The Movement of Music

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It’s said that those who learn a second language as a child learn it more quickly and deeply.  It becomes an integral part of who they are, part of how they think and express themselves, even if the practice of the language falls into disuse in their adult years.

For me, that second language learned as a child is dance.   I started ballet lessons in the first grade, so it has pride of place as the first art I pursued formally.  I don’t think I was ever a little girl who wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up, but throughout my elementary school years, ballet became a beloved and special part of my life. And its vocabulary and the way I visualize music has never really left me.

My first two years I took lessons from the Pat Hammond School of Dance.  I remember very well my first recital. We were dressed as yellow flowers, and there I am with my best friend Kelly, yellow shiny costume with green leaves around my neck and what was more or less another tutu framing my face.  I’m pretty pouty looking in the group photo.  I think I thought the pose with arms crossed in front of me was stupid.   Next year, the costumes were better–we were doing some sort of folk dance and we got white dresses with red and white accents.  I had started taking an additional set of lessons on weekends as well, and for that, we had simple pink leotards with white, pink, or yellow tutus (I had white) in keeping with the music, which was something about Angel Food Cake with icings of pink, white, and yellow.

After moving, I continued at the Marjorie Jones School of Ballet, which was a more rigorous program.  I don’t think anyone at Pat Hammond danced en pointe or auditioned for the annual Ballet Met program of The Nutcracker, but they did at Marjorie Jones.  Every year, there was the excitement of buying a new colour leotard (hunter green my first year, then peacock blue, then Kelly green, and finally a traditional muted beige-pink) and new dance shoes.  And the Kelly green year, we got long sleeves, moved to twice-a-week lessons, and began pointe.  I learned how to wrap my feet (and to get used to numb, sore toes), to equip my shoes with moleskin on the flat toe surface for better grip, and to trim (and seal with a candle) the ribbon ties.  That year, in the recital we were Cinderella’s stepsisters’ dressmakers, with wonderful purple and gold costumes with adult-style tutus.  The following year, a couple of months short of the recital, I quit.  At that point I was five inches taller than anyone else in the class, and basketball seemed like more my speed.  But dance never really left me.  I took a few classes (both ballet and modern style) at Ohio State, and went to even more dance concerts.  My two best friends and university roommates also had a dance background, and we saw everything from the Nutcracker to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo to recitals with students from the dance school at OSU.

But since then:  Nothing.

I exaggerate a bit. Of course, there was some SCA dancing, the odd wedding or club or concert where I enjoyed moving (though not really dancing, in the classical sense.) I also attended a few performances with dancing —some Gilbert and Sulllivan, the musical The Producers.  I looked on longingly at my friends taking swing dance lessons.  And sometimes, when left alone, I’d crank the music and just dance for the joy of movement. Whenever I hear music, I always visualize it via dance and movement, no matter what the music is.  Dance was my gateway into music, and, like Latin and French, the two languages are entwined.  I can’t not think of dance when I hear music.

Music thus became my gateway back into seeing dance performances.  It started earlier this month with Pro Arte Danza’s performance, The 9th!,  modern dance set to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  I was drawn to this particular work because of not only its setting to Beethoven’s allegedly “undanceable” masterwork, but also due to the work’s connection with the history and fall of the Berlin Wall–which also inspired Roberto Campanello and Robert Glumbeck, the creators of this work.  The idea of walls thus became a unifying force in this modern dance work, right from the very beginning, with chairs laying overturned at the front of the stage forming a visual kind of wall.  In the first movement, those chairs are left in place, and behind that physical barrier, individuals largely struggled alone, starting with a lone male dancer on stage and gradually encompassing the whole company of nine–who sometimes danced in unison, but whose facial expressions conveyed their isolation.

