Heinz Spoerli’s Magnificat is challengingly intellectual and satisfyingly human. The choreographer took inspiration from the text of Bach’s “Magnificat in D major” and the arias of two Bach cantatas, “Where shall I flee” and “I have enough,” as well as from a visit to the Kolumba museum in Cologne, Germany—the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne.
From its cerebral beginnings, Magnificat becomes more tangible with each movement. Where it tests the viewer’s mind, it rests the eyes. The scenery is minimal and geometric, the costumes are uncomplicated in structure, and the ebb and flow of the dancing allows eyes, mind, and heart to process the layers of symbolism in this work. Peter Schmidt’s set designs are imposing while remaining in harmony and conversation with the choreography.
The program notes discuss Spoerli’s interest in the conditions inherent in religious devotion: “…expression of a profound devoutness, which also involves rejection, exclusion, uncertainty, and separation.” The featured dancers in Magnificat represent and experience all these things with powerful impact.
In the opening movement (the first of ten), the stage is lit in deep blues and littered with floating balloons. Dancers costumed in white and neutral beige sit on or carry large white cubes. Gradually, they process offstage. Soon eight women wearing warm pinkish-browns begin with decorative arm gestures, then move to joyous, generous dancing through the whole space. Eventually they are joined by sixteen men, eight of whom dance a very pleasing allegro section traveling sagitally in counterpoint.
Notably in this movement (in the women especially) the dancers look unabashedly forward at the audience, even at times when other head facings seem more appropriate. (Later on, all enter looking deliberately not forward. Some appear disgruntled, arms crossed, others thoughtful or defiant. They collect downstage, and a few at a time, they sit, then all point outward. A lone man crosses stage in front of the group while none make eye contact—the ultimate exclusion.)
The stage then empties and darkens for a gloriously lit pas de deux, danced with electricity by Galina Mikhaylova and Vahe Martirosyan. They are supple and dynamic, tense without brittleness. A second duet for this couple later in the ballet evokes despair and longing and is decidedly less restrained.
The ensemble dances again, this time clad in black, snaking their way across the stage. One woman (She Yun Kim) remains separate from the group, repeatedly assaulted by their angular gestures. The visual effect created here is repeated later with a corps of men assaulting a physical barrier of triangular pillars.
Devotion is perhaps best embodied in the dances for Kim, Filipe Portugal, and Arman Grigoryan. Duets for the two men are full of power, trust, and compassionate brotherhood. Later the two are respectfully combative. Their movements are synchronized more often than not. Kim’s ethereal quality is mesmerizing. Is she mortal? Divine? The three lay hands on one another, palms flat, as if experiencing some communal magnetism. She is grounded, then on pointe, then suspended over and over by the two men.
Two pas de deux for Melanie Borel and Olaf Kollmansperger present them as an obviously human couple, in stark contrast with the tingling austerity of Mikhaylovna and Martirosyan or the transcendence of Kim and her guardians. Their duets suggest first misunderstanding, then outright conflict.
A trio of noodly women appears ominously throughout the work. Sarah-Jane Brodbeck, Juliette Brunner, and Sarah Mednick are lovely and boneless and vaguely sinister. As a group, they seem to be an entity of manipulation or fate.
The ensemble work is formidable throughout Magnificat. The corps de ballet echoes Schmidt’s set pieces and Bach’s music in form and energy. A wonderful moment happens about two-thirds through the ballet in which they parade boisterously over the stage, a triumphant congregation. The whole chorus sings as the dancers flock, circling the stage, collecting in lines and dispersing as if pulled along by the current of the “Magnificat in D major.”
At the climax of the work, all the featured dancers are finally onstage together, each group reprising its own choreography. They assemble downstage and all prostrate themselves behind Kim as the chorus sings its loudest gloria. The effect is monumental, with Kim processing slowly, purposefully, directly toward the audience. Finally, the whole flock takes one final lap and demolishes a stacked structure upstage. Humanity makes peace with itself and breaks free from its bonds on the final “Amen.”
All the intellectual and human elements of art come together to make Magnificat a film well worth watching.
Magnificat (If Today Were Tomorrow and Yesterday Today)
Choreography by Heinz Spoerli
Music by J S Bach
BelAir Classiques, 75 minutes
Until this disc, I was never a fan of show tunes and popular music for ballet class. David Plumpton’s skill and sensitivity make West End to Broadway a fun and functional class album. Plumpton plays with warmth and a light hand, making this a great CD for intermediate or advanced classes. Clear, consistent tempi without over-emphasis of every beat will give dancers the freedom to enjoy the breath and richness of this music. Selections from Aida, High School Musical, Chess, and more offer something for all ages and tastes.
The disc includes seventeen tracks for barre and twenty for center with no repeats, though many are long enough for both sides. There are several lovely adagios (“Unexpected Song” from Tell Me on a Sunday is divine), multiple tracks for port de bras in center, plenty of waltzes for turns and allegro, and enough bounding, bouncing jump tracks to get any class light on its feet. Who can resist lofting through the air to “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast?
West End to Broadway is a fun addition to teachers’ libraries for intermediate, advanced, or adult ballet classes.
by Emily Kate Long
Part of the ICA Classics Legacy series, this triple bill of Les Sylphides, Coppelia, and Giselle is truly a treasure. It is a rare look at some of the mid-twentieth century’s greatest dance artists performing three of ballet’s most enduring works.
Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, to the music of Chopin, was restored from a black-and-white 1956 BBC broadcast. It features Nadia Nerina and Philip Chatfield, with Rowena Jackson and Julia Farron in the Waltz and Prelude. On display here is absolute technical purity: subtle, precise bourrees for the women, effortlessly soaring grand jetes and impressive batterie for Chatfield. The mix of proscenium shots and moving cameras give a dreamy, dizzy air to the whole ballet—appropriate for one of the first abstract or plotless ballets. We float right along with Chatfield as the Poet through beautifully geometric formations of sylphs.
