Dance

A Valuable Tradition, Ballet Endures

By Alicia Anstead   |   Friday, July 29, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

Back in October, New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans suggested that ballet was dead. She couldn’t have known that she would set off a fire storm of response. First of all, it’s the ballet people who interpreted what she said to mean ballet is dead. In fact, Homans said she suspected it was dying or at least falling into a deep slumber like Sleeping Beauty.

As if the ghost of ballet’s godfather Louis 14th himself had been stirred to action, ballet was suddenly everywhere. The New York Times launched a national blog about the dance form and the ballet movie The Black Swan plieted into theaters. A month earlier, the New York City Ballet launched a sexy ad campaign on subway billboards in the country’s hub for all things dance.

I can’t argue with Homans about the place of tradition in a remix world. But her announcement seemed particularly ill-timed. It coincided with the busiest season for most ballet companies in the western world – a period I like to call that Crazy Nutcracker Season.

In part because I wanted to check out Homans’ thesis locally and also out of nostalgia, I made a pilgrimage this month back to the see The Nutcracker. I say “back” not because I grew up going to the ballet. But in the last 20 years, I’ve seen more than 30 productions of The Nutcracker – sometimes as a reviewer, sometimes as the parent of a snowflake. I rarely write reviews these days, and my little snowflake is now a biologist in graduate school – so I haven’t been to The Nutcracker for a long time.

But not much has changed. And I don’t necessarily mean the dancing. I mean the community spirit. On opening night of the Walnut Hill School’s Nutcracker in Natick, the hall was packed with eager family members, teachers, students and little sisters wearing flouncy dresses all rooting for success more than perfection. No one cared when Drosselmeyer abracadabra-ed the holiday tree off the stage – and it whammed into a wall instead of into the wings.

Once, at a production in Maine, fake cannons spurted out a bit too much smoke and set off the theater’s alarms. In minutes, the audience, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and Mother Ginger were all standing in the parking lot waiting for the system to be reset. Then the show went on, and no one cared about that extra bit of drama.

Even in a professional setting, such as Boston Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, the mystical spirit of the dance form fills the grand hall. The little boy in front of me last week was seeing the show for the first time. He jostled excitedly between his parents, asking why Fritz was in trouble and did the mice get hurt? When Clara’s dreamscape turned scary, he buried his head in his mother’s shoulder. “It’s just a terrible dream,” she assured the boy. But it was very real to him.

For me, The Nutcracker has lost some of its glitter – not in the productions or the music but the story. This time, I saw a creepy older guy bullying a little girl – whose gilded family probably gets tax breaks this year. And I noticed the elements of war and violence more than ever before.

And yet, it would be a terrible dream, indeed, if ballet were to die. At its best, The Nutcracker and perhaps the unique magic of ballet are symbols of community life at its most generous and most elegant.

The Conductor, the Pianist, the Choreographer, and the Composer

By James David Jacobs   |   Friday, January 7, 2011
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Jan. 8

Saturday we will celebrate several birthdays. Hans von Bulow, born in 1830, is one of those names, like Baron von Swieten or Diaghilev or Boulanger, that keeps on popping up in various composer's biographies so often that one thinks of them as an honorary part of the pantheon, which in a way they are: the history of music would be very different without them, even though their legacy to us comes through other people's work rather than their own. While Bulow did compose several works, he made his living as a conductor and concert pianist, and dabbled in music criticism as well. Liszt called him the greatest "musical organism" he had ever encountered, and subsequently (and temporarily, thanks to Wagner) became his father-in-law. His involvement with the great composers consisted of more than tabloid fodder, however; he conducted the premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and was the first pianist to perform Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. (That last premiere, incidentally, took place here in Boston at Music Hall on October 25, 1875, after which Bulow sent a telegram to Tchaikovsky to tell him how it went: the first telegram ever sent from Boston to Moscow!)  Under his direction, the Duke of Meiningen's orchestra was considered the best in Germany;  at Bulow's insistence, they played standing up and from memory. While those practices have not caught on (for which today's musicians are thankful), other innovations he made, such as the pedal timpani and the five-string bass, can still be found in today's orchestras. He was also famous for the withering comments he made from the podium, one of which got him fired from the Hanover Opera during rehearsals for Lohengrin (he called the lead tenor "Der Schwein-Ritter" instead of "Der Schwann-Ritter"). Today, in his honor, we'll hear the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (a commonly performed pairing of the opera's first and last numbers that is affectionately referred to as "the largest cut in all music") as conducted by a musical polymath of our own time, James Levine, with the MET orchestra.

