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BWW Reviews: Ballet's Greatest Hits: YAGP Gala

I recently attended a performance of La Bayadere. The dancing was excellent, but the music by Ludwig Minkus was excruciating. I realize that it has a jump, a bounce, danceable adagio notes, but after three hours of listening to it my head was spinning. I went home intending to wash Minkus out of both my hair and brain by listening to every note that Shostakovich and Prokofiev ever wrote. If I want to hear music, let's not settle for anything less than best and, many times, the brilliant.

Along with my music listening, you could say my rehabilitation, since I'm going to be writing about Russia/the Soviet Union, I began reading three books: "Lina and Serge; The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev" by Simon Morrison, "Hope Against Hope: A Memoir," by Nadezhda Mandelstam, and "Shostakovich," by Elizabeth Wilson.

Because I love history, any new book you read can shed new light on subjects you think you already know. So with all this knowledge in my head, and just having listened to the eighth string quartet by Shostakovich, I went to see "Ballet in Cinema from Emerging Picture: Ballet's Greatest Hits: YAGP Gala" a film featuring dancers from renowned companies performing iconic dancing roles ranging mainly from the 19th century, and including one unusual glimpse into the 20th century. And it was here that a surprise awaited me, one not only touching on dance, but on the raw nerve and turmoil of history.

This glimpse--perhaps detonation is a better term--was a pas de deux from The Flames of Paris, music by Boris Asafiev and choreography by Vasily Vainonen, or should I say a lot of new choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, who did a thorough overhaul of the ballet in 2008 for the Bolshoi. With all the turmoil in Russia in 2008 and up to this day, is another ballet-new or revised-- needed to extol the masses to rise up against the government? What would Putin say? And let's not even get into Bolshoi politics; I don't have the space for that. But The Flames of Paris evoked some very strange feelings in me, and I spent most of the afternoon thinking about them, while trying to enjoy Myrtha commanding Albrect to a dance of death in Giselle.

The Flames of Paris premiered at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad on November 7, 1932, ostensibly a ballet about the French Revolution, but cleverly disguised as a propaganda instrument to present the 1917 October revolution--which gave power to the local soviets--to a wide audience, instructing them about the communist paradise in which they lived, not to mention the two room apartments they shared with five other families.

For those not well versed in Soviet history, and there seemed to be a great many in attendance at the film who didn't have a clue about Stalin,1932 introduced what became known as "The Great Famine of 1932--1933." You know, or you probably don't, that Uncle Joseph Stalin set in motion events that caused a horrendous famine in the Ukraine, destroying the people there who were seeking independence. As a result, an estimated 7,000,000 persons perished in the area known as the breadbasket of Europe. Not much cause for celebration there, but I guess the Soviet authorities thought a colorful ballet would mask the real events taking place. And to think that in New York, at just about the same time, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein were presenting "Music in the Air," a musical where a group of peasants goes to the big open-hearted city of Munich, encountering no Nazi flags or symbols, although the leading lady sings "I've Told Every Little Star."

I also had another thought. The great ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, whose father was killed during the Great Terror of 1936, began her ascent in the ballet world under Stalin's regime. You wonder what was going on their minds. They kill the father but let the daughter enter the prodigious Bolshoi. Luckily, Plisetskaya was not sent away to Siberia for 20 years, as was often the case with families of supposed traitors. I also noticed that, with the exception of two ballets presented on the YAGP program, La Bayadere and Flames of Paris, Plisetskaya appeared in every other ballet, setting high standards that were rarely exceeded for many years.

All right, I'll get to the dancing. Marius Petipa is listed as the choreographer for many of the pas de deux. Petipa did choreograph many ballets, but are we watching real Petipa choreography? A lot has changed since Petipa died in 1910. And while his ballet masters supposedly notated the choreography and brought it with them after they fled the October Revolution, it is most likely that somewhere along the way the choreography changed and morphed into something resembling Petipa, but was not the original. I recently saw a production of Sleeping Beauty that credited the original choreography to Petipa, but then acknowledged the contributions of five other choreographers. So where does one end and the other begin? Again, this has always been a bone of contention with scholars. Since I don't have the luxury of writing a scholarly paper, I just want to say that original Petipa choreography can be misleading.

One of the things about the performances was that everything was up close and personal. Veronika Part, who danced the Swan Lake Pas de Deux with Marcelo Gomes, was interviewed and said that since dance excluded words, you really had to emote with your body, your arms, your entire being. And I agree with her 100%. But when you see it at such a close angle, it almost looks like a parody, something the Trocks could take on and tear to pieces. So there's a place to emote with all eyes all on you, but I don't think the Swan Lake Pas de Deux is one of them. It's like watching a violinist performing the Brahms Violin Concerto or a pianist performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. If you see them from the front row, or on the television screen, they seem to be making faces, laying it on thick. But they're not. So distance can be an asset to a performance.

The real gem of the program was, for me anyway, even if it did evoke some horrendous historical facts, The Flames of Paris pas de deux, danced by those two brilliant (in every sense of the word) technicians, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht from the New York City Ballet. These two dancers could probably perform, cook dinner, do a wash and mow the lawn at the same time. They probably would be out there protecting Stalingrad and moving in on Berlin had they been around. Bouder has already entered the pantheon of great Balanchine ballerinas, but Ulbricht is something of a mystery. He is a leading dancer, yet he usually performs soloist roles. I'm sure it's his height-he's one of the short dancers-but I'd love to see him perform the principal roles in Stars and Stripes, Who Cares?, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Harlequinade,Theme and Variations, even Apollo. He's had new works choreographed on him, but after seeing him perform with Bouder I think some clever choreographer could devise a ballet for them, set to Irving Berlin's, "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." I wonder who would win.

The rest of the performances, featuring pas de deux from Nutcracker, Giselle, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere were all excellent. There is nothing bad to say about them, only praise. The audience must have been filled with balletomanes, because they went totally wild at the end. Their shrieks could have been heard in Minsk, even Pinsk.

So I came away entertained, but wondering if we have a modern comparable ballet such as The Flames of Paris. I can't think of one, but with Alexei Ratmansky investigating and choreographing to the music of Shostakovich, I believe that the perfect choreographer has been found to take on the challenge. What would he do? Perhaps something comparable to the Jooss ballet, The GreenTable. There's a lot of fodder just waiting to be investigated. And I am sure that a number of Shostakovich, not to mention Prokofiev, symphonies would provide dazzling, if sometimes unsettling music. I wonder if Ratmansky is interested.

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