The second movement of Beethoven’s 9th is the frenetic Scherzo, and it would have been easy to simply dance to the music onstage.  Instead, behind the dancers a dark mass was projected, with light starting to break through in places.  As more light breaks through, we realize that this is a massive mound of the same chairs we see at the front of the stage–which are now taken up by the dancers for various uses.  At one point, one of the dancers falls to the floor at the front of the stage, as if in pain.  The other dancers group the chairs in a circle, as if to discuss the situation.  One of the men at the front keeps falling towards the fallen dancer, then standing up on the chair as if to lead a discussion of what to do.  Another powerful part of this movement was to use the chairs to construct a wall, over which dancers on both sides try to peer–with one of the female dancers, apart from the others, attempting to use the chairs in a different way to build a bridge.  This movement, for my money, was the most powerful of the entire piece.   Gradually, through the rest of the piece, the projected wall of chairs slowly began to fall apart, until at the end of the piece they had completely fallen away.  In the final “Ode to Joy” movement, there was not the unmitigated joy had I had expected, although there was coming together, and embracing, and a palpable sense of connection–at one point, the dancers actually sang the lyrics with the choir in the recording.  But even more powerful was one of the dancers who, stepping forward, seemed to portray the path of a visionary of incredible light and revelation whose vision causes her to collapse.  In this movement, however, she is not isolated, and her fallen body is revived by the other dancers. Even in moments of great joy, there is loss and pain.   And so, the transcendent music of the finale was perhaps a little too muted for my tastes, although given what had gone before it did make sense.  But going back to the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall that inspired the work, perhaps a little more ecstatic joy could have been allowed at the very end.

The dancing itself was stunningly physical and expressive.  This was modern dance, not ballet, and so the expectations of what the dancers would like are different, but in no way less rigorous.  The performance lasted seventy minutes, without intermission or significant pause, although not all the dancers were dancing at any given time.    The performance also used recorded music–an amalgam of parts of three different recordings of the symphony.  All of them tended towards the fast end for tempo for each movement–which probably helped with the danceablity but, in the slower sections, I think hindered the emotional impact of the music.  The piece is apparently a work in progress, however, with each movement having been created separately and only now being presented as an end-to-end performance.  As such, there may be room to grow, perhaps even someday with the addition of a live orchestra and choir.  As I would learn at my next dance performance, live music adds something special.

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The second performance at a month was the first full-fledged, regular company ballet performance I had ever seen.  Everything else before had been touring companies or student performances.  This was the National Ballet of Canada, a top-flight ballet company (usually considered the top in Canada, and top ten in the world).  Their dancers are drawn from around the world, with their artistic director, Karen Kain (who is in her final year) being an acclaimed retired ballerina with the Company.  They perform both the standard repertoire (this year includes Giselle,  the Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, and a new production of Swan Lake) and more contemporary works and world premieres.

Me?  Of course, I was there for the Shostakovich.  Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 is one of a trilogy of modern ballets set to the music of Shostakovich.    I’d read an article in the Guardian last May about his work and was pleasantly surprised to see it appear in Toronto.  He’s revived two of Shostakovich’s almost-forgotten ballets, The Limpid Stream and The Bolt, as well as using Shostakovich’s music for other works.  “In Trilogy, without imposing an actual story he has attempted to embody the unfolding emotional and political dramas of Shostakovich’s life: the sensuous pleasures of his love affairs and marriages, the hardening threats to his life, the rapture of creative inspiration,” according to the Guardian article.  Alas, I wasn’t going to get to see the entire Trilogy, just the third piece, but I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.  Just as for The 9th!, I’d found out about this by regularly trawling both the printed version of The Whole Note and their concert database.

This was also my first experience in the gorgeous Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, home to both National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company.  I’ve heard for years what a spectacular performance space this is.  It was really designed around opera, but what works for opera works equally well with ballet.  It’s a tall space, with seating in five rings around the main floor.  I worried a little that my (relatively) cheap seat in the back row of the third ring would require the use of opera glasses (which I don’t have) but as it turned out, it provided an outstanding view of the stage.  Ballet, even more than opera, benefits from being able to see the entire space.  I also had a fabulous view of the orchestra in the pit (not that I really ever looked at them once the dancing started).

