I wish I had thought to ask Patrick de Bana why he named his gala Basier Vole but I was having enough trouble remembering my own name and, you know, how to breathe, blink, things like that. I did wear Basier Vole by Cartier perfume for the occasion though – it seemed only fitting.
But an incredible gala by any other name… isn’t that what Shakespeare said. And it was incredible. The line up of dancers was flawless – Patrick, Manuel Legris, Isabelle Guerin, Maria Eichwald, Matthew Golding, Xiaofeng Fan, HuSheng Wu, Svetlana Zhakarova, Friedemann Vogel, and Anna Tsygankova. And the program was almost perfect. There were two nights but really only the second seemed to count. Opening night was bought out by the Buick Corporation. So the audience was basically made up of those people that Buick gave tickets to, employees and important clients/contractors, presumably. I’ve seen this sort of thing done with large corporations before, I’ve gotten a few freebie tickets myself on occasion but never for a gala event and never for opening night, so that was sort of strange… and so was the audience. Less than completely interested, there was lots of talking, texting, taking of photos with flash, and wandering about. From my position in the audience, it sort of felt like a dress rehearsal. Don’t get me wrong, it was good but there wasn’t any energy from the house. When you have experience in the darkened theater, you know when an audience is there for the artists and the performance and the energy that an audience can offer can really pull a performance from good to great. This was not that audience. To be honest, I’m not sure how, other than stalwart professionalism, that these amazing dancers did it. I felt like chucking a few people off the balcony from time to time. Still, I enjoyed it immensely, it was like an appetizer for what I knew would be an amazing night to follow.
And I was not wrong. The second and final show was buzzing with energy. The audience was 100% changed – still a bit chatty and phone obsessed, unfortunately that seems to be the direction of most audiences these days but that’s a rant for another day. There was wonderful electricity and there are clearly real ballet fans in Shanghai. One of the really fascinating things about traveling to see dance is the ability to experience being part of a dance audience in a new place – there are so many unique qualities to be discovered. It’s an amazing moment to realize that they aren’t different, I am the one who is outside the norm, and I stand in awe of that. It’s precarious but exciting to stand outside of the known from time to time. The Shanghai Grand Theater is beautiful, not as opulent as say Opera Garnier or Teatro alla Scala; rather it’s a huge complex that is well thought out, modern, and a nice place to see dance. There is a good rake to the seats, there aren’t a bunch of blind spots, and the acoustics are clean and balanced. There are also two screens to the sides of the stage, for the performance these were used to present the program to the audience, these are a nice feature and could be used in tons of creative ways to enhance the presentation of a live performance.
Instead of going through the program in order, I’m going to tell you about what I didn’t like first. Not to be too harsh to Maria Eichwald and Friedemann Vogel but it came down to their two pieces. First was Casimir Colour by Bigonzetti to Shostakovich. The music is great and the choreography has a lot going for it but it didn’t really make sense. I veto the costumes completely. Maybe I need to see the whole thing to discover where it is witty and humorous as noted in the program; the choreo for the PdD is more serious and sensual so there is a dichotomy between the choreo and the costumes and pretty much the overall feeling of the presentation. The second piece is the post-modern Mona Lisa. I’ve seen this four times now and I still don’t like it. Mona Lisa is a combination of all the things I dislike in ballet today – over handling of the ballerina, swinging the ballerina around like dancing on ice, too much crotch shoved at the audience, a whole lot of over extension for no reason but to show how bendy the dancers are, and weird sexualization of the boy dancer with no meaning behind it. I did like the use of the sound of a typewriter as music though but that didn’t make sense either. Thank you for your efforts, but, no. I will say, as I often have, that it’s important, I think, to not only see things that you know you will like but to be open to the possibility that something you hated today might be interesting tomorrow.
Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding brought it with two classical pieces. First was the Black Swan PdD. The first night was technically good but with the audience solidly behind them the second night, they killed it. Matthew has NBA quality hang time and Anna’s upper body is golden, just golden. Their second PdD is from Giselle. I love love love Giselle and because of this fact I can be a little picky about how it is performed. I was not disappointed; Matthew and Anna came back after Black Swan and slayed; they were really truly lovely. I give them credit too because I think that often times when these little bits are pulled out of a full ballet, they can easily be reduced to pure bravura. The ability to use the story to pull the audience in is gone and all the dancer is left with is a fragment of a character. I think that’s a lot tougher than people give them credit for, so all hail, Anna and Matt who represented the classical tradition well.
