I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.
Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.
Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.
For former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent, this has not only been her first year at The Washington Ballet, but her first year as an artistic director. How has it been going? We caught up with her during the company's run at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival last week, its first visit since 1980. "It's a big change," says Kent. "There have been some exciting, wonderful aspects of that change—feeling embraced and excited—and the community is really eager to see what the next chapter for The Washington Ballet is."
"[It's also] my first year in a creative environment with a different group of people than American Ballet Theatre," she continues. This move away from ABT, where Kent was a dancer for 29 years, appears to have been a bigger transition for her than assuming the directorship. Kent, who had been adamant on her retirement from the company that she did not want to leave New York City, surprised all by moving her whole family to Washington, D.C., an area where she had grown up but had not lived in since the age of 16. Her husband, former ABT dancer and associate artistic director Victor Barbee has also joined TWB as associate artistic director, supporting his wife in this new endeavor.
Marcelo Gomes' clean technique, skilled partnering and magnetic stage presence make him one of the world's most versatile and in-demand male dancers of his generation. This year saw the principal dancer celebrate his 20th anniversary with American Ballet Theatre, a company he joined at just 17 years old. Coinciding with this milestone was the release of the feature length documentary Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, created by the two-man team David Barba and James Pellerito—who actually approached Gomes via Facebook. The documentary, which was seven years in the making, has been making the film-festival circuit this year, most recently August 6 at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
The film combines intimate interviews with backstage and rehearsal footage and archival video. It focuses on Gomes' skill and prowess as a partner and includes interviews with some of the world's top ballerinas including Diana Vishneva, Polina Semionova and Misty Copeland.
Over the years, many companies have premiered works or made their U.S. debut at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and some of the world's most famous ballet dancers have performed there. This week I will give some more insights from the Pillow's extensive archives into the dancers that have graced this world famous festival's stage. Click on the links below to watch video footage of their performances.
Alonso and Bruhn performing "Giselle" in 1955. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
When artistic director Kevin Thomas and executive director Marcellus D. Harper founded Collage Dance Collective in 2006 in New York City, they sought to push the boundaries of classical ballet and foster and promote the talents of artists of color. In 2007, the company relocated to Memphis during a period of the city's "artistic renaissance" and as part of a mission to extend classical ballet training to a wider and more diverse audience.
That same year also marked the company's first performances at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. This week, Collage Dance Collective returns to the Pillow, performing at the festival's Inside/Out stage on Thursday, August 10. (Thomas will also teach an open ballet class; click here for more info.)
This year, the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, is celebrating its 85th season. Over the years, some of the world's greatest dancers of the 20th and 21st century have performed here. But without the help of two of Britain's biggest ballet stars during World War II, the festival might not have survived at all.
Founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, the "Pillow," as it's come to be known, had been home to his company of Men Dancers since the early 1930s. By 1940, due in part to the outbreak of World War II, his company had disbanded, leaving Shawn deeply in debt and eager to realize his assets.
In 1941, British ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin leased the property, with the help of benefactor Reginald Wright. There they established The International Dance Festival, a school and summer residency for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Many of the participating dancers, including Markova, had just left the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo for Ballet Theatre, and the residency was a way of keeping them together. The dancers were not paid, so many survived on $10 a week in unemployment benefits, contributing $1.00 a day towards food and lodging.
On Wednesday, June 19, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival welcomes James Whiteside Presents to the outdoor Inside/Out stage. This will be the American Ballet Theatre principal's fourth time at the Pillow. He first came to the Massachusetts–based Dance Festival as a corps de ballet member of Boston Ballet in 2004. ("I was struck by the beauty of the place," he recalls.) Whiteside returned in 2010 with Avi Scher & Dancers and most recently with Daniil Simkin's Intensio in 2015.
Now, Whiteside is bringing a program of his own work, performed alongside muse and fellow ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary and actor/show maker Jack Ferver.
Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is passionate about promoting the splendor of early Russian ballet and has, over the last few years, mounted a string of reinterpretations of iconic works. This June his re-choreographed version of The Golden Cockerel, first mounted for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2012, will have its U.S. premiere at American Ballet Theatre, where he is artist in residence. The Golden Cockerel, which was first staged in 1914 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris, is the epitome of Russian art, music, folklore and dance. It follows the exploits of the foolish King Dodon, the powerful Queen of Shemakhan (who has eyes on his kingdom) and the cunning Astrologer, who gives the king a magical golden cockerel to warn him of danger.