We'll also hear a bit of Liszt this morning - his Don Juan fantasy, based on themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, as performed by Abbey Simon.  Simon was definitely born on January 8, though whether the year was 1920 or 1922 is a matter of controversy. What's not controversial is his artistry.  I had the privilege of seeing him perform at Alice Tully Hall two years ago, and was blown away; to witness this old man attack Ravel's fiendishly difficult Alborada del gracioso with full command of the keyboard and its ability to evoke magic and adventure made me lose all fear of aging. I wrote a full review of the concert for the online music journal La Folia.

Another milestone that must be acknowledged is the 120th birthday of the great choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, another figure central to the history of music. She did the original choreography for Stravinsky's masterpiece Les Noces, which is still, 90 years later, widely performed and fresh as ever, and you can see it danced by the Mariinsky Ballet below.  Today we'll be hearing the score for another Nijinska ballet, Poulenc's Les Biches, a fanciful update of the 18th-century galante style.  (The image comes from a Ballet West production of Les Biches in 2009.)

On Sunday we'll continue our experiment, started last week, of pairing American symphonies with masterpieces from the standard repertory. Substantial American symphonic works tend to be ghettoized on concert programs, usually paired with other American works as part of all-American music festivals.*  I'm not sure how well this serves the music; it seems to me that anyone writing a symphony in a time and place far removed from the Viennese Mozart-to-Mahler thread is making a statement meant to be in conversation with that tradition. We will attempt to provide a context for that conversation on Sunday mornings this month. 

This coming Sunday we'll hear not one, but two unfamiliar symphonies.  You may think you know Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4, the "Italian," and the more you think you know it the more I encourage you to tune in this Sunday at 9:30, when we'll hear his rarely performed revised version of the work. Usually a composer's revisions become the standard text, but in this case the second version did not reach the publishers until after his untimely death, by which time his original version had already been widely performed in England by the Philharmonic Society.  While he didn't touch the first movement, the other three movements have been expanded and changed dramatically, creating a starker, less ornamented version of the famous melody in the second movement, while the Saltarello finale is considerably more developed, becoming almost Beethovenian in scope. 

Speaking of Saltarellos, the scherzo of George Chadwick's Symphony No. 3 is also based on this Italian dance, and Mendelssohn's spirit pervades the middle movements of this work, while the beginning sounds a bit like the opening of Brahms's Third Symphony as recomposed by Richard Strauss. After a few moments, however, a distinct voice begins to emerge, and we are swept along for thirty-five minutes of what is possibly the greatest American symphony of the 19th century - a fine testament to our fair city, by the way, since Chadwick was born in Lowell, studied at New England Conservatory and settled in Boston as an adult after spending several years in Europe.  He was appointed director of NEC in 1897, becoming a major architect of Boston's classical music culture.  (He was present at that Tchaikovsky premiere mentioned in the first paragraph, by the way, and had some stern words for the playing of the pick-up orchestra - sentiments shared by Bulow himself.  The establishment of the BSO six years later helped alleviate both men's concerns about the level of orchestral playing in Boston.)

*A notable departure from that trend is the tandem cycle of Mahler and Harbison symphonies the Boston Symphony Orchestra is presenting this season and next.

(Thanks to Brian Bell for some of the information above.)

Oct. 14: Finding the Dance

By Cathy Fuller   |   Thursday, October 14, 2010
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Mark Morris  reaches into music and finds its dancers within. His insight into scores is miraculous.  For me, there is tremendous reward in discovering the deep, internal dance in music.  In my performing days, I often imagined choreography in my lonely, isolated practice sessions.  And in my radio days, I've enjoyed hearing from choreographers that they've heard something they'd like to bring to the stage.

Tonight is opening night for the Celebrity Series of Boston, and   the Mark Morris Dance Group begins a four-day run at the Cutler Majestic.  Listen today at noon to hear the music that inspired this new dance,  the second string quartet by Heitor Villa-Lobos. You'll also hear Barber's marvelous set of piano pieces called "Excursions", also danced on this program.