Creatures, Creatures, Creatures. I could see this work over and over and over for the rest of my life. It will probably never be as perfect nor as mind and soul igniting as the very first time when I was fortunate enough to actually see Patrick de Bana dance it himself but each iteration is a new and wonderful experience. This was the first piece of the evening and the first piece danced by Xiaofeng Fan and Husheng Wu of the Shanghai Ballet. I’ve written about this piece of choreography before – I’ve seen it several times now – and each time I could write a dissertation in response to the experience. I’ll spare you though because I actually can (and have) written a 400 page dissertation and I know you don’t want that but let me say that Creatures strikes me on every level. Intellectually, it primes my researcher brain, I am, after all, a specialist of visual medium, semiology, and organizational cultural anthropology. I study human beings as subjects, as sentient life, as complex organisms, as beautiful, awful, awe-inspiring creatures. But Patrick’s work here is more than just intellectual; it is also spiritual, emotional, tribal, soulful. Creatures is viscerally stimulating, in many ways it is provoking but also, somehow, miraculously soothing; it is succinct and eloquent dance. Creatures is a stunning, stunning piece of choreography. Husheng Wu, also called Tiger (too cute) is a rising star, very young, but already very much a powerful physical force. He has a GQ face and a phenomenal stage presence, especially for someone so young. Fengfeng… oooohhhhh, Fengfeng is a goddess. She brings you in and makes you believe in everything magical. A simple gesture of the hand or a stretch of her foot is more mesmerizing than a thousand over extensions by ballerinas kicking themselves in the head.
Fengfeng and Tiger also danced Patrick’s The Labyrinth of Solitude. I saw this choreography when it was a solo piece for Ivan Vasiliev in The Kings of the Dance. You might recall that I reported back to you that I thought this was the only truly redeeming and quality work of choreography in the last Kings shows. If not, there I said it again. Ivan danced it for all it was worth and the audience lost it over him and even though it was a good work, memorable and enjoyable, it didn’t feel fully finished. Now, now it does. Labyrinth is now a PdD with a brilliant story line and whirlwind of noise, silence, time, space, hope, heartbreak – its narrative is intense and these dancers create an entire emotional world on stage and then collapse it completely. The Labyrinth of Solitude is a supernova. It is completely brilliant.
There is no doubt whatsoever why Patrick chose Fengfeng and Tiger to dance these roles. These are phenomenal, beautiful, amazing dancers. Shanghai Ballet toured extensively last year and should be touring again next year. Whatever you do, do not – DO NOT – miss them.
Svetlana Zakharova danced Revelation. I wish you could know the satisfaction in my heart for finally getting to see this work. I’ve seen photos all over the internet, I’ll bet you have too – Svetlana, Svetlana’s insane feet, and that chair. Her body is unbelievable. She is amazing and a lot shorter than I though she would be. It’s still strange how many dancers are so much shorter than they appear even though I fully get that dance BIG factor. Yes, you can ooh and aah like pretty much the entire audience did over her extensions and crazy good legs and feet but for me, it was her intensity, the passion with which she danced with that chair. 8 minutes of what… sadness, despair, desperation, pain… love? Goosebumps. I think my brain actually had goosebumps. Svetlana closed out the evening dancing with Patrick to another new work of his, Digital Love. Wow. Wow and more wow. Here is another thing about Patrick’s choreography, he doesn’t cop-out with a bunch of mime and dead movement, you know, all that time spent walking from one bravura variation to another. No, every single moment is meaningful; everything is danced and every movement creates images, physical structures that etch themselves into memory. Two people on stage but Digital Love is big, expansive; it swallows the stage and makes your head spin in the most delicious way.
Patrick also danced Factum with Ketevan Papava. I first saw Factum in Tokyo with Helena Martin and I have to admit, that version is still my favorite. When danced with Helena, Factum is practically a flamenco dance. I can’t help it, it’s the Spaniard blood in me that gets riled up with the throbbing beat of the flamenco. Kety is a fantastic dancer and this version has her on pointe rather than Helena’s stacked heels which changes a lot, from the weight distribution to the very deep emotion that the flamenco heel stomp is meant to convey – there really is not an equivalent for that Spanish heel in classical ballet. Kety is a very pretty girl and a lovely ballerina but Helena is a beautiful, earthy woman. It’s a better match between her and Patrick as well, a better balance. The conflict between a man and a woman is worlds different from an argument between a man and a girl. Patrick is very powerful and requires an emotionally strong partner. I fully and without reservation think that he is one of the best choreographers making work right now. There really is so much fluff being produced but you will not see that from him. I have an entire Rolodex of images and movements from his work forever burned in my mind not just because they are beautiful but because they are potent and meaningful and wholly memorable. As a dancer, Patrick is undeniably mesmerizing. Imagine an eagle, the way it takes off. Using nothing but invisible air, the eagle creates a thrust that propels him up into the sky with what appears to be no effort, just an innate ability to fly, to just magically float skyward. That’s Patrick. He has these incredible, long arms that unfold and float up, a big delectable tat on one shoulder, he draws you in and you can’t take your eyes off him. The very first time we saw him dance and had no idea who he was, Carboy said “That guy is walking art” I was going to say “That guy is majorly hot” but we went with Carboy’s summation. But no matter how you put it, Factum is a sensual, sexy sexy piece. I love you, I hate you, I want you, I still hate you, come back… non factum est? It is done? Smart and sexy, how much more perfect could it be. If I smoked, I’d need a cigarette afterward.
