Reviews

Book Review: “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” by Zoë Anderson

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by Lauren Warnecke

Ballet has been the topic of much debate among dance scholars and writers over the last decade. Authors, critics, and academics have questioned the relevance of an art form with more than 600 years of history, particularly given the fact that much of that history has centered around Euro-centric, imperialist, male dominated subject matter (or Euro-centric, imperialist, male-dominated stereotypes of non-Western themes). Ballet dancers, choreographers, and artistic directors have varying views on how to remain current and inclusive in modern society, with some companies focusing on preserving the classics, others re-imagining or somehow evolving older ballets, and still others trying to push the form into entirely new territory.

Published in 2015, The Ballet Lover’s Companion by Zoë Anderson is a brief dance primer on ballet, with each of its eight chapters dedicated to distinct periods throughout ballet’s long history. In fewer than 350 pages, Anderson sifts through 140 ballets, analyzing their context by examining the social and political eras in which they were created. It’s an exciting (context: exciting for dance nerds like me) update to the slew of western dance history books available in that Anderson actually digs into the late 20th and early 21st century, perhaps replacing Susan Au’s 1988 stalwart on many dance majors’ bookshelves.

The Ballet Lover’s Companion is essentially a less verbose, easier to read, more optimistic version of Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels; Anderson, a dance critic, is unafraid to infuse the facts with opinion and commentary. For this reader, those are the bits that allowed me to get all the way through the book as a recreational read, but a second, typo-free edition could easily complement a western dance history course given its interesting tidbits of history and thorough treatment of an impressive number of ballets.

That all of those ballets originated from Europe, Russia or the United States is a symptom of ballet’s history, and not necessarily the fault of Zoë Anderson. That only five of the 140 ballets surveyed were created by women (namely Bronislava Nijinska, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp) might be more problematic given the scope of the book into the 2010s, but perhaps again indicative of a systemic problem, and not at all unique to Anderson’s book.

Unlike Au’s Ballet and Modern Dance, or Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, however, The Ballet Lover’s Companion doesn’t appear to identify a clear audience or position itself as a textbook, though it reads like one. One page offers an enlightened discussion on the radicalism of the Ballets Russes and the desire of early 20th century choreographers to abandon classicism for more meaning and authenticity, while the next page gives a definition of the word tendu. Unsure of its audience, The Ballet Lover’s Companion could be for everyone interested in ballet, or no one at all, but my guess is that pre-professional dance students and college dance majors have the most to gain from reading it.


Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke

Contributor Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance writer based in Chicago, and regular contributor to SeeChicagoDance.com, Windy City Times, and Chicago Magazine. Lauren is the creator of artintercepts.org, a blog committed to critical discourse about dance and performance, and has written for nationally reputed sites such as Dance Advantage and 4Dancers. An experienced educator, administrator, and producer, Lauren holds degrees in dance (BA) and kinesiology (MS). She is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), and holds specialty certificates in Functional Training (ACE) and Sports Performance and Weightlifting (USAW). Tweet her @artintercepts

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Review: Aurorae Aqua Microfiber Towel

81efnbJYUEL._SL1500_Every dancer can use a large towel, whether it’s for wrapping up in after a shower or folding up to tuck under your head to take an impromptu rest between rehearsals. Aurorae sent us one of their extra large microfiber towels from the “Aqua” line to check out, and we really liked the product. Although very durable, this towel is also quite compact and lightweight for its size. We used it after showering, at the lake after a swim, and even rolled it up as a makeshift back support on a long car trip!

The towels are offered in a variety of beautiful colors (pictured above), which were selected based on scenic waterfront locations…think water and beautiful sunsets. Because of the material, they are also quite soft.* Microfiber is a combination of polyester (80%) and polyamide (20%), and it’s water absorbancy is well known.

The size is fantastic–they are 32″ by 68″, large enough to accommodate someone who is 5’6 easily.

If you’re interested in learning more about these towels, visit their site. We think ours is great and can recommend it without hesitation.

*To preserve softness, always wash in cold water and tumble dry low.


This is not an advertorial. No money was accepted for the review, although we did receive a towel at no charge from Aurorae.


Read our review of the Aurorae Synergy Yoga Mat

 

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Robert Joffrey’s Nutcracker – The Final Run

Joffrey's Nutcracker

The Joffrey Ballet presents The Nutcracker. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

by Catherine L. Tully

The Joffrey Ballet opened its holiday classic, The Nutcracker on December 4th at the Auditorium Theatre. Many people have come to see this ballet as a “holiday tradition,” but next year Chicago will ring in a different version of this popular ballet…

A look back…

The current version of The Nutcracker was choreographed by Robert Joffrey in 1987. Performing the same version of this ballet for many years leaves a bittersweet feeling for many dancers as they look to the next season, and reflect on the past years…

This year’s opening night featured a combination of newer company dancers and those who have been around for a while in the cast. The underpinning similarity was that they were all radiant–from the party scene, through the finale. It can be challenging to bring a fresh approach to this ballet after so many years, but the energy was alive in well in the Auditorium on opening night. Of course, it certainly helps to have the live music provided by the Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Scott Speck.*

Joffrey’s production is indeed a beautiful one, complete with a stunning snow scene, lovely costumes, and many rich details. It has a very old-fashioned feel to it, which may make it a bit difficult to let go of in order to make room for the new production next year.

