highly choreographed, so every season the Nutcracker was mounted there usually was some mishap or another. A sprained or broken arm/limb/finger or someone falling off the stage but it made for great drama.

I would talk about the Sugar Plum Fairy’s performance but by that time she entered, I was struggling so hard to stay awake that it took all my attention not to fall out of my seat over the balcony and land on the patrons below. The way I see it, you can save your money until the time the National Ballet of Canada rediscovers what it use to do well. I’d love to see the NBC stage this same cast and production at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. What a riot that would be – and I mean that literally; as one can always count on the Russians to be enraged when they are being cheated and robbed.

Or you can take a chance for a third of the price of decent tickets for the NBC and catch the Canadian Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker – (mainly Russian trained young dancers perform it.) Generally, one can count on the instincts of Russian trained dancers and choreographers to get it right. Or save your money for a trip to New York and watch New York City Ballet stage George Balanchine’s (another Russian) version of the Nutcracker.


Michael said...

My wife, who took ballet as kid, won't let our doughters go near it for exactly the same reasons (plus body image). She wants them to take martial arts instead.

It's funny though: our older one (almost 4) sings the entire narrative of her live, and follows it with impromptu interpretive dance. Very very cute.

Kateland, aka TZH said...

Michael. It sounds like you are very blessed to have such a wise wife. The body image is a large part of it. No one needs to be that obsessed with their body. When my daughter was about 10 she watched all these music videos.

Most of the girls in the videos were very dangerously thin - starvation thin. She was never in any danger of being overweight and she had a med-size frame - not tiny like me - she favoured her father's size. It made her feel like a giant and very fat.

She started to get very picky about her food and often wouldn't eat. I was starting to get concerned. Nothing I said seemed to make an impression on her. At that point, she swam about 10 hours a week so she was very athletic and I was getting concerned that she wasn't eating enough. The day before her annual physical I called our family doctor and explained my dilemna and concerns.

He was great. He weighed her and made a big fuss about how thin she was, told her she was underweight and needed to gain at least 15-20 pounds. Viola, it worked like a charm.

Needless to say, I banned music videos for a long time, and she did develop a different taste in music over time.

But it made me realize how careful one has to be for a daughter. I was never one to buy a lot of fashion magazines but I became very conscious about what came into our home - and what I said concerning the appearance of other women.

Michael said...

Looking at young women around Israel (well, noticing they exist, you know what I mean), I don't think that the body-image thing is as much of a health risk here. Fortunately.

Daughter Number One favors my build: tall and gangly, and rather thin. Fortunately, she's pretty like her Mom.