Learn more at the Boston Globe, and check out these two videos:  the first features Mark Morris talking through his approach to choreography, and the second a great example of that choreography come to life.  (Photo:  Gene Schiavone for Mark Morris Dance Group)





Review: Sequence 8

By Jared Bowen   |   Thursday, October 4, 2012
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Oct. 4, 2012
sequence 8
Maxim Laurin and the cast (ArtsEmerson)



Hear Jared's reviews of performance, music, film and art around Boston on 89.7 WGBH's Morning Edition, and take notes on what you shouldn't miss this weekend.

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A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn with Brian O'Donovan is back!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

WGBH presents the sixth annual St. Patrick's Day Celtic Sojourn with Brian O'Donovan in two locations this year!

Last year, the show sold out quickly at the beautiful Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square and we will return there on Friday, March 18 at 8pm. This year will mark the first time the show will play at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford; Saturday, March 19 at 8pm.

This year's version will feature a dynamic young five-piece band from Ireland called Téada, who will be joined by a truly iconic singer and accordion player, Séamus Begley, from the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

Also on the bill is Irish American singer-songwriter Carol Noonan, accompanied by guitar gods Kevin Barry and Duke Levine. And we are delighted to introduce uilleann piper, Tiperarry-born, Michael Cooney. (Uilleann pipes are the Irish form of the bag pipes.)

As has become a tradition for the show, dancers and some very special surprise musical guests will also be added.

WGBH members receive $5 off tickets.

A Valuable Tradition, Ballet Endures

By Alicia Anstead   |   Monday, January 3, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

Dec. 20, 2010

For many young dancers and audience-members alike, The Nutcracker is a thrilling holiday tradition. Here, students perform in the North Country Ballet's 2008 production of the show. (DMDzine/Flickr)

Back in October, New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans suggested that ballet was dead. She couldn’t have known that she would set off a fire storm of response. First of all, it’s the ballet people who interpreted what she said to mean ballet is dead. In fact, Homans said she suspected it was dying or at least falling into a deep slumber like Sleeping Beauty.
 
As if the ghost of ballet’s godfather Louis 14th himself had been stirred to action, ballet was suddenly everywhere. The New York Times launched a national blog about the dance form and the ballet movie The Black Swan plieted into theaters. A month earlier, the New York City Ballet launched a sexy ad campaign on subway billboards in the country’s hub for all things dance.
 
I can’t argue with Homans about the place of tradition in a remix world. But her announcement seemed particularly ill-timed. It coincided with the busiest season for most ballet companies in the western world – a period I like to call that Crazy Nutcracker Season.
 
In part because I wanted to check out Homans’ thesis locally and also out of nostalgia, I made a pilgrimage this month back to the see The Nutcracker. I say “back” not because I grew up going to the ballet. But in the last 20 years, I’ve seen more than 30 productions of The Nutcracker – sometimes as a reviewer, sometimes as the parent of a snowflake. I rarely write reviews these days, and my little snowflake is now a biologist in graduate school – so I haven’t been to The Nutcracker for a long time.
 
But not much has changed. And I don’t necessarily mean the dancing. I mean the community spirit. On opening night of the Walnut Hill School’s Nutcracker in Natick, the hall was packed with eager family members, teachers, students and little sisters wearing flouncy dresses all rooting for success more than perfection. No one cared when Drosselmeyer abracadabra-ed the holiday tree off the stage – and it whammed into a wall instead of into the wings.
 
Once, at a production in Maine, fake cannons spurted out a bit too much smoke and set off the theater’s alarms. In minutes, the audience, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and Mother Ginger were all standing in the parking lot waiting for the system to be reset. Then the show went on, and no one cared about that extra bit of drama.
 
Even in a professional setting, such as Boston Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, the mystical spirit of the dance form fills the grand hall. The little boy in front of me last week was seeing the show for the first time. He jostled excitedly between his parents, asking why Fritz was in trouble and did the mice get hurt? When Clara’s dreamscape turned scary, he buried his head in his mother’s shoulder. “It’s just a terrible dream,” she assured the boy. But it was very real to him.
 
For me, The Nutcracker has lost some of its glitter – not in the productions or the music but the story. This time, I saw a creepy older guy bullying a little girl – whose gilded family probably gets tax breaks this year. And I noticed the elements of war and violence more than ever before.
 
And yet, it would be a terrible dream, indeed, if ballet were to die. At its best, The Nutcracker and perhaps the unique magic of ballet are symbols of community life at its most generous and most elegant. 

About the Authors
Alicia Anstead Alicia Anstead

Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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