Looking forward…

That said, Joffrey has commissioned none other than Tony Award™ winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to re-envision the new Nutcracker for 2016, which definitely adds an air of anticipation and excitement to the mix. It also gives people in the Chicago area a unique opportunity to attend the last run of Joffrey’s old favorite one last time before they unveil the new version.

It should be a wonderful year to see this ballet, as the dancers will be putting their all into the roles that will be danced on the stage for the last time. A historic season!


Joffrey’s Nutcracker runs from now until December 27th. Both evening and matinee performances are available.


*Scott Speck is a contributing writer to 4dancers.org

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DVD Review: BALLET 422

by Rachel Hellwig

BALLET 422, a documentary by Jody Lee Lipes, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, his third ballet for New York City Ballet and the company’s 422nd new work.

Without the use of voiceover narration or intermittent interviews, the film shows scenes of Peck dancing alone in the studio for a phone camera, making sketches of steps and formations for the ballet, using his computer as an aid, and giving directives in rehearsal–“isolate the elbows”, “it’s not crispy enough”. But if you’re looking for more detailed insight into his choreographic process and the ideas behind Paz de la Jolla (as a well as the filmmaking process), you’ll want to turn on the commentary by Peck and Lipes in the Special Features section. You’ll have to do this on your second viewing though, because it will be layered over the film’s sound. I found the commentary enriching and I wish it could have been incorporated into BALLET 422 instead being a supplement. Nonetheless, there is an effective, quiet drama evoked in the film’s minimalist approach.

BALLET 422 also features backstage scenes, Peck’s collaboration with costume designers, discussions with lighting director Mark Stanley, and work with the late Albert Evans, former NYCB dancer and ballet master. As for the dance scenes, they give glimpses of the unique qualities of the principals of Paz de la Jolla: the athletic, lightning-speed sprightliness of Tiler Peck (no relation to Mr. Peck), the rebounding energy and charisma of Amar Ramasar, and the understated sophistication of Sterling Hyltin. Moreover, the dance scenes and performance clips capture some of the most exciting elements of Peck’s choreography –the Balanchinian propulsion of speed extended into a digital-age pulse and the prose poetry in his manner of melding contemporary and classical movement.

Magnolia Pictures, 75 minutes.


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Review: Dance Inspiration Cards

by Rachel Hellwig

Dance Inspiration Cards Photo

Seeking inspiration for improvisation and creative dance exercises? Then you’ll want to check out Sari Eran-Herskovitz’s “Dance Inspiration Cards”.

Eran-Herskovitz, an artist with a master’s degree in psychology, has designed 29 cards with illustrations featuring animals, nature, and abstract images. The collection also contains one blank card on which you can draw your own picture or simply use as “a joker representing any image you choose during the game”. The instructions explain that “the aim of the game is to allow experimentation and expansion of the range of self expression through movement”.

Suggestions are offered for different types of group games and the use of background music is encouraged, but there are many ways to use the cards. I enjoyed just going through the deck at home and improvising on my own. In class, teachers may want to stick to the cards depicting animals for younger students as movement ideas will be more readily apparent. For older students, including the abstract images will enhance the challenge. The cards could also be used as prompts for more formal choreography exercises and projects.

Regardless of how you employ them, the “Dance Inspiration Cards” will be a helpful, creative tool in group settings or in individual artistic exploration.

Beautiful idea. Beautifully created.

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DVD Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

by Rachel Hellwig

Alice in Wonderland PicThe opening of the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland interposes a psychological basis for Wonderland. Alice (Lauren Cuthberton) is not a little girl in this version, but a young teenager who shares an infatuation with the gardener’s son Jack (Sergei Polunin). But, tsk tsk, this is the Victorian Era and Alice’s mother (Zenaida Yanowsky) disapproves of this class-disparate romance. She takes the opportunity to dismiss Jack after she erroneously believes he stole a tart. Not surprisingly, Yanowsky returns in Wonderland as the Queen of Hearts and Polunin returns as the Knave of Heart who “stole tarts”. The premise of dual characters is carried farther as family friend Lewis Carroll (Edward Watson) reappears as The White Rabbit, and tea guests such as the visiting Rajah (Eric Underwood) and Magician (Steven McRae) later morph into The Caterpillar and Mad Hatter.