Two words. Isabelle Guerin. Does anybody know how many times I have watched the DVD of POB’s La Bayadere!?!?! Let me give you a hint, I already wore through two copies. I keep a brand new DVD on my shelf – in case of ballet emergency break open plastic wrap (since I’m confessing, I have an extra unopened copy of all of Manuel Legris’ DVDs on the shelf too. You never know when something’s going to happen and you REALLY need one.) I also like to watch the Le Parc DVD over and over too (not to dis Laurent Hilaire but I wish it had been Manuel. I realize that maybe he couldn’t be in ALL of the recordings but… actually, no, I don’t see why he couldn’t be in ALL the recordings.) Guerin, Platel, and Loudieres, the Queens of Paris Opera, always and forever. Oh, Isabelle in the Notre Dame DVD!!! (It should have been released twice, once as is and again with Manuel dancing Frollo because I love that wicked wicked role.) Isabelle and Manuel danced the kissing PdD from Le Parc. I have seen this bit so many times and I never get tired of it, the spinning kiss kills me every time, every single time it takes my breath away. I’ve seen Manuel dance it with Aurelie a couple of times and then with Laeticia Pujol in Texas (remember DanceSalad in Houston? that was fun!) and I really loved Laeticia in the role, even more than Aurelie, but we can all stop the search… Isabelle Guerin, that is all. She is so perfect, so very perfect it makes me want to cry just for the beauty of her. Quite frankly, I think she is better than ever and it was sinful of POB to retire her out at 40 – SINFUL. Yes, yes, I know, civil service rules, blah, blah, blah… those are stupid rules period. Period!! By the time they get it all figured out and grow up and look incredible and we all fall in love with them for life…BAM, POB retires them. Seriously, that really bites.
I’ve saved this one for last, The Farewell Waltz. I rarely cry. For any reason really. Almost never at the ballet, even over things that move me, dances that I’ve loved. I’m just not a born cry-er. I cried. Real tears. Down my face. At the ballet. Crying. It was Isabelle Guerin. She made me cry and it was the most wonderful thing ever. I love her for it. I think I told her that I cried but I can’t be sure that I wasn’t just muttering gibberish at her because she was so stunning and so completely radiant still in costume, still on stage. She was spellbinding, completely captivating. And this is while being on stage with Manuel Legris! I don’t need to go on at length about Manuel because let’s face it, if you are a reader of my blog, you’ve already been inundated with my Manuel meltdowns; he is the cutest thing to come out of France since the Madeleine, I know it, you know it, we all know it. And when he dances, there is nothing else… nothing. He is a vortex axis and everything and everyone else just ambient noise. Unless, as it turns out, Isabelle is on the same stage.
One of the last things I saw before this trip to China was Ratmasky’s Romeo & Juliet. Let me tell you that for three long, long acts I kept checking my watch and wondering why people weren’t dead yet. It was the longest and most emotionless R&J in possibly the entire history of the world. Actually I was only sorry that Juliet woke up because it meant that we had to wait for her to die all over again, seriously, at that point I had my head in my hands in prayer that some deity would have mercy on me and make it stop. Thank you baby jesus that Romeo died and stayed dead.
Me: Would you like to go to the ballet with me this week?
Carboy: What is it?
Me: Romeo and Juliet by Ratmansky.
Carboy: Which one is that?
Me: The guy who did Firebird.
Carboy: I’d rather watch maggots poop. Why did you get tickets to that?
Me: They were on sale and actually when I bought them I knew it was National of Canada and R&J but I didn’t realize that it was Ratmansky, I thought it was someone else.
Carboy: Good luck.
Me: You really aren’t going to go with me?
Carboy: Good luck.
I tell you this because hours and hours and hours of Romeo and Juliet and I was bored out of my skull but ten minutes of The Farewell Waltz and I was about to curl up in the fetal position in my seat and sob for the perfection that it was. A complete story, developed characters – hope, love, heartbreak, despair, death – all in ten tiny but perfect, extraordinary, gorgeous minutes. I hope for your sake that at some point in your life at least once you have experienced something that is so glorious that it surrounds your eyes, washes through your brain, grabs the breath right out of your lungs and takes the legs right out from under you. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had a few of these moments in my life and this was one of them.
I wish you could have been with me in that darkened theater, clutching hands to heart, and daring only to breath again as the curtain came down. It was more wonderful than words can capture, than applause can offer up in tribute. A 13 hour flight with an 8 hour delay was such a small price to pay for those moments in the dark that will stay with me always. When I’m sad, when I’m frustrated, when I’m in need of inspiration, visions from my seat in the theater will still make my pulse race, nourish my soul, and set my spirit free.