While unfamiliar to American audiences, The Golden Cockerel has a rich history. Here is a timeline of this comedic ballet's many reincarnations.
1914 Choreographer Michel Fokine had been toying with the idea of a ballet set to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, based on the poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel by Alexander Pushkin, for several years. He wanted to try combining ballet and opera completely. The resulting production of The Golden Cockerel had the opera singers seated on either side of the stage while the ballet dancers performed. Tamara Karsavina danced the role of the Queen of Shemakhan, and Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti played the Astrologer, but the role of the Cockerel was simply a prop.
The opera/ballet was considered an unqualified triumph. But due to the large scale of its staging and the onset of World War I, it quickly fell from the repertoire.
Irina Baronova as the Queen of Shemakhan. Photo Barron Studios, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
1937 Colonel Wassily de Basil and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo decided to remount Fokine's opera/ballet in 1937. Upon revisiting the work, Fokine chose to create a purely balletic version with musical instruments taking the places of voices. He also changed the Golden Cockerel into a role for a female dancer. Tatiana Riabouchinska and Irina Baronova (who was only 18 at the time) danced the roles of the Golden Cockerel and the Queen of Shemakhan, respectively.
Richard Hudson's costumes and sets build on Natalia Goncharova's original design. Photo by Per Mortensen Abrahamsen, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.
2012 Ratmansky, drawn to what Fokine had described as his best ballet, chose to revisit the work for the Royal Danish Ballet, using elements from both the 1914 and 1937 productions. The resulting ballet, while containing references to its history and moral story, portrays the Russian fairy tale in a bright, swirling kaleidoscope of color. Ratmansky lengthened the 45-minute 1937 version to create a new two-act ballet by including music from the original opera. RDB soloist Lena-Maria Gruber created the role of the majestic Cockerel. “I turn quite diabolical in the end," Gruber says.
2016 In remounting The Golden Cockerel for ABT, Ratmansky has added and changed steps and built in more details. “ABT has different strengths to the Royal Danish Ballet, which I have taken into consideration," Ratmansky explains. ABT principal dancer Stella Abrera has been cast as the Queen of Shemakhan, whom she describes as “an overtly sensual figure" who relishes her position of authority. “This gal is the whole package," she says. “The deeper we plunged into the ballet and the better I understood why the original libretto was controversial—powerful women and foolish rulers—I knew The Golden Cockerel was going to be a lot of fun!"
Ratmansky coaches Part and Chryst, who play the Queen of Shemakhan and King Dodon, through a comedic scene. Photos by Kyle Froman for Pointe.
Re-creating a World of Color
Tony Award-winning designer Richard Hudson based the costumes and sets on the original 1914 and 1937 designs by avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. According to Ballets Russes dancer Lydia Sokolova, Sergei Diaghilev found Goncharova in Moscow “painting pictures on the foreheads of people in cafés." Her colorful designs, however, perfectly encapsulated Russian folk culture and fairy tale.
Tatiana Riabouchinska. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.When Goncharova redesigned the ballet in 1937, the costumes were made in the London workshop of Barbara Karinska. (Karinska later developed a close collaboration with George Balanchine and New York City Ballet.) Covered in hand painting, stenciling, embroidery and appliqué, her costumes were works of art but time-consuming to make. Irina Baronova recalled sitting in her dressing room opening night with nothing to wear. Suddenly the sound of sirens was heard by the stage door, and out of two ambulances burst Karinska, her seamstresses and the costumes. After a 50-minute intermission, with many of the dancers pinned into their garments, the curtain finally went up on the ballet.
Lena-Maria Gruber as the Golden Cockerel in the Royal Danish Ballet production. Photo by Per Mortensen Abrahamsen, Courtesy RDB.
For Hudson, reinterpreting the production was daunting: “Working with such a huge palette of colors was difficult to start with, but then liberating, once I understood that anything goes—almost!" He changed the costumes' proportions, he says, “because contemporary dancers are so different in physique." RDB soloist Lena-Maria Gruber, who created the role of the Cockerel, had to adjust to the weight shift created by the elaborate tail. “But it was a lot of fun to be covered in gold head to toe!" she says.