Video projections are appropriately used to portray Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In the sequences that follow, a combination of projections and more traditional theatrical effects help create the famous “Eat Me” and ”Drink Me” episodes (where Alice grows and shrinks) as well as the “Pool of Tears”. All of these scenes are fun to watch, although, if you haven’t read the book in while, they might be hard to follow in places. “The Pool of Tears” is actually the most visually effective though it’s also the most conventional – dancers “swimming” in between rows of stationary scenery painted to look like waves. While suggesting just enough of reality, it retains the charm of a storybook illustration – something that is not as easy to accomplish with video projections.

A challenge in adapting Alice in Wonderland for a non-verbal medium is the fact that much of the story’s potency comes from wordplay and parodies of poems and songs. The wordplay, of course, can’t be translated into dance, but there is a perhaps a nod to it in some of the projected backgrounds which feature skies of scrambled letters. The element of parody though does find an interesting parallel in Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography which incorporates spoofs of classical ballet, most memorably in the Queen of Hearts’ botched Rose Adagio. Elsewhere, Wheeldon employs a mix of non-satirical classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and, occasionally, other styles of dance. The Mad Hatter is in fact reimagined as a tap dancer, an effect which works remarkably well.

As for the music, I admit I have mixed feelings about the original score by Joby Talbot. Of course, it makes sense that a soundscape for Alice in Wonderland would express the madness, confusion, curiosity, and even violence that are integral to the story. However, whether or not you enjoy Talbot’s approach to this will depend on your taste for modern symphonic music, which, of course, doesn’t shy away from dissonance and percussion-heavy moments. At the risk of sounding like a throwback, I think it’s harder to pull off effective dissonance than it is effective melody. So, to me, the score is most compelling when it sticks to the latter. During these moments, such as Alice and the Knave of Hearts’ courtroom pas de deux, the music takes on an engaging cinematic quality which enhances the already engaging visuals onstage.

Speaking of engaging visuals… the costumes, colors, scenery (with a small caveat about out-of-place grimness of the kitchen set with its sausage maker and pig carcasses), lighting, and overall composition of each scene is top-notch, sometimes to the degree that the designs begin to compete with the dancing for your attention. The courtroom in Wonderland just might be the best for its geometry, full prism of costumes, and a giant house of cards looming in the background.

When that house of cards literally and figuratively falls and Alice awakens in reality, we notice that she is now wearing a modern-day dress. The Knave of Hearts/Jack, sitting nearby her, is sporting a t-shirt and blue jeans. Yes, as it turns out, this story wasn’t about a Victorian youth dreaming of madness, love, confusion, and discovery based on her real-life experiences. It was instead a dream about a Victorian youth who had such a dream. Hmm… I’m not sure this conclusion is quite as interesting as the scenario seemingly set forth at the beginning.

The dancing, of course, is world-class all around, as you would expect from the Royal Ballet. As Alice, Lauren Cuthbertson is like a music-box ballerina in her seemingly effortless precision, line, and musicality – her technique so pure it’s almost startling. She also possesses a natural girlish playfulness and lightness that are ideally suited for the role. The other standout is Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts. Her acting is spot-on, and, even more impressively, her classical grace radiates so thoroughly through her every movement that you’re simultaneously in awe of how well she embodies her comical character and how she makes it so beautiful to watch — without dampening the fire of the satiric choreography.

This OpusArte DVD of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is from 2011. Since then, the Royal Ballet has revised and extended the production. I haven’t yet seen the updated version, but Sarah Crompton of The Telegraph wrote that the changes were all improvements. I truly believe that this ballet has masterpiece potential, though, as with all art, it takes time and revision to achieve that end.


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Review : Shashi Socks

by Rachel Hellwig

Shashi socks. STAR style in Sugar Plum.

Shashi socks. STAR style in Sugar Plum.

Shashi socks are designed for pilates, yoga, and barre-style workouts. They sit low on the ankle and feature slip-resistant grippers on the bottom and mesh panels on top. Mine also had a sprinkling of sparkle sequins on the mesh – the STAR style.

I loved the streamlined feel of Shashi socks and enjoyed just wearing them around the house. But, more importantly, Shashi socks achieve their objective of keeping your feet cool while you do pilates, yoga, or barre-style exercises (not traditional ballet barre exercises of course, as the grippers would interfere.)

Shashi socks require a little care when washing. The Shashi website says, “Machine wash warm inside out. Gentle cycle. Line dry.” My pair are purple (sugar plum) so I decided to wash them on a cold, delicate cycle. I noticed that a couple of sparkles came off in the process, but, other than that, they held up well. I dried them overnight (about 6 hours) and they were ready to go for a morning workout.

Overall, I really like this product. It fills the need for exercise footwear that falls in between sock and dance slipper.

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