The Shostakovich was the first piece on the program.   The ballet features two male and female leads, who pair off in the middle movement (in the performance I saw, Svetlana Lunkina/Harrison James and Koto Ishihara/Naoya Ebe–all principal dancers except for Ishihara, who is a first soloist) along with six male and female dancers from the company.  The female leads are clad in red bodysuits and the male leads in charcoal grey, with the rest of the company in full-body “catsuit”-type leotards, grey on the front and red on the back.  This created an absolutely fascinating effect as they danced.  The stage was hung with various abstract symbols in red, including stars and fragments of stars, evoking Soviet iconography.  Indeed, the opening phrase, featuring Lunkina with four male dancers in many ways evoked the star imagery through the angles of their arms.   The first movement was largely danced as a ensemble pieces, with the shifting positions, lifts, and jumps evoking the abstract symbols above the dancers’ heads.  The First Piano Concerto is an effervescent work in its outer movements and evanescent in its slow movement, and the choreography perfectly caught the mood of the music.  I really enjoyed that slow movement, with its solos for the two lead couples, including gorgeously timed lifts that mirrored the swells of the music and the plaintive trumpet solo.  The final movement brought back the entire corps, and the playful nature of the music predominated.  If there was one criticism to make it was that the piano soloist was a little mechanical and sometimes even a little too quiet, particularly in that witty final movement.  The dancers generally picked up on that wit, but the music didn’t always reflect it.  (The trumpeter, on the other hand, was perfect).  I probably have unusually high standards in this regards, having heard the concerto performed by outstanding soloists twice, but it is what it is.   It left me wanting desperately to see the other two parts of the trilogy, and one reviewer expressed the hope that someday soon we’d get to see all three done in one evening.  It also made me crave even more the possibility of someday seeing one of Shostakovich’s actual ballets — I’d want to see The Bolt most of all, with its evocation of machinery–performed live.

The other two works on the program were also revelations.  Petite Mort was performed to two movements from two Mozart piano concertos.  Unlike the Shostakovich, this ballet was not performed en pointe.  As the title alludes, it’s a ballet about “couplings”, although more via allusion than in graphic depiction (apart from a section that looked like couples posing in various possibly sexual positions). There are no soloists, just six men and six women. The first movement starts without music but with an ominous droning sound as the six men, clad in what might be described as beige tighty-whities, did a kind of dance with their fencing foils, whipping them loudly at one point, tossing them up with their feet, and making them their ‘partners’. A huge sheet is then pulled over the entire company and then removed.   After the music starts, it’s all about interesting angles between the men and women (wearing beige bodysuits), who pair off.  The second movement starts with the same droning sound, but with the women, who glide out in long black ball gowns, which they soon reveal–to laughter from the audience–are actually backless dresses on wheels (hence the way they seem to hover).  Just as the men had danced with the fencing foils, the women dance with these dresses, before the giant bedsheet makes a return, the music begins, and the dancers pair off again. In this work, the music–lovely, sparkling Mozart piano works–was often in contrast with the very angular, unusual choreography.

The third work, after the intermission, was Etudes.  This “tutu ballet”, as one reviewer put it, is over seventy years old (as opposed to the other two works, which are much more recent).  This work has a nifty concept, starting off with the lead ballerina (Heather Ogden) demonstrating the five basic positions that are the building blocks of ballet.  Then, it’s ballet class time–we see only the legs of rows of ballerinas, doing plies, tendues, frappes, batements, and other basic barre exercises.  Eventually we see all them in silhouette as the female lead demonstrates technique in the centre.  After that, it’s off to the races with floor exercises (the second half of any ballet class, where work is done on actual dancing).  We see demonstrations of pirouettes, diagonal jumping runs across the stage (familiar to anyone who’s ever taken ballet class), and even different styles of ballet (one group dons longer “sylph” tutus at some point).  The men put on a jumping clinic, and there are several solos between the two make leads and the female lead.  The techniques get more and more advanced until the end, there are thirty-nine dancers onstage for an absolutely spectacular finale.  It was this piece–along for the ballerina musical jewellery boxes available at the gift shop in the lobby–that evoked for me the nostalgia for my years in ballet slippers and leotards and upswept hair.  It gave me a vocabulary of movement that continues to enhance my enjoyment of music to this day, as well as giving me first-hand knowledge of the practice, athleticism, and artistry that goes into dance performance.  I do not expect to go another thirty years again without seeing dance performed live.

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Read a review of the National Ballet of Canada performance (and get some shots of the look of all three pieces here.

Likewise, here is a review of The 9th! that gives a sense of the look of the piece.

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