Margaret Dale’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Nuitter’s Coppelia is enchanting. It plays out convincingly enough to look more like a silent film than a ballet. Here Nadia Nerina is the star of the show; for one thing, she’s the only woman in this version dancing on pointe. Her costumes are also the only tutus; the rest of the characters are clad in heavier clothing and character boots. Nerina’s alignment and the precision of her incredibly streamlined legs lends easy sweetness to all her choreography, even the devilishly quick Scottish dance. The steps fall away to show her off as quite the comedienne. The overall liveliness and charm of the dancing and acting make the characters come vividly to life.
Last on the DVD is a restored 1962 recording of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the Act 2 pas de deux from Giselle. It’s one of his earliest performances in the West, and one of the earliest in their long partnership. Nureyev’s skill as a partner and Fonteyn’s reserved technical style allow Giselle’s story to shine through, even in such a short excerpt. The wonder with which he cradles her makes her seem unreal. Throughout the duet, we see a Giselle who is deciding whether or not she can forgive the man who so carelessly broke her heart. By the end, Albrecht’s remorse merits her forgiveness so she may rest in peace. This excerpt is a really interesting study of variations in style and mechanics. For example, Nureyev’s high retire position when turning and the fluidity of his upper body are both a contrast and a complement to Fonteyn’s conservative but wholly expressive movement. The pas de deux is the traditional Perrot/Coralli version, but these two legends make it look like something all their own.
BBC/ICA Classics. Black and white, 100 minutes.
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.0
The documentary First Position chronicles the journey of seven young dancers through the semi-final and final rounds of the Youth America Grand Prix. The film’s subjects range from age nine to age 17. They ride in Jaguars through Palo Alto, CA for private lessons; they ride the subway home to graffiti-slapped Queens, NY. They are girly-girls, military kids, and war orphans.
What these students have in common is love for their work and dreams of success. The ones who stand out as truly special are infectiously passionate about the work they get to do in order to achieve that dream. They are an inspiration to their peers, to their families, and to their teachers and coaches.
First Position does a thorough job of presenting the sacrifices and challenges these young dancers face, as well as their passion and their triumph. It also affords interesting perspective from some of the YAGP judges concerning the place and purpose of competitions in the ballet world. Happily, the overall consensus at YAGP seems to be that competitions exist to provide exposure to young dancers. They are a stepping-stone, not an end goal, and certainly not an occasion to objectively quantify students’ abilities. That message is emphasized by a closing shot of the Royal Ballet School’s “Bridge of Aspiration.”
This film carries an air of cool suspense throughout, and a certain matter-of-factness appropriate to a documentary about such tough, driven young people. That’s not to say it’s without moments of humor, emotion, and warmth—especially funny are shots of 11-year-old Aran Bell on his Pogo stick and of coach Viktor Kabanaiev wincing and guffawing at nine-year-old Jules Fogarty’s botched tours and pirouettes. Well-depicted, also, are the special bonds between students and coaches.
First Position is directed by Bess Kargman. It has won awards at national and international film festivals in 2011 and 2012. Extensive information about this excellent documentary is available on the film’s website, www.balletdocumentary.com.0
Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee is one of the best-loved works in the Royal Ballet’s classical repertoire. This black-and-white release, recorded in 1962 (just two years after the ballet’s premiere), features the original cast of principals: Nadia Nerina as Lise, David Blair as Colas, and Stanley Holden as Widow Simone, Lise’s mother.
Ashton’s construction balances the humorous narrative with surprising choreographic shapes and movement sequences. This ballet is a true work of art, and producer Margaret Dale’s arrangement of the ballet for the BBC studios ensures each aspect is given due attention. The large-scale dances are given appropriate perspective, and close-up shots allow the narrative to flow smoothly and the comedy to read clearly.
Act I begins tongue-in-cheek with a dance for four hens and a rooster, setting a tone of lightness and humor for the entire ballet. We meet Nerina as the impetuous Lise, teasing her mother and always up to something. She is in love with Colas, but Widow Simone has other plans—Lise is to be wed to Alain (Alexander Grant), the bumbling and subtly hilarious son of a wealthy landowner. This act is laced throughout with smart and lively choreography for the villagers, as well as the comic “Clog Dance” for Widow Simone and four of Lise’s friends—an echo of the chickens’ dance that opened the act. After making their way to the fields for both work and play, the entire cast is chased home by a spectacular thunderstorm.
Act II opens with Simone and Lise back indoors, drying off and settling down to domestic pursuits. Lise’s mischief continues, and eventually Simone leaves on an errand. By the time she returns, Colas has sneaked into the house and hidden in Lise’s room. Lise is sent upstairs to change into her wedding dress in preparation for the arrival of Alain, his father, and the village notary. Soon the lovers are discovered, much to the dismay of the future parents-in-law! After recovering from the shock, Widow Simone relents and blesses the marriage of Lise and Colas. Act II closes with a boisterous, circular party, and as in the first act, Alain gets the last laugh.
The pas de deux in this ballet are certainly worth mentioning as highlights—none are of the usual “opening-adage-solo-solo-coda” formula. The first two make use of ribbons, one brilliantly playful, the second a nod to traditional, formal pas de deux framed by an entire corps de ballet. The third is danced through a window, and the last, reminiscent of La Sylphide or Giselle, is seamlessly integrated into the general merry-making.
This production in utterly charming and plays out like a storybook, and it’s a treat to see the original principal cast. Dance lovers will enjoy watching